On the holiness of Christian leaders

As mentioned a while back, I am currently reading (at a ridiculously slow pace, I confess) The Book of Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great. I am hoping to learn a bit more about spiritual leadership and the care of souls from the wisdom of the ancient church than what was included in my seminary training. In keeping with a suggestion I received, I will from time to time be reflecting and commenting on this ancient text.

Here is a memorable line from Part I, section 4:

For no one who is imperfect should dare to seize a position of spiritual leadership, just as no one who staggers on level ground should set foot on a cliff.

Those who become pastors or shepherds should not be "imperfect" or else they endanger themselves as well as those under their charge. What we mean by "perfect" is something that is discussed frequently among Wesleyan Christians, since John Wesley insisted that we should all be "going on to perfection." He also required, and this requirement remains a part of our ordination process in the United Methodist Church, that those seeking to become Methodist clergy should affirm that they are "going on to perfection" and also that they "expect to be made perfect in love in this life" (see The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008 para. 336; p. 246).

All of us who are ordained have answered "yes" to those questions, implicitly agreeing with St. Gregory's statement above. Some may have done so with fingers crossed, but many of us after meditating upon the nuances of meaning of the word "perfect" have done so with a clear conscience.

In Wesley's day, the 18th Century, it seems the word "perfect" had a bit more nuance than it now does in contemporary English usage. In once sense, it simply means "mature" or "grown up." In fact, today's Bible translations often render the Greek (telos) as "mature" where the old translations rendered it as "perfect" (for example, compare 1 Corinthians 2:6 in the NRSV and ESV on the one hand with the KJV). I do expect to be spiritually grown up or mature in this life, by God's grace, I hope to have already had a moment or two of maturity here and there.

On the other hand it seems that in 18th Century usage, as still today, "perfect" also had the sense of "utterly complete," "sublime," and "faultless." In Ephesians 4:13 we find this word used to describe being "grown up" (thus, "mature") but grown up into the image and full stature of Jesus Christ, who is the pure and sinless One, so that "mature" here also takes on the loftier sense of "perfection." I believe this is the destiny of every Christian in the coming age, though clearly it seems that not all reach it before death.

In seminary we were told that Wesley believed he knew other people who had reached this level of growth, but did not claim it for himself.

Of course, there is a line of connection between being spiritually mature and going on to the "full stature of Christ." The one who is spiritually mature is precisely the one who is most aware of his own faults and sins, yet who also is most determined to pursue holiness and Christ-likeness in his lifestyle. It is the one who is mature who wants to become glorious and luminous. Thus one can be perfect (spiritually mature and grown up) while still pursuing perfection (theosis by utter union with Christ) and freely admitting not yet to have attained it (see Phil. 3:12, and those being the words of Saint Paul, who was not only a saint, but also an apostolic leader).

This is basically the view of St. Augustine who wrote: "The Apostle (Paul) speaks of himself as both perfect and imperfect: imperfect when he considers how much righteousness is still wanting in him but perfect in that he does not blush to confess his own imperfection and makes good progress in order to attain it (perfection)." (On Two Letters of Pelagius, 3.19)

Perfection can mean maturity or it can mean attaining to the "fullness of the stature of Christ," and it would seem that "perfection" can also be used to describe the person "in process" - already mature, still pursuing Christ-likeness. Indeed we use "Christ-likeness" or "holiness" in just the same ways.

And, I believe, this is coherent with John Wesley's own teaching: "Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, everyone that is holy is, in the Scriptural sense, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man has attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to 'grow in grace' and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his savior (see 2 Pet. 3:18)...He, therefore, who liveth in true believers hath 'purified their hearts by faith'; insomuch that everyone that hath Christ in him, the hope of glory, 'purify himself, even as he is pure' (1 Jn. 3:3)." - Sermon XXXV, "Christian Perfection," 1.9 & 2.6

So, to return to St. Gregory's point, let no one become a spiritual leader who is not holy and pursuing deeper holiness. For it will surely be difficult to train others in a way of living that we have not yet learned ourselves.

How well are we the clergy (and other Christian leaders) doing here? Have we a deep knowledge of Christ and of things Spiritual? Are we deeply formed in God's Holy Word and shaped by prayer and the sacraments and the other spiritual disciplines? Are we people of genuinely pure, charitable, and holy character? I suspect we are in fact a very mixed bag.

Not too many days ago I attended a "Sacred Trust" training event about "boundaries" for clergy. In particular it reminded us not to cross unethical sexual boundaries. The presenter shared a number of horrifying anecdotes of clergy from her conference who had said and done a number of extremely inappropriate (not to mention sinful) things, some of it online. The fact that such a training event even exists to tell us things that are already taught in the Bible is a reminder of how far short any of us may fall of the heavenly calling we have received, and how very present temptation remains for each of us.

Yet the promise and the vocation remains before us, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)

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Blogger Aaron said...

Hi Daniel,

I have been reading your blog for about a month now and I have been encouraged and challenged by your posts here. This post on holiness for pastors is especially meaningful for me right now, for many reasons not the least of which is my own striving for perfection as a father, husband, and pastor. It seems we have lost some of our fervor for holiness and the responsibility for accountability, for ourselves and one another.

I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Aaron Kesson

9:14 AM, September 19, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

A good illustration of these two senses of 'perfection' (growing and arriving) is to be found in Philippians 3 in the KJV where Paul can say "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after..." in verse 12 and then turn and say "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded" in verse 15.
I believe in the first instance (v.12) he says he still has some growing to do before he fully reflects the glory of Christ, but in the second instance (v.15) he sees himself as already mature. But both of these senses are called being "perfect" in the text.

11:57 AM, September 28, 2011  

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