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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Expectations for Ministers in the Early Church

St. John Chrystostom’s classic, On the Priesthood, is a sobering work for anyone considering a future in ministry. Over the course of its six books, Chrystostom unfolds the requirements for ordained ministers, requirements that are nearly impossible to pass. For Chrystostom, ministers of upstanding character are a necessity. A person of a lesser character could only damage the church of Christ. “For the priest’s soul must be purer than the rays of the sun, in order that the Holy Spirit may never leave him desolate, and that he may be able to say, ‘I live; yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me.’” [1] A minister’s task is to dispense the holy offices of the church on behalf of Christ, and the minister himself must be holy in order to properly officiate his task: “Consider how spotless should the hands be that administer these things, how holy the tongue that utters these words. Ought anyone to have a purer and holier soul than one who is to welcome this great Spirit?” [2]

The importance of character shows up especially in preaching. First, the minister must hold to orthodox doctrine and be wary of the various heresies. In attempting to correct one heresy, he cannot fall into another. “But unless the shepherd knows how to refuse every one of them effectively, the wolf can enter by a single one and devour most of the sheep.” [3] Not only must he be able to refute heresies in defense of his flock, but he must be able to withstand the temptations of the congregation. Chrystostom states that preachers must have two qualities: “contempt of praise and the force of eloquence. If either is lacking, the one left is made useless through divorce from the other. If a preacher despises praise, yet does not produce the kind of teaching which is ‘with grace, seasoned with salt’, he is despised by the people and gets no advantage from his sublimity. And if he manages this side of things perfectly well, but is a slave to the sound of applause, again an equal damage threatens both him and the people, because through his passion for praise he aims to speak more for the pleasure than the profit of his hearers. The man who is unaffected by acclamation, yet unskilled in preaching does not truckle to the people’s pleasure; but no more can he confer any real benefit upon them, because he has nothing to say. And equally, the man who is carried away with the desire for eulogies may have the ability to improve the people, but chooses instead to provide nothing but entertainment." [4]

For a minister to be effective, he must be a skilled speaker and possess the humility to prophetically confront the idols that exist amongst his congregation.

Chrystostom lists as the first requirement for being ordained as a lack of desire for the office. "And the first of all is that he must purify his soul entirely of ambition for the office. For if he is strongly attracted to this office, when he gets it he will add fuel to the fire and, being mastered by ambition, he will tolerate all kinds of evil to secure his hold upon it, even resorting to flattery, or submitting to mean and unworthy treatment, or spending lavishly." [5]

This first requirement is especially important in the modern day. In the contemporary church, it is easy to seek ordained office out of a desire for power, and there are many “self-ordained ministers” who refuse to submit to accountability within the church. The reputation of the church in the west has been greatly injured by the greed of many televangelists. For the church to be able to speak against the idols of modern churches, it must first possess leaders who reject power and prosperity, but are instead holy, and called to be servants of Christ’s church.

[1] St. John Chrystostom, On the Priesthood, VI.1

[2] Ibid. VI.4

[3] Ibid. IV.4

[4] Ibid. V.2

[5] Ibid. III.10

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