Writing to Timothy, his younger brother in the faith, the Apostle Paul listed a number of attributes desirable in a bishop. His final admonition is this: “Moreover, he must have a good report of them which are without [outside]: lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (I Timothy 3:7). In the United States of half a century ago, a good report was taken for granted for the clergy of all confessions and denominations. The entertainment media—and especially movies—generally portrayed the clergy in a favorable light, a bit naive, perhaps, but basically good. When the occasional rascal was portrayed, it was usually someone from the fringe, such as the mercenary evangelist of Elmer Gantry or the pompous missionary of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Such Protestants were easy to attack, because Protestantism has so many splinter groups and independent operators; to portray a Roman Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi in such a light would have been unthinkable, at least in the 1950’s. Today it is easy to attack a priest, although rabbis still enjoy a certain immunity: lampooning a rabbi would probably be condemned as anti-Semitic.
Forty years ago, merely identifying oneself as a minister, priest, or rabbi was a virtual guarantee of respectful treatment, and perhaps of a discount in stores or even “professional courtesy” from doctors and dentists as well. In recent decades, with the rise of what Pitirim Sorokin called “colossalism” and “chaotic syncretism,” the reputation of the clergy has suffered, sometimes justifiably so. Undoubtedly some of the most visible clergy are not good role models, but the pulpits are still filled with those who can and should be.
With the increasing presence of independent organizations and agencies not connected with “connectional” churches, it has become possible for a talented loner to achieve nationwide fame—or infamy. A few years ago we had a series of spectacular scandals involving three so-called “television evangelists,” the “colossal” figures of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Billy James Hargis. Mainline Christians and evangelicals alike could shrug such things off on the grounds that these people were largely the religious equivalent of loose cannons or unguided missiles, and of course the Catholics, untouched, could say, “See what all this religious hoopla leads to!” More recently, however, the Roman Catholic fellowship has been shaken b}’ some particularly odious sex scandals, involving supposedly celibate priests and minor boys. There is some reason to think that the sex scandals are blown out of proportion; nevertheless, that they occur at all detracts from the respect hitherto awarded Catholic priests by the general public and the media. The Episcopalians, not so sensitive as traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants on sexual issues, have had a sticky financial mess on their hands, and even the black church gained media infamy when the head of the National Baptist Association, the Reverend Henry Lyon, was accused of both adultery and the misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of church dollars. The mass media, of course, now prefer to portray the clergy as hypocritical, ineffectual, and frequently immoral as well. But what the media do not point out is that for every priestly pederast or Baptist embezzler there are thousands of religious professionals who are living according to the precepts of Jesus and who really do deserve “a good report among them which are without.” Of course the flagrant exceptions make for more spectacular news.
As the season approaches when Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior, it will be good to recognize that exceptions are exceptional, and instead of dwelling on spectacular failures, look at the role played by the majority of clergy in our somewhat compromised republic. From the early days of America, the parson—usually a Protestant minister, but after the mid-19th century often a Catholic priest—was the “person” ill a small community: better educated than most and familiar with the skills necessary to bring men and women into contact with God. To have a son called to the ministry or the priesthood was a joy as well as an honor; the clergy—with the exception of some spectacular entrepreneurs—never earned as much as the two other learned professions, physicians and lawyers, but it was generally felt that they should not—and, indeed, that they did not—mind: after all, they were not in it for the money, but for the Lord. They gave a counterexample to the pursuit of profit that is so much a part of the American scene.
For the clergy of all the Christian denominations, it is generally expected that they will sen’c for the joy of serving and content themselves with relatively modest rewards in this earthly life. Although most clergy like to tell their parishioners, “Be imitators of Christ, not of me,” and “Do as I say, not as I do,” the fact remains that the clergy, as those who have publicly committed themselves to lifelong service, are taken as models. In most cases, they turn out to be decent models.
But should we expect them to be models? Should the lives of ordained clergy stand out as examples to be imitated? Should they live by higher standards than the general Christian public? With the exception of the vow of celibacy, which is peculiar to Roman Catholics, the Scripture commends the virtuous life to all Christians, indeed in a certain sense to all people. Christian or not, and does not enjoin on the clergy virtues that are superior to or different from what is expected of Christians in general.
But should religious leaders be held to a higher standard than run-of-the-mill Christians? Here views will differ. Roman Catholicism distinguishes the “secular” priesthood from the “religious” (members of a religious order); the very concept of secular priests suggests a certain measure of conformity to the world (except, of course, with respect to celibacy). In principle—with the exception noted—the answer is no. Jesus’s words, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), were addressed not to the inner circle of disciples—future preachers, evangelists, and bishops—but to the multitudes listening to his Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, the reality is that the shepherds are expected to lead the flocks by example as well as by precept, and indeed in spite of the occasional gross exception, they generally do so.
However, as Senator Lott says, “People are human,” errare humanum est, and the standard of perfection remains an ideal, not an accomplishment. If there are no fast runners on the track, everyone will plod. Should those who believe they are called to follow Christ into a specific ministry make a greater effort and come closer to the ideal? Almost all of us will instinctively feel that they should, which is why we are more distressed with the moral failings of a minister than with those of a merchant.
There is a sound biblical warrant for thinking that the clergy should be models. The pattern Paul proposes to Timothy deserves imitation by all, but the Apostle to the Gentiles confined his recommendations at this point to those who “desire the office of a bishop,” or, later in the same chapter, to deacons (in other words, to acknowledged spiritual leaders). The very first thing that is said of such leaders is that they must be blameless (I Timothy 3:2); the last admonition is to be of “good report to them that are without” (I Timothy 3:7).
The attributes Paul cites begin with “the husband of one wife.” Of course, all believers are encouraged to marry and to be faithful in marriage. Paul has written elsewhere, “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (I Corinthians 7:2). When it comes to “bishops” and “elders,” Paul is somewhat more precise: “the husband of one wife.” Perhaps this means no polygamy, but it more likely means no divorce, and perhaps even no remarriage for widowers. Both Orthodox and Protestants encourage the marriage of their clergy. The Orthodox permit their priests only one marriage, and then, only before receiving holy orders. Even if a priest’s wife dies, he may not remarry. The image is certainly of fidelity unto death, and even beyond. In today’s climate of sexual libertinism, the ministry must be especially careful to set an example of sexual purity and marital fidelity. The exhortation was already there in the first century A.D., admittedly also a time of sexual licentiousness.
Some of Paul’s exhortations seem repetitive: “of good behavior,” is paraphrased more than once. To good behavior he adds, “given to hospitality, apt to teach.” One may think of the practice of both Luther and Calvin, engaging in “table talks” with young students while they were enjoying their hospitality. The “overseer” is not to be “given to wine . . . greedy of filthy lucre.” In respect to alcohol, the clergy are held to a standard rather like that of the rulers in Proverbs 31:4-6. Some of our most noted “I’V evangelists” may have been teetotalers, but they seem to have left the advice about greed of filthy lucre as unheeded as it once was by some Renaissance cardinals.
Who is to supply the role models for ordinary citizens in our generation? The days when college athletes were supposed to be clean living (perhaps even pious) and when even most professional athletes could be held up as moral models seem to have passed, and collegians as well as professionals now have a nose for “filthy lucre.” The strains and temptations to which the clergy are exposed have not diminished, although the opportunities for “filthy lucre” have hardly expanded, at least not for most priests and ministers. To the extent that they are mindful of the words of Jesus, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), they are not likely to become media sensations, but they may serve as an inspiration and example to those who know them best.