1500-Year-Old Pastoral Wisdom from John Chrysostom
I enjoy reading the works of Christians who studied Scripture thoroughly yet lived in different timeframes and contexts than me. It helps me to see the timeless truths of the Bible. A recent example of this is John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. Chrysostom lived from roughly 349–407 and is best known for his prolific preaching and his service as the Archbishop of Constantinople. Despite the more than 1500 years between us, I couldn’t help but notice On the Priesthood’s enduring relevance for ministry today. As with reading other authors from the Early Church, I found myself disagreeing with some of Chrysostom’s views. At the same time, I appreciated his exhortations about the weighty nature of the pastorate, the importance of character, and the danger of fearing men. I should note that I understand priest, pastor, bishop, and elder to all refer to the same New Testament office (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9).
THE WEIGHTINESS OF THE PASTOR’S WORK
Since the pastor is charged to care for Christ’s sheep, “the greatness of this office” can scarcely be overemphasized (2.1). In loving Christ’s followers, Chrysostom says the pastor will store up “a great and unspeakable reward” (2.1). Given the importance of this pastoral work to Christ, it’s not surprising that Hebrews 13:17 teaches pastors will one day give an account to God for those in his charge. As Chrysostom reflected on this verse and the weight of answering to almighty God, he wrote that “the fear of its warning is continually agitating my soul” (6.1).
The task of the priest is so consequential because of the fact that while his work “is indeed discharged on earth, it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances” (3.4). The eternal matters entrusted to a pastor give rise to “the exceeding sanctity of this office” (3.4). Chrysostom, perhaps speaking with some exaggeration to make his point, said that pastors have “received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies” (3.5). As a result of this divine authority given to elders, “the punishment is eternal” for “those who know not how to handle the Priesthood” (4.2).
Chrysostom’s words about ministry remain pertinent today. First, one should never see the pastorate as just another job. Whereas Christians can serve in jobs like doctors, mechanics, and teachers in ways that glorify God and matter to him, these occupations do not deal with the eternal matters of heaven and hell. The pastor is not ultimately concerned with matters of this present life but rather he is, as Spurgeon wrote, “engaged in personally conducted tours to heaven” (Autobiography, 2.131). Moreover, these secular professions don’t involve formally speaking as a messenger of God. This is why these men should “know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:3). It’s not without reason that Chrysostom hesitated about being a priest (2.4).
Second, elders and their congregation should think very carefully before recognizing new pastors. Given the weightiness of this office, the charge to care for Christ’s very own sheep, and the reality of judgment for poor shepherds, simply listening to a candidate’s sermons and conducting a few hours of interviews isn’t sufficient for hiring a pastor.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FINDING THE BEST MEN OF CHARACTER
Chrysostom wrote that “we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature” (2.2). Qualified pastors are, as William Perkins would note over a millennium later, “one of a thousand” (Of the Calling of the Ministry).
One of the most important ways a pastor should excel is his character. Chrysostom recognized that evaluating a man’s character takes time and effort. He urged that “in such matters there is need of careful scrutiny, and he who is going to present any one as qualified for the priesthood ought not to be content with public report only, but should also himself, above all and before all, investigate the man’s character” (2.4). It’s striking that Chrysostom, known as the “golden-tongued preacher” for his rhetorical giftedness, saw a man’s character—not his ability to draw a crowd—as paramount. Chrysostom believed, as Augustine would soon write, that “eloquent speakers give pleasure, wise ones salvation” (De Doctrina Christiana, 4.23). In this way, Chrysostom simply reiterates the biblical teaching that pastors must exemplify Christ-like character (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; c.f: On The Priesthood 2.4; 4.2).
The relevance of this point endures today. For example, individuals responsible for hiring a pastor should never recommend someone without knowing his character. Recently, myself and two other elders met at length with a potential elder to ask pressing questions about his character. We cared more about his love for his wife than his ability to draw a crowd when preaching. Similarly, churches who today recognize lay elders or ruling elders should see these men not as a board of directors but as men whose character models Christ’s. As Chrysostom understood, giving away lot of money or possessing pronounced rhetorical gifts are not among the qualifications for a pastor.
PASTORS SHOULD NOT FEAR MAN
Chrysostom argued that if a preacher “is overcome by the thought of applause, harm is equally done in turn, both to himself and the multitude, because in his desire for praise he is careful to speak rather with a view to please than to profit” (5.2). Similarly, Chrysostom used the analogy of a skilled painter who “ought not to be dejected, and to consider the picture poor, because of the judgment of the ignorant” (5.6) to make the point that pastors shouldn’t be undone by the criticisms of some. Even outside of the context of preaching, a pastor should be indifferent to “slander and envy” (5.4).
In conclusion, while John Chrysostom lived in a remarkably different time period and held some beliefs I disagree with, On The Priesthood contains helpful reflections on the important and high calling of the pastorate. Any man aspiring to pastor should take to heart Chrysostom’s emphasis on the weight of the task, the importance of character, and the dangers of fearing man.