The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4: 11-13).
St. Paul describes the church as the body of Christ in which those within it are given gifts to use to build up that body so that every person is brought to Christian maturity.
May 1, 2022, marks the 41st anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. When I graduated from seminary in 1979, I felt called to ordained pastoral ministry and to a ministry of teaching. I have not always found it easy to combine these mutual vocations. After graduation, I spent one year in clinical training as a hospital chaplain. Following that, I was placed in charge of two congregations in rural Oklahoma as a lay vicar. Five months later, and four days after our first child was born, I was ordained to the diaconate. During this time, I wrestled with the idea of a vocation that combined both ministry and teaching. Six years later, after working in St. Louis for a couple of years, I decided to go back to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in theology and ethics at Duke University. Within a few months of my arrival in Durham, North Carolina, I began to serve as regular supply priest in rural congregations. Soon I was serving in part-time interim ministry, sometimes in more than one congregation at a time. My working life was divided between teaching at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill and work in interim parish ministry. I mention this because these experiences provided me with a perspective from which to see the church in a different light.
The purpose of the church at its best is to build us up so that we become knitted together in the body of Christ. Its purpose, therefore, is to edify us, that is, to build us up, both personally and communally. Moving between these two environments in my career provided me with the insights I would like to share with you here.
The purpose of the university at its best is to critique every idea or procedure and from that process to arrive at new understandings in every area of our lives, from the medicine we need to heal our bodies, to an understanding of our universe in all its complexity, to questions concerning the meaning of our lives.
In the academic world a distinction is made between “criticism” and “critique.” Criticism points to minor errors and inconsistencies in the work under examination. Critique, on the other hand, seeks to find if and how the entire work under examination is inconsistent with its own principles, and whether as a result the work or project is flawed from the start. In graduate school, students are taught how to tear academic positions on any topic to shreds. They are taught, in other words, to critique everything they read or hear. Graduate education teaches students to categorize thought and quickly make suggestions as to the error, faults, and even the impossibility, or utter contradiction in the work under examination.
I remember a particular graduate seminar I taught at Temple University in which we examined the work of the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. I was trying to make a point using an idea suggested by Bourdieu. My students rushed in to condemn the way in which Bourdieu constructed his argument. I tried to defend the usefulness of his position despite its inherent weaknesses, but my students would not hear of it. When I reflected later in the day on the feeling and emotion behind their arguments, I realized that they were only doing what they were being taught to do. They were demonstrating to me that they could engage in a vigorous philosophical critique of their assigned readings.
This emphasis on critique is why university professors and other academics are often charged with being nihilists. If every position is equally flawed, then how can one ever endorse any position or idea? How then does one live her or his life? That is one of the dilemmas one faces in the university environment.
The life of the university thrives on critique, that is, on the process of challenging dominant assumptions and formulating in their place different and oftentimes unpopular ways of looking at things. This is an important task and I by no means want to belittle it. New ideas and approaches to more ancient problems, more often than not, are enriching and enlivening.
In contrast to the university, the central task of the church is neither critique nor criticism, although that is how life within it often feels for lay and clergy alike. At its worst the church is a critical and unsupportive place. Because we all are imperfect people, it is not surprising that we often see the fault in others, before we see that same fault in ourselves. Jesus recognized this when he asked his hearers, “why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
At its best, the task of the church is not to tear us down but to edify and to build us up. If we want the church to become a supportive place, we must pay attention to the ways in which we respond positively to the needs and desires of others. If we ourselves want to be supported, we first must learn to become supportive of others. Together, and only together, can we grow “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”