From the March, 2004 issue of Touchstone

The Signified Man by S. M. Hutchens

The Signified Man

Ordination & the Shape of the Pastoral Office

by S. M. Hutchens

Much in the news these days is the story of the crisis among Roman Catholic clergy. One of the most interesting books I have read on the subject is Michael S. Rose’s Good Bye, Good Men, in which he chronicles the nearly complete takeover of the American Catholic seminaries by theological and moral dissidents who have proceeded to drive solid, godly men from the priesthood by every means possible. Although Rose has been criticized for not documenting his sources well enough, he does not need to demonstrate to me that the stories he has gathered are true, for I have seen what he describes first-hand, and don’t need convincing.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen just among the Catholics. It is epidemic today, and is found in all places in all ages of the Church, for there has been no age or place in which it has not been one of the principal concerns of evil spirits to corrupt and discredit the Christian pastor, to make as many destructive inroads as possible on this apostolic description of what he must be:

A bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:2–7)

We might summarize the passage in this way: The bishop—the word means “overseer,” and so one who has authority over and responsibility before God for the church—must be a stable family man, a competent and successful father, and a mature believer with a deservedly good reputation both within the church and outside of it.

There is nothing remarkable about this description. It describes the sort of person we naturally look to for leadership, and to whom we grant the necessary authority for it. But viewed from another angle, from the point at which I find myself as someone whose work has him look every day at a great many churches, that such a man might have survived to serve in the pastorate of any church is nothing short of a miracle. There is, we must understand, a desperate battle going on against him in every generation, an attempt to weaken his authority and sully his office, to disqualify him from meeting its standards, to exhaust and dishearten him, and to make the church and its ministry so ugly and distasteful that he will not even wish to approach its doors. Of these things Christians need to be aware, so they may enter the lists at his side.

A Father’s Care

It is worthwhile, I believe, for Protestants in general to ask themselves if the pastoral vocation, the pastor’s job as we normally think of it, is precisely what is in view in the New Testament, or the best possible arrangement.

There are reasons for the fact that the average Protestant minister stays in one church for only about three years. The fatherly care of souls is a job that naturally devolves on a single man in a congregation, for it is natural that if the congregation is like a family (this is directly suggested by the passage from First Timothy) it should have only one father. But spiritual fatherhood in a healthy church is a gift possessed by a number of its men, for the fatherhood of the pastor, which flows from that of God, itself flows to others, and it should be exercised by them.

It is true that the pastor is paid a salary, and with that salary he can care for a family of his own, but we must understand that what he is most frequently being called upon to do is to be the father of a family of hundreds, which no man can do well. Not many can stand the strain. They must get help, leave, die, or live with the burden of a continually inadequate performance—a terrible burden indeed for the kind of dutiful and conscientious man most churches want to be their pastor.

The professional pastorate as we have come to know it is no friend to the pastor’s family. The strain on his household, on his wife and children, is tremendous. A wise church understands that instinctively, and provides help for the pastor, engaging all qualified men in its ministry, helping the pastor do the fatherly work that needs to be done. It will labor to qualify as many as it can, and then put them to work overseeing the flock. Not everyone can be the pastor, but there are many spiritual fathers who should be doing their fatherly work. When it is done, the pastor may stay, or live, a little longer.

One of the principal lines of attack on the pastoral office has been in the assault on the family that leads to disqualification through divorce and remarriage. Although “the husband of one wife” has been given more or less literal interpretations through the history of the Church, including that of single men who are regarded as espoused to the Church, what it cannot mean is someone who is divorced and remarried. Among Evangelical Christians, the divorce rate is the same, or by some estimates even slightly higher, than that of the population at large. How many good men are disqualified for the overseer’s office by a divorce and remarriage? And yet disqualified they must be, for while the pastor need not be perfect, he must be a vital symbol of what the Church is. His office is part of the doctrine of his church.

A symbol is, to be sure, in a manner separate from what it denotes. A good and great man—and we may appropriately add here, or woman—a man next to God’s own heart, may not be symbolically qualified for a particular office, and the man who bears the symbol and the office may be much his inferior. But the apostle is saying here that symbols are important. They stand for, and thus participate in, things that are true, even if those who bear them are faulty. The symbol of the man who is “the husband of one wife” has, he is saying, vital importance to the Church. It is part of its teaching not only about marriage, but about God, Christ, and man. We could talk for a long while about why this is so, but at the end of the day, it is an apostolic instruction, and we are to follow it.

The Third Sex

Another attack on this man of whom we are speaking, and therefore upon the church to which he is to minister, has been instrumental in the spiritual destruction of the Protestant mainline churches. It is actively at work among the Catholics today, and in the process of making quick inroads into the Evangelical Churches. It is, stated in the broadest terms, the attack against the manliness, and therefore the Christ-likeness of the pastor.

I am not speaking here only about women’s ordination to offices reserved by Scripture to men, but a deeper, older, and more pervasive error from which that one arises. I once thought the process could be called the feminization of the Church, but now that does not seem right to me. It is more accurate to call it the de-masculinization of the Church, its “un-manning,” for what has replaced the masculine influences planted by God in the churches that have been busy driving their men away is not feminine at all, but a third thing that is neither masculine nor feminine, but an ugly mockery of both.

That the overseer is to be the husband of one wife, and that the home is presumed to have children (although having children is not commanded, they are presumed here as the normal issue of a husband and wife), and that his wife and children are to be submissive to him, means that the overseer is not only to be a man, but a “manly” one, too. I do not mean a bully, but a man who is so competent at loving people in the manner that good men show their love that they voluntarily submit to him, and he leads them. This will not be the sort of man who can be mistaken for the butt of George Bernard Shaw’s witticism that there are three sexes, male, female, and clergy—this Shavian clergyperson being the epitome of that ugly third thing that is neither male nor female.

In the Protestant section of the woods it was sometime during the nineteenth century when the Christian faith began to be seen as constituted less by doctrine than by feeling, and so became regarded principally as the concern of women—more religious than men, it was said, because they are more attuned to intuition, affection, and emotion than the hard, dogmatic structures of belief—an assessment of women modern feminists appear to share, understanding this as a strength of women, but refusing to recognize alongside it the peculiar and necessary strengths of men.

In Germany at the dawn of the century, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his famous Speeches on Religion, in which the ground of faith is represented as a pious disposition. In America the revivals of the Second Great Awakening were beginning, with displays of emotion so intense that some of the revived swooned or barked like dogs. In more sophisticated surroundings, the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, the best-known and best-paid preacher of his day, unapologetically aimed his sermons at women, becoming the father of the sunset, shaggy dog, and butterfly sermon, and one of the best excuses for self-respecting men to stay away from church.

Beecher’s modern counterparts deliver moralizing homilies in which the faith is reduced to generalized Niceness, presently known as inclusiveness. No more “Onward Christian Soldiers,” no more “Rise Up, O Men of God,” no more Hell to shun or to take up arms against, no more doctrinal sermons, since love unites but doctrine divides, no more arduous missions to the heathen—no more heathens, in fact, for how dare we presume to call anyone such a demeaning name? And now Evangelical scholars are presenting us with new Bibles in which the embarrassing maleness of the biblical text is muted as much as possible for the advantage of “modern readers.”

Yes, I think all these things are connected, and have their connections, too, to the rise and fall of the pastor. Under these influences he first becomes Mr. Shaw’s pantywaist, whom men cannot respect, then becomes a woman, whom men will not follow unless forced (however unjust this may seem, it is something written into men by God, and will not change), and then, in the final insult to the Lord the pastor is to represent, he becomes a self-identified homosexual, whose presence as such in the ministry as a diabolical mockery of both male and female is in effect the expulsion of every normal man, and his family—which is to say, not only the end of the pastorate, but the death of the church.

No more admitting one’s sins and failures, taking one’s licks for them, and putting them in the past. No, the culture of the churches has become therapeutic. No one is to blame for his own sins, for that is entirely too harsh and judgmental, too abrupt, too, well, too much like all that rough male stuff. It’s not Nice—it’s Mean, since it makes people feel bad, like a box on the ear or a sword in the belly.

All these things are attacks on men carried on from within the Church; each has the effect of making the plain, stable, respected family man of this scriptural description rare. Once a pastor becomes something a good man would rather not see his son become, we have reached that point. The attack on the manly man is an attack on every office to which he is called and fitted by God, and so an attack on Christ’s Church. An old problem in these parts is coming to a head in our generation. That is where the battle for the life and health of the Church is hottest now, and where churches need to give attention to their doctrine and practice, as in the matter of ordaining ministers.

A Sign Under Attack

An elderly priest, a man of orthodox convictions who, if he were standing for ordination today, would be rejected under the Episcopal Church’s new feminist canons, told me that when he graduated from seminary, one of his old professors pointed to the crucifix on the wall and told the class, “Gentlemen, make no mistake, on the day you become a priest, you are nailed to the cross.” In our gentler, more enlightened day this does not sound like the kind of encouragement to give to bright young persons at the hopeful beginning of a career in one of the helping professions. It is, however, true—true for all believers, but most especially for true priests, true pastors, true ministers of the gospel of Christ.

The true pastor is not a cog or a lubricant slick in the social machine. His call is not constituted by a gentle upbringing, a somewhat effeminate personality, a phlegmatic disposition, a second-rate intellect, or general weakness of personality and resolve. The true pastor—the pastor the churches are called upon to seek—is like Christ, a true male, with male strength and temptations. He is marked for duty and sacrifice by a mystic sign perceived by the true Church, and lays down a life that is strong, vital, and clean for the sake of the people with whose souls he has been entrusted.

It is particularly necessary to say this in a day when the holy sign of the Christian pastor is under such heavy attack. Why would a man who loves Christ, values the life of Christ in himself and the Church, and who seeks to transmit its blessings to others, wish to enter a field that seems increasingly occupied by the unmanly, the sexually perverted, and women in unseemly imitation of men? Why seek a vocation avoided by superior men—men fit for law or medicine or business—where his remuneration will hardly ever match his abilities, where, if he insists on believing and teaching the ancient doctrines of the faith, his intelligence is mocked by the dominant intellectual culture, where deep loneliness and alienation from those who should love him best is a fact of daily life, where the media has trained the public by constant portrayal of the pastor as cruel, hypocritical, or foolish, and where joys and satisfactions so often seem outweighed by the burdens and the incentives to leave?

These questions need not be impressed on the good pastor himself—they are already his daily bread—but upon the churches. Christians must understand what the pastoral life entails and ask themselves whether they wish to have and support a true pastor or a hireling—someone who takes the office for what he can get from it in the coin he values, whether power or following (however petty), honor, title, access to the objects of his lust, a living made easy by avoidance of real pastoral labor, or even pretty vestments and furnishings. The true priest of God can never be gained or maintained without spiritual effort on the part of the people, beginning with prayer for the ability to recognize him. That skill does not come naturally, or follow from pious intentions.

We once attended a church that considered itself Bible-believing and full of wisdom in pastoral selection and all other matters. In searching for a new minister it placed a distinguished layman who was a spiritual infant at the head of the selection committee, which thereupon polled the congregation to determine what each of its members wanted in a pastor. The results were listed, and the list became the ministerial job description. The pastor was required to do what everyone in the church wanted him to do—although I do not recall anyone requiring him to “exhort and reprove with all authority, letting no one ignore you.” He was, however, expected to pay court to all the various committees and organizations, without, of course, interfering with their self-perceived missions.

He was also expected above all things—and by this requirement the dysfunctional congregation may be infallibly identified—to “grow the church” by his own virtually unaided efforts, apart from a renewal of faith and love on the part of the members whose spiritual condition was the reason the church was unfilled and unhappy to begin with. (This congregation was very big on “servant-pastors.”) For every one of these abusive churches, one must suppose, there is another that invites some bad pastor to abuse it. None of these will find a true pastor, for they are not interested in one, nor could they recognize him when he came into view.

This is a terrible thing, for in not knowing a true pastor, the church shows evidence of not knowing the True Pastor, who has prepared men after his own image to love and care for his people. In its self-imposed ignorance it has become an untrue church, forsaken by the glory of God. People get the pastors, the ministers, the bishops, the deacons, and the elders they desire and deserve, the unworthy pastor and people taking each other down into the swiftly descending maelstrom of apostasy.

The Shepherd’s Calling

Against all this stands the gift of God, the faithful man around whom may gather a faithful church. Against all opposing forces of the world, against fools and knaves in presbytery and pew, against sneaking, lying, apostatizing seminaries, wicked or undutiful bishops, venal and power-hungry church bureaucrats, ignorant and self-satisfying selection committees, against the church-bosses, against those who hate men, especially men of exemplary strength and devotion, against all temptation to commit sins that disqualify them, good pastors exist and may be found by those who seek them of God. It is desperately important to praise, support, and lift them up in prayer, to seek to increase their number both within our congregations and outside of them, to treat them as among the Church’s greatest treasures.

I was a pastor long enough to understand what the job is about, and long enough therefore to bow before any man who is able to do it faithfully. In sharing the body and blood of Christ with his people—this is what he is doing in everything he does, you know—the pastor will soon enough be eaten and drunk up himself, and he knows it. When he does it both faithfully and well, the congregation in which he ministers has received one of the greatest of divine gifts, and when it understands how it has been favored, and supports the pastor in his ministry, the place in which these things are done is a great fountain of blessing.

There is no more arduous and manly calling than the good shepherd’s. Surely his reward will include those who attacked, belittled, and slandered him, falling at his feet and confessing him blessed before the face of God and the assembled host of men and angels.

The Laying on of Hands

The ancient rite of the laying on of hands for the receiving of the gifts of ministry is not magic, but as with any sacrament or mystery of the Church—if you will permit me to use the ancient language for it—if God wills, it truly gives what is given. We have no power in ourselves to do the giving. Just because we want something to happen and speak an appropriate formula gives us no assurance whatever that it shall. No prayer of ours, however pious or well intended, will make a pastor of any man. It is God who does that.

But this also must be said: In the prayer that is blessed by God, we who are in Christ truly enter into his work, and so in Christ are given a true participation in all that is done by the Father and the Spirit. Because of this we are not merely recognizing something God is doing in ordination. We are, in Christ, through Christ, and because of Christ, bestowing it.

It is an old work in which we participate, for the pastor himself was laid at the foundation of the world, and seen from that perspective, all that went before he came among us happened as it did so that he might be what he is. The same is true of us all. What makes the prayer and imposition of hands important—why we are not just to “leave it to God”—is precisely because in Christ we enter the life of God and become his fellow workers.

When God is doing something, we, to the level of our capacity, join in the doing, for we are the body of Christ. That is not just a fine poetic metaphor, dreamed up by St. Paul to tell what we are like. It is what we are, and so what we do.

—S. M. Hutchens

“The Signified Man” is adapted from a sermon given by Dr. Hutchens at the ordination of his brother David, pastor of the Walnut Hill Bible Church in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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