What position do you play? Four models of ministry from Acts

Faith, like life itself, is not a spectator sport. It is meant to be lived and played, not just watched from the sideline. But how do we find our role, our position, in a Church that only values one role?

For the last few decades, Catholics appalled by the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis (among other things), have identified clericalism – a culture and belief system that elevates priests as morally and spiritually superior and centers power exclusively in their hands – as the root problem from which not only abuse and the culture of cover up flow, but also many other of the institution’s failings. A community that trusts that its leader has all the answers and is never wrong is a community headed for trouble. Believers who outsource their faith to a professional cleric risk stunting their own spiritual growth. And a leader who is, like the rest of us, a broken, fallen human being is being asked to fill a role that none of us can satisfy. 

One of the challenges in undoing this culture of clericalism is the absence of alternatives. As someone raised in a mainline Protestant tradition, I can say that while the hierarchical bells and whistles may have been more subdued and the infrastructure of committees provided some checks and balances, one of the ironic attractions to Catholicism was that there was more for the rest of us to do – in liturgy, but also in the history of lay ministry. And, sadly, more evangelical faith communities have been beset in recent years by revelations of abuse that in many cases uncover that same clericalist culture.

Ever since Pope Francis referred to the “Petrine principle” of ministry as one of three different concepts of Church in his interview with America, I have been thinking about the different models of ministry that show up in the Acts of the Apostles. As we struggle to find ways to describe a Church free of clericalism (which appears to be a central theme of the ongoing Synod on Synodality), it may be helpful to reflect on four different models of ministry from Acts as a way to rebalance our understanding of an institution that has become almost exclusively attached to the Petrine hierarchy led by the pope, the successor of Peter.

I should note that these four are prominent in Acts, but aren’t the only ones worth considering. That they are all men casts little light on the issue that sparked Francis’ response to America, that of the ordination of women. However, it seems to me that regardless of the answer to that question, a rediscovery and elevation of other forms of ministry and a recalibration of relationships between models of leadership is necessary to move forward.

Petrine: Liturgical and Doctrinal

The Petrine model, of course, stems primarily from the Gospels. When Jesus proclaims in Matthew 16:18-19, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the power of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” Catholic doctrine finds the declaration of Peter and his successors as the center of the Church. 

In the first chapters of Acts, St. Peter is clearly depicted as the spokesperson of the Twelve and the leader of the early Church in Jerusalem. And yet, by Acts 6, the community requires more than a leader, and the twelve need help. Before we get to the nature of that help, let’s take a moment to dwell on what the twelve see as theirs to do.

“[T]he twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2,4) If we assume that “prayer” includes what we now know as the conducting of the Church’s sacramental life, we can see that the Petrine function is primarily liturgical.

Primarily, though not solely. In Acts 11 and again in Acts 15, as the early Church wrestles with the unexpected conversion of non-Jewish believers, it is to the apostles, led by Peter (and James), that the Church turns for guidance. So in addition to the liturgical role, the Petrine ministry includes that of final arbiter on matters of doctrine.

Stephenine: Administrative

These Petrine roles sound very familiar to us today, but less familiar are the limits they admit. For in Acts 6, when the apostles reserve themselves to prayer and preaching, it is by ceding to a group of seven deacons the work of administering the community. (In Pope Francis’ America interview, he cites an “administrative principle”; here we find the Scriptural roots of that distinction.) These seven, counting St. Stephen as their most famous member, are explicitly not from the group of apostles, yet are entrusted not simply to “serving tables,” but managing the competing demands of various subgroups of the Christian community.

Of course, Stephen is primarily remembered as the proto-martyr, and the story of his martyrdom seems to imply some pretty significant mission creep. (In 6:8, he is said to have done “great wonders and signs among the people,” and in the subsequent verses he debates the faith with non-believers, leading to his martyrdom.) Yet a Stephenine (Stephenic?) model of ministry, fully understood, shifts the discussion about who runs the Church from one in which successors of Peter “let” non-Petrine ministers take on some of the work towards one in which successors of Stephen, not priests, are the rightful owners of the administrative work of the Church so that the priestly class can focus on its original charge.

Pauline: Ministering at the Peripheries

St. Paul is a class unto himself, of course; even in Acts, this latecomer to the faith takes center stage for the majority of the book. But he is also a type, as one of several commissioned to preach the Gospel and plant communities across the known world. It’s worth noting that Paul was actively preaching prior to his commissioning in Acts 13, and even more worth noting that his commissioning (along with that of Barnabas), came not from the Petrine apostles in Jerusalem, but from his community in Antioch. For missionaries like Paul, the work on the peripheries came within the nascent structure of the Church, but not in a feudal sense of blind obedience to the higher-ups. Acts 15 refers somewhat delicately to what Paul says almost boastfully in his letter to the Galatians: when the practice of ministry at the periphery exposed the Holy Spirit working in ways outside the norms of the hierarchy in Jerusalem, Paul’s faith compelled him to argue with Peter, James and the others to change doctrine to align with the lived experience of the Spirit. This, I believe, is what Pope Francis is calling for in the synod on synodality: for the voices attending to the work of the Holy Spirit on the peripheries to report back boldly the wonders they witness so those at the center can adapt to God’s handiwork.

Johannine: Filial Accompaniment

The last and most fascinating of the four models of ministry is that of St. John. Even the most superficial reading of the New Testament yields an understanding that John’s perspective on faith differs significantly from the authors of the synoptic Gospels and from Paul. Scholars have generally attributed this difference in approach to the tradition that John lived and served a specific community, separated from the influences of the rest of the Church of the day. Separated, but not excommunicated, as five books (a gospel, three letters and the apocalypse) attributed to John appear in the canonical New Testament. Just because he sees things differently and emphasizes different elements of faith does not automatically put him beyond the pale.

What fascinates about John, though, is how his different viewpoint contrasts with the role he is given in the narrative of the early Church as told in the synoptic tradition. One of the sons of Zebedee, he is one of the four original disciples of Jesus. Along with James and Peter, John is one of the three that Jesus keeps closest to his side; he is on the mountain at the Transfiguration and one of the three closest to Jesus in Gethsemane, among other examples. 

Until his feast day this Christmas season, I had never noticed John’s role in Acts. As Peter leads the action and gets all the lines in the pre-Pauline chapters, it’s easy to miss the fact that through the first eight chapters of Acts, until the post-Stephen persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, John is always there, right by Peter’s side. Peter may say all the words, but there are no references to him that don’t pair him with John.

Then John disappears, only to re-emerge through the writings attributed to him much later. His story (and the gaping silences it holds) speaks to a fourth model of ministry: not holding court at the church’s center, like Peter, nor traveling at the periphery, like Paul, nor making sure the trains run on time, like Stephen. John is a full witness, from the beginning, nurturing a separate but faithful community on his own; pastor, mystic and contemplative at the same time. 

A synodal Church needs all of these voices: center and periphery, bureaucrat and poet. Recapturing the richness of these different voices is not only paramount to the future of the institution and the success of a synodal vision of Church; it is also a means of replacing a clericalist mindset of ministry with one that values the different roles and contributions of all of God’s people.

When Catholics talk about “vocations,” we almost exclusively mean priests. Doctrinally, marriage and religious life (like nuns or monks) are other vocations, but they are usually tacked on as afterthoughts. In a Church run by priests that faces a shortage of new candidates, that makes a lot of sense.

I’m a big believer in marriage as an equal, sacramental vocation, but maybe the path to undoing clericalism is changing the discussion about vocation from, essentially, what family structure you join (marriage, community of sisters/brothers, celibate priesthood) to one that holds out a wider range of ministry roles and asks us – all of us – to test out which position we’re being called to play. 

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