In TYD’s post below, “A Prophet is Only a Prophet When…,” one of the commenters, identified as Jeremiah Rush, left the following thoughts:
If the Jesus as described in the new testament existed today, he would assert the mormons (and most of christianity) are like unto the ‘pharisees, scribes, and hypocrits.’ Monson as a “prophet?” A penthouse on temple square, wool suits (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), driving around in limos, having his picture in millions of people’s homes, etc–certainly not like Jesus. It all reminds me of this: ‘Those who love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (or chapel, or conference center)’ and further, ‘ they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ The mormon leadership are a bunch of geriatric, brainwashed and brainwashing men. If he is a prophet, then I’m a f@#$%*&% saint But of course you will now say, ‘he is fallen, and hath a devil.’
This interests me because it has some elements of what is an enduring appraisal of Christian leadership: that the leaders in whatever is the current age do not conduct themselves as did Jesus or the original disciples. And in fact, many books and articles have been written exploring precisely this point, and suggesting precisely what Mr. Rush suggests: Christ would disown or be disowned by Christianity.
What I wonder is this: Under what circumstances is this a legitimate evaluation?
At least once each year I teach a section on the history of Christianity. I always open the class by reading in some detail from the NT, including the Sermon on the Mount. Among other things, this allows my students, most of whom have no clue what it means to be a Christian, to develop a sense for what serious Christians think a Christian leader ought to be like. Then, throughout the rest of the course, they are prepared to identify with reformers who seem to be in a continuous battle with a pervasive sense of entitlement and the ensuing corruption. One of my favorite critiques, just because it is so pungent, comes from Pope Innocent III. Himself no choirboy, he still felt free to refer to the Archbishop of Narbonne in these words:
…He knows no other god but money and has a purse where his heart should be. His monks and canons take mistresses and live by usury… Throughout the region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity.
Notice what Innocent finds reprehensible: In the decision between God and Mammon, the archbishop has made the wrong choice, which is a personal failing. But there is also a failure of leadership, precisely because the religious orders are likewise and unsurprisingly living a life of debauchery. And the upshot of it all is that orthodox Christianity is no longer seen as a serious response to God – to the folks in southern France the heretical Cathars looked more Christ-like than the clergy! This is no laughing matter: To make a complicated story short, Innocent III authorized the Albigensian Crusade to deal with the larger situation and extreme and bloody ugliness was order of the day for quite some time, to a large extent because of the corruption of the Christian leadership.
So the conduct of church leaders is no small matter. But acceptable conduct is also rooted in specific historical and cultural contexts. For example, celibacy has never been a uniform requirement for Christian clergy, although it has been high profile issue in western elements since at least the Cluniac reformers. And usury was a hot item in the Middle Ages, but it generally no longer has a similar stigma, and in any case most clergy no longer control enough wealth to engage in money-lending activities. Likewise, simony, which was a major aspect of the archbishop’s fiscal outreach program, is not much of an issue. Folks who acted like the archbishop and his archdiocesan followers would not be tolerated very long anymore. My point is this: what is expected of Christian leaders is based on many more factors than simply readings of the NT. The NT is, and has been, a starting point for such reflections.
So now in opening this up for discussion I want to move beyond the specific people and practices listed in Mr. Rush’s comment to consider the matter from a wider and less polemical point of view. In what ways should modern disciples model themselves after the ideals of the NT? And I think we might also want to stipulate that we are guided by Paul’s idea about the Body of Christ, specifically that the church becomes the Body of Christ in order to make the Risen Lord present on the earth until he returns. How then, do we make Christ present to our own society in a meaningful way, so that we are clearly emulating the first disciples and yet responsive to our own situation?