Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Respect Ma Authorit-ay!" or, There is a Prescription for Treating a Servant

UPDATE: After I made this post on my blog, a very well respected deacon-mentor of mine made a comment on the post and, to a certain extent, punched a lot of holes in what I presented. However, she is much more credible than me when it comes to describing the role of deacons in the current Episcopal Church... you may want to consider skipping straight to her comment... I think what she wrote is a lot clearer than what I wrote. 

A while ago, I was listening to a daily meditation from Pray As You Go, which is an incredible podcast resource for pray and meditation, if you have not encountered it yet (I have a little summary of it on my "Resources" page, or click this link to dive into PAYG on your own). But the meditation on the particular day I have in mind was based on Ephesians 6:1-9. Here is the text:

As for children, obey your parents in the Lord, because it is right. 2 The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached: 3 so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.[a] 4 As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger, but raise them with discipline and instruction about the Lord. 5 As for slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling and with sincere devotion to Christ. 6 Don’t work to make yourself look good and try to flatter people, but act like slaves of Christ carrying out God’s will from the heart. 7 Serve your owners enthusiastically, as though you were serving the Lord and not human beings. 8 You know that the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person. 9 As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status. (CEB)


Now I have faith, dear readers, that most of you recognize right off the bat that this passage is one that has historically been used as a weapon. It has been used as an argument to support some people owning other people as slaves. It has been used to support the discipline of those slaves when they resented horrific working conditions and inhumane treatment. I want to make it very clear that I acknowledge that sordid use of this Scripture and I am hoping that this post of mine can dwell in your mind separate from that. Nevertheless, I was still grabbed by the way that this Scripture provides a prescription for different kinds of interactions and it intrigued me in two ways.

The first thing that intrigued me had to do with what I have learned about Hellenistic philosophy (of which, the Apostle Paul was a practitioner). In this kind of Classic philosophy, relationships were usually analyzed in terms of the active/dominant party and the passive/subservient party; the one was stronger, the other weaker. Often times the active one was male and the passive one was female (and if you think about that for a while, I think you'll start to get a sense of how all the widespread misogyny we have today tries to root itself in New Testament Scripture). But in this case, we have two parallel dominant parties (the parent and the master), which also line up with the analogous subservient parties (the child and the slave).

The second way that the Scripture intrigued me was by the way that I felt connected to it through that master/slave dichotomy. See, once the early Christians really recognized themselves as Christians (not just Jews and believers who followed the way of Jesus), they articulated two orders of ministers. The first order were the apostles themselves. As they went out to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, they stayed with the congregations that sprung up to act as shepherds for the new believers. Episcopoi was the Greek word used to describe that, which is now translated as "overseers," but the church term for the consecrated shepherd over a large group of Christians is now "bishop." The second order recognized by the early Christians were the ones who committed themselves to assisting the Apostles, to take care of the socially marginalized  in the community of believers, and to bring those concerns to the attention of the Apostles. The members of this order were called diakonoi and the word has stayed in the Christian Church largely unchanged, as today these are the "deacons." So, dear readers, you see why my interest is piqued in this exegetical endeavor, since this behavioral prescription is now linked with my ongoing discernment of ordination.

However, you will also notice, dear readers, that the term diakonoi is more similar to "servant" than the term "slave" that is used in the text from the letter to the Ephesians. And in noticing that, you are spot on. The Greek word used in the letter was douloi, which is commonly translated as "slaves." The character of these douloi had everything to do with someone who has been bonded or indentured to a master, whereas the diakonoi are more akin to emissaries from a master. But, in the Gospels, when Jesus starts talking about how the disciples need to serve each other and how "the one who would be first among you will be the last and the one who is last will be the first," he uses these two words and verbs and uses them almost interchangeably. So my conclusion is that they are very closely linked when we're talking about Christian servitude.

So now that I've got these Greek terms linked by using what seems like a huge tangent, let me go back to what intrigued me about the master/servant dichotomy. What really intrigued me was how it resembles the bishop/deacon relationship in the Church today. Bishops are still the overseers of large, regionally defined churches. They are essentially the consecrated governors in the Church. Meanwhile, deacons are still the servants. Everything poetic about the diaconate (especially the parts that intrigue me) are all about becoming powerless, going to the margins of society, and serving the least, the last, and the lost; it's all about worshiping and seeking the face of Christ out there, rather than only looking for Christ in the liturgy. And nonetheless, these two orders, the bishops and the deacons; the directors of the Church and the servants of the Church, have their roots firmly entwined in the origins of the Christian Church. And there is a right way and a wrong way to live out that relationship.

I bet this whole time you've been wondering "how in the world has Tom connected so strongly with this Scripture? I mean, he can't be so much of a geek that he just gets off on this kind of word study, right?" and while that may be a perfectly legitimate concern, the real reason why I feel so connected to this Scripture is because I want to participate in a Church where the bishops and the deacons recognize the deep, deep ways that their orders are intertwined. But it has been my experience that many clergy today don't understand this history; they only know a church that has been centered on priests for the past 50 years, and these deep traditional roots have largely withered up.

I want to see what I can to to revive these roots. I want to see what life can be breathed back into a Church that feels like it's dying, if we just simply look at where we come from.

I want to be a deacon in a Church that lives to "seek and serve Christ in all persons," and that loves the least, the last, and the lost in the same way that it loves itself.