Speak Christian: An Exhortation to Ministers of the Gospel

Stanley Hauerwas

Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.

God knows what possesses anyone to enter the ministry in our day.

The lack of clarity about what makes Christians Christian, what makes the church the church, continuing ambiguity in our diverse denominations about ordination itself should surely make anyone think twice about becoming a minister.

Moreover, the lack of consensus about what it might mean for anyone to act with authority in our society and the church cannot help but make those of us who are not ministers wonder about the psychological health of those who tell us they are called to the ministry.

Too often, I fear, the ministry is understood by many Christians, as well as many who become ministers, to be but one expression of the more general category of something called a “helping profession.” A minister is a social worker “with a difference.”

The “difference” is thought to have something to do with God, but it is not clear exactly what difference that difference is to make for the performance of your office.

As a result, many who enter the ministry discover after a few years of doing the best they can to meet the expectations of those they serve – expectations such as, whatever else you may do, you should always be nice – end up feeling as if they have been nibbled to death by ducks. They do so because it is assumed that, because pastors do not work for a living, those whom the minister serves, or at least those who pay them, can ask the minister to be or do just about anything. Though it is often not clear how what they are asked to do is required by their ordination vows, those in the ministry cannot say “no” because it is not clear what their “job” is in the first place.

Many in the ministry try to protect themselves from the unlimited demands and expectations of their congregations by taking refuge in their families, some alternative ministry such as counselling, or, God help us, a hobby. Such strategies may work for a while, but often those who employ these strategies discover that no spouse can or should love another spouse that much, that even after you have done Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) you are still stuck with the life you had before you were trained in CPE, and a hobby turns out to be just that – namely, a hobby.

The failure of such strategies throws some light on clergy misconduct. I wish I could attribute the sexual misconduct characteristic of some Methodist clergy to lust, but I fear that most people in the Methodist ministry do not have that much energy. I think the problem is not lust, but loneliness. Isolated by the expectations of the congregation, the challenge of developing friendships with some in the church without those friendships creating divisions in the church, too often results in a profound loneliness for those in the ministry. Unfortunately, the attempt to overcome that loneliness can take the form of inappropriate behaviour.

There is another alternative. You can become a scold urging the church to become more socially active in causes of peace and justice. This may earn you the title of being “prophetic,” but such a strategy may contribute to the incoherence of the ministerial task. For it is not at all clear why you needed to be ordained to pursue causes of peace and justice. It is a great challenge for ministers who would lead their congregations to be more socially active to do so in a manner that does not result in the displacement of worship as the heart of the church.

The language of the faith

I have taken the time to characterize some of the challenges that face those entering the ministry – a characterization that is, no doubt, a caricature – because I want to suggest how the work that is done in seminary is crucial for the work ministers will do if they are to sustain the ministry for a lifetime.

For what those training for the ministry learn to do in seminary is read. By learning to read they learn to speak Christian. That they have learned to read and speak means they have been formed in a manner to avoid the pitfalls I have associated with the contemporary ministry. For I want to suggest that one of the essential tasks of those called to the ministry in our day is to be a teacher. In particular, ministers are called to be a teacher of language.

Yet in the Letter of James (3: 1-5) we are told:

“not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”

The problem, according to James, is no one has found a way to tame the tongue. Because the tongue cannot be tamed it becomes a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is the source of discord because it at once makes it possible to bless the Lord and Father yet curse those who are made in the image of God. That we bless and we curse from the same mouth is but an indication of how dangerous the tongue is for those who have learned that God will care for his world through patient suffering.

If James is right, and I certainly think he is, then how can I suggest that if ministers are to serve the church well they must become a teacher and, in particular, a teacher of a language called Christian? I do so because I think the characterizations of the challenges facing those going into the ministry is the result of the loss of the ability of Christians to speak the language of our faith. The accommodated character of the church is at least partly due to the failure of the clergy to help those they serve know how to speak Christian. To learn to be a Christian, to learn the discipline of the faith, is not just similar to learning another language. It is learning another language.

But to learn another language, even to learn to speak well the language you do not remember learning, is a time consuming task. As I suggested, there is an essential relation between reading and speaking because it is through reading that we learn how to discipline our speech so that we say no more than needs to be said. I like to think that seminaries might be best understood as schools of rhetoric where, as James suggests, our bodies – and the tongue is flesh – are subject to disciplines necessary for the tongue to approach perfection.

That the tongue is flesh is a reminder that speech is, as James suggests, bodily. To speak well – to talk “right” – requires that our bodies be habituated by the language of the faith. To be so habituated requires constant repetition. Without repetition – and repetition is but another word for the worship of God – we are in danger of losing the grammar of the faith. At least part of the task of those called to the ministry is to help us, as good teachers do, acquire the habits of speech through the right worship of God.

What is not to be said

Despite what you might think, all this is not an elaborate exercise in self-justification. I am not ordained, but I have spent a life, for better or for worse, as a teacher. No doubt I deserve to be judged, as James suggest, with greater strictness because I have surely made many mistakes. Indeed, I am sure I remain in the beginning stage of learning to speak and write Christian. But I am also sure that to the extent I have learned to speak Christian I have done so because I have had to teach others how Christians in the past have spoken.

In truth, it was only as my retirement approached that I came to understand that what I have been doing for many years has been teaching people how to talk. It crystalized through a remark a friend made to me. He was a graduate student in anthropology with whom I was writing a paper in which we tried to challenge the presumption that “global Christianity” was an adequate description of what it means for the church to be “Catholic.” He told me that when he is asked by his colleagues what it was like to write with me, he has to say it is not easy because, in his words, “Hauerwas only knows how to write Christian.”

I confess I found his response gratifying though I am not sure I think him right that I know how to write Christian. I am sure I did not know how to “write Christian” when I began to teach and write. If I have learned to “write Christian” it is only because I have learned through imitation. For I think what it means to write Christian is to have a vocabulary sufficient to order the words of that vocabulary into sentences and the sentences become paragraphs which are meant to form readers to see that what is said cannot be said differently than how it is said. Put differently, the most important part of writing and speaking Christian is what is not said.

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of scripture. That is a complex task because it is by no means clear how the many ways of expression in scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of scripture – the refusal of scripture to tell us what we think we need to know – drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read the scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is thinking?

Reticence, however, is a hard discipline to learn, not only for theologians but for those in the ministry. Ministers of the Gospel are also tempted to say too much. For example, they are tempted to use the simulacra of Christian speech in an effort to say more than can be said. Confronted by a sudden and unexpected death of a “loved one,” it is natural to underwrite the phrase, “They have gone to a better place.” It is hard to resist that language, not only because ministers want to be of help, but because that language helps us not feel helpless. But it is not the language of the faith. God is not a “place.”

Moreover, such language can underwrite the pagan assumption that we possess a soul that is eternal and, thus, fail to gesture our conviction as Christians that our life with God on either side of death is a gift.

The politics of speech

To speak Christian is an exacting discipline. It has taken the church centuries to develop habits of speech that help us say no more than needs to be said. But I fear too often those of us charged with responsibility to teach those habits fail to do so in a manner that those in the ministry can make their own.

For example, a prominent figure in my church was asked how she understood the Christian faith in Jesus in relation to other religious traditions. She responded by saying that Christians believe that Jesus is our way to God, but other traditions have their way to God. It seems never to have occurred to her that Jesus is not our way to God because he is the Son of God. A generous interpretation of what she said might think she was trying to indicate how, given the essential union of Christ’s humanity and divinity – a union necessary for our salvation – Christ as the Incarnate Word is our way to God. But unfortunately she made no mention of the Incarnation.

Her response, of course, was the response required by the speech regimes of a liberal culture that before all else demands that we be tolerant. The acknowledgement that others have other ways to God, even though it is not at all clear who the god to whom they have a way is, is a speech act necessarily learned by Christians to insure we are not identified as political reactionaries. Many Christians think being a Christian gives them all the problems they could want. In particular, they fear being associated with the Christian right.

I am sympathetic with their desire not to be identified with the Christian right, not because the Christian right is intolerant, but because the Christian right has lost the ability to speak Christian just to the extent they identify Christian speech with what Americans call “freedom.”

Yet that a prominent member of the clergy would seem not to know how to speak Christian I think raises profound questions about the kind of training she received in seminary. That she could say that Jesus is but one way to God suggests somehow she must have missed the class on “Trinity.” How can the second person of the Trinity be the way to God if Jesus is the second person of the Trinity? We not only follow Jesus. We worship Jesus. You can only worship God. So if Jesus is the way God he is so only because he is the second person of the Trinity.

This is Theology 101. It does not get more basic than this. But somehow one of the leaders of my church seems to have missed the lectures on the Trinity in her basic theology course. Or she may have heard the lectures, but somehow thinks the lectures to be information about “doctrine” that has little to do with answering the question about other faiths. But if that is the case, then I fear she was not adequately taught the politics of speech which is crucial to understand if we are to speak Christian. In particular, I suspect she was seduced by the word “god” and how that word can be used to legitimate social formations that ironically tempt Christians to abandon the Christian vocabulary.

I am aware this last remark may strike some as strange, but I think it quite important. I can illustrate what I mean by relating an exchange I once had in a class I taught on peace. The class had read William Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict . Cavanaugh challenges the oft made argument that after the Reformation the creation of the modern state became the necessary institution of peace just to the degree the state was able to stop Catholics and Protestants from killing one another. He argues that the very creation of the notion of “religion” as a transhistorical and transcultural concept is part of the legitimating myth that is now essential to the liberal nation state.

A correlative of such an understanding of religion is that “god” is a word acceptable for use in the public forums of the state because it is a word that does not entail the specificity of a particular tradition. So, interestingly enough, just to the extent Christians think they can say “god” more easily than they can say “Jesus” they are underwriting the legitimating violence of the nation state.

The politics of speech associated with the use of the word “god” that Cavanaugh exposes was wonderfully made concrete because one of the students in my class was a Chaplin in the U.S. Army who holds the rank of Major. He had a long career in the Army and served in Iraq. He was a deeply committed Christian who was admirably forthright about the ambiguities of his position as a Chaplin. He had been sent to Duke by the Army to study ethics because his next duty was to teach ethics at one of the Army bases where soldiers are trained in artillery.

During our discussion of Cavanaugh, he reported that his reading of John Howard Yoder had put him in a real quandary because he cannot use the name “Jesus” when he teaches ethics but he can talk about “god.” One seldom has philosophical and theological arguments empirically confirmed, but that seems to have happened with his report of how “god” is used to confirm the status of the state as an instrument of peace. Such an account seems particularly persuasive when the state so conceived confronts an Islamic world that we do not think has learned the lessons allegedly associated with the Treaty of Westphalia.

The grammar of peace

To speak Christian does not, of course, insure we will be faithful witnesses to Christ, but it may not be a bad place to begin rediscovering the radical implications of Christian orthodoxy. If you are to minister to a church that is an alternative to a nation state that has co-opted the word “god” as a means of legitimating the violence it calls peace, you should insist that it makes all the difference that when the church says “peace” the peace that is said requires that we also say “Jesus.”

But you can never – or at least you should not ever – take for granted the locution that Jesus is our peace. For learning to speak Christian means that what we say requires constant practice because the predominate speech habits that also shape our speech tempt us to not know what we say when we say “Jesus.”

Take for example Yoder’s comment on debates about effectiveness between William Miller and James Douglass in Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution . In response to Douglass’s claim that the promise of good effects is integral to nonviolent action’s ethical basis, Yoder observes that such a claim is a mistake. If Jesus is Lord, we betray the hope that makes our commitment to nonviolence intelligible if we try to prove it. For if we tried to prove our hope we would have to subject it to some other more fundamental standard. But that would mean giving our loyalty to another Lord.

Such a move is analogous to trying to prove one religion is higher or purer than another by using standards external to the religions one is comparing. So our faith in the resurrection sustains a “hope that cannot be destroyed by my failures or jeopardized by my inability to manipulate events.”

Such a faith – that is, a faith in the resurrection of Jesus – also means that to speak Christian does not mean such speech cannot be understood by others who do not speak Christian. It does mean, however, that like us they will need to undergo training to hear what is being said and hopefully thereby become more eloquent and confident speakers.

Moreover, if we are confident Christian speakers we may well discover that there are other languages that have words and grammars we can use. After all, Christian speech has been and will continue to be forged from encounters which have resulted in Christian appropriation of other ways of speaking which help us be faithful to the Gospel.

The witness of ministry

The hope that the resurrection makes possible, the hope that sustains the witness of peace in a world of war, the hope that Jesus names, is a hope that ministers must have if they are to sustain the slow and hard ministry of word work. To learn to speak Christian and to help others speak Christian means that many of the days spent in the ministry will seem as if nothing has been achieved.

But then the ministry, like a commitment to nonviolence, does not promise success. For as Yoder reminds us, Jesus did not promise his followers if they did things right they would conquer within time. Rather, the love that refuses to achieve the good through the disavowal of violence, the refusal to use mechanical models of cause and effect to force history to move in what is assumed the right direction, means the promise of victory can only be found in the resurrection.

Victory, moreover, means for those in the ministry the willingness to do the same thing over and over again in the hope that by so doing the Christian people can speak truthfully to one another and the world.

So it is my hope that when ministers are asked about their day they might say, “Well I was reading Karl Barth on the Trinity and I think I finally understand why ‘Father’ is in the first article of the Creed.” After all, the reading that those training for the ministry do in seminary is meant to prepare ministers to spend a life reading. They must continue to read and study even though they may receive little reward for doing so. Ministers must, moreover, help the people they serve to recognize that their support of their minister’s study is a good the whole people of God have in common.

I hope occasionally when asked for a report of their day in the ministry, ministers will be able to say, “I think I wrote one good sentence in the sermon for Sunday.” The sermon is at the heart of our ability to speak as well as sustain speaking Christian. The sermon is not your reflections on how to negotiate life. The sermon rather is our fundamental speech act as Christians through which we learn the grammar of the faith. As my colleague Richard Lischer puts it in his book The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence :

“the preacher’s job … is to do nothing less than shape the language of the sermon to a living reality among the people of God – to make it conform to Jesus. The sermon, in fact, is Jesus trying to speak once again in his own community.”

James may well be right that not many should be called to be teachers, but as one charged with the proclamation of the Gospel I do not see how ministers can avoid being a teacher. For as Lischer observes, preachers are authorized to say things that, if they did not utter them, no one would ever hear the forms of language that require God as their final audience. One sentence may not seem like much but our lives as Christians depend on ministers’ struggle to say Christ.

Finally, I hope in response to the question of the character of their day ministers might be able to say that they prayed with the dying Mrs Smith the prayer that needed to be prayed. Prayer is the heart of Christian speech. Like all Christians, ministers are called to live a life of prayer. Those called to the ministry of Jesus Christ are called to help those like me learn to pray. That surely is the most important work in the world.

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