Christian Brotherhood and Hierarchy

Christian Brotherhood and Hierarchy

I’m posting this here in particular for a specific friend who has reservations about the Catholic hierarchy; but even before that discussion began I had flagged this passage as a particularly interesting one.

Perhaps, however, it is valuable to consider in a little more detail one question which a Catholic in particular might ask himself in this connection: that of the ethos of hierarchy differences. None of the Pauline texts we have quoted refers to it, but we have the words of Christ (Mt 23:8-11):

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (See also the important text of MT 20:25-28.)

If we take the preceding verses (1-8) as well, it is clear that the false hierarchism and dignity of office cultivated by the Jews is contrasted with the undifferentiated brotherliness of Christians. And one cannot avoid the serious challenge that this text puts to us: Does not our actual Christian reality resemble more the Jewish hierarchism castigated by Jesus than the picture he gave of Christian brotherhood? In his book on apostleship, Schelkle takes up a point from this text and says:

Thus the Lord’s saying takes exception to any man’s being addressed in the Church as a father in spirit. And if the saying is preserved in the gospel, then this probably really proves that the Church of that time did not award the title “father” to anyone but God. . . . Granted that by the testimony of their writings Paul and other apostles feel like fathers of the faithful, granted too that the expression became a regular form of address and exists as such even today, . . . still, such a practice always finds its meaning, its value, indeed its limitation, in Matthew 23:9. May a man claim to be related to another in spiritual paternity or maternity? Do not such right and honour really belong to God alone . . . ?

One is obliged to add that not only the title of “father” is qualified by this text, but the whole external (and I mean external) form of hierarchism that has developed over the centuries.

There are a few further observations that might be made. The New Testament clearly differentiates the authorized representative who continues the mission of Jesus in an official capacity from the ordinary believers who are not so authorized. What we call “the hierarchy” and “the priesthood” are New Testament realities. A Catholic theologian will need to lay great emphasis on this, but he has no reason to conceal the fact that the New Testament has its own particular verbal usage. It never calls the officials “priests”, or the office “office”. The Greek words for office (arkhe, exousia, time, telos) are not, for the New Testament, appropriate descriptions for the offices of the Church.

The New Testament knows these words, but does not employ them in the realm of the Church; rather, it draws on the word diakonia. Arkhe is restricted in the New Testament usage to the authority of synagogue and state or to the angelic powers, time to the dignity of office of the Old Testament high priest. The result of such lexicographical investigation is impressive enough evidence that office in the Church is an institution essentially ordered to service. The result also makes manifest the self-understanding of the New Testament that order and law mean essentially different things in the Church and in the world. Therefore they cannot be named with the same words.

This final statement is central. One can in no way identify the New Testament office, which is in fact New Testament service, with the phenomenon of priesthood in other religions. It is by nature something totally different. That it resembles priesthood factually, purely as a phenomenon, does not derive from its nature, but from the fact that perfect fulfillment of being in the world of concrete appearances always remains impossible. It comes from a breaking in of the individual element which is not of Christ. So it is that, to this day, the sixth sacrament it called, in the language of the Church, not sacerdotium but ordo.

There is a further historical point to be made. The special character of the Christian office emerges with particular clarity when we compare the Christian apostle with his direct parallels in the history of religion, the rabbi and the theios anthropos (“man of God”) of the Greeks. Both the latter have their own authority, whereas the essential thing for the apostle is to be a servant of Christ, to live by the motto, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (Jn 7:16). Thus the sense of mission for the rabbi and the “man of God” is an awareness of self; for the apostle it is an awareness of service. “The rabbi’s pupil has the goal of becoming a master himself. But for Jesus’ disciple, discipleship is not a beginning; it is the fulfillment and destination of his life. He always remains a disciple.”

We might add that, as a “father”, he still remains a “brother”; his fatherly office is a form of brotherly service, and nothing else. We are here at the point from which we can see the positive element in the Protestant understanding of Christianity, such as we find in Bultmann and in the whole “theology of crisis” preceding him. We can agree here with E. Wolf in the closing sentence of his article on the historical development of Christianity: “Christianity is ultimately not a cultural achievement, or an ideology, or the solution of the problems of humanity, or even in its essence ‘religion,’ but rather the crisis of all religions in Christ.” This is an element of Christianity that cannot be lightly set aside. By removing all barriers it continually places the actual differentiations in the Church within this crisis, compelling us to purify them ever anew from within and fill them with the spirit of the same brotherhood that made us “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

from the book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood by Joseph Ratzinger (first published in German in 1960)


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  • yes- it is too much to think about- Jesus- Son of Mary- was born before all ages…

    This is why I love that we call the sacraments “mysteries”- we admit that it is too much for us humans to fathom.

  • The Father is Father because of his eternal generation of the Son, and the Son is Son because he is eternally generated of the Father.  The terms Father and Son, then, point to the deepest, most abiding mysteries of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity.  God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before ever he was Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.  God is essentially Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    …And everything else will then turn out to be unimportant and inessential except this: father, child, and love. And then, looking at the simplest things, we will all say, Could we have not learned this long ago? Has this not always been embedded in everything that is?-Pope John Paul II

  • “Born of the Father before all ages..” because there are no ages before the Creation…but there is God, and He is Love and love goes out to the beloved, who is the Son and love is the Spirit, and love is returned, and goes out…and there is Creation, and …