Review: Builders of Community

October 10th, 2012

For mainline American Protestants, Builders of Community: Rethinking Ecclesiastical Ministry might best be categorized as wisdom from an unexpected source.

Although a quite influential theologian in the Spanish-speaking world, Jose Ignacio Gonzalez Faus is virtually unknown to most of his English-speaking counterparts. Add to that his Roman Catholic faith, and the average Protestant pastor would have no reason to pick up Builders of Community, which is likely to be one of the aging Faus’ last published works.

But even a quick read through the introduction is enough to tell us that Faus has something important to say to those of us who struggle with our role as clergy in the twenty-first century. He lays out the problem with surgical precision, then suggests a process for bringing the Church back to health.

For this author, the central difficulty in ecclesial leadership for our day is a matter of identity. Through the centuries, the role of clergy—especially in Faus’ Catholic tradition—has been twisted from its first-century roots. Priests have come to see themselves as mediators between God and people. However, Scripture is clear in reserving that role for Jesus Christ alone.

The New Testament is reluctant to bestow the title of “priest” on anyone but Jesus. The result is a church grappling for a way to define its leadership and language to explain it. More than that, the New Testament actually presents a variety of ways to approach the task of ecclesial leadership, including the authoritarian Paul over a church in crisis and the less formalized leadership in the Johanine communities.

The reason for such diversity of approaches is as shocking as it is simple: the leaders of the early church had no instruction from Jesus on how to order the life of the church. They had his person, his teaching and example. But they had no mandate on how to build church leadership. Rather, they had a set of guiding principles which they applied in different ways to historical situations.

Faus also traces with dizzying speed the developments in the office of clergy in the centuries that followed. A clergyperson’s identity became less about role among the community than about status over and apart from the community. Rather than serve a function of ministry, priests became holy figures entirely separate from the laity.

As this separation crumbles in our modern context, Faus sees the opportunity to reshape our understanding of Christian service from “clergy-lay” to “minister-community.” He believes that the New Testament gives us the freedom to re-shape ecclesial leadership according to our own historical context, just as the first-century church shaped it to theirs. In doing so, we might recover the role of clergy as ministers of the church’s missionary task and identity.

What would this reshaping look like for us? It would include a relinquishing of privileged position in favor of a way of living out our calling in service with the community to which we belong. Most importantly, it would mean embracing ministry according to Jesus’ example rather than historical precedent.

Builders of Community is lucid and insightful, but does pose a significant challenge for readers. The depth of Faus’ ideas means readers will have to grapple with layers of complexity. This task becomes even more formidable because of the thick and at times cumbersome language of the translation.

Still, for leaders of a denomination that shares in the identity crisis of clergy, Builders of Community is worth the difficulty. The surprising wisdom of a man far removed from our setting could very well be an essential voice in our own struggle.

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