The other day, I wrote about the priesthood and how in the writings of St. John Chrysostom (and in my own experience) there is a danger to approaching the priesthood unprepared. One of the thoughts along the way was the danger of pursuing the ministry with an attitude of entitlement. What’s the difference between a good desire and a bad desire, though? Chrysostom’s book, On the Priesthood, has some thoughts on this question too.
The divine law indeed has excluded women from the [ordained] ministry, but they endeavor to thrust themselves into it; and since they can effect nothing of themselves, they do all through agency of others.
We could, at this juncture, get hung up on today’s thorny debates surrounding the ordination of women. Clearly St. John Chrysostom was of the opinion that women were not to be ordained. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a valuable warning here: apparently in his day there were women who were manipulating people to give them authority. They could “effect nothing of themselves,” meaning they weren’t bishops or priests, so they had to advance their agenda “through the agency of others.” Women’s Ordination aside, the situation described here is a dangerous one: when manipulation is the chief tool you have to get your way, chances are you’re doing something wrong. When people strong-arm their way to power today (in governments, clubs, churches, or anywhere else), it always creates issues. And this is especially shameful when Christians do this to one another.
A little later, Chrysostom continues:
But no one will always endure the strain; for fearful, truly fearful is the eager desire after this honor. And in saying this I am not in opposition to the blessed Paul, but in complete harmony with his words. For what says he? “If any man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1). Now I have not said that it is a terrible thing to desire the work, but only the authority and power. And this desire I think one ought to expel from the soul with all possible earnestness, not permitting it at the outset to be possessed by such a feeling, so that one may be able to do everything with the freedom which becomes Christian men: whereas they who fear and tremble lest they should be deposed undergo a bitter servitude, filled with all kinds of evils, and are often compelled to offend against both God and man.
This is where the questions of pursuing ordained ministry really come down to a fine line. Desiring the “work” of the ministry is different from desiring the “authority and power.” Indeed, this issue is one of the oldest problems in Church. In the book of Acts we read the story of Simon the Sorcerer, who converted to Christianity when he saw the great works done by Deacon Philip. But when he saw the spiritual authority of Peter and John, he asked to buy that from them so he could also have the same power. Peter revealed this motive was spiritually deadly in his response “May your silver perish with you” (Acts 8:20)!
Chrysostom also describes the desire for power as a “bitter servitude” which leads people to sin “against both God and man.” This is a warning not only for those considering a call to priesthood, but also for those of us already in it. We must guard ourselves against developing such desires. It is one thing to hold, and even wield, spiritual authority. But it is another thing entirely selfishly to enjoy holding that authority. I do enjoy the authority of priesthood in the sense that I find it fulfilling and rewarding in itself, and while that is safe, I must be attentive that I never allow that to spill over into a self-centered paradigm as if I might use it to my own advantage and gain. That would be to copy the sin of Simon, and usurp the primacy of Christ over his Church. Chrysostom mused on this selfish form of desire also:
Now I possessed this desire in a high degree (and do not suppose that I would ever tell you what was untrue in self-disparagement): and this, combined with other reasons, alarmed me not a little, and induced me to take flight [from ordination]. For just as lovers of the human person, as long as they are permitted to be near the objects of their affection, suffer more severe torment from their passion, but when they remove as far as possible from these objects of desire, they drive away the frenzy: even so when those who desire this dignity are near it, the evil becomes intolerable: but when they cease to hope for it, the desire is extinguished together with the expectation.
This final observation is useful advice for all sorts of situations: when you find yourself tempted by something, stay away from it! If a boy and girl really like each other, they should not spend time together alone. If someone really wants spiritual authority, they should not be allowed to enter the discernment process. If temptation has led to evil desire, then we have to raise the standards of purity in order to restore our desires to where they ought to be. Similarly, if someone who is a priest becomes consumed by a love of their authority, the cure should be to remove from the priestly ministry altogether until they recover. To rehabilitate a wayward priest still exercising his office would be like trying to rehabilitate a drunk while sitting in a bar. Distance from temptation is a necessary safeguard to facilitate the healing process.