The Bishop at Work

IN THE TENTH BOOK of his Confessions, Augustine tells us that his life as a bishop was a life of sin, and he repents of all the sins of his ministry—all the rancor and conflict, all the failures at love and peace.

A striking example of Augustine’s ministerial errors occurred in 423 as he was turning 70. When Antonius, a pastor he had ordained, turned out to be a destructive scoundrel, Augustine offered to retire.

He confessed, “In my haste and lack of due precaution, I have inflicted a tragedy.”

The pope, of course, declined the bishop’s resignation. But Augustine, having a high view of the church and a low view of human nature, never considered himself to be above reproach. He was not a saint in his own day, but a working pastor committed to caring for his congregation, administering justice, and communicating God’s truth.

Pastoral duties

Though Augustine had many administrative obligations as bishop, his first duty was serving God and the Christian community at Hippo. He baptized, catechized, and administered the sacraments to his people. “Thy servants, my brothers,” he said of them, “Thy sons, my masters.”

Augustine had been a monk before becoming a bishop, and he continued his monastic lifestylewith significant modifications, such as living in the bishop’s house instead of the monastery. A man in his position was expected to show hospitality, and frequent guests would shatter the silence of a monastic community.

In the fourth century, the Christian bishop was an important figure in the Roman world. Because of this, Augustine was particularly concerned with the image he and his fellow clergy presented. So many critics pounced on perceived failings that Augustine once quoted the psalmist’s words, “They that sat in the gate spoke against me: and they that drank wine made me their song.”

He routinely visited those who needed help. But he adhered to the biblical counsel to visit only widows and the fatherless in their afflictions. He took this as a rule designed to avoid accusations that he cared only for the rich (unlike the clerics Jerome mocked for ingratiating themselves with wealthy old men, “catching their spittle in their hands when they cough"). He also refused all invitations to feasts within his diocese.

Extremely frugal in his personal life, he wore a cloak usually worn by laymen, and he protested when well-meaning persons sent him gifts of costly clothing.

Late in life he remarked, “An expensive robe would embarrass me: it would not suit my profession nor my principles, and it would look strange on these old limbs, with my white hairs.”

Though disciplined, Augustine was no slave to his own rules. Once a consecrated virgin named Sapida sent him a tunic made with her own hands. The garment was originally intended for her brother Timothy, but he had died before receiving his sister’s present. So Sapida presented the tunic to Augustine, telling him it would be a great comfort for her if he would accept it.

In his thank-you note (which mentioned that he was wearing the tunic), Augustine reminded her that her brother, for whom she had made an earthly garment, was now clothed with an incorruptible robe of immortality.

The Judge-Pastor

As the Roman Empire became Christianized, church leaders were assigned increasing civic responsibilities. By Augustine’s time, Roman law empowered a city’s Christian bishop to impose a settlement, by arbitration, on consenting parties.

This ministry of judging was rooted in the apostolic age, specifically in Paul’s injunction that Christians should not take legal action against other believers in a court of unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:1-6). The bishop-judge’s duty, then, was to sense the need of the moment and move quickly to impose a firm, clear settlement based on Christian principles.

Augustine’s reputation for fairness brought many litigantspagans, heretics, and Christians. On occasion he would skip all his meals in order to settle the cases before him that day.

Some situations pitted the principles of justice and mercy against each other. In 408 at Calama, where Augustine’s friend Possidius was bishop, local pagans staged two riots. They raided the deacon’s lodgings, killed a monk in the street, and went looking for Possidius, who heard from his hiding place, “Where’s the bishop? If we don’t get him, we’ll have wasted our time!”

Peace officers did nothing to stop the violence and looting. But when the rebels came to their senses, they realized how serious their acts were. So when Augustine came to Calama a bit later to visit Possidius, a group approached him, begging him to intercede for them.

Nectarius, a respectable pagan in the group, wrote to Augustine urging him to use his influence so that extreme penalties (torture and execution) could be avoided. Nectarius admitted that the rioters should be punished, but it is not for a bishop, he argued, to seek anything but the welfare of individuals and to obtain pardon from omnipotent God for the offenses of others.

Augustine replied that, while he had no desire to see anyone tortured or executed, he did wish to see justice served. Also, as similar acts of terrorism (perpetrated by both pagans and heretics) were on the rise throughout the empire, he hoped the Calama case would serve as an example to other would-be rioters.

After eight months of inaction, the government imposed heavy penalties on the pagans, though not the death penalty.

Nectarius again appealed to Augustine, asking for a general pardon because “as the Stoics were in the habit of saying, all sins were equally great,” and no one deserved special censure. This Augustine would not endorse, and he removed himself from the matter.

Two-way communicator

With his training in rhetoric, Augustine was not entirely out of place in a court of law. But he felt most at home in the pulpit.

His relationship with his congregation was remarkable. His conversational style was laced with questions tossed to his listeners, and he frequently elicited applause or some vocal response from them. Sensitivity trumped classical structure: Augustine, who always used “we” when addressing his listeners, said, “It is better that we should be understood by you than be artists in speech and talk past you.”

Though many of Augustine’s sermons were preserved, they were transcribed from his speaking, not written beforehand. He spoke from rough notes at most, and sometimes not even those; if the lector accidentally read the wrong Scripture, Augustine was known to ignore his prepared message and speak ex tempore instead.

“In these circumstances I prefer to conform to the error of the lector and the will of God rather than to follow my own,” he said.

He always watched for tangible evidence of the power of the living Word in his audience. He knew he had touched hearts when he saw tears. If they seemed bored, he might quickly change subjects or stop speaking altogether.

The preacher tested

Augustine’s most challenging preaching came during the fall of Rome, as fear and despair descended on the people of Hippo.

When the news broke, 56-year-old Augustine was following doctor’s orders and convalescing at a country estate. His first response was to write to Hippo and urge the other ministers and the people not to waste their time grieving but to give aid to the steady stream of refugees.

The North Africans welcomed the threadbare refugees descending from the ships and heard them tell the horrors of the invasionpalaces burnt, spacious gardens in ruins, rich men hunted like wild beasts. The Romans living in North Africa soon joined the chorus from Rome: Why? Why? Why?

In response Augustine preached that the Lord God had not forgotten his people. Far from it. He had in fact had a hand in the catastrophe at Rome, as the Great Tester of Faith.

The Roman world, he explained, was like a furnace in which God burns like a fire to consume the straw while enriching and purifying the gold. Augustine even dared to attack the people’s widespread murmuring against God for the trouble they had experienced.

“Was it the purpose of the Apostles’ memoriae to safeguard your idiotic theaters?” he asked. “Did Peter die and was his body buried in Rome so that not a stone of your theaters should be displaced?”

The people resisted his words. Some told him to “keep off the subject of Rome.”

Then his messages turned somewhat defensive. “Vent your anger against me if you will,” he said. “However deeply we may be moved, we shall not curse you back, and if we are slandered by you, we shall only pray for you the more.”

To make sense of suffering on a scale that had taken his congregation by complete surprise, the great North African turned to a familiar local image: the olive press.

All through the summer, the olives hung on branches that waved in the breeze. Then at the end of the year, they would be beaten down and crushed in the oil presses. So, Augustine preached, “Now is the end of the year. Now is the time to be pressed.”

But he saw more than destruction in the events of 410. He knew that pressing was a process that aimed at positive results. Through it, good oil was set free to run into the vats. The world reels under crushing blows, he preached, the flesh is pressed, and the spirit turns to clear, flowing oil.

Augustine had felt that purifying pressure in his own life, and he extended its work to his congregation. Yet a pastor’s duty was not just pressing downit was an enormously complex role.

He described a pastor’s job this way: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.” CH

By Bruce L. Shelley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #67 in 2000]

Bruce L. Shelley is senior professor of church history at Denver Seminary and author of Church History in Plain Language (Word).
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