“You’re a man of the cloth.” I am, indeed. I am, a “man of the cloth.” I would think that despite declining church membership and participation most still know what this phrase means. In case I am wrong, and you don’t know what this term means, it means “pastor,” or “minister.” And I am that – a pastor.
I think I can say with great certainty however, I have never referred to myself as a “man of the cloth.” Let me go on the record here and say I don’t like it – the “man of the cloth” phrase, that is. Mainly I don’t like it ’cause I don’t really know what it means. I’m sure I could google the etymological origin of the phrase. I’m sure it would make sense, but as it stands “man of the cloth” might just as well be “man of the wood,” or “man of the plastic,” or “man of the……anything.” I mean why “cloth?” So, in short, since it doesn’t describe what I do – such as “pastoring” a flock, or “ministering” to a congregation, it makes no real sense to me. Frankly, I prefer the far more simple “preacher.” I do preach, after all. I want to talk about this (sort of), but first, a little more introduction, then I’ll get to the point.
What follows is a bit of a rant, so forgive me, or quit reading, or continue on at your own risk. There is a possibility you will be offended. In the spirit of abundant disclaimer, know also, that what I am about to say is purely anecdotal, but I’m going to say it anyway.
Every time I have heard this appellation “you’re a man of the cloth” applied, there has come with it at least a slight hint of derision. As a matter of fact, recently, I have heard it applied three times. Once it was directed to me, twice to two of my colleagues – that is “men of the cloth.” (And yes they were all men) In all three circumstances the occasion was the same. In each of the instances, I or my colleagues were engaging in discussing current events with political implications. In each instance also, the phrase was used in this manner: “How could you, a man of the cloth, possibly feel this way? What I hear (whether intended or not) is this: “How could you, someone who holds himself up as an example of someone who follows Jesus, and an extra special, super-powered follower at that, possibly disagree with me? I am a righteous, virtuous person, you should be moreso.” They could at this time, if they wished, just say what they are implying: “If you disagree with me, then you must be the worst kind of hypocrite I can imagine.” I think this needs some unpacking. And just as a bit of a personal ‘snark’ in at least two of the three cases I am remembering (certainly the one directed at me) the “you’re a man of the cloth” charge was leveled by non-Christians, as if my being a Christian was mportant to them. A bit hypocritical, don’t you think? And further, on a purely philosophical and intellectual level why should you choose to assume for me a value for something (my faith in Jesus) which you have decided is worthless? If it is not a standard for you, why should it be for me? But since we are talking about hypocrisy, let’s talk about it
If, to bring into your argument the fact that I am a “preacher” or a follower of Jesus, as if this brings with it some universal set of beliefs to which we (Christians) all ascribe, you’d be partly correct. I dare say nearly all of us who follow Jesus share some very common values. We all want people to live in peace with one another. We want no one to suffer. We want everyone to be happy. We all want folks to live their lives without fear and with the knowledge that there is some greater purpose to it beyond the here and now. I’d also say that those of us who take our discipleship seriously spend a good deal of time trying to reconcile the way we live and behave with what we think Jesus would have us do. So if that’s what you think you’d be right about that. Beyond these general principles – lofty as they are – however, there is much disagreement. As they also say, “the Devil is in the details.” Sometimes, the disagreements are over really big things that should seem to be blatantly obvious. Sometimes, the disagreements can be over very small things, that should seem inconsequential. A big thing would be slavery. There was time when many Christians had no theological problems about the existence of slavery. It would seem, based on scripture, that even the apostle Paul accepted the existence of slavery as just part of the way things were. I doubt that you could find one single Christian who would agree with that today. A little thing – to me – would be whether or not to allow instrumental music in worship. My own flavor of Christianity was cut in half by this theological problem. It seems small to me, but it was huge to others. It was so big for some, that they ultimately decided they couldn’t be around folks like me, so we parted company. Between issues like slavery and the appropriateness of instrumental music, lies a continuum of issues over which one could argue, and indeed over which the body of christ has divided, and divided, and divided, again and again, probably since right after Peter preached at Pentecost. My point is this: Do not allow yourself the arrogance to think that you can speak better for Jesus than another. You may both be wrong.
If by labeling me or my colleagues a “man (or woman) of the cloth” you are hoping to imply that we are a hypocrite, I would encourage you to just come out and say it. Accuse me of hypocrisy, if you will. If I have any advantage over a “lesser” Christian, or even a complete non-follower of Jesus, it lies in the fact, precisely because of my faith, that I am aware, and daily confront, my hypocrisy. It is the oldest struggle for we that follow Jesus. It is ever before us. Trust me on this. Even Paul, who if you think I’m some kind of example (or should be) says of himself “I am chief among sinners” and elsewhere “I do the very thing I hate.” I think I’m right in this (but I could be wrong) but an old christian or a super christian is hyper-aware of their own hypocrisy. To call me a hypocrite is exactly as accurate as calling me a slightly overweight, middle-aged man. I am a hypocrite. Aren’t we all? So what does all this mean? How does this play out? How does one who claims to follow Jesus square this admitted hypocrisy with their faith, and how should the rest of the world see this lived out?
I speak only for myself here, but for me, what results with all this internal wrestling between faith and failure of faith, is that more often I am not deciding between right and wrong, good and evil, but rather it seems, I am left to choose between what I see as evil and less evil. The long and short of most things is, “I just don’t know.” I could give many examples of this, but I’ll choose one that I recently saw as a colleague got hit with the “you’re a man of the cloth/how could you possibly think this” philosophical straw man. My friend is a staunch supporter of the 2nd amendment (as am I by the way.) Although, I’ve not asked him, I feel certain he would be horrified at the prospect of killing another human being. I am sure, that he, like I, would think of any killing as evil. However, I think, and I imagine he would agree, that to render oneself impotent in the face of someone that would kill someone we loved, for no reason, would be evil as well. To defend the innocent against the evil, even at the cost of another life, seems less evil to me, than to do nothing and hope for the best. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (google it) made such a choice and was martyred. Now many would argue the validity of the 2nd amendment for the Christian. Many have, and many do. I am by no means certain that where I have come down on the issue is what Jesus would have me do, but as best I can discern, it is. I have thought about it, though…. a lot.
Further, let me say, on nearly any “hot-button” politically charged position that is argued currently, I have heard good solid “Christian” arguments. I have heard people whom I regard as sincere, well intended, thoughtful, intelligent Christians come to different positions on everything from the death penalty to abortion to welfare to health-care. Good arguments abound.
I would ask this of you, however, if you choose to engage me in debate, do not trot out the “you’re a man of the cloth” argument. First of all, it’s not an argument. Also if you take my vocation seriously, seriously enough to call it into question, understand that I do too. It is likely I take it more serious than you do. You can also rest assured that I have taken my allegiance to Jesus into account in nearly every aspect of my life. You may not agree with how you see this lived out, and indeed I may be a very poor example, but every day I do the best I can. Admittedly, some days I don’t do well at all. You can, however, also take some satisfaction in knowing that when confronted with my “falling short” I feel pretty bad about it. Some of the time even try to change. That said, changing oneself, or the “want to” to change one’s self doesn’t come easy to me, and from what I see, it seems others struggle with this as well. To be sure, it’s a lot easier for me to see that speck in your eye, never mind the log in mine.
So after all this, what would I prefer to be called if not “man of the cloth?” Well, you know, when I first finished seminary I used to prefer “Reverend.” That never seemed to fit and made me a bit uncomfortable. When I first got my doctorate, for about a week, I liked being called “Doctor.” But that didn’t feel right either for very long. “Reverend Doctor” no one called me that and thank God. No, none of those are comfortable, and like I started this essay, to call me “a man of the cloth” it just means nothing to me. If you want to address me by a title to call my faith into the discussion, and you could even use this in an argument should you desire, I think I prefer what the people of my little country church call me. They call me “Carl” or even better, “brother Carl.” It seems this carries with it an implication, not of supposed hypocrisy, or mutually assumed superiority, but rather, “Brother Carl,” kind of reminds me that I am loved and am expected to love in return. Of all the things Jesus would have me do, and as unsure of some of it as I am, and as poorly as I execute much of it, I’m pretty sure that to love others as if they were my brother or sister and to be loved in that same way, well we can all agree that’s a good thing, right?