3 Pastoral Lessons from the Letters of Gregory Nazianzen

Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.

 

No author has influenced me as much as Gregory Nazianzen.  His depth, poetic genius, and light-hearted nature captivated me from the first paragraph. It always struck me that a man so important in church history had no desire to be a pastor at first. As he told Basil “I… was forced into the rank of the Priesthood, for indeed I never was eager for it” (1). His commitment to the truth, even at the cost of his reputation and dreams, is why I admire him most. He was a top rate defender of orthodoxy, but he was first and foremost a loving pastor. Here are three pastoral lessons from the writings and life of Gregory Nazianzen.

 

PASTORS ARE TO HUMBLY SEEK FORGIVENESS

 

The best example of Gregory’s willingness to seek forgiveness is from his Second Theological Oration. Written shortly after Gregory’s father, the bishop of Nazianzus ordained him against his wishes. Following the ordination, Gregory ran away to Pontus. After 3 months he returned to an angry congregation. His reason for running was simple “I did not, nor do I now, think myself qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of men” (2). When seeking forgiveness as a church leader straightforwardness is necessary.

 

Here’s the thing, people already knew the wrong Gregory had done. Giving a run-around apology would have done more harm than good. He gave the people the true reason. When seeking forgiveness it’s easy to focus on mitigating the consequences of sin. But that isn’t true repentance. It’s required in pastoral ministry to repent with a humble spirit (James 5:16). The way Gregory closed this oration isn’t the work of a proud man. He wrote “Here am I, my pastors and fellow-pastors, here am I, thou holy flock, worthy of Christ, the Chief Shepherd, here am I, my father, utterly vanquished, and your subject according to the laws of Christ rather than according to those of the land. Here is my obedience, reward it with your blessing” (3).

 

PASTORS SHOULD DEVELOP DEEP RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER PASTORS

 

Regarding the need to cultivate deep relationships with other pastors there are few examples as poignant as Gregory’s friendship with Basil the Great.  Both of these men fought soul-ruining heresies and dealt with a lion’s share of problems. Their friendship gave them peace, resolve, and a sympathetic ear.  This is evident in Gregory’s letter to Basil who was dealing with discouraging civil developments.

 

I have no fear of seeing you unphilosophically affected by your troubles, or in any way unworthy of yourself and me. Nay, I think that it is now above all that my Basil will be known… and that you will remain unshaken while others are being troubled. If you think it well, I will come myself and perhaps shall be able to give you some assistance by my counsel (if the sea needs water, you do counsel!)

 

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 47

 

They had the freedom to be at their worst with each other.   But it wasn’t a relationship only built on ministerial sorrows.  They had a genuine friendship. Gregory wrote Basil humorous letters as well.  He wrote “I do not like being joked about Tiberina and its mud and its winters, O my friend, who are so free from mud, and who walk on tiptoe, and trample on the plains” (4). And my favorite one-liner “If you can take my jokes kindly you will do well, but if not, I will send you some more” (5). Gregory surrounded himself with godly pastors, as did Paul (2 Tim 4:9-12, Col 4:7-18). It’s vital for longevity in pastoral ministry.

 

PASTORS MUST AUTHENTICALLY LOVE THE FLOCK

 

Gregory wrote a lot about the pastoral need to love people in his Second Oration. He spoke about the love of God in his theological poetry. But when reading his letters it’s evident how he personally loved the people in the church. The letters that I go back to regularly are inconsequential in nature. In fact, in these letters, he mostly talks about vegetables. A little more background is needed to explain this point.

 

Gregory wrote these letters, 25-28, to Amphilochius. Amphilochius had aided Gregory by securing tax exemption for clerics. By the time this letter was written, Amphiolchius had resigned from his office as a chief magistrate in Nazianzus. He had accusations of incompetency levied against him by the enemies he made supporting Gregory. While he was ultimately vindicated, his mental state was such that he had to retire. He would finish his life as a hermit at Ozizala. There he spent time gardening a variety of vegetables. Gregory wrote to him and used Amphilochius’ gardening as a means to pastor him.

 

In the first letter, he wrote to Amphilochius asking for some vegetables. The letter ends with the following, “…I am going to receive the great Basil, and you, who have had experience of him full and philosophical, would not like to know him hungry and irritated” (6). The next letter opens with similar humor, “What a very small quantity of vegetables you have sent me! They must surely be golden vegetables” (7). And again, “You make a joke of it; but I know the danger of an Ozizalean starving when he has taken most pains with his husbandry. There is only this praise to be given them, that even if they die of hunger they smell sweet, and have a gorgeous funeral. How so? Because they are covered with plenty of all sorts of flowers” (8). And when Gregory asked Amphilochius to kindly treat a messenger he asked him to “Please receive him kindly, and honor him with the hospitality commended in the Bible, not forgetting the vegetables” (9).

 

These letters expose the heart of Gregory. When reading these letters specifics related to the life of Amphilochius jump off the page. Gregory knew that Amphilochius had difficulties. But he also knew that Amphilochius’ gardening was honoring to the Lord and useful to the church. He may have joked with Amphilochius but he never downplayed his work. He encouraged Amphilochius throughout these letters to continue in the work he set out to do. And to do it to the glory of God. By validating the work of Amphilochius he valued Amphilochius. He didn’t use him for political reasons then abandon him. Gregory loved him well, and he loved him as he was.

 

These lessons are posted on my office wall. I read them daily in hopes that I can emulate the right aspects of Gregory. He wasn’t perfect, but he was willing to live out the truth for the benefit of his colleagues and congregants.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

1 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 8.

 

2 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 2.6.

 

3 – .Ibid 2.116.

 

4 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 2.

 

5 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 4

 

6 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 25.

 

7 – Gregory of Nazianzus Epistle 26

 

8 – Gregory of Nazianzus Epistle 27

 

9 – Gregory of Nazianzus Epistle 28

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