What I'm Teaching: Jose Ignacio Gonzalez Faus: Builders of Community

What I’m using lately in class: Jose Ignacio Gonzalez Faus, Builders of Community: Rethinking Ecclesiastical Ministry, translated by Maria Isabel Reyna, revised by Liam Kelly (Miami: Convivium, 2012).
I especially appreciate this book by Gonzalez Faus, a Spanish Jesuit theologian, because I’ve found it difficult to find fresh resources for practical theologies of ministry that do not end up largely rehearsing established arguments for Christian ministry’s grounds, history, and purposes; it’s been a challenge to find practical theologies of ministry that effectively evade being apologetics for a denominational narrative (whether through retrenchment or reform of that narrative).
I still continue that search, but Gonzalez Faus has been a real help in recent courses I’ve taught. Builders of Community is a theology of ministry that has the courage to push against settling for what is often taken as settled in thinking about ministry, especially in Roman Catholic settings: particularly the very notion of an ordained priesthood/clerical class and the significance for ministry of clerical/lay distinctions.
Gonzalez Faus emphasizes historical research about the strong diversity in the early church and the lack of any single model of ministry being able to be traced to Jesus. Instead, he emphasizes the forms that ministries took in the early church as responses to local situations and in a back-and-forth with local conceptualities that conditioned how the communities that related themselves back to Jesus could imagine their service of ‘building community.’
Particularly useful for a practice-intensive theology of ministry is his encouragement to accept the historical variability of ministry structures and his detailed account of the establishment of the ‘clerical slope’ in the 3rd and 4th centuries. His theology explores the tension between ministry as ‘building community’ in the memory of Jesus of Nazareth — whom he theologizes for Christians as both the first ‘lay’ minister and the only priest — and ministry as mediation of ‘sacred power,’ which is what the rise of a clerical class trades for building community.
While I find very helpful the turn to Jesus’ and the early communities’ practices, as informed by historical scholarship, and in light of church crisis today (which is clearly motivating Gonzalez Faus’ research) which he casts as essentially a crisis brought on by abuse of power, I have some reservations and disagreements.
Most of all I am concerned with what I read as supersessionism throughout the book. Jesus is regularly portrayed over and against, or in fulfillment of, previous Jewish structures (including ‘priesthood’). This book has to be read carefully in conversation with the substantial research over the last several decades on the ‘mixed’ or even ‘inseparable’ Jewish-Christian character of much of what came to be called ancient Christianity and Judaism. (Among many works on this topic, those of Daniel Boyarin have been very helpful to me here.) I still don’t know of a practical theology of Christian ministry that takes historical research in a way that places it theologically and intentionally beyond a supersessionist frame. (I’m open to suggestions!) This is of course a deep longstanding difficulty in the larger Christian theological traditions. In class I end up teaching Gonzalez Faus in tandem with both historical-cultural studies of ancient Christianity and feminist studies of ancient and contemporary Christian ministry. But I still have to be somewhat ‘directive,’ in the teaching, about the rhetoric of different resources for theology of ministry, because the ‘supersessionism’ that troubles me extends into many theological accounts of ministry that begin with a ‘golden age’ (or ‘golden moment’, anyway) and then tell a story of decline/corruption/cultural accommodation. As a practical theologian, I’m looking for a more rich and complex account of where Christian ministry ‘came from’ that at the same time inspires (because occasioned by) reviewed and renewed practice today.
Builders of Community comes across as a little to ‘intramurally’ Roman Catholic at times for use in a broader context, but I believe that the theological handling of historical material in the chapters on Jesus, New Testament ecclesiology, and clericalization are important for many students of ministry to take on board.
Tom Beaudoin, Fordham University
Here is a translated interview with Jose Ignacio Gonzalez Faus about Builders of Community:

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