Jerome (345–420) was the September church father of the month for the 2021 Ad Fontes Patristrics Reading Group. In Letter 52, the biblical scholar, commentator, and translator writes to Nepotian, nephew of his life-long friend Heliodorus, on the duties of the clergy and their way of life (see also Jerome’s excellent Letter 14 to Heliodorus on the ascetic life). This article highlights a few points of Jerome’s practical advice for pastors. All citations are from the translation by F. A. Wright in LCL 262. Another translation of the letter can be read for free at newadvent.org.
Wealth and Worldly Gain
- Do not seek wealth or worldly gain. The word “clergy” means “lot” or “portion” and is a continual reminder that, like the Levites, God alone is our portion, as we are his. “It is the glory of a bishop to provide means for the poor, but it is a disgrace for any priest to think of wealth for himself” (52.6). A pastor “must not be … greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7), “not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). Jerome uses a metaphor that would resonate with Nepotian, who had left the military to become a presbyter: “Do not look for worldly gain when you are fighting in Christ’s army” (52.5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:3–4).
- Do not be stingy in giving to others so that you can line your own pockets. Jerome is disgusted by “some who give a trifle to the poor that they may themselves receive a larger sum, under the cloak of almsgiving seeking their own personal gain” (52.9) and quips that “such conduct should be called almshunting rather than almsgiving” (59.9). Pastors should model generous and sacrificial care for the less fortunate. They should not be self-seeking.
- Avoid other clergymen who have sought worldly gain. “Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who … has risen from poverty to wealth, from obscurity to a high position” (52.5). There were “PreachersNSneakers” even in Jerome’s day.
- Prefer to show hospitality to the poor than to curry favor with the rich at your table. “Let poor men and strangers be acquainted with your modest table, and with them Christ shall be your guest” (52.5). A pastor “must be … hospitable” (Titus 1:8). “Avoid entertaining the worldly at your table, especially those who are swollen with office” (52.11).
- Be wary to rely on those outside the church to accomplish God’s work. Since pastors serve “a crucified Lord, one who lived in poverty and on the bread of strangers” (52.11), Jerome warns against wining and dining the wealthy and powerful, playing politics to secure support even for kingdom purposes. There are some in the John Maxwell vein of church leadership that pressure pastors to sit on the city council, befriend local government officials, and the like, in order to increase the church’s influence or raise funds for their ministries. There may be a time and place for this, but we should proceed with extreme caution. “If he is the sort of man who only listens to clergymen over the wine bowl, I will gladly forgo any benefit from him, and will address my prayer to Christ who is more able to help than any judge. For it is better to trust in the Lord than to put your confidence in men; it is better to fix your hopes in the Lord than to expect anything from princes” (52.11).
- Use church funds with extreme care and integrity. “To rob a friend is theft, but to defraud the Church is sacrilege” (52.16).
Sexual Purity and Interactions with Women
- Avoid being alone with a woman (Protestants might add, “other than your wife”). “A woman’s foot should seldom or never cross the threshold of your humble lodging. … Do not remain under the same roof with them; do not trust your chastity in the past. You cannot be a man more saintly than David, or more wise than Solomon” (52.5). As 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” If he is married, a pastor must be “the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6), a faithful one-woman man.
- Do not counsel a woman in private. “Never sit alone and without witnesses with a woman in a quiet place. If there is anything intimate she wants to say, … She cannot be so cut off from human society as to have no one but yourself to whom she can trust her secret” (52.5).
- Avoid playful interactions that could be perceived as flirtatious. Jerome also warns against accepting frequent gifts or showing inordinate attention.
- Guard your reputation by abstaining from the appearance of evil. “Beware of men’s suspicious thoughts, and if a tale can be invented with some probability avoid giving the scandalmonger his opportunity” (52.5). “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7), “well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7).
Reading Scripture and Studying
- Read Scripture constantly. “Read God’s Book continually; nay, never let the sacred volume be out of your hand” (52.7). Jerome modeled this intense devotion to Scripture, famously translating the entire Bible into Latin and writing commentaries on Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah 1–32, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Minor Prophets, Matthew, Galatians, Ephesians, Titus, and Philemon. See David Fry’s 100-day Bible reading plan, with which a pastor can read the Bible over three times each year. Please consider reading “A Healthy Church Needs a Healthy Pastor,” where Dr. Fry describes his own encounter with Acts 6:4 and his realization that “I needed to attach myself even more closely to prayer and the Word.”
- Be a lover of learning. “Learn, so that you may teach” (52.7). Jerome cites Titus 1:9, 2 Timothy 3:14, and 1 Peter 3:15 to encourage theological and didactic aptitude. A pastor must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). I believe that Jerome would share the concerns of Kevin Vanhoozer, whom I cite in my article “Everyone’s (Not) a Theologian, But Pastors Should Be”: “The church, the society of Jesus, is similarly in danger of becoming secular, and in the very place where we would least expect it: its understanding of the clergy. This is not because churches are dispensing with the pastorate, but because they no longer find its theological character particularly exciting or intelligible. The idea of the pastor as a theologian—one who opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves—no longer causes the hearts of most church members to ‘burn within’ them (Luke 24:32).”
- Practice what you preach. “Your deeds must not belie your words, lest, when you are speaking in church, some one may say to himself: ‘Why do you not practise what you preach?’” (52.7). “In a priest of Christ mind and mouth should be in harmony” (52.7). At the end of his letter, Jerome assures his reader that he has set an example by practicing what he has written: “I have not inveighed against sinners, I have only counselled men not to sin. I have judged myself as strictly as I judge them, and have cast out the beam from my own eye before I tried to remove a mote from my neighbour’s” (52.17).
- Preach for conviction of sin and repentance, not man’s applause. “When you are preaching in church try to evoke not applause but lamentation. Let the tears of your audience be your glory” (52.8). “Beware of angling for compliments, lest you lose God’s favour in exchange for the people’s praise” (52.13).
- Make sure your sermons are thoroughly scriptural. “A presbyter’s discourse should be seasoned by his reading of Scripture.” (52.8). Pastors are called to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2)—that is, “all Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:16). See my article on “Clearing Some of the Fog on Expositional Preaching.”
- Be known for skillfully handling God’s word, not for your bombastic, noisy, or excitable style. “Be not a declaimer nor a ranter nor a gabbler, but show yourself skilled in God’s mysteries and well acquainted with the secret meaning of His words. Only ignorant men like to roll out phrases and to excite the admiration of the unlettered crowd by the quickness of their utterance” (52.8). Jerome denounces the kind of charismatic camp meeting preaching that lacks scriptural substance but excites the audience by shouting, ranting, and fast speaking. By “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), the faithful pastor will not be ashamed. See Marc Sankey’s recent article, “What is Good Preaching?”
- Don’t pretend to be intelligent on a subject that you don’t actually understand. “Effrontery often tries to explain things of which it knows nothing, and having persuaded others claims knowledge for itself” (52.8). “There is nothing so easy as to deceive a cheap mob or an ignorant congregation by voluble talk; anything such people do not understand they admire all the more” (52.8). Don’t use eloquence as a cover for ignorance.
- Do not enter when a woman is home alone. Take someone with you if you know that a woman will be home alone. “If in the course of your clerical duties you have to visit a widow or a virgin, never enter the house alone” (52.5).
- Love every Christian household as though it were your own. “It is part of your duty to visit the sick, to be acquainted with people’s households, with matrons, and with their children” (52.14). “We ought to love every Christian household as though it were our own. Let them know us as comforters in their sorrows rather than as guests in their days of prosperity” (52.15).
- Do not share people’s private business with anyone else in the congregation. Pastors are often “entrusted with the secrets of the great. Let it therefore be your duty to keep your tongue chaste as well as your eyes. Never discuss a woman’s looks, nor let one house know what is going on in another” (52.15).
- Be wary to accept gifts. “We should never ask for gifts, and seldom accept them even when begged to do so” (52.15).
Respecting Superiors and Inferiors
- Lovingly respect and obey your leaders. “Be obedient to your bishop, and respect him as your spiritual father. Sons love, slaves fear” (52.7). For evangelicals, this wisdom may be applied to senior pastors or denominational leaders.
- Honor even those under your authority. “Even bishops should realize they are priests, not lords; they should give to clergymen the honour that is their due, so that the clergy may offer them the respect proper to bishops” (52.7). Jerome cites 1 Peter 5:2–3 to discourage domineering leadership.
- Have a teachable spirit, learning even from those whom you lead. “It is a very bad custom in some churches for presbyters to be silent and to refrain from speech in the presence of bishops, on the ground that these latter [the bishops] would either be jealous of them or think it unbecoming to be listeners” (52.7). Jerome cites 1 Corinthians 14:30 to encourage mutual listening and openness.
- Respect everyone, from the rough simple brother to the educated and eloquent. “A rough simple brother should not think himself saintly just because he knows nothing; he who is well educated and eloquent must not imagine that holiness consists in a ready tongue” (52.9).
Fasting and Careful, Disciplined Living
- Fast and pray as much as you can. “Impose upon yourself such fasting as you are able to bear. Let your fasts be pure, chaste, simple, moderate, and free from superstition” (52.12). “The strictest fast is bread and water” (52.12).
- Guard your words carefully and do not disparage others. “Beware also of an itching tongue and ears: in other words, do not detract from others or listen to detractors” (52.14). Jerome cites Psalm 50:2 to warn against giving free reign to one’s mouth to put down, speak against, or slander others. “The meaning of the passage is this—‘Watch over your talk and over every word you say about others; by your own sentence you will be judged, and you will yourself be caught committing the faults you blamed in other men’” (52.14). Jerome would have a lot to say about social media.
- Be reluctant to listen to disparaging talk about others. It is not an excuse, says Jerome, to listen to someone’s disparaging talk simply because you are afraid to offend them. God hates “one who sows discord among brothers” (Prov. 6:19), so pastors should wisely put a stop to it. “No one likes to bring reports to an unwilling listener. … Let detractors, seeing your reluctance to listen, learn not to be so ready to detract” (52.14).
- Avoid clothing that draws attention, either because it is somber or showy. “Avoid sombre garments as much as bright ones. Showiness and slovenliness are alike to be shunned: the one savours of vanity, the other of boastfulness” (52.9).
- Avoid anything that dulls the mind. “Anything that intoxicates and disturbs the mind’s balance you must avoid as you avoid wine” (52.11). A pastor “must not be … a drunkard” (Titus. 1:7), but “must be … sober-minded, self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:8). As teachers and examples of the flock, pastors need to be clear-headed.
Jerome’s Letter 52 is about three times the length of this article, but it is worth reading in its completion. Although Scripture is the primary guidebook for pastors, we honor the Spirit when we learn from the church and the Christian leaders that he has led and formed throughout history.
Image: St. Jerome (19th century) by Pieter van Mol, oil on canvas.