From the May, 2000 issue of Touchstone

Boundary Keepers by Louis R. Tarsitano

Boundary Keepers

Louis R. Tarsitano on the Duty of Professionals

To announce the limits of human skill, and the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, is the primary service that professionals provide to those in their care. Thus, for example, the professional soldier must say to his government, “This much can be accomplished by the means at hand, but the success of any further efforts will require a miracle of divine intervention.” If the governors to whom he speaks are also professionals, they may disagree with him about where to draw the border between the natural and the supernatural, but they will agree that the border must be drawn.

On the other hand, if he is dealing with nonprofessionals (either undisciplined amateurs or men motivated by ambition without any sense of service), he will encounter real hatred when he announces that some goal can be achieved only by an act of God, who may or may not be willing to grant their desires. The old saw that prostitution is the “oldest profession” is nonsense, since a prostitute tries, or pretends to try, to give the customer exactly what he wants. The first two professions (the old First and Second Estates) were made up of priests and soldiers, who served everybody else (the Third Estate, or the Commons) as much by saying “no” as by saying “yes.”

Nor are real professionals “careerists.” One can provide himself with a long and pleasant career without ever serving anyone. Any number of clergymen and soldiers do it all the time, hiding behind their “professionalism.” So can the supposed members of other professions that have been derived from the distribution of labors once reserved to clergymen and soldiers.

The Pain of the Professional

This was brought home to me when I first began teaching, a quarter of a century ago. I was assigned to teach everyone’s favorite college courses, freshman composition and introductory literature. Initially, I thought that many of the senior professors were merely lazy when they did their best to avoid taking such classes. Then I handed back my first set of student essays, and I saw the hard eyes of students who had never before received anything less than an “A” for their collections of ungrammatical maunderings, and usually with the comment “very creative.” It was time to decide whether I wanted to be a teacher or to have a career.

There are some people, of course, who receive both the grace of honest devotion to their professions and the grace of the sort of professional success that builds bankable resumés. I know many of them, but very few from that time and place.

I shared an office with several other junior instructors (imagine the squad room in a police melodrama, but without the nice furniture), most of whom had gotten a reputation for being “teacher types” rather than “tenure-track types.” We were gathered for a few end-of-term refreshments at my apartment, when someone turned on the television to catch the local news. The lead story was a fire—in our office.

The grades had been posted that afternoon, and one of our many grateful students had kicked in a window, piled up all our papers, books, and furniture in the middle of the room, and set them ablaze. One serves where one is called, but all such service is not rewarded with advancement or acclaim. That is the way with professions, since endurance and service are the key virtues that separate a calling from a career.

“Bedside manner” apart, doctors face a similar problem when they have to report the hard objective news of laboratory tests to their patients. Patients often take the announcement “you have diabetes” or “you have cancer” as a personal affront, or as the proof of ill will on the part of their physicians. It takes a lot of practice for young doctors to learn how to deliver unhappy news without flinching, even if their hearts still secretly ache for their patients.

I’ve had medical students tell me that their professors often take the easy way out, offering the advice, “Learn not to care.” But there is a great deal of difference between being hard and being strong, and strength is the professional virtue. My own counter-advice has been to remember how the medical profession began in Christendom, with orders of nursing monks and nuns, and with knights hospitaller. Their profession was primarily to faith in Jesus Christ, and only secondarily a dedication to the art of medicine.

Those medieval healers were much more likely to be humble about the limits of medicine, if only because they were able to admit that they had so much to be humble about. They expected God to heal disease, or not to heal disease, according to a providence and a goodwill more profound than human understanding. Their knowledge of the divine supremacy, however, freed them to concentrate on giving comfort by their companionship, on easing pain when that was within their power, and on putting intractable pain into its true perspective as a temporary burden in a fallen world. When it was their lot, they bore the misplaced anger of their patients in a conscious imitation of the Savior who had offered his own innocent back to the whip.

In the pastoral ministry, there is likewise a great deal of pain to be borne and a great deal of bad news to deliver. The gospel is certainly the “Good News of salvation,” but it is also very bad news for unrepentant sinners, for sins unconfessed, or for cultures that have committed adultery against God for the very love of human fallenness. As a ploy to gull the inattentive and unwary, sin may plead for tolerance, but what sin always demands in the end is affirmation. To deny that affirmation is the chief professional duty of the clergy, at whatever cost to themselves.

The advocates of sin, of course, will scoff at this duty, and try to demean it by reducing it to the caricature of “fire and brimstone” preaching. What sin cannot abide, however, is the calm, clear, accurate exposition of the gospel. Every dignified, reverent celebration of the Holy Communion is a sharp stick in its eye. Every word of pastoral counsel that exalts God over man is an abomination.

Surrender to Sin

Unfortunately, many clergymen never learn, or even try to learn, how to deliver the objective scriptural truth. They surrender to the sin that is in them and in their people. They devote most of their energies to appeasing a sinful culture. They master the arts of surrender and appeasement in too many of our seminaries, for the “good of their careers.” And they render themselves professionally useless.

Imagine a soldier hiding in his barracks for fear of his enemies and his allies alike; a teacher unwilling to argue the case for knowledge over ignorance; a medical doctor unable to bring himself to diagnose an illness lest he offend one of his patients—you now have three perfect metaphors for what so many modern clergymen have become. When such men do make any effort to perform their proper duties, they cave in like pie crusts if their people object to the otherwise unremarkable announcement “you must be redeemed from your sins.”

These are the clergymen that “can’t say ‘no’” to divorce, to multiple marriages, to abortion, to homosexual practice, to gossip, to superstition, to lying, to immoral business practices, to every form of spiritual death wrought upon man by sin. In saying “yes” to everything (except, often, what is banned by political correctness), they may think that they are being “pastoral,” but really, they are being selfish. They would rather feel good about themselves, or at least avoid feeling bad about themselves, than help those whom God has entrusted to their care according to the truth that he has also revealed. And so their churches and their people die, although these may continue to stumble along zombie-like—an illustration of the difference between being served by a professional and being sacrificed to a pastor’s “professional interests”—for awhile.

The old Catechism of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer explained the Tenth Commandment in these terms: “Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; But to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, And to do my duty in the state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.” This is more than a limited doctrine of self-control. It is a doctrine of Christian vocation in every life and in every profession, by the grace of God. It is an invitation to make our first profession a living faith in Jesus Christ, so that our work and calling, whatever they might be, should be sanctified by Almighty God.

It does not matter whether it is the members of the clergy or the members of the other God-given professions who take up this invitation first. It does matter that some Christian men and women, whoever they are, answer this call to live and work in God’s way, so that a lost world and its lost children will have the model of Christian professionals to follow. Sin will howl against their example, because amateurs do what they love, whereas professionals love whom they serve, for the sake of the God who calls them to service.

Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).

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