What About Bob?: The Meaning of Ministry in the Reformed Tradition
Although he “went forward” to receive Christ only a month ago, Bob, who recently ended his NFL career, has just informed his discipleship group that he is called to the ministry. In fact, next week he will be teaming up with a businessman who has also decided that he is called to the ministry. Together, they will form a sports evangelism team.
A familiar story for those of us raised in evangelical circles, this fictional account illustrates the practical importance of the question, “What is ministry?”
The verb “to call” (kalein) and the noun “calling” (klesis) are rich and somewhat varied in their New Testament use. To be “called” is to be warmly invited by Christ to come and receive eternal life. But not all who hear this universal invitation respond; the Holy Spirit must draw the elect to Christ by actually awakening them from spiritual death. Lazarus could never have come forth simply by the invitation of Christ, apart from the mighty action of God inwardly restoring life. Likewise, “no one can come to me,” said Jesus, “unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). Not only does our Savior call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13), he called the Twelve to be his disciples (Matt. 4:21). He not only called and justified those who were predestined (Rom. 8:30), but called some of his people to be his representatives and overseers of his church.
But What About the Priesthood of All Believers?
One of the Reformation’s key themes, of course, was the glad New Testament announcement that, in Luther’s words, “the name and office of priest are common to all Christians.” In Eden, Adam is God’s minister, but he fails to preserve God’s temple from the lies of the evil one. In the wilderness, God separated out of Israel priests who would serve him and represent him to the people. God tells Moses, “Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone” (Num. 11:16-17). And yet, there is the longing for something greater: “Oh, that all the LORD’S people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit upon them!” (v. 29). Early in the story we see the future destiny of Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).
Much later, through the prophets God pulls the curtain back still further: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on my servants, male and female, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28). Fulfilled at Pentecost, as Peter proclaimed in his sermon (Acts 2:17), this prophecy points to the day when the whole church will be filled with the Spirit, with each believer a priest so that the world will know that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, the promises made to Israel are not voided but are indeed fulfilled in the New Testament church: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
Therefore, the Old Testament priesthood is abolished, as the shadow is replaced with the solid reality, Christ being the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim. 2:5). In union with Christ, the final Prophet, Priest, and King, all believers share the Savior’s priesthood inasmuch as they proclaim God’s Lamb and forgiveness to each other. Thus, believers are commanded, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jam. 5:16). All believers are “called” and “priests” as the Temple’s curtain has been torn from top to bottom and now every believer stands in the Holy Place. Because he or she is dressed in Christ’s righteousness, the believer now stands where before only the High Priest could stand. As the Holy Spirit was upon Moses, and then upon the seventy elders and the prophets through whom he gave the revelation of God in Christ, so now the Spirit is upon and indeed within each one of us. God’s true Israel has become Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
When the Reformers attacked the Roman priesthood as a return to Old Testament shadows (infancy), understanding that the reality had come in Christ (adulthood), they were in essence restating the Book of Hebrews. Luther thundered, “Every true Christian really should know that there are no external, visible priests except those whom the devil has raised up and exalted through the lies of men.”
But while this liberating doctrine was used to subvert Roman sacerdotalism (or “priestcraft” as the Reformers termed it), it has been distorted to twist the biblical concept of the ministry. We often forget that the Reformation was a conflict with two theaters: Rome and Anabaptism or “sectarianism.” While criticizing notions of a priestly caste with inherently exalted status and powers by virtue of their ordination, the Reformers were just as severe in their criticism of a “free-for-all” in which, as Calvin put it, “everything is in confusion.” Self-appointed circuit-riders and their enthusiasts were “dashing about aimlessly without an assignment, rashly gathering together in one place, and forsaking their churches at pleasure.” Of such “fanatics” Calvin charged, “In their pride, therefore, they despise the ministry of men and even Scripture itself, in order to attain the Spirit. They then proudly try to peddle all the delusions that Satan suggests to them as secret revelations of the Spirit. Such are the Libertines and frenzied individuals like them. The more ignorant a man is, the greater the pride with which he is bloated and puffed up.” Thus, “
Thus, in addition to Roman priestcraft, sectarian fanaticism was also to be avoided at all costs. But if all Christians are priests, doesn?t that mean that there is no difference between an ordained minister and a layperson? To this question, the Reformers would answer, “yes and no.” Yes, there is no difference in terms of person. A minister and a layperson are equally justified and called to eternal life, co-heirs with Christ in equal measure. Rendered effectual by the ministry of Christ rather than by any essential virtue in ordination, the prayers of a minister are no more powerful than those of a layperson. God does not pay special attention to ministers. They have no red phone on their desk, no special direct line to God that the rest of Christ’s flock do not enjoy. Nevertheless, there is a difference in office or vocation. Just as a doctor is not a lawyer, a layperson is not a minister.
This is where, in my estimation, we have gone off the rails in this matter. We have confused priesthood with ministry, as if the priesthood of all believers means that all believers are ministers. Certainly this is not Luther’s or Calvin’s understanding of the priesthood of all believers. Again, Luther:
For although we are all priests, this does not mean that all of us can preach, teach, and rule. Certain ones of the multitude must be selected for such an office. And he who has such an office is not a priest because of his office, but a servant of all the others, who are priests. When he is no longer able to preach and serve, or if he no longer wants to do so, he once more becomes part of the common multitude of Christians. His office is conveyed to someone else, and he becomes a Christian like any other. This is the way to distinguish between the office of preaching, or the ministry, and the general priesthood of all baptized Christians.
The distinction rests not because of the minister’s person, but because of his service of Word and Sacrament. Calvin says, “Christ acts by ministers in such a manner that he wishes their mouth to be reckoned as his mouth, and their lips as his lips.” As the Reformed confessions remind us, the ministry does not depend on the integrity of the minister. Even if it is eventually discovered that he was an unbeliever, he was used by Christ as an agent of redemption for his people. Indeed, even Judas exercised an effectual ministry as a disciple of our Lord. It is the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament, not the minister in his own person, who is responsible for the success of the ministry. Thus, against the “sects” that followed in the steps of the ancient Donatists opposed by Augustine, the Second Helvetic Confession declares: “Even evil ministers are to be heard. Moreover, we strongly detest the error of the Donatists who esteem the doctrine and administration of the sacraments to be either effectual or not effectual according to the good or evil life of the ministers” (XVIII).
So Are We Back to “Sacred” and “Secular” Callings?
Evangelical pietism has created an environment not all that different from medieval parallels, as Christians are separated into “secular work” and “full-time Christian service.” Guess which one is more important! Like the vast network of monastic communities in the Middle Ages, evangelical identity these days seems determined by the web of parachurch ministries and a host of charismatic personalities who are often granted almost unlimited and unchallenged power as long as they are successful. As medieval monasticism was frequently in conflict with the church and institutional authority (only to become institutionalized itself) contemporary evangelicalism seems likewise to bear an unchurchly hue. Born as alleged “moves of the Spirit,” against “churchianity,” sects and parachurch ministries also end up becoming institutions themselves. And, again like medieval monasticism, truly meaningful vocations are regarded as those connected to religious concerns.
It was from this sort of dualism that so many of us have been liberated in recent decades. “All of life is sacred,” we heard. “Every Christian is a minister.” Adopting Reformed theology as a way out of the assumptions of the evangelical subculture about the superiority of “full-time Christian service,” many are beginning to make careful distinctions not only between priesthood and ministry, but also between the secular and the sacred. To say that cleaning a house or defending a court case is not a ministry and is therefore secular rather than sacred activity makes such worldly work inferior or unspiritual only if we accept the dualism that underlies medieval and contemporary evangelical versions of spirituality. What the Reformation recovered was the biblical appreciation for the common as well as the holy, the secular as well as the sacred, not a conflation of the two. Calvin urged artists to find their subjects in nature instead of trying to imagine the unseen world, and the contribution of the movement to the arts and sciences is widely acknowledged. It is good to be a homemaker, a painter, a doctor, or a janitor. These are divine callings, so how can we call them inferior?
Where pietistic dualism, like its medieval antecedent, makes “secular” and “sacred” into categories of “inferior” and “superior,” and popular contemporary criticisms of this dualism deny the distinction altogether, the Reformation regarded the two as different in their means, not their ends. Digging a ditch or preaching a sermon, if done well, glorify God, but the former is done well because God has given the worker ordinary, common gifts that he has also given to unbelievers. The first belongs to the sphere of creation, common grace, and the kingdom of culture. The latter is done well not only because of common gifts of eloquence and intellect, but because of the Spirit’s special illumination. This is in the sphere of redemption, saving grace, and the kingdom of Christ. Until the kingdoms of this world are transformed immediately into the kingdom of our God and of his Christ at our Lord’s return, these two spheres are distinct. The kingdom of culture flourishes when men and women are faithful in their secular callings, while the kingdom of Christ thrives when its ministers are faithfully preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, and leading the flock in the paths of righteousness. Both tasks take place in this world, are honoring to God, and lead to good ends, but they are different in several respects.
The church consists not only of its officers, but of the totality of its members. It is this group of believers, priests in baptism and yet working in secular vocations, who call ministers to serve them. So ministers are treated with dignity because of their sacred task, not because of their person. “Christ appoints pastors to his Church,” said Calvin, “not to rule but to serve.” Because we are so slow to believe and our reason, conscience, and will offer no glimmer of hope, we need an external Word preached to us.
As noted earlier, Calvin and the other Reformers believed that Christ himself spoke through the preached Word and the Sacraments. This is what is meant by our Lord’s wonderful promise: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock [Peter’s confession of Christ as God’s Son] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:17-19). “Ministers of the Gospel,” Calvin wrote, “are porters of the kingdom of heaven, because they carry its keys…. The key is placed in the hands of the ministers of the word.” Calvin even recommends private confession of sin to ministers, not because of superstition concerning his person, but because this is part of the ministry of the Word. Any believer can hear his or her fellow-believer’s confession and announce divine forgiveness in Christ’s name, but the minister is especially singled out by God and his church for this task. While the legalism of auricular confession (the practice of confessing sins privately to a priest as a necessary condition of being absolved) was rejected by Calvin, the custom itself was encouraged as a ministry of the Word in private by which God’s grace and gospel would be “confirmed and sealed” (see Institutes 3.4.1-23).
According to historian John T. McNeill, “Calvin interprets Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23 as authorizing ministers ‘to remit sins and absolve souls.’ The penitent should take advantage of this.” This absolution was normally declared in the public service of worship after the public confession, but it could also be done in private with the minister if that could help bring consolation. In public and in private, the ministers carry the keys of the kingdom and by faithfully executing their office they open prison doors.
All of the Reformed confessional documents, like the Lutheran ones, agree on this point. The Westminster Confession declares, “To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins…” (Chap. XXXII). They do not have this power in their person, but in their office as they proclaim the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. A further aspect of this ministry, in the Reformed view, is church discipline. Even censure, the practice of privately instructing, admonishing, and warning the baptized impenitent and unbeliever, is designed not to condemn, but to open the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven. When ministers ignore the spiritual condition of their members, they are not “leaving it to the Lord,” but are failing to exercise the Lord’s ministry. At the same time, instead of “lording it over their people,” they must serve “without oppression and strife,” as the Second Helvetic Confession puts it. “For the apostle testifies that authority in the Church was given to him by the Lord for building up and not for destroying (2 Cor. 10:8). And the Lord himself forbade the weeds to be plucked up in the Lord’s field, because there would be danger lest the wheat also be plucked up with it (Matt. 13:29)” (Chap. XVIII).
This does not mean, of course, that only ministers can warn and evangelize unbelievers and their fellow priests. Indeed, the good news of Pentecost is that the Spirit has made us all witnesses of Christ, a nation of evangelists. And yet, Paul specifically encourages Timothy, “Endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). The formal ministry of the Word is entrusted to those who are called exclusively to this task, but we are all equally called to be Christians and inherent in our union with Christ, the “Light of the world,” is our missionary identity. We are equipped by the ministers to be responsible Christian agents in the world, prepared to give an answer for our hope to everyone. This, however, does not mean that we are to set aside our secular callings and found evangelistic ministries, for the latter is the work of the church and its appointed officers.
Perhaps the most frequently cited defense of the “every-believer-a-minister” position is Ephesians 4:11-16:
And [Christ] himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head-Christ-from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (NKJV).
As Reformed pastor and professor T. David Gordon clearly demonstrates, this passage has been much abused in contemporary approaches to ministry.1 This is due in part to an unfortunate translation of the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and other recent translations or paraphrases. While the older translations, especially the Authorized Version (KJV), render verse 11, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” the more recent renderings are hardly without their presuppositions about the nature of “ministry.” Professor Gordon carefully shows the superiority of the older translation. Given the implied subject of all three clauses (“gifted ones”), the use of katartismon (“gathering or ordering into visible communion,” not “equipping”), and the use of ergon diakonias (“the work of ministry”), there is no basis for the notion that Paul sees the ministry’s importance in terms of preparing the laity for the “real work” of ministry. Furthermore, this flies in the face of the many passages that clearly distinguish the calling of a minister from the general Christian calling that belongs to all believers. Rather, ministers are given by Christ so that they can build up the flock by exercising their office faithfully.
Professor Gordon is, I think, quite justified in his alarm concerning the practical effects of American egalitarianism here. “Those preparing for ministry (and the institutions that prepare them),” he writes, “are turning their energies away from those skills associated with the distinctive ministry of the Word (original-language exegesis) and toward organizational, managerial, motivational (coercive?) skills.”
The result of contemporary evangelical views of ministry is that, ironically, they come full circle to investing the power in the minister instead of the ministry. Like the Roman Catholic priest, the contemporary evangelical minister is often regarded as the effective instrument of redemption. The liturgical functions may differ vastly, replacing the “altar call” of the Roman Mass with that of the evangelical substitutes, but in both cases the professional is made a personal means of grace (or, at least, a means of entertainment, information, or exhortation). As B. B. Warfield suggested concerning preachers who followed Charles Finney’s pragmatic evangelism, “The evangelist becomes the Sacrament.” The German Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803-86) complained that in revivalism, the transformation of the pulpit and table into a stage is a theological shift. “The preacher feels himself,” Nevin wrote, “and is bent on making himself felt also by the congregation; but God is not felt in the same proportion.” So much for the suggestion that we can have genuinely Reformation-oriented theology while adopting evangelical style! If your church has a stage instead of a chancel, and the pulpit and table are overwhelmed by overhead projectors, screens, and a drum set, it is already a declaration of one’s theology of ministry-even before the service starts!
“Where the action is” cannot be divorced from its theological basis. At least Rome connects its sacerdotalism (“priestcraft”) somehow to the sacramental ministry, but unchurchly forms of evangelicalism regard the “ministry” of the beauty queen, ex-quarterback, faded celebrity, and entertainer as an effective means of grace because of the power of the “minister.” Instead of the ordained minister being treated as a go-between, as in Rome, every believer becomes a “minister” and is allowed to exercise his or her ministry based on worldly criteria (charisma, musical talent, familiarity with the latest in pop culture) rather than a sound knowledge of God’s Word. It is no small wonder that what results is a worldly church.
Very often, the power has very little to do with the message and everything to do with charisma, fame, personality, or other purely human characteristics. “He’s a powerful speaker,” we hear. “Wow, what a powerful testimony!” “She sang a powerful song!” Would it have been as powerful if the speaker were the Apostle Paul, who acknowledged that he was not as effective at public speaking as the “super-apostles”? Would the testimony have been as effective if the ex-quarterback would have said, with that same Apostle, “I find still in my Christian life that very often the very thing I hate, I keep doing? Oh, wretched man that I am!”? And would the song have been as “anointed” if it had been sung by one of those well-meaning but singularly ungifted folks in the small country church instead of the recording artist who visited the big church in town last week?
The power resides, many really believe these days, in the so-called “minister,” not in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. A “music ministry team” comes to sing at our church while on tour and suddenly the service was “moving” and “the Spirit was really at work,” the service was “alive.” The Glory of Easter pageant was “where the action was.” But when the pastor got up the next Sunday and simply preached and served Communion, along with the public reading of Scripture, congregational singing, public confession of sin, a declaration of pardon, the Creed, and prayers, it was business as usual. Superlatives absent, the unspoken assumption is that God was really here last week when the real ministry took place. We encourage this as ministers when we adopt “testimonies” and “special music” in our worship services, taking the focus off of the ordinary means of grace. Ultimately, this separates the Spirit from the Word, regardless of the soundness of one’s confession.
One need only read the “want ads” for pastors in Christian periodicals or the pastoral search committee ranking of qualifications. He (or she) must be friendly, out-going, brimming with “people skills.” He must be motivational, a “team leader” and “equipper” (which really means a manager and programmer), and have a wife who can fill the role of “first lady.” So much the better if she plays the organ.
Meanwhile, what about his theological depth and confessional subscription? Does he do original exegetical work on his sermons, or does he rely on the notes and references of others? Does he spend plenty of time in his study and on his knees? Will he be likely to care for the specific spiritual needs of his members? At the end of the day, we want a celebrity, coach, quarterback, entertainer, motivational speaker, therapist, and CEO all wrapped up in one person. No wonder the rate of job burn-out among pastors is so out of control! In other words, we really believe, regardless of what we profess, that it is the Ministry of Pastor Bob rather than the Ministry of Christ through Word and Sacrament. The efficacy is now in the minister, measured in worldly terms, rather than in the ministry. Though more insidious, this is every bit as dangerous a form of sacerdotalism as anything Rome offered. By emptying the Ministry of Word and Sacrament of its importance, we have not saved the priesthood of all believers; we have simply substituted one form of priestcraft for another.
What Does It Mean Then to Be “Called” to the Ministry?
In the Reformed tradition, as in the Lutheran, one is not called to the ministry solely on the basis of an internal calling by the Spirit. Against Anabaptist “enthusiasm,” which not only attacked Roman sacerdotalism but tended to deny physical, earthly means altogether in favor of direct Spirit-led intuitions, the Reformers insisted that God spoke in this instance as in all others through such means. While sectarian religion sets the individual against the church as categories of “spirit” and “flesh” respectively, historic evangelical faith rejects this anarchy and insists on relating the individual to the corporate (and not just invisible, but visible) body of Christ. In this view, one is not truly called to the ministry until there is a satisfaction of the church’s qualifications, explicitly commanded in Scripture. For the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and ministers have the sacred charge of being the chaperone for Christ’s bride through her earthly sojourn. “Till I come,” Paul instructs young Timothy,
give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Tim. 4:13-16)
This is as true for deacons and elders as for ministers. Elders must be beyond reproach and temperate, “holding fast to the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Tit. 1:5-9). How far this is from the frequent practice of electing elders for worldly reasons. Calvin was also troubled by this threat in his day: “It clearly contradicts the order and basic rules of Christianity to believe that the wealthy, and those who are noteworthy for their position and name, should be chosen for church offices.” Too often, churches elect officers because of their experience in running businesses or their expertise in marketing, brochure design, finance, and so on. Then they wonder why their church becomes a corporation and the pastor’s study becomes the pastor’s office. If we would follow Paul?s instructions in selecting our officers, our churches would thrive under the ministry of the Word.
But not only has God called elders as lay ministers to guard the spiritual condition of the church; he has appointed deacons to be lay ministers to look out for the physical needs of the congregation. Deacons were first appointed so the apostles could be freed from the burden of finances and administrative tasks. The Twelve Apostles knew their calling when they said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:1-4). As the apostles were relieved of this burden, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (v. 7).
Ministers, therefore, are called to be entirely devoted to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. This is why they labor to learn the original languages of Scripture and to understand its essential message with the aid of their learned mentors, ancient and contemporary. Elders and even deacons must also be trained, but they are laypeople with ordinary vocations in the world. But all officers are only genuinely “called” to the ministry when the Shepherd’s voice is heard through the mouthpiece of his church. That is, when a candidate who has prepared for such service receives a “call” from a particular congregation and the regional presbytery/classis, he is finally called to the ministry by God. Sectarians may regard this as quenching the Spirit, but it is God’s appointed design, clearly described in Scripture. Far from inhibiting liberty, this pattern actually guards against the tyranny of charismatic preachers who claim apostolic authority or an “anointing” separate from the oversight of the church.
What About Bob?
At last, we return to our opening scene, with Bob announcing that he is called to the ministry. I often find myself put to shame by the zeal of new converts who have their feet prepared with readiness to preach the good news. But as the claim to knowledge should not be a cover for a lack of zeal, so too zeal should never be a cloak for ignorance. Bob’s desire to share the gospel is encouraging, but has he been misled by an erroneous view of ministry?
Recently, a friend of mine told me how many cases he has of his parishioners wanting advice on whether they should go into the ministry. “I want to really serve the Lord and reach the lost,” they say. “I don’t simply want to sit on the sidelines, I want to be a truly committed disciple.” My friend replies, “Congratulations, you’re a Christian!” Often, our sense of a “call” to the ministry is no more than a sense of our high calling to belong to Christ. In other words, it’s a calling to faith not to a particular vocation. All of us are called to constant sanctification and growth in Christ. We are all commanded to learn more about God and his saving work in Christ, growing in our knowledge. No believer is exempt from the Spirit’s work of putting to death the old identity and raising the self to new life. And every Christian, if genuinely called to belong to Christ, longs to see the lost reconciled to God. These are hardly distinct qualifications for ministers; they’re the characteristics of being a Christian! Ministers are not paid to be Christ’s disciples for us, but to lead us in truth and righteousness.
It is still possible that Bob is called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, but that means he cannot yet be certain. First, he must consult his pastor and go under the care of the presbytery/classis (or in a congregational polity, simply the elders, or in an episcopal polity, the bishop). Under care of the church, he will be guided through the years of theological training required for a responsible exercise of this calling and upon successful completion, he will be tested. Paul requires this even of deacons; how much more is it required of pastors! After passing the examination, he will then be available for a call from a church. Once he receives this call, the initial sense he had of the Spirit’s calling is confirmed by the church and he is, in truth, called to the ministry.
But this procedure is quite different from the scenario outlined in the opening paragraph. There, Bob was convinced that his calling to the ministry meant that he and another layman, a businessman, would start an evangelistic ministry. But, as we have seen, this is nowhere provided for in Scripture. Every believer is called to evangelize, so Bob and his friend do not need to leave their vocations in order to take up evangelism. Furthermore, the church is God’s ordained institution for evangelism. Notice the distinction here between individuals and institutions: every individual believer evangelizes, but not every institution is evangelistic. Christ has many brothers and sisters, but only one church. Individual Christians working on an assembly line may win their co-workers to Christ over time, but the factory does not become an evangelistic institution. Similarly, Bob’s evangelistic activities do not warrant the creation of an institution that is not the church. He and his friend are free to either pursue their secular vocations and expand the kingdom through evangelism as other Christians, or to leave their secular vocations and begin the process of being called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Though this understanding of ministry seems more complicated, it ends up greatly simplifying our practical questions. It not only frees many who thought that their Christian zeal had to be expressed in ministry to pursue secular vocations, it also encourages us to see our ministers as Christ’s very representatives, kept from waiting tables so that they can devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Used by permission from Modern Reformation magazine.
1 [ Back ] T. David Gordon, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/1 (March 1994), 69-78.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: “Finding the Keys: Liberating the Ministry from Trivial Pursuits” March/April 1997 Vol. 6 No. 2 Page number(s): 8-15
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