Letter 10: Ministry

My Dear ______,

It is a most remarkable fact, that the ministry which obtains among the "churches" of Christendom has not even a show of justification from the word of God. Search as closely as you may, from the time of the Church of God was constituted until the close of the inspired record, you will not find a trace of the "one-man" ministry. Apostles, elders or bishops, deacons, pastors and teachers, and evangelists are mentioned; but there is no indication of anything to correspond with the ministers and preachers of the present day. For all the denominations of Christendom--with one or two unimportant exceptions--agree in their theory of the ministry. One man is, as a rule, appointed to take the charge or oversight of a "church" and congregation; and he is expected to teach, to preach the gospel, and to be a pastor. In short, he is expected to unite in himself the office of an elder, and the gifts of a pastor and teacher, and of an evangelist. It will thus often happen that one man will have the sole and continued charge of the same congregation for twenty, thirty, or forty years; and it cannot be denied that professing Christians love to have it so.

But the question is, Is this practice scriptural? Bear with me a little, while I seek to answer this question from the word of God. I need scarcely remind you that our blessed Lord appointed apostles during His earthly sojourn; and that, after His resurrection and ascension, He appeared to Saul, and also chose and made him in an especial way the apostle of the Gentiles. (See Acts 9, 22, 26; 1 Cor. 15.)

Now the apostles, as all confess, had a peculiar and an unique place--having been endowed with extraordinary gifts and authority--and they never had successors. I shall not detain you long upon this point, as apart from the Romish and Anglican Churches* (at least in the West) this statement would be generally accepted. Two Scriptures will therefore suffice. Peter, writing to the believers of his own nation--"the strangers scattered throughout Pontus" etc.--says, "I will endeavor" (i.e., by writing the epistle) "that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance" (2 Peter 1: 15). He thus commits them in the future to the guidance (not of apostolic successors, but) of the written word. Paul, in like manner, addressing the elders of the Church in Ephesus, and warning them of their coming difficulties and dangers, says, "And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace" (Acts 20: 32). The two great apostles therefore--one of the circumcision, and the other of the uncircumcision, agree in this--that they alike declare that the resource of the Church, after they should have passed away, would be in the word of God. It is thus clear that they could not have contemplated successors to their office.

The next office in order will be that of bishops or elders. I say bishops or elders, because in fact they are but two names for the same office. This is proved beyond dispute from Acts 20. We there read that Paul sent for "the elders of the church" (v. 17). In speaking to them, he terms them "overseers" (v. 28)--i.e., bishops. Well, these are never found alone. The Church at Ephesus, in the passage before us, had more than one. Paul called the "elders" of the Church. So too in Acts 14: 23, Paul and Bamabas "ordained them elders in every city." In the epistle to the Philippians also we read of "the bishops and deacons" (1: 1; see also Acts 15: 23; Titus 1: 5).

Passing now to the gifts, as distinguished from office, we come to "Pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4: 11). I have put the two together because, in fact, they are so linked in the Scriptures, and linked in so close a way in the passage just cited, as to indicate that they may be united in the same person. Are these, then, ever found alone, having the charge of a congregation? So far from this being the case, we are told that "there were in the Church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers," and the names of no less than five are given (Acts 13: 1).

Should it, however, be thought that the cases of Timothy and Titus are evidence on the other side, a moment's consideration will dispel the illusion. Titus is told plainly that he was left in Crete to "set in order the things that were wanting, and to ordain elders in every city" (Titus 1: 5); and Timothy is directed as to the qualifications of such (I Tim. 3), and expressly told "to lay hands suddenly on no man" (v. 22); i.e., to appoint them to office. Nothing therefore can be plainer than that these two, Timothy and Titus, were acting as delegates of the apostle, and as such exercised a general supervision, and had authority to appoint suited men to the office of bishops and deacons; an authority employed, be it remarked, by individuals, not by churches, and which was never exercised but by the apostles, or, as in the case before us, by their delegates, and which was never transmitted to any successors, and consequently lapsed with the death of the apostles.

One other gift remains to be noticed--that of the evangelist (Eph. 4: 11). It comes after "prophets," but we have reserved it because of its character. As the name imports, the work of an evangelist is to preach the gospel; and hint the object of his ministry is not the Church, but the world. Our Lord Himself describes the responsibility of the evangelist when He commands His apostles, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16: 15). To confine him therefore in his service to a single congregation, or even a single town or city, would be to ignore the object of the gift. Hence St. Paul, speaking of himself in this character, says, "I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also" (Rom. 1: 14, 15).

The question then recurs, What is the true character of ministry according to the word of God? In the first place, it flows from Christ at the right hand of God, as the Head of the Church. He is its source. "But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore He saith, When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. ... And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ," etc. (Eph. 4: 7-13). This affords us a most important principle. The gifts were not bestowed upon the Church, but upon men for the benefit of the Church. Hence those who have received them are responsible for their exercise, not to the Church, but to the Lord. It is impossible therefore for the Church to appoint pastors and teachers, or any of the gifts named, seeing indeed that the responsibility of the Church is to receive the ministry of every one who has been qualified by the Lord for its edification. Even as the apostolic office of St. Paul, so a gift is "not of men, neither by man" (Gal. 1: 1), but it is from the risen Christ.

There is another truth of equal moment; viz., that the gifts can only be properly exercised in the power of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Ghost is the distinctive characteristic of this dispensation. He dwells in the house of God, the Church, and He dwells in believers (John 7: 39; 14: 16, 17; Acts 2; Rom. 8: 15, 16; 1 Cor. 6: 19; 2 Cor. 6: 16; Eph. 1: 13; 2: 22; etc.). Hence when believers are gathered together, as I Cor. 12 to 14 teaches, He acts sovereignly in and through the members of the body of Christ according to their gift: "For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit. . . . But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will" (1 Cor. 12: 8-11). Any human arrangement for ministry therefore in the assembly is not only inconsistent with this truth, but it utterly ignores the prerogative of the Spirit of God to minister by whom He will. Surely a most solemn thing, and not to be lightly thought of; and yet, alas, how common! Nay more, so entirely is the presence of the Holy Ghost forgotten, that man's authority, and man's claims, are substituted, justified, and accepted by the mass of professing Christians.

You will be careful to observe that what the Scripture teaches is not that all have liberty to minister, but that there should be liberty to the Holy Ghost to minister by whom He may please. There is a wide difference between the two things. The first would be democracy, than which there is nothing more alien from the mind of God; the second involves the maintenance of the Lordship of Christ in the power of the Spirit, the subjection of all the members of the body to the Head, and complete dependence upon the guidance and wisdom of the Spirit of God. In the first, man is prominent; in the second, Christ is owned as supreme.

While asserting these cardinal principles of ministry, we must be careful to recollect that all true ministry must be in subjection to, and in accordance with, the word of God. This clearly follows from the instructions in 1 Cor 14. The apostle indeed gives directions concerning the exercise of the gifts, and afterwards says, "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (v. 37). The assembly is thus entitled, nay, responsible, to judge whether the thing ministered is according to truth (1 Cor. 14: 29), and to reject everything that does not answer to the test. It is not left therefore at the mercy of wilful men, but is furnished with a safeguard sufficient to hold in check and to rebuke all that savors of the flesh, and not of the Spirit.

Another thing may be added. After dealing with the question of gifts, and pointing out that even their exercise are utterly valueless without charity (love) (1 Cor. 12, 13), the apostle teaches that the object of their exercise is the edification of the assembly (14: 3-5). How beautiful are the ways of God! Gathered by the Spirit around the person of our Lord at His table, to show forth His death, He leads our hearts out in adoration and praise, and then He ministers to us from God through various members of the body of Christ. There is thus a double action of the Spirit. He enables us to offer the sacrifices of praise to God; and mindful of our need, He gives the word of wisdom, or knowledge, or exhortation, as our state may require.

But I have reached the limits of my letter. You will, however, be able to trace out the subject for yourself, and thus discover whether what has been advanced is according to the word of God. "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5: 21).

Believe me, dear ______,

Yours affectionately in Christ, E.D.

P.S.--In addition to the scriptures cited, read Romans 12: 4-8; 1 Peter 4: 10, 11, etc.