"The Ministry" and the Gospel

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"The Ministry" and the Gospel
Toward a Biblical Understanding of
"The Ministry"

The professionalization of the pastoral ministry today has caused a revival among many to return to the Scriptures in a search for the true meaning of biblical ministry. It is from the Scriptures that we learn that the pastor’s primary function in the local church is the equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-13). Thus, the saints are to be the ones performing the works of ministry, and not primarily the pastor. His focus is training and equipping, and it is in this way that he ministers to and serves the flock.

As with every reaction to a prevalent unbiblical tradition, there is an equal and opposite reaction, a pendulum swing of sorts. I suppose it is merely human nature. But even if that is true, we can’t let the pendulum swing in the opposite direction only to stick there, because chances are, that position is probably just as unbiblical as the former. I say this in relation to the modern reaction that many, solid, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting Christians have with regard to the professionalization of the ministry.

It is as I sit back and observe this minor, yet important pendulum swing in motion that I put forth the following textual observations from Scripture in an effort to stop the reactive motion. We must make every attempt, sparing no effort, to ensure that a biblical balance is brought to this and any other matter that pricks our consciences as unbiblical, whether seeming or real.

The Meaning of “Ministry”

The pattern for my observations is simple. There is one main Greek word for “ministry,” and it is the word diakonia (pronounced dee-ah-koh-nee-uh). That is the noun form of the word, and the verb form is diakoneo (pronounced dee-ah-koh-nee-oh). The noun form is usually defined with any or more of the following words: ministry, service, help, support, giving aid, arranging for provision (Greek-English Dictionary, UBS 6th ed.). It is also defined as rendering “assistance or help by performing certain duties, often of a humble or menial nature” (Louw-Nida Lexicon). This definition brings out the smaller or lowlier nature of some tasks as inherent in the work of a servant or ‘minister.’ The verb form is defined as serving, waiting on, caring for, seeing after, providing for (Barclay-Newman).

“The Ministry” in General: Every Saint is a Minister

It is in this general, broad way, and primarily with the verb diakoneo, that it can be said that every Christian is to serve and minister.[1] Their pattern has already been set by the Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve (Matt. 20:28). Clearly following the way of her Master in another gospel account, Martha is found serving (through menial kitchen work) in Luke 10:40 (albeit a better ‘service’ awaited her by sitting at her Master’s feet). The truth of the matter is that when the Master enters our lives, we cannot help but serve Him, just as the woman did whose fever Jesus healed in Matthew 8:15. “He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him” (ESV; cf. Mark 1:31; Luke 4:39). (See also other examples in Matt. 27:55; Luke 8:3; John 12:2, 26; ) Without Jesus here personally today, we serve Him by serving His saints (cf. Matt. 25:35-40; Acts 11:29; 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Cor. 8:4, 19, 20; 9:1 ff.; Heb. 6:10 ) and the leaders of His church (Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 1:17, 18; Philemon 13).

Therefore all Christians are encouraged that, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies…” (1 Pet. 4:10, 11, ESV; cf. 1 Cor. 12:5). And again, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:6-8,

“God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out when you have faith that God is speaking through you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If your gift is to encourage others, do it! If you have money, share it generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly” (NLT).

Again, it is the saints who are to be enaged in the work of ministry, building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12). The local church, full of cross-centered believers, is to be a church of “love and faith and service and patient endurance” (Rev. 2:19).

“The Ministry” in Particular: The Office and Task of “The Minister”

Now, while Jesus did in fact come to serve, this service was very specific, wasn’t it? He had a specific role or task with regard to His ministry. I cited Matthew 20:28 previously. The parallel account is found in Mark 10:45 where we have an added elaboration: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (ESV). His ministry then was specific – it was all about redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and the reconciling of many back to God.

What we find then in this second observation about ministry is that when the Greek noun diakonia is used, the ‘ministry’ is also a term describing something specific, or to point to a particular task, mission, assignment, job, function, position, or role. One Greek dictionary defined this second usage of the word diakonia as, “The role or position of one serving God in a special way” with a special task, office, or ministry (Rom. 12:7; 1 Tim. 1:12)” (Friberg). There are several categories of persons who fit the mould of “minister.”

The first are the Old Testament prophets. We are told by Peter that when these men were prophesying, preaching, and writing down the revelations they received about the coming Messiah that, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you…” (1 Peter 1:12). While this particular usage of the Greek verb (as one of the few exceptions to the general rule) does not necessarily state explicitly that prophets were official ministers of the gospel, it certainly points to a general affirmation among evangelicals that the prophets had a special role and held a special office in the administration of the gospel.

The second group of persons who held a special office of “minister” were the apostles. The phrase “this ministry” in Acts 1:17 has particular reference to the work of serving alongside the Messiah in the spreading of the gospel. Due to the death of Judas, the apostles felt that another needed to be selected, “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside…” (Acts 1:25).

While they chosen Matthias to join their ranks, God ultimately had someone else in mind to join them in the effort to proclaim the gospel to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). That man was Paul, the most famous of all the apostles. It is his personal usage of the Greek noun in particular that we come to perceive “the ministry” as a special task or position of proclaiming the gospel (Acts 20:24; 21:19; Rom. 11:13; Rom. 15:31; 2 Cor. 4:1; 5:18; 6:3; 1 Tim. 1:12).[2]

It is within this context of apostleship that “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) came to be seen as the primary function and task of the apostles. And it is important to point out that this particular “ministry” is contrasted over against the daily ministry of serving the needs of the various widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1).

Third, yet even this task of ministering to the widows is not a service given generally to all the believers in the church there. Six men were chosen to fulfill this role, men who have traditionally been called deacons. So there is this third group of persons who hold the special office of “minister” (Acts 6:3, 5-6).

Regardless of whether or not you view these men in Acts 6 as the first official deacons, it is obvious that the work of ministering to the widows was a special task, and special “ministers” were appointed for fulfilling it. These men were “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” as the text says. And in like fashion, the “official” office of deacon as we find it in 1 Timothy 3 also reflects that among the many qualifications for that office, they must “be tested first, then let them serve as deacons” (1 Tim. 3:10). The goal is that this special group of “ministers” “serve well as deacons” and “gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 13).

The fourth group of persons in this more specific category are those sent by the apostles. We see Barnabas and Saul, for example, returning to Antioch upon finishing their mission or service or ministry in Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). This group would seem to encompass pastors as well, for the first pastors were not only the apostles themselves, but also the men whom they appointed for the work of the gospel in the local church context.

This group is reflected not only in Barnabas and Saul, but in men like Archippus to whom Paul wrote, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received from the Lord” (Col. 4:17). [3] He wrote something similar to Timothy. “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). Evidently, the once yellow John Mark was requested to be sent to Paul in his final days in prison because “he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).

Thus, this final group would ultimately encompass pastors and elders, though neither the Greek verb or noun is to be found associated with them in any text, unless I have missed them. This observation is important, because even if I have missed such texts (which ultimately will only serve to affirm my conclusion), pastors fill this important role and task of “the ministry.” Thus, it is under their leadership that we are biblically justified in using the phrase “the ministry” to refer to a specific task and role fulfilled by a particular person.

Some Conclusions

What we find then amid our observations of almost every usage of the Greek noun and verb for “minister” is a much-needed balance to the pendulum swing. It is wrong to see only pastors as ministers, and it is equally wrong to view only believers as ministers. The Bible teaches that both are ministers, yet in different ways and for different purposes. The solution to the problems inherent in both unbiblical positions is not to get rid of the word “ministry,” for it is a special word with specific significance to all groups involved.

My opinion on a solution is to modify the word “ministry” with a prepositional phrase describing the ministry being performed. It is the ministry of prophecy, or serving, or encouragement, or hospitality, or teaching, or preaching, or apostleship, or healing, or tongues. That’s really all that a gifting is to begin with, isn’t it? Paul even parallels the words gifts and service in 1 Corinthians 12:4 and 5 to make this very point. He also calls it a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). But all the gifts he mentions in that text are services or ministries given to the local church for the local church. And that’s the most fundamental conclusion about “ministry” that cannot and should not be missed. It is about the believers serving each other in the context of the local church.

Another observation is that while there is this special role of one who ministers or serves, just as plain in the Scriptures is the truth that this special minister, the pastor or church leader, is to be marked by his service. Jesus could not have been any clearer about this than in Luke 22:26 where He rebuked His disciples in the midst of their selfish argument about who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of God. “But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leaders should be like a servant” (NLT). So this last observation, while affirming that there is a special role or task or position of “minister” who performs a special work of “the ministry,” that work in and of itself is to mirror the Master who came not to be served but to serve others by working to the death to preach and teach the message of the cross to the world.

My final observation is also an application and it extends directly from both the office and role of the Master Servant, Jesus Christ. All service and ministry extends from Christ and His work for us on the cross, and all service and ministry flow back to Him. That is, the gospel is the centerpiece of all service and ministry, regardless of who is performing it, whether believer or pastor or deacon or apostle, or whoever.

We all serve the Savior by serving each other, no matter what our service may be. What the gospel does then, is that it levels everyone’s service. Since we all serve Him, there is no one person’s service or ministry that is somehow better or more important than anyone else’s. And that is primarily where the friction enters within the traditional local church, which more often than not views the pastor’s work as somehow more important than anyone else’s. But the pendulum needn’t swing in the opposite direction and stay there. No, the one who serves and ministers mercy or healing or hospitality are all performing cross-centered acts of selfless servitude just as the pastor or church leader is. Oh, that the local church would grasp and embrace this truth above everything else I’ve said thus far! That is why I’ve put this point last, hoping it will stick more than everything else.

Endnotes

[1] This is of exegetical significance since the primary texts using the noun form produces its own conclusion with reference to “the ministry”. I hope to show that a majority of the texts using the Greek verb diakoneo point to all believers as ministering, while the majority of texts using the Greek noun point to a special role and task of ministry as accomplished by a special individual.

[2] 2 Cor. 3:7-9 is a special text and as such must be treated separately. This is a text that I may perhaps come back to in another post in the near future.

[3] Archippus was presumably the man who took over the pastoral responsibilities of Epaphras, the first pastor of the church in Colosse, while he traveled some 500 miles to Rome to assist Paul while he was in prison.

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