In the article below I will be laying out what, I think, is a biblical (short version) theology of ministry, drawing out information from both the Old and New Testament; arguing that a true ministry is always initiated and empowered by God, and it is always done for God. At the end of this article I will also be answering the question “Is everyone a minister?”.
True Ministry is Initiated by God
The Old Testament has a lot to say regarding ministry; ministries of prophets to ministries of kings. However, all these ministries always come from the initiation of God himself. The best example is the ministries of the Levites in the Temple (or even in the Tabernacle). Leviticus talks a lot about the legal requirements of the service in the Tabernacle. When we look in the context of the Pentateuch, it is obvious that these requirements come after the Exodus, where God himself leads the Hebrews out of slavery. For that reason, It is God, not people, who establishes all these ministries. Another example is the ministries of prophets, which the Bible usually signifies with the formula ‘thus says the LORD’ (eg. Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2). This formula not only gives the prophets in the Old Testament the necessary authority to proclaim the message of God, it also shows that the prophets’ ministries come from the LORD.
This concept also exists in the New Testament. Paul always opens his letters proclaiming that he is the ‘servant of Jesus Christ’ or even the ‘apostle’ (eg. Rom 1:1) as this gives him the authority to speak to the followers of Christ. In the New Testament the true ministry in the Church is a continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the latter is the standard for the former. In fact, in John 13:15 Jesus commands his disciples to do what he is doing; while washing their feet. It is not the ritual of washing of the feet that is commanded, but rather the ministry to other people. I shall talk about what ministry to other people means in the next section, but the point is that the ministry of the Church is commanded by Jesus himself as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
Even though true ministries are always initiated by God, the calling to ministry can also be done through other people. Paul certainly talks about both appointments by God (eg. 1 Cor 12:28) and by human agents (eg. Titus 1:5). However, I wonder if these two appointments are mutually exclusive from each other; certainly even those appointed by God need to be recognized by general assembly, and even those who are appointed by human agents might have been appointed by God. I would argue that both of these need to be recognized by anyone ministering. Although it is practically difficult to distinguish which ministries are originally initiated by God, it is undeniable that this concept is from the Bible. Ultimately, Paul also talks about this in 1 Cor 3:10-15, presumably because his ministry is questioned by various churches. Here Paul says that all genuine ministries must come on the foundation of Christ, and in the last Day all ministries will be tested by fire to prove their genuineness.
True Ministry is Empowered by God
Because ministry is initiated by God, it is also crucial that the resources with which we minister also come from God. In the Old Testament all the Levites minister because God has given them the necessary skills to do so. Even people like Bezelel is able to serve because God has given him the necessary wisdom and skills (Exod 31:3). In the New Testament Paul talks about the different gifts that the Spirit gives to every individual in the Church so that they can minister (eg. 1 Cor 12:7-10). Acts also makes it clear that ministries are always empowered by the Spirit (eg. 6:3, 16:6, etc.). This empowerment by God is necessary for anyone who ministers.
The concept about ministry being initiated and empowered by God is crucial as a biblical theology. The Bible talks about how all humans being sinful (eg. Rom 3:23) and therefore a ministry that is initiated by man is not legitimate. God himself calls us to serve him.
True Ministry is Done for God
Beside being initiated and empowered by God, a biblical ministry has to be done for God. In the Old Testament there is a lot of passages that talk about the separation of Israel not only by, but also for, God. An obvious example would be Num 16:9 where Moses rebukes the Levites because they envy the priestly office of Aaron even though God has separated them from the rest of Israel to let them work for Him.
In the New Testament the concept is more nuanced. It seems to me that ministry to God in the New Testament is reflected in the ministry to other people, especially to fellow believers. The word ‘ministry’ in the Bible means ‘to serve’. However, especially in the New Testament, the service is usually intended for people working for the sake of the Gospel. For example, Acts 19:22 talks about Timothy and Erastus being the ‘ministers’ of Paul, also Hebrews 6:10 talks about the idea of ‘ministering’ to God’s people. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus also talks about the King (God; Jesus himself) saying that whenever we care about the least of the people we care about Him. Therefore, it gives the idea that ministering to other people is, in a sense, the same as ministering to God.
It is even more obvious when Paul says that the purpose of ministry is to equip God’s people for works of service (Eph 4:11). This is said in the context of the unity of the Church as the body of Christ. Therefore, in other words, the purpose of ministry is to equip each other in the unity of the Church for more ministry. Thus, the two dimensions are apparent here; the ministry to God is shown by ministering to others in the Church to equip them for ministry to God which will be by ministering to others.
Is Everyone a Minister?
If the true ministry is initiated by God, done through God’s empowerment, and for God, then can everyone become a minister in the Church? Certainly the New Testament talks about everyone in the Church ministering to each other. However, we must be careful and clarify what the meaning of ‘minister’ is. The discussion in this article so far has been about the biblical language of ‘minister’, which is a little bit different to the legal office of ‘minister’ (ie. priest/pastor) that the Church knows today. Therefore, even though I believe that everyone is biblically a minister, it is unclear whether or not everyone is a priest. I shall, therefore, briefly discuss what a priest means.
I agree that the New Testament does not have a unified ecclesiology or concept of ministry, let alone a unified idea of hierarchy within the Church. I also agree that the word ‘priest’ needs to be clarified; because of the ambiguity of this term, Calvin and Luther have stated concepts that oppose each other. In the Old Testament priests are those people who have the authority to offer sacrifices and mediating between God and man. However, it is obvious that Christ has done this once and for all. He is the ultimate High Priest (Hebrews 8:1), who forever intercedes for us (7:25) and He himself is the ultimate sacrifice for our sins (10:10). Therefore, no human being ever needs to be a priest any longer.
I think Luther has used the term wrongly when he said that everyone was a priest; which, according to him, means that everyone has the right to preach the Word and administer discipline, which he based on 1 Pet 2:9. First, I do not think that those are the works of priests. Those are the works of ministers, which I believe that everyone in the Church should do. Second, the expression ‘royal priesthood’ in 1 Pet 2:9 refers to Exod 19:6, and as the context reveals, it is not talking about the office of priest, but about the separation of God’s people as being holy among the other nations (nation of priests). I also disagree with the idea that priests have the power to forgive sins; one of the roles of priests in the Catholic Church. I think that is going too far by exalting the office of ministers in Church.
In conclusion, I would be inclined towards the idea that everyone in the Church is a minister, because ministry is initiated by God and is done for God, not by the Church or for the Church. I am not saying that ordination does not have a place in the Church. I personally think that ordination is useful to provide order and to avoid any false teaching of the Word. Moreover, just because everyone is a minister, it does not mean that everyone must do teaching ministry. Just as Paul mentions the diversity of spiritual gifts, I think it is also important to recognize the different ministries that everyone in the Church can have.
Soli Deo Gloria