Westminster Seminary California
 

Reformed Ministry

W. Robert Godfrey, Resident Faculty  |   April 30, 1993   |  Type: Articles
 

This is the second address delivered by Dr. Godfrey to a conference in Seoul, Korea.

Yesterday we reflected on the subject of the Reformed life, and today we have another great, broad subject, the Reformed ministry. We saw yesterday that Hebrews 10:24, 25 contains a call to every Christian to be active in Christian service: “....let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works... encouraging one another....” Every Christian has a responsibility to be engaged in service. Our service may take many different forms. Individually we may be called to prayer or hospitality or encouragement or correction or witness or many other activities. This work is all service to God and His church. In a sense this is all ministry. The root meaning of ministry is service. For this reason our Reformed tradition has spoken of the general office of believer. Every believer is a servant of God and of his neighbor. Every believer shares in the office of service. No one can be lazy or retire. All must be active.

Another way in which we have expressed the common Christian responsibility is by speaking of the priesthood of all believers. The Reformation recaptured the great Biblical truth that in the New Covenant every Christian is a priest before God.  I Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…”

This priesthood of all believers has sometimes been interpreted to mean that we no longer need a priest to represent us before God because we can each be a priest for ourselves. But the original meaning was that we do not need a special caste of priests to intercede for us because we can now all intercede for each other. Galatians 6:2 expresses this clearly: “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” We must all love one another and care for one another as priests of God.

Even in times of tension and disagreement all Christians are to work to resolve problems among themselves. Jesus taught us, “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). This duty is laid on every Christian.

The responsibility given to every Christian rests on the blessings given to every Christian. We all are renewed to life by the Holy Spirit. That new life brings with it new knowledge and new strength to live for God and help others. God has graciously poured out His Spirit on all His people. From Pentecost on, the whole church is empowered for ministry by the Spirit.

The service or ministry of all Christians is not all we need, however. God has made clear in His Word that a specialized ministry is necessary in the New Covenant community. As a family has structure, with the father as head, so the church has structure. Leadership in the church is given preeminently to the ministry. To focus our thoughts on this official ministry of the church let us read Ephesians 4:7-24.


GIFT OF THE MINISTRY

Ephesians makes clear that one of the great gifts that the ascended Lord gave to His church is official leadership. Christians, for all our strengths and blessings, are still growing and developing. We have not yet arrived at the stature of the fulness of Christ. As we seek to mature, as we seek stability in our Christian lives, we need help. God has graciously provided that help through the offices He has established in the church. In Ephesians Paul begins mentioning the special, temporary offices that God used to lay the foundation of the church (apostle, prophet and evangelist) and then moves on to the central continuing office: pastor and teacher. The New Testament as a whole leads us to conclude that Paul is talking about one office here with the dual responsibility of pastoring and teaching.

How are we to understand our need of this gift of the pastor-teacher? What is his role in the life of God's people? One of the most careful reflections on this gift is to be found in the work of John Calvin. Near the beginning of Book Four of Calvin's greatest work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes:

...it is by the faith in the gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him. Since, however, in our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us, and advance to its goal, God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness. And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the church. He instituted “pastors and teachers”
[Eph. 4:11] through whose lips he might teach his own; he furnished them with authority; finally, he omitted nothing that might make for holy agreement of faith and for right order. (Institutes, IV, i, ,l)

We must notice several points that Calvin compresses in this relatively brief statement. First he shows the connection between the faith of the I Christian and the gift of the ministry. In fact, the title of the Fourth Book of the Institutes shows that connection. The Fourth Book is entitled, “The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.” Calvin argues that participation in the body of Christ is worked through external aids. The Spirit does not work to renew our souls apart from the external help of the church. The Spirit works an internal change in us through the external institution of the church. The Christian does not live alone or solely in immediate and direct contact with God. The Christian lives in the community of the church and God ministers through the established means of the church.

Second, Calvin indicates why God operates in this way. God has established the church in the way He has because of our weakness. Weakness is in fact a recurring theme in Calvin. At many points in his writing he explains the structure of the covenant community's life in terms of weakness. For example, when discussing why God established sacraments in His church, Calvin characteristically speaks of our weakness which needs visible support through the visible word of the sacraments.

In his brief statement Calvin elaborates on the theme of our weakness with three specifics: we are weak in ignorance, in sloth and in fickleness. Calvin here summarizes the full range of our continuing need as Christians. We are weak in the ignorance of our minds which need constant instruction in the faith. We are weak in the sloth or laziness of our wills which need constant exhortation to faithfulness. We are weak in the fickleness of our emotions which need constant stabilization to be faithful.

To help us in all these areas of need God has given us a great treasure. That treasure is the ministry of His church. Calvin writes, “For neither the light and heat of the sun, nor food and drink, are so necessary to nourish and sustain the present life as the apostolic and pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth” (Institutes, IV, ili, 2). Very much in the spirit of John Calvin, one of the great Reformation confessions - the Belgic Confession of 1561 - expands on this theme: “We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished, and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities” (Belgic Confession, Article 30). Notice how forcefully this point is made: God preserves His church and true religion through the faithful ministry of the church. Here is clearly a high and vital calling - a great gift from Christ to the church.

WORK OF THE MINISTRY

What must the pastor-teacher do to fulfill this high and necessary calling? He must clearly supervise and teach his flock. He must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) so that minds and natures will be renewed and built up (Eph. 4:17, 23, 24). The pastor accomplishes this preeminently through preaching.

Preaching

Paul powerfully develops the ministerial responsibility to preach in II Corinthians 4-6. We must preach Jesus Christ (4:5) out of the fulness of our faith: “We also believe, therefore also we speak” (4:13). He reminds us that we are to persuade (5:11), to appeal and implore (5:20), to urge (6:1) and to tell (6:2). Paul clarifies the specific character of this preaching in II Corinthians 5:20: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” When we look closely at this verse, we see that the preacher is described as an ambassador. An ambassador speaks officially and authoritatively for the one he represents. He does not speak on his own authority, but only as he is commissioned to speak. The focus here is not on the dignity of the person, but on the work that the person does. In fact in Greek the word usually translated ambassador is not a noun, but a verb. We might better translate this verse: “in the place of Christ we are ambassadoring, seeing that God is making his appeal through us.”

The preacher is Christ's official representative. When he faithfully does his work, God Himself is heard through him. As the Reformers maintained, the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. 

This calling and responsibility is so high and awesome that the preacher must dedicate himself and his strength to it. He must be as careful a student of the Word as he is capable of being. For this reason the Reformed tradition has always stressed the importance of a well-educated ministry. We recognize that the Bible lays down no specific educational requirements for the ministry, but we also recognize that the preacher of the Word must use every opportunity to draw close to and understand as fully as possible the Scriptures. Education in the original languages of Scripture, in exegesis and hermeneutics, in theology and church history is of inestimable value to the preacher. Dr. Yun Sun Park understood the importance of this kind of study of the Bible and devoted much of his life to it.

From that thorough knowledge of the Word, the preacher speaks for Christ. He does not and may not speak his own ideas or opinions. As an ambassador he speaks only the Word given to him. We must be sure that we do not corrupt the Word in any way. We are cautioned in II Corinthians 2:17: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the Word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.” The warning here is not to be like an unscrupulous salesman who misrepresents the product in order to make money. Rather we must speak as Christians who are intensely aware that we speak as those who speak for Christ and will be judged for what we say. Paul makes a very similar point in II Corinthians 4:2: “... we do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. Our calling is not to change the Word - any change or mishandling of it is distortion - but to present it clearly and faithfully.

We are greatly aided in that task by the labors of those who have gone before us. The doctrinal heritage left to us by the great teachers of earlier generations helps us immeasurably in interpreting the Word. Especially the Confessions of Faith to which we subscribe are summaries of the Word of God to guide and direct us in our work. But also, works of Biblical commentary and theology support our preaching and we are privileged to be the inheritors of that work.

Many of us may identify with the words of John Knox-the great Reformer of Scotland. He said of his own ministry: I consider “myself rather called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by the tongue and lively voice, in these corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come.” [1] Many of us are more likely to use primarily the lively voice than the written word. But we recognize that the ministry of the  preached word rests significantly on those books written to help us, and we remember again with gratitude to God the powerful writing ministry of Dr. Yun Sun Park in that regard.

One more crucial dimension of preaching must be mentioned. I frequently remind my students of this factor. Good preaching requires time. You may have great talent, a great education and a great library, but if you do not spend time at your studies, you will not be a faithful preacher. My pastor observed recently that we must not allow the study to become an office. An office is where we meet people – and that of course is necessary at appropriate times – but the study is where we meet with God in the careful examination of His Word. As ministers we must guard that time to study.

For the preacher, preaching is the primary contact he will have with most of the people in his congregation. He must prepare well for that contact. Think of it this way. If you preach to 500 people for one half hour, you are occupying 250 hours of the time of the people of God! How faithfully prepared should your sermon be to justify occupying 250 hours.

In all that we have been saying about preaching we have recognized a great authority that attaches to the preaching of the Word. This authority is always ministerial; that is, it does not reside in us as individuals, but exists as we faithfully minister the Word. The authority is always God's and His Word's. We as ministers must be humble and cautious in exercising this authority, recognizing that our calling is to speak only as God has spoken.

Pastoral Work

The work of the ministry, of course, is not exhausted in the work of preaching. The responsibility of the pastor extends far beyond that. The pastor is shepherd and guardian and overseer (Acts 20:28); and the protecting of the flock depends on more than just preaching. We can touch only briefly on some of the dimensions of this pastoral work.

The pastor must also be a man of prayer interceding for his people. The apostles provide a crucial example here. In Acts 6:2-4 they declared: “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among yourselves, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayers, and to the ministry of the word.” Ministers must devote themselves to prayer.

The pastor must be a visitor especially in times of special need to comfort and encourage. The pastor must be a teacher in informal circumstances whether with families or various small groups. The catechetical instruction of the young must be a prime concern. The pastor must help the Christian community fulfill the words of Psalm 78:3, 4: “... what we have heard and known; what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.” (This text is especially precious to me because it was sung at the baptisms of my children.) Great encouragement for the pastor in these matters can be found in Richard Baxter's classic work, The Reformed Pastor.

Another responsibility of the pastor is to be involved in the discipline of the church. The true church is the church that takes discipline seriously. Neither significant error nor well-known immorality can be tolerated in the church. Both doctrine and life must be disciplined by the church.

The aim of discipline is always to restore the sinner to God through repentance. Such discipline begins with gentle rebuke and escalates as needed to sanctions and punishments. The ultimate discipline is excommunication where the impenitent is set outside the church. Such discipline is always painful and difficult, but necessary to try to bring the sinner to his senses and to protect the church from the spread of contagion.

Calvin's Geneva provides an excellent example of a wide range of ministerial work faithfully done. Calvin and his fellow ministers labored in preaching and teaching. Calvin preached several times each week and taught various other classes to ministers and students. Calvin visited the sick including plague victims until he was ordered to stop by the City Council because they felt his life was too precious to be exposed to disease.   The Venerable Company of Pastors - as the meeting of ministers was known - worked hard to maintain the doctrinal purity of the church and prayed for the church.  Calvin encouraged the elders in their work of supervising the moral life of the church members. Elders were to visit in homes before each administration of the Lord's Supper to encourage members in faithful living for the Lord. The consistory, composed of elders and a minister, exercised discipline on those who were unrepentant. Calvin also encouraged the deacons in their care for the needy. In Calvin's day Geneva became a city of religious refugees, doubling the size of the city. This clearly put great strains on the city; and the deacons creatively worked to help the poor and sick and to provide help with resettlement and job training for those newly arrived in the city.

In all of these remarkable accomplishments Calvin and other leaders of the church were often criticized. Some citizens so opposed Calvin that they named their dogs after him - a great insult in Geneva. But Calvin and the church persevered in doing what was according to the Scriptures. Their example is a testimony to us calling us on to faithfulness in our day.

In all of the work of the ministry, from preaching to discipline, whether in the sixteenth or the twentieth century, a crucial ingredient is courage. It is so easy to become flatterers and man-pleasers. It is so tempting to avoid the application of the Word that may be offensive. But God calls us to courage - not to recklessness or self-conceit or arrogance to be sure. But he does call to courage. Paul writes in I Corinthians 16:13, 14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.” Luther needed great courage in testifying before the emperor and princes of the Holy Roman Empire about the gospel. Calvin needed great courage to defy the City Council in 1538 and face exile to maintain the discipline and purity of the church. John Knox showed great courage when Mary Queen of Scots appealed to him to stop criticizing her in sermons and to speak to her privately. He responded that he had been “called
to a public ministry not to wait at princes' doors to whisper in their ears.” [2] The church today needs courageous men who know the Word of God and labor to minister it faithfully to His people. Without compromise or presumption, ministers must courageously call people to Christian truth and Christian living.

WEAKNESS OF THE MINISTRY

The high calling of the minister fills us with awe because those of us who are ministers recognize how very weak we are. We struggle as all Christians do to live the Christian life. Just because we are ministers does not at all insure that we are immune from problems, sins or weaknesses.

Perhaps as ministers we face one temptation that is unique to our calling and arises precisely from the importance of our calling. We are tempted to abuse our authority by becoming domineering. Paul declares of his own ministry, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (II Corinthians 1:24).  Calvin echoes this point: “Thus it is the duty of a good pastor not only to restrain every desire to domineer, but to regard the service of the people of God as the highest honour to which he may aspire.”[3]

How do we confront and resist this temptation? How do we pursue the Christian life? I believe that God has provided help for us in the structure of His church. God has established colleagues and connections for us. He has appointed other office-bearers with whom we work. Let me expand on this point.

In the local church ministers work with elders and deacons. Elders and deacons are not called by the ministers, but are called by God. They have a God-given responsibility for the well-being of the church and of the minister. Especially the elders are to exercise a mature supervision over the life of the church including the work of the ministry.

The exact relation of the minister to the elder has been debated in the history of Reformed theology. The debate is between the three-office view and the two-office view. The three office view says that ministers, elders and deacons are each separate offices. The two-office view says that the only offices in the church are those of elders and deacons and that the office of elder is subdivided into teaching elders and ruling elders. I Timothy 5:17 is usually quoted to support this view: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Whatever the precise relation of the minister to the elder, it is clear that the elder with the minister provides leader ship and spiritual oversight in the church and that the elders as a body oversee the work of the minister. This oversight should not be a source of conflict or competition. Rather it should be a valuable source of help in growing in grace and faithfully fulfilling the work of the ministry. Elders must help the minister see himself and his work clearly - both in his strengths and in his weaknesses.

As Presbyterians we believe that God has not only given ministers support and help on the local level, but also provides broader connections for them. In the presbyteries, synods and assemblies of the church, ministers and elders gather for encouragement, instruction and discipline. We are not alone in our work or in our struggle against weakness, but God has provided us with rich support.

Ministers individually and in corporate relationships must face their weaknesses as all Christians do, and that is by living the Christian life. The foundation, disciplines and pattern that are vital to every Christian are especially important to the minister. The minister must labor to see that his work does not become simply a profession. He must not be a time-server, but he must be constantly renewed in a sense that he is called by the Lord and accountable to the Lord as the servant of the Lord. He must cultivate genuine humility and a sense of dependence on the Lord for his strength. He must live by grace and by faith, not by sight or by pride.

The minister's life can be discouraging. Paul faced that frequently.  We think of his chronicle of sufferings in II Corinthians 11:23-30. Luther gave classic expression to it when he observed: “The work of the ministry is to try to teach old dogs new tricks and to make old rogues pious, and that largely in vain.” But we know that our work is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). We live as the apostle did, assured that God has promised, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). Our task is to sow the seed and wait upon the Lord to grant the increase.

We know that God has given a central role to the ministry in the life of His people. As Calvin so forcefully put it: “...this human ministry which God uses to govern the church is the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body” (Institutes, IV, iii, 2). The ministers are the sinews or tendons or tough cords that hold the church together, instruments of the Word and the Spirit to build up the people in faith. Our Lord has promised a rich reward for our faithfulness. The Apostle Peter reminds the minister (I Peter 5:1-4) to “shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; not yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” For such ministers is the promise: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

God grant that when our Savior appears, we will receive that crown of glory. And may we follow the example of the heavenly elders casting down those crowns acknowledging that the Lord alone is worthy to receive “glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11).


1. W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God, A Biography of John Knox, New York (Scribners),
    1974, p. 33.
2. Reid, Trumpeter, p. 227.
3. John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids,
   Michigan (Eerdmans), 1964, comment on 4:5, p. 57.

Originally published in The Outlook, April 1993 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. www.reformedfellowship.net.  Used with permission.

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