The traditional Protestant and Reformed understanding of ministry in the Christian Church is that of a pastor set apart for life by ordination to ‘the ministry of Word and sacrament.’ That phrase has been freely employed of ministers both in the Free Church and Anglican traditions. However, the factthat Christians in the Reformed tradition believed this for over four hundred years did not prevent a radical change in the 1960s. From that point onwards a new understanding began to prevail, of the employed minister as one elder among others in the congregation, equal in authority and calling, who together form a plural eldership team that governs the Church. In other words, his role is either to do more often the same tasks as other elders, or, to fill the gaps left by voluntary elders who have other work. In short, over the last generation or so, evangelicals who claim the title ‘Reformed’ have adopted a theologically inauthentic, and much lower, view of the ordained ministry than is true to their own theological tradition.
In practical terms, the difference may seem minimal – there may be still someone who is recognizably the primary pastoral figure. However, there is more involved than mere pragmatism. Is the pastor the eldership leader, or conversely the assistant, or even just the available stand-in, for his fellow-elders? Should those who can, go into ‘proper’ professions, leaving full-time Christian work to the less able? Should a pastor be the teaching elder of the church and if so, does he need more theological training than his fellow elders? Should he preside at the Lord’s Table and baptisms? In order to explore these issues, some questions are appropriate: (a). what is the Reformed tradition of the ministry? (b). how and why did a change come about in the 1960s? (c). what biblical principles for ministry should guide a response? To these we now turn.
THE REFORMED TRADITION
Calvin held a very high view of ministry in the local church. He regarded every church as needing its own stated pastor who was distinct in status and function from other elders, because ‘that policy is necessary to maintain the peace of the Church…’ Calvin does not shy away from stating a pragmatic argument for a ‘president’ of each local church – to maintain its peace. However, his argument is biblical and theological as well. He regards the role of the pastor as ‘almost the same’ as the original apostles in responsibility and authority from God. Calvin supposed that during the apostolic period, the distinction was not so sharp between pastors and other elders, but that it really came into its own once the apostles were removed by death. Calvin here rejects the traditional concept of an ‘apostolic succession,’ that of passing on apostolic authority, in favour passing apostolic work: the two essential tasks of the Great Commission, which he describes as ‘to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments,’ a ministry that is pastoral as well as didactic because it ‘consists not merely in public addresses, it extends also to private admonitions.’ In short, the pastor is to be the president, teacher and shepherd of his people. Calvin was conscious of the immense spiritual status and responsibility thereby placed into one pair of human hands, notwithstanding his belief in a plural eldership. He gave three reasons for God doing so: to declare His condescencion, to teach humility to the Church, and to provide a tangible focus for the divine unity of the Church: ‘he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or it may be, our inferiors in worth.’
This high calling Calvin conceived to be irreversible by its very nature: it was for life, once received. Normally, therefore, a pastor should be employed by the Church to the exclusion of a ‘secular’ career. As a believer in State patronage, he did not need to discuss the possibility that a church might not be able to support its pastor but we may infer from his views two applications to ministry in such a situation. First: once called by God, a man should never allow another kind of employment to claim his first loyalty, even if it is practically necessary in the absence of church support. Second: it is the absolute duty of a church not only to have a pastor as its spiritual leader but to pay him adequately as soon as possible, or allow him to find other work until it can. Returning, then, to Calvin’s high view of the ministry: it is so great a responsibility that it requires nothing less than an internal call from God, a claim to which must be carefully tested by an external call from the Church. The internal one is a ‘secret call of which every minister is conscious before God, but has not the Church as a witness of it’ until it is tested. The external call takes the form initially of suitable elders examining the candidate’s faith and doctrine. However, even when thus approved, when a pastor is proposed to a local congregation, he requires the approval of its members as well.
The demanding and lifelong nature of the ministry requires that pastors be ordained by the laying on of hands. This ritual Calvin justifies retaining from the Roman Church on the basis that the ancient Jews thereby ‘in a manner presented to God whatever they wished to be blessed and consecrated’ and that the Lord continued it as did the apostles after him. Calvin goes even further by saying that when the apostles laid on their hands in ordination, they ‘intimated that they made an offering to God of him whom they admitted to the ministry.’ Calvin commended the laying on of hands as ‘a symbol’ by which ‘the dignity of the ministry should be commended to the people. And he who is ordained, reminded that he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the Church.’ Even that is not its full meaning, for Calvin adds,
Besides, it will not prove an empty sign, if it be restored to its genuine origin. For if the Spirit of God has not instituted anything in the Church in vain, this ceremony of his appointment we shall feel not to be useless, provided it be not superstitiously abused.
That is to say, Calvin believed that in ordination some new measure of spiritual authority would be imparted by God when those involved acted with proper spiritual intent and faith, and the candidate had indeed been called by God. It is instructive that he hesitates nevertheless to claim that the gifts of the Spirit are still imparted by the laying on of hands, as they were in the NT. This, he thinks, was peculiar to the apostles, who ‘conferred the visible gifts of the Spirit…’
What, then, of the plural eldership? Calvin distinguished between the pastor and two other kinds of elder. One of these consists of all elders with a teaching gift: ‘teaching elders.’ The other category consists of ‘governing’ or ‘ruling’ elders whose work it is ‘to unite with the bishops [i.e. the teaching elders] in pronouncing censures and exercising discipline.’ This plurality of leadership became and remained the historic position of all Reformed Churches. Louis Berkhof offers a twentieth century reaffirmation of Calvin’s Presbyterial system but much the same teaching can be found in all the standard reformed theologies. Some variation is to be found in the ‘Indepedendent’ or Congregational/Baptist traditions which deserve mention.
The Congregationalist Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) endorsed the ‘two offices’ view but distinguished between the general ‘power to rule’ common to all elders and ‘the power of order’ belonging only to those elders called by God to teach the Church and administer the sacraments. Owen reserved the term ‘pastor’ and the act of ordination to this latter kind. They were to be ordained as an affirmation and commissioning of those who were fit to serve due to ‘some previous indications of the mind of God, designing the person to be called by such qualifications as may render him meet and able for the discharge of his office and work…’ Divine empowerment was vital to the pastor, that his work would be ‘accompanied with power and authority which none can take or assume to themselves.’ Owen’s reservation of ordination to the teaching elders indicates a tendency even in the seventeenth century towards having only one teacher elder in each local church, but in the early ‘Separatist’ congregations some variety can be observed. For example, the Independent/Baptist congregation in Bedford to which John Bunyan belonged appointed him as one of several preachers in the church, perhaps as a deacon but certainly not as an elder, long before he became the pastor of the church. When he was appointed the pastor of the church in 1672, the diaconate was strengthened in order to support him. There is no mention of more elders.
Baptist thinking has tended in the same general direction as we have just noted. A classic expression of it may be found in the nineteenth century American Baptist theologian, Augustus Strong (1836-1921). Strong maintained the Reformed view of a twofold leadership structure in the local church of elders and deacons. However, he expressed a generally held Baptist distinctive, that the office of ‘pastor, bishop or elder’ is not necessarily or even usually plural. Essentially, such an elder is an ordained person having spiritual oversight of the Church by ministering the Word, administering the ordinances and superintending discipline in a local congregation. The diaconate ‘is helper to the pastor and the church, in both spiritual and temporal things’ and is usually plural. Effectively, Baptists have maintained the ‘twofold office’ approach to local church leadership, but have allocated the ‘power of rule’ to deacons and the ‘power of order’ to a stated pastor. Some more recent Baptist theologians, however, have advocated plural eldership.
All the reformed theologians surveyed above, from the sixteenth through to the twentieth century, maintained the necessity of an ordained ministry. This view was virtually abandoned during the 1960s. What happened?
CHANGES IN THE SIXTIES
A number of factors combined to undermine the traditional view of the ordained ministry in the 1960s. It is helpful first to be reminded of some more general trends at the time because these went some way towards undermining confidence in the traditional understanding of ministry.
First, the conservative evangelical movement had become increasingly marginalised in the historic evangelical denominations, through the growth of theological liberalism since the latter years of the nineteenth century. Evangelicals increasingly looked for mutual fellowship to para-church organizations, notably the Keswick Convention (founded in 1875) and, for undergraduates and graduates, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (founded in 1928). The result was that evangelicals developed a degree of cynicism about the apparent lack of evangelical zeal in their own denominations. Secondly, by the early twentieth century evangelicalism had come to be characterized by popularism rather than serious theological thought, pietism rather than the older Calvinistic affirmation of societal involvement, and premillennialism rather than the older amillennialism and postmillennialism. These things militated against denominational life in the Free Churches especially. What evangelicals had learned to value was the evangelical preacher rather than the denominational pastor (though almost all of the significant evangelical preachers prior to World War Two were, in fact, denominational ministers. Even so, those very leaders were prone to downplay denominational authorisation. The most dramatic example of that was Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). Although he was exceptionally well-read in theology, he deprecated formal ordination having himself entered upon Baptist ministry without it. Evangelicalism, therefore, by the 1960s had already a long tradition of skepticism about the value to ministers of theological education, and of official ordination, combined with widespread ignorance of serious theological thought even of the most conservative kind. With these things in mind, we may turn to the 1960s.
In the early part of the decade there was a surge in the popularity of extreme liberal theologies in the historic denominations, such that evangelicalism was increasingly ridiculed by non-evangelical clergy, and even by denominational leaders. It became evident to many faithful church members that they held the faith in one way while their own denominational leaders and ministers held it entirely in another, with some notable and welcome exceptions of course. What, then, was the value of theological training and of denominational ordination when there were so many ‘man-ordained’ ministers who did not uphold the gospel, yet at para-church events it was possible to hear ‘God-ordained’ preachers who preached powerfully and effectively without any formal training or recognition at all?
Secondly, during the post-war years within the main denominations, there developed in reaction to liberalism evangelical ‘Revival Fellowships,’ the first and most notable of which was the Baptist Revival Fellowship, founded in 1938. At its height in the mid-sixties, it had 400 ministerial members – a quarter of all Baptist Union ministers. The Revival Fellowships were deeply influenced by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones to embrace Reformed theology (even some leaders of the Methodist Revival Fellowship), and to welcome what Lloyd-Jones called ‘Spirit-baptism.’ This in turn led even some of the most committed ‘reformed men’ to welcome the early charismatic movement, in which the concept of ordained ministry was characteristically rejected in principle. Such an emphasis was reinforced in charismatic life by the number of key early leaders who came from a Plymouth Brethren background, with its historic rejection of an ordained ministry and affirmation of ‘lay’ eldership teams in each local church.
A third change, but of a different kind, took place in the sixties – this time with regard to the proper exercise of the ministry. The background to this change was, once again, post-war liberal theology, which displaced biblical and traditional theological justifications for ministry in favour of secular ones, such as providing social care, or professional counselling, or becoming the face of the Church in local politics. Of course, none of these things are in themselves anti-evangelical. Many nineteenth century evangelicals, including clergy, were boldly committed to changing society through a wide range of social initiatives. This time, however, it was not that ministers sought to set the agenda for society but that secular society was recruited to set the agenda for the ministry.
This last trend was, in fairness, a response to the dramatic postwar secularization of British life in general and of English life in particular. The search for new ministerial roles adapted to secular society was driven by concern for mission as well as by loss of confidence in traditional orthodoxies, but the force of the theological changes then taking place cannot honestly be denied. For this reason, when liberalism was at its height in British church life in the 1960s leading evangelicals tended to rebut its attitude to the ministry by emphasising its spiritual and didactic role virtually to the exclusion of social concerns and secular models. Two examples of this must suffice.
In 1969, a series of lectures was delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They were subsequently published in 1971 as Preaching and Preachers. Lloyd-Jones stated in his study of preaching that the exposition of the Word was not only the central task of ministry but was the main means of doing pastoral work. Although Lloyd-Jones did provide pastoral counselling, more general pastoral work was not his priority. Instead, he held that
It is quite astonishing to find that in expounding the Scriptures you are able to deal with a variety of differing conditions all together in one service. That is what I meant by saying that it saves the pastor a lot of time. If he had to see all these people one by one his life would be impossible, he could not do it; but in one sermon he can cover quite a number of problems at one and the same time.
A similar perspective was presented by the leading evangelical of his time in the Church of Scotland, William Still (1911-1997), in two series of lectures given originally in 1964 and 1965, and afterwards published by his own congregation as The Work of the Pastor:
My pastoral work of personal dealing, considerable though it is, has been greatly reduced through the years because the building up of men’s faith by the ministry of the Word of God, solves so much in their lives…..
Both Lloyd-Jones and William Still spent many hours in pastoral counselling, but neither of them were systematic visitors. This stands in contrast with the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691). His famous study of the ministry, The Reformed Pastor, set forth the ideal of systematic visitation of church members – and even of his whole community. This came to be regarded ever afterwards as almost as infallible advice for pastoral work; or at least for three hundred years until the 1960s.
It is now evident that we need to revisit some basic biblical principles for ministry in order to decide whether or not it is the life-work of presiding over a church and eldership as the pastor-teacher of a congregation; and something to which men are called to dedicate themselves irrevocably.
A BRIEF BIBLICAL RESPONSE
The key questions for today are (a). is the ministry something distinct from plural eldership, a lifework rather than something that can be done alongside another career? And (b). is ordination important? My answer to both questions is affirmative, for the following reasons.
First of all, the question should be addressed of whether or not the minister is to be distinguished from other elders in the church. A first indication would seem to be the close early similarity between Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. In each there were elders and deacons, yet in the synagogue there was always a ‘ruler’ or president. Why would not the earliest churches, Jewish congregations modelled on the synagogue, have such an officer as well? A second indication is 1 Ti.5:17, in which a distinction is made between elders in general and ‘those whose work is preaching and teaching.’ Finally, in Rev. 1-3, God speaks to the seven churches by communicating through an ‘angel.’ They would seem to be human beings, because otherwise the revelation would not have reached its intended audience (unless one supposes that celestial angels recorded and passed on the revelation). It is not possible to be dogmatic, but there is good reason to believe that the NT Church had not only a team of elders, but also that one of them would be the equivalent of the ‘synagogue ruler.’
The second question concerns ministry as the work of a lifetime. As above with regard to our first question, there is insufficient NT evidence to claim more than a likelihood. However, there can be no doubt that in the NT ‘the laying on of hands’ was used much as Calvin described it – to acknowledge someone publicly and set them apart to the service of God. This is most clearly seen in Paul’s instructions to Timothy about eldership in 1 Ti.5. In v.22, at the end of that discussion, he warns Timothy not too hastily to lay hands on someone. This indicates the normal way in which elders would be ‘set apart.’ Conversely, all the elders would seem to have been ‘ordained’ by the laying on of hands and therefore it cannot be claimed simplistically either that eldership was always plural, or that there was certainly an ‘ordained ministry’ as Calvin understood it. After all, the laying on of hands was given not only to the congregational ruler, but also to elders and deacons generally. However, that in itself indicates that the ceremony is a form of recognising and authorising a range of offices and ministries. That being the case, ordination to the presidency of the church seems entirely appropriate: a public acknowledgement, a setting apart to God, and a sign of the church’s prayer for God’s anointing.
The present low view of a lifetime call to ministry recognised in ordination cannot be countered by an incontrovertible biblical argument based on ordination. However, it can be countered by pointing out aspects of ministry that are found in the OT leaders and prophets, and in the apostles. There was always in biblical life a band of full-time servants and spokesmen for God, for whom a lifetime was both qualitative and quantitative. If Calvin is right to make much of the pastor of the church as ‘almost’ apostolic in function, he is surely also right that pastors are laid hold of in the same way by God and His people. Ordination may not confer a higher spiritual privilege than exists for other elders, but it does indicate a greater spiritual responsibility to dedicate the whole of oneself and the whole of life to this ministry. Like Paul, some may from time to time support themselves rather than burden the church, but like Paul they will work to live but live to preach. Such men we need again in the modern church.
Either one must follow the biblical precedent or look for an alternative that says as much; there isn’t one. Can one go further and expect God to do some new work in someone in answer to the prayers symbolized by the act? This is less certain. It happened to Timothy (I Ti.4:14, 2 Ti.1:5) but one must ask whether or not that was only the result of Paul’s unique apostolic authority. The key fact to acknowledge is, it seems to me, that setting someone apart for the work of the ministry implies a life commitment of being as well as doing. That cannot be said of deacons, probably. It perhaps cannot be said of all elders, if it implies undertaking the full-time work of the ministry. There are imponderables here, but not this: the ministry of being a pastor-teacher is a life-work different from being even a teaching elder in the Church. It belongs alongside apostles, prophets, and evangelists as one of the spiritual leadership roles in the Church of God. As such, I argue that alongside other ‘teaching elders’ this office is distinct yet similar. The pastor-teacher is primus inter pares or first among equals in the eldership. For this a lifetime work calls him to study carefully to become an adequate teacher of the apostolic faith and a skilful shepherd and overseer of the church. It is this vision that has been lost through the downgrading of the ministry since the 1960s and it needs to be recovered.
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