May is graduation month. This year I will join my classmates at Knox College, Toronto, to celebrate our 50th year of graduation. It is also a time to congratulate all graduates of our theological colleges; it’s no easy matter to complete six, seven or more years of university. We wish them God’s blessings.
This time of the year also evokes the question of ministry, one that leads to the question of orders of ministry. Why have elders? Why have ministers? What shape ought the church to take in the face of an uncertain future that seems to be sweeping in upon us?
A few years ago Callum Brown of the University of Dundee wrote a book entitled The Death of Christian Britain. Will someone soon be writing a book entitled, The Death of Christian Canada?
When Living Faith dealt with the subject of ministers and elders it did so under the heading of the ministry we all have. There is a sense in which we are all in an “order”— the order of the Baptized. We are all united to Christ and his church and commissioned to his service. His service is ministry.
A hospital chaplain once spoke to the ministerial association in Cobourg, Ont., where I served as a minister for 16 years. He said to us: “You think your ministry when you visit a hospital is to take Christ to the patient, almost like metaphorically putting Christ in a wheelchair and carting him from room to room and saying ‘here he is.’ But that is not your role at all for the simple reason that Christ has been there all the time.”
The scriptures, especially Matthew 25, support this idea: “I was sick and you visited me.”
Think of ministry as entering into Christ’s work and you will not go wrong. It is the ministry we all have.
But why go beyond that? Why have elders? Why have ministers?
Modern scholars point out that church order in the New Testament was fluid and changing which makes it difficult to take it as the exact model for our church government now. Nonetheless, in having elders our church was always trying to be biblical. But you should be warned that in spite of our desire for easy and neat answers, what the Bible means when it uses the word “elder” is vastly more complicated than most people realize. Presbyterians are shocked when they discover that even the Westminster Confession of Faith does not establish the office of elder on New Testament references to “elder” but rather on the concept of “gifts of government” that were also found in the early church (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:28). Nonetheless, we can be assured that in establishing this office in the church, those who came before us sought to be biblical. We rejoice in the ministry elders have in our churches. We value group wisdom, as well as insights from life that our elders bring to important decisions as “ruling elders.” We also value their pastoral role as they attend to people in their elders’ districts, or to other ministries in the church. What a good idea the eldership is!
But what about ministers? Same answer: we have ministers because in doing so we are trying to structure our church around the teachings of the Bible. In Ephesians 4:11 ministers are referred to as “pastors and teachers.” This office is also seen by most scholars as a development from the eldership in the early church. We see something of this journey in the fact that the word “priest” is derived from the word “presbyter,” which means “elder.”
The hot tip about ministers is given by the Westminster Confession of Faith in 25:3: “Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry.” In other words, the ministry is Christ’s idea and Christ’s gift to the church.
The preamble in our church’s service of ordination states it well: “All ministries of the church proceed from and are sustained by the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then it gives us a main reason for having ordained ministers: “That the church may be continually renewed and nurtured for ministry, Christ furnishes the church with pastors and teachers.” It also adds that the standards of the church are especially in the care of ministers.
Some are asking if we even need ministers, but I doubt this view represents a strong trend in the church. Most people almost instinctively feel that we need ministers and wonder what would happen without someone who is called by God and trained to lead their congregation. Calvin certainly was powerfully convinced of the need for ministers, and the Westminster Confession and Living Faith certainly follow in this view. If ministers are Christ’s gift to his church as our confessions and the New Testament teach, should that not settle the matter for Presbyterians?
Meanwhile, let us enter into the ministry we all have:
All Christians are called to participate in the ministry of Christ. As his body on earth we all have gifts to use in the church and in the world to the glory of Christ, our King and Head. (Living Faith 7.2.1)