A couple of weeks ago I had a very stimulating conversation with a friend I had not seen in about a year. We had been in contact but nothing really beats the thrill and intimacy of sitting face to face with someone. As I caught up with the new wonderful things happening in his life he told me of a peculiar challenge he had faced. He and I were both involved with a fellowship we both left at about the same time. Now he had transitioned from serving as a church leader to being heavily involved in secular work with his own company. What is interesting is some did not appreciate this new focus because they felt he had abandoned his true calling to do the work of ministry, which he seemed particularly gifted at. We usually hear of the struggles people who wish to leave secular work to commit to church ministry. His was the opposite. Also I had another friend who as a graduate did not know whether to do church ministry or take a job in a company. Underlying all these kind of challenges, which for young people who are Christians can be very difficult, is our understanding of ministry and vocation.
Ministry is one of those words that a lot of times we lose its meaning in the midst of all our spiritual lingo. Ministry simply means to serve and in biblical parlance the one who serves has a master. The believer is the one who has sworn allegiance to the King of all Creation who God raised from the dead and seated him at his right hand. This means our entire lives are lived in the service of our master Jesus. Paul puts it this way in Colossians,
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:17 ESV
It is not only here we find such a statement. Throughout the New Testament the believer is constantly portrayed as someone who is a servant of God. Ministry is a kingdom word in the New Testament. Every loyal subject in a kingdom is the servant of his or her monarch. We need to maintain a kingdom perspective on ministry which is meaningful to every Christian, in every circumstance. Unfortunately today, especially in Charismatic circles, the way ministry ought to be practiced according to the Bible, has been severely hampered by a shrunken, uneven view of ministry in the New Testament. Ministry is now something that mainly goes on in the confines of church meetings instead of something that happens largely outside of it. I believe this largely self-contained understanding has come about mainly through the misreading of the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called… But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men”… And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… – Ephesians 4:1, 7-8, 11-12 ESV
Now the word vocation is from the Latin vocatio which means “to call, to summons.” A vocation is simply a calling, an activity you have been specially selected to do. That is the sense of the word in the above passage from Ephesians 4. We have in verse eleven what is popularly known as the five-fold ministry or the ascension gifts. (I discuss spiritual gifts in greater detail elsewhere.) When Christians think of being called into ministry they generally think of some variation of the five. In my experience I find they are mostly taught as the primary ministries in the New Testament and everything else is supplementary. In mainly Charismatic circles this has led to interesting results.
Since the five are doing “real” ministry and whatever the rest of us do is to support that, it means if we really want to serve God, we do it by serving them. The five are seen as the exclusive club of the true servants of God, therefore our ministry to the Lord has to go through them. None of us have unique identifiable callings like them, so all our attempts at serving him on our own is just fumbling in the dark. They on the other hand are certified agents of God so helping them get their job done is a sure means of your worship reaching God. I imagine Luther and the other Reformers would be turning in their graves if they knew what was going on. It has essentially resulted in a form of neo-Catholicism within the Charismatic Movement, where a person’s worship to God is mediated by another person. This naturally creates a de facto hierarchy where the “men of God” are above the rest of the Church and are treated as such. It also accounts for their often near unquestioned authority which is reminiscent of papal infallibility. In many cases papal infallibility is tamer since it has limits. Especially when it comes to the “prophets”, their word can become unquestioned law in all facets of life and people depend on them for everything, including which side of the bed they sleep on (I wish I was joking about such an extreme.)
This view of ministry in the Church is a horrible, gross misreading of the New Testament. In fact as I reflect on this it accounts for or helps explain so many wrongs in the Charismatic Movement. The greed, the overblown sense of entitlement, the manipulation, all stemming from seeing “minister” as an executive title.
When we read Ephesians 4 carefully from verse one we find Paul addresses all Christians as “called.” He does not single out some as called and others as not. This calling is to participate in his kingdom as heirs (Ephesians 1.) In other words we have been called to have a share in God’s kingdom. He explains in Ephesians 2 that every person in Christ has an equal stake in the kingdom since we are all children of God, making us co-heirs. Since there is one Lord there is essentially one calling, that is, to serve him. Like the Israel of old, Paul wrote that we too have been blessed with certain gifts along with our calling (Romans 11:29; Ephesians 4:7-8.) In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 Paul explains that these gifts are diverse but like the parts in a body, they all work together to serve one single unified purpose. Now when Paul talks about the five-fold ministry he does not describe them as the pinnacle of ministry. They are not the high point of the passage or the broader argument, and beyond the quick mention in Ephesians they are not given more attention in the rest of the letter. They are described as gifted people whose job is to facilitate the gifted body of Christ to serve. They serve others so they can serve the master. Their duty is to help the Church do ministry. They are like the pit crew in Formula One racing. They service the vehicle, keep everything it top shape, so the job of racing can continue at an optimum level. They are not the main attraction but certainly they are an indispensable part of the team.
The overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament is on every Christian being of service to their Master in the world. In Corinth in the early 50s A.D., when egos and personalities were threatening to take centre stage, Paul clearly admonishes them to consider him and other ministers as nothing more than caretakers and stewards (1 Corinthians 4:1.) As far as Paul was concerned they were slaves of God and not his executive officers.