Friday, June 11, 2010

The NT Concept of Ministry - a small excursus

We now need to take a small excursus from our topic of ordination so that you can understand where I am coming from in the next post in our ordination series. This excursus on the concept of ministry, as I see it in the New Testament, is by not way exhaustive. It's just a short intro to a larger and longer conversation.

Like many Biblical terms, the term ministry is often misunderstood due to inappropriate use of language. Terminology like “the call into the ministry” and “the minister of ______” often unintentionally create a clergy/laity division: the clergy are the ministers in the congregation and need to be set aside by means of ordination, while, even if some members of the laity might receive the appellation of lay ministers, the laity often see themselves as something less than ministers. But what does Scripture teach about ministry?

A quick lexical search in the New King James translation of the New Testament reveals that, as in the case of ‘ordain’, the ‘minister’ family of terms actually translates ten Greek terms which represent five families of terms. Unlike ‘ordain’ though, there is much more cohesion, since approximately 80% of the time the ‘minister’ family of terms is translated by the diakonos family of terms.[1] Eduard Schweizer, in Church Order in the New Testament, while discussing the concept of ‘office’, looks at all the terms used in Koine Greek which convey the idea of office or ruler: archē, “office in the sense of precedence, being at the head, ruling;” archôn, “ruler;” timē, “office in the sense of a position of dignity;” telos, used outside the NT to define “the complete power of office;” leitourgia, “service undertaken by the citizens for the community, and by the worshippers for the gods, and in the Septuagint (about 100 times) the ceremonial service performed by the priest;” and leitourgos, one performing leitourgia. He concludes that outside of their use for Judaism, pagan religions, and the political system of the time, these terms are primarily used (with the exception of Paul’s being called leitourgos in Romans 15:16) to refer solely to Christ Himself.[2] To be complete, there are three more exceptions to this pattern not mentioned by Schweizer: in Philippians 2:25 Epaphroditus is described as one who ministered (leitourgos) to the needs of Paul; in Acts 13:2 the verb leitourgeô is used of the ministering to the Lord going on in Antioch; and in Romans 15:27 the same verb is used of the churches in Macedonia and Achaia ministering to the church in Jerusalem in material things. Considering the limited number of exceptions, Schweizer then proceeds to point out the overwhelming use of diakons and opines on the appropriateness of its use. He concludes that:

In view of the large number of terms available, the evidence of the choice of words is unmistakable. … all the New Testament witnesses are sure of one decisive fact: official priesthood, which exists to conciliate and mediate between God and community, is found in Judaism and paganism; but since Jesus Christ there has been only one such office - that of Jesus himself. It is shared by the whole Church, and never by one church member as distinct from others. Here therefore there is without exception the common priesthood, with no laity.[3]

Lexically, an understanding of the concept of ministry must come from an understanding of the diakons family of terms and how they are used in the New Testament. This family of terms includes the noun diakonos, the adjective diakonia, and the verb diakoneô and in a variety of different ways embodies the idea of service. Since a study of the understanding of diakonos could constitute an entire paper in itself, we will here only look at a few selected illustrative examples of its usage in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:11-12 we are told that Christ “Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry (diakonia), for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Christ, therefore, has given certain gifts[4] to His body for the purpose of equipping the body to be able to serve Him.[5] Obviously then, the work of the ministry of the church is the work of the entire body, not of a select few. In 1 Peter 4:10, Peter encourages believers by exhorting them: “as each one has received a gift, minister (diakoneô) it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Here we see that every member of the body of Christ possesses at least one gift and is exhorted to use it in service to others.[6] Again, the work of the ministry of the church is the work of the entire body, not of a select few. So, one can conclude that the ministry of the church is a ministry grounded in service and is required of all believers personally, not by proxy.

What do you think about this understanding of ministry and how it impacts the concept of ordination?

[1] The next closest is the λειτουργός family of terms with approximately 15%. The other three terms are ὑπηρέτης, “helper, assistant,” used by Jesus to describe to Paul the works that Jesus had for him to do in Acts 26:16; ἐργάζομαι, “practice, perform, officiate at,” the temple by the pagan ministers in 1 Cor 9:13; ἱερουργέω, “to act in some cultic or sacred capacity,” used of Paul ministering the Gospel to the gentiles in Rom 15:16. Definitions from BDAG.

[2] Eduard Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, trans. Frank Clarke (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1961), 171-176. Definitions from Schweizer.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] For a discussion of the understanding of this passage as a list of gifts, see my article: “Ephesians 4:11 - Spiritual gifts or positions?

[5] For this understanding see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 349; and Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians – An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 550-51.

[6] See Paige Patterson, A Pilgrim Priesthood – An Exposition of First Peter (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 159.


David Rogers said...


I hope things are going well for you and Cindy there in Texas.

So far, as far as I can tell, I agree with everything you are saying in this series.

Though it is not as detailed, nor as scholarly, as your series here, I wrote about this same topic on a post a few months back at SBC Impact. I would be interested to know if you agree with what I wrote there:

John S Wilson III said...

Great job of research on this Mael! This lends itself to ask the question why only a select few are considered to be "ministers of the gospel" by only a select few in the organized or institutional church. I think the realization that Jesus is THE Servant and because He lives in every Christian, member of the body of Christ, then as we live by His life, we organically serve one another as He leads and guides. Having a professional clergy in a spectator form of church, does more to supplant and hinder Christ's headship of His body and empowerment by the Holy Spirit to live through His people.

Maël said...

David: Things are well in TX. After reading your post, I would say that it seems that we are on the same page.

John: I do agree that "a professional clergy in a spectator form of church" harms the body of Christ, even if done with very good intentions (which I think is the case with most typical churches today).

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