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The Ministry of All Believers by Howard Snyder: Part 1

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 03-05-2012


Call it revolution or reformation – the church’s understanding of ministry is changing radically.

Ministry is in crisis today. Seminarians say they don’t feel called to the traditional pastoral role, and young men and women in pastoral service tell me. “I don’t fit here.”  A young man with a M.Div. degree, two years out of seminary, wrote, “My wife and I just don’t feel at home here. We have lots of questions about the traditional pastoral role we’re placed in, and we feel isolated.” He was serving as an assistant pastor, working closely with the senior pastor and with a group of people who know and love the Lord. But he felt something was out of focus and out of gear. He felt he was spinning wheels instead of building community.

This is not an isolated example. Several currents are combining to challenge and undermine the traditional pastoral role.  While most seminaries will operate on a professional school model (the religious counterpart to a legal or medical school), here and there that model is being challenged.  Biblical images of pastors as equippers and disciples are beginning to yeast their way into the church. On the other hand, in many local churches the expectation, both official and unofficial, is that the pastor is the professional religionist, the expert, not the equipper and catalyst.  The pastor is the one who does the religious work for the people, not the one to turns “laymen” into ministers. Often we fail to feel the force of our models. We expect doctors to treat us, not to train us to treat others.  We expect lawyers to give us expert advice, not to admit us to the secret fraternity of those who understand how the legal system works.  Likewise, we want pastors to serve us, not to build and train us.  But this is the wrong model, biblically speaking. Jesus explicitly rejected the religious and legal professional models of his day when he talked about ministry (Matt.23:1-12).


When people hear that someone is a minister or is “called to the ministry,” they automatically think of the ordained pastoral function.

In this kind of thinking, the worst thing that can be said of a pastor is that he “has left the ministry.” In some cases, however, that person has in fact just entered the ministry!

Protestants have always held, at least theoretically, to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. For the most part this doctrine has been understood soteriologically rather than ecclesiologically.  That is, it has been understood to mean that all Christians have direct access to God without the mediation of a human priest. But the implications of this doctrine for Christian ministry have seldom been drawn out.  Perhaps the reason is that these implications radically call into question the clergy/laity split by asserting that all believers are priests and therefore ministers.

And yet, if we trace centuries of church history, we find that renewal has often accompanied a widening understanding and practice of Christian ministry.  As the church institutionalizes, it narrows its view of ministry to the point where only certain people at certain times with certain training can perform God’s real work. But in renewal movements, both pre- and post-Reformation, ministry that was restricted to a certain place, time and people, often broke through those barriers and was given anew to the whole body of Christ.

One example is the Franciscan revival. When Francis heard that he should go and preach the gospel, he thought that’s what he should do. So he went about, un-ordained, preaching the gospel to the poor. He touched both a raw nerve and a deep hunger. Soon thousands of young men, and later young women were actually ministering Jesus’ love, following Francis’s example.  They did this within the church, and yet knowing that their practice was in part a judgment on the church.

Many other examples could be cited, ranging from early reform and monastic movements in the church’s first several centuries to the evangelical revivals of recent centuries. The Confessing Church in Nazi Germany and many house fellowships and Christian communities today are further examples.   When the Holy Spirit softens the church, he breaks down the barriers to ministry.

My purpose here, however, is to set the ministry question is a biblical framework.  What would a biblical understanding of Christian ministry really look like? It certainly starts with the fact that all Christians are people (laity or laos) of God.  And it therefore cannot avoid questioning the clericalism and professionalism that have encrusted the church’s understanding of ministry for centuries.

If we take our questions concerning ministry to the Scriptures, we find rich material from several perspectives.  It seems to me that three of these perspectives interlock into a threefold basis for Christian ministry.  This basis has been valid ever since the institution of the new Covenant and is especially significant for the understanding and practice of God’s people today.

The three foundation stones for the ministry of God’s people are: The priesthood of all believers, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the servant-hood example of Jesus.

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