What is Ministry?

9th in a Series on Developing a Theology of Ministry

            Is ministry a special vocation to which a select few are called – through ordination – or is ministry something that all Christians share in?   Martin Luther spoke of the “priesthood of all believers,” an idea that has biblical roots, but he didn’t reject the idea of a special class of leadership.  There have been those, however, especially in the Anabaptist tradition, who have embraced a much more flat sense of church and ministry.  The question is – how should we understand this?  Or, where does ministry emerge from?

Definitions of Ministry

We will start with the definition provided by Kathleen Cahalan:

Ministry is leading disciples through the practices of teaching, preaching, worship, pastoral care, social ministry, and administration; for the sake of discipleship lived in relationship to God’s mission; as a public act discernable in word, deed, and symbol; on behalf of a Christian community; as a gift received through faith and baptism, charism, and vocation that is acknowledged by the community in rituals of commissioning, installation, and ordination; and as a practice that exists within a diverse array of ecclesial contexts, roles and relationships. [1]

In this definition ministry is a specific vocation or calling undertaken by those the church recognizes, but whom God calls and empowers through gifts (charisms).  This is a specific calling to lead disciples through specific practices that we will look at later. 
            Cahalan’s definition of ministry can be compared with that developed by the Faith and Order Commission and published as part of the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry Document in 1982.  In that document it is noted that while all are called to ministry, there is precedent in the ministry of Jesus for recognizing certain persons for specific forms of ministry, ministry that recognized by the church through ordination, persons authorized for leadership in the church.

15.    The authority of the ordained minister is rooted in Jesus Christ, who has received it from the Father (Matt. 28:18), and who confers it by the Holy Spirit through the act of ordination. This act takes place within a community which accords public recognition to a particular person. Because Jesus came as one who serves (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:27), to be set apart means to be consecrated to service. Since ordination is essentially a setting apart with prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the ordained ministry is not to be understood as the possession of the ordained person but as a gift for the continuing edification of the body in and for which the minister has been ordained. Authority has the character of responsibility before God and is exercised with the cooperation of the whole community. 

16.     Therefore, ordained ministers must not be autocrats or impersonal functionaries. Although called to exercise wise and loving leadership on the basis of the Word of God, they are bound to the faithful in inter-dependence and reciprocity. Only when they seek the response and acknowledgment of the community can their authority be protected from the distortions of isolation and domination. They manifest and exercise the authority of Christ in the way Christ himself revealed God's authority to the world, by committing their life to the community. Christ's authority is unique. "He spoke as one who has authority (exousia), not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:29). This authority is an authority governed by love for the "sheep who have no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). It is confirmed by his life of service and, supremely, by his death and resurrection. Authority in the Church can only be authentic as it seeks to conform to this model.[2]

This definition of ministerial calling and authority is rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus (Christology).  It is authorized by him and embodied by him.

            In the recently adopted Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – adopted in 2009 – it is affirmed that God calls all believers into ministry through baptism.   We are gifted differently (charisms), but we’re all called and gifted.  With that as a foundation, this document affirms the setting aside of certain persons for representative ministry.

Within the ministry of the whole people of God there is, and has been since the early church, representative ministry called by God and set apart by the Church for distinctive functions. The Commissioned and the Ordained are both of the laos, but in recognizing God’s call to particular individuals, the Church designates persons “to re-present to the Church its own identity and calling in Jesus Christ” (The Nature of the Church, A Word to the Church on Ministry). Authority and blessing to perform this ministry are celebrated  in Ordination and Commissioning.[3]

As we look at these three sets of definitions -- what doe they say about how ministry is understood theologically?  Are these definitions adequate for the current age?

[1] Kathleen Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Liturgical Press, 2011), p. 55.
[3] Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  http://www.disciples.org/Portals/0/PDF/TFPCOM/TFPCOM-Final.pdf


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