Saturday, January 16, 2016

Seminary PC6: A Theology of Calling

This post concludes the first "chapter" of this "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. This first section has been on the "Calling of a Minister." Today I wanted to feature Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim's recent book The Permanent RevolutionI do not agree with all of it, but it certainly stimulates some juices with regard to possible models for ministry in the church today, based in Ephesians 4:11.

Here are the posts in this chapter so far:


The Pastor and Context
1. The Domains of Ministry
2. The Calling of a Minister
3. Ministerial Calling in Scripture
4. Ministerial Calling in History
5. God can call anyone to ministry.

1. There is a sense in which every Christian is a minister. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul pictures a community where some share wisdom and knowledge (12:8). Some are known for their faith (12:9). Some work miracles, others bring prophetic revelation or speak in tongues (12:10). Paul was not giving an absolute list of gifts here, nor was he setting up a structure for how ministry should work in every local congregation for all time. Indeed, Paul would probably have been quite surprised to learn that two thousand years would pass before Christ returned.

This is perhaps the biggest mistake made in these sorts of discussions. There are the unexamined assumptions that 1) passages like these were setting down absolute, timeless structures and 2) that we are supposed to use the same structures today that they used then. We can build on these passages to be sure when thinking about the ideal shape of ministry. Why not? Surely the early church should be there with us in any discussion about why and how ministry should be shaped today.

But before we appropriate these sorts of passages, we should keep in mind that Paul's letters were primarily "occasional," written to address the concerns and needs of specific churches. And we should also keep in mind that the books of the Bible addressed "that time" in the first instance. The more concrete the biblical instruction was to them, the more likely it will be more indirect for us.

2. The interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12 that has become common sees the function of apostles, prophets, and other forms of ministry as "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry." In this model, one of the main functions of ministry leaders is to train the rest of the church to do most of the ministry on the ground. [1] This interpretation builds on the 1 Corinthians 12 picture of everyone in the church using their gifts in worship, and in fact Ephesians 4:7 probably draws on this basic idea that God has given everyone in the church certain gifts.

In Romans 12:4-8, Paul presents the same model to the Romans, although the list is a little different. Everyone in the church plays his or her role. Some lead. Some serve. Some give. Some do acts of mercy. Some teach. Some prophesy. Some encourage.

3. It is essential to recognize that the forms of ministry change over time because of the contexts in which we minister. It is not wrong to have a paid position called a "youth pastor" or a "children's pastor" just because the Bible does not mention this sort of role. Nor do we need to have a hired prophet on staff. We do not have to call our church boards a "board of elders" and we don't have a position we call "deacons."

We are free to do so, but "description is not prescription." Just because the New Testament church had a certain form in an ancient Mediterranean context does not mean that form will work the best in our contexts any more than a North American form would be the best for a church in China, Africa, or Latin America today. It would be the height of foolishness to think so.

4. What then are the more timeless distinctions? First, there is a distinction between what we might call formal and informal ministry. Churches usually have "positions" that various people occupy and then there are volunteers and those who minister informally. These positions will vary from church to church, from denomination to denomination.

It seems very difficult to have a Christian assembly without any formal position, although there have certainly been such groups. For example, Quakers used to shy away from formal leadership. Church meetings often involved everyone sitting quietly until someone felt led to say something. Then when it seemed appropriate, everyone left. The house church movement also shies away from official leadership.

But these sorts of groups have always been in the minority. On the whole, a lack of clear leadership structure seems more a hindrance to the healthy functioning of a church rather than a help. Without clear leadership, dominant personalities assert themselves into the void. Chaos, rather than the Spirit, tends to rule the day. Even the apostle Paul introduced structure to the Corinthian church when its worship got out of hand because of the over-domination of charisma.

5. There are thus two-poles in play in a ministry environment. The one is official structure or institutional structure. The other is charisma. These are both important ingredients and poles of ministry, even though they can pull against each other.

Throughout history, God has steered his people between these two poles. When institution is stifling the church, he raises a Martin Luther. When the official prophets are just saying what the king wants to hear, he raises up an Elijah (1 Kings 18:17) or a Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Although preachers today often play a prophetic role, the prophetic role in general is one that usually comes outside the normal institutional structures.

For example, when Josiah wants to know what to do with the Book of the Law (probably some form of Deuteronomy), he goes to the high priest. The high priest holds the official position of power. But the high priest goes to a prophetess named Huldah. She stands on her own as someone to whom God had given "charismatic" authority outside the normal institutional structures (2 Kings 22).

There are dangers on both poles. Institution often stifles the Spirit. But charisma can burn down a house. A healthy organism needs both structure and innovation. God steers the church in either direction as needed.

6. So there should always be informal, Spirit-driven ministry in the church. There should always be "lay" ministry going on, where "lay" ministry refers to individuals who are not "ordained" by a church institution. When we get to congregational formation and congregational relationships, we will return to these informal or even formal ministries of believers in the church. Even non-ordained ministry can be either structured or charismatic.

However, at this point in the series we are concerned with formal ministry and especially with those who feel called to life-long ministry. For example, we are talking about a level of ministry where church leaders might feel led to lay hands on a person and "anoint" them for special service. The individual in question feels the call of God on his or her life, and the church recognizes and officially endorses that calling.

So Samuel was prompted to go to David and anoint him as king. The church at Antioch felt led to lay hands on Timothy for life-long service. There are many forms of ministry. One of them is formal, ordained ministry, where a group of believers official recognizes the gifts and graces of a person who senses a call to life-long ministry. [2] Sometimes it is full-time ministry. Sometimes it is not.

7. Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim have recently suggested that the five roles of Ephesians (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher) might serve in some way as a model not only for ministry leadership but for Christians in general. [3] While they have probably seen these roles as more extensive and more absolute than they were originally, they give us a recent place to start in thinking of the different kinds of callings a person might have to formal ministry.

In a previous post, we talked at least about what apostles and prophets looked like in the early church. Today, the oldest model takes the apostles to represent official authority on the highest level. [4] They defend the beliefs and practices of the church as they have been passed down throughout the ages. Their "deposit" of faith is found in most concentrated form in Scripture. Some are called to high leadership of this sort.

It is almost an oxymoron to think of prophetic ministry as something that can be institutionalized. God raises up prophets wherever and whenever he wishes, often outside ordained ministry. But God also raises up prophets among those who are the preachers and teachers of a group. The role is not limited in any way to formal position.

Today, evangelists are those who take the good news to the world outside the church. They can be local or they can be global. They face outside. They focus on mission. It is a ministerial function that was often neglected until the rise of evangelicals like John Wesley and George Whitfield in the 1700s.

Certainly local groups of believers need shepherding and teaching. These roles have historically had a place of primacy in the church. The local pastor or priest visited the sick and discipled believers. Recent centuries have seen some balancing out of this inward focus.

It would probably wrong to pigeonhole ministers into exclusive functions. Surely all those ministers who are called to life-long ministry should be witnesses to the gospel, for example. But we do see individuals with natural gifts that lean in one or another direction. Some ministers are natural born teachers. Some even become teachers of ministers on the college or seminary level. [5]

Some ministers have a gift for shepherding and caring for a local congregation. Some have a gift for discipleship. Others have a gift for mission. Some feel called to go beyond their local community to other cultures or places in the world.

We will return in later parts of this series to possible ways to structure the ministries of the church and its leadership. For the moment, we should not stereotype callings to ministry, as if ministers fit neatly in certain boxes.

8. In the end, there is no one rubric for those God calls to minister for a lifetime. It would be unwise to pigeonhole them. There are those who are more naturally suited to face inward toward the church and there are those who are naturally suited to be more outwardly facing. There are those who are more gifted for leadership and those who are more gifted to minister in the trenches. The specific positions that correspond to these gifts may vary from time to time and place to place.

Then there are those who are not called for life-time ministry. There are those that God calls for a specific season or purpose and the church commissions them for that service. All Christians are called to play a role in the church and, in that sense, all Christians are ministers.

Next Saturday: The Person of the Pastor 1

[1] This interpretation is not nearly as obvious as most assume. The roles that Ephesians 4:11 mentions all sure sound like leading roles. It could just as easily, perhaps even more easily be argued that the sentence should be translated: God gave them these leadership roles "for the development of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building of the body of Christ."

[2] I would not want to say that God never calls someone for just a season of time. God can call people for specific tasks, just as he called Amos to be a prophet on one occasion. My own church used to speak of "commissioning" people for those sorts of more specialized or seasonal tasks.

[3] Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[4] Hirsch and Catchim strongly disagree with this perspective on the apostles. To them, apostles reflect the most innovative and itinerant type of ministry of all. It's not necessarily wrong to apply the picture of the early apostles this way. They are simply focusing on a different aspect of the earliest apostles' ministry, while we are focusing more on the way in which the early church appropriated their ministries.

It is common, however, especially in charismatic and missional circles, to take the apostles as a model of high missional authority.

[5] I personally believe that most of those who train ordained ministers should be called to ministry as well.

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