The Purpose And Nature Of Church Ministry
by Rev. Bryn MacPhail

What is the purpose and mission of the Church? How should the Church govern itself? How should the sacraments be administered? More generally, how should ministry be done and for what purpose? In the limited space of this essay, we will attempt to answer all of these questions regarding church ministry--according to Scripture and for the purpose of glorifying God .

Definition of the Church
The church exists in, through, and because of Jesus Christ(Packer 199). J.I. Packer accurately describes the church as "a single worshiping community, permanently gathered in the true sanctuary which is heavenly Jerusalem'(Packer 201). J.I. Packer, at the same time, recognizes that in the present the church appears in the form of local congregations(Packer 201). John Calvin articulates this same distinction by referring to the Church as both "invisible" and "visible". Since our present context is in the "visible" church, we will now endeavour to understand its purpose and mission in the world.

Purpose of the Church
What is God's ultimate purpose for His people? Why did Christ initially institute the church? And for what end does the Spirit continue to constitute the church today? The answer to all three questions is the same: for God's glory . The church exists ultimately for the sake of the glory of the triune God(Grenz 633). Hughes Oliphant Old says the same thing when he argues that "worship, above all else, must serve the glory of God"(Old 2). This distinction, that the church is "an institution established for the glory of God", is also very important to John MacArthur(The Master's Plan For The Church 25). It is important because, as MacArthur has accurately observed, the Church has descended from that purpose(glorifying God) and has instead focused on humanity(The Master's Plan For The Church 25). Instead of emphasizing knowing and glorifying God, it has become "an organization that focuses on man's needs"(The Master's Plan For The Church 25).

Mission of the Church
If it is true, that the Church has descended to focusing on human needs, we need to revisit what might be considered the "mission of the Church". What exactly is it that the Church should be doing? John MacArthur is right in arguing that what "ultimately" makes a church great is "its emphasis on worshiping God"(The Master's Plan For The Church 116). MacArthur goes on to say that "when a church sets its complete focus on God and does everything it can to honour Him, it has a base for uncompromising integrity"(The Master's Plan For The Church 116). Worship then, is the first, fundamental task of every church.

Worship, of course, comes in many shapes and sizes. Aware of this fact, Hughes Oliphant Old employs the same principle acquiesced by this essay, that worship be done "according to Scripture"(Old 3). Old cites as the second fundamental aspect of Christian worship, that it be done "in the name of Christ" who is the Head of the Church(Old 5).

Worship "according to Scripture" and "in the name of Christ"--our foundation for worship-- but what are the marks of worship? As Martin Bucer understood the Scriptures, worship should be characterized by the "proclamation of the Word", the "giving of alms", the "celebration of communion", and the "ministry of prayer"(Old 3). J.I. Packer says much the same when he points out that God no longer prescribes worship in the detailed fashion of Old Testament times, but the New Testament "shows clearly what the staple ingredients of corporate Christian worship are"(Packer 202). Packer understands these to be: praise, prayer, and preaching with regular administration of the Lord's Supper(Acts 20:7-11; Packer 202).

Both Bucer and Packer highlight the "proclamation of the Word" as fundamental to biblical worship. John MacArthur goes one step further by insisting that the church's most important function is "to proclaim the Word of God in an understandable, direct, authoritative way"(The Master's Plan For The Church 57). J.I. Packer agrees, but adds that the task, or mission, of the church is actually twofold . First and fundamentally, Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed everywhere as God Incarnate, Lord, and Saviour. God's invitation to find life through Christ in repentance and faith is to be delivered to the ends of the earth(Packer 223). Secondly, all Christians(all congregations) are called to practice deeds of mercy and compassion, responding to all forms of human need as they present themselves(Lk. 10:25-27; Rom. 12:20-21; Packer 224).

Theologians, quite often, classify this "proclamation of Jesus" as "evangelism" and classify "deeds of mercy" as "social action". John MacArthur speaks about "penetrating the community", but never mentions whether this involves "deeds of mercy", but only that it entails "reaching people for Christ" (The Master's Plan For The Church 107). My hope is this is a matter of emphasis rather than a matter of exclusion, for there are some Christians who find little or no place for social action in the church's mandate. At the same time, it must be said that others wrongly elevate social action to the same plane as proclamation of the Word(Grenz 659). Both extremes should be avoided, and the two(social action and evangelism) should not be pitted against one another. Stanley Grenz rightly reminds us that our Lord "did not describe his task as proclamation in isolation but as proclamation in the context of service"(Grenz 660).

A.W. Tozer, I think, best summarizes the goal of worship. Already stated is that the ultimate goal is to glorify God, but Tozer argues convincingly that the Church glorifies God by becoming united--united in becoming like Christ . To articulate this, Tozer employs the analogy of tuning pianos. If a hundred pianos were merely tuned to each other, their pitch would not be very accurate. But if they were all tuned to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other. Similarly, unity in the church isn't trying to be the same as everyone else. Rather, it is becoming like Jesus Christ(The Master's Plan For The Church 97).

Worship, evangelism, and social action. All three run the temptation of being centred around human needs and when they do, they are an abomination to God. Hughes Oliphant Old reminds us that worship is not a human work, but "the work of the Holy Spirit"(Old 6). And since it is a work of the Spirit, Old argues that "true worship" must be holy. It must come from a people whose lives are "consecrated by God"(Old 6). The same must also be said for evangelism and social action--they must come from a people whose lives are "consecrated by God".

Marketing the Church?
We have endeavoured at some length to unravel the basic mission of the Church. However, it should also be noted what is not the mission of the church. It is necessary to note this because the Church, to a large degree, is engaging in this counterfeit mission.

There has been a trend in recent years towards "luring" people to the Church by presenting Christianity as an "attractive option". John MacArthur rightly points out that "nothing in Scripture" indicates the church should lure people to Christ by presenting Christianity as an "attractive option"(Ashamed Of The Gospel 72). Christianity has been presented, by some, as attractive by erasing the offense of it. MacArthur rightly objects that when the "offense" of Christianity is erased, the message becomes corrupted. MacArthur goes on to say that,

The church must realize that its mission has never been public relations or sales; we are called to live holy lives and declare God's raw truth--lovingly but uncompromisingly--to an unbelieving world"(Ashamed Of The Gospel 72)

MacArthur wisely reminds us that if we concern ourselves with the "depth" of our ministry, God will see to the "breadth" of it(Ashamed Of The Gospel 74). It is difficult to argue with MacArthur's logic that says if people come to church because they find it "entertaining", they will surely leave as soon as they stop being amused or as soon as they find something that interests them more(Ashamed Of The Gospel 74).

John MacArthur, I believe, has accurately traced the philosophy of "marketing the church" to questionable theology. This theology, call it Arminianism or Pelagianism(I realize there is a difference), assumes that if you package the gospel right, people will "get saved". This theology often speaks of conversion in terms of a "decision for Christ". The goal then, of this market-driven ministry is an instantaneous human decision, rather than a radical transformation of the heart wrought by the Holy Spirit. MacArthur believes that an "honest belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation would bring an end to a lot of the nonsense that is going on in the church"(Ashamed Of The Gospel 84,85).

What role does theology play in the Church? A crucial role. What we believe about God shapes our every action. MacArthur insightfully points to the root of the problem. Marketing the Church isn't our problem, poor theology is. Perhaps this is the reason John Calvin insists that it is not enough for the Word of God to be preached--it must be "purely preached"(Inst. 4, 1, 9).

How Should The Church Be Governed?
There are basically three types of church government: the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregational. Seldom will one find any of these in a pure form without admixture of the others(Harrison, Bromiley, and Henry 126). And since all three can be intelligently argued to exist in the New Testament to some degree, it is difficult to canonize any one form. It is beyond question, however, that presbyters occupy an important place in the New Testament church. While the episcopal church understands the New Testament presbyter to be the equivalent of the modern day bishop, it is difficult to defend the presence of a hierarchy of individual leaders(bishops) from the New Testament.

The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a good example of how these presbyters formed a sort of group or committee. And while it seems obvious that James, in some form, moderated the meeting, there is no reason to think that his judgment was unilaterally imposed on the church. For the text says that "it seemed good to the apostles and the elders"(v.22). One could safely say that the same principle that governs the Presbyterian "Book of Forms" is the principle that makes the presbyterian government favourable to the others. The structure of the presbyterian government fosters accountability and removes "all occasion of tyranny"(Book of Forms 4.0).

Church Discipline
In recent years, one of the most scarce practices in the Church has been the practice of discipline. It is strange that while sin has not declined(some would argue it is on the rise!), discipline has. Matthew 18 provides a good model for how to respond when a fellow believer sins against another in a significant way.

John MacArthur reminds us that "the goal of church discipline is not to throw people out, embarrass them, be self-righteous, play God", but it is to return people to "a pure relationship within the assembly"(The Master's Plan For The Church 237). MacArthur argues that to ignore a "sinning brother" is not consistent to the model of a shepherd--a shepherd is not indifferent to a sheep that goes astray(The Master's Plan For The Church 238).

What is the process of discipline? "Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone"(Mt. 18:15). This is, no doubt, a difficult task. One may hear the response, "Get the plank out of your own eye". That is why it is important, in matters of discipline, to "speak the truth in love "(Eph. 4:15, emphasis added). Notice also how the first meeting is between two people. There is no room for gossip. God doesn't say "shout it from the housetops!", He says "go to your brother alone " and "speak the truth in love". Of course there is the potential that our brother or sister will not listen to us. In this instance, Jesus exhorts us to bring "one or two more" with us(Mt. 18:16). MacArthur's understanding of this verse is that God wants us "to confirm either the person's repentance or impenitance"(The Master's Plan For The Church 242). Before any discipline takes place it must be established whether the analysis of the "sinning brother" is accurate.

What is the purpose of this discipline? Restoration . A church can potentially cause a great deal of harm by the manner in which it disciplines. For the goal of restoration to be realized, discipline must be undertaken with great care--care for the issue at hand, and for the person accused.

Understanding The Sacraments
The sacraments, of which there are two(baptism and the Lord's Supper), "have been instituted by the Lord", and are to be accompanied by the Holy Spirit(Inst. 4, 14, 9). This essay concurs with Calvin and J.I. Packer who also maintains that Jesus Christ instituted two rites for His followers to observe: baptism, a one time rite of initiation, and the Lord's Supper, a regular rite of remembrance(Packer 209). While other traditions within Christianity recognize more than two sacraments, we are constrained to recognize only two since our guiding resource, Scripture, only bears witness to the institution of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Definition of Sacrament
Augustine's definition has certainly stood the test of time as being one of the best definitions of sacrament: "An outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace"(Old 124). John Calvin even quotes this definition before presenting his own, a subtle variation on Augustine's: "a testimony of divine grace towards us, confirmed by an outward sign"(Inst. 4, 14, 1).

Purpose of the Sacraments
Calvin rightly maintains that God has instituted sacraments "to be useful aids to foster and strengthen faith"(Inst. 4, 1, 1). Calvin, however, qualifies this by insisting on the presence of the Holy Spirit and preaching, which is required to "beget faith" in the recipient(Inst. 4, 14, 4). The reason we need our faith strengthened, Calvin argues, is because our faith is "feeble" and needs to be "propped up"(Inst. 4, 14, 3). Alister McGrath agrees, elaborating on Calvin's understanding of sacrament and faith, he maintains that the sacraments are "signs of the grace of God, added to the promises of grace in order to reassure and strengthen (our) faith"(McGrath 435). J.I. Packer explains how the sacrament strengthens our faith by saying, "As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means"(Packer 210).

Definition of Baptism
This essay wholeheartedly concurs with John Calvin's definition of baptism,

Baptism is the "sign of the initiation" by which "we are received into the society of the church, in order that . . . we may be reckoned among God's children" (Inst. 4, 15, 1; emphasis added).

Ulrich Zwingli understood the sacrament of baptism in much the same way, arguing it was a sign or emblem which distinguished the members of a community--it was the sign of our entrance into the church(Old 18). Hughes Oliphant Old goes on to elaborate on the meaning of baptism, saying that the "giving of the Spirit" is the "invisible reality" to which the sprinkling of water gives witness(Old 10). Baptism, therefore, is to be seen as the "sign" and "promise" of the giving of the Holy Spirit(Old 10). In addition to the giving of the Holy Spirit, Old asserts that baptism also "signifies the washing away of sin"(Old 13).

Infant vs. Believer Baptism
While this essay advocates the practice of infant baptism, it must be conceded that the New Testament tells us very little about how baptism was administered. For this reason, most arguments regarding the form of baptism have a speculative character to them. And since history attests to the fact that there has never been any unanimity on how baptism should be administered we should not presume the infallibility of our own form.

In its most basic form, the argument in favour of infant baptism can be reduced to this: "baptism is for the Christians what circumcision previously was for the Jews" (Inst. 4, 16, 11; Old 12). The sign of the covenant is given first to confessing members of the covenant and then to the descendents of those confessing members. Calvin's biblical example is Abraham and Isaac. With Abraham, the sacrament follows faith, but with Isaac "it precedes all understanding"(Inst. 4, 16, 24).

The Anabaptists had a very different approach to the sacrament of baptism. They insisted that only those who had undergone a "conversion experience" and had "conscious faith" should be baptized. For the Anabaptists then, baptism was to be a visual confession of faith that one had already been cleansed from sin(Old 21). Their understanding of baptism comes from the conviction that in the New Testament times the Apostles did not baptize children(Old 21).

The Reformers, however, were not convinced that the Apostles had not baptized infants, pointing to several passages in the New Testament which indicated the baptism of "entire households"(Acts 16:25-34; 1Cor. 1:16; Old 22). The writings of Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian also buttress the Reformed view by indicating that infant baptism was practiced from the earliest of times(Old 22).

How Should Baptism Be Carried Out?
Calvin appropriately insists that a baptismal ceremony must be "free from all theatrical pomp" which may "dazzle" the eyes, but "deadens" the mind(Inst. 4, 15, 19). The ceremony should always be "in the assembly of believers", as opposed to a private ceremony(Inst. 4, 15, 19). Martin Bucer, like Calvin, also argued against private baptisms based on the understanding that baptism was the sign of our incorporation into the church and therefore the church should be assembled to celebrate such an event(Old 17). Martin Luther took the "presence of the assembly" one step further by insisting that it is the responsibility of the church to continually support the baptized one in prayer(Old 20). The baptism should be done "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", and should end with "prayers" and "thanksgiving"(Inst. 4, 15, 19). Whether the person being baptized should be "wholly immersed" - once or three times, or sprinkled with poured water is of "no importance" to Calvin as there is no clear mandate to the form of baptism in Scripture(Inst. 4, 15, 19).

The Lord's Supper
Much of the debate over the Lord's Supper has been over the "real presence" of Christ at the table. This essay will not delve into that matter here, subscribing instead to a notion put forth by a former professor of mine: "Who ever argued for the "real absence" of Christ at the table!". While it is true that theologians have debated for centuries how Christ is present at the Eucharist meal, the one thing that should not be a matter of debate is that Christ is indeed present at the Eucharistic meal (Old 116). It is unclear how He is present, but we must recognize He is there nonetheless.

Initially, in the 1st century, the Lord's Supper was a weekly celebration held every Lord's Day morning in celebration of Christ's resurrection(Old 118). For the apostle Paul, the dimension of fellowship was of paramount importance at the Lord's table. This is the main point of 1Corinthians, chapter 11. The celebration of the Lord's Supper should express a mutual concern of all the members of the church for one another(Old 112).

J.I. Packer insightfully observes and describes "three levels" of meaning for the Lord's Supper. The first is a past reference--a remembering of Christ's death on the cross. The second is a present reference to "feeding" on Him by faith, with implications for how we treat our fellow believers. The third level has a future reference as we look ahead and anticipate Christ's return(Packer 219).

Stanley Grenz adequately summarizes what Christians have in the Lord's Supper. We have a "repeated reaffirmation of what we initially declared in baptism--namely, our new identity in Christ"(Grenz 691).

As much as we want to avoid the equation of minister and ministry, to some degree, this is inevitable. Ministry is to be shared by all Christians, but not all Christians are called to the same function. Not all Christians are called to ordained ministry. We must not be shy about the fact that the minister is the leader of the local congregation. Perhaps we will gain confidence in speaking of the minister as "the leader" when we discover how the Bible describes leadership.

Minister as Shepherd
Jesus' favourite metaphor for spiritual leadership, one that He often used to describe Himself, was that of a "shepherd"--one who tends to God's flock(The Master's Plan For The Church 15). Continuing on the metaphor of a shepherd, John MacArthur reminds us how sheep have "no sense of direction" and when lost, need a shepherd to guide them home(The Master's Plan For The Church 170). Quite often, as ministers, our job is to guide lost sheep home. MacArthur also points out how defenseless sheep are. They can't kick, scratch, bite, jump, or run. They need a protective shepherd to be assured of survival(The Master's Plan For The Church 171). In the same way, troubled parishioners are often spiritually defenseless and vulnerable, and require a minister to look out for them.

Now to say that a minister is a "guide" or a "protector" is not to say that church leaders are called to be "governing monarchs". Church leaders, by the example the New Testament gives us, should more closely resemble "humble slaves"--servants characterized by "sacrifice, devotion, submission, and lowliness"(The Master's Plan For The Church 16). Of course, all metaphors/analogies break down. A shepherd usually governs the flock on their own(if you don't count the sheep-dog!), but God does not call ministers to be leaders in isolation. John MacArthur reminds us of the leadership example the apostle Paul gives us. Paul was a team-oriented leader(The Master's Plan For The Church 135 ). He didn't act like a "lone-ranger", but he depended on the support of other people.

Habits of a Minister
Earlier in this essay, the "proclamation of God's Word" was put forth as the primary mission of the Church. If "proclaiming the Word" is as important as we say it is, a minister must be prepared to spend a large portion of their time studying the Scripture. If we are to have any hope in "handling the Word accurately"(2Tim. 2:15), as God calls us, we must be diligent to study, meditate on, and understand God's Word.

The pursuit of understanding Scripture, however, must not be detached from the pursuit of godliness. To be an excellent minister, one must always being trying to be more godly--that is to say, more like Christ. In this pursuit, we have a myriad of resources available to us: prayer, Bible study, the sacraments, service, accountability, and even fasting.

Eugene Peterson argues that there are at least three pastoral acts that are so "critical" that they determine the shape of our ministry. The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction(Working the Angles 2). Peterson is aware that these three acts, "being basic", are "quiet"--they do not call attention to themselves and so are often not attended to(Working the Angles 2). With these three acts of ministry neglected, Peterson argues that our ministry will inevitably suffer(Working the Angles 2). Peterson insists that a pastor cannot go to the pulpit each week and preach the truth accurately without "constant study"("The Business Of Making Saints" 25). "Without study", Peterson argues, "we are sitting ducks for the culture"("The Business Of Making Saints" 25).

The Minister's Job Description: Pastor's or Shopkeepers?
We know the minister is a servant leader that must be committed to their own personal godliness, but what exactly is their "role" as leader of the church? What is their job description? What should ministers be trying to do in their parish?

John Calvin asserts that the office of the pastor has two main functions: "to proclaim the gospel" and "to administer the sacraments"(Inst. 4, 3, 6). While that may very well be true, the Word and the sacraments are really tools in accomplishing God's will for the Church, they are not the goal. The Word, Peterson argues, is where we get our "job description"("The Business Of Making Saints" 26).

Peterson perceives a growing problem among ministers, they have "metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops are churches"(Working the Angles 1). And as "shopkeepers", pastors have become concerned over "how to keep customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money"(Working the Angles 1).

Against this shopkeeper mentality, Peterson argues that the "most important thing" a minister does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, "Let us worship God"("The Business Of Making Saints" 22). Peterson goes on to insist that he "cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to His Word, to offer themselves to God"("The Business Of Making Saints" 22).

Peterson summarizes his job description by arguing that the minister's "primary work" is to "make saints". And since we are in the "saint-making business", we are losing our calling if we enter the "human-potential business"("The Business Of Making Saints" 22).

Making Saints
What Peterson calls, "making saints", Scripture calls "equipping the saints"(Eph. 4:12). Peterson contends that ministers are to "call people to discipleship" and help them to engage in the "formation of a spiritual life"("The Business Of Making Saints" 22). As ministers, we must resolve to do more than "spoon feed" our parishioners from week to week. Ministry must be shared by all of God's people. Ministry of "equipping", of course, can take many forms. This may mean developing courses for elders and Sunday school teachers. This may mean offering seminars on evangelism, missions, and youth work. This may also mean bringing parishioners with you on pastoral visits until they feel comfortable going out on their own.

John MacArthur goes beyond the external equipping to describing equipping the saints in terms of developing "proper spiritual attitudes in the hearts of the people"(The Master's Plan For The Church 31). MacArthur argues that it does little good trying to make people behave in a certain way, but if he can shape their attitudes they will naturally do the right thing(The Master's Plan For The Church 32). At the same time, MacArthur also insists that every church should emphasize discipleship. This conclusion is born out of MacArthur's conviction that "every Christian should be involved in edifying other believers"(The Master's Plan For The Church 106).

Conclusion: The Church Must Be Dynamic In Its Pursuit Of Holiness and God's Glory
John MacArthur rightly argues that a church must be "dynamic". That is to say that the church will be involved in the lives of its people. Church shouldn't be a place where people go and "watch things happen". Members cannot merely come on Sunday, sit down, walk out, and say they are involved in church(The Master's Plan For The Church 109). MacArthur reminds us that "there's nothing sacred about tradition"(The Master's Plan For The Church 114). MacArthur goes on to argue that "a dynamic church should regularly burst out of old methods that are no longer effective"(The Master's Plan For The Church 114). Most Presbyterians have heard this joke many times, "How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light? It takes five. One to change it and four to say they 'liked the old one better'". To remain "spiritually alive", MacArthur argues, "a church must adapt to the needs of people"(The Master's Plan For The Church 115). We must rid ourselves of the seven words of a dying church, "We've never done it that way before". J.I. Packer understands the church in much the same way. Packer observes that the New Testament teaches that "all Christians will share in the life of the church, meeting with it for worship(Heb.10:25), accepting its nurture and discipline(Mt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1), and sharing in its work of witness"(Packer 202).

As the Christian Church we must seek nothing short of the glory of God. To glorify God, we must do His will. And to know God's will, we must mediate on, and study, the Scriptures. How we worship, how we proclaim the gospel, how we serve others, and how we lead the flock should always be determined by the Scriptures. These requirements, no doubt, call for hard work. Ministry is hard work. J. Oswald Sanders wrote that if we are "unwilling to pay the price of fatigue for (our) leadership it will always be mediocre"(Sanders 175). That being said, it is at the same time humbling to observe that when we succeed in ministry it is because of Him, not us. And when we fail in ministry it is because of us, not Him(The Master's Plan For The Church 118).

So let us labour hard for the gospel. We must do our part. And may God be glorified in our striving, and may He, in His wisdom and sovereignty, choose to bless that work and add to our number.


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