Re-Defining how we think about Ministry

Ministry is one of the most common words we hear in the church world.  Check the web page of any evangelical church, and they list; children’s ministry, women’s ministry, high school ministry, music ministry, men’s ministry, etc.  They are indeed ministry, but the way we’ve used that term has caused most believers to misunderstand its true meaning.  The leaders of the Reformation were intentional about restoring the Biblical understanding, and we would do well to revisit their teaching.  They explicitly established that a believer’s occupation is aministry.  Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to help people understand that their vocation is not just a place for ministry but rather, the actual work they accomplish, is a ministry.  Helping people understand that is a priority for me, so when asked to speak at a men’s conference, I began with the following statement.

“Let me start by giving you a little personal history.  I was formerly a layman like most of you, but in 1980, the Lord led me into the ministry.  I had always taught Sunday School, led Bible studies and worked with a  high school ministry called, “Young Life.”  But now it’s so rewarding to have all my efforts count for Jesus rather than most of my time being taken up with secular work.  I truly wish that all of you could experience the joy of being in full-time ministry.  Over the years, many have said to me if income weren’t an issue I would love to be in full-time ministry.  I pray that will happen to some of you but until then, at least by your prayers and finances you can support someone who is in the ministry.”

After a slight pause I said; “As arrogant and obnoxious as that sounds it’s very close to the way our church culture has taught us to think, but it’s, stinking thinking.”  The church has allowed and at times knowingly promoted a two-tier community of clergy and laity.  I strongly disagree with this because the clergy-laity distinction isn’t in the New Testament.  Hellenized believers (Those influenced by Greek thought) introduced it to the church in the third century.  Then it was handed down to us by way of tradition, but Jesus warned us about that.  “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.  (Mark 7:13)  There’s nothing wrong with traditions unless they violate the Word of God.  I love many traditions because they’ve played a major role in developing family unity.  So there are many good traditions, but there are others that we need to abandon.  Many of our spiritual forefathers taught that the clergy-laity distinction is one of those bad traditions.  Here are a couple of examples.

Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and famously declared that justification is by faith alone.  It’s less known that he also strongly rejected the dichotomy between spiritual and secular occupations.  Luther more than any other person challenged this idea as harmful to the body of Christ.  Today’s evangelical church exists because of the reformation but often fosters the very thing that Luther rejected.  To him, “all work from the blacksmith who shod mules, to the priest who administered the sacraments was a divine assignment.”

Luther quotes:

  1. Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood, indeed, I advise everyone against it unless he is fore-armed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however, holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God, by faith alone.” 
  2. “…The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader.  If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor…”

William Tyndale, (1526)another Reformation leader is known as the Father of our English Bible.  His knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures led him to oppose the hierarchal structure of the Church of England.  They taught that only the Clergy could read and interpret the Bible.  The church convicted him of heresy for opposing that view, and he was burned at the stake for making statements like these:  “If we look externally there appears to be a difference between washing dishes and preaching a sermon but to God, none at all.”  He also said, “there is no work better than another to please God; to wash dishes, be a cobbler or an apostle, all are one.”

These men and others believed and taught this because they understood what the Bible means when it speaks of ministry.  In the New Testament, the primary word for ministry is Diakonia (dee-ak-on-ee’-ah).  The literal meaning of that word is, “one who serves.”  (As waiting on tables)  So to serve is to minister.  Since we claim to serve God, our goal is to find out where and in what capacity He wants us to serve Him.  With that attitude, one can be a minister as a banker, homemaker, plumber, doctor, farmer, mechanic, executive, police officer, garbage collector, builder, or pastor.  Your daily work is your ministry if you believe that God has led you into your current occupation.

This isn’t the way most believers think today, and you can prove it to yourself.  When you hear the word “ministry,” what comes to your mind?  You probably will not think about the believing mechanic that fixes your car.  Or ask this question of your friends, “Do you know anyone in the ministry?”  They will most likely mention a pastor, missionary or Para-church leader, etc.  Or ask your pastor or anyone on staff or even the average member about the ministries in their church.  They will mention those that happen at the church but will not think to tell you about a member who serves Jesus and the community as a businessperson.  For that reason, it’s regrettable, that most believers do not consider themselves to be ministers.  Even worse, some pastors don’t consider them ministers either and sadly, that’s true even in the best of churches.  I’m confident that many Pastors would disagree with that, but I was present when the following incident took place.  It reveals an unrecognized commonly held thought process.  A young man was planning to go to medical school after his undergraduate studies.  He took a job as a summer intern in his home church and later decided to forego medical school and join the high school staff.  In announcing this to the church, they said; “We are so pleased that God has led Doug away from medicine and into the ministry.” Using the metaphor of an airplane flight, it’s as if they said; we’re glad that God moved Doug from “economy” into “first class.”  I felt like standing up to protest, but I didn’t because I can’t change the culture with a statement.  What I will do is use every opportunity to educate believers about the true meaning of ministry.

God’s desire is for all believers to be His ministers and that includes pastors.  The Holy Spirit appoints them and gives them the role of equipping the church to do the work of the ministry. (Eph 4:12-13)  Their specific ministry is to serve those who serve, so that might be one of the reasons the Bible says they are worthy of double honor.  (1 Tim. 5:17)

Conclusion

Scripture says that Jesus is the creator and sustainer of the visible and invisible and holds all things together. (Col. 1:16-17)  God’s desire is for every believer to be His junior partner in His ongoing work of sustaining creation, and meeting the needs of society.  This paper is written with the hope that you will come to believe that however grand or trivial your work is, it’s ministry and is valuable to God.  If you think, God is calling you to do something else, then respond to His call.  However, if not then you’re job is your ministry until He moves you.  Preaching a sermon or teaching first graders in the public school is of equal importance to God IF both people can say, “To the best of my knowledge I am doing what God wants me to do.”  When any work is done with that attitude, it’s ministry.