Revisiting "Every Member a Minister"

A friend recently shared an article with me that highlights a common error regarding the concept of "ministry." For example, it is common to hear slogans like, "Every member a minister." Or, to be asked, "What is your ministry?" Or, to hear 501(c)3 non-profit organizations say, "Conferences are our ministry." Such an egalitarian view of "ministry" detracts from and diminishes the noble and glorious character and high calling of "the ministry."

There is ONE ministry but there are multiple vocations. 

Paul is clear in Ephesians 4 that there is only ONE ministry that Christ has given to duly ordained officers of His visible church- Word and sacrament (see Article 23 in the 39 Articles). There is ONE ministry but there are multiple vocations. It is not necessary to baptize one's vocation (pun intended) by referring to it as "ministry" in order to give it significance or to make it count in one's life. 

"All believers are sheep but not all believers are shepherds."

All believers are sheep but not all believers are shepherds. All believers have been called by Christ to saving faith but not all believers have been called and entrusted with the one ministry of Christ's church. Michael Horton writes, "Although all believers are priests, not all are pastors."

"Although all believers are priests, not all are pastors."

David Gordon has written an excellent journal article that revisits "the equipping ministry" of Ephesians 4:11-12. Dr. Gordon provides a much-needed corrective to the popular but erroneous egalitarian view that Paul, in Ephesians 4:12, teaches that "pastors" are to "equip the saints for the work of ministry." He corrects the misguided notion that the "ministry" of the church is done by the "saints."

To be sure, Dr. Gordon is not teaching sacerdotalism. Sacerdotalism is the view that with ordination a person receives the ability to administer the sacraments and thus to convey God's grace in a priestly manner. Also, it is used to indicate an excessive domination or reliance on clergy in the life of the church.

Certainly, all believers have been given gifts for the benefit of the whole body. Paul lays this out clearly in passages like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. "Every believer," writes, Michael Horton, "shares equally in the gift of grace." However, believers have differing gifts in the church as the Spirit appoints. Thus, in the context of Ephesians 4, the "gifted ones" the ascended Christ has poured out upon His church are church officers (i.e., the ordinary offices of evangelists, pastors and teachers; the extraordinary offices of prophets and Apostles have come to an end)

Rather than espousing a sacerdotal view of ministry, Dr. Gordon gives a proper understanding of the three-fold purpose of the ascended Christ's "gifts" (lit. gifted ones), which He has poured out on His church for the benefit of His church. The three-fold purpose of these "gifted ones" is where the misunderstanding lies.

What is the purpose of for the ascended Christ's gifts? The threefold purpose is clear in the KJV translation:

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

Paul then goes on in 4:13-16 to disclose the purpose of this threefold purpose, namely to complete the saints with the ministry of the Word so that they will be united in the faith and in the mature knowledge of Christ instead of being children who are carried about by every wind of doctrine. The result is that all believers grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ (Eph. 4:13-16)

And so, as Michael Horton notes, "It is the saints in general who are being built up into a structure with Christ as its head. They are equipped not for this ministry but by this ministry for other godly callings in the church and in the world.

"They are equipped not for this ministry but by this ministry for other godly callings in the church and in the world."

This proper view of the equipping ministry in Ephesians 4 restores and upholds the noble and glorious calling of the one "ministry" while at the same time providing great comfort and assurance to all believers that their work is not of less importance or in vain because it is not "ministry."

Dr. Derek Brown has written a helpful article entitled, "Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Vocation: A Matter of Discipleship." He argues that the Evangelical church would do well to rediscover Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation, which Gene Veith calls, “a theology for the ordinary life.” Dr. Brown points out how the medieval church taught that certain callings in life were inherently more holy than others (i.e., a sacred vs. secular distinction). The priest, for example, was in a better position to secure his place in heaven than the cobbler, for the former served God while the latter only served self.

In response to this false dichotomy of sacred and secular work, Martin Luther rediscovered the doctrine of vocation, which is an appendix to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.

Dr. Brown notes how Martin Luther recaptured the word 'vocation' and used it to refer to every calling a Christian might legitimately fulfill: cobbler, farmer, baker, blacksmith, wife, mother, civil servant, and so on. . . The doctrine of justification by faith alone removed the distinction between so-called sacred and secular employments.

Dr. Brown writes, "A clear implication of the doctrine of justification was that there were no unique spheres of religious activity that provided exclusive access to the kind of works that were pleasing to God. Rather, when a sinner is declared righteous apart from works, he is free to perform good works in every area of his life: in the home, at the kiln, on the farm, or in the public square. Delivered from the need to secure his salvation by rigorous attention to the sacraments, the believer is now truly free to serve his neighbor."

Dr. Brown continues,

"Luther’s redefinition of good works enabled the believer to see that any work conducted in faith was an opportunity to reflect his Creator and love his neighbor. A mother provides food, clothing, and a well kept home for her closest neighbors—her children and husband. The cobbler provides quality footwear to his customers and a reasonable living to anyone he might employ. The farmer supplies food for the greater community. The blacksmith forges tools that will enable his neighbor to work efficiently and effectively. The pastor provides spiritual sustenance for the men and women in his congregation. In every case, the Christian is exercising dominion in their specific calling and serving their neighbor. Such work, when conducted “in faith, in joy of heart, in obedience and gratitude to God” is pleasing to the Lord. As Gustov Wingren famously quipped in a summary of Luther’s teaching at this point: “God does not need our works, but our neighbor does.”

Derek Brown concludes his article with these encouraging words,

"For those who secretly harbor suspicions over whether they can truly serve God in their daily, mundane tasks, Luther offers a helpful corrective. For pastors, because the doctrine of vocation, by definition, encompasses the whole of life, it must become a centerpiece in our discipleship work. So, as we are always reforming in our pastoral labors, let us make sure we heed Luther’s instruction and never fail to teach our people the value of their ordinary callings."

Below are some helpful links:

David, Gordon, "Equipping" Ministry in Ephesians 4?

Michael Horton, "What About Bob?: The Meaning of Ministry in the Reformed Tradition"

____________, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples

Derek J. Brown, "Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Vocation: A Matter of Discipleship

 Gene Veith, "The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides Himself in Human Work 

 _________, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life