Catechism: The Christian Ministry

VI. The Christian Ministry

§ 1. The Ministry

1. What change did our Lord introduce?

He abolished a sacrificing priesthood, being Himself the one sacrifice and the one priest; and the effects of that change were very great throughout the whole institution.

2. What were its effects?

The character of the institution was totally changed. One tribe had been set apart for the functions of the priesthood; it was no longer needed. The office bearers in the new community were to have mainly spiritual functions; and to be called by the Spirit individually.

3. How does the term ministry indicate this?

Not precisely in itself. But the Lord used it to express His service to mankind (Matt. 20:28); and throughout the New Testament it is the most comprehensive word, including all offices to which the Spirit called men and women in the Christian community.

4. How may we trace the history of the ministry in the New Testament?

As in everything else the events opened the will of God. Our Lord sent out the seventy, whose ministry terminated on Himself. He chose the Apostles and invested them with plenary authority. They were doubtless instructed by Himself during the forty days; and afterwards the Spirit directed them: first, to organise the diaconate, then to ordain elders, then to gather these elders in what was the germ of future synods (Acts 15:2; 20:17). St. Paul left three pastoral epistles in which the Christian ministry takes its final form.

§ 2. The Extraordinary or Transitional Ministry

1. What ground is there for this distinction?

We have clear testimony that during the period of the first establishment of Christianity the Lord by His Spirit gave special endowments to special persons for ministries which were not transmitted by them nor continued in the Church.

2. Is there any evidence that these were transitory?

Only the evidence of fact. Comparing the two passages in which St. Paul treats this subject we find that God set, and Christ gave (1 Cor. 12:28), and the Spirit divided to, each, the several offices, from that of the apostles downwards (Eph. 4:11, 12); but in fact some of them were not bestowed everywhere, and in due time ceased.

3. Which of the gifts to the whole church ceased?

Those of the apostles and prophets: these two are peculiarly connected, being the only ones common to those passages. Three times they are united in the epistle to the Ephesians: they are together the foundation, together receive the revelation of the gospel, and together are given to the church (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). A comparison of these passages will show that these offices were not meant for permanence.

4. What were the apostles?

The twelve men whom the Lord chose and sent with special authority and endowment to lay the foundations of churches and finish the testimony of inspiration to His own person and work.

5. How was their office discharged, and what was its history?

The twelve were sent chiefly to the twelve tribes: the number being preserved by the choice of Matthias instead of Judas (Acts 1:26; Gal. 1:9). Three of these were chief, and of these three one: the labours of these only are recorded. Saul, afterwards Paul, was chosen by the Lord Himself after the ascension (Gal. 1:8; Acts 14:23; 2 Tim. 2:2), especially for the Gentile world. They exercised supreme authority, as the direct representatives of their Master; left no successors; and provided for the permanence of the regular ministry before they departed.

6. Did they discharge all their duties alone?

They reserved their apostolic authority and responsibility; but delegated some of their functions. More than one wrote holy scripture under their sanction; Barnabas was even termed an apostle (Acts 14:14); Timothy and Titus were sent under the name of evangelists to carry on the work of the apostle Paul (2 Tim. 4:5).

7. Were not evangelists given to the congregation?

They were; but St. Paul does not place them among the officers who were set. Their function was irregular; exercised by men who, though not set apart to the ministry, preached the word (1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 8:5). The name was later given to the four writers of the gospels, and is now in common use for such as are set apart to mission preaching: that is, preaching without pastoral function, whether ordained or unordained.

8. What view may be taken of the transitional ministry?

It was adapted to the time of foundation: miracles from God, and extraordinary authority among men, were needful at the outset; afterwards the gospel was to pervade the world as leaven. At great crises men are still raised up extraordinarily: in their spirit, but not with their name.

§ 3. The Permanent Ministry

1. How was the regular ministry ordered?

By the ordination of elders to preside over the spiritual affairs of the churches, and the appointment of deacons to preside over their temporal affairs.

2. What was common to these two offices?

The qualification for both was a sound faith and an incorrupt life; they formed distinct orders with distinct functions (1 Tim. 3:1, 9); and are alike referred to as representing the church.

3. What was the difference between them?

(1) The deacons’ office was not clearly defined; it was held by both sexes (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 5:9).

(2) The elders were set apart by imposition of hands; their functions are very fully described; and the responsibility of the control of the society seems to have rested only with them.

4. What was the office of the elders?

The pastoral oversight of the congregation generally; particularly, presiding over the offices of worship, preaching and teaching the word, and administering the discipline of the community. Of all this they had the responsibility.

5. Did they constitute one undivided order?

They were one order: presbyters and bishops are in the New Testament names, used interchangeably, of the same office (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3). Similarly, the teachers and rulers were not distinguished from each other: the apostle describes the qualifications of the offices in such a way as to prove this.

6. How were they set apart?

By laying on of the hands of the presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14; Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5); and of the apostles’ hands, while they yet lived.

7. What limitations were set to their power?

(1) Their responsibility is said to be directly to the Lord Himself (Heb. 13:17; 1 Cor. 12:28): never to any other tribunal.

(2) But they used the helps raised up by the Spirit: in teaching, preaching, counsel and government.

(3) And their power was restrained by their fellowship, more or less intimate, with other churches.

8. Have we any evidence as to this last point?

It pervades the apostolical history. The apostles and elders decide common questions in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2; 20:17). St. Paul summons the elders or bishops to Miletus. And there is constant reference to the customs of the churches. All these give hints of what was afterwards a union of churches (1 Cor. 11:16).

9. Are there any indications of the gradual rise of a higher order than that of presbyters?

In every body of elders one would have the first place. He seems to be called in the book of symbols the angel of the church (Rev. 2:1). Timothy and Titus evidently had an authority like that of the apostles. But the rise of an order with functions and prerogatives such as were very early appropriated to the bishops has no trace in the New Testament.

§ 4. Historical

1. What is the range of historical development here?

The various theories of the Christian ministry are the key to the entire history of Christendom, in its strength and in its weakness, in its purity and in its corruption. They lie also at the foundation of all the different forms of church government.

2. How did that development proceed at first?

(1) The ministry were very early regarded as the Lord’s lot (the clerus), like the levitical priesthood, and distinguished from the people (laymen, λαικοί), in an Ordo sacerdotalis or ecclesiasticus.

(2) During the ante-Nicene age the episcopate became universal: the bishop being the representation of unity. There were country-bishops (chorepiscopi) around the towns; with metropolitan bishops of the leading cities; and all local synods represented the unity of the episcopate, which represented the unity of the church: an uninterrupted succession of bishops from the apostles’ times being the note of catholicity.

(3) This led in the fifth and sixth centuries to the general acknowledgment that the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, was the final umpire, bond of union, and source of authority to the Christian commonwealth.

3. Was this ever accepted by the universal Church?

Never for an hour. The Eastern Christians retained their independence under their patriarchs; and to this day they hold Romanism to be the first form of Dissent.

4. How are we to understand the term hierarchy?

In two senses: (1) Within the ministry itself there were major and minor orders: the former including deacons, priests or presbyters, and bishops; and the bishops having their gradation up to the metropolitans and the see of Rome. (2) As connected with the State, the officials of the Church have had, and still have more or less of worldly status and dignity.

5. Was monasticism related to the ministry?

Not necessarily. The monastic orders were confraternities under special vows: at first chiefly laymen; afterwards composed of clergy and laity; the clergy being the regulars, or under the rule of their orders, as distinguished from the seculars who ministered in the general church.

6. How was ministerial power defined and symbolized?

As the power of the keys (potestas clavium), a term of general use taken from our Lord’s words to St. Peter (Matt. 16:18).

7. How was this understood?

By some in early times as referring to ecclesiastical privileges, granted or denied; by others as signifying the authority of priestly absolution. Finally, however, these were united in the doctrine which underlies the two invented sacraments of penance and orders.

8. What changes did the reformation effect?

The papal or pontifical authority was rejected; the episcopal order, as such, was abolished, though retained in Anglicanism; the idea of the universal priesthood of the church was made prominent, the ministry being based at once on the appointment of the Spirit and the delegation of its authority by the church; and, finally, the power of the keys was restricted to the discipline of the church and the declaration of the terms of forgiveness.

9. What was Calvin’s special innovation?

The eldership or presbyterate was established in its relation as presiding over the churches, in all courts up to the highest: hence the system of Presbyterianism. But Calvin introduced the distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; founding this demarcation on one passage mainly: Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and in teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). The word especially does not warrant any such distinction.

10. How was this an innovation?

From the beginning the ordained elders, who are said to have the rule (Heb. 13:17), had been set apart entirely from worldly cares: the modern lay-elders are ordained but not set apart.

11. How has the institution of the ministry been modified?

By most of the protestant communities the two orders of presbyters and deacons have been preserved, but with much latitude in the terminology. The Anglican retained the separate order and authority of bishops; and made the diaconate more directly pastoral. The Lutherans adopted the ancient term superintendents for certain pastors who had the charge of districts; though in Scandinavia they use the term bishops.

12. What tendencies to abolish the ministry are to be noted?

The Society of Friends applied the same principle to this which they had applied to the church and the sacraments: they hold the ordinances of the New Testament to have been intended for transitory use; limiting the ministry to an individual secret call of the Spirit.

13. What developments have been seen in modern times?

Two opposite extremes have appeared of late. (1) The Brethren, so called, renounce the communion of the present visible church in any of its forms, and deny the Divine authority of an ordained ministry; (2) the Catholic Apostolic Church is based on the presumption that God has in these last days restored the orders of the transitional ministry: apostles, prophets, angels, and even speakers with tongues.

14. What principles should we maintain?

(1) That the government of the church by elders or presbyters is clearly an ordinance of God; (2) that the laity, by their representatives, originally called deacons, are to be joined with the elders in everything pertaining to the church’s tables; (3) that the gifts of the Spirit, no longer miraculous, are given to both classes alike for the general good.

This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Higher Catechism of Theology. Read more in Logos Bible Software or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).