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Ministry in the New Testament

by Dr. Roy A. Harrisville III (Director, Solid Rock Lutherans)

Date Unknown

  1. Use and Definitions
    1. The term "ministry" derives from the Latin, was introduced into English in the 13th century and after.
    2. In the Greek, the nouns diakonos, diakonia and the verb diakoneo appear 100 times in the New Testament. What is striking is the variety of use.
      1. The deipnic (Lk.10:40)
      2. The economic (Rom.15:25)
      3. The evangelic (Acts 20:24)
      4. The charismatic (Rom.12:6-7)
    3. The caveat
      1. Caution against giving the terms a definition beyond the simple meaning "to serve." This due to the ecclesiastical consequences of assuming that in every instance the terms have to do with serving at tables.
      2. Caution against ignoring the great variety of subjects performing the service.
    4. Results
      1. The verb: "to serve," the nouns: "servant" or "service," and the context determines in what the service consists.
      2. Second, no indication of rank or status.
      3. Third, no indication of length of service.
      4. Thus, neither the subject nor the recipient of the service controls its definition, but rather its object or purpose.
  2. Ministry of the Word
    1. The Divine Commission and the Charisma of Ministry
      1. "Ministry" takes its definition or integrity from its object–the proclamation.
      2. This proclamation is variously defined, e.g., as "the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor.5:18), "the gospel of Christ" (2 Cor.9:13) etc., etc., thus a word which belongs to God, through which he acts.
      3. This action of God is salvation, righteousness, reconciliation.
      4. Since God is the efficient cause of this ministry, its chief characteristic is that he gives it. Service/ministry is out of the question if he does not give it. The divine commissioning and ministry are always complementary.
    2. The Connection between Ministry and Saving Deed
      1. If there is an essential link between the activity of God and the ministry through which it occurs, then the ministry of proclamation is part and parcel of the redeeming activity of God.
      2. But there is no link between that event and the ministry as an office that abides (e.g., the circle of the apostles dies out).
      3. It is thus inaccurate to speak of an office or ministry as the conditio sine qua non of the saving event. The divine activity is the condition for ministry; the ministry is conditioned by it. (Note Rom.10:14-15: The sending is the constant, and the believing, hearing and preaching are conditional upon it.)
    3. These Aspects Mirrored in the Jesus-Tradition
      1. The link between the divine activity and the ministry, the one as condition for the other, mirrors the relation between Jesus and his disciples, and between Jesus and God the Father.
      2. First, every act of service performed by a disciple is preceded by a summons, a commission. So with Jesus' own career, he is sent by the Father.
      3. Second, the disciples' activity is linked to Jesus' own work, just as Jesus' activity is linked to the summons of the Father.
      4. Finally, the character of ministry as conditioned and not as conditioning is mirrored in Jesus' "passion."
  3. Development
    1. Early Catholicism
      1. Does the N.T. contain any other view of ministry?
      2. Interpreters sometimes refer to the "early Catholicism" of Luke-Acts, the Pastoral Epistles, and a handful of the General or Catholic Epistles.
        1. These appear to reflect the idea of the church as repository of divine salvation with fixed ecclesiastical offices, with a sacramental priesthood laying claim to apostolic succession, to authority for Scripture exposition, and to the communication of the Spirit.
        2. The stimuli for this development are variously interpreted.
          1. According to one view, the church was imperiled by enthusiasts
          2. According to another the apostles' deaths created an authority-vacuum.
          3. According to still another, persecution required a relief fund and offices for its administration, which then hardened into permanence.
        3. On this view, the office has ceased to take its definition from its purpose or object. Ministry is no longer seen as conditioned, but as a condition.
      3. My position: There is no clear-cut early catholic conception of church or ministry in the New Testament. The restructuring of office in the church has not yet congealed into a new ecclesiology. The epithet "early catholicism," should be held in abeyance.
  4. Reflections of Variety of Structure in the New Testament (N.T.)
    1. If there is no evidence of a structure claiming apostolic authority, there is evidence of structural variety and change.
      1. Women are named.
      2. Jesus' words imply a community of wanderers.
      3. On the other hand, earliest Christianity was not comprised solely of itinerants.
      4. The idea of early catholicism in the N.T. must give way to the phenomenon of variety.
  5. Conclusions
    1. The N.T. terms for "ministry" describe an activity which takes its definition from its purpose. That purpose is God's will to save.
    2. For this reason, "ministry" cannot occur without the divine commissioning.
    3. Since the N.T. forges no link between God's will to save and a ministry conceived as permanent, the saving event is the constant, and service to the variable.
    4. In other words, the "inevitability" which attaches to God's saving activity renders the means by which it occurs conditioned, subordinate. To assign privileged status to the means by which God's activity occurs makes constant with in the N.T. is the variable.
    5. This does not mean that the means by which God's activity occurs is not holy or sacred. If there is no word of God apart from its concretion in proclamation and faith, concretion is indispensable to that word.
    6. But what is indispensable is not on that account necessary or inevitable. The N.T. assigns indispensability or inevitability only, solely to the purpose of God.
    7. The reason for this is clear: "ministry" does not create its object. It is created by it.


For anyone who regards the Bible as the sole norm for faith and life, the following deserves attention respecting the biblical basis for ordination:

In the New Testament only four passages unequivocally refer to ordination: Acts 1-6, 13:1-3, I Timothy 4:14, and II Timothy 1:6. These passages indicate the following:

  1. The New Testament makes clear that ordination takes place at the summons of Spirit. Ordination is not a human decision or act of choice, but an action of the Spirit.
  2. The New Testament makes clear that the Spirit's summons occurs through prophetic uttterance. (I Tim.4:14; I Tim.1:6).
  3. The New Testament makes clear that no rule exists as to who shall lay hands on the ordinand in response to the Spirit's summons:
    1. The apostles or the entire community may perform the action (Acts 6:3, cf. Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5). The cooperation of the college of presbyters is an essential aspect of Christian ordination.
    2. The New Testament knows nothing of a power of ordination limited to the apostles.
  4. The New Testament makes clear that those ordained already possess the Spirit (cf.Acts6:3, 5, 13:1).
  5. The New Testament makes clear that ordination bestows a charisma for a particular task, in Timothy's case, that of office-bearing (I Tim. 4:14, II Tim.1:6–a narrowing over vs. Paul for whom all services in the community are a gift of the Spirit, df.1Cor.12; Rom.12).
  6. The New Testament makes clear that ordination is more than a mere form or symbolic act without material significance.
  7. The New Testament makes clear that ordination is not an act through which the ordinator transmits a quality which he possesses to the ordinand. The view that through ordination an unbroken chain is formed from the apostles onward is a fiction without New Testament warrant. The contest between the apostles and Simon Magus (Acts 8:18ff) clearly militates against such a view.
  8. The New Testament makes clear that there is neither a primacy of office nor of community.
  9. The New Testament makes clear that it is God alone who gives the charisma, God alone who is each instance equips his servant.
  10. Conclusion:
    1. The sober and factual way in which the New Testament speaks of ordination warns against according it the status given it in current ecumenical discussion.
    2. All views regarding ordination without warrant in the New Testament, that is, which do not directly derive or cannot be legitimately inferred from the New Testament witness, are to be resolutely resisted
    3. All actions based upon such views which do not directly derive or cannot be legitimately inferred form the New Testament witness, are to be resolutely resisted.
    4. Those entertaining such views which and performing such acts as are without New Testament warrant are in rebellion and are thus to be resisted.