Encouraging words: Ministry

A couple of months ago Stuart Heath published a post that appeared on the Gospel Coalition Australia site: 'Discouraging Words: Ministry'.

He claimed that the use of the word 'ministry' to desribe 'Christian things' — like working for a church or stacking chairs at church — is unhelpful. More: it is discouraging.

The reason, he argued, is twofold:

  1. It 'reinforces a false division between the sacred and the secular': so that stacking chairs at church is more spiritual than stacking chairs in the break room at work.
  2. It 'reinforces a false division between clergy and laity': so that those paid to lead churches are 'ministers'. 

Better, Stuart says, to avoid the word 'ministry' altogether and instead opt for other terms like 'Christian leadership' and 'serving and loving others'.

Discouraging culture vs discouraging word

Now in this post I don't intend to address Stuart's argument point by point. It seems that a larger Christian culture that creates a sharp division between the sacred and the secular and the 'clergy' and the 'laity' might be discouraging... but I don't think such a culture is as universal as he seems to suggest. Nor do I think that the alleged misuse of the word 'ministry' is all that significant in creating such a culture.

Moreover, I detect a particular theological emphasis in Stuart's post that leads him to be 'discouraged' where others might not be. For example, what if you thought there was something of a distinction (although not a sharp dualistic one) between the sacred and the secular, unlike Stuart? In this case you might see a difference of sorts between stacking chairs at church as opposed to stacking chairs in the break room. In this case you wouldn't be 'discouraged' by a word highlighting that difference.

Stuart's article is his read of the culture, plus his proposed solution, all informed possibly by a particular theological slant, and I don't really want to wade through that. 

Instead I want to paint a different picture of 'ministry', by going back and doing a word study on the 'diakonia' word groups (diakonia, diakoneo, diakonos).

Ministry just means 'serving'?

Well it's not that simple. The words often translated ministry, like most words, has a spread of meanings:

1. To wait on tables: often carrying with it the idea of bringing hospitality from the hosts to the guests (like Acts 6 for example).

2. To be an emissary: bringing a message or other work from a sender to a recipient. See 2Corinthians 8–9, where the delivery of the financial collection from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem is called 'ministry'. This also an important theological usage: the 'ministry of the gospel' is the bringing of the gospel message from God to the world. See the end of Colossians 1 for example.

3. To have an official role: sometimes this 'bringing from one to another' emphasis is lost in some usages. Then a 'minister' or a 'ministry' is simple a formal role. So the governors are ministers of God in their administration of justice, for example. Likewise perhaps this is the sense of 'ministry' in the New Testament letters: the job given to the apostles and others.

4. To fulfill some other benefit or help or duty: in a less formal way, we may bring help, or other assistance, or submit in duty to another, and so 'minister' to someone above us (in dutiful service) or below us (in charitable help). Think about the women who 'minister' to Jesus' practical needs in Matthew 8, or Jesus teaching about how those who are great should be the 'ministers of all'.

So ministry has a range of meanings, most of them more narrow than 'just serving people in love'. It is important to check to see in the context of a particular biblical usage whether a stronger meaning is meant: one that connotes something of the 'emissary' overtone, for example.

What kind of service depends on context

Even where it seems that 'ministry means serving', this does not necessarily mean that the broadest of possible definitions is called for: if I am 'just serving' you in a restaurant setting that is different to 'just serving' you in a hospital context.

So in the context of church, it seems that many of the times the 'ministry' word group appears, it is in contexts where the kind of serving is 'serving by building up in the gospel'. Romans 12, 1Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1Peter 4 are like this.

So there is a range of possible uses for 'ministry' from narrow and formal, to broad and general.

Where is gets muddy: giving general ministry the theological weight of specific ministry

There is probably need for another post on a particular kind of equivocation that sometimes happens around the word ministry. This is where we call a general act of serving 'ministry' in order to give it extra theological weight. So 'my job as a school teacher is my ministry',means 'it is as much my ministry as leading a Bible study is your ministry'.

Now on one level this is true. We all serve the Lord in whatever we put our hand to, it is good and pleasing to him, and so it is sacred work: whether stacking chairs at church or in the break room at work.

Only the word 'ministry' is not the best word for this purpose. Because 'ministry' does have a narrower and more 'loaded' definition. In this sense my 'Ministry-to-the-church' is a different KIND of ministry, a different USAGE of the word ministry to my 'service of the Lord' in another area of life.

By blurring the terms we lose sight of how church ministry, whether through teaching the word, or supporting the ministry of the word, is part of the ad-minister-ing of God's gospel.

Maybe it would be easier, as Stuart suggests, to avoid the word 'ministry' altogether? After all, it is an word not that much used in modern English anyway, outside of church and government settings. Apart from the fact that it would be almost impossible to stop the general use of the word 'ministry', I want to suggest that provided we are careful, there are some great things about this word, with its connotations, that make it an Encouraging Word:

Why is ministry an encouraging word?

1. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it ties together our duty to God and our service to our neighbour in the way we think about the work of gospel preaching.

2. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it groups the larger set of Christian activities that support and facilitate and accompany gospel preaching together in the this larger entreprise of 'gospel ministry'.

3. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it nests unique 'sacred' gospel service within a larger 'secular' duty to serve others in love.

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