What is the character of the office of minister? Should his work be considered a profession? This article shows that it is an office, and provides some characteristics of the office: Christ instituted it, he provides the way in which it should be fulfilled, and he gives the grace and gifts to fulfill the office. All ministerial service, therefore, should constantly point to Christ.

Source: De Wekker, 1995. 3 pages. Translated by John Vanderstoep.

Office or Profession?

Conference table

The so-called office subjects (“Practical Theology”) have an important place in the education at our Theological University. Simply put, it is about the practice of the work of the offices (or, office-bearers). Things are discussed such as, “What is preaching and how do you make a sermon?” or “How do you teach catechism and how do you conduct a pastoral visit?” “Good,” someone will say, “but can you learn things like that simply by following a course?” Is it true that you become a good minister if you have mastered several “techniques”—for example, how you set up a sermon, or how you convey the subject matter in catechism classes. You will sense that if that were the case, the theological study would only lead to a trade, or as is said with some fondness in certain circles today, “a pastoral profession.”

The Setting of the Office🔗

In the history of our churches and our theological university, this has always been seen differently. The training was—is!—in the first place considered as academic and spiritual equipping for the office of minister of the Word. In a certain sense, the office sets the tone and gives the setting for the whole study and for the Practical Theology, in particular. Of course, this does not mean that the professional nature of the theological study is not important. Students in theology must be able to give a good explanation of the text of the Bible. They need to understand the confession and doctrine of the church. You may expect from them that they know how to interpret a text in the preaching to the congregation and that they have reflected on the great questions of the pastoral work. But in all of this, it is not about theological competencies or professional knowledge on its own. It is about formation with a view to the ministry.

A Threefold Relationship🔗

With this we come to the question of what actually is the character of the office and its service. In searching for an answer to that question, I would like to make a few remarks concerning the connection between the office of us people and the great office-bearer, the Lord Jesus Christ. That relationship has several aspects, of which I mention three: Christ instituted the office, and consequently he provides the “style” in which service must be fulfilled. And in the third place it is he who gives the grace and the gifts to fulfill the office.

Gift and Task🔗

First, then, we will discuss the office as institution of Christ. In the many and multicolored words that the New Testament devotes to the offices, this line is clearly recognizable: that it is Christ who through his Spirit has given the offices to his church. Of fundamental importance is a text like Ephesians 4:11 and 12: “And he [that is, the Lord Jesus Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” And Paul says in his speech to the elders of Ephesus in Miletus that they must watch over the whole flock, “in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Christ himself, therefore, established the offices and gave them to his church. That is why it is an almost head-spinning great privilege to be an office-bearer. For the office means that “God knows how to sanctify the mouth and tongue of us insignificant people for himself, that his voice might sound in them” (Calvin). But it is also no less a great responsibility. For when we are engaged by the King of the church, it demands of us that we serve him faithfully in complete obedience to his Word. Here we hear the fundamental tone for all office service and for all theological study! Anyone who studies, works, and serves from this perspective will guard for unchecked academic hobbyisms, or an unresistant freewheeling along the latest theological highways. The King of the church asks us to be obedient theologians and faithful ministers. And—let this then be said also—that is not a “slave service” with all the negative thoughts that that word evokes. No, whoever is thus engaged in theology may precisely because of it experience a deep joy and wonder. Whoever so immerses himself in the word and the writings of the fathers will also see new perspectives that enrich himself and the congregation.

Bible study 🔗

Pastoral Service and Pastoral Care🔗

Not unjustly, it has been said that the root of the office can be found in the work of Christ who is himself the chief shepherd of the congregation (l Peter 5:4) (J. van Genderen). This means, among other things, that in his ministry here on earth he has shown the way in which people should perform their office of service. Two expressions are particularly important here: Jesus Christ understood his office as “serving” (see e.g. Matt. 20:28), and he pictures this service with the image of the good shepherd (see e.g. John 10). Now it is remarkable that the same words in the Bible are also used to characterize the service of men. In connection with the apostles and their helpers, there is always talk of “the service” or “the ministry” (diakonia) (see e.g. 1 Tim. 1:12). In addition, their work is described by the image of “the shepherd” (see e.g. Eph. 4 :11; 1 Peter 5:2ff.). It is obviously God’s high intention that office-bearers fulfill their office following the ministry of his Son! We may ask ourselves what this means in concrete terms. What can we learn from the ministry of Jesus for the “style” of our ministry? I will mention just one point. It is of undeniable significance that the Lord Jesus, in the exercise of his ministry, constantly sought the face of his Father in prayer (see Luke 6:12). If he could not do without that, how much more do we insignificant, sinful people, need that. We can only perform our ministry well if it is drenched, as it were, in a life of prayer. Another aspect is the great compassion that the Lord Jesus always showed towards unruly, lost sinners. How deep was not his emotion when he last went to Jerusalem and saw the city where so many people were resisting his grace (see Matt. 23:37)? This turbulence will not be strange to the servants of the Lord Jesus either when they see how many there are who are wavering towards death, not only outside but also inside the church. And, not to mention, Jesus’ ministry here on earth was especially characterized by his love for his church. For her, he even surrendered himself to death. Although there is in fact nothing to compare with this love here on earth, the ministers in the church of today should also feel themselves prompted by the love for Christ and his church. This means that their service is characterized by a desire to extend the kingdom of God and to strengthen and prepare the children of God in faith.

That is why it is also so serious when people abuse the office for their own honor. Anyone who would only want to “get the crowds at his feet” would do well to reflect thoroughly on the account of the washing of feet (John 13). Serving in office often involves a degree of self-denial; sometimes sacrifices must also be made. But the service of God and the welfare of the congregation are worth it! Calvin had understood this well. His philosophy of life was, “Terar dum prosim.” That means, “Let me be consumed as long as I am useful.” We could also translate the sentence as: “Let me be rubbed to pieces, or worn out, as long as I am of service!”

Grace and Gifts🔗

In all this, we might be left with the impression that the office is a very heavy burden, or perhaps even an impossible task. That is certainly one side that we may not let slip by lightly. If we look at our own sins and limited understanding, if we look at the high responsibility for the souls of people and the welfare of the congregation that is entrusted to us, if we think of the depraved state of the church and the distress of the times, then courage might be wanting. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is said to have remarked in a conversation with a student: “How dare you become a preacher!”

Do you know what we should never forget? That the great Christ who himself gave the offices also calls his servants. And he who calls also wants to give the grace and gifts through which they receive the wisdom and strength to do their service work. God’s servants do not need to do the work alone. Paul speaks of “the grace of apostleship” (see e.g. 1 Cor. 15:10). In any case, this also means that the Lord grants him the grace to be (able to be) an apostle. In the same way Christ wants to give grace to ministers in today’s church and equip them with the (gifts of) grace to be able to do their work. Precisely this mighty gift saves them from despair: they may stand in the service at the expense of and through the power of another. And what a joy it can give if we may serve in dependence on him who wants to give all grace and ability free of charge (see e.g. 2 Cor. 3:5)!

footsteps 🔗

The “Footsteps of Christ”🔗

Seen in this light, what a great travesty when ministers only consider their work as a profession, for which they have developed the necessary skills through study. In that case, there is a danger that the relationship between their work and the King of the church will become completely blurred. And that is precisely the secret of all ministerial service in the biblical sense of the word, that God’s servants constantly refer to their sender in all their actions! This is expressed impressively in the biography of a Scottish preacher from a previous century: “His ministry was completely transparent, transparent through to his Master.” Our churches need such ministers. In our congregations we must constantly pray that the Lord will give us such servants through our Theological University. And those who may serve or are trained to serve as ministers of the Word must never lose sight of that threefold perspective of ministry based on Christ. This is beautifully expressed in a symbolic poem by Jan Luyken, entitled: “The Teacher.” It reads as follows (translated from the original):

He who eternal welfare saw,
Himself proclaims the entire day.
He who will lead the people heavenward,
Must himself forego the earthly good.
That doctrine and life, together go;
And each to be on guard is warned,
Not to preach and lead astray,
But Christ’s footsteps to follow.

This last line in particular contains the lasting commission to all ministers of all times: “Follow” the footsteps of Christ!

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