Servant of God's Word: The Office of Minister
In the previous Outline we discussed the authority Christ gave to his church to administer the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
The execution of this authority in the church is conferred on the office bearers. We have now arrived at a discussion about the forms for the ordination of the office bearers and their special offices. In the church we distinguish between three offices: (a) minister of the Word, (b) elders, and (c) deacons (BC, Art. 30, 31).
The Book of Praise has three forms for the ordination of office bearers:
- for the ministers of the Word
- for the missionaries of the Word
- for elders and deacons
In this Outline we will discuss the office in general terms and the office of minister specifically, with reference to the first two forms.
B. The office is an official service
We use the word office for the position of being vested with the authority of Christ. First we must make some general comments about this term.
Originally the term officium referred to an occupation or area of work, a task, a service, an administration. All kinds of occupations fall into these categories.
We seldom encounter the word ‘office’ in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, it is found only once, in 1 Timothy 3:1 as “office of bishop”. It appears in the Old Testament in several places. In the New Testament we find the term ministry (or diakonia) for the offices in the congregation, and the term deacon (or diakonos) when office bearers are referred to.
2 Timothy 4:11: Mark is said to be “useful in serving”.
Acts 21:19: Paul tells how God worked using his ministry.
2 Corinthians 3:6: Paul and the others are servants in the new dispensation.
2 Corinthians 6:4: They are also servants of God.
1 Timothy 4:6: Timothy shows that he has been a faithful servant of Christ.
Colossians 1:25: Paul is a servant (minister) in the congregation by virtue of the office entrusted to him.
By calling the office a ministry, the ministering character is fully emphasized. An office bearer should not lord it over the congregation as a church ruler who stands above the congregation. This idea is prominent in the Roman Catholic definition of this office, where the office bearers or bishops become the substitute for Christ, having virtually unlimited power. The office bearers, or clergy, stand far above the rest of the congregation, the so-called laity. In reality, the office bearer ought to be active in the congregation as one who serves.
Still, the word ‘service’ has its limitations, because it does not sufficiently highlight the fact that the office bearer has received a mandate and authority from Christ. The office did not originate in the congregation as a mutual service. It finds its origin in a calling from Christ.
Therefore, we prefer to speak about the office of ministry or the ministerial office. Here, the office bearers follow Christ’s example, since he obeyed and followed his Father’s decree by consecrating his life on earth as one glorious ministry of mercy. He came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). He even “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7), but he did this having received the authority from God.
C. Instruments of God’s Spirit
The charismatic movement strongly opposes the institution of church offices. Its criticism is that the church has made a fundamental error, and that offices stand in the way of the freely moving activities of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it holds that a church governed by office bearers is bound to obstruct the work of the Holy Spirit.
The charismatic movement desires to return to the earliest stages of the Christian church. At that time, many varied gifts of the Holy Spirit (the charismata) were at work in the congregation. At times they manifested themselves as very special gifts, including speaking in tongues (glossolalia), prophesying, and healing. According to the charismatic movement, the disappearance of these gifts is an indication of an inactive, dead church. The fire of the Holy Spirit was slowly extinguished because the church had become an organization ruled by office bearers. Some believe that the church should again become charismatic, doing away with the offices and inviting the work of the Holy Spirit to return by means of his charismatic gifts.
Is this criticism justifiable? The New Testament shows clearly that God’s Spirit does make explicit use of the offices.
Acts 20:28: The Spirit appointed the elders of Ephesus as overseers.
2 Corinthians 3:3, 6, 8: The work accomplished by Paul and others is “the dispensation of the Spirit” and “attended with greater splendor.”
Ephesians 4:11: Christ gave office bearers to equip the congregation for service. At that time many different gifts were found in the congregation: the special ones (1 Corinthians 12:7-11) as well as the more common (Romans 12:7, 8; 1 Corinthians 12:8,10). This diversity was the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4) for the welfare of all (1 Corinthians 12:7).
The special gifts were meant to affirm the preaching during the beginning of the early church (Mark 16:20). They were part of the birth of the new dispensation and underlined the truth of the Word of God and the power of the preaching.
Later, these gifts diminished because Christ’s witness had been confirmed (1 Corinthians 1:6). Today special gifts and unusual powers are no longer necessary and should not be expected. In 1 Corinthians 13 and 14, Paul alludes to the fact that the special gifts are not the most important factor within the congregation. What is most important is the preaching of the Word.
When the charismatic movement seeks to bring back the special gifts, it undervalues the work of the Holy Spirit. It sets the clock back with respect to God’s history of redemption. The Holy Spirit used many “ordinary” gifts to lead and build up the congregation. The offices originated as a more structured, regulated, and permanent official service in the congregation. Three fundamental issues were at stake: preaching, overseeing, and helping. In Acts we read that the apostles have the congregation at Jerusalem “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:1-6), and appoint elders (Acts 14:23). We now recognize three distinct offices. At that time, the diversity of gifts was considerably greater than three; this is still so today. All that the Spirit gives to the congregation in the form of special gifts and possibilities is not exclusively given to office bearers alone. The special offices are the charismata of the Holy Spirit. But these are not the only gifts that are received. Every member of the congregation has received his own gifts to be used in service. This is the serving activity of a member of Christ’s body (Ephesians 4:12, 16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
D. The office of ministers of the Word
Using the form for the ordination of ministers of the Word, we will examine the office of a minister.
The Synod of The Hague (1586) decided that there should be an official form. Before that time ministers were also ordained (or installed), but with less extensive guidelines. The present form comprises the following parts:
- a commentary on what Scripture teaches about the institution of the office of minister and his corresponding task
- the ordination of the minister, founded on the promises given by him, to be followed by the blessing (laying on of hands)
- the charge to the ordained minister and the charge to the congregation
- a prayer for both the minister and the congregation
1. A gift from Christ
The form tells us that Christ uses the service of men to gather his congregation. From heaven he grants office bearers to the congregation, who herd the sheep in his name. There is a reference to Ephesians 4:11-12, where Paul calls the office bearers ‘gifts’ that Christ gave on the occasion of his ascension.
Christ himself is the great office bearer, called and announced to serve. In him all the Old Testament offices are fulfilled (Hebrews 4:14-5:10; 7:11-8:13; 10:1-18). He engaged the New Testament office bearers, by calling them, appointing them, and giving them authority.
Another important text is 1 Timothy 5:17, which describes a further division of tasks among the elders. Some of them receive the special charge to preach and teach. The task first fulfilled by the apostles is now taken over by specially appointed elders, who received the same authority from Christ.
The form tells us they are called ministers of the Word. The Scriptures do not use this expression.
Today, we see the minister of the Word as an elder who finds his life’s work in this capacity. He has received gifts that will enable him to devote himself completely to his task.
Comments: In Ephesians 4:11, Paul mentions an office we no longer know, namely, that of an apostle, who was an eyewitness of Christ’s preaching and miracles. He had to proclaim the facts as a witness of Christ (Acts 1:8; cf. 1 John 1:1-4). The prophet who was allowed to proclaim God’s Word in the congregation was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:10; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). The evangelist who proclaimed the gospel was active in all kinds of work in the congregation. His task was to assist in the institution and building up of the church. Philip, one of the seven appointed in Acts 6, was an evangelist at Ceasarea (Acts 21:8). All of these were temporary office bearers involved with the development of the early church. The permanent offices are now those of ministers, elders, and deacons.
2. The road leading to the office
Although the form does not speak about the way that leads to the office, it is nonetheless its starting point. The Church Order formulates this way to office (Art. 3, 19, 20). In fact, Articles 3-21 deal with the question of how one can enter the ministry and what his task entails.
The church acknowledges that Christ provides ministers of the Word, but deems it necessary to train and shape them for their office. By examining a candidate, the church will test him to discover whether he has received gifts of the Holy Spirit needed for his special office (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:11). The examiners also decide whether he is sufficiently equipped for his task. In doing this, the churches do not undervalue what Christ grants as a gift, but they live up to their responsibility. If someone has gifts for the office of minister, this should be evident.
The preparation for the ministerial office requires a suitable academic education and training, both of which are essential.
The Canadian Reformed Churches opened their own Theological College in Hamilton, Ontario on September 10, 1969 (CO, Art. 19)1. The churches were convinced they themselves had to provide for the schooling of their ministers. Ever since the 16th century, the churches had received ministers who had been educated in state colleges and universities. The theological schooling is academic because a minister must acquire sufficient knowledge in the discipline of theology, enabling him to clearly distinguish between true and false doctrine.
The way to the office advances through the following stages:
- obtaining a suitable (undergraduate) university degree
- preparatory examinations conducted by the candidate’s home classis, to become eligible for a call
- accepting a call
- peremptory examination (the decisive examination) by the classis of the calling church
- ordination to the office of minister, in the church whose call he has accepted
True, this route may seem to be a lengthy one. However, admission into the ministerial office ought to provide sufficient built-in safeguards. The churches must have the assurance of having capable and trustworthy ministers.
Article 8 of the Church Order opens the possibility for someone to become a minister without formal academic theological training. He must, however, be able to demonstrate that he has exceptional talents. Needless to say, this candidate will have to submit himself to a thorough examination to investigate whether he is, indeed, exceptionally talented. The appeal of Article 8 lies in the willingness of the churches to recognize and honour the special gifts which the Holy Spirit may bestow on someone.
3. The task of the minister
The form describes the task of the minister. Compare Articles 30-32 of the Belgic Confession with Article 16 of the Church Order. The minister is faced with an extensive task!
Preaching the word of God
Preaching is justifiably called the primary task of the minister (i.e. preacher). It must remain his primary task. The pulpit is the minister’s principal territory, where he serves as the minister of the Word, a shepherd, and a teacher. From the pulpit, he proclaims reconciliation to the entire congregation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). From this vantage point, he comforts and warns the flock (2 Timothy 4:1-2). It is there that he also teaches the congregation to detect and call back those who are straying. As can be expected, he also brings the Word of God into the homes of the members of the congregation in his pastoral visits.
No doubt, the minister is faced with a major task. The sermons have priority because they are his most important work. Should the workload continue to increase, the consistory (in consultation with the minister) is to establish well-defined limits to the pastor’s activities in the congregation.
One of the tasks of the minister is teaching catechism to the youth of the church and, if needed, to “others who are called by God” (e.g. through evangelism). This is another fulfillment of his task as shepherd and teacher. The consistory must see to it that catechism instruction takes place in a proper manner (e.g. in a suitable location, without disciplinary problems, etc.). Parents are expected to offer their full support, cooperating with the minister. They promised this at the baptism of their children. If the congregation has no minister, the consistory may appoint an elder (or someone not belonging to the consistory) to temporarily take on the teaching task.
Administration of the sacraments
The form rightly states that Christ linked the administration of the sacraments to the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 2:42; Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19). The Word and the sacraments are one (HC, Q&A 65). An elder does not have the authority to administer them, not even when a minister cannot be present. This can be concluded from the division of duties in 1 Timothy 5:17.
Leading in prayers
In the public worship service the minister addresses God on behalf of the congregation. These prayers require careful preparation. The church should be able to relate to the manner in which the minister prays with her and for her (see also Outline 2, C.5.)
Supervising the congregation together with the elders
The division of duties in 1 Timothy 5:17 does not imply that the minister is no longer an elder. The next Outline will deal more extensively with general supervision. Together with the elders, the minister is responsible for the proper administration of discipline.
4. The ordination
As for the ordination of the minister, two aspects can be considered.
The call to the ministry
In answer to the first question, the minister says that he is convinced that God, through his congregation, has called him to “this holy ministry”. This does not imply an internal calling by God, a voice in the heart. Before the candidate receives a call, he has the desire to serve in the ministry. At the time of registration at the Theological College and before the preparatory exams take place, this will have been discussed with him. This desire is not always fulfilled. The calling truly becomes reality when a church extends a call to him. By means of the congregation, God calls him to office.
The laying on of hands
When the candidate is ordained (i.e. invested with ministerial functions), the office bearer who ordains him (together with other ministers, if called for) lays his hand on the candidate’s head during the blessing. This gesture was introduced in the 16th century, initially with some reluctance, for fear of superstition. The laying on of hands, which also occurs in the Bible (Exodus 29:10; Deuteronomy 34:9; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6), is a symbol of the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and a strengthening for the ministry. When the minister moves to another congregation, this gesture does not need to be repeated. (The footnote on p. 623 in the Book of Praise has “The laying on of hands shall not take place in the case of those who are already in the ministry”.)2
E. Missionary minister
General Synod Smithville 19803adopted the form for the ordination/installation of missionaries as found in our Book of Praise (p. 624). Article 18 of our Church Order stipulates that the missionary is a minister with a special task.4
The office of minister is a rich gift from Christ. Although it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, it emerged from the multifaceted gifts of service found in the early congregations. The churches must take care that this office, with its many aspects, is held in honour.
G. Tips for the introduction
- In Ephesians 4:11-16, the offices in the church are seen as the means to equip the entire congregation for service. This text can be used for further elaboration on the relationship between office bearers (with an emphasis on the minister) and congregation.
- You can confine your exploration into the offices of the church as instruments of the Holy Spirit. This can be done by refuting the charismatic movement’s rejection of offices.
H. For discussion
- Is there a principle difference between the offices of elder and minister?
- Can it be said that someone’s course in life is already preparing him for his later service in office? (See Galatians 1:15, cf. Acts 9:15, 22:14.)
- In what way does the authority of the preaching differ from that of a Scriptural address given by a member of the congregation?
- Article 10 of the Church Order stipulates that the minister be properly supported. What specific norms are to be used for this?
- Why must a minister with a special task remain bound to his church (CO, Art. 6)?
- How can a congregation make sure that there be new theological students (CO, Art. 20)?
- May the workload of a minister be lightened by having someone else teach catechism, or is it exclusively the prerogative of the minister?