Saturday, January 15, 2011

Unconsciously Recasting the Nature of Gospel Ministry

Back in Jerusalem, in the early days of the Christian church, the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word of God (Acts 6:4). Later, the apostle Paul dedicated himself to proclaiming the crucified Christ (1 Cor. 2:1-5) and spoke insistently of his prayers for those with whom he had shared the gospel (Phil. 1:3-11; Eph. 1:15-23; 3:14-18; etc.). This was the pattern of ministry that Paul commended to those to whom he gave responsibility among the churches (1 Tim. 4:11-16). There are a variety of gifts and forms of service, but of critical importance fore the life of the churches is prayer and the ministry of the word of God. Whatever else Paul did (and we know he did many other things, such as engaging others in the service of the gospel, gathering the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, meeting with other Christian leaders, and travelling the known world) he was first and foremost a man of prayer and a teacher of the word of God. Those who cared for the churches were to do so by following his example (Phil. 3:17; 2 Tim. 1:13). This is how Christ will build his church.

It is the word of God which nourishes faith and transforms lives. The word of God redraws our perspective on life and the world around us. The word of God penetrates to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, 'discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart' (Heb. 4:12). Paul pointed Timothy to the sacred writings ('the Holy Scriptures') 'which are able to make you wise to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ' (2 Tim. 3:15). He wrote to the Romans of how 'through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope' (Rom. 15:4). The Spirit-inspired Scriptures are not just the theoretical basis for Christian ministry; the faithful teaching of these Scriptures is the principal means of fulfilling that ministry. Devoting ourselves to teaching the Scriptures in the context of genuine personal relationships ('to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love', to use Philip Jensen's rich and memorable expression) is the staple of Christian ministry. Everything else can slip into the background, but against all odds this must remain front and centre.

In an era when some fear their backs are against the wall and that we must do everything in our power to arrest Christianity's slide into oblivion, the temptation to rework this classic understanding of Christian ministry is felt keenly. The ministry of the pastor is recast in terms of images gleaned from outside the Scriptures: a leader, a manager, a mission director. Yet these images must be subverted by the dynamics of the biblical gospel if they are to be of any use. The Christian leader leads by praying and faithfully attending to the ministry of the word. Effective management takes place through prayer and the consistent, faithful teaching of the Scriptures. The mission is properly directed by teachers rather than strategists, by prayer warriors rather than vision casters. It would be wrong to portray this as a battle between either/or (e.g. teaching vs leading) and both/and (e.g. teaching and leading). One is the means of the other (e.g. we lead by teaching). Christian leadership, management and mission direction is not simply a modification of what we might find in other walks of life. It is an entirely different phenomenon.

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