MINISTRY: THEN AND NOW
– I Corinthians 11 –
In the Old Testament, three words defined the Ministry of Hebrew religion: Calling, Prophet andPriest. The New Testament added Rabbi, Scribe, and Apostle. However today’s Church calls the member of the Order of Ministry differently from the Bible; Elder, Minister, Priest, Pastor, Preacher, or Deacon. How did those titles evolve? What are their job descriptions?
In the Old Testament, there were ‘Priests and Prophets.” Those two designations still summarise the vocation of ministry. Priests were the caretakers of the religious institutions and the spiritual care-givers for people; while prophets discerned the mind of God and communicated it through interpretation, preaching, and teaching. In many Protestant Churches such as our United Church of Canada, there is no “priest” in the Order of Ministry. We believe in the priesthood of all faithful through Christ.
Another important principle of the ministry is that it is a calling or a vocation. Ministry is not a “job.” A simple way to distinguish a calling from a job is to ask: Do you live to work? Or Do you work to live? In the case of the first, job defines you. In the second case, life is a mission and work is what makes that possible. If two are the same, it is a happy situation; just like a physician or a teacher whose calling is to heal or to educate while letting you make a living in the course of answering the call. But often those two don’t come together. Art is the calling for artists for example. But only lucky ones can make enough money to live by making art. They often work in non-artistic jobs so that they can follow their calling. Likewise, ministry does not necessarily allow you to make a living. Ministers in some countries have second jobs. Many convents and monasteries operate money making industries. In other cases, monks and nuns go out to work in day jobs.
In the Old Testament, Moses and his brother Aaron were the first prophet and the first priest respectively. Moses was called to be the prophet. God called him from a burning bush. (Exodus 3) Aaron, his brother, was anointed by Moses to be a priest. (Exodus 29) Moses relayed God’s words to people. Aaron officiated rituals to lead people in prayers and sacrifices (service). Moses was the first of present day preachers and teachers. Aaron was the priest and the administrator of an religious institution and the officer of religious rituals (sacraments). Priests were also watch-dogs for the correct practice of religion.
While it is easy to assume that priests made living from sacrifices (offerings), one can only speculate how prophets earned their living. There were some prophets established their positions by kings and were paid by them like Nathan (2 Samuel 12) and Isaiah (2 Kings 19). However, their primary job was to communicate the word of God in preaching and teaching. Therefore they were free of human authorities even from the ones who employed them. From time to time, the authorities didn’t like what some prophets said, and they had to run for life or killed. Their demand of the vocation came before their livelihood. Elijah had to run to save his life. (1 King 19) A legend has it that Isaiah was executed by a king. Some were clearly anti- establishment freelancers such as Amos, who preached on the streets and made living with a day job. Amos was a shepherd.
At the time of Jesus, the New Testament mentions several ministry positions in the lives of the Jews in Palestine: Priests, Elders, Scribes, and Rabbis. The first three were mentioned together in the Gospels as those who worked for the Temple in Jerusalem. Priests officiated rituals and were guardians of orthodoxy with elders as their consultants. Scribes were the Biblical scholars, as their job was transcribing the Scriptures, thus became knowledgeable of them. King Herod consulted scribes to find where Jesus was born for the wise men from the East. Also there must have been many low ranking priests scattered all over Palestine. When Jesus told a healed leper to go to a priest to be certified as clean, he was referring to the local priest, not the one in Jerusalem. (Luke17:14) That episode indicates that priests also looked after the welfare of people. Today, it is the minister’s pastoral work.
Also the New Testament mentions other Jewish religious institutions, “synagogues and rabbis.” It was rabbis, literally meaning “teachers”, who continued the prophetic ministry. It seems synagogues were everywhere Jews were found, not only in Palestine but also in the whole of the Mediterranean world. Synagogues were ubiquitous, hence not all were possibly served by rabbis. You must remember, however, that in Jewish life, religious observance has always been a family affair. Head of the house read scriptures and said the prayers. Many men who could read were quite capable to step in to act in place of rabbis and cantors (readers) in the synagogues. Anyone capable spoke in synagogues. Hence, that custom allowed Jesus and disciples to begin their ministry. In a synagogue, Jesus was given the Scriptures and was asked to read a certain text and to explain what it meant. So he did and surprised people who saw Jesus only as a country bumpkin. (Luke 4) Synagogues provided the venue for Jesus, and people who were ready to hear the Word even from an unknown man like Jesus.
It seems rabbis were accepted as such without formal paper qualifications. Exception was Paul; he had the highest possible Jewish education. (Acts22:3) In general, some people must have been accepted and called “rabbi” if they sounded good enough to be one. There must have been many fakes and frauds also. This is why there were watchdogs like priests and scribes to keep eye on those who spoke in public and perform miracles. This is how, in the synagogues, the Good News of Jesus Christ began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.
However, in the early Christian church the new order began to develop. It began with twelve men who followed Jesus and were called “disciples.” After Jesus was crucified and no longer on the earth, they changed their titles to “apostles.” The word means “the one who is sent out with a mission.” In the Gospels such as Matthew 10 say, disciples were sent out by Jesus to heal the sick and spread his message. They became the first leaders of the church. A criterion to being “Apostle” seemed to be the personal knowledge of Jesus. Their successors later became bishops, who oversaw the church in teaching and practice of religious life.
However, two apostles were added later in addition to the original Twelve. One was James, a brother of Jesus. The other one was Paul. There didn’t seem to be any problem for James accepted as an Apostle, because he was after all a brother of Lord Jesus. But for Paul, there was a problem about his claim to be an Apostle. (Acts 26 and Galatians 2) Before his conversion, he persecuted many Christians and even supervised the stoning death of the first Christian martyr Stephen. (Acts 7: 58) Paul was accepted as an apostle only by some who accepted his claim of having met the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. Some others didn’t. This was an important
episode in the life of the Church, because Apostles were an important link with Jesus, and Paul was the person who defined a large part of what is Christianity today. Without Paul, Christianity could have remained a mere heretical sect of Judaism.
There was no woman Apostle, though there were many women leaders of the church in the New Testament e.g. Acts 16:22 ff and 18. Many women faithfully followed Jesus even to the cross while all men ran away. It is an important question today why they were not Apostles. Anglican and Lutheran churches have recently installed women bishops, at last, to be the successors to the Apostles.
Many churches still consider the unbroken chain of succession of spiritual gifts from the original Apostles the most important source of the authority in the church. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, to name a few, adopt this doctrine. They all have Bishops as the successors to the Apostles. Most of the protestant churches do not recognize the Apostolic Succession, because we believe all believers are sent out to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and to do good work. (Luke 10:1 ff.)
As for other positions of the order of ministry in Christian Church, the evolution seems to have begun when seven men were ordained to help Apostles in the day-to-day business of the church. They were filled with spiritual gifts according to the Acts 6: l-7. Their duty was primarily looking after the material aspect of the church life. They later became known in the church as Elders (Presbyters): Teaching Elders (ministers and pastors) and Serving Elders (deacons and stewards). The significant part of this development is the fact that the first martyr, Stephen, in the Christian history, who died for his faith, came out from this group of serving elders (Acts 6: 8 – 60). His address before his death was one of the most impressive sermons recorded in the Bible.
I have briefly surveyed the Bible to find the references made of the Order of Ministry. There have been variety of designations beginning with Prophets and Priests: Elders, Rabbis, Scribes to Christian titles like Apostles, Deacons, and Stewards. Those Christian terms have evolved into Popes (the successors to the chief Apostle Peter), Bishops (successors of Apostles), Priests and Ministers; and Elders and Deacons. In the United Church of ours, there are now Ordained Ministers, Commissioned Ministers, Lay Pastoral Ministers, and Lay Worship Leaders. No matter how much names change, three things remain unchanged. It’s a calling, it is prophetic in preaching and teaching, and is concerned about the spiritual welfare of believers.