Saturday, October 18, 2008

Disciples Values: The Ministry Principle

1 Thessalonians 5:15-21

I doubt that many of you would recognize the names Gary Wells or Brett Younger, but both of them were once my pastors, and I have great respect for them. I expect that each of you could name a pastor or two who have been an exemplar of Christian ministry, a pastor who has especially touched your life.

October has been designated by someone or some group the month of the ministry. It’s one of those Hallmark occasions when you’re supposed to send out cards to your pastor. The month is waning, and I’ve yet to receive any of these cards, which means that Hallmark is not happy! But seriously, ministry is an important part of Christian life. In fact, ministry is much more than something that a pastor is or does. Indeed, ministry is something that we all do. So to be fair, I should be sending out cards to all of you!

This is the final chapter in our six week series on Disciple Values. And ministry is a central Disciple value, but only when we define ministry broadly. At her installation as General Minister, Sharon Watkins said that Disciples don’t do hierarchy very well, and she’s correct. In fact, Alexander Campbell was known to condemn a "hireling ministry." With that in mind, what is ministry for us as Disciples?


Things have changed a bit since the days of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Unlike the early days of our movement, most Disciple churches today have seminary-trained pastors. Back at the beginning of the movement, however,Alexander Campbell believed that every person was a minister. That’s why Campbell founded Bethany College. He wanted everyone in the church to be fully educated in Scripture, not just pastors. For Campbell, elders not only gave spiritual leadership, they were the pastors who ruled, taught, and preached. And, unlike modern pastors they usually emerged from within the local congregation. This is why the Disciples were such big hits on the frontier. Churches didn’t have to wait for a preacher to come to town before starting a church.

After the Civil War things began to change, and Disciples began to look at their neighbors, and decided that they wanted trained pastors for their churches, just like everybody else. But, when in 1862 Isaac Errett, then the pastor of a Detroit church, accepted the title Reverend, he received considerable flack from other Disciples. No, we don’t do hierarchy very well.

Nevertheless, over the years, as the frontier gave way to cities and towns, our churches decided that they needed properly educated pastors to lead, guide and care for them. Colleges and seminaries began to spring up across the country to train future preachers, and the churches called these newly trained young men – they were young men back then – to fill their pulpits and look after their people. It was a natural change, but it did offer a challenge our understandings of ministry.

In time more changes would come. Women, for instance, began to take on greater and broader roles in the church, and today we have a woman serving as our General Minister. I think Alexander and Barton would be a bit surprised with all the changes, but in the end the Disciple principle of ministry remains intact. Ministry is still something we all do, whether we’re clergy or laity, whether inside or outside the walls of the church.


Today we’ll baptize Heidi Michael. Her baptism not only seals her confession of faith in Jesus and invites her into membership in the church, it also serves to ordain her to Christian ministry. In baptism we’re equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit for service in the kingdom of God (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:7).

Baptism reminds us that biblically there’s no difference between clergy and laity. That’s because we’re all part of the part of the Laos or people of God. While some among the Laos (laity) are called to specialized forms of ministry that require education, training, accountability, and professional standards, each of us is called to a ministry that involves caring for our neighbors through prayer, acts of compassion, the sharing of our faith, and a commitment to justice. Each of us has been called to be an ambassador of reconciliation, and each of us have been called to use our gifts and abilities to serve God in our communities. Ministry is a shared vocation that emerges from within the congregation, and therefore, the congregation, which is the body of Christ with Jesus as its head, is the fountain of all ministerial authority. Jesus doesn’t just speak through preachers, Jesus speaks through the congregation. Although congregational government may not be the most efficient form, Disciples believe it’s the one that allows Jesus to speak most freely.


If ministry is, for Disciples, a shared vocation of all God’s people, as I’ve been saying, then what role do pastors play in the life of the church? What about ordination to pastoral ministry?

It’s true that Disciples haven’t always been comfortable with the idea of an ordained clergy, but over time we discovered that our mission requires that we set aside some from among us to perform specific tasks of ministry – especially the tasks of teaching, preaching, and leadership. We also discovered the need for standards. Once churches began to look beyond the congregation for leadership, they needed to have confidence that the people they were calling were up to the task. In the beginning, the focus was largely on education, but in time other questions emerged. In fact, the Jim Jones episode, helped spur on this development!

One study of ministry among the Disciples defined three fundamental tasks of pastoral ministry: The report said that Pastors should:

1. "Act in obedience to God's commandment of love in self sacrifice on behalf of others and in a servant life in the world;"
2. "Proclaim the gospel by word (teaching and preaching); by sacramental actions (Baptism and the Lord's Supper), and by deed (mission and service);"
3. "Oversee the life of the community in its worship, education, witness, mission, fellowship, and pastoral nurture."1
In one sense every Christian can fulfill these tasks, including that of oversight. But pastors serve the church in a representative way. It is as representatives of the whole church, that pastors give leadership to the church’s ministries, but even then pastors don’t act alone.

Paul recognized the importance of this kind of ministry, and so he appealed to the church at Thessalonika: “to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you, esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). In other words, the church is called on to affirm, support, and work with those whom God has called to be leaders, teachers, and care givers.

Our views of ministry may have evolved. We may have been influenced by the needs and issues of the day. Indeed, we have been influenced by our relationships with other traditions, but Disciples still start from the premise that ministry is a shared vocation of all God’s people. So, my question is, as we bring to a close this series of sermons on Disciples values, are you ready to answer the call of Jesus? Are you ready to affirm your own ordination to ministry through your baptism, even as Heidi comes today to receive her ordination to ministry in Christ’s church?

1. "Word to the Church on Ministry," in D. Newell Williams, Ministry among Disciples: Past, Present and Future, (St. Louis, Christian Board of Publication, 1985), 111

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 19, 2008

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