A "revolution" within the church might well be initiated if church members were aware that their profession of faith in Jesus brought with it the responsibility of ministry. Elton Trueblood reminds us that if such a concept took root in the church, there would be "a new Reformation." He says, "If in the average church we should suddenly take seriously the notion that every lay member, man or woman, is really a minister of Christ, we could have something like a revolution in a very short time." 1
The seed of such a "revolution" has been awaiting germination in the Adventist Church for more than half a century. In 1909 these words were written under the title "An Appeal to Laymen": "The work of a public speaker may never be laid upon him [the layman], but he is nonetheless a minister for God."—Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 128.
The pertinent question is "Is this notion that every church member is a 'minister' Biblical? What is the New Testament concept of ministry?"
Ministry and the church
Ministry in the New Testament always involves serving the purposes of the church. Hence we can never study ministry as an entity in itself but must study ministry in the context of the church.
The church is God's people called out from the world and set apart for God's service through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. While "church" in the New Testament may refer to God's people in general, more typically it refers to the Christians in a locality (see 1 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1). The tasks of the church can be described under the headings of edification and witness. The task of edification—the mutual sharing and upbuilding of Christians—devolves upon each Christian as a member of the body of Christ and is implemented by a variety of processes such as worship, conversation, family life, and business associations.
Witness, the other dimension of the church's task, concerns outreach into the world. The term applies to the Christian's manifestation of the faith and life begun in him through Christ. Hence it applies to the work of edification, but in particular it refers to the winning of men for Christ as the Christian first recommends the gospel by his life and then speaks it for his neighbors' hearing. Speaking the gospel that it may edify the fellow believer and win the nonbeliever is the task of every Christian. The lifework of everyone who professes Christ should be to save souls.
Since the church's tasks, as described above, are the work of ministry, it can be said that ministry belongs to the whole church. Every Christian is entrusted with the gospel, which serves the dual purpose of edification and witness. Every Christian is a minister of the gospel to his neighbor. The responsibility of going forth to fulfill Christ's commission rests not upon the ordained minister only. Each one who has received Christ is called to work for the salvation of others.
Ministry originates with Christ
In the New Testament, ministry gets its essential character directly from the person and work of Christ. As the Word already implies, the basic feature of "ministry" is service. Although the New Testament has a variety of terms for the act of serving, the characteristic Greek word is diakonia. 2 Christ is called diakonos ("servant") only in Romans 15:8. But in Mark 10:45 and parallel passages Christ Himself speaks of His work as diakonein: "For the Son of man also came not to be served (diakonethenai) but to serve [diakonesai], and to give his life as a ransom for many" (R.S.V.).* It is significant that Christ applies "serving" to the giving of His life on the cross. It is not only the three years of His peripatetic ministry but particularly His redemptive death that He speaks of as "service" on behalf of men. 3 Christ came as a servant, gave Himself in life and death, and so set the pattern for ministry.
Christ exhibits Himself as the servant par excellence by fulfilling the role of the "servant of the Lord." Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1 -4 as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus (see chap. 12:18), and it is almost certainly with reference to this "servant" that Jesus is called the "servant of God" in Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30. Elsewhere both explicitly and implicitly Jesus is identified with the suffering servant of Isaiah. 4
Also the use of the term "apostle" points to Christ as the source of New Testament ministry. The word apostolos designates a man who is sent as ambassador. Christ Himself is called apostolos in Hebrews 3:1. Hence when Christ appointed and sent out men as "apostles," He was commissioning them to continue His own mission (cf., "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" [John 20:21, R.S.V.]). The apostles' ministry, then, was merely an extension or continuation of His.
There is hardly any description of ministry in the New Testament that is not applied to Christ, Above we have seen Him called "deacon," "servant," and "apostle." Elsewhere He is referred to as "slave" (Phil. 2:7), "teacher" (Matt. 23:8; John 13:13), "shepherd" (1 Peter 2:25; Heb. 13:20), and "bishop" (1 Peter 2:25). The prototype of all ministry is Jesus Christ.
Ministry is service
When Jesus characterized His own work as that of serving, He also made this the stamp of His followers. Greatness in the community of believers is to be measured in terms of willingness to serve (see Matt. 20:25-28). Yet this is not so much an imperative rule as a description of any life that is lived in fellowship with the Suffering Servant. The very life of every member of the church is, as Manson says, "a continuation of the Messianic ministry." 5
The concept of service, or ministry (diakonia), has a wide range of application in the New Testament. As in classical usage, it may refer to waiting on tables and similar service; for example, Martha serving Jesus (Luke 10:40) or the personal attention given Paul by Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:18).
When we turn more specifically to the activity of the church, we again find diakonia used to describe a variety of "ministries." Christians can render diakonia to the church through charismatic gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:6ff.), as well as by sharing this world's goods with the poor (Acts 6:1-4). The great churchwide gathering of relief for the poor saints of Jerusalem was characterized by Paul simply as a diakonia (Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:9).
Diakonia becomes freighted with particular significance as the "ministry of the Word." Paul describes the proclamation of the gospel as the diakonia of the Spirit and of righteousness (2 Cor. 3:8, 9) and refers to his charge to preach it as a diakonia given him by God and Christ (chap. 4:1; 1 Tim. 1:12). He has been entrusted with the ministry (diakonia) of reconciliation, which is no less than the "word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18, 19). His apostleship is a diakonia (Rom. 11:13), and he himself is a diakonos (servant) of the church for the sake of proclaiming the Word (Col. 1:25), a diakonos of a new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).
These typical illustrations are enough to demonstrate that diakonia applies to the character and activity of Christians in their concerns for others. It describes every kind of service rendered on behalf of the church. In Kraemer's sharply pointed phrase, "the church does not have, a ministry, it is ministry." 6
Ministry is God's gift
For the sake of this ministry God gives gifts to the church. These gifts enable Christians to give mutual service in the church. They are gifts of "prophecy," "service," "teaching," "exhortation," "contributing," "giving aid," "acts of mercy" (Rom. 12:6-8), and so forth. These are given to all for the "common good"; they are given in great variety but by "the same Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:4ff.).= They serve the worship of the congregation, the gift of speaking the Word being valued most highly (chap. 14).
But such gifts of ministry become so closely identified with the ministering believer that the minister himself is called a gift of God. Most noteworthy is the passage in Ephesians 4:7, 11-14. The focus of attention in this passage is directed to verse 12, which states the purpose of these ministerial gifts: their function is to equip the saints for their work of ministry. Paul's primary concern in verses 1-16 is the growth and development of the body of Christ "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (verse 13). This comes about as each member, "speaking the truth in love," contributes toward the growth of the whole (verses 15, 16). To this end Paul begins by encouraging his readers to maintain the unity of the Spirit and then moves on to consider the gifts that the ascended Christ has given to each believer (verse 7) and the special gifts entrusted to some of them (verse 11).
The punctuation of verse 12 in both the Revised Standard Version and the King James Version suggests that the three phrases are parallel and that therefore the gifts listed in verse 11 were given for three coordinate purposes: "for the equipment of the saints," "for the work of the ministry," and "for building up the body of Christ." In that case diakonia is carried on only or primarily by those with special gifts. We have seen above, however, that diakonia is essentially a function of serving that belongs to all Christians as well as to those especially appointed. The change of prepositions (in the Greek from eis to pros) may point in this direction but is not decisive. More conclusive is the stress in the whole passage on the activity of all the saints for the welfare of the whole body. Most commentators agree that here diakonia is the ministry of all the saints and that the gifts of verse 11 are to equip them for their work.
A passage somewhat parallel to Ephesians 4 is 1 Corinthians 12:27, 28: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues" (R.S.V.). Paul here again reinforces the essential oneness of the "varieties of gifts" given by God and emphasizes that these are for the common good. The image of the body drawn out in detail in this chapter suggests that each member, and especially those with particular gifts appointed by God (verse 28), is to serve for the proper functioning of the whole body, in which even the "weaker" parts have an indispensable role (verse 22).
Thus both these passages make clear that every Christian receives some gift for serving the church and that the particular functions of ministry enumerated are special gifts for serving the whole.
Ministry is a function
Our study of diakonia and the passages above point us toward the functional nature of ministry. It would seem that throughout the New Testament the emphasis in regard to ministry is on the function of service within the Christian community. In both the Ephesian and the Corinthian passages Paul is not concerned with a certain number of ecclesiastical offices exercised by so many separate officials but with functions of the body for its upbuilding.
To emphasize the functional nature of ministry is not to deny that apostles, prophets, et cetera, did serve in an official capacity. We have noted that Christ appointed apostles to carry on His mission, and throughout his Epistles Paul makes it clear that he acted with authority as one called and sent by Christ. That it is God who gives the authority of these official ministers indicates that they are essential to the life of the church and not something the church can dispense with if it chooses.
By way of summary we recall that the church by its very nature calls for a ministry by each Christian both in behalf of his brethren and also toward the world. As the source and pattern of ministry, Christ sent His followers on the path of diakonia, a ministry of service in word and deed. The ascended Christ continues to provide ministers who serve the whole church by helping each Christian carry out his ministry. Thus ministry is not concerned primarily or solely with office holders but with the functioning of God-given gifts for the upbuilding of the church.
Caemmerer has said, "For the service that God is getting done through ministers is precisely the service that God is getting done through all His Christians. The 'work of the ministry' that Paul makes the target of the pastorate in Ephesians 4 is the ministry in which every Christian engages on behalf of the spiritual life and place of every fellow-Christian in the body of Christ. Martin Luther described the distinction of the pastor among the laymen: 'He is a layman who works for the other laymen. He is a minister to ministers.'" 7
Such is the dignity and majesty of our calling. Each member as a "minister" is assigned to act some part in God's work.