We often hear it said that the Christian minister today is in search of an image. For many centuries he had a unique and honored place in society, but in the last generation there has been a rapid erosion of his position, though the conditions for this critical deterioration have been building for a long time. With the secularization of society, many of the functions once performed by Christian ministers have been taken over by others--educators, social workers, psychoanalysts, counselors of various kinds. Even within the church the new stress on the responsibility of the laity has led some to question whether a full-time ministry or even an ordained ministry of any kind is necessary.
This radical questioning may lead to good results if it forces us to look beyond the sociological accidents of ministry to its theological essence. At any given time the form of the ministry is determined partly by the cultural factors operating in society and partly by the theological givens that lie at the root of the ministry. How many different kinds of bishops, for instance, there have been from the days of the pagan Roman Empire down to twentieth-century America! We believe that the apostolic commission has continued through the many changes, but often enough the theological meaning of ministry has been obscured by its cultural trappings. Eighteenth-century English bishops stayed in London for nine months of the year so that they might fulfill the duties to the House of Lords, chiefly by supporting the party that had appointed them to their sees. They are not easily recognizable as successors of the apostles! So it is no bad thing when the Christian minister is compelled from time to time to reconsider his fundamental raison d'etre.
This means that we have to consider ministry in relation to the church, bearing in mind that the church, though it is a human institution and therefore susceptible to sociological analysis, is more than a merely human institution. It originated in the calling of God; it is a sign in the midst of the world of the kingdom of God and is therefore a mystery demanding a theological rather than a sociological approach.
In the context of this theological entity, the church, we must seek to understand the Christian ministry. As Hans Kung has remarked, it is possible to discern "both constants and variables" in the ministry. 1 For the most part the constants are theological, though, of course, even in the theology of ministry a development of understanding can take place. The variables belong to the changing cultural settings. These variables are highly important if the ministry is to be effective. But they offer a wide diversity even in the many environments within a single city. Thus the question of effectively ministering in a given situation is a highly particular and individualized one.
But there is another reason for concentrating on these constants. As we noted earlier, the position of the ministry in society at large has been increasingly threatened. As this has happened some have attempted to make ministry look as much as possible like some of the secular professions that seem to be competing with it. Christian ministers today are tempted to imitate the roles of more prestigious members of society, to become like social workers or clinical psychologists or even business executives.
It is right, of course, that in the modern exercise of the ministry we should learn as much as possible from the experts in many fields. And we should work with them in matters of common concern. But other professions will not provide a satisfying image of the ministry. The Christian minister has his own distinctive functions, and these must be fully determinative. Of course, these distinctive functions assume that God is a reality, that the church has a dimension that goes beyond the human and the creaturely, that Jesus Christ provides a salvation that no merely secular agency can.
Daniel Day Williams wrote: "To bring salvation to the human spirit is the goal of the Christian ministry." 2 This sentence expresses the distinctive work of Christian ministry, the fundamental constant that remains through all variables. But if the basic beliefs upon which the idea of salvation depends have been eroded away, Christian ministry has no future. Better training, more up-to-date methods, and more efficient organization will accomplish nothing of importance if we have lost confidence in the fundamental task itself--that of bringing to men the salvation of God.--R.D.E.