Ministering the Word

Neither as a group nor individually do ministers have the respect once accorded them. In part this is their own fault-and the solution lies to hand.

John W. Fowler is the secretary of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Today pastors are suffering from a dis grace, a discredit. Neither the church nor society takes pas tors seriously enough either to honor them or to make them suffer for their ideas. The result is a decline in the influence of the ministry and the church and a growing moral and spiritual decadence every where apparent.

In the past it was not so. Pastors, being the successors of the apostles, 1 were expected to define the moral and spiritual issues of the day, to make understandable the distinctions between the many and varied sides of those issues, to say what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. Their role meant that they were often misunderstood and at times even hated. But generally they had the respect of those around them.

The church bears some responsibility for the disgrace pastors are suffering, be cause it has taken away the preeminence of the ministry of the Word. While the church gives lip service to the exalted role of pastoral ministry, in practice it has allowed this ministry to be viewed as of little importance. It encourages its best pastors to leave the pastorate for administrative posts within the church structure. And it signals its low regard for the pastoral ministry by giving other forms of ministry more than their share of the financial resources of the church for salaries, budgets, offices, office equipment, and secretarial help. As a person "climbs" the denominational ladder from the local church to conference, union, division, and then General Conference positions, all of the benefits in crease. 2

But pastors must also bear some responsibility for the disgrace they suffer. They have abdicated their historic role as the spiritual and moral leaders of society. Very few pastors call the church to ac count or seek to correct and perfect it according to the standard of Scripture. Instead, they have succumbed to the institutional church's efforts to buy their allegiance. They have accepted its lowered standards and have come to enjoy its materialistic lifestyle.

The much-needed influence of the pastoral ministry can be reestablished, and the moral and spiritual values that are so important to the church and society restored. But such a restoration can take place only when pastors rediscover the preeminence of the ministry of the Word of God.

Finding the center

Throughout the New Testament the ministry of the Word is always front and center. From Peter's first sermon, delivered on Pentecost, to the last message by John, we find Jesus as the dynamic, creative power of this ministry. His preexistence and divinity, His incarnation and earthly ministry, His death and resurrection, His priestly ministry and giving of the Holy Spirit, His ascension and second advent, formed the content of the disciples' communication.

But while the disciples' preaching centered on Christ, they recognized as the source of both their knowledge and authority the Scriptures—the Word of God. Peter rooted the miraculous happenings of that special Pentecost directly in the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 2:16). And in his Acts 3 message, Peter again used the Scriptures as the source and authority for his ministry.

When soon thereafter the apostles' ministry was being hindered because they were increasingly caught up in "waiting on tables," they asked the church to appoint seven men to care for that task. They wanted to be free to "give [themselves] continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). In fact, so closely did they associate their ministry with the Scripture that Luke calls the great evangelistic success they experienced an increase of the Word of God (verse 7).

Acts says that when the great persecution that led to the stoning of Stephen drove the disciples out of Jerusalem, they went everywhere "preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). And as soon as the church in Antioch ordained Barnabas and Saul, later known as Paul, these two missionaries sailed to Cyprus and "preached the word" (Acts 13:5).

Paul always centered his ministry on the Word of God. In his Second Epistle to Timothy he contrasted the Word of God with fables, admonishing Timothy not to get caught up in vain babbling but rather to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1- 4). In that same Epistle, Paul also points out that the Scriptures are the only infallible and authoritative source of knowledge about God and His will for man (2 Tim. 3:16).

Here Paul indicates why the apostles accorded the ministry of the Word of God such great importance. It is because God uses this ministry to accomplish His will and His work in the individual, in the church, and in the world.

In Isaiah 55:11 God says, "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereunto I sent it." God works through His Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works through the Scriptures. Ephesians 6:17 states that the "sword of the Spirit... is the word of God." When used by the Spirit of God, the Word of God releases the "creative energy that called the worlds into existence." 3 Paul says the Word of God, the gospel, is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Hodge confirms the Spirit's use of the Scriptures. He says that while the Word of God has intrinsic life and power, the spiritual darkness of the human mind makes necessary the Holy Spirit's assistance in understanding and receiving the Word of God.4 He then adds that "it is, therefore, the united testimony of Scripture and of history that the Bible, the Word of God, is the great means of promoting the sanctification and salvation of men, that is, of securing their temporal and eternal well-being."5

It is the ministry of the Word that creates faith (Rom. 10:8). It brings repentance that leads to forgiveness (Acts 2:37, 38). It implants in man the nature of Christ (Matt. 13:23).

The ministry of the Word establishes the church on earth (Acts 2:47). It perfects the church (2 Tim. 3:16), and it creates the spiritual kingdom of heaven within the church (Acts 4:31-33). It is through the ministry of the Word that the church is "conformed to Christ and ordered by the gospel." 6

So pastors and the church have at their disposal the supernatural means God uses to renew, perfect, and restore His people individually and corporately. We must not perceive this work as something apart from evangelism. If evangelism aims to make disciples (Matt. 28:19, 20), then the restoration of people is its preeminent work.

Balancing conflicting demands

If the ministry of the Word is effectively to conform the church to Christ and order it according to the gospel, its quality and character must be distinctly scriptural and Christian. As does Scripture, it must define the moral and spiritual issues of the day. It must distinguish clearly between what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.

Herein lies a difficult problem. The church employs pastors to preach and teach the doctrinal and theological truths it holds. It also expects them to uphold the moral and ethical values it espouses. We have clear counsel regarding independent thought and action on doctrinal and theological matters. 7

However, since God Himself has called the pastors and appointed them as guardians of the church and custodians of the mysteries of His kingdom, their primary responsibility is to provide the faithful service that He requires. 8 Burning with the desire that Timothy, the pastor of the Ephesian church, preach what he found in Scripture and thus fulfill his primary role of conforming the church to Christ, Paul admonished, "Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering" (2 Tim. 4:2). Ellen White also indicates that the minister's task is to preach the Word of God—not only what Christ Himself taught in person, but also what He spoke through all the prophets and teachers of the Old Testament. 9

Obviously, it takes careful handling to balance what is the church's right and what is due God. But if we respect and counsel closely with those who oversee our work for the church, it is unlikely that they will object to our assuming the historic role of the ministry of the Word. And it is only as we faithfully preach and teach the Word that God can guide and direct His church. Only as we give place to His Word and work can the church be conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29).

Restoring the essential ministry

How can pastors fulfill this ministry? How can they carry on and ultimately complete the work that Christ began?

First, pastors must begin to take seriously their duty of studying the Word of God to discover what God says about the moral and spiritual issues of our day. Very few pastors today can effectively minister the Word of God because very few pastors today study that Word deeply. If this is not obvious from the sermonic entrees served in the regular worship services, it is pain fully obvious by the way church members respond to theological controversy and the teaching of false doctrines within the church. Unsound theological views circulating within the church too easily sway our members. They would exhibit more stability in the face of these theological whirlwinds if their pastors, those who serve as the church's guardians, were faithfully dealing with and clarifying these doctrinal issues week after week.

But many pastors have become simply employees. They see the ministry of the Word as only one of the necessary functions of pastoral ministry within the institutional setting. Consequently, they do only enough study to meet the mini mum requirements of that particular function. They have abdicated the historic role of the pastoral ministry as guardians of the church, as its spiritual and moral leaders. As a result the pastoral ministry is weak in the knowledge and proclamation of the Word of God, and thus often void of the creative, life-changing power of heaven. This attitude toward the ministry of the Word has allowed the spiritual and the moral decay we see in our church.

The only solution is a renewed study of the Word of God. Pastors should make the study of that Word their first order of business. They should become acquainted with every line of prophetic history and every lesson Christ taught. 10 When study undergirds their ministry, their sermons will reveal and communicate their grasp of spiritual things. Then out of their midst will flow "rivers of living water" to quench this world's thirst (John7:38). 11

Second, simply knowing what the Scriptures teach is not enough. We must conform our own lives to the moral and spiritual truths we find in them. The soldiers who were sent to arrest Jesus came back without Him, saying, "Never man spake like this man." Ellen White says the reason for the wisdom and power of Christ's words was that "never man lived as He lived." 12

The point is that we can truly know something only as we experience it in our own lives. Jesus could move people to faith because He Himself fully trusted God. He could speak with power and authority about living by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God be cause that was His constant experience. He knew for Himself the peace and joy of perfect oneness with the Father. Tempted as we are, in secret prayer He found the strength to do the will of the Father. It was because of the sacrifice He Himself was making that His appeal to give up the pursuit of material wealth, to sacrifice, to take up the cross, brought an unprecedented response from people in all stations of life.

Like Christ, our influence on our hearers stands in direct proportion to the genuineness of our own spiritual and moral lives. E. M. Bounds makes this point strikingly clear. He writes: "The preacher is the golden pipe through which the divine oil flows. The pipe must not only be golden, but open and flaw less, that the oil may have a full, unhindered . . . flow. . . . The man, the whole man, lies behind the sermon. Preaching is not the performance of an hour. It is the outflow of a life. It takes 20 years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make the man." 13

If our task is to conform the church to Christ and order it according to the gospel, then our work must begin with our selves. The greatest hindrance to the effectiveness of the pastor is willful and unconfessed sin in his or her life. It flaws and discolors the earthen vessel through which the divine treasure flows. More than anything else, the ministry needs pastors great in holiness, great in faith, great in fidelity, great in unswerving commitment to the truth and values of the Christian faith. Only such pastors can, as E. M. Bounds says, "take hold of the church [and] the world for God." 14

Third, we can only reestablish the historic role of the pastoral ministry as the guardians and spiritual and moral leaders of the church when we take the proclamation of the Word seriously.

In this skeptical age preaching the complex and yet simple message of God's Word does not always bring popularity. Consequently, as Elder H.M.S. Richards pointed out, "for fear they will be looked upon as philosophical, theological, so ciological squares," many pastors present to their congregations instead "the latest shibboleth, the latest theological complexity, the profundity of vacuity."

Edwin C. Dargan's history of preaching—which he views as encompassing both proclamation and teaching—reveals the wide and far-reaching influence of the ministry of the Word. Dargan says that preaching has affected all areas of human life: the life and progress of nations, the rise and fall of governments, the arts and sciences, human culture, philosophy, and education, and, most important of all, the customs and morals of mankind. 15 He writes that "preaching is an essential part and a distinguishing feature of Christianity" and that "the spread of Christianity, both geographically and numerically, has been largely the work of preaching." 16

Dargan holds that when spiritual life and moral standards within the church and society at large decline, a ministry weak in preaching is at least in part responsible. And he credits the great revival movements in history, the spiritual and moral advances within the church and society, to the preaching of the Word. 17

It is only through the ministry of the Word that God can realize His will and accomplish His work in people, in the church, and in the world. It is, as well, only as pastors make this ministry their primary work that the church can ever be conformed to Christ and ordered according to the gospel.

1 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 40.

2 Today, however, we do see some shift in
emphasis, thanks to the work of the General Conference
Ministerial Association. A statement that the
1986 Annual Council approved says that the tithe
is to be used primarily for the "support of pastors,
evangelists, ministers. The tithe shall be utilized to
support salaried personnel directly engaged in pas
toral and evangelistic soul-winning endeavors"
(GC Working Policy, T 20 15, point 1). Point 2 of
the same policy discusses tithe for world missions—
presumably for those directly involved in soulwinning
work, even though that is not stated. The
third point in that section of the policy states that
tithe can be used for "soul-winning support personnel."
Included in this are "departmental directors
and their staffs that are engaged in evangelistic and
nurturing activities."

While there is some ambiguity in this state
ment, it is a move in the right direction.

3 Ellen G. White, Education, p. 126.

4 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1981
[reprint]), vol. 3, pp. 472, 473.

5 Ibid., p. 470.

6 Raoul Dederen, "A Theology of Ordination,"
Ministry, February 1978, p. 24M.

7 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, pp.
489, 490.

8 ____, Gospel Workers, p. 15.

9 ____, The Desire of Ages, p. 826.

10 ____, Gospel Workers, p. 98.

11 Ellen White tells us there is "no need for weakness
in the ministry. The message of truth we bear is
all-powerful. But many ministers do not put their
minds to the task of studying the deep things of
God."

In the same place she writes that ministers must
overcome their indolent habits of thought and that
the study of Scriptures is the best way to accomplish
this. She says that deep and disciplined Bible study
will thoroughly awaken the intellect. With such
study the mind will gain strength, breadth, and
acuteness; it will be trained to think habitually.
The student will gain intellectual culture, the
memory will be strengthened, strength and vigor
will come to the understanding, light will be shed
upon the great problems of life, and the heart will
be filled with high and holy purposes. She says that
under such a regimen the minister will gain a nobil
ity of character and a stability of purpose rarely
seen. He will gain clarity of thought. His sermons
will contain a direct, definite message that will help
his hearers choose the right way and he will become
qualified to do a larger work (Gospel Workers, pp.
98-100, 249).

12 Ellen G. White, the Ministry of Healing, p.
469.

13 E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), pp.
12, 13.

14 Ibid., p. 14.

15 Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954), vol. 1,
pp. 8-12.

16 Ibid., p. 12.

17 Ibid., p. 13.

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John W. Fowler is the secretary of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

February 1991

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