On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VIII

If there is a crisis in ministerial and churchly identity, it is, I propose, a crisis that finds it genesis in a defunct christology. One of the critical questions for every Christian – pastors too! – concerns the confidence we have in the gospel itself, which is really confidence in God and his Christ and should not in any way be confused with self-confidence. Much of the ‘leadership’ literature that lands on a pastor’s desk or in a pastor’s inbox – and which finds its voice in sermons and pastoral counsel – constitutes a wave of temptation to employ the powers of this present age for ministry. Much of this is hard to resist. With the enormous stress birthed by dwindling congregations, the temptation to turn inward and/or to ‘manage the institution’ rather than ‘serve the gospel’ is potent. And with the command to stones to become loaves of bread comes a loss of the memory that the Church is a creature of the Word (creatura verbum Dei), is an entity formed by the gospel alone, and for the gospel alone. This means that its capacity for being a community in the world lies wholly in the gracious God, whose work creates a radical dependence on the gospel which itself is the act and Word of God judging our false allegiance to idols, defeating evil powers and calling us to know and witness to God. In every sense, therefore, the Church is the Church insofar as it glories in the weakness and foolishness of the cross and repents of its theologies of glory.

So there exists a radical connection between the doctrine of justification and pastoral ministry. Put differently, we might say that everything for the Church depends on Christ’s humanity and substitutionary work. If this is not clear, the Church will become dependent on the pastor’s humanity, on her or his personality and action, and/or on its own programmatic existence which is destined for death. All around us is what TF Torrance describes as the Protestant psychological Sacerdotalism which displaces the humanity of Christ as leader of the community and sole substitute for our life, and leaves the Church with mere human alternatives to the one saving work of God secured in Christ’s humanity. So often in ministry we seek justification in terms of what is seen. We seek an outcome in order to justify our ministry. (This helps to keep the ecclesiastical sociologists in business, and those who draft endless ‘reviews’). But all ministry is God’s ministry. And we are called to participate in that ministry. When we fail to realise or fulfill our calling, it is often because we have neglected or abandoned or rejected the actuality that our calling is a participation, and not a proprietorship. Put otherwise, there is no such thing in and of itself as ‘the Church’ or as ‘ministry’. There is only God, and a people created and called out by God to witness to God and to God’s creation of God’s marvellous grace by which reality is (re-)constituted and by which all things live and breathe and worship and die and live again.

Some years ago, Ray Anderson penned a wonderful paper on ‘A Theology of Ministry’ (published in Theological Foundations for Ministry) in which he argued that ‘ministry precedes and produces theology’. By ‘ministry’, he meant that which ‘is determined and set forth by God’s own ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world’. The task of the Church is to reflect on, to bear witness to, and to participate in, this ministry as set forth by God. Neither the Church nor her doctors and pastors and sessions stand on their own and determine the shape and content and ground of ministry. And so Anderson continues, ‘To say that all ministry is God’s ministry is to suggest that ministry precedes and determines the Church’. Clearly what Anderson was contending for was that the way we see ministry is essential to how we understand the Church. So when we call the pastor ‘the minister’ we are confessing that her ministry expresses something about the way the Church understands its own existence. The nature of ministry is the nature of the Church, and the minister par excellence, the leitourgos, is Jesus Christ himself (Heb 8.1).

In that same collection, James Torrance shows us how Jesus Christ is the minister in the true sanctuary that the Lord has set up. Jesus ministers to the Father on our behalf. All ministry is, first and foremost, the ministry of the Father who demonstrates his love to us in sending the Son (who himself does not act on his own accord, but carries out the will of the Father) that we might have life in him (John 5.17, 19, 30; 6.38; 1 John 4.9). The Son’s ministry is about, among other things, revelation (John 1.18) and reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17–19) in response to the will of the Father. And the Spirit, as the other paraclete, continues the ministry of the Son of bearing witness to the Father’s holy love (John 14.26; 15.26; 16.7, 13–15; Rom 8.9–15). To think about Christian ministry, and to engage in such, therefore, is to take up an invitation to participate in the very life of God – Father, Son and Spirit in their mutual witness to each other, and to the world. It is also, to borrow language from the Book of Hebrews, to ‘enter God’s rest’ (4.10), on which I will say more in the next post in this series.

Anderson also argued that ‘Christ’s primary ministry is to the Father for the sake of the world, not to the world for the sake of the Father’. This means that it is the purpose and joy of the Father, and not human needs, which determines the prime nature of Christ’s ministry (John 6.38). And in the Holy Spirit the Church is given to participate in Christ’s ministry to the Father for the sake of the world. Again, only in the context of this vision of the ministry of the Triune God does it make any sense to talk about the Church – the called-out people of God, the ekklesia – and its ministry. Ecclesiology, as Colin Gunton noted in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, is controlled by the tri-personed community of God. This means that the Church – if it truly is to be the Church – has no business in running its own agenda – indeed, it has no agenda! To press on as if it did, or to be concerned with one’s own preservation, is to uproot oneself from the very soil of what constitutes it. That is, it is to be ‘made a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns’ (Isa 5.6).

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Other posts in this series:

2 thoughts on “On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VIII

  1. This post speaks clearly about the heart and soul of ministry, and reminds us once again of the futility of thinking about theology as somehow a separate enterprise from ministry, a sin too often committed by both “ministers” and “theologians.” Thanks, Jason, for this and the whole series.

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