Ministers All?

every-member-a-ministerThe uniqueness and centrality of the official preaching of the Word is diminished when we  equivocate between the official, public, ordained administration of the Word and the unofficial witness to the gospel by the laity. The tendency among evangelical is to describe all those acts as “preaching.” This move is part of the democratic, populist spirit of modern spirit of evangelicalism. When I say I “modern” I don’t mean last week. Nathan Hatch has shown that, in American evangelicalism this has been the dominant pattern since the 1820s. Arguably, that pattern has roots in the so-called “First Great Awakening” almost a century before that.

It is universally assumed among contemporary evangelicals that Scripture teaches what is widely known as “every member ministry.” I understand how folk come to that conclusion and, over the years, I’ve been on both sides of this question. I’m back where I started. I don’t see it. If I can be brutally honest when I embraced the “every member ministry” model during my pastorate in Kansas City it was because we were a small church and we didn’t seem to be growing and, in response to the tremendous internal and external pressure felt by most pastors to “grow the church,” I adopted a series of “new measures.” I became a predestinarian evangelical. I fiddled with the Regulative Principle and I made friends with the so-called “church growth” movement and I let those things color my biblical exegesis. I read a series of distinctly modern assumptions back into Ephesians 4.

The “every member ministry” model hangs by a very thin biblical reed. It depends upon how one reads Ephesians 4:11–12:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…(ESV)

It depends on a comma. Did Christ give the various offices listed “to equip the saints to do the work of ministry” or did he give them “to equip the saints, for the work of ministry….”? In other words, are these two phrases to be taken as a list of things to be done by these special offices or is the purpose of the offices to equip the laity to do the work of ministry?

Well, first of all, Paul didn’t use a comma. The earliest NT texts had no such punctuation. The comma is an interpretation by editors of the Greek text and the English translations. It might be right, it might be wrong but it’s an interpretation. I certainly won’t pretend to sort out this question in a blog post. It is worth noting, however, that any view that hangs on a comma supplied by editors, is not well grounded in the text of Scripture and the flow of redemptive history.

I think the “every member” model probably has a lot more to do with democratic populism than it does with the biblical view of the church. Our Lord did not give the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) to every member but to the apostles, the first officers in the visible, institutional church. The “every member” model fits well into the program-driven approach adopted by virtually all evangelicals since the 18th century but does it fit Paul’s view of the church elsewhere? It seems to me that, if Paul had such a view, he would have expounded on it in detail in other places but he did not. He did, however, spend a considerable amount of space detailing the nature of the special offices. 1 and 2 Timothy were written to a young pastor. 1 Timothy 3 is about the offices of elder or overseer (vv.1-7) and deacon (vv.8-13). Most of 1 and 2 Timothy are about how Timothy should conduct his office as pastor. Much of Titus 1 is taken up with the matter of elders and Titus 2, again, is about the conduct of pastoral ministry. 1 Peter 5 is devoted to the office of elder. In other words, we have extensive revelation about the special offices and precious little about so-called “every member” ministry.

I’ve heard it argued that Acts 8 reflects the apostolic approach to “every member ministry” in as much as the church was scattered and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” One difficulty with the application of this narrative to this question is that the only Christians named in the narrative are special officers (Stephen and Philip). The first example of this preaching to which Luke turns is Philip. It is not at all clear that the intent of his narrative is to supply a ground for the “every member” ministry model.

This is not to say that there are not other ways of communicating the Word of God outside of the official pulpit ministry of the visible, institutional church. It is to say that, however, if we are to think biblically about this question, then we must be honest with the biblical text. I confess that, in the past, for the reasons I’ve given above, I haven’t always been completely honest with the biblical text. I regret that very deeply.

Why would Paul turn to “every member ministry” in the midst of a discussion aimed at and about the ministry of special officers? In the verses before Ephesians 4:11-12 he’s speaking to Timothy about the conduct of his office and the first thing he says in v. 13 has to do with the public administration of the Word. In short, the every-member interpretation of Eph 4:11-12 doesn’t seem to fit even the immediate context.

Finally, on this point, how likely is it that Paul is saying that Timothy and the other officers are to train what was almost certainly a largely illiterate congregation to do the work of ministry? We’re reading a great deal of modern life back into first-century Asia Minor when we read those verses to speak about every member ministry. Universal (or near it) literacy is a very recent phenomenon (which is probably behind us already). Whereas most of us can read and most of us have several English Bibles, most people in Timothy’s congregation not only couldn’t read but they didn’t have a portion of Scripture to read.

Therefore, I think it’s helpful to speak about the witness of the laity to the faith (that which is objectively revealed in the Word and confessed by the Reformed Churches) and their witness to their faith, i.e. to their subjective appropriation of the biblical faith. Yes, we should speak to our neighbors, friends, and co-workers about the faith and our faith, but we should distinguish lay witness from the official proclamation of the gospel. God the Spirit is free to act through popular witness or public proclamation, but as has been noted, it is to the latter that he has attached promises.

I realize this is heresy in contemporary evangelicalism, but not everything every Christian does is “ministry.” The baker has a vocation to bake to the glory of God but baking is not his ministry. We need to recover the idea of vocation. Calling the daily work of Christians “ministry” is intended to elevate it but it actually accomplishes the opposite. It devalues it by implying that anything that isn’t “ministry” isn’t valuable significant in itself. Really, what the EMM model has done is to take us back to the pre-Reformation view of the church in which there were two classes of Christians. The Keswick Movement did the same thing. Again, folk were thinking of two classes of Christians, those who have the blessing and those who don’t. The EMM movement implies that unless what someone does is “ministry” it isn’t really significant.

This approach is closely related to that pietist stream of neo-Kuyperianism that seeks to baptize everything that Christians do (whether softball or painting) as “ministry.” It suggests that there is something unclean about extra-ecclesial vocation so it makes everything ecclesial. Thus, we have Reformed Churches spending offerings on dozens of good works by private persons and societies and because they are “ministries.”Did our Lord really institute all the alphabet soup of “ministries” in evangelicalism today or did he institute the visible church (Matt 18)? Did he commission every layman in the world to preach, teach, baptize, and make disciples? Not even the most committed EMM congregation has (yet) free-for-all baptism parties where anyone can baptize anyone else. If it’s happening, I really don’t want to know.

I wasn’t always a stuffy high-church Calvinist. I came to faith in the context of a revivalist Southern Baptist congregation. I learned quickly as an evangelical that I needed to have a “ministry.” It wasn’t enough simply to be a teen-ager and to learn the basics of the faith and to go about my daily life trusting Christ, dying to sin and living to God. No, I had to have a “ministry.” So we took “spiritual gift” tests. The test said that I had the gift of prophecy. I’m still waiting for that one to kick in. In order to be regarded as full-time, sold-out, born again Christians, one had to have a ministry. So, with other students, we started a campus bible study at the local public school (which was contested by the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union the next year!). I was at Campus Life and if not there then at Youth Group or at a FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) or Campus Crusade (I was a religious over-achiever) meeting at the University or every week. My last two years high school was a blur of religious activity. When I got my first radio job helping to produce and then to host a Sunday morning gospel show on a local country station, my well-meaning youth pastor told me that it was okay to miss Sunday AM services because I had a “ministry.” Conway Twitty had a way of making even “Just as I Am” sound lecherous. Call me a Donatist, but there’s no way playing Conway Twitty is “ministry.” It was a job. Don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of it. It was a lot more exciting than sitting through another altar call and not walking the aisle again.

Strictly speaking, ministry is what ministers do. They administer the Word of God. They fulfill their calling just as God’s people, who hold the office of believer, fulfill their callings (vocations) to bake, to pave streets, or even do radio shows to the best of their ability, before the face of God, to the glory of God. Not everyone in the congregation is a “minister” and frankly that should be a relief.

[This post first appeared in 2007 on the HB]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. “Conway Twitty had a way of making even “Just as I Am” sound lecherous.”

    I’m playing that one in my head. You are absolutely right.

  2. Super post. A great irony is that those who insist that the clergy/laity divide creates a two-class Christianity end up enforcing a two-class Christianity in their practice. A normal job isn’t enough unless it is a tent-making support for one’s ministry. Those not heavily involved in church activities are looked upon with suspicion as “lukewarm” believers. The Lord’s Day becomes a workout instead of a feast.

    • Another passage cited in support of EMM is 1 Cor 14:26 “each one of you has a lesson, a revelation, etc”. Growing up in the Plymouth Brethren, this was the foundational passage for our communion gathering. Nevertheless, the passage was applied in a random, ad hoc manner. For instance, while many were content to pray, offer a reading or give out a hymn, no one ever spoke in tongues or prophesied. Implicit in the practice was a recognition that at least some of the passage couldn’t be applied directly.

  3. Hi Dr. Clark, I’m so glad you are reposting a lot of your stuff from back in the day! This is a great and helpful post. I’m about to start officer training with some men here at Grand River Reformation Church. This post is a simple (yet not simplistic) summary and critique of a rampant practice in North America. I’ll be having them read it to supplement their training. So, thank you!

  4. Amen, Dr. Clark. The biblical & Reformation doctrine of vocation needs to be recovered once again – and the silliness of “every-member ministry” needs to be put to rest. What a crushing and unnecessary burden to place on the shoulders of the redeemed.

    Here is a link to T. David Gordon’s JETS article, which provides the exegetical basis for rejecting the modern re-interpretation of Ephesians 4.

    http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/37/37-1/JETS_37-1_069-078_Gordon.pdf

  5. The comma is an interpretation by editors of the Greek text and the English translations. It might be right, it might be wrong but it’s an interpretation. I certainly won’t pretend to sort out this question in a blog post.

    I was going to link to TDGordon’s article (on his own website), but now I see a pdf was linked to already. Note also that Dennis Johnson wrote a friendly rebuttal to TDG, and then Steve Baugh wrote a cordial response kind of refereeing the two; but I only know of those from WSCAL students that had those in hardcopy in a reader for some class. If they are all three online somewhere it would be good to gather together some linkage.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Now can you sort out, please, two-office vs. three-office views, pros and cons with references. As you know, it has been asserted that there is no biblical support for the three office view. What say ye?

    • Hi Bruce,

      There’s an essay on that in The Compromised Church by Derke Bergsma. He sketches a biblical-theological argument for three offices. In my mind it seems fairly clear: There were three offices in the OT. Jesus had three offices. He left three offices to the church to fill (minister, elder, and deacon). To the best of my knowledge, three offices is a historic Reformed view with roots in the strong roots in the 2nd-century Fathers (e.g., Ignatius). That said, I’m happy to live with presbyterians who speak of two offices (and nevertheless function as three office).

      There might be something in Brown’s Order in the Offices. I don’t recall. See also perhaps Brown & Hyde, Called to Serve.

  7. As usual, if one were to turn to the AV it would all be clear:

    And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
    For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

    It’s clear that Paul is giving three separate, though of course related, tasks of the offices mentioned.

    When we all choose our own Bible translation (sometimes preferring different versions for different segments of the Word!) it’s not surprising when errors like this persist. Of course there were errors before the modern translations- which is why we also need faithful, Reformed pastors to correctly divide the Word. (Although I’d question how high a regard was held for the Scriptures by these earlier proponents of such errors.)

    I’d also say, with respect, that statements like “The comma isn’t there in Paul. It might be right, it might be wrong.” can be very dangerous. One shouldn’t need to be fluent in the Biblical languages to trust that what he is reading is the true Word of God. And even if one were fluent in such languages, we don’t have the autographs. We must be rock solid that not only did God inspire His Word, but He has preserved it through the centuries: in it’s transcription and translation by faithful, Spirit-filled men (i.e. not those men from whose work these modern translations have been hatched). And why are the earliest NT copies necessarily the most reliable?

    When every man has his own translation is it any wonder we’re in the mess we’re in?

    • Alexander,

      I posted tour reply so everyone can see:

      1) that I’m not exaggerating about the existence of the KJV/AV only movement;

      2) Its QIRC-iness;

      3) How close your arguments are to Rome’s arguments for the Vulgate (you practically make the translators inspired. Was the Spirit less present in the Tyndale or the Geneva or the ASV or the ESV? What kind of doctrine of inspiration and providence is that?)

      4) How little this movement knows about the history of the English Bible or the importance of knowing the original languages;

      5) How unconfessional the AV only argument is—

      8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope. (WCF 1.8)

    • While I appreciate the concern expressed here, I do think it is possible to distinguish between ministry/service and official ministry/service. I agree that an every member ministry emphasis shouldn’t be allowed to swallow up official ministry. But surely we’re all called to ministry/service (doing good to all men especially those of the household of faith; generous giving, hospitality, prayer, etc.) and some do some of those things better than others.

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