Every Sheep a Shepherd?

Rick Ritchie
Monday, August 6th 2007
Mar/Apr 1997

When I was in high school, I took a vocational survey designed to match a person's interests with possible occupations. This particular survey was designed by a more imaginative committee than most. Unlike other surveys which listed only conventional occupations, this one included exotic occupations in each field. Also, unlike most surveys, this one gave religious occupations their due attention. Not only were religious occupations listed, but unusual options in religious work appeared as well. Under conventional choices were listed the expected positions: minister, priest, rabbi. Under exotic occupations were listed witch doctor and guru.

Even at the time, the list suggested an odd way of viewing religious occupations. It implied that the same thought processes were involved in choosing among religious occupations as among secular. Even the conventional list caused me to picture an individual deciding to enter the field of religious work before knowing which world religion he or she wanted to serve. But the exotic list offered my imagination an even more intriguing possibility. What if some free spirit ignored the entire interest survey, scanned the exotic options category under each field, and then chose to become a witch doctor?

The impression that this was how religious occupations are chosen was most likely unintentional. The survey creators devised the only way they knew to include religion on equal terms with other occupations. But the picture has remained with me.

As I have grown older, I have discovered that the church is not immune to such eccentric ways of viewing the ministry. These views stem from the same source. Odd views of the ministry arise whenever we draw an analogy between the church and something it does not truly resemble. Odd language also results when we speak of things that are not the church as if they were the church.

New Testament Temple Priests

One common error regarding the ministry involves drawing too tight of an analogy between the New Testament ministry and the Old Testament priesthood. There are points of true analogy, but these callings must be understood to be fundamentally different. The problem is not that the New Testament ministry lacks priestly functions, but that these specific functions are common to all Christians. When we over-identify the ministry with the priesthood, ministers do not gain, but the laity loses.

The Roman error concerning the ministry consists in denying to common believers their priestly prerogatives. Scripture tells us that as believers we are a "royal priesthood" and a "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9). In the Roman church, the royal priesthood was gradually swallowed up by the Holy Ministry.

To some extent, this is understandable. After all, God did have a class of professional religious people in the Old Testament who were priests. In the New Testament, he also created a professional class. There are clearly parallels between the professional religious ministries in the Old and New Testaments. The early church saw this parallel and tried to derive all that it could from the analogy. The Nicene canons (the fourth century church rules which were codified at the Nicene council) contain laws governing the clergy straight out of the book of Leviticus. Levitical law forbade a priest to be blemished or have crushed testicles, and the Nicene canons applied the same prohibition to its priests. Now I would imagine that this probably kept few candidates off of the clergy rosters (and I would wonder about the ones who failed the test!), but most of us can see how such rules are the result of a failure to distinguish Old and New Testament religion, between shadow and substance.

Much of the need for church regulation also arose out of the danger posed by heresy. The more you study early church history, the more surprised you are that the church survived. Not just persecution, but bad doctrine threatened its very life. Orthodox congregations believed that one of the best ways to maintain right teaching was by observing strict regulations concerning who could teach Christian doctrine. If the church as a whole could maintain orthodox bishops and place the ordination of priests into their hands, who in turn would be the only ones authorized to teach laymen, then the threat of heresy could be contained.

As literate Americans, it is difficult for most of us to imagine how any good could come from employing such a procedure. We imagine that a hierarchical structure must be evil by its very nature. We picture blockhead priests forbidding the lay study of the Bible because of envy and the desire to maintain their own status. But while this undoubtedly describes some situations, it fails to do justice to others. The early church had desperate need of doctrinal discipline and created structures to maintain it. Those structures became overbearing at the time when literacy made it possible for lay people to instruct themselves to a degree that had not been possible earlier.

Roman Catholics often try to understate or explain away the problems of the medieval church, while fundamentalists tend to demonize it. A more balanced approach recognizes that the Roman priesthood was the development of many centuries-which did not all manifest the same level of health or disease. Partly in response to true crisis, and partly for the sake of prestige, the Roman clergy gradually took over more of the laity's functions. The royal Priesthood of All Believers was forgotten, to be rediscovered during the Reformation. The Reformers insisted on recognizing the distinction between priesthood and ministry.

The Ministry of Nobody

If we believe that in contemporary evangelicalism we see the New Testament concept of the priesthood purged of Romish abuses and functioning according to God's word, we are mistaken. It is true that the Roman error is rarely found and that some vital privileges have been returned to their rightful recipients, but all is not well. We have the name of the Reformation doctrine without the substance. Many evangelical congregations are aware enough of the doctrinal term "Priesthood of All Believers" to take pride in claiming that it is practiced in their congregations. Some have gone even further. They have tried to encapsulate Luther's doctrine in the newer slogan "Every Christian a Minister," which becomes a ruling principle in their congregations.

This is commendable in its attempts at consistency, but it misses some important distinctions. When in 1520 Luther wrote in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1) that every Christian was a priest, this was not synonymous with saying that every Christian was a minister. This distinction may not be readily apparent since former priests were renamed ministers, but their writings make it clear. The early Lutherans were clear about promoting the Priesthood of All Believers without abolishing a class of ministers. As the great dogmatician Martin Chemnitz wrote:

All Christians are indeed priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6), because they offer spiritual sacrifices to God. Everyone also can and should teach the Word of God in his own house (Deut. 6:7; 1 Cor. 14:35). Nevertheless, not everyone ought to take and arrogate to himself the public ministry of Word and sacrament. For not all are apostles; not all are teachers (1 Cor. 12:29), but those who have been set apart for this ministry by God through a particular and legitimate call (Acts 12:2, Heb. 13:21; Rom. 10:15). (2)

The term "priest" was dropped as a clerical title because it now applied to every Christian. If all Christians are priests, then it does not make sense to use that term specifically of the clergy. The early Lutherans believed that the term "minister" was the Scriptural term that best conveyed the specific duties of the clergy. All Christians have priestly rights, privileges, and responsibilities. But all are not ministers.

When Luther promoted the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, he was attempting both to restore the Scriptural use of language, and to point out that many of the functions of the laity had been usurped by the clergy (e.g., hearing the confession of Christian brethren and overseeing the Christian education of one's family). He did not, however, intend to overthrow every distinction between clergy and laity. Scripture itself spoke of them differently.

The evangelical error of calling every Christian a minister appeals to our modern sense of democracy. We don't want anyone above us in rank. Luther managed to raise the status of the laity without pulling the clergy down to lay level. In fact, if truth is the criterion, then he raised the status of both clergy and laity simultaneously. The evangelicals who claim to be his heirs have not outdone Luther. In leveling clergy and laity, they have fallen below his level. When every Christian is a minister, there is nothing special about being a minister aside from a paycheck. Occasionally there is an attempt to remedy this problem by allowing that hired ministers are there to "equip the saints" for ministry.

When the Priesthood of All Believers and the Office of the Holy Ministry are collapsed into each other, one of them is bound to be lost. In Romanism, it was the priesthood (the laity) that suffered. In evangelicalism, it is the ministry that suffers. Some fear that a return to a distinction between clergy and laity will mean that the laity lose something. If we declare that the laity are not ministers, won't they stop exhorting each other, teaching each other, and praying for each other? No. Not if they are taught that this is their priestly privilege and duty.

This is scripturally sound, and I believe it conveys the historic development of the ministry better than most evangelicals understand it. I am aware that good doctrine can be misused by faulty men. It is possible that some who fight for the position of minister do have an agenda of power. Yet the first thing which must be determined is what is the true doctrine of the ministry and its right relation to the Priesthood of All Believers. After this, we can proceed to admonish the minister to fulfill his office without lording it over the flock.

Good and Bad Shepherds

The New Testament picture of Christ as the good shepherd (John 10:11), the minister as an undershepherd (Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and the church as the flock of God (Acts 20:28) illustrates the proper function of roles in the church. It also offers hints as to how an emergency might be handled. If we translate contemporary doctrine into shepherd-and-sheep language, it is clear that evangelicals are teaching that "every sheep is a shepherd." This is obviously wrong-headed. It is equivalent to sheep without a shepherd, by all Biblical accounts a tragedy (e.g., 2 Chr. 18:16, Eze. 34:18, Mark 6:34). But to speak as if this is the only possible error leads to Romanism, for surely there are bad shepherds (see Jer. 50:6). But God's flock is not so stupid as to be unteachable: Christ's sheep know his voice. When a bad shepherd tries to lead them away from Christ, the sheep are not to follow. But Roman teaching denies the possibility of bad shepherds altogether. We must, thus, avoid both Roman and evangelical folly. Emergency conditions will sometimes arise, but we must not on that basis abandon shepherds. In an emergency, smart sheep will find a new shepherd.

Note the importance of the shepherd's voice. If a pastor is a shepherd like Christ, his congregation will know him by his voice. It is with his voice that he fulfills his duty: in correcting, teaching, and preaching. Other qualities are of lesser importance; what matters is that the pastor speak rightly on behalf of God. It is with the Savior's voice that the pastor proclaims the forgiveness of sins. The misuse of God's voice, the preaching of false doctrine, or silence concerning the gospel, are the most horrible calamities a pastor can inflict on his congregation, and the reasons for finding a new shepherd.

He Gave Some to Be Clowns?

"Every Christian a Minister" is a slogan whose divergence from "Priesthood of All Believers" may not be apparent to the untrained. Give a congregation time with this slogan, and it will likely take a path far from anything seen in the Reformation. The beginning of the revolution it causes may be the same: the true priestly functions of the laity are recognized. Eventually, however, real ministerial prerogatives are also doled out to members of the congregation. What begins as an undercurrent of excitement over the "restoration of ancient church practice" crashes in a tidal wave of silliness.

There are churches where it is not only said that every Christian is a minister (something which might have to do with their function in an actual congregation), but also that every Christian has a ministry-something that can easily be disconnected from any congregation at all. Now both church and ministry have become unglued from any biblical context.

Occasionally Luther's doctrine of vocation comes to the rescue so that what is called a ministry merely involves a Christian doing his daily work-perhaps with a commitment to be ethical and to evangelize. Here we just have a misnomer (though a dangerous one at that), but everyone is still doing what he or she is called to do. This is a best case scenario. What happens more often, however, is that strange methods of doing priestly tasks are invented and dubbed ministries.

Just what is a puppet ministry or a clown ministry? Scripture says that God gave some to be ministers. Where does Scripture say anything about clowns? My question does not even touch whether we must adapt our methods to our culture and how far we may go in doing this. The term "clown ministry" does not suggest merely that another medium has been adapted to an existing office. It suggests that the medium itself is the ministry, that "clowning" is itself a means of grace. Now perhaps nobody would argue this, but I want to know why people use such a confusing term. At best people who use this language believe that they are ministers who have chosen an unusual medium through which to convey the gospel. But do these people ever call themselves just "ministers"? This term suggests that a minister might use one method at one time and another later. But biblically, they do not. There is a confusion of language here, and I suspect it exists so that people do not have to bear the full weight of the title minister. "Clown minister" is much more comfortable, for who could apply a warning passage to a clown minister? Can you imagine Jesus castigating a clown minister using the language he used on the Pharisees? Just picture it! Bozo goes to hell! No? Well is he a minister or not? Not really? You get the point.

Whose Coin Is This?

Other odd situations crop up when everything is viewed as a ministry. I remember a related incident when I worked in a book store. A women's group left a book display at the store for many weeks without checking on it. When all of the books had been sold from the display, nobody knew how to contact the women's group to come and retrieve their empty display. The display went the way of all book displays and was thrown away. Some time later a woman from the group came in and asked what had happened to it. Our explanation was met with the response that the display had been bought with ten dollars of "ministry money," a term the woman repeated often. After much heated discussion, the woman was given ten dollars and told never to do business with the store again.

Now aside from any question of how such an issue ought to have been handled, the talk of "ministry money" clouded the discussion. Business ethics are indeed worth discussing, for it is important that people treat each other fairly. But what happens when "ministry money" becomes a factor in the discussion? Suddenly you aren't transacting business on level ground. Visions of Ananias and Sapphira from the book of Acts or Achan from the Old Testament come to mind. Now we are dealing with "the Lord's money." Common sense is lost, and we are faced with the choice between a scrupulosity where we cannot run normal business, or a hardened attitude where we no longer make any distinction between the things of God and the things of the world.

The term "ministry money" is a bad enough term by itself. I can imagine our Lord hearing such a term and asking, as he did of the Pharisees, "whose coin is this?" Money is a matter of this world. God has shown a severe attitude towards those who rob him, but when the church functions in the economy, it enters a system which it does not govern. It can expect ethical treatment, but not special treatment. If it hires a window-washer, it can expect the same quality another business would expect for the same money. It would be wrong for a pastor to expect an inhuman perfection from a window-washer, and when the worker showed himself to be just one cut above average, to turn on him with the words "Are you going to leave spots on the Lord's windows?" (If the church feels so strongly about a perfect job, they must hire the window-washer of Buckingham Palace at the going rate for that level of service.) My point is that if the church itself should not be expecting special treatment in the economy, then it is even worse for self-proclaimed ministries to be manipulating people with such talk. Those who do this on purpose are guilty of serious sin. But even those who do not do so confuse matters with the word "ministry."

"Church" and "ministry" are God's words. They have a history in Scripture. We cannot apply them whenever we feel it would be convenient to our interests. When we do this, even when it is for a good cause, we create trouble. Before we apply these words to ourselves, we had better know their history and meaning. God has threatened those who destroy the church (1 Cor. 3:17), but these threats do not apply to our business competitors. The use of the term "ministry" for a business might begin with the intention of making Christians aware of special responsibilities. Unfortunately, it conveys the idea of special privileges that God has not granted to human businesses.

Too Busy with the Ninety-nine

While writing this article, I had a chance to observe both evangelical and Reformation ministry styles in action in a crisis situation. They showed me how wrong it is to judge these things by externals. A friend's father died after a long battle with cancer. The pastor of his evangelical megachurch did not visit him once while he was ill. The church did not conduct regular visitation, probably in part because they did not keep any membership records. (They might have argued that this was an institutional practice not needed by a warm vibrant fellowship.) Unfortunately, this means that many do not receive a pastoral visit when they need it the most. The man's wife had not tried to contact the pastor because "he is such a busy man." Apparently this shepherd gave the impression that he was too busy with the ninety-nine sheep to worry about the one who needed him.

While my friend's dad's own pastor did not visit him, my friend's Lutheran pastor did visit him several times. Under the old Protestant understanding of the ministry, visitation is a key responsibility. Visitation is not an interruption in the pastor's job. It is his job. When could salvation be a more vital issue than when someone is on his or her deathbed? And even where the matter of salvation is settled, people need comfort.

Make no mistake here. This is not primarily a question of a large church versus a small church. I grew up in a church of thousands where it was difficult to get an appointment with the main pastor. But the sick were always visited. It is a matter of priorities. The important thing is that we know how a ministry is functioning before these needs arise.

Most fundamentalists judge denominational churches as "dead," a term which in Scripture means spiritual death. And many denominational churches are spiritually dead, so the charge often fits. But sometimes "dead" is just a spit word applied to churches which do not show their fervency in the fundamentalists' narrowly defined ways. If someone says that a certain Episcopal congregation is dead because the pastor is a druid and nobody in the congregation knows anything about Scripture, I will grant the point. But if they claim that the church is dead because the people do not clap in worship, I will tell the person claiming this that he is superstitious. Something other than externals must govern our judgment.

The same holds true of the ministry. The fundamentalist church I spoke of had such a strong antipathy to Roman Catholicism that it sought every difference in practice that it could between itself and Rome. If Catholic priests wore vestments, not only did they not wear Roman vestments, but they refused even to wear robes.Their pastors wore suits. Suits were to emphasize the lack of distinction between clergy and laity.

Now what I find so ironic is how their view of clergy really works. They are not distinguished from the laity by dress, but by unavailability. What really establishes distance? The fact that someone dresses differently from me, or that they cannot bother with me in a crisis? This point was graphically illustrated at my friend's father's memorial service where the pastor who preached the sermon in a suit slipped quickly away, while several pastors who attended the service wearing clerical collars stayed around with the family.

Don't assume that because you have been told there is a wall between the clergy and the laity in the more formal churches that it is true. External factors like clerical dress do have a meaning, but it is not a meaning that you want to find from a church's competitors. They will always put the worst construction on things. You need to find the reasons a church gives for their practices from official documents, or from someone in the church. With few exceptions, this is the best way to get information about any church, or even any alternative religion.

Clerical dress in Reformation churches does not exist to place clergy on a pedestal, but rather to denote office. It also makes the different men who fill that office look less individual. Other pastors from my denomination dress like my pastor. I don't waste time evaluating a visiting clergyman's suit, wondering whether he fits in my neighborhood. But more importantly, it tells me that my pastor is not trying to blend into the congregation and prove that he is just like the rest of us. In his person he is, but in the church we do not see him wearing his own clothes, but the clothes of his office, which exists to serve the congregation. When I see a clergyman in a clerical collar, I see someone doing a job for my sake. It is like seeing a fireman in uniform. I don't say to myself, "He must think he's something special, all right." I say, "I'm glad people are out there serving like that."

Portrait of a Reformation Pastor

It is often charged that the Reformation was incomplete. Critics charge that the Reformers purged a few of Catholicism's chief abuses, and then left everything else intact instead of taking the opportunity to start with a clean slate. This opinion may be logically consistent, but it lacks a grounding in historical fact.

The first fact to be understood is that the Reformers were quite aware of their philosophies of reformation. The Body Life movement of the nineteen seventies was not the first time someone suggested a more radical form of church reformation. Neither was the Puritan revolution of the seventeenth century. Even before Luther there were mystics who rejected all church structure. Luther himself faced radical reformers like Thomas Muntzer and his former colleague, Andreas Karlstadt, who wanted to start from scratch. Luther, however, was very focused on one objective: the recovery of the gospel. Old practices which got in the way were reformed or abolished. Old practices which could promote the gospel were retained. To reject a practice merely because the Catholic church used it was superstitious. Christian liberty does not require a do-your-own-thing approach. We are free to make wise use of the past.

In reforming the ministry, Luther was not defining it by the Bible in the absence of a Christian past. He was trying to bring an already existing institution into line with biblical teaching. I find his vision of a pastor compelling. It would be wrong to say this whole vision can be derived out of Scripture. Of the possibilities that Scripture offers, Luther chose those which the past had proven helpful to the gospel.

A Lutheran pastor is a man who is responsible primarily to his office of Word and Sacrament. That is, he must preach the Bible to the congregation in light of the gospel, baptize, hear confession, pronounce absolution, and administer the Lord's Supper. He must also see to it that other matters which promote and maintain these functions are taken care of. This involves teaching on the Sacraments so that people make proper use of them. It means knowing what kind of music best carries the word. It means visiting the sick and dying who need pastors the most.

In the Lutheran church, the Holy Ministry exists alongside of the Priesthood of All Believers. We do not pit these doctrines against each other. It is a wonderful thing to enter a church where my rights and privileges as a royal priest are recognized, but I also have a true pastor. I hope that readers who have heard of the Priesthood of All Believers might study it for themselves and discover what it does and does not mean. The evangelical world needs to recover something it has lost. The doctrine of the Holy Ministry is as sorely needed in the evangelical church as the Priesthood of All Believers was needed by the medieval church. May God raise up for us true shepherds. And may God raise up smart sheep who will go out and find them.

1 [ Back ] E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times, p. 619 cites W.A. VI, 407-08.
2 [ Back ] Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, trans. by Fred Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 678.
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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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