Musings on the History of the Protestant Ministry

Lawrence R. Rast, Jr.
Monday, August 6th 2007
Mar/Apr 1997

Fifteen years ago the sign in the front of the Oneida Baptist Church caught my attention. It read: "Pastor, Fred Russell; Ministers, The Entire Congregation." (1) "Aren't pastors ministers?" I mused. "Wait-if everyone is a minister, then, in effect, no one is a Minister," I concluded. My thoughts haven't changed. In the years since that experience I've seen the gimmicky slogans of a local congregation evolve into a full-fledged theology. Let me make myself clear: I'm not singling out the Baptists here. I've seen identical signs in front of the church buildings and in the bulletins in my own denomination, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. However, I firmly believe that those who advance such a saying have staked out a theological position of which, perhaps, they do not entirely understand the ramifications. To adopt the idea that "everyone is a minister" compromises the Reformation understanding of the doctrine of the ministry. (2)

When one mentions "the ministry" among evangelicals, one is speaking of those persons in the church who undertake some form of official activity on behalf of and for the church. The key is the little word "the," which points to the Office of the Holy Ministry, established by Christ himself for the good of his church. Ministry without the definite article, on the other hand, has come to mean just about any kind of church activity loosely related to the proclamation of the gospel. Unfortunately, these kinds of so-called "ministry" often take some very ridiculous forms (for example, the "clown ministry" explored in Rick Ritchie's article in this issue). "Ministry" has become so confused a word as to become almost meaningless.

But what about "The Ministry"? In our time we cannot simply assume that most who hear this phrase will automatically think of the pastoral ministry. I submit that this situation is unacceptable for the heirs of the Reformation. Further, I believe that it is time for the churches of the evangelical tradition to reclaim this word, and not allow its misuse to relegate it to obscurity. The means by which we will achieve this are two. First of all, rigorous theological instruction-something that no Protestant should find distasteful. Second, and here lies the burden of this article, we need to be historically aware of the idea of the ministry, and why and how it is that we have arrived at the point of linking the Office that preaches Christ crucified and risen again for the sins of the world with such silliness as clown ministry. We can only move into the future faithfully if we are fully informed both doctrinally and historically. To that end, let us look at the basic history of the Protestant conception of the ministry.

Priests and Pastors According to Martin Luther

The use of the word minister to indicate a person who functions in a particular role as proclaimer of the gospel and administrator of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper can be traced primarily back to the Reformation period. Roman Catholicism preferred the use of the term "priest" for its clergy, underscoring that tradition's doctrine of the ministry. A "priest" is one who sacrifices on behalf of another. The reformers favored minister because it means "one who serves."

To understand Martin Luther (1483-1546) correctly, one must be familiar with his disagreement with Rome over the nature of the Christian priesthood. Luther rejected what he believed was Rome's mistaken understanding of the relationship of the believer to God. Rome, said Luther, had placed the Pope and his bishops and priests in the place of Christ. They had become the mediators of divine grace in place of the Lord. As successors of Peter, they were the ones who reenacted the sacrifice of Christ for the church. In contrast, Luther argued that Christ had been sacrificed only once and for all-Christ alone was the priest and the sacrifice. By virtue of their baptism all believers are "priests," and as such had the privilege of administering the Sacraments and preaching. However, for the sake of good order, Christ himself had established the Office of the Ministry. The community of the faithful was required by Christ to appoint a man to fill the office as Christ required.

At the heart of Luther's reform of the doctrine of the ministry is his rejection of the Roman notion of the Mass as a sacrifice. First developed in his Address to the German Nobility (1520), Luther rejected the notion that it was the priest's primary duty to offer up the sacrifice of the Mass on behalf of the parish community. He repudiated the notion that the priest had the gift, conferred in ordination, to transform the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. Luther countered that the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar did not depend upon priestly character or authority, but upon the Word of God. Thus, the ordained Lutheran clergyman's primary responsibility was not to resacrifice Christ, but to preach the Word and to administer the Sacraments: the Lord's Supper, baptism, and absolution. As preacher, teacher, and administrator, the Lutheran clergyman came to be called "pastor," one who shepherds Christ's flock through Word and Sacrament.

For Luther, there is no essential difference between the layperson and the pastor-there is no special class of order in society known as "the priesthood." Rather, all Christians stand before God under the Word with Christ as their only mediator. The difference between pastor and people is not one of standing, but rather that one has received a charge, or call, from God, to hold the Office of the Ministry on behalf of the rest of the believing community. Ordination for Luther meant a public recognition of the call that a group of Christians had extended to a particular Christian person.

Thus, Luther tried to hold two extremes together without allowing either to dominate the other-the divine institution and necessity of the Office of the Ministry and the "Priesthood of all Believers." Misunderstandings of Luther's doctrine have occurred when one of these is stressed at the expense of the other. Also, we must remember that Luther articulated his doctrine in the midst of controversy, and his thought at any given time reflects those matters that were most pressing on him. For example, early in his reforming career Luther advocated more strongly the priesthood of all believers. In the face of Rome's insistence that ordination conferred a special gift to the priest that empowered him alone to forgive and retain sins, Luther stressed that every Christian by virtue of his or her baptism was given this power. Later, however, some of the more radical Reformers took the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to an extrabiblical extreme, essentially arguing that no ministry at all was established in the New Testament. Luther reacted strongly against the disorder inherent in the egalitarian stance of this faction and stressed the divine institution and necessity of the Office of the Ministry, as well as its independence from the control of the calling community.

The Reformed Ministry

The Reformed tradition owed much to the thought of Martin Luther and the Lutherans, though its leaders departed from them in significant ways. Like Luther, the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who was also a Roman Catholic priest, sought to restore a biblical pattern to the ministry of the church. More important for our purposes, however, is the work of John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin systematized Reformed thought on the doctrine of the ministry. Like Luther, Calvin accepted the authority of Scripture and saw justification by grace through faith as the article on which the church stands and falls. There is no salvation outside the church, because the church is the only place in which the pure Word is proclaimed. (3) One can identify the church by its marks. Recalling the language of the Augsburg Confession, Calvin writes: "Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence." (4) The ascended Christ, as prophet, priest, and king, continues to rule his church. But because he is at the right hand of God, he has established the office of the ministry as the special medium through which he continues to speak to the church. "He declares his condescension towards us, employing men to perform the function of his ambassadors in the world, to be the interpreters of his secret will; in short, to represent his own person." (5)

In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, Calvin argued that Scripture teaches (Eph. 4:11, Rom. 2:7, and 1 Cor. 12:28) that there are four orders of the Office of the Ministry: pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. Pastors are to preach and administer the Sacraments. Doctors teach the church's doctrine, while the elders' primary task is to administer church discipline, as part of a consistory that includes the pastor. Thus that disciplinary power will not fall into the hands of one person or party. Finally, deacons are to care for the sick and the poor.

Calvin's four orders of ministry found expression in the churches of the Reformed tradition in Scotland and in America. Both the Presbyterians and the Puritans, with their Congregationalist heirs, looked to Calvin as their mentor in these matters. His influence is also evident in the traditions that arose out of English Separatism, for example, the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, to name only two.

Anglicanism, though dependent on Calvinism for its doctrinal expressions, developed a doctrine of the ministry that differed significantly from its Reformed roots. Henry VIII's (1491-1547) Assertio Septem Sacramentorum of 1521 censured Luther's sacramental, and thus also, his ministerial reforms. Henry aimed to establish the Church of England as a distinct church from Rome without changing its substance or form, and in 1534 the Act of Supremacy declared the monarch "the only supreme head in earth of the Church in England." Henry's daughter Elizabeth I (1533-1603) fixed the episcopal ministry as the basic form of the ministry. It has remained so for the worldwide Anglican communion ever since. However, within that tradition there are radically differing opinions as to the nature of the ministry. The high church or Anglo-Catholic group stresses the necessity of apostolic succession and defines the institution of clergy on the basis of transmission of priestly power in the Sacrament of ordination. The broad church or Latitudinarian tradition holds that ordination is beneficial for the church without saying that holy orders necessarily offer a special gift or power. Finally, the low church or evangelical party holds that the episcopacy, though not absolutely necessary to the church, assures that the church enjoys the fullness of the gifts that Christ has for it when it establishes the ministry in its midst.

Methodism had its roots in the Anglican tradition, and its founder, John Wesley (1703-1791), refused throughout his life to separate himself from the Church of England. Toward the end of his life Wesley came to the conclusion that New Testament terms for bishops and priests were synonymous, and that, therefore, he could rightfully ordain ministers for his "church within the church."

The Ministry in America

It was in America, with its Methodist circuit riders and egalitarian principles, where some of the most important changes to the historic Protestant doctrine of the ministry have occurred. We have seen that the Puritans inherited their doctrine of the ministry from the theology of John Calvin and orthodox Calvinism. Their application of that doctrine underscores its fundamental orthodoxy. E. Brooks Holifield has shown that the colonial clergy of the seventeenth century saw their task as the "cure of souls." (6) They were responsible for the spiritual care of the sheep entrusted to their care, and this accountability extended to all fields of their activities as ministers of Word and Sacraments, e.g., preaching, teaching, governing the congregation, and the general nurture of a truly pious life. However, the eighteenth century's First Great Awakening helped force a shift in ministerial activity. The new minister emphasized the spiritual awakening of the individual. Called "preacher" with greater and greater frequency, the minister's principal task was to exhort and awaken sinful individuals to move toward a decision for Christ. The style of preaching changed as sermons became more familiar in their address (using the second person singular and plural "you") and purposeful in their manipulation of the emotions. Those pastors who retained the older model of preaching and cure of souls were frequently rebuked as being "unconverted" and even "dead." The classic expression of this is Gilbert Tennent's The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry (1740), where he castigates the preaching of the orthodox as being so "cold and sapless" as to "freeze between their lips." (7) Paralleling this new stress on vernacular preaching (likely driving it) was a theological shift from Calvinism, as expressed in the likes of the Westminster Confession, to an Arminianism that denied original sin and stressed the freedom of the human will to choose whether it would or would not serve God.

The practical results of this theological change were enormous. No longer would preachers see awakenings as being totally dependent upon the will and grace of God. Nor did they see pastoral care in terms of the care of souls. The new preachers believed their methods could bring about spiritual conversion through the application of the right methods. These budding revivalists strove to drive people to the point of spiritual distress and to place the resolution of the matter in the arena of the hearer's free will. Revivals, whose success did not absolutely depend on God's activity, took the place of the divine service of the Reformation liturgies. "A revival is not a miracle," wrote Charles Finney, "nor dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means…." (8) To put it crassly, in American revivalism, emotional manipulation replaced the care of souls.

Not surprisingly, a new doctrine of the ministry developed. The most influential ministers in the new system were not the settled ministers who simply shepherded their flocks. The traveling revivalist, who fanned the revival fires and then moved on, could shape and sway vastly more people to his theology and ideas. The biblical notion of "evangelist" (one who proclaims the good news) took on a new meaning-an itinerant minister whose chief activity is conducting revivals. Thus, a new office of ministry was introduced to the church. Stressing the human side of the conversion equation and, ultimately, putting salvation in the hands of his (and increasingly, her) hearers, the revivalist appealed to the egalitarian democracy that had overcome the republicanism of the early national period. (9) Not only did it mirror the politics of the Age of Jackson, it fit hand in glove with the burgeoning market capitalism.

The Evangelical Ministry: Quo Vadis?

In 1956, Sydney Mead argued that this conception of the Protestant ministry had become part and parcel of American evangelicalism. (10) What remains for us to look at is the manner in which this ministry has played out in the American religious scene.

It is more than obvious that this Arminian, revivalistic conception of the ministry still holds great sway for evangelicals in the present age. One can see a clear line of evangelical revivalists running from Charles Finney on down to the latest TV evangelist who tops the ratings. Theologically, they are very similar. Though they might differ at points (for example, Finney was a postmillennialist, most current revivalists are dispensational premillennialists), they all share a commitment to Arminianism, and a rejection of the theological anthropology embodied in the great confessions of the Reformation (e.g., the Augsburg and Westminster Confessions). The great pressures facing Protestant ministers today are to fall in line with this theological pedigree. As always, the temptation is great, for Finney?s new measures (be they the "anxious bench" or Willow Creek), promise-no, guarantee-numerical success and a great harvest of souls. Scripture speaks clearly to this point, and the theological positions of Luther and the other Reformers, biblical as they are, still apply to America in the 1990s. The question confronting evangelicals is what will drive pastoral care in our churches: a theology that guarantees numerical success or one that is faithful to the Scriptures? To put it another way, are the models for ministry that we adopt dependent on the orthodox, biblically centered confessions of the Reformation, or do they simply echo theologically the ideas of secular culture?

Perhaps one example will suffice. Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Illinois, has been all the rage for the last several years. Its "Seeker Services," with their low-profile approach to the gospel and movie theater atmosphere, have gathered great attention. However, one of the principles underlying the life of Willow Creek is its new doctrine of the ministry. Willow Creek is held up as one of the finest examples of ministry in action by Carl F. George in his book Preparing Your Church for the Future, where the author outlines a new doctrine of the church and ministry that he calls "Meta-Church." (11) George's basic complaint is that "present models for doing ministry are ineffective and inadequate." Why? Because older, traditional churches have limited "pastoral care" to the activity of the ordained clergy. Rather, every individual Christian is responsible for pastoral care. This is one of the primary secrets to Willow Creek's success. For George, everyone is more than a minister, now everyone is a pastor! What then becomes of "the" pastor? He is relegated to status as a CEO-his task is to "manage" his cell group. The effective result of George's plan is that the pastor does less and less "pastoral care," while the lay pastor of the ten or less member cell-group takes center stage. "The pivotal roles in the church will be those of the cell-group leader (X) and the apprentice leader (Xa)." (12)

Not surprisingly, the Meta-Church congregation lacks a firm doctrinal foundation. It is more structurally oriented than belief oriented. In fact, George himself says: "These churches of the future realize that God measures His people more by their obedience than by their knowledge of Bible facts. Therefore, they've shifted their priorities from teaching to caring, from understanding to application." (13) Perhaps I've been too quick to call this a "new" doctrine. Meta-Church doctrine and practice parallels, in striking ways, some of the more shoddy positions of medieval Roman Catholicism. The people were prodded to obedience to the church, but were left ignorant of doctrine. Lacking a foundation in biblical theology, they subjected themselves to the doctrinal developments that the Reformation strove so hard to overcome. More seriously, George's subordination of doctrine to experience leaves the very heart of the gospel at risk, and threatens to turn Christianity into a religion of the Law. After all, if God truly does measure people more by their obedience than by what the Savior has done for them (all of which is revealed in what George dismisses as "Bible facts"), then we have returned to the days of salvation by works, and the grace of God is at the very least obscured, if not utterly destroyed!

One might argue, however, that this critique of George is simply the frustrated howling of a threatened seminary professor. I disagree. George's work is a development of a new doctrine of church and ministry. He himself admits that his work is a "prophetic call" and should elicit from its readers a "compulsion from God" to put it into action. The god of this volume, however, is the god of marketing and management. My response is equally prophetic. Unlike George, though, I am calling the church back to the prophetic voice of Scripture and the confessions of the church catholic.

I believe that George, the Arminian revivalists, and, yes, all orthodox Protestants would do well to recall the words of Martin Luther in the last sermon he preached. (14) Commenting on Matthew 11:25-30, he writes:

For they are always exerting themselves; they want to do things in the Christian church the way they want to themselves. Everything that God does they must improve so that there is no poorer, more insignificant and despised disciple on earth than God; he must be everybody's pupil, everyone wants to be his teacher….They are not satisfied with what God has done and instituted, they cannot let things be as they were ordained to be. They think they have to do something too, in order that they may be a bit better than other people able to boast: This is what I have done. What God has done is too poor and insignificant, even childish and foolish; I must add something to it….These are the real wiseacres, of whom Christ is speaking here, who put the cart before the horse and will not stay on the road which God himself has shown us, but always have to have and do something special in order that people may say: "Ah, our pastor or preacher is nothing; there's the real man! He'll get things done!"

How long this latest church growth fad will last is anyone's guess. My own church has found itself enamored of the approach, but only time will tell whether it's simply another flash-in-the-pan. It is always easy to do theology on the world's terms-sinful human nature will always reward such endeavors. To be faithful to the Scripture?s narrow way is more difficult, strewn as it is with the world's enmity and rejection. Be that as it may, that doesn't change the church's task. Nor does it compromise the theme of this article-that biblical doctrine and its historical expression must provide the cues for the church as it moves forward into the twenty-first century. Only as we are firmly grounded in the Scriptures and confessions will we be able faithfully to address the challenges to the church in the new millennium. To lose sight of where we've been doctrinally and to forget our history invites disaster. As Madeline Sadler Waggoner has so aptly put it: "It is well for us to remember. For a faith or a nation that forgets its roots in history loses its vision. And so must perish." (15)

1 [ Back ] The name of the pastor is fictitious.
2 [ Back ] That is not to attack the motives of those who do so-as I implied, they likely do so out of a well-meaning ignorance.
3 [ Back ] Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, n.d.), 4.1.4.
4 [ Back ] Institutes, 4.1.9.
5 [ Back ] Institutes, 4.3.1, emphasis added.
6 [ Back ] See E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1983).
7 [ Back ] In The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740-1745, ed. Richard L. Bushman (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 90.
8 [ Back ] Charles G. Finney, Revival Lectures (reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 5.
9 [ Back ] See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
10 [ Back ] Sydney Mead, "The Rise of the Evangelical Conception of the Ministry in America: 1607-1850," in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives, eds. H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 207-249.
11 [ Back ] (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1992).
12 [ Back ] Ibid., 148. The "X" and "Xa" refer to people in George?s cell-grouping scheme. For a pictorial representation of these roles, see p. 149.
13 [ Back ] Ibid., 154-155.
14 [ Back ] The sermon may be found in Luther's Works, vol. 51, ed. and trans. John W. Dobberstein (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 383-392.
15 [ Back ] The Long Haul West: The Great Canal Era, 1817-1850 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958), 301.
Monday, August 6th 2007

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