Wednesday, August 25, 2004

On the ministry

We have long struggled with the role of ministry in the Restoration Movement. For years, we treated the paid ministry as a "hireling," something Alexander Campbell despised. More recently, however, the ministry has been elevated to a position of prominence and they are seen as "the leaders" of congregations. In our larger churches, the role of the elder has declined to the point where they "make five percent of the decisions" -- the really important ones -- and leave the daily running of the church, including operational decisions, to the paid ministry. In one sense that reminds me of what Ralph Johnson, one of my professors at Nebraska Christian College, used to say. He said he made the really big decisions in his family but his wife made the rest. So, as he put it, "I decided whether or not to permit Red China into the United Nations or the wisdom of blockading Cuba but she makes all the rest!"

Something is wrong with those pictures! On one hand, the hireling minister, like a hireling shepherd, has no stake in the flock and disappears at the first sign of danger. On the other hand, the managers -- that's what they are -- act like CEOs, CFOs, and COOs without regard the biblical function or accountability.

Let's face it, about the only thing the "minister" has that marks him as different from the rest of the congregation is his education. Even that makes little difference today! In the 1800s, the colleges and universities our movement supported reflected Alexander Campbell's educational concept that all education should center on a sound biblical education. Therefore, the Bible was the major locus of truth and all the disciplines bowed before it. As Classical Liberal education filtered into the United States in the late 1800s, that changed because, in the mind of the liberal, the Bible could no longer be trusted. Bible Colleges and Schools of Preaching rose up to continue the emphasis on the importance of biblical truth. From 1895 through the early 1970s most of our Bible Colleges required a major in Bible combined with sufficient liberal arts to give the student a solid foundation in writing, speaking, and understanding. Since the 1970s an increasing number of our Bible Colleges, now often referred to as Christian Colleges, elevated liberal arts requirements and correspondingly reduced the emphasis on sound biblical teaching. Today, several of our colleges have become universities. A student can enroll in one of these schools, get a smattering of Bible, and graduate with a degree in business, education, or counseling. Biblical truth is seen as only one of many different sources of truth and sound doctrine has been moved far to the periphery.

Those studying for ministry in our colleges no longer need a strong biblical foundation for graduation. They learn to become managers/leaders. Read that as knowing how to start churches and appeal to the masses so they can build a big church. In my view, biblical truth is taking the rear seat on the bus and is no longer a point of emphasis. Oh, there are a few exceptions. Boise Bible College claims to be a "Classical Bible College" devoted to preacher training. Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary, a school once noted for its sound doctrine and conservative stance, now graduates students who are as much at home in Young Life as they are in a Christian Church or Church of Christ. That's probably a bit unfair, but it might be a worthy experiment to ask all the graduates of our Bible Colleges to explain their understanding of how a person becomes a Christian!

Maybe its time we began looking at the Scripture again to define the role of the minister and the elders. In a strange twist of fate, it was Bob Smith, a Baptist (shudder), who helped me see that one way to look at biblical ministry is to see the eldership and paid ministry as a team. Each elder should function in some phase of ministry, an area which best suits that individuals ability. Those who labor full time in their ministry should be supported so they can do their work (Paul dealt with this in one of his letters to Timothy). The others should do their ministry until such time as it demands their full attention then they too should join the ranks of the financially supported. In my view, these men should arise from within the congregation. One role of the minister/elder is that he "be apt to teach." Wouldn't it make sense that one role for the "paid guy" should be the training and educating of the men of the church so they could develop ministry? (I think Paul told Timothy that what he learned he should commit to others so they could, in turn, pass it on to others.)

Now in one sense, we've done this, but we've done it with paid staff. Let's face it, in most mega-churches, the ministerial staff performs the function of elders (without the ability to refute the gainsayers) and the elders perform the task once relegated to deacons. I'm a big fan of multiple ministries and ministerial teams, but let's recognize that in the New Testament Church the leaders, for the most part, came from within the local body. There were exceptions, to be sure, but the exception proves the rule.

Think about it!

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