In Western societies the church is in various degrees of crisis because of its significant decline over recent decades, and none have been more impacted than mainline protestant churches. The most common explanations have been secularization, postmodernity, and post-Christendom. As the church shrunk there was a growing realization that we could no longer continue business as usual, and so we witnessed a parade of movements to save the church; however, they were all based on the paradigm of church which developed in Christendom.
For the Reformers, their concern was not for the mission of the church, but its reform. Key concerns were the place of scripture above tradition, and conduct of the Lord’s Supper. So, the church existed wherever the “word of God is purely preached” and “the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.” Also, it was in Christendom, so a chaplaincy/pastoral model with discipline (pastoral care) added as a third mark. “The triple ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care.”
As our post-Christendom missionary context has become apparent, it has become clear, especially among our younger leaders, that our traditional understanding of ministry is no longer “fit for purpose,” and needs to be reimagined. I want to suggest three areas.
(1) The Reformed tradition in considering the offices of ministry has tended to follow Calvin and gravitate to Ephesians 4:1–16. They have also followed Calvin’s treatment in seeing apostles, prophets, and evangelists as ceasing to exist once the church was established, as unlike pastors and teachers they were no longer needed.
However, it seems clear this is an inadequate understanding for our post-Christendom context. If the church is to continue playing a vital role where only a diminishing minority belong, then its ministry cannot be mainly focused inside the church. In a world where it is marginal or absent, we need to find ways of equipping and ordaining those who have apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic ministries, to enable the ministry of Christ to reach into places and communities where the church is not. However, our ecclesiology does not allow for those who have these ministries, which do not fit into the “parish minister box,” to be ordained. Some are put in a position where they can exercise ministry but are not “real ministers” and cannot administer the sacraments or sometimes even preach.
Marcus Barth points out that these are all ministers of the Word. They serve the proclamation of the Word in the diverse ways our context needs. The question for us who believe word and sacrament belong together is: if they are exercising the first why not the second?
(2) A renewal of the function of elders. Initially the Presbyterian Church only had one ordination of two kinds of elders; teaching and ruling. Over time though that morphed into two kinds of ordination; to word and sacrament or eldership. Pastoral care has historically been one of the three core tasks of ministry. This latter has traditionally been a core role of elders, but sadly in many churches this has evolved into being managers of an organization. There is widespread agreement among many that if our churches are to move out of this and again become the vibrant faith communities again, a renewal of eldership needs to be central. If in pastoral care they are ministers of the word, why should they not also be ministers of sacrament where appropriate?
(3) The lost office of deacon. For most of the church’s history deacons have been one of the recognized forms of ministry. In the traditional understanding deacons were those who performed humble tasks of service, based on Acts 6. In recent decades a different understanding has developed. The argument is that diakonia does not mean humble service of the needy. Its connotations are rather of commissioned, responsible agency and authoritative embassy. The service is primarily of the one who sends and commissions. For Paul, he and his fellow workers were ministers (diakonia) of a new covenant of reconciliation, the ministry of the word. Thus, diakonos is a close cousin of apostolos, and Paul uses both of himself. For Luke the Seven are never called deacons and Philip and Stephen are clearly gifted evangelists
If this understanding of the diaconate is renewed in the light of this, it opens a way in which being faithful to both scripture and tradition we can ordain people into the variety of ministry positions which are needed in our post-Christendom missional context. Some of these will indeed be ministries of the word, and where appropriate this should also include the sacraments. All Christian ministry should be exercised pastorally, so again the triple ministry would be found.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is a shortened version of Ward’s recent article in Post-Christendom Studies.]
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*