It is reasonably clear in Scripture that (1) ministry means the service of God and his creatures; (2) the one essential ministry is that of Jesus Christ; (3) the whole membership of the old and the new Israel is called to share in ministerial service, of which there are many forms; and (4) certain persons in both the old new Israel are set apart for special ministry, within the total ministry.
The Old Testament. There are three distinct ministries in the Old Testament: the prophetic, the priestly, and the kingly. All three are essential within the covenantal relation between Yahweh and Israel. However, more basic than these three is that the whole people, Israel, is the minister of God. The election and call of Israel is the foundation of the service of Israel to God. Nowhere is this mode more clear than in Isaiah 40-66, where the missionary calling of the people of God is made explicitly clear. Much earlier the people had been told that they were "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" ( Exod 19:6 ). Thus, in a basic sense every person, male and female, insofar as he or she is a member of Israel is a minister/servant of Yahweh; so the whole of life has a Godward dimension (as the Law makes very clear).
The service rendered by prophet, priest, and king was that of maintaining the personal relation between Israel (the bride) and Yahweh (the Bridegroom) required by the covenant. Within this relation of grace there was need of a minister of God who would speak for him to the people (thus the prophet Isa 6:8 ; 50:4 ); of a minister to stand before God to teach the people, lead in worship, and offer sacrifice on their behalf (on many occasions priests and Levites are called ministers e.g., Exod 30:20 ); and of a king to express the sovereignty and kingship of Yahweh unto and within Israel and to show that the sacred and secular realms belong together.
The New Testament. Each of these ministries comes to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is himself the Prophet, Priest, and King. At the same time, the corporate ministry of Israel as a people finds fulfillment first in Jesus Christ as the new Israel and then in his body, the church.
Christ in His Church. Jesus Christ came not to be ministered to but to minister ( Matt 20:28 ). In his life and particularly in his death, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh ( Isa 52:13-53:12 ). By washing the feet of his disciples he gave an example ( John 13:15 ) of true service; and in the Upper Room he declared, "I am among you as one who serves" ( Luke 22:27 ). The unique, ministerial servant example of Jesus is beautifully commended by Paul ( Php 2:5-8 ) and Peter ( 1 Peter 2:21-25 ).
The Word Incarnate ministered to people in their deepest need. He entered fully into the pitiful and perverse condition of the human race as it exists before God, sharing its pain and estrangement. He did this in order, by meek and gracious service in doing good and bringing healing and liberation, to bring peace and reconciliation between man and God. The climax of his diaconal, servant ministry was to offer himself as an atonement for sin on the cross of Calvary.
This diaconal ministry of Jesus Christ continued after his exaltation into heaven. As the Head of the church, which is his body, he continually ministers to and through his members as their King, Priest, and Prophet. He rules and guides, prays and intercedes, proclaims and teaches, loves and rejoices for, in, and through them. The whole church is a holy priesthood and a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God's own people ( 1 Peter 2:5 1 Peter 2:9 ). In union with Christ, his body shares in his priestly, kingly, and prophetic work. The whole point of Paul's argument in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 is that each and every member of the church has a part to play in the service of God.
By three basic wordsdoulos [dou'lo"], leitourgos [leitourgov"], diakonos [diavkono"]the call to serve God in Christ is made clear. Christians are to be slaves and servants of Jesus Christ. They were bought from slavery to Satan, sin, and death by a great price ( 1 Cor 6:19-20 ; 1 Peter 1:18-19 ) and now they are slaves of Jesus Christ ( Rev 1:1 ; 1 Peter 2:16 ) who are to serve righteousness in Christ ( Rom 6:15-16 ). The Christian ministers by being a bondservant (doulos [dou'lo"]) of Jesus Christ.
There exists within the church, by God's will, a uersal duty and right of service; however, with this there also exists the greatest possible differentiation of forms and functions of service.
Ministries in the Church. The ways of serving the Lord in his church are many and varied. These types overlap and members of the body will partake of more than one type. There is ministry of the Word in evangelism, founding and guiding churches (apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, etc.); ministry of healing (workers of miracles, gifts of healing, etc.); ministry of leadership/administration (helpers, administrators, etc.); and ministry to the congregation (tongues, interpretation of tongues, etc.).
Apostles. While it is important to recognize the whole ministry of the whole body, the place of the original apostles is unique ( Rev 21:14 ). The Twelve were chosen, appointed, ordained, and sent by Jesus Christ himself. Matthias replaced Judas among the Twelve ( Acts 1 ), and Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles through a gift of the Spirit given by the exalted Lord ( Acts 9 ). So in a vital sense their ministry is that ministry which is necessary for the full ministry of the whole body. They are eyewitnesses of the resurrection and/or exaltion of Christ and they are the living foundations on which the church is built. It is their testimony that is the basis of the books of the New Testament. They were the gift of God to the church in its infancy and are irreplaceable.
Local Leadership. Apart from the apostles, prophets, and evangelists, we read of elders/presbyters, bishops, and deacons, who were settled in local congregations. They facilitated the ministry of the whole church by being servants of Jesus Christ.
Elder/presbyter (presbuteros [presbuvtero"]) was the equivalent in the Christian congregation of the elder in the synagogue, with duties of oversight, supervision, and leadership ( Acts 15:2 ; 20:17 ; 21:18 ; 1 Tim 3:1-7 ; 5:17 ; Titus 1:5-9 ; Heb 13:17 ). Therefore, in terms of what he did the elder was sometimes called the bishop or overseer (episcopos). That the elder is the bishop seems to be the natural meaning of Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:4-5; 5:17-19; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:2 (KJV). Apparently the elder was set in office by an act of ordination, but there are only minimal details of this in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Thess 4:14 ; eg 1:1 5:22 ; 2 Tim 1:6 ).
Within a short time of the apostolic age, when the church was separated from the synagogue, the distinction between the bishop and the presbyter (priest) developed. In the New Testament period the real distinction was among the itinerant apostles, evangelists, and prophets and the settled presbyters and deacons.
Diakonia [diakoa] simply means "ministry" and "service" and so has reference to Christ and to all his servants. The noun diakonos [diavkono"] is often applied to the seven men who were set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands and appointed to serve tables by the apostles ( Acts 6:1-6 ). Yet they are not called deacons. However, deacons are mentioned in Philippians 1:1 and in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Phoebe is called a deacon in Romans 16:1.
While the presbyterate may be said to originate within the synagogue, this cannot be said of the diaconate. There is no parallel to it in Judaism. The main tasks of deacons, who were to be of sound character and with a firm hold on the faith, were administrative and financial.
Summary. Whether in the Old or New Testaments, ministry finds its meaning and expression in Jesus Christ. He is the Minister par excellence and the only source of ministry. The Old Testament looks forward to him while the New Testament looks both back, up, and forward to him. In relation to Christ every member of Israel or the church has a ministry of serving the Lord by proclaiming the Word of God by word and deed both inside and outside the people of God. In this sense all are royal priests. Further, in relation to Christ there are specific or particular forms of ministry within and for the sake of the church in its mission for God in his world. These are given only to a few and they include the callings of prophet, priest, and king in the Old Covenant and apostle, evangelist, presbyter, and deacon in the New Covenant. Though not a strictly biblical expression "ordained ministry" refers to persons who have received a gift of the Spirit and have been appointed by the church, through prayer and the laying on of hands, to specific offices within the church.
Bibliography. R. E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind; J. D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament; R. P. McBrien, Ministry; L. Morris, Ministers of God; E. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ministry, Minister'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".