Who Defines The Ministry
There is a great deal of confusion among Christians as to what constitutes the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches support the entrance of illegal aliens into the U.S. as part of the Sanctuary Movement while church leaders march in front of the South African Embassy protesting apartheid. We are led to believe we are less than God wants us to be if we are not part of the anti-abortion movement, supporting nuclear freeze, feeding the starving Ethiopians, etc.
Who defines what is ministry? Is it society? the church? the individual? or the Bible? If the latter, then what part? The whole Bible or just the New Testament? Is our task to establish a society ruled by God, as was Israel in the Old Testament? Is the ministry individual, i.e. reaching the lost? Or is it both?
These are questions that need an answer if the laity are going to effectively integrate their faith and vocation. In the next several issues of the “Dear Co-Laborer” letter I would like to address these issues. It goes without saying that there won ‘t be unanimity of thought, and some will strongly disagree with my presentation. I hope fully it will stimulate thinking and help you come to your own resolution of these issues. As I have mentioned in the past, I eagerly welcome feedback from you.
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THE PROGRAM OF GOD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
When we read the Old Testament, we discover that God had a dual commitment, that is, He was committed to individuals as well as to the nation of Israel. These were two separate Commitments on the part of God. God established the institution of Israel, gave it a set of laws, which included moral, civil, ceremonial and dietary aspects of their lives, and established a priesthood which in effect became the judiciary arm of the nation.
God was also committed to individuals in the Old Testament. Being part of the nation of Israel did not guarantee an individual’s salvation. Paul underscores this truth in Romans 9:6 when he says, “Not all Israel is of Israel.” That is, because an individual is a member of the institution blessed by God, it does not follow that he automatically is in a right relationship with God.
God was committed to the nation of Israel, however, irrespective of how many individuals were committed to Him. In the days of Elijah the prophet, for example, Elijah felt that he was alone. Note God’s promise to him:
Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.
I Kings 19:18
This was meant to he a promise of encouragement to the beleaguered prophet, but when you think of 7,000 in light of a nation of several million, it is not all that impressive. Still God is committed to the nation. He reminds His prophets again and again that even though a remnant of faithful people remain, He is committed to His chosen institution, Israel. He may scourge them, chastise them, send them into captivity, but His commitment to them is inviolable.
A SINGLE COMMITMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the New Testament God does not have a dual but a singular commitment. He is committed to His people, but there is no institutional commitment. Differing opinions regarding this have caused no small amount of tension in ecclesiastical circles. Historically the Roman Catholic Church has embraced the Augustinian notion that “there is no salvation outside the church.” By this they mean the institutional manifestation of the church called the Roman Catholic Church.
This same thinking is seen in Protestant circles as well. The ecumenical movement reflected in organizations such as the National Council of Churches argues for organizational union because they, like the Roman church, believe there is an institutional commitment on the part of God in the New Testament. Thus they interpret Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 as being a synonym for union.
There is no indication in the New Testament, however, that God has any such commitment to an organization or institution. There is nothing in the New Testament that would lead us to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or the Southern Baptists as denominations or institutions have received the same commitment from God, which He gave to the nation of Israel. There is no call in the New Testament to redeem institutions, only individuals.
In Old Testament days, if you were dissatisfied with the immorality, idolatry and general unfaithfulness found in the nation, you would be free to seek renewal and reformation, but you would not be free to leave Israel and form a new nation, expecting God to bless it as He had Israel. Israel was uniquely the object of God’s affections. As believers in the Lord you would not be free to leave that nation and start a new one.
Today in the United States there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 denominations, each claiming to be the clearest expression of Christ’s Body. This does not include the plethora of mission agencies and “para—church” groups. If God has an institutional commitment in the New Testament, to which of these groups is He committed? Who decides? If we say that the Bible determined the difference between those institutions to which God is committed and those to which He is not, does this mean that any group of believers can unilaterally decide to organize a denomination if it is Biblically based and expect God to be committed to it?
The local church as an organization in competition with other local churches is not an entity found in the New Testament, that is, you cannot find it in the New Testament as a positive model. You do find it present in Corinth, but Paul rebukes it.
Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul.
I Corinthians 1:12—13
We are not sure if this competitive spirit existed in a single local congregation or in a fractured form, manifesting itself in several local congregations. In either case the competitiveness that it produced was addressed negatively by the apostle Paul.
Does this mean that institutions are of no use or that it is wrong to have a multiplicity of local churches? Quite the contrary. God uses them, and they contribute to what He is doing in the world today. But to turn this around and say that God is committed to them in the way He was committed to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is to come to the wrong conclusion.
To conclude that God has no institutional commitment in the New Testament that parallels His commitment to Old Testament Israel has far—reaching implications. In the next issue we will begin to explore those implications.
By His Grace,