The Pursuit of the Gospel Ministry

Bible Studies

Some Counsel to a Person Who Has not Reached his Goal

Someone who had felt called to the ministry and then been derailed along the way asked:  “Should I completely erase from my mindset the idea of vocational ministry either here or on the mission field?”

Dear Brother,

Before I attempt an answer to your question, I would like to look at some general truths from Scripture.  As we look at the data about the government of the Church from the New Testament, we see several things. 

First we notice that just as various words, such as the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ, are used to describe the same thing when it comes to the Church itself, so we discover that different words are used to describe the same office in the Church.  For example, in Acts 20:17, we are told that Paul “sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders (plural of PRESBUTEROS, from which we get the word “Presbyterian.”) of the church.”  Yet in speaking to that same group of elders, Paul tells them in verse 28:  “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (plural of EPISCOPOS, from which we get the word “Episcopalian.”), to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”

In other words, Saint Luke is telling us that every one of those elders was also a bishop.  Or, we might say, as The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America says in Chapter 8, “The Elder,” 8-1:

“The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties.  As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor.  As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder.  As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayer, he is termed teacher.  These titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office.”

This truth that all bishops are elders and all elders are bishops is born out in Paul’s instructions to Titus:  “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders (plural of PRESBUTEROS.) in every town as I directed you . . . For a bishop (singular of EPISCOPOS.), as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain.” (Titus 1:5, 7.)

Not only are the words “elder” and “bishop” used to describe the same office, we see in these two passages above that every local congregation is supposed to be governed by a group of elders who rule collegially rather than individually.  Acts 20 and Titus 1 are not isolated texts in the New Testament, Acts 14:23 tells us:  “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.”

This is seen further in Philippians 1:1, where Paul writes:  “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons,” indicating that each local church should have both bishops and deacons.

And the Apostle Peter refers to himself as an elder when writing to the office-bearers of the Diaspora:  “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder (SUMPRESBUTEROS.) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.” (1 Peter 5:1.)

Another thing we notice about church government in the New Testament is that there is some kind of connection and mutual accountability between the individual churches. Not only do we find churches giving talent and money to help other churches (Romans 15:25-27),* but we find them consulting the Bible together in an organized way to reach decisions (Acts 15:2, 3, 15-23).**

As I survey the New Testament, I am compelled to embrace the two-office position, holding that there are only two permanent offices that are essential for the local church:  that of elder and that of deacon.  Going strictly by what we can deduce from Scripture, we cannot draw a hard and fast line between ruling and teaching elders.  It is simply that some elders are given financial support in order to give themselves full time to the work of the ministry:  “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. “ (1 Timothy 5:17.)   This “honor” specifically includes financial support:  “for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (1 Timothy 5:18.)

The way that this works out practically can be as follows.  A man comes to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  He soon exhibits interest and ability to share his faith with other people, and the disciple begins to make disciples.  As he matures in the faith, elders begin to take notice of him and work with him more closely, taking him under their wing in active apprenticeship, guiding him in his studies.  In the course of time, the elders, after examination and prayer, may come to recommend him to the congregation as a candidate for ordination to the office of elder.  All this time, he is earning his living by working in the world, supporting his own family. 

If he shows special ability, the eldership may encourage him to pursue further studies away from that congregation, in which case, they would financially underwrite the costs for this and entrust him into the care of others who would be able to take him further along.  But in our time moving away may not be necessary, because we have the blessings that our Lord bequeathed to us through Gutenberg, and we also have computers and the Internet.  This intellectual pursuit might include his attending what we call seminary, where he can better learn the languages in which the Scriptures first came to be written and where he can sit at the feet of modern Gamaliels.  In time, he may come back to the original congregation, or the larger body of elders may choose to place him somewhere else.

When he comes back or arrives at his new position, he may or may not receive financial support.  Various circumstances would enter into that decision, such as the financial ability of the people of God to support his ministry full-time and the man’s ability to do the work of the eldership while earning his living in the world.

In other words, in the picture I have outlined above, what we commonly call pastor-teachers or teaching elders ordinarily come from the ranks of what we commonly call ruling elders.  That is, teaching elders are simply ruling elders who demonstrate their effectiveness in ministry effectively enough that the church begins to supplement their incomes so that they can increasingly devote themselves to the work of the ministry, particularly to prayer and the ministry of the Word. (Cf. Acts 6:4.)

This is so contrary to the modern model, rooted as it is in a profound distortion of the clericalism of Rome and Constantinople.  (We have inherited so much from our dysfunctional parents— where in the Word of God do we find a special category of people given the authority to administer a sacrament called marriage?)  The way the modern model tends to work is like this.

Joe Christian feels a “call” on his life.  Without any confirmation from the people of God, he goes off to study at some independent, former evangelist’s training school.  He pursues his studies while tasting the ecclesiastical smorgasbord around him.  For six months he attends the Premillennial, Pre-Tribulation Rapture, King James Version, Kick ’Em in the Keister, Independent Baptist Church (The secretary usually answers the telephone simply with “Keister Baptist Church, how may I direct your call?”)  After trying all kinds of remedies unsuccessfully for his aching spiritual keister, he tries out the local Anglican Orthodox Church, but soon wearies of all the smoke at this Fundamentalist imitation of being an Episcopalian.  Then somebody suggests the Word of Faith Family Worship Center, and off he goes, getting slain in the spirit, speaking in tongues and truly sanctified.  While he is recovering from a brain concussion after the “catchers” miss him during the Benny Hinn visit, somebody invites him to the Keswick Chapel, where, having entered into the deeper life, he begins the long journey of dealing with all the bitterness he developed while attending Keister Baptist.  Finally, somebody hands him a book on the Five Points of Calvinism, and it makes perfect sense.

Without coming under the care of any church body, he enrolls in seminary, taking his new bride with him.  She goes to work teaching school, and he sits around seminary pontificating on how illogical infralapsarianism is.  But he passes his work anyhow and graduates.  Soon he receives a “call” from a group of folk about whom he knows next to nothing and who know next to nothing about him.  They pressure presbytery to waive all kinds of time and internship requirements, and he is rushed into ordination quicker than King Henry II arranged for Thomas a Becket to be ordained the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He is ecstatic.  Visions of the Apostle Paul, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Billy Graham dance in his head.  He even borrows money to buy a Geneva gown and the two Tabs of the Law, so he can look like the portly Whitefield.

It isn’t long before his ecstasy is dampened.  After preaching his second, thirty-five minute sermon, he receives a visit from the most influential elder in the church, Edgar Plutophile.  Edgar tells him that their former pastor never preached more than twenty minutes, and he was the favorite speaker at the Rotary Club, often using the same message both places.  After Joe Christian fails to meet the twenty-minute mark for the third Sunday in a row, Edgar shows up with two other elders, both of whom work for Edgar.  Joe notices Edgar’s big Masonic ring and wonders how his forehead might look with a big “G” and a compass and square embossed there, because Edgar is plenty worked up.

It isn’t long before Joe receives a call to another church, but this time his “prayer partner” and confidant on the session turns out to be a womanizer, and Joe discovers that his wife is having an affair with this “Spiritual Giant”— he became her “prayer partner,” too.  Joe goes to his presbytery broken-hearted, looking for help.  One of the assistants at the Will-o'-the-Wisp Presbyterian Church tells him that they have an opening for somebody to do their telephone solicitation.  Another simply says, “You no longer meet the qualifications for being a pastor.”  So Joe gets a job at the Office for Health and Human Services, and begins to go to night school, balancing work and visitation with his two children, while working on his MSW.  After taking a hiatus from church attendance for a couple of years, he starts going back to a Southern Baptist Church down the road from the cracker-box, apartment complex that he calls home.  It is connected with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the preaching leaves a good bit to be desired, but at least they are kind, and many people actually seem to love the Lord Jesus and other people, too.  In the course of time, he meets a sweet, young divorcée at their Singles Fellowship, and after three years they get married.  They arrange their weekends with their blended family, so that their free weekends match.  Every other weekend they head out of town and really develop a close bond with the local chapter of the Good Sam Club.  Their great ambition in life is to move up from their Slide-in, Pick-up camper to a Holiday Rambler.

Of course, I have painted these two paths in graphic hyperbole, but I submit that there is some truth in the above.  God is always sovereign, placing us where he wants us, using our own and others’ sins and stupidity to work out his good purpose for us.  And the basic thrust of the New Testament is blossom where you are planted.  He takes us where we are, even if we got there through all kinds of less than Scriptural paths.

“Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was any one at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was any one at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

“Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.” (1 Corinthians 7:17-24.)

Perhaps, in the course of time, God will call you through his Church.  First you might teach Sunday School; then you might become elected as a deacon and eventually be ordained as an elder.  In God’s good time, you may indeed end up on the foreign mission field, where, having taken an advanced degree in the School of Hard Knocks, you may eventually become a “pastor” to your fellow missionaries, who are fresh out of school, full of youthful idealism and naiveté.  Also, we have a parochial school with a little over four hundred students, and we’re always in the market for Christians who are college graduates, willing to work for next to nothing.

God bless you.  I will pray for you.

In Jesus,

Bob Vincent

* “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem; they were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them, for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.” (Romans 15:25-27.)

** “And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren.” (Acts 15:2, 3.)

‘“And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.” Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.”’ (Acts 15:15-23.)