Who Defines the Ministry?
Paul Johnson in his book, A History of Christianity, points out that the apostle Paul never sought to institutionalize the church. Convinced of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus, he was motivated to spread the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the world in obedience to Jesus’ command. To spend time building an institution made about as much sense as a man knowing that he had two weeks to live spending those two weeks building a new house.
The strategy for the propagation of the Gospel is outlined by this apostle in Ephesians 4:11—12:
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
The vocational Christian workers reflected in the offices mentioned in verse 11 were commissioned with the task of equipping the saints so that the saints might do the work of the ministry. This in turn produced a multiplying effect as the Gospel rolled across the world.
The time from the apostle Paul in the First Century to the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century was characterized by rapid growth accompanied by tremendous heresies. Not only did the Gospel spread like a tidal wave, but in its wake were spawned numerous aberrations such as the Gnostics, Donatists, Montanists, Pelagians, etc. Thoughtful Christians were concerned with this “plague” that seemed to accompany the vitality of an expanding church. Without the support of the state, however, the church was powerless to do anything about it.
FROM CONSTANTINE TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES
Constantine was the first emperor in the Roman Empire to embrace Christianity, and in 313 with the “Edict of Milan” he legitimized Christianity in the Empire. When this took place, the dynamics changed appreciably. First there was a large influx of Gentile converts into the church, since Christianity was now in vogue. How was the church to assimilate this vast hoard of people, most of who were Biblical illiterates? The organization of the church began before this time, but fresh thought was given on how to handle this growth.
Second, as the church moved from being predominantly Jewish to predominantly Gentile, it developed a new mind—set. At our Lord’s ascension the apostles asked:
Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And He said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the season, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. (Acts 1:6—8)
The Jewish mind wanted to know when God was going to fulfill His Old Testament promises to the nation of Israel. Jesus’ response was that they were not to know the time. It was their task to preach the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the world. Paul and other Jews were eagerly involved in the fulfilling of the Great Commission in anticipation of the day when the Old Testament promises would be fulfilled to Israel. With the church predominantly Gentile, this eager anticipation of Christ’s return was replaced by a desire to change society through the establishment of Christian institutions. The Gentile church was not as eager for the Lord to return and establish a Jewish kingdom as it was to establish its own Christian kingdom. Since Christ was not here to rule, He would be represented by His “vicar.”
This shift in thinking is seen in an article from the Encyclopedia Britannica on “Millennium”:
The spirit of philosophical and theological speculation and of ethical reflection, which began to spread through the Churches, did not know what to make of the old hopes of the future. To a new generation they seemed paltry, earthly and fantastic, and far—seeing men had good reason to regard them as a source of political danger. But more than this, these wild dreams about the glorious kingdom of Christ began to disturb the organization which the Churches had seen fit to introduce. In the interests of self—preservation against the world, the State and the heretics, the Christian communities had formed themselves into compact societies with a definite creed and constitution, and they felt that their existence was threatened by the white heat of religious subjectivity.
Third, the emperor as head of the state was most eager to be viewed as Christ’s vicar since it served his purposes to have the dynamic power of a missionary—minded church under his control.
Fourth, the church was happy with this new arrangement, for it now had in its hand the sword of the state, which gave it the power necessary to bring under control the various heresies plaguing the church. Thus it was during the days of Constantine that the first of the great ecumenical councils (since Acts 15) convened to settled doctrinal issues. Granted, in this uneasy marriage with the state, the church would have to grapple with the question, “Whose voice of authority was absolute——the emperor’s or the pope’s?” but with the emperor now under the authority of Christ, the church was certain that it would win.
From the time of Constantine to the establishment of the United States of America every culture that became Christian married the church and the state and had as its primary objective the bringing of society into obedience under the authority of Christ. It may be added as a parenthetical comment that Ralph Winter in his lectures on “The Historical Development of the Christian Movement” points out that for the next thousand years the church as a percent of the population of the world experienced a net loss. The mission of the church was viewed more as the changing of society than the changing of individuals.
MINISTRY IN THE UNITED STATES
The fathers of the U.S. Constitution deliberately separated the church and state. No longer did the church have the sword of the state in its hand, allowing it to enforce its will on the people. By and large the results paralleled what happened in the early centuries of the church. Tremendous growth and vitality has been accompanied by a plethora of aberrations and heresies. A larger percentage of the population of the United States is Christian than any other country in the world. The United States has spawned a multiplicity of vital, ministries from the Bible school movement to the Wyclliffe Bible Translators. It has distributed more money and sent more missionaries than any other country in history.
Accompanying this phenomenon, however, has been a multiplicitv of sects and cults such as the Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Mormans, and Jehovah Witnesses. Thoughtful Christians have been disturbed by their growth and influence. Organizations such as the National Council of Churches call for the uniting of a fragmented church partly in hopes of controlling this kaleidoscope. When the church and state are married, it is possible to control the product of the church. Without this sword, such control is impossible. I believe this is one of the reasons why so many Christian leaders are preaching that salvation in Christ cannot be separated from the Lordship of Christ. It is an endeavor to distinguish between the wheat and tares and bring some of kind of control to this chaotic mess. Those unwilling to live with the ambiguity found in a church freed from the authority of the state feel compelled to police the body of Christ either through doctrine or rules and regulations.
THE CHURCH AND STATE IN CONFLICT
It seems as though the church and state have always been in conflict. After Constantine, when the two were married, the conflict arose over whose voice of authority was final. In the book of Acts the two were in conflict because the church refused to meet the expectations of the state. When the government said that the church could not preach the Gospel, the response was, “We ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).
In the United States today, however, the conflict between church and state exists for the exact opposite reason. It is not that the church is unwilling to meet the expectations of the State, but rather the state is unwilling to meet the expectations of the church.
The church has established an agenda different than the state, insisting that the state conform to the church’s expectations. Thus there is conflict over issues like apartheid, nuclear armament, women’s rights, and the Sanctuary Movement. In the New Testament the church was not trying to change society, but individuals. Christians did not carry placards before the governor’s palace protesting slavery!
Today, however, a large part of the church defines the ministry in terms of social issues, arguing that a “holistic Gospel” includes not only the preaching of salvation to the individual but also bringing the pressure upon the state in such a way that it meets the expectations of the church. Many are so caught up in social issues that little attention is given to the preaching of the Gospel. This is a definition of ministry not found in the New Testament!
Amazed by His grace,