Who Defines the Ministry
This is the next to the last article in the series “Who Defines the Ministry?” In this issue I want to draw attention to the role of institutions in defining the ministry.
The dictionary defines an institution as an “organization with established relationships of personnel through lines of authority and responsibility with delegated and assigned duties. – The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Christian institutions as “compact societies with a definite creed and constitution.” In this series of articles on “Who Defines the Ministry?” I have used the word institution as “a group of people united for sane purpose with a membership, set of regulations and body of officers.”
Throughout history man has looked to institutions as a key ingredient in the ordering of his affairs. He has always been enamored with them, for he perceives then as a solution to his problem that he can bring into existence and control. Thus when he writes history, it is in terms of institutions, and men are considered great based on their relationship to them. He is great because he started it, another because he led it, and still another because he conquered it.
GOD’S VIEW OF HISTORY
W. F. Albright in his book, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra – An Historical Survey, notes in his first chapter entitled “Hebrew Beginnings” that when man writes history, it is from the perspective of the grandiose civilization his culture was able to create. When God writes history, it is from the perspective of humble men and women responding to the acts of God in their life.
Hebrew national tradition excels all others in its clear picture of tribal and family origins. In Egypt and Babylonia, in Assyria and Phoenicia, in Greece and Rome, we look in vain for anything comparable. There is nothing like it in the tradition of the Germanic peoples. Neither India nor China can produce anything similar, since their earliest historical memories are literary deposits of distorted dynastic tradition, with no trace of the herdsman or peasant behind the demigod or king with whom their records begin. Neither in the oldest Indic historical writings (the Puranas) nor in the earliest Greek historians is there a hint of the fact that both Indo-Aryans and Hellenes were once nomads who immigrated into their later abodes from the north. The Assyrians, to be sure, remembered vaguely that they are just rulers, whose names they recalled without any details about their deeds, were tent dwellers, but whence they came had long been forgotten.
In contrast with these other peoples the Israelites preserved an unusually clear picture of simple beginnings, of complex migrations, and of extreme vicissitudes, which plunged them from their favored status wider Joseph to bitter oppression after his death.
Only God writes a history that includes the likes of Tamer and Rahab. Only God, when asked who He is, would respond, “I am the God of Isaac. It is incredible that the God of the universe chose to be known by what the Biblical record reveals is a “nobody.” Isaac never built a city, wrote a book, made a major discovery, or did anything that the world calls significant. He didn’t even have a successful marriage.
Such people are missing in the histories of the “great civilizations” of the world. You simply do not find a humble sheepherder like Abraham holding center stage in the histories written about Greece, Egypt, Rome, India, etc.
The historian argues that nations are great to the degree that they significantly influence other nations and thus have a bearing on the direction of history. In the Old Testament these nations are significant only to the degree that they are involved in the program of God. When man writes history, he does it in terms of institutions. It is man-centered and always in terms of man’s progress. When God writes history, it is in terms of the individual with the objective of showing God’s purposes being enacted on the stage of history.
GOD’S FAILURE TO MEET MAN’S EXPECTATIONS
Dr. Ronald Goetz, Professor of Theology at Amherst College and Editor-at-Large for the Christian Century, in the April 16, 1986, issue of that periodical notes in an article entitled “The Suffering God: the Rise of a New Orthodoxy.” that St. Augustine’s theocratic hope is that the church as the earthly city of God will gradually cane to rule the world. Those Christians that embrace the Augustinian model are united in their conviction that God’s eternal rule is confirmed by world events and that the eventual triumph of God’s earthly purpose is discernible in the facts and trends of history. The lack of progress, however, in producing this “City of God” on earth has produced pessimism in modern society.
The great majority of Christians continue to affirm the reality, but God so rarely seems to accomplish His will in the world. So often God’s purpose, if it can be discerned, seems to be defeated. The actual, redemptive presence of God in the world is discerned less in God’s taking the sovereign lead in events and more in God’s picking up the pieces after history has misfired. In any case, without being able to point to clear evidence of the progress of God’s holy purpose in history, the notion that God rules the world through His mighty acts becomes somewhat vacuous.
In the Bible, however, there is no talk of the uniform progress of world history toward God’s kingdom. The God of the Bible does indeed, from time to time, act with free will and surprising power, but the direct hand of God in events, if there at all, is often simply lost on people. One can speak of the acts of God, then, only if one faces the fact that God’s acts are found only in the seams and cracks of an otherwise meaningless history. They can and often do slip through the cracks and go unnoticed, or they are seen and misread and even held up to high ridicule. In any case, God’s acts by their very fragility are signs not of an impassable, immutable resolve but of a reign over history characterized by misunderstandings and defeats, suffering and crossbearing.
Goetz points out that if you look for the works of God in history as He brings the kingdoms of the world into compliance with his expectations, you conclude that God’s purposes are defeated. God’s acts are found “only in the seams and cracks of an otherwise meaningless history.”
Or to put it another way, if the Program of God is interpreted in institutional terms, then it, must be concluded that God has failed in the executing of His program. The Augustinian model has simply been unable to produce anything approximating the “City of God” on earth.
THE MARXIST MODEL
Dr. Nikolaus Labkowicz, President of the University of Eichstaett, in his article, “Marxism as the Ideology of air Age,” draws attention to the fact that Marxism as an ideology has gained wide acceptance in Western thought. In addressing why its acceptance is so widespread, Labkowicz suggests that it offers a doctrine of salvation that is simpler and more attractive than any other produced by the occidental world. Like the Augustinian model it places its emphasis on a corporate rather than individual solution. Unlike the Augustinian model it offers an entirely different solution.
From the Seventeenth Century to the present “the idea of progress does not ask each of us individually to try to be a better person but, rather, claims to make us better persons by improving our life conditions . . . For Marxism the only truly important force in history is the need of man to satisfy his material needs.” Man is not only the center of all things but the measure of all things.
Man knows that if he is to succeed in building a system in which there is no need of God, it must be egalitarian. The common good must be equally distributed among the common man. Otherwise there will be comparison, envy and war. The inequalities of life must be explained in terms of Providence, or they will become the focus of man’s concern. Remove Providence, and Maxism becomes the logical solution to his concern.
Marxism is the penultimate expression of corporate rebellion. It is the establishment of a system in which there is no need of God. Genesis 11:1-9 records the building of the Tower of Babel. In verses 6-7 the Lord gives his rationale for scattering the people with a variety of languages:
“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Marxism is the Tower of Babel all over again. It is man’s endeavor to build a systems in which there is no need for God. In His grace, God will never allow man to build a system in which there is no need for Him.
Donald Grey Barnhouse in his book, The Invisible War, suggests that Satan’s objective in the world is to create a society that has no need of God. War and chaos are not objectives in Satan’ s agenda but rather the product of man’s inability to govern his own affairs. When President Reagan called Russia “an evil empire,” from this perspective of Labkowicz and Barnhouse, he was right. It is evil because it calls upon man to view himself as the center of history, and truth is defined as whatever will aid man in his quest to master his own fate. “Whether a claim, a theory, or a philosophy contributes to man’s mastery over the universe and to his emancipation from his dire past, it is true; if it does not contribute to it, it is false no matter how empirical, scientific or lofty it may be” (Labkowicz).
A recent issue of Time magazine, acknowledging the contribution of St. Augustine in celebration of his 1600th birthday, takes notice of the fact that he probably more profoundly influenced the church than any other person since the Apostle Paul. When Augustine set forth the thesis that the program of God is to be defined in institutional terms and accomplished through institutional means, he shifted the direction the church had gone for the first 450 years of its existence. Not only did the church embrace his notion of the program of God, it defined the mission of the church in terms of institutional goals and allowed institutional Christianity to set the agenda for the people of God.
For example, in 1095 Pope Urban II launched the “People’s Crusade” against the “enemies of Christianity,” recruiting Christians to do the “work of God.” Each generation since Augustine has seen institutional Christianity define the ministry in terms of institutional goals.
The Augustinian model is an institutional model. Institutions are perceived by man as the way to order and regulate society. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the institutions of government are brought into existence for the purpose of maintaining law and order. “There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Man’s desire to create institutions, control them and evaluate his sense of worth on the basis of his success, however, is merely a microcosm of the problem that Lobkowicz calls to our attention with Marxism. It is the Tower of Babel repeated in that it is man’s endeavor to build a system in which there is no need for God. Even with Christian institutions, more often than not, man wants to create them, have God bless them and then assure man that His work would be incomplete without them.
The tendency of man is to seek solutions to the problems of society through institutional means. For example, a prominent evangelical leader was quoted in Christianity Today (December 13, 1985). – linked political activity to revival, asserting that the only way to have a genuine spiritual revival is to have legislative reform. He explained that permissive laws allowing the widespread distribution of pornographic materials are among the reasons revival is impossible. ‘I think we have been legislated out of the possibility of a spiritual revival,’ he said.”
Institutions defined as “a group of people united for some purpose with a mastership, set of regulations and body of officers” are temporal and will eventually disappear. The ministry, on the other hand, is eternal. It is participating with God in what He is doing. Jesus cautioned,
“Labor not for the things that perish” (John 6:27) and again said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 13:36).
An institution can establish eternal goals, but goals that are designed to build, improve or alter the institution are temporal and therefore not the ministry. A person may feel led to participate in then, but only to the degree that they have as their aim the Great Commission as the ministry.
By way of review, then, the ministry is leading people to Christ and helping them to mature in the faith (Matthew 28:18—20). Building houses, practicing medicine, or any vocation is ministry only to the degree that it has as its focus Matthew 28:18—20.