A question about ministry has concerned me for a while. It regards the concept of ‘Ministry of Word and Sacrament’ which is the primary view of formal ministry in my denomination.
Of all the examples of ministry depicted in the New Testament, how did ministry of word and sacrament emerge as the front runner? And how did the formalised role of ‘worship leader’; leading communal worship, teaching of the congregation and conducting communion, come to be at the centre of leadership in the Christian Community. More importantly, how has this model persisted, to the exclusion of most other ministries?
I’m genuinely confused at the emphasis placed on ministry of word and sacrament. For example what is Sunday service ministry of the word based upon? Is it Paul’s teaching in the hall of Tyrannus? Is it Jesus’ visits to the synagogue? And if so, why not base ministry of the word on other preaching and teaching activities, such as in small groups or in the street?
And with regard to the sacraments of baptism and communion, why are these restricted to being conducted by a specific official of the church? In both cases there is little New Testament evidence to support the restrictions placed on word and sacrament today. And the limited evidence includes exceptions eg. where those set apart for ‘table service’ both preach and baptise.
I also wonder how such a definition of ministry either survived or was the product of the Reformation. How did leadership in the Christian community become generally defined by Sunday pulpit teaching and the conduct of the sacraments? Why does a movement defined by the priesthood of all believers restrict ‘priestly’ activities to the clergy?
Why does this all matter? Well, it’s interesting that leadership in the Christian community is largely focussed on the provision and administration of the Sunday gathering. Church leaders lament that that members are ‘Sunday Christians’ and we regularly preach that they need to be followers of Jesus every day. And yet the entire Christian community and its leadership are centred on the Sunday service. Despite the New Testament emphasis that the people of God, themselves, are the new temple, we seem fixated on recreating Temple worship led by a priestly caste.
One of the impacts of Covid-19 on the church has been to threaten that entire structure. I was at an online seminar recently and the speaker commented on the reaction of most churches to Covid. ‘While the world has been going through an existential crisis churches have been preoccupied with when we can get back to our Sunday services.’ But perhaps it’s not surprising that Christians perceived the loss of Sunday services as a greater existential threat than Covid-19? Because without Sunday worship what are we? And why are we? For centuries we’ve arranged ourselves around providing a weekly event and for a while we couldn’t.
It might be argued that since word and sacrament are so central to Christianity it is right that we are in a hurry to get normal services resumed. But interestingly, I’m not sure that in the New Testament word and sacrament are confined in any way to the context in which they usually take place today. Church history may have formed a view on their proper place, but this can be challenged on biblical grounds.
I wonder if the protestations of churches that they should be allowed to maintain corporate worship during Covid-19 has less to do with the proclamation of the Good News or the Glory of God than to do with the loss of purpose and identity of Christians and their leaders. Because even with churches closed or restricted, the Kingdom of God has not stopped growing in 2020. In fact perhaps the Kingdom has benefited from followers of Jesus being forced to spend more time at home with their families and to take more interest in the wellbeing of neighbours rather than spending so much time in church meetings and preparing for Sundays?