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2. The New Testament Church—Its Ministry

Ephesians 4:11-12 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;

1 Corinthians 12:4-7 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

1 Peter 2:4-9 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: “Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, And he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.” 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, “The stone which the builders rejected, This became the very corner stone,” 8 and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;


Sometimes misunderstandings are amusing. The woman who has been stopped by a policeman for driving the wrong way down a one-way street protests, “but officer, I was only going one way.” Or the other day I saw Alan Fundt on Candid Camera interview a young boy on the subject of football. It is hard to believe that his understanding of football could be so far removed from reality. Among other things this boy said that the reason why the players wore shoulder pads was to make them appear tougher than they really were so that the other players would be afraid to beat them up on the field.

Someone told me one time about the son of a prominent Christian leader who was in his Sunday School class. The young lad was asked what it meant to be a Christian, and the young lad said it meant to have Jesus in your heart. When the boy went on to assure his teacher that he had Jesus in his heart the teacher asked him how Jesus got there. At this the young man paused and gave some careful thought, after which he hastily replied, “I guess He got there through the hole in my sock.”

Although some misconceptions can be comic, others may be deeply tragic. Such is the case with the understanding of the subject of ministry in the church. It has caused many pastors to throw up their hands in frustration and leave ministry altogether. It has frustrated countless individuals in the church who have no seminary training or professional status in ministry, because they have assumed that their contribution to the work of the ministry is primarily in matters which are largely physical, or financial.

In the light of such great confusion in this matter of the Christian and his relationship to the ministry, I want to focus your attention on this matter from the pages of the New Testament. Our subject for this lesson will be “The New Testament Church—Its Ministry.” We will begin by determining who is in the ministry, and then proceed by defining the word ‘ministry’ from the Scriptures. This will lead us to a discussion of the principles of the Word of God as to why ‘the ministry’ is the work of all Christians. Finally, we will make some very practical suggestions as to the application of this teaching.

Who Is in the Ministry?

The first major error in current evangelical thinking which must be dealt with is the matter of who is responsible for ‘the ministry.’ Generally today we speak of a special class of individuals as going into ‘the ministry.’ This core of elite is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of ministry, and certainly the most significant ministry in the local church. But if this is the thinking of modern Christianity, it is not the teaching of the New Testament, for Paul has written:

“So has He given some to be apostles but others to be prophets; some to be evangelists but others to be pastors and teachers, to make the saints fit for the task of ministering toward the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12, Berkeley).

In terms of biblical teaching, every Christian is in the ministry. There is no separate class of those who minister while the others stand by and observe. Some may devote more time to the ministry than others; some may even be paid for their ministry; but all Christians are in the ministry.

In one sense those who are evangelists and pastor-teachers are less involved in the ministry than the rest of the saints. Who, for example, is more involved in the playing of football, Tom Landry or Roger Staubach? Tom Landry is the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but have you ever seen him throw a touchdown pass, or tuck the ball under his arm and sprint for a first down? It is the players who are most directly involved in the game of football. So, too, it is in the ministry of the church. Paul has written that evangelists and pastor-teachers equip the saints for the ministry. It is not the evangelists and pastor-teachers who are to do the ministry; they are to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.

Do you see how far we have strayed from the Scriptures? We think ‘the ministry’ is the work of a few professionals who have had formal theological training and who spend all their time preaching and teaching and counseling. Paul says that the pastor-teacher is not to conduct the ministry, but to coach the saints so that they may carry on the ministry. So-called laymen look to the pastor to do the ministry; Paul looks to the layman. The world divides Christians into separate classes: clergy and laymen. The Scriptures teach no such distinction.

A Biblical Definition of ‘The Ministry’

Every Christian, then, is in the ministry. If you are a Christian, you are in the ministry. Since each one of you, assuming that you have come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is in the ministry, it should be a matter of great interest to you to know what constitutes the ministry. What is the ministry? What is it that God holds you responsible to do?

Although much could be said on this word ‘ministry’ there are two general characteristics of ministry in the New Testament which are essential for each of us to understand. First of all, the idea of ministry is perhaps best defined in terms of service. This is evident by the translation of Ephesians 4:12 of the New American Standard Version: “… for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ …”

There are three Greek words which are employed in the New Testament which convey the concept of service. The first word (douleo) denotes what might be called ‘Slave service,’ for this is the word which is used to describe the service of a slave to his master (cf. Rom. 1:1; 1 Pet. 2:16). Paul uses this word to describe his attitude of service to men when he writes: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more” (1 Corinthians 9:19).

A second word (leitourgos), in its New Testament usage, has a far more religious connotation. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament it was used in translating a technical term for priestly service to God.8 Luke employed this term to describe the ministry of Paul and Barnabas at the church of Antioch (Acts 13:2). It was also used of the ministry of the Macedonian and Achaian Christians who gave to the poor in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:27). Paul again used this word in Philippians 2:30 for the ministry of the Philippian saints to him through Epaphroditus.

But the word for ‘service’ or ‘ministry’ in Ephesians 4:12 is neither of these two terms, but rather the word (diakonos) from which the name ‘deacon’ is derived. Beyer states that while douleo emphasizes service as a slave, and leitourgos signifies service in the church, “… diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. … in diakonio there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.”9 This, then, is the word which denotes the loving service of a believer in Jesus Christ to others. It is applied to apostleship (Acts 1:17, 25), to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), as well as to the serving of tables (Acts 6:1).

I want to underscore this concept of service, for it surely is not a part of the spirit of the age. Unfortunately, it is frequently not a mentality that characterizes Christians. Surely we cannot deny the fact that it was the attitude of our Lord Jesus, for he said: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His Life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

As Paul has written, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

A second general characteristic of the ministry in the New Testament is that it is profitable service. It is service or ministry which has many different facets and manifestations but there is one common element in all of its diversity, and that is that it is service or ministry which is spiritually profitable to the individual and which therefore builds up the body of Christ as it strengthens and builds up individual members of the body. Paul does not tell us specifically what the various works of service are in Ephesians 4:12, but he does tell us the result of these ministries: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

Spiritual ministry, ministry which is truly Christian, is profitable ministry. It builds up individual Christians and therefore builds up the body of Christ.

The sad thing is that many Christians think the only kind of ministry which is profitable is the kind done by the professional. They feel that if their form of ministry is not preaching or teaching or counseling that it has little or no value. How unfortunate, how unbiblical this thinking is. Meeting the physical needs of the poor is defined in Scripture as a ministry (e.g. Rom. 15:27). As James tells us (2:15-16) the poorly clothed and fed are not profited by mere words, not even by an excellent sermon or tape; they are profited by food and clothing. Ministry in the New Testament is meeting the total needs of the saints in such a way as to encourage and strengthen them in the faith. The sick do not need a sermon so much as they need comfort, encouragement and prayer. The man or woman who has just had major surgery and is at home recovering may not need a lesson in theology so much as he may need a little practical theology—meals brought in, help with the housework, children taken to school, and so on. All too often people evaluate the value of their ministry by the kind of ministry rather than in terms of its overall result.

Let me summarize what I have said to this point. I have said that the work of the ministry is the work of all the saints, that it encompasses far more than preaching, teaching, and counseling (though that is surely an essential part), but includes every form of service which benefits other Christians.

The Principles Behind the Practice

What I have said to this point is not just an option, it is an imperative. The necessity of a diversified and universal ministry is dictated by biblical principles. The two fundamental principles which underlie the concept of ministry in the New Testament are (1) the doctrine of spiritual gifts, and (2) the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

The Doctrine of Spiritual Gifts

Concerning spiritual gifts the Apostle Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).

In this twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul describes the church as a body. Each Christian is a member of the body (v. 13) with his or her individual gift and function (vss. 7-11). In the body there is both unity and diversity. No one member of the body can view himself as either superior to the body, for he is dependent upon it for his life, nor inferior and unnecessary to the body, for he has his own unique contribution to the function of the body. In verses 29 and 30 Paul also instructs us that no one individual has all the gifts, nor do all have any one gift. While upon the earth our Lord manifested Himself through His physical body, but now He has chosen to continue what He began to do and to teach through His spiritual body, the church (Acts 1:1ff).

Just as there are certain necessary functions for the spiritual body of Christ, to some extent every Christian is responsible to carry out every one of these functions. But to each individual member of the body, God has given particular abilities to carry out some functions better than others. These abilities we call spiritual gifts. Though all are to give to the support of the financial needs of the body (cf. lesson 7, The New Testament Church—Its Finances), some are given supernatural ability (Rom. 12:8). All are commanded to be witnesses (Acts 1:8; Col. 4:5-6; 1 Pet. 3:15, etc.), but some are gifted as evangelists (Eph. 4:11).

All of this indicates to us that the work of the ministry includes all of the functions encompassed by the totality of spiritual gifts given to the body. Spiritual gifts are given to sustain and build up the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The work of the ministry is the work of sustaining and building up the body (Eph. 4:11-13). Spiritual gifts are given, then, to enable Christians to carry out the work of the ministry, which is the building up of the body of Christ. The work of the ministry is dependent upon the exercise of every spiritual gift (that is permanent gifts).

Now let me return for a moment to that passage in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, for it is very important to our understanding of the work of ministry. In verse 4 Paul states that there are diversities of gifts. This we should know well. But in verse 5 he says, “And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” Here Paul is speaking about the various spheres of ministry in which the same gift can operate. One may have the gift of teaching and teach in a seminary in South Africa, another may teach a Sunday School class in Dallas or Hong Kong, another may teach thousands by radio or television or cassette tapes. All have the gift of teaching, but God has given each a sphere of ministry which is necessary and important.

In verse 6 we are told, “And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” Not only has God given different gifts to Christians, and different spheres of ministry to those who have the same gift, but He has also given differing degrees of effectiveness. One may have the gift of evangelism and win five to Christ in a year, while another may win 50,000. One may teach a class of four, and another a class of 4,000. That is because God has sovereignly determined that there will be differences of effectiveness.

Now in spite of all these differences in gift, and sphere of ministry and effectiveness, Paul says in verse 7, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” My friend, no matter what your gift is, it is for the good of the body; no matter how your gift is employed, it is for the benefit of the entire body; regardless of how few or how many your gift affects, it is for the profit of all.

That is why the work of the ministry is the work of service performed by all believers for the benefit, ultimately, of all believers. The work of the ministry, the work of building up the body will not be complete without your ministry through the exercise of your spiritual gift. Spiritual gifts are the supernatural endowment of power to carry out the work of the ministry. Since no one has all the gifts, since everyone has a gift designed for a specific use, all Christians must do the work of the ministry.

The Doctrine of the Priesthood of Every Believer

The second biblical principle which underlies the concept of ministry in the New Testament is that of the priesthood of every believer. Although this doctrine is taught elsewhere (cf. Rev. 1:6; 5:9), it is Peter who gives us the clearest revelation on this matter:

You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

In the Old Testament economy there was a separate class of priests who mediated between man and God. In the New Testament, however, we know that there is only one mediator between men and God: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is because of His high priesthood that we are all constituted priests of God, with priestly ministries:

Hebrews 10:19-25 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.

The high priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ does two things: it motivates us to draw near to Him with full confidence, and it prompts us to minister to others. Since our concern is with the matter of ministry to others, let us review the exercise of our priesthood as it relates to others. What priestly exercises constitute a part of our ministry to others? Essentially the priestly function of the Christian is described in terms of spiritual sacrifices:10 “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). These spiritual sacrifices are enumerated in the New Testament:

(1) The sacrifice of self, as a living sacrifice in the service of God. In Romans, Paul exhorted: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1).

The sacrifice of self is a living sacrifice. How can one be a living sacrifice? In the context of Romans chapter 12 it is noteworthy that the very first subject Paul mentions after his exhortation to give ourselves as a living sacrifice is that of spiritual gifts (vss. 3-8). My understanding is that we are living sacrifices to God as we give ourselves to ministry to others through our spiritual gifts.

(2) The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In Hebrews chapter 13 we are given another form of spiritual sacrifice: “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15).

One of the offerings in the Old Testament was the thank offering. So also, there is a thank and praise offering in the New Testament. As we publicly and privately give thanks and praise to God we are exercising our priesthood.

(3) The sacrifice of service. Again in Hebrews 13 we find another kind of spiritual sacrifice: “And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16).

Now here indeed is an amazing priestly activity. We offer up to God the sacrifice of service as we do acts of kindness, as we perform acts of charity, as we do good, and as we minister in financial ways. The word ‘sharing’ is our word koinonia, which we generally understand as ‘fellowship.’ One manifestation of commonality, of common life, is the sharing of our goods and our money with those in financial need. This is a priestly function.

(4) The sacrifice of proclamation. Another spiritual sacrifice which all believer-priests should offer up is that of proclamation. We should proclaim the goodness and the greatness of God: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

We should proclaim the gospel of God. Paul describes the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles and their salvation in sacrificial terms: “But I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:15-16).

Think of that, the salvation of souls by the proclamation of the gospel is viewed as a sacrifice offered to God as an act of our priesthood. Not only is the actual proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of souls a pleasing sacrifice, but so also is our giving to those who proclaim the gospel: “But I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).

Do you see the application of the priesthood of every believer to this matter of ministry? Those areas of priestly service which we have studied exactly overlap the functions which are encompassed by the spiritual gifts, as well as the work of the ministry as described in the New Testament. The work of the ministry is the work of every kind of service necessary to the maintenance of the body and its upbuilding. The ability to perform these functions is provided for the Christian by means of spiritual gifts. The responsibility for every Christian to be active in the ministry is taught by the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a priest, and your priestly functions are the work of the ministry. If you are a Christian, you have at least one spiritual gift, and this gift enables you to carry out a particular function in a particular sphere that no one else should do. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ you are in ‘the ministry’ and it is the responsibility of pastor-teachers to equip you to do that ministry.


There are a number of practical applications of the biblical teaching for me as a pastor-teacher.

First, the Scriptures call for me to withdraw from extensive activity in those areas of ministry which are not in accord with my spiritual gift. This is important for two reasons. In the first place I would be spending too much time trying to do something I will never do well. It is the same frustration that a man with no mechanical aptitude experiences in trying to work on his car. Then again, if I move into areas of ministry for which I am not gifted, I effectively keep others from doing what God designed them to do far better than I. Now this does not mean that I am never to attempt to witness just because my gift is not evangelism, for if I understand 2 Timothy 4:5 correctly, Paul exhorts Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, although this does not appear to be his spiritual gift. I am speaking of spending a great deal of time and energy in areas that God has gifted others to handle better than myself.

In practice this means that some of the things which Christians normally expect ministers to do, I will not be doing to their satisfaction. All too often we want to hire out our responsibilities—to pay the minister to do what we don’t want to do. Hospital visitation, counseling, administration, and many other areas of ministry may have to fall largely on the shoulders of others whose gifts equip them to serve in these ministries.

Second, the Scriptures indicate that my concept of ministry should be that of ministering through people, far more than just ministering to people. As we have seen in Ephesians chapter 4, my work is to equip people for ministry. My responsibility, as I understand it from the Word of God, is to spend the greater portion of my time helping those who desire to do the work of the ministry. The emphasis of my ministry, therefore, will be to encourage and help equip teachers, counselors, and leaders. I intend to help in the training of counselors who will carry on the greater part of pre- post-marriage counseling. It is my desire to see godly women equipped to minister to other women. I intend to make myself available to meet with the Sunday School teachers, under the direction of our superintendent, and to share with them what I will be teaching on the same passage that they will be teaching the following Sunday.

Perhaps even more significantly I am committed to work with fathers who are appointed as the spiritual leaders of the home. We are intending to prepare each week a family study guide, which will help the fathers or heads of families to study the text for the following Sunday, to discuss this text with his wife and children. We are committed to give every available kind of help and encouragement to those who wish to be leaders in their homes and in the church.

But there are certainly implications for you in these passages of Scripture pertaining to the work of the ministry as well. It should be very clear that the work of the ministry is the work of serving. It is my fear that many come to hear the ministry of the Word only to be ministered to, rather than to minister. One of the great encouragements of the new work is that many of those who desire to be involved want to participate in ministry. They greatly value the teaching they have received but greatly want to share what they have received with others. That is the kind of people we want to see, many who want to be servants, rather than to be served.

In the days to come we hope you will find our new church is functioning smoothly, but there will be a number of adjustments that will have to be made. Everything will not go off without a hitch. It will not be as easy to sit back and hope not to be noticed. It is only those with the heart of a servant who will survive the initial weeks, but the work of service is the work of every saint.

My friend, in terms of the Word of God you are in the ministry. May God make your ministry ever so clear, and may you find the joy of serving Him as a priest of God, by His power and grace.

8 Cf. Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), p. 131.

9 Hermann W. Beyer, “DiaKoneo…, DiaKonia, DiaKonos,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 2, p. 81.

10 Since priestly activity is also indicated by the word leitourgeo, the ministry of priests can be seen in verses which employ this term (e.g. Acts 13:2-3; Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Romans 15:16). Cf. Robert Saucy, p. 167.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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