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Summary Article: Ministry
from Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

As the English word most often used to translate the NT Greek term diakonia, ‘ministry’ refers to the service Christians are obliged to render to one another and to the world by virtue of their having been called by God in Christ, whose own ministry is the foundation of that exercised in his name (Heb. 8:6). The precise form and character of Christian ministry is described in various ways in the NT. Sometimes the focus is on the ministry of the whole Church, whether directed outwardly to the world as ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18) or inwardly to the community as ‘building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:12). At other times it is used to refer to the specific ministry of an individual within the Church. For example, Paul speaks of his own ministry (Rom. 11:13; 2 Cor. 6:3; cf. Acts 20:24; 21:19), and other figures are likewise instructed to fulfil their particular ministries (Col. 4:17). Paul interprets these various ministries of individual believers as a function of the diversity of gifts (see Charism) bestowed by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:5).

The book of Acts bears witness to the belief that Jesus’ closest followers (those for whom Luke generally reserves the title ‘apostle’) exercised a special ministry within the Church that was associated specifically with proclamation and set them apart from the body of believers (Acts 6:2–4). Whereas Paul’s correspondence suggests a highly diversified and relatively informal hierarchy of ministries that includes all the community’s members (1 Cor. 12:28), the narrative of Acts points towards (though it does not explicitly define) a more fixed distinction between a small subset of members exercising a formal leadership role in the community (the clergy) and the majority of Christians (the laity), whose ministerial role is less well defined. Already in the NT there is reference to rites beyond baptism used to set apart individuals for such leadership roles (see, e.g., Acts 6:6; 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14).

While various forms of ministry (prayer, prophecy, distribution of food to the poor, etc.) continued to be practised by members of early Christian communities, by the third century the distinction between clergy and laity was well established, with the ministry of word (viz., public preaching) and sacrament (especially the Eucharist) limited to those authorized through formal rites of ordination. This distinction continues to define the shape of Christian ministry in the majority of Churches, with the more refined idea of a threefold form of ordained ministry, structured around the offices of the diaconate, the presbyterate or priesthood, and the episcopacy, assuming something of a formal status in both Orthodox and Catholic (and, later, Anglican and Methodist) communions. While this threefold division is based on biblical terminology (see, e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1–13; 5:17–18), however, few would claim that the current understandings of the roles of the three offices directly mirrors NT practice.

At the same time, it would be mistaken to suppose that the Church’s ministry was ever understood as limited to the clergy. In the West monastic orders were often organized and authorized to pursue particular forms of ministry, including care of the sick, education, and missions (see Monasticism). During the Reformation the Augsburg Confession suggested a still more provocative position, affirming the importance of clergy for good order in the Church (14), but defining ministry as God’s work of giving the Spirit to believers through word and sacrament rather than by reference to the clerical office (5). Correspondingly, it became characteristic in Protestantism to affirm that all the baptized could claim a specifically Christian vocation (see Priesthood of All Believers). More recently, Vatican Council II emphasized from a specifically Catholic perspective that Christian ministry includes the whole people of God: because ‘all are called to sanctity and have received an equal privilege of faith’, the layperson, too, is ‘a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church’ (LG, §32–3). Finally, perhaps the most influential document to emerge from the World Council of Churches, while honouring ordained ministry in general and its traditional threefold form in particular, stresses that ministry ‘in its broadest sense denotes the service to which the whole people of God is called, whether as individuals, as a local community, or as the universal Church’ (BEM, ‘Ministry’, §7b).

  • Schillebeeckx, E., Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ (Crossroad, 1981 [1980]).
  • Wood, S., ed., Ordering the Baptismal Priesthood: Theologies of Lay and Ordained Ministry (Liturgical Press, 2003).
  • Ian A. McFarland
    © Cambridge University Press 2011

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