The Making of Ministers

Audio Player

Well, we're drawing to the close of our epic series called 'What Christians Believe', on the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Today we've come to Article 36, 'Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers'. The gist of it is that anyone ordained to church ministry using the service of ordination (known as the 'Ordinal') that's in the Book of Common Prayer is validly ordained.

This morning we don't need to trouble ourselves too much with the context or detail of that. It's there on my outline at the back of the service sheet for those who want to follow that up later. Suffice it to say that the most fundamental reason that the Book of Common Prayer Ordinal is valid and godly is that it's saturated with Scripture, and with a Biblical understanding of what ordination and ministry is all about.

What I want us to do this morning, then, is to go behind the Article, to some of the Bible's teaching on which the Ordinal is based. So I'm talking about the particular senior leadership role in the life of a church which is variously named elder, minister, pastor or presbyter, among other things.

But ministry in the church is a much broader thing than ordained eldership alone. 'Minister', after all, means 'servant' – and we're all called to be servants of Jesus. So what I have to say is almost all applicable to any kind of ministry role within the life of the church. Indeed, a great deal of it equally well applies to Christian discipleship in general. So this is relevant to all of us.

There's an outline on the back of the service sheet. I'm limiting myself to one passage – and that's Acts 20.17-38. I want to see what we can find out from this passage about the minister's character, the minister's experience, and the minister's task.

What we have here is Luke's account of the apostle Paul's final meeting with the elders of the church in Ephesus. It's an amazing, moving and deeply challenging account, and it ought to be written on the heart of everyone who is or wants to be a minister in the church – in whatever capacity. So:

1. The Minister's Character

A minister should be humble. Verse 18:

"And when [the elders from Ephesus] came to [Paul], he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility …"

Now you might think that a public declaration of your own humility is rather a contradiction, like someone saying, 'I'm not arrogant; I'm perfect.' But it isn't, because true humility is a matter of being crystal clear about who you are in relation to God and other people. Paul knew that he was a desperate sinner, deserving only condemnation, whose life had been turned around completely by God, who had chosen him for this pivotal role in history, by sheer grace. That kind of clear-sighted humility has to be the foundation of all godly leadership and ministry.

And Paul's gratitude for the grace of God in Christ had led him to devote his whole life to Christ and his cause. Verse 24:

"But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God."

Do you want to serve the church? Well, how about that for a line in the job description: we must value Jesus so highly that we value our service of Jesus more than our very lives.

In some parts of the world, and at some times in this country, that's been a very literal choice: serve faithfully and die, or abandon your post of leadership and stay alive.

We have a more easy time at the moment though. We just have to be ready to lay aside all ambitions, desires, aspirations, hopes and dreams that are incompatible with the task of service and ministry to which we're called. They might be anything from wanting to have no responsibilities to tie you down over weekends, to giving up that attractive and rising income that could have been yours.

Is it worth it? I consider my life worth nothing to me, says Paul, in comparison with getting the job done for Jesus. If we take on ministry without that kind of attitude, we're going to tear ourselves apart with resentment and frustration. Freedom lies in complete devotion.

The minister's necessary ability to be uncompromising on the gospel also stems from total dedication to Christ. Verse 27:

"I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."

Why might a minister hesitate to teach the whole message of the Bible? Why might he trim his message? In Paul's case, these elders had seen how Paul's preaching in Ephesus itself had led to uproar in the city, and a near riot. Teaching the Bible faithfully and systematically inevitably means saying things that go right against the grain of popular thinking. Sometimes it does mean saying things people don't want to hear. But Paul didn't hesitate. He would bend over backwards to accommodate people on anything else. But when it came to the Word of God, he wouldn't budge an inch.

But don't be mislead into thinking that being rock solid on the gospel meant he had a heart of stone. Very far from it. He cared passionately about those amongst whom he ministered. For instance, look at verse 31:

"Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears."

And you see the same thing back in verse 19, where he describes how he served the Lord …

"… with all humility and with tears …"

Paul wept for the Ephesians. He was passionate about the gospel and about those whom he served by his leadership. Now it's true, of course, that some people cry at the drop of a hat and others don't cry whether a hat's been dropped or for any other reason. Temperaments do differ. But it's not the outward expression, it's the inward passion that counts. It's not what's running down the cheeks, its what's burning in the heart that matters.

And Paul's passion wasn't a short-lived emotional thunderstorm that passed over and was gone. It drove him month after month and year after year to consistent, faithful and persevering ministry amongst the Ephesians. Verse 31 again:

"Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears."

The attrition rate among ministers is frighteningly high. What the church needs is leaders who will persevere, in season and out.

Then just in case we're in danger of getting super-spiritual about all this, and forgetting that ministers are subject to all the same temptations and frailties as anyone else, Paul draws attention to the need for them to have sorted out the money issue. Verse 33:

"I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel."

Church leaders are not to envy those whose incomes are higher than their own and who have lifestyles to match. Nor are they to use their spiritual influence as a lever to generate wealth for themselves. Mind you, there's great freedom in that. If you're content with what you've got, then you're better off than the multi-millionaire who's desperate to climb a few places in the Sunday Times rich list.

So there's a character sketch of Paul by way of an example to Christian leaders. A minister should be humble, totally devoted to Christ, uncompromising on the gospel, passionate and persevering, and he should have a godly attitude to money.

But what should a minister in the church expect of life? That brings us on to my next heading.

2. The Minister's Experience

Not easy, but rewarding is how you could sum it up. Not many of us have such a rough time as Paul. He certainly had a tough time in Ephesus, where he faced strong opposition. In verse 19 he speaks of …

"… the trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews."

He was a Jew, of course. A lot of those who he might have expected would be natural allies turned against him and gave him grief.

And Paul's experience was that winning through against one lot of opposition simply meant that the next difficulty was round the corner. Indeed the Lord told him that was what he was in line for. Verse 23:

"… the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me."

Opposition and hardship are part of the package for ministers in the church.

And Paul spreads on top of that cake, by way of icing, sheer hard graft. Whereas opposition and the hardship that it can bring are outside the minister's control, hard work is a matter of self-imposed self-discipline. So Paul urges those Ephesians elders, in verse 35:

"In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak …"

I said that the minister's experience is that life is not easy, but rewarding. You may be wondering by now where the rewards come. They are many. Two are mentioned by Paul here.

The first is the experience of a clear conscience. Look at what he has to say in verse 26:

"Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all."

What does he mean by that? He's not denying that he's a sinner in need of forgiveness. He's not innocent in that sense. Not for a moment.

No, what he's saying is that by the grace of God he knows that he has fulfilled the role that God assigned to him. He has handed on the baton of the gospel to the next generation of leaders. He's been doing what God wanted him to do. He didn't duck out of the challenge or shirk the responsibility, however imperfectly he fulfilled it.

So he has no fundamental regrets about the direction of his life as a Christian. His conscience is clear. And that's a priceless gift.

One positive experience, then, is a clear conscience. Another that's evident in this moving encounter between Paul and these Ephesian elders is the experience of friendship and love in Christ. Do you see what happens at the end of this chapter, as they say their goodbyes? From verse 36:

"And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship."

That's describing a difficult parting, of course. More hardship for the elders. More grief. But why was that parting so hard to take? It was because those elders loved Paul. They had been through a lot together. They had worked side by side for the common goal of the spread of the gospel. I have no doubt that among them there were tensions and some difficult relationships. When a lot of sinners live and work together there always are. But more significant is the deeper reality of that experience of loving fellowship in Christ. And speaking personally, I would not swap that for anything.

Such is the minister's experience: not easy by any means, but massively rewarding.

What then does the minister have to do? That is my final heading.

3. The Minister's Task

Here are four aspects of the minister's role that emerge from this account.

First, preaching and teaching the Word of God. This is the heart of what Paul was doing among them. He uses a wonderful array of different phrases to describe this. So in verse 20:

"… I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."

At the end of verse 25 he talks about the task of testifying …

"… to the gospel of the grace of God."

And he goes on …

"… now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again."

Then verse 27:

"I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."

Why this emphasis on proclaiming the word of God? Because it is through the teaching and hearing of the word that people come to faith and are built up in faith. God uses the preaching of the word to create and to grow the church. And Paul wants that work to continue among them in his absence. That's his prayer. So he says in verse 32:

"Now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified."

Very often Bible teaching will be a key responsibility of a minister. At the very least, church leaders have to ensure that the preaching and teaching of the 'word of God's grace' is at the heart of the church's agenda. If the Bible isn't at the very heart of your personal agenda, please don't become a minister. You will build a spiritually dead church.

Secondly, and linked to that, the minister's task is to protect the church from the influence of false teaching. The church is and always will be under assault from those whose agenda is to doubt, distort and ultimately to deny the biblical and apostolic gospel. In other words, they seek to drain the church of its life blood. Or to use another image, they are like wolves attacking a flock of sheep. And these attacks come both from within and from outside the church. So Paul's warning is clear – verses 28-31:

"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert …"

Thirdly, the minister's role is to ensure that needy people are cared for. Verse 35:

"… we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'."

There's a whole world of ministry – pastoral, organisational and administrative – that lies behind that verse.

And fourthly, the leader's task is to pray. Verse 36:

"When [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all."

And that's what he's doing back in verse 32, where he says to them:

"And now I commend you to God …"

The minister needs to know that everything depends on God. Nothing of lasting value and eternal significance is going to happen unless God makes it happen by his Spirit. When we pray, we acknowledge that, and we ask him to do it. Prayer and the word need to be the heartbeat of the church leader's life.

If you want to be a minister, what should your prayer be in the light of all that we've seen of the leader's character, experience and task? "Lord have mercy! Lord, I can't do this, I can't begin to be like this unless you make it happen. Lord, by your grace, make me a faithful minister of the gospel!"

And once you've begun to pray like that, then get to work to equip yourself to be a minister, start leading by serving in whatever way comes to hand, and talk to those ministering around you about what is on your heart so that they can be some use to you on the road.

Let's bow our heads to pray.

And let me pray a modern version of a prayer from that old Book of Common Prayer service of ordination:

Almighty God, giver of all good things, by your Holy Spirit you have appointed various orders of ministry in your church. Look in mercy on your servants who are called to be presbyters; fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, so that by word and example they may faithfully serve you in this office to the glory of your name and for the upbuilding of your church through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Back to top