There is considerable confusion amongst professing Christians regarding the subject of ministry. Some speak of “going into the ministry” and of “leaving the ministry”, others that our whole lives are “our ministry”. Some link ministry to gift and some do not. Many would argue that ministry is restricted to a specific class––”the ministers” or “ministering servants”––others that it is open to all. A few appear to link it exclusively with teaching and exhortation––whether in written or spoken form. So what is ministry? What does it mean when we speak of ministering to the saints?
Several Greek words in the NT may be translated as “ministry”, but the most important is diakonia. Its primary meaning is to serve in the sense of being a waiter at a table, but its usage has extended to cover all forms of service that benefit others. It must be distinguished from the service of a doulos––the word Paul uses in Rom. 1:1 when describing himself as a bondman or servant. That is the service of a slave, whose work may or may not benefit others. Diakonia, by definition, is specifically service to others.
Three related Greek words are of importance in the study of this subject: diakonia (a ministry or service), diakoneo (to minister or serve), and diakonos (a servant or minister). Significantly, none of these words need involve anything spiritual. The following examples illustrate this fact: “Now Martha was distracted with much serving” (diakonia); “And he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she arose and served him” (diakoneo); “And Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered to him of their substance” (diakoneo); “His mother says to the servants, Whatever he may say to you, do” (diakonos)––Luke 10: 40; Matt. 8: 15; Luke 8: 3; John 2: 5. The idea that ministry necessarily involves service in spiritual things (let alone teaching and exhortation) is utterly baseless. Ministry is simply service, of whatever kind, so long as it benefits others.
Confirmation of this comes by looking at the Scriptural record of the early Church. The seven men chosen to serve (or minister) tables in Acts 6 were involved in a ministry of material things––the distribution of aid to widows, a distribution known as the “daily ministration” (v1). (Although significantly they were to be men full of the Holy Spirit––for in the Church even a material service requires spiritual servants.) This type of service is mentioned in several other Scriptures: “And they determined, according as any one of the disciples was well off, each of them to send to the brethren who dwelt in Judaea, to minister [to them]” (Acts 11: 29). “But now I go to Jerusalem, ministering to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been well pleased to make a certain contribution for the poor of the saints who [are] in Jerusalem”. (Rom. 15: 25, 26). “But we make known to you, brethren, the grace of God bestowed in the assemblies of Macedonia; that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty has abounded to the riches of their [free–hearted] liberality. For according to [their] power, I bear witness, and beyond [their] power, [they were] willing of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty [to give effect to] the grace and fellowship of the service which [was to be rendered] to the saints” (2 Cor. 8: 1–4). “For concerning the ministration which [is] for the saints … Because the ministration of this service is not only filling up the measure of what is lacking to the saints, but also abounding by many thanksgivings to God; they glorifying God through the proof of this ministration, by reason of your subjection, by profession, to the glad tidings of the Christ, and your free–hearted liberality in communicating towards them and towards all”. (2 Cor. 9: 1, 12, 13).
Every Christian service, if it benefits others, is ministry. Thus in Acts 6 again, the twelve apostles did not wish to leave the ministry of the Word in order to be occupied with the ministry of tables: “It is not right that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables” (v2). Both of these were ministries in that they benefited others, the first involving the preaching and teaching of God’s Word to others, the second involving the distribution of material aid among His people. It was, however, more fitting for the apostles to give themselves up “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (v4), and leave the other work in the hands of the seven men specially chosen for the task.
Ministry to the saints in a general and unspecified way is spoken of in many Scriptures: “But I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the first–fruits of Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the saints for service)” (1 Cor. 16: 15). “But in order that ye also may know what concerns me, how I am getting on, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister in [the] Lord, shall make all things known to you” (Eph. 6: 21). “Even as ye learned from Epaphras our beloved fellow–bondman, who is a faithful minister of Christ for you” (Col. 1: 7). “Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow–bondman in [the] Lord, will make known to you all that concerns me” (Col. 4: 7). “The Lord grant to him to find mercy from [the] Lord in that day––and how much service he rendered in Ephesus thou knowest best” (2 Tim. 1: 18). “For God [is] not unrighteous to forget your work, and the love which ye have shewn to his name, having ministered to the saints, and [still] ministering” (Heb. 6: 10). “I know thy works, and love, and faith, and service, and thine endurance, and thy last works [to be] more than the first” (Rev. 2: 19).
In several instances, persons are described as ministering to the apostle Paul (that is, acting as his attendant): “And having sent into Macedonia two of those ministering to him, Timotheus and Erastus, he remained himself awhile in Asia” (Acts 19: 22). “Luke alone is with me. Take Mark, and bring [him] with thyself, for he is serviceable to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4: 11). “Whom I was desirous of keeping with myself, that for thee he might minister to me in the bonds of the glad tidings” (Philemon 13).
Every service we do on behalf of others is ministry––even the giving of a cup of water in Christ’s name (Mark 9: 41). Thus to speak of ministry as the expression of gift is too narrow a definition. However, there is a sense in which each of us has a specific ministry to fulfil, a ministry directly linked to our gift: “Each according as he has received a gift, ministering it to one another, as good stewards of [the] various grace of God” (1 Pet. 4: 10). The work given to each is different: “And there are distinctions of services, and the same Lord” (1 Cor. 12: 5). (There even appears to have been a distinct gift of ministry or service––see Rom. 12: 7. This, like any other gift, if expressed, was in itself a ‘ministry’). Gift is given “with a view to [the] work of [the] ministry” (Eph. 4: 12) that is, each individual ministry taken together make up the overall ministry of the body of Christ. Having been given his ministry, each individual is responsible to ensure that he carries it out: “Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in [the] Lord, to the end that thou fulfil it” (Col. 4: 17). “Fill up the full measure of thy ministry” (2 Tim. 4: 5).
The idea that ministry is restricted to a certain class––the ministers or ministering brothers––is a serious error. Every Christian has a gift and ought to be ministering that gift. Attention has been drawn to 1 Cor. 3: 5 which speaks of “ministering servants”. This seems to imply that there are some servants who minister and some who do not, (“ministering servants” literally means “serving servants”). However, the Greek text has only one word not two––diakonos––which means, simply, “ministers” or “servants”. The introduction of the adjective “ministering” is unwarranted. Another misconception is the notion of “going into the ministry”, a phrase generally understood to mean leaving a secular occupation for a spiritual one. Again, this has its roots in the erroneous idea of a ministerial class. The fact is that every Christian ought to be ‘going into the ministry’––all have a gift, and all ought to be expressing it. Almost the first question that Paul asked on being converted was “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22: 10)––and this was before he had any inkling that his was to be in any way a ‘special’ ministry. He assumed, rightly, that his conversion involved not only his personal safety but the commencement of his service for the Master. Thus “straightway in the synagogues he preached Jesus that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9: 20).
Paul’s is also the clearest example in the NT of an individual ministry. He speaks of “my ministry” (Rom. 11: 13)––the service that God gave him to do. As one of “God’s ministers” (2 Cor. 6: 4), he was very conscious of the grace of God in “appointing to ministry him who before was a blasphemer and persecutor, and an insolent overbearing [man]” (1 Tim. 1: 13). The character of his ministry is spelt out in several passages: “But our competency [is] of God; who has also made us competent, [as] ministers of [the] new covenant” (2 Cor. 3: 5, 6). “And all things [are] of the God who has reconciled us to himself by [Jesus] Christ, and given to us the ministry of that reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 18). “That [they who are of] the nations should be joint heirs, and a joint body, and joint partakers of [his] promise in Christ Jesus by the glad tidings; of which I am become minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me, according to the working of his power” (Eph. 3: 6, 7). “If indeed ye abide in the faith founded and firm, and not moved away from the hope of the glad tidings, which ye have heard, which have been proclaimed in the whole creation which [is] under heaven, of which I Paul became minister. Now, I rejoice in sufferings for you, and I fill up that which is behind of the tribulations of Christ in my flesh, for his body, which is the assembly; of which I became minister, according to the dispensation of God which [is] given me towards you to complete the word of God” (Col. 1: 23–25).
Of course Christendom has often exalted the individual ministry of one to the detriment of others. Thus people speak of the minister of a church. Now while this may be viewed as an orthodox state of affairs, it has no foundation in Scripture whatsoever. To appeal to Rev. 2 and 3, as many do, only demonstrates the difficulty they have in finding scriptural evidence to support their view. Sadly, for them, the only similarity between today’s 'official' ministers and the angels of the seven assemblies is their singularity. A tenuous link indeed! Having said this, I fully admit that there is in Scripture such a thing as the office of a minister. Thus Paul writes to the Philippians: “Paul and Timotheus, bondmen of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with [the] overseers and ministers” (1: 1). The list of qualifications in 1 Tim. 3: 8–13 would suggest that these were appointed persons. The fact that they are dealt with after the overseers might suggest that they had a lesser role. Beyond this little can be said about these ‘servants of the church’––it is usually assumed that Phoebe (Rom. 16: 1) and the seven men of Acts 6 were such, although there is no conclusive evidence. The latter, as we have seen, were appointed to serve tables (see Acts 6: 2). Of course Christendom has no shortage of 'appointed' ministers. Sadly, the connection between their 'office' and that presented in Scripture is often somewhat dubious. Certainly there is nothing in the Word of God that connects them with preaching, teaching or leadership. Stephen certainly had a place of prominence (Acts 6: 8–10), but it is pure imagination to assert that everything he did was carried out in his capacity as an appointed minister––assuming he was one. It cannot be emphasised enough that where Scripture is silent it is incumbent upon us to be silent as well––rather than to add our thoughts to God’s Word.
From all of this it can be seen that ministry is a wide and varied subject. Its meaning, however, remains simple––the service of others––that which so marked the Lord Himself while here on earth.