In religious contexts, the word “ministry” nearly always refers to the work of the clergy, i.e. of the paid professionals who lead our churches and have been ordained. They can go by the title of priest, chaplain, vicar, pastor, reverend or minister. In the Anglican church there are also so called Lay Ministers, but this is a relatively modern term, which still causes a lot of confusion outside and even inside the Anglican church. When someone is said to be “in the ministry”, this is almost always regarded as a reference to the ordained ministry. The two types of ministers are supposed to cooperate locally, but are often kept separate from each other at national, deanery or diocesan meetings when strategies are discussed. Somewhat like the UK with its House of Commons and House of Lords, so dioceses within the Church of England have their Houses of Laity and Houses of Clergy.

Terminology in the Netherlands

Before we go on to investigate the biblical origin and purpose of ministry, let me point out that the word is not used in my own language, at least not in a church setting. The closest word in Dutch would be “bediening”, but this is rather old-fashioned and hardly ever used. This is a pity, because it has a slightly wider scope than the ordained ministry. It could refer to any recognised gift or vocation in the Christian community. Instead, most Dutch churches speak of preachers and offices. In order to be called a “predikant” (preacher) or “dominee” one must be ordained. The offices include these preachers, as well as elders and deacons. In the Roman Catholic church a priest combines the concepts of “preacher”, “elder” and more. As everywhere, all Roman Catholic offices involve ordination.

Only a few expressions in Dutch still remind us of the Latin precursor of the English word “minister”  (more on this in a moment). When “predikanten” have a meeting or work together they sometimes call themselves “the ministerium”. And since the Protestant church has a high regard for the proclamation of the word (similar to the status of the sacraments in the Catholic church), ministers like to point out, with a certain pride, that each of them is a “Verbi divini minister” (VDM). According to the magazine Zoeklicht (Searchlight) it is only ever used in obituaries for pastors, but there seems to be a small revival. I have many clergy and theologian friends on Twitter, and one lady theologian has this title as her nickname. Yes, there is also a website called www.verbidiviniminister.nl. It is devoted to sermons of the late pastor L. Kievit. An ordained Facebook friend of mine uses “verbi divini minister” to defend his opinion that no one should ever be allowed to become a pastor who has not studied Hebrew and Greek in depth.

The Latin word

So let us have a look where some of this pride and exclusivity could have come from, whether this narrow meaning of the word “minister” has become lodged in our language or the idea is just summoned occasionally, as part of other exalted names and titles, in order to signal to others that they can never quite be part of some exclusive group of religious experts. And how much exclusivity was originally intended?

The Latin word “minister” means servant or attendant and comes from “minus”, which means “less”. So instead of pointing to a higher status than someone else, the emphasis used to be on a lower status compared to someone. That someone could be a house owner, a noble or a governor. Being a minister was a secular job (compare our ministers in government). The majority of these servants were quite lowly. The church borrowed many customs and names from Roman society. Just like early church architecture and vestments were copied from the Romans, so the term “minister” was also adopted. After all, Latin was the language used in liturgy.

Two other factors were important. First of all, “minister” was the closest thing to the biblical Greek word “diakonos”. We will come to that in a minute. Secondly, once a bishop was no longer just another name for an elder (presbyteros or priest), but a regional supervisor, the priests and deacons came to be viewed as his servants, hence “ministers”. And because bishops were very important people, often with secular authority and large pieces of land as well, these servants were, on average, no longer so lowly and simple.

Influence of the Reformation

You would think that this would change as a result of the Reformation and its doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, in many places the abolition of celibacy gave rise to a new hereditary clergy. These families made sure that they remained powerful and influential. There are still many examples of pastors who themselves are sons of pastors and for whom this has been a clear advantage, not only because of their early familiarity with the meaning of “vocation” (more jargon to imply ordained ministry), but also because of good contacts and “a little help” along the way.

Partly subjective criteria for entering “the” ministry and a hard to verify process of what is called “discernment” assisted in keeping the clergy exclusive and traditional. A recent article in “Transforming Ministry” as well as my own experience confirm that people who just finished ordination training are more often than not hyper-focused on being accepted into that inner circle. Some will even share the pictures of their ordination every year.

I am not implying that there was no problem before the Reformation. Celibacy itself was also an instrument to keep the clergy exclusive. As these priests hardly had a life outside the church, relatively few of them were needed, they had a strong allegiance to the church, and they were admired for their devotion. In an article in the Latin American Post Sofia Carreño explains how financial considerations were another reason for the celibacy. Since celibate priests have no heirs, all their possessions and property usually went or returned to the church, which would only benefit the next generation of clergy.

More influence of the Reformation

In his book “The Stages of Faith”, developmental psychologist James W. Fowler gives an excellent description of the differences between faith and belief(s). Faith is strongly related to relationship and trust (Greek pisteo), while beliefs are of a more intellectual nature. While not denying that belief(s) played an important part when the Early Church defined its creeds, Fowler shows how the Reformation was even more about beliefs as propositions. As a reaction to certain practices and teachings of the Roman church, this was perhaps unavoidable. The Enlightenment further strengthened the emphasis on words and logic.

It can therefore hardly have been an accident that the aforementioned term “Verbi Divini Minister” was invented in 1562 by the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger while he was working on the so called Second Helvetic Confessions. Those confessions would lead to the Heidelberg Catechism, which was to become very influential in the Dutch and other Calvinist churches. Although Bullinger must have been aware that the Word of God is more than the Bible, namely Jesus Christ himself, the Logos, the term “Word of God” would still be taken quite literally. After all, Sola Scriptura (Scripture only) was one of the great motto’s of the Reformation, an antidote to the Roman claims that authority also existed outside the Bible, namely in the traditions of the church.

As I mentioned before, the words of the Bible, their study and proclamation (preaching) became for the Protestant churches what the sacraments are for the Roman church. When explaining “verbi divini” they emphasized that this word included the sacraments, but of course they did not recognize any sacraments that could not be clearly shown to have existed when the gospels were written. So, again, the vital role of the written word was demonstrated. Bullinger would add preaching to what was to be understood by “the word of God”. He is quoted as having said “Praedicatio Verbi Dei Est Verbum Dei” (the preaching of the word of God is the word of God). The assumption being that there was only one correct way of interpreting and preaching from Scripture.

Transcending differences

Using Hegel, we can see what happened. The criticism of Catholicism, however justified, had turned the original Protestant churches into bodies making statements. Beliefs had become dominant and would potentially threaten the role of faith as a relational phenomenon. I am certainly not saying that faith in God stopped, on the contrary, I believe it was initially restored, but the renewed faith leaned heavily on scholarship. As people could still come to different conclusions, many different protestant denominations were the result. This is a paradox, because the Reformers had assumed that Scripture was only capable of a single (better) interpretation. Some still assume this can be achieved if we study hard enough. But since then it has become clear (at least to myself) that opposing certain Catholic doctrines was not enough to restore faith as faith was intended.

Again I am risking gross over-simplification, but faith in the church and its offices was to some extent replaced by faith in probably more rational interpretations of Scripture. In fact neither of these types of faith could be comprehensive enough to provide ultimate meaning and direction. The very reliance on words would lead to many new kinds of authority which people would have to relate to, apart from the biblical words themselves. So what kind of ministry might be able to transcend these differences? What kind would neither rely on the authority of the church, nor on verbal inspiration or any other rigid system of bible interpretation? Here we need to go back to the Greek New Testament concept of ministry.

Ministry in the New Testament

The Latin word “ministry” was a translation of “diakonia”, which simply means service or support. According to A.T. Robinson (as quoted in a HELPS Word-study on Biblehub) the word means “one who kicks up dust (by literally running an errand)”. Vine, Unger and White (NT, 147) see a link with the verb dioko, which means ‘hasten after, pursue’ (perhaps originally