Blog - Grasping Vocation

What does it mean to "Enter the ministry"?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Try this experiment. Type the words “entered the ministry” (in quotation marks) in the Google search box. How many hits will you get? I did that recently. Those words returned 366,000 results. (The present-tense “enter the ministry” snagged another 265,000.) A small percentage of these had to do with going to work for the government in countries that call their agencies “ministries.” For example, someone might have “entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” But most referred to Christians starting to work as religious professionals.

I typed the same phrase into my Bible software concordance, checking a dozen translations. The response: “No matches found for ‘entered the ministry.'” Hebrews 9:6 came closest, telling how the Old Covenant priests “entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry.” But their entering brought them into a room—not into the ministry.

The phrase clearly does not come from Scripture. Even so, does it communicate a biblical truth? Or does it send us down the slippery path of human tradition?

According to the Bible, the work of ministry or serving (Greek diakonia) belongs to the saints—to all of God's people (Eph. 4:12), Paul, writing to all the Christians in the Corinthian church, told them to give themselves fully to the work of the Lord (I Cor. 15:58). So the call of God to become a Christ-follower is a call to serve God and others—to minister. If you have entered the kingdom of God through Christ, the Door, you have been called into “the ministry.” (How well or poorly you are doing that ministry is another question.) So by entering Christ, the Door, you become a minister (servant).

But as typically used the phrase, “enter the ministry,” implies a second door. You become a Christian by entering the Christ door. Then you must pass through some additional door to enter the ministry. What is that door? Seminary? Ordination? Foreign missionary service? So this phrase teaches Christians to think of themselves as outside “the ministry” unless and until they “enter” it via that other door.

Of course, the doorway opens both ways. Googling on “left the ministry” led to about 419,000 instances of this phrase. In site after site, Christians who had once entered the door into “ministry” were now exiting it. One site speaks of a pastor in these words: “When he left his church, he left the ministry.” If the call to follow Christ equals a call to ministry, how can any Christian exit the ministry? A bi-vocational pastor heard this from friends with whom he had attended seminary: “Dale, if you're going to work in education why don't you get out of the ministry, or if you're going to preach, why don't you turn education loose?”

I recently led a seminar on serving Christ in the workplace. Afterward several participants came individually to say that they had finished seminary or Bible school and were now working in this or that non-religious job. One after another they told how they had struggled with feeling they had missed God's best for their lives. What I heard confirms this statement in a current web site: “Even late into their lives, [many Christians] wonder about leaving their businesses or careers to enter the ministry . . . .”

Christ calls every member of his body to serve—minister to—him and to others. If our Christian jargon deceives many of those members into thinking they are still outside the ministry, we effectively strait-jacket the full effectiveness of the church. The way we use the words, “enter the ministry,” comes not from Scripture but from our own religious traditions and institutional thinking. Let's abandon that phrase and learn to think and speak in ways that build the church.

Comments (1)

Tim (1/11/2009 9:15:21 AM)
Wonderful perspective and right on target. We fail with the way we define ministry. It is not an occupation or vocation, but is an aspect of our Christian character. As we become sanctified ... more Christ-like ... ministry should become as natural a reflex action as breathing itself. We should be constantly allowing others to experience God's presence through their encounter with us. This is true ministry.

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