Of Ministers of Religion - Articles 23, 26, 32, 36
Last year I sat down at my desk and came across an article about a very prominent Christian minister and leader in the United States – one of the biggest names in evangelical circles, a friend of Don Carson and John Piper… and I was shocked to see that he had left his church, in fact in the space of a couple of months he had been discredited as a minister, and his church, one of the biggest in the United States had been closed and the buildings sold off and the whole things was a disaster.
Now I don't know all the details, I wasn't there and it's not for us to judge, but the sheer scale of the fall, and the speed of it, meant that a lot of people were shocked and hurt and some deeply damaged. This man it seems was a great preacher and a strong leader, but he had cut corner – he was first exposed for plagerism; and he had bullied and mistreated his staff and there were hundreds of people who had a stories of being hurt by him.
In a couple of months he went from leader to pariah. And thousands were left doubting their faith, doubting their standing – imagine if you'd been in his church, what if your minister who you loved and trusted was suddenly exposed doing things that would disqualify him from serving in ministry?
That's what our articles are about today – who should be a minister in church and what if the minister fails.
If you open to the notes page you'll see the four articles we're looking at there – articles 23, 26, 32 and 36. And it's not quite a full theology of ministry represented here more like the tip of the iceberg really;
Big idea – Ministry in the church is a gift from Jesus to ensure the church is fed.
And there are three things that we see very clearly in these four articles, and they are:
1) Ministry is not for us to take to ourselves
2) Ministry is effective because of Jesus and faith, not because of the minister
3) Ministry requires godliness, not celibacy
1) Ministry is not for us to take on ourselves
This is article 23:
it must be given by God through gifting and calling, and this must be acknowledged by the church through duly authorised representatives. And we can see this being applied in practice in our reading from Titus 1.5:
– Titus 1v5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. And then Paul goes on to lay out the qualifications for elders – mainly good character, proven godly behaviour over a long period of testing
– Matt 9v37 Then he (Jesus) said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."
– We saw God doing just that in our Old Testament reading, as He commissioned Jeremiah as his worker, to speak his words to his people. We could have seen something very similar in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and so on.
Paul often reminds his readers that he was appointed by God himself to preach the gospel. In Titus Paul by that authority appointed Titus to appoint others as elders, leaders in the church in Crete; he did the same thing in Ephesus, instructing Timothy to pass on the things he has learned from Paul to men who will be qualified to teach others… so there are always to be men appointed for the task of serving the church.
Why entry point that not lawful for someone to take it for themselves?
One practical consideration – these articles written in a time of flux, when the church rediscovering the gospel after many generations of accumulated false teaching. Many priests were in it for the money, they didn't know the bible or teach it! Others were convinced of Roman Catholic theology and wanted to teach the very errors the reformers set out to remove from the church. There was a need to impose due order to preserve the faithful preaching of the gospel.
More significant though is theological underpinning – the task of a minister is to serve the church, but there will always be those who see it as a means to exercise power and gain influence, these must not be allowed to take office for their own sake; moreover the requirements we have seen are for strict godliness of life, proven character, need to be fit to lead – but we are very good at looking past our own faults, often we can't see them at all, so not for us to assert that we are godly, needs to be assessed by someone else, hence need for church to appoint some to have authority for this ministry of discernment.
Even more significant, as becomes clear in the ordination service, is the theology that Jesus equipped some for service and sets them apart to do this work of ministry in the church. Therefore those who appoint do not give the power to minister, simply give recognition to what Jesus has already given.
Coach of a football team – Jose Mourinho attempting to have himself anointed manager of Manchester United at the moment, but that is not for him to decide, LVG not appreciating it very much at all…
Prime Minister of England – wins the votes (which qualify him for the role) and then has to receive the blessing of the Queen to head up her government – it remains her government even though the Prime Minster and his colleagues have won their seats by popular vote…
Do these illustrations get us to the point? ?
I had a mate in Australia who wanted to be a minister. He led my mission team and he applied to college, the first step on the process to becoming one. But the college refused him. I remember being hurt and confused for him – why couldn't they see that he should be ordained. Then came the camp … and things blew up massively as defects in his character were exposed in the pressure of leading a team… I was deeply hurt, another man took back his invitation to the team leader to be his best at his wedding, a large group of others left the camp and never came back… and I realised that those who had knocked my friend back had seen something important, and I experienced the risks of ministry – the person who leads the work can do great good, and can do great harm too, so we need to guard these positions carefully to make sure that the people who take them are those whom God has set apart for the work and are duly qualified.
Can't just assume roles in church, need to be duly acknowledged by others as fit for the role… Here at HTG try to have appropriate means of checking suitability and allowing flexibility and training so as to discover gifts etc.
Value ordination as the public means of acknowledgment, one of issues with state of Church of England, we have no way of getting our duly equipped men to be ordained within the system as it stands at the moment, because those appointed won't recognise us as such… (not only that but they are not up to the task, we have to disassociate from them because they are false teachers, goes beyond next point – this is complicated and hard!) Creates issue, we have to find a new way to receive appropriate recognition – hence go to Bishop of Church of England in South Africa… but can't be just our say so, so Dim and myself before being ordained seek interview from men who are recognised as suitable for the task within the church of England itself (the Reform alternative panel of reference) – want to ensure that we are not acting out of line, but seeking suitable recognition of what we believe God has given us.
Application to you personally – are any of you seeking to do ministry in church as your full time work – brilliant, it's a right and good thing to desire and seek… don't try to take that for yourself, but ask others to help you along the way – they may see things you don't, they might be able to help you to be better prepared that you would be otherwise.
Finally we need to pray that God would equip, call and send more workers into his harvest field!
2) Ministry is effective because Jesus works in his church, not because of the power of the minister
This is the point of art. 26 – there will never be a perfect minister so if we depended on the perfection of the minister then there could never be any effective ministry!
2 Corinthians 2v16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
2 Corinthians 4v7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
Paul treads fine line, he works hard to be faithful (required if he is to be useful to God), but he trusts God to bring fruit from his labour – his weakness shows God's is at work…
Not only that, but as the article states Jesus was clear that there would be both good and bad in the visible church – the parables of the weeds sown among the wheat, or the bad fish caught in the net with the good fish (Matthew 13.28-32 etc.) Since there will be both good and bad in the church the article expects that there will be both good and bad even in ministry in the church – history would seem to show that this is true – since this is true we expect some ministers to be exposed as bad eggs.
So why does the article start from such a strange point of view on this topic – if the minister who baptised our kids turns out to be dodgy do we need to do it all over again? The article says no – the power of the ministry is not the goodness of the minister, but the promises of Jesus, which we receive by faith in him.
So why start there? In time of upheaval some would falter – Arch Bishop Cranmer, who wrote these words under King Edward VI was soon after arrested under Queen Mary (a strident Roman Catholic, who martyred hundreds of protestants for holding to their faith, but mercifully didn't last long as queen), and under torture and threat of death he actually recanted his protestant faith, and signed a document asserting that the Roman Catholic doctrines he opposed were actually true. Do this make his ministry worthless? Do we need to go back and rewrite the prayer book and the 39 articles now because he's gone back on them? No, the ministry was valid, even if the man was weak and gave into temptation to save himself by denying the truth (remind anyone of Peter?) As it happened Cranmer recanted his recantation, and in the end declared his strong trust in the Lord Jesus alone for salvation – and was burnt at the stake as a martyr for the gospel.
Now you might say that in our day we don't see so many ministers giving up on the gospel so as to avoid being burnt at the stake, but the sad truth is that we still see ministers giving in to temptation and so ship-wrecking their ministry – they're heads are turned and they begin to chase money, power or success instead of preaching Jesus clearly, they take short cuts, they have affairs, or steal from the offering, or they're found out for some secret moral failing… and it's never less than tragic. But if you're in that church, if you'd been under their ministry do you have to get it all re-done? The article says no, because the ministry is valuable as Jesus chooses to work in it according to his gracious promises, not according to the power of the preacher…
Notice too that if there is something not right about a minister it should not be ignored or swept under the rug – the fact that the ministry might still bear fruit is not reason to leave a dodgy minister in place. If something is suspected it must be investigated, and if proven, the person must not go on in ministry. It should never happen that a minister is suspected of impropriety and just gets moved on; if this article applied truly paedophile priests would not be sheltered somewhere in the system, but swiftly removed. Bad ministers don't adorn the word of God, but sully it, if there is something undermining their ministry and it's serious, they have to be stopped.
Again the main theological point is easy to miss – the ministry is powerful because Jesus promises to work through preaching and sacrament, not because of the power of the minister. God can use great preachers, and ordinary preachers; great leaders and organiser, and the quiet humble servant who muddles along but loves people deeply and prays earnestly. The power of the ministry doesn't depend on the extravagant gifts of the minister, but on God's work by his spirit to keep his promises to us.
Cranmer already mentioned… there were several guys who were in fourth year of college when I started, good guys, the stars of their year… before I'd finished college three years later a handful had already ruled themselves out of ministry through affairs. It happens, it's tragic…
If the minister who married you, or baptised you, or served you communion, was to fall away it might shake your faith, but you mustn't let it undermine your confidence in the gospel they preached… the gospel is true and remains so even if ministers sin, even though ministers sin.
There should never be a situation like the one we have at the moment where ministers of the gospel are allowed to enter into civil partnerships, but not marriage! There should not be a situation where ministers can say that they assent to the 39 articles, when they know that they do not and when they carry on teaching things explicitly ruled out by these articles. The article is clear that there should be proper discipline for ministers. It is a tragedy in the modern day that there are so many bad ministers taking place in church to teach but teaching what is not right.
Perhaps more to the point for me and you while you're here, please pray for me and for the other ministers here, and for those who have gone out from us to preach the gospel. So very easy to fall into sin and render yourself unfit for service and many do. Pray that God would deliver us from evil and make us strong in the face of temptation and that God would sustain and bless our ministries, our marriages, our relationship with him and our preaching and teaching and loving you. Ministers are not super Christians, we're just like everyone else and we fall into sin just as easily, pray for us that we won't fall, but that God would hold us up!
Third point less significance, clearing up some issues still outstanding from Roman Catholic past.
3) Ministry requires godliness, not celibacy
I'm personally very glad for that, I love my wife and family.
1 Corinthians 9v5 Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us as do the other Apostles and the Lords brothers and Cephas?
The apostles were married men, even Peter, claimed by the Roman Catholic church as the first Pope. Jesus' brothers were also married. Marriage was the norm among the leaders of the church who Jesus chose for that purpose. Yes Jesus said that some would choose celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, and Paul argued the advantages of singleness for the sake of the gospel. But no where is singleness commanded of leaders of the church. Wrong to insist on it, for some, as Paul also argues, it can be an occasion for sin, and they will be more godly if they get married, for them it's not wrong to get married, it's a good thing and will help them to do their ministry. This is 1 Cor 7, we can't go into detail now, but we have preached through 1 Cor before, so you should find that on our website if you want to follow that up.
The bigger issue here is not marriage or celibacy, but the priority of godliness. Did you notice that? The minister must decide marriage or singleness on the basis of godliness. Neither marriage nor singleness ensures godliness, so not right to insist on either. But we do need to insist on godliness. That's what Titus was told wasn't it – as he was looking for suitable men for ministry he was to look for godly men. Paul said much the same to Timothy in 1 Timothy. The primary qualification for ministry is not celibacy, nor even a great deal of knowledge about God, it is a life fitted to the gospel, shaped by the gospel, adorning the gospel with good deeds.
Let's pray that we would all learn to pursue that.