On Ministries and Ministers
The ministry and ministers we plead for are such as are immediately called and sent forth by Christ and his Spirit unto the work of the ministry, so were the holy apostles and prophets, as appears by these places: Matt. 10:1,5; Eph. 4:11, Heb. 5:4.
Liberal Friends have become uncomfortable with the idea of having ministers. They think that it sets up some sort of hierarchy, that by naming a minster it raises that person up and pushes down the rest. I have a friend who has tried to resolve this issue by talking about ministries and not ministers. But this formulation denies something very fundamental about the way God works. God does nothing in the abstract. God always works in the particular. There is no ministry separate from the minister that embodies that ministry. God does not speak to us in a voice from the clouds. We always hear God in the voice of a person, either in the voice of someone speaking to us, or writing on a page or computer screen. I don't know how it is for others but even when I hear a voice speaking to me internally, it speaks with my accent and my phrasing and my language. The voice sounds much like our own which provides an ongoing opportunity to hone my sense of discernment. God does not call forth a ministry without calling forth the minister. Likewise, a minister is not called without a ministry.
“And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (Hebrews 5:4) According to Friends tradition, one does not seek to be named a minister but is someone whose gifts are recognized and named by the community. By and large, liberal Friends have abandoned that responsibility and have been hurt by it. The first tentative shoots of a new ministry may cease to grow from lack of nourishment. A person new to the ministry may lack someone to turn to for guidance. Traditionally, the people responsible for recognizing new ministers and encouraging them were the elders. If any role is in lower regard among Friends today than that of minister it is that of elder. The journals of many of Friends ministers record the important work of ministers and elders in helping them get started and grounded in their ministry. Ministers and ministry emerges from the community and the community has a responsibility to nourish and encourage it.
Today, people with a ministry often find themselves in an awkward position. Our Quaker culture says to wait until you are recognized. But then we don't recognize anyone. In this environment it means that people who do come forth are people who are willing to put themselves forward. Sometimes this is the result of God's promptings, sometimes it is their own pride and ego and most of the time it is some mix of the two. The community doesn't have the tools in place to help the minister learn to distinguish between the two and the ministry and the community are both hurt. It is also denied the contribution of those who may not be so assertive.
In my last post on this subject I said that we cannot, in our unbelief, prevent God from raising up ministers. At the same time, we can, and do, hinder the development of those who are being raised up. There are two forces working to do this. The first is American society's increasing emphasis on individualism. The idea that an individual can and should be self-sufficient has a corrosive influence on community. Communities need opportunities to care for their members. Individuals need times of being cared for. A minister grows out of the community and relies on the community for support. While we need prophetic ministry, we need to move beyond the image of the prophet living as a hermit in the desert and coming as an outsider to proclaim a message, usually of doom and misfortune, on the poor, benighted and wayward sinners. God is found where people gather and if prophets speak for God, that is where they will be found as well. This is not to say that a minister does not need to take times of retirement and solitude to nourish themselves and to come to hear the voice of God. After all, Jesus was always going off by himself, often to empty and barren places to pray. But ministers also need the community of their meeting and a community of other ministers to nourish them and help them grow. The meetings need the ministers for the same reasons.
The second way in which we inhibit ministry from arising among us is our insistence on egalitarianism. By egalitarianism, I do not mean our testimony on equality or our insistence that God speaks to all of us without an intermediary. I am having trouble finding the words to describe what I mean so I will use an example from economics and politics. In American civic life everyone is assumed to be middle-class. This is a useful fiction. It makes the poor disappear which eases the conscience of the better off. It also makes the rich disappear so they do not become a target of resentment and people don't notice how the wealthy get that way by extracting wealth from those below them. Anyone, especially a politician, who dares to challenge this assumption and point out the very real class differences in our society is accused of promoting class warfare.
The way this plays out in our meetings is that we say that we cannot single out gifts in vocal ministry because we are all ministers and besides it ignores those who may have other less valued ministries. While it is true that we are all ministers and that in any given meeting for worship, God may use anyone to give a message, it is also true that God does not appear to distribute gifts uniformly. We have no trouble recognizing that some people have been given more or less athletic ability, singing ability or physical beauty. But for some reason we are reluctant to admit that not everyone has the same level of spiritual gifts. And it is not as if, by not recognizing gifts in ministry, we are giving honor to those with less visible gifts. I have not seen any sign that the meetings that are reluctant to recognize and support gifts in the ministry go out of their way to recognize and encourage those Friends whose gifts may lie in any other area either. People whose contribution to the meeting is that they always provide fresh flowers, or see to it that the meeting room is tidy and ready for meeting, or that always clean up after the potlucks are invisible across the board. Insistence that we are all ministers in some way often turns into acting as if none of us are ministers. This is similar to the way in which Quaker insistence that all days are holy seems to have created a situation in which all days are secular.
God does not want us to all be alike or to do the same thing. The image of the Body of Christ captures this. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 explores this issue. We all have a role to play. Gifts are not given equally and not everyone gets the same gifts. We need to recognize and celebrate the diversity of gifts that we have all received and honor them all. If God blesses someone it does not mean that there is less for everyone else. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul explicitly encourages all to seek after the gift of prophecy. If we are all encouraged to this, then there must be enough to go around because God does not set us impossible tasks. God has an abundance of gifts for us. We cannot let our fear of scarcity prevent us from accepting that abundance.
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Joel 2: 23,24,26,28,29
Blessings to all,