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The Ministry IS A Gospel Issue

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My friend Kevin De Young wrote a helpful post addressing the question, “Who can baptize?” It’s succinct. His position is standard practice for Reformed churches as well as others. Laypeople are not to baptize, he argued.

But what surprised me were some of the comments. Wow, did it open up the floodgates! Kevin’s post was seen as advocating sacerdotalism, denying the priesthood of all believers, majoring on minors, and other notorious evils of our age. It’s hardly a gospel issue, said one brother.

I’ve offered exegetical arguments for the importance of church office—and how it serves rather than undermines the priesthood of all believers. (If you’re interested, it’s in The Christian Faith, 190-221, and People & Place, 872-905.) It is remarkable to me that evangelical pastors and even theologians can regard as “sacerdotal” the view that some believers are called to the public ministry as pastors who administer the Word and sacraments, others as elders who govern the spiritual life of the flock, and others as deacons who serve their temporal needs. It is especially odd that for “Bible Christians,” the culture of egalitarian individualism could trump clear biblical passages.

Sacerdotal? This term refers to the idea that the minister is a priest like the Old Testament priests who continue to offer propitiatory sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is clear in the New Testament that Christ is the only mediator (1 Tim 2:5, for instance). So “sacerdotal” is a pretty serious charge.

Kevin offered some of the relevant passages on church office.  I’ll add my own comment on Ephesians 4, because contemporary translations of verses 5-16 have become the basis for “every-member-a-minister.” While the New Testament affirms that every believer is united to Christ and shares in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” by “one Spirit” (Eph 4:5-6), it just as clearly teaches that the ascended Christ “gave gifts” and that these gifts are specially-called leaders: “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (v. 11). According to newer translations, these leaders have been given for the purpose of equipping everyone for the work of ministry.  Even if one took that view (and there are plenty of solid exegetes who do!), the rejection of special office is hardly justified.  After all, pastor-teachers are still preparing them for service! In my view, older translations are more reliable in translating the following verses (11-16). For example, according to the King James Version, these offices are given “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”  There’s no reason to imagine that these three purpose-clauses have in view someone other than the officers he mentions.

The gift-offices that Christ gives in verse 11 are for the purpose of building up and edifying the whole body by the work of the ministry. When this happens, the whole church is brought into “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” and into maturity—“the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” “no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” Through the ministry that Christ carries out by his Word and Spirit through these ministers, every member has what he or she needs for “speaking the truth in love,” so that “the whole body fitly joined together” will “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” When we see this passage in the light of others, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, it becomes clear that these officers are special gifts to the whole church. Their calling is not to lord it over the sheep but to shepherd them under Christ so that they will all truly be “a kingdom of priests” (Rev 5:9).

When pastors preach and teach and elders govern, there is no autocratic leadership. It is hardly “clericalism” when the governors of the church are elders rather than pastors. The New Testament teaches a mutual accountability with checks and balances. Ironically, movements and churches that downplay or even denounce biblical teaching and advertise themselves as freewheeling and egalitarian, with an every-member-a-minister philosophy, usually end up being far more totalitarian.

Take just one example. In the past few days, an exposé of Elevation Church in North Carolina revealed that the group’s “spontaneous baptisms” are manipulated by having “plants” in the audience rush forward for baptism even though they are baptized members of the church already. But if you check out their website, you’ll find what the church calls “The Code.”  Number 9 partly explains the Finney-esque methods: “We are all about the numbers.”  But number 4 is even more sinister: “We are united under one vision.  Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will aggressively defend our unity and that vision." Indeed, they do defend it aggressively. One of the Sunday school booklets for youth sports a drawing of Pastor Steven on the cover. The book instructs the children of the church to “support the vision” of Pastor Steven by being “united under the visionary.”


























Throughout the history of American revivalism (and its historical precedents), the clever and successful evangelist proclaims traditional churches ineffective or apostate. There are the usual declamations against “clericalism”—in other words, a trained and ordained ministry. And then, eventually, the movement becomes a sect and the leader becomes a lord.

Even in “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, crucial teachings in Scripture are put on the back burner or even silenced by the line, “It’s not a gospel issue.” But in the Great Commission our Lord called the apostles not only to preach the gospel but to baptize and to “teach them everything that I have commanded you.” And that “everything” includes what he taught through the apostles concerning the ordained ministry.There are many things that may not be “gospel issues” that we are nevertheless commanded in Scripture to embrace and practice. Furthermore, how can one say that baptism and the public offices are not gospel issues, when Christ applies his gospel to us in Word and Sacrament?

I miss the good old days when paedobaptists and Baptists used to hold baptism and the Supper as well as the offices seriously enough to disagree about them. Today it seems that they have become silly trifles. If that’s what unity in the gospel means, then it is a far cry from the gospel according to Jesus.

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  • ctrace wrote: "Having real understanding born of the Spirit within you and being able to deliver it in an effective way is the only qualification."

    GW: These are important biblical qualifications, but they are not the only ones. There are character and family qualifications as well, as mentioned in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. And being "sent" by the church (Rom. 10:15). These character and family qualifications can only be adequately judged in the context of a community of faith (i.e., a visible church) where one's gifts, calling, and character can be tested and observed by Gods' people and their leaders.

    ctrace wrote: "And this will be determined (discerned) by Christians hearing you, not your guild peers and colleagues."

    GW: You don't seem to understand how potential church officers (ministers, elders and deacons) are typically called to service in Reformed churches. Making sure the Body of Christ recognizes the God-given gifts and calling of such officer candidates is a vitally important step in the process. In confessional Presbyterian churches (like the OPC, of which I am a member) no man would be considered for the gospel ministry who has not given good evidence that his services to the brethren were edifying to the Body. Furthermore, congregations choose their own pastors by congregational vote; we don't have an Episcopal system where a "bishop" imposes a pastor upon a local congregation. Elders and Deacons are chosen by vote of the congregation as well. In other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations it is similar. When things are functioning as they should, the rights of the people are guarded, they have an important role in discerning those whom God is calling to special service, and church officers are ultimately accountable to the Body as a whole, and not merely accountable to their so-called "guild" (as you put it). So your comment above reveals your ignorance on this subject, and it amounts to a straw man (the very thing you accuse Dr. Horton of). Take the log out of your own eye first before searching for dust in ours.

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  • Guest - ctrace

    And with everything you've said Peter Enns could be your pastor. Shelby Spong could be your pastor. See the very first sentence of my comment you are responding to. That is the context. I hold a higher view of what a Christian leader and educator should be than you do. To this day I hear zero public criticism of a Peter Enns from Reformed leaders. In fact, you allowed him to teach at your flagship seminary for 14 years. Who has higher standards, a lowly street Calvinist, or the eminently qualified and 'ordained' 'reverends' of the - a - establishment church.

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  • ctrace wrote: "And with everything you’ve said Peter Enns could be your pastor. Shelby Spong could be your pastor."

    GW: This is, of course, utterly false, inflammatory (contrary to the rules of engagement), and slanderous. It is a violation of the ninth commandment and the law of love (which believes the best about others unless there is clear evidence to the contrary - 1 Cor. 13). While I don't wish to be discourteous or disrespectful, I must say that I have noticed in our interactions that this kind of bombast seems to be your modus operandi -- give the worst possible spin to the comments of your perceived theological opponents, change the subject, ignore inconvenient facts, throw up smoke and mirrors, and neglect to carefully and fairly interact with the actual content of comments.

    ctrace: "To this day I hear zero public criticism of a Peter Enns from Reformed leaders."

    GW: You must not be listening very carefully. One very public and detailed criticism of Peter Enns is an excellent book written by Reformed Bible scholar Dr. G.K. Beale, "The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority" (Crossway Books). And while it may have taken more time than many would have hoped, was it not precisely because of such criticisms by the Reformed that he was eventually dismissed from his position?

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  • Guest - ctrace

    You respond to me like a Romanist cleric of Calvin's day. Obviously what I write stings you. Yes, of course Peter Enns and Shelby Spong could be your pastor, by your criteria. (I assume their children are all upstanding citizens.) This is why I pointed out it is understanding of the faith (and the highest valuation for the word of God and biblical doctrine) that is the true qualification of any who would teach or lead Christians. And it is Christians who would discern that and validate it (Spirit speaks to spirit; if you don't have it, Christians know), not a degree from some institution of higher learning. And certainly not because your children are Eagle Scouts. Christians are called to be prophets, priests, and kings; not mute, passive 'sheep' getting lectured to by a new Magisterium.

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  • ctrace wrote: You respond to me like a Romanist cleric of Calvin’s day.

    GW: I'm sorry you didn't like my manner of response, but I felt it was necessary given your inflammatory rhetoric. I'm no Luther or Calvin, but I would suggest my response to you was more along the lines, not of a Romanist cleric, but of the Reformers' response to the Anabaptist mystics of their day.

    ctrace: "Obviously what I write stings you."

    GW: I confess that ignorant rhetoric does annoy me, but it doesn't "sting" me (though, in my fleshly pride, it may amuse me). (Please understand I am using the term "ignorant" not as a personal insult or to be inflammatory, but as an objective statement of fact; I believe you simply don't know what you are talking about on this particular matter.)

    ctrace: "Yes, of course Peter Enns and Shelby Spong could be your pastor, by your criteria."

    GW: And what "criteria" would that be? What in my comments above suggests a "criteria" by which men holding their errant views would be approved to serve in the pastoral office? I can't speak for other denominations, but neither of these men would stand a chance of being approved for ordination in the OPC today. (And at least Spong would never be approved for membership in an OPC church, given that he rejects even the bare essentials of historic Christianity.) So, as I stated above, your allegation is as utterly false and baseless as it is uncharitable.

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  • Guest - ctrace

    OK, I'll stop bating you, but I will say that what is going on here is a difference in approach to the faith. I approach the faith from an angle of spiritual warfare. It may be a human type (as in categories of personality types) thing, but I believe that is what is needed in less settled and staid times. I see current Christian - and I refer to Reformed because I see Reformed Theology as the standard - leaders and educators approaching the faith more from an academic angle. So in the latter approach you get professors lecturing and church goers listening, but in the former approach you have a gathering of kings knowing we are in the midst of a spiritual battlefield, the spiritual realm, and things get more immediate and practical (intentionally chosen words).

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  • Guest - Susan

    "And that “everything” includes what he taught through the apostles concerning the ordained ministry."

    Yes, this question will continue between Anabaptists and Reformed as long as each side believes that the scriptures have a way in which to impart ordaination to any group other than the one Jesus Himself gave authority to. Scripture doesn't, and so you will unfortunatly go round and round will each other. Apostolic succession is the only way to solve this dilemma. As I heard someone say recently, "why not take an Occam's Razor approach to Matt 16:18, John 21:17,John 6:52-59?".

    Most Kind Regards to you Dr. Horton and all at WHI


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  • Guest - ctrace

    Ordained in a church that regards the word of man to be equal to the word of God is not a choice, Susan; without even going into the Scriptural warrant for 'ordained' anything.

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  • Guest - Susan Vader

    Hello ctrace,

    I am a recent convert to the RCC and I can assure you that Catholics don't equated scripture with the word of man.We understand that the church logically preceded the inscrpiturization of the acts that the apostles witnessed. The holy scriptures are a part of the deposit of faith, but there is only one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church.
    Maybe you can explain to me how it is that biblicists receive ordaination from scripture alone and the confessionally Reformed receive it from scripture + the confessions of the magisterial Reformers, yet the claims of both groups are truncated from the actual apostolic church? A group can accredit itself I suppose, but laying on of hands as if it were doing so in unbroken succession is nominalism.
    St. Irenaeus has a list,so it is evident that if there was never a church that was supposed to have apostolic succession, the early church sure saw itself that way. Again....Occam's Razor.

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  • Guest - ctrace

    Susan, I'm not the greatest evangelist to people in unbiblical communions. I just tend to say, read the Bible complete. Actually do it. Don't just say you've done it. Actually do it. Then do it again. And again. And again, and again. And again, and again. If you then don't gravitate towards the real biblical school of doctrine (what was recovered at the Reformation) then learn the entire field out there. With the Spirit in you you'll gravitate towards the truth.

    You can do the above while still being in your currently chosen communion. A person can be saved despite their church.

    As a Christian, though, you have no excuse before God if you don't actively engage his self-revelation to you, the Old and New Testaments.

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