Every member in ministry

Every member in ministry
Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church's Worship & Music Ministry leading praise and worship at their 44th Anniversary celebration service on 2 Oct 2022

“… so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…”
(Rom 12: 5-6)

One of the many problems that have arisen in some churches in America due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with its frequent and erratic lockdowns, is the significant drop in the number of Christians serving in their respective churches.

According to an article published in Christianity Today (CT), “Over three quarters of US pastors said they were concerned about developing leaders and volunteers, as well as people’s apathy and lack of commitment.”

A pastor interviewed by CT states baldly: “A lot of churches lost their long-term, reliable, go-to people and were left with no one. That’s been the challenge. Where do you look now to find a new base of volunteers?”1

Thankfully, the situation is not quite so dire for churches in Singapore, post-pandemic. Still, much more can and should be done to encourage every member of the congregation to participate more fully in the life and ministry of the church.

Paul employs the metaphor of the human body to emphasise, as John Stott puts it, “the unity of the church, the plurality of its members and the variety of their gifts.”2 In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul teaches that every Christian is a member of the body of Christ, the Church. Paul also stresses the fact that the members are dependent on one another and must serve each other with the gifts that God has sovereignly given each one.

In this same letter, the apostle provides a catalogue of ministries that are found in the Church—prophesying, serving, teaching, encouragement, giving and leadership (Rom 12:6-8). This list is far from exhaustive. But the point that the apostle wants to make is simply that these ministries are not reserved for a special class of Christians within the Church. Every member of Christ’s body must participate in them in accordance with his or her respective gifts.

This important truth was recovered by Martin Luther during the 16th century Protestant Reformation in the wake of the elitism of the clerical hierarchy of the Church of his day. Establishing his teaching on the priesthood of all believers on 1 Peter 2:9 (“You are… a royal priesthood”), Luther wrote emphatically that “In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.”3 He goes on to further establish that “everyone… who knows himself to be a Christian, (should) be assured of this, that we are all equally priests, that is to say, we have the same power with respect to the Word and the sacraments.”

However, this does not suggest that the Reformer has totally banished the idea of the ordained clergy in his ecclesiology, as some are wont to interpret him. Instead, he maintains that “no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior,”4 thereby emphasising the importance of ordination within the larger context of the priesthood of all believers. The person who is thus set apart by the Church therefore does not stand over and above it. He or she is but a member of the “royal priesthood”, the charismatic body of Christ.

This is consistent with the teachings of the New Testament—while Paul stresses in many of his letters that every member of Christ’s body is a minister endowed with spiritual gifts, he could also speak of the offices of the elder, deacon, pastor, teacher, etc. (Eph 4:11-14; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9).

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, when properly understood, does not encourage anti-clericalism. Conversely, the office of the clergy and its specific place in the Church does not in any way contradict or make superfluous the fact that every member of Christ’s body is called to serve.

Put differently, although God has set apart some members of the Church to serve as bishops, priests, pastors, elders, deacons, missionaries and teachers, he has also called every Christian to be a minister in the body of Christ.

Those who avail themselves of this calling become God’s fellow-workers (1 Cor 3:9) and participate in the mystery of his redemptive work.

1 Kate Shellnutt, ‘Church Leaders Are Still Waiting for Volunteers to Come Back,’ Christianity Today, January 14, 2022.

2 John Stott, The Message of Romans (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 326.

3 Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity. Luther’s Works, edited by Helmut T Lehmen and Abdel R. Wenz (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1959), Volume 36: 113.

4 Ibid., 116.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. / Photo courtesy of Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church