Ministry (4): The heritage of the New Testament

Institution, nature, and authority—Jesus Christ is the source of all elements of ministry. Really? What about the order of the various ministries? The New Testament has three answers to this question—at least.

What is clear is that the apostolate is the only ministry that Jesus Christ Himself ever instituted, namely when He gave His closest circle of disciples the commission to teach, to baptise, and to celebrate Holy Communion—and when He authorised them to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.

Proclaiming the message in the stead of Christ

The New Testament describes what comprises the Apostle ministry in exhaustive detail: it is the ministry of the Spirit, the ministry of righteousness, the ministry of reconciliation, and the ministry that functions as messenger in the stead of Christ and as steward over the mysteries of God.

The powers of the Apostle ministry also include the authority to loose and to bind—in other words, to declare something as binding or not binding—as well as the authority to order and organise church life. The book of Acts relates how the first Apostles already made use of this authority in early times.

Helpers to the poor

In order to dedicate themselves completely to the proclamation of the gospel, the Apostles had the proto-congregation in Jerusalem elect seven men to help the poor. This duty was conferred upon them through laying on of hands and prayer. Even though the term was not yet used at that point, this moment is generally considered the birth of the Deacon ministry.

In the epistles to the Corinthians, Apostle Paul describes himself as a diákonos (ancient Greek for “servant” or “helper”). Used as a title denoting a specific minister, the word first appears in the epistle to the Philippians. Finally, it is the first epistle to Timothy that describes the personal requirements of this ministry: Deacons are to be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, and not greedy for money.

Church leaders

The Deacons performed their duty under the supervision of church leaders. These were designated in different ways, depending on the cultural milieu. In the Palestinian context—in accordance with the contemporary Judaism—we read of Elders (presbýteros), and in the Hellenistic context, the text speaks of Bishops (epískopos). This term migrated from Greece and Asia Minor as far as Rome in the west and Syria in the south.

In the beginning, both terms serve to identify the same function: for example, the book of Acts relates how Paul calls together the Elders of Ephesus and reminds them that the Holy Spirit has ordained them as Bishops. In the pastoral epistles, however, a development can already be identified: while elders are always mentioned as a group, the Bishop is always only ever mentioned as an individual. Here too, the first epistle to Timothy lists the relevant qualifications: a Bishop is to be blameless, temperate, hospitable, gentle, and able to teach. Moreover, he must not be a novice, and is to “have a good testimony among those who are outside”.

Spiritual gifts

Beyond that, the New Testament letters also mention prophets and teachers, as well as pastors and evangelists. However, these are not listed together with ministries such as Deacons, Elders, or Bishops, but rather in the context of the many diverse gifts of the Spirit, for example, the power to perform miracles, the power to heal, or glossolalia. What is also missing here is a job description or list of requirements, as is found with the other ministries.

However, the New Testament never mentions the term priest as it used in the present sense. While the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ and the royal priesthood of all the believers do come to expression, these terms use the Old Testament term for “priest” (Hebrew: kōhēn, Greek: hiëreús). The term—as well as the position—of the priest only begins to develop in the post-biblical period from the term presbýteros.

As this overview makes clear, the New Testament does not have a uniform doctrine of ministry. However, the first approaches to ministry do begin to emerge. These only begin to develop further in the later course of church history. How? That will be the focus of our next article in this series.

(Sources for this article primarily include the Catechism of the New Apostolic Church, a supplementary “Commentary on chapter 7” of the CNAC, the training materials for the concept of ministry, as well as issue No. 04/2005 of the Church magazinespirit / photo:

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Andreas Rother
ministry, Doctrinal statements