Reinvented over time: our conception of ministry

Nothing is as constant as change: this is the insight gained from records which the District Apostle Meeting will soon be deliberating over. They will be discussing our conception of ministry of the future. Here is a look at the developments to date.

The New Apostolic Church had adopted the doctrine of the fourfold ministry from Catholic Apostolic tradition. This was derived from Ephesians 4: 11 and was distinguished by four characteristic ministries: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. Pastors and teachers were counted as one ministry. This is how the church wanted to address the four fundamental personality types: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, and melancholic.

The doctrine was richly embellished. Old and New Testament symbols and facts were understood as references for the ministries or their character: the four rivers of Paradise, the four horns of the altar, the four cherubim in the book of Ezekiel, or the four living creatures mentioned in Revelation—lion, calf, a man, and an eagle.

In the fourfold ministry, Apostle Friedrich Wilhelm Schwarz saw a model for the so-called chief ministries, which were to be present in each Apostle, Bishop, and Elder district, as well as in each central congregation. Unlike in today’s vertical hierarchical structure, the hierarchy at the time was organised within ministerial categories: the congregational prophet was subordinate to the prophet in the elder district; the prophet in the elder district was subordinate to the prophet in the bishop district, and he, in turn, was subordinate to the chief prophet.

Changes from the beginning

This model of chief ministries led to more ministries being called than were needed. “This resulted in various dangers and trouble,” Eberhard Emil Schmidt (Salus) wrote in the book Alte und Neue Weg (Old and New Ways). If the development had continued like this “there would have been more ministers than members in the end”.

“What use are prophets if I have no Deacons?” Chief Apostle Hermann Niehaus allegedly proclaimed according to a congregational chronicle. For him it was important that the right men were chosen: “The congregations are to be equipped with Priests and servants who are aware that the congregation is not there for their sake, but that they are there for the congregation’s sake.”

During Hermann Niehaus’s time as Chief Apostle, the charismatic understanding of ministry slowly began to make way for a largely pragmatic understanding. This is how the so-called ministry of the Seventy, which was ranked above the Bishop ministry, came to no longer be occupied. And the prophetic ministry also became less important.

Between authority, character, and function

The change in the ministerial structure is also reflected in textbooks. A book published in 1908 (Hülfsbuch) listed ten ministries. By 1916, the number had risen to fourteen. The 1938 edition of Questions and Answers listed seventeen ministries. In 1951 it was back to thirteen, and in 1992 we had finally arrived at eleven.

Striking is that the additional levels were defined more by a kind of job description rather than ministerial authority. Shepherds, for example, “took special care of the weak and the burdened, and lovingly went after those who had gone astray” (1992). Of course, this is a characteristic that can be applied to any priestly ministry.

Purely functional descriptions were given priority, such as in the case of District Evangelists: “He is subordinate to the District Elder in the district, and is his representative” (1992). This shows that in the past, the ministerial hierarchy was also a response to the practical need of distributing the burden of spiritual and administrative tasks.

Different times, different answers

The aim of the work currently being done on our conception of ministry is the same: providing answers on issues of the day. Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider made this clear when he presented the first interim results in October 2017.

Decisions have already been reached concerning the appointment of District Apostles and the assignment of District Apostle Helpers. Already Chief Apostle Hans Urwyler had given thought to this. In his notes, he came to a conclusion that is very similar to our current practice: “My sense is that only an Apostle is ordained, the others are additional tasks.”

The topic of priestly ministries will be on the agenda of the upcoming session of the District Apostle Meeting in Washington D.C. (USA) in the middle of May. Recently, in a divine service in Berlin (Germany), Chief Apostle Schneider explained what his thoughts are: anyone who wants participation in decision-making and co-operative leadership practice needs a streamlined structure and clear responsibilities.

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Andreas Rother, Andreas Vöhringer
ministry, historic ministries, Structure, Doctrinal statements