I took Theology of Ministry from my father while working on my MDiv at Pepperdine University. He taught the course completely from the gospels. While Paul and other NT writers undoubtedly have some very important things to say about ministry, dad felt like the gospels were sorely neglected in this regard and that an entire semester would be well spent reading deeply in each with a theology of ministry in mind.
I not only benefitted greatly from his approach then, but it has launched my own deep interests in how ministry is being presented alongside the ministry of Jesus.
It’s easy to see why the epistles and even Acts would be considered before the gospels in defining ministry, especially for those from my tribe, Churches of Christ. Some in our movement actually taught that the gospels belonged to a prior dispensation and, therefore, didn’t apply directly to the church. Only things subsequent to Pentecost should serve as a guide for the pattern of the church today. And there are things discussed in the epistles that seem to make this a straighter line to how we view the church today. We have more advice being made directly to first century churches about matters ranging from church organization to discipline to worship. We have direct descriptions, for instance, of what it might require to be an evangelist or elder or deacon. We have enough concrete description to make the business of duplicating “New Testament Christianity” seem tangible.
There are, of course, major problems with this way of thinking. First, it assumes a uniformity of practice among NT churches and, therefore, downplays the evident diversity. Second, it assumes that this is the right use of documents written thousand of years ago. We wrongly read these writings as instruction manuals for our time, which would make those provided by IKEA clear by contrast. Third, and more importantly, it fails to see the purpose of the writing of the gospels. They weren’t written primarily to set the record straight. Taken together, they refuse harmonization in terms of details, ordering of events, and even portrayals of the significance of Jesus. Instead, they were written to set churches straight. They are attempts to let the risen and living Christ speak again to churches as they encounter the challenges of the living out their faith. All of the gospels were written after Pentecost, some much, much later, and so all assumed real life churches as their audience. Put another way, they were written to shape how we think about ministry, and with direct reference to the life of Jesus. Put that in your pipe, Paul.
My odometer hit sixty this year. That changes how you think about your life. I’m on the back nine of life and have less than a decade left before I retire, hopefully (though I will greet you warmly at Walmart after that). My life’s interests are just different now. My top three interests are granddaughters, Autumn, Mya, and Clara. I find myself caring less and less about sports. I have no ambitions to have a higher position or take on more responsibility. Rather, I want to devote as much time as I can reflecting and writing on the things that have been at the heart of my life for the past forty years.
I’ve got one manuscript complete and two more in the works. And this is a third one I have in mind. Ministry from the gospels. Other have written already in this area. I think specifically of David Bartlett’s fine book, Ministry in the New Testament, which devotes a chapter to each gospel. But I think there’s still room for a deeper dive, specifically as we think about ministry in a new missional era.
So, I’m going to be devoting a lot of my blog space in the next few weeks framing out some perspectives on ministry from the gospels. I know I have ideas. I don’t know if I have a book. But at the very least, thinking about these things will occasion rich conversations with my dad.