By Irvin Himmel
It is sometimes very difficult for a person to give up misconceptions, inaccurate expressions, and unscriptural ideas. It takes a depth of honesty and fair-mindedness which some people lack to completely lay aside all prejudice and allow the mind to be guided by the word of God. While we are declaring with the apostle Peter, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is just possible that in practice we are speaking a bit of Ashdodic language (Neh. 13:23, 24).
I have never had any problem in understanding what the word “church” means. Early in life I was taught that the church is the body of people who are the Lord’s called out. I have never thought of the church of my Lord as a material building, a denomination, nor a mystical amalgamation of sectarian bodies. But to people who have entertained misconceptions of the church for years, it is not easy to push these erroneous ideas aside and see the real meaning of the word “church” in Biblical usage.
As for the word “minister,” I grew up hearing it applied to preachers as if they alone are to be identified by such a term. Like many others among us, I have often used the word in a manner that reflects a concept that at best is doubtful. Whatever conclusion we draw about how the word “minister” ought to be used, let us go first to the New Testament and get the facts that will enable us to formulate correct thoughts. One who thinks as the oracles of God will speak as the oracles of God.
“Minister” in the New Testament
Three Greek words are translated into English by the noun “minister” in the King James Version.
I. Diakonos. This is the most common word for “minister” and it means “one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master; a servant, attendant, minister” (Thayer). It is applied in a variety of ways! (1) One who serves a king. In the parable of the marriage of the king’s son, it refers to the “servants” of the king (Matt. 22:13). (2) A waiter at a feast. It is the term for “servants” at the marriage feast of Cana (John 2:5, 9). (3) A civil magistrate. Paul says of the civil ruler in Rom. 13:4, “For he is the minister of God to thee for good.” (4) One who serves Satan. Just as Satan is transformed as an angel of light, his “ministers” are transformed as the “ministers” of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13). (5) Jesus Christ. Paul referred to Jesus as a “minister” of the circumcision (Jews) for the truth of God (Rom. 15:8). In an argument on justification, the same apostle asked if Jesus is the “minister” of sin (Gal. 2:17). The answer is obvious. (6) A deacon. The word rendered “deacons” in Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8, 12 applies to a particular group of servants in the church. (7) A female servant. Phebe was a “servant” of the church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). (8) An apostle. Writing about his apostleship, Paul said he was made a “minister” (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25). He and the other apostles were “ministers” of God (2 Cor. 6:4). They were “ministers” of the new testament (2 Cor. 3:6). (9) One who teaches or preaches. Paul asked concerning his critics, “Are they ministers of Christ?” (2 Cor. 11:23). He declared that he and Apollos were but “ministers” by whom the Corinthians had believed (1 Cor. 3:5). Tychicus was a faithful “minister” in the Lord (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7). Epaphras was a faithful “minister” of Christ (Col. 1:7). Timothy was a “minister” of God (1 Thess. 3:2) and Paul reminded him how to be a good “minister” of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:6). (10) A follower of Christ. Jesus said, “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be” (John 12:26). Again, He taught that “whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister” (Matt. 20:26; 23:11; Mk. 9:35; 10:43).
II. Huperetes. This second word for “minister” means “any one who serves with his hands; a .servant” (Thayer). Vine says it was applied to an under rower as distinguished from a seaman, so it came to denote “any subordinate acting under another’s direction.” Here are its usages: (1) An officer or attendant of a magistrate or a court. The word is translated “officer” in Matt. 5:25; John 7:32, 45, 46; 18:3, 12, 18, 22; 19:6; Acts 5:22, 26. It is translated “servant” in other passages (Matt. 26:58; Mk. 14:65). (2) A synagogue attendant. When Jesus finished a reading in the synagogue in Nazareth, the book was given to the “minister” (Lk. 4:20). (3) An apostle. Jesus appeared to Paul to make him a “minister” and a witness (Acts 26:16). (4) One who teaches or preaches. Eyewitnesses of Jesus were “ministers” of the word (Lk. 1:2). Such men as Paul and Apollos were “ministers” of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1). (5) An assistant. On Cyprus, Paul and Barnabas had John Mark as their “minister” (Acts 13:5). John was their helper.
Ill. Leitourgos. This third term for “minister” means one who discharges -a public office. Vine says it “denoted among the Greeks, firstly, one who discharged a public office at his own expense, then, in general, a public servant, minister.” Here are its usages: (1) A civil ruler. Paul spoke of governmental officers as God’s “ministers” (Rom. 13:6). (2) An angel. God’s angels are His “ministers” (Heb. 1:7). (3) Jesus Christ. He is a “minister” of the heavenly sanctuary and of the true tabernacle (Heb. 8:2). (4) An apostle. Paul was the “minister” of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:16).
Without discussing the verb forms of the foregoing words, and without examining other words similar in meaning, this general distinction is clear: diakonos pictures a minister in relation to his work; huperetes views him in relation to his superior; leitourgos portrays him in relation to public service.
Applying New Testament Usage
In view of the New Testament usage of the word “minister” in such a variety of applications, what is our justification for speaking of a preacher or evangelist who works with a church as “the” minister of the congregation? This is a good question. Usually we reason that an evangelist has a special ministry, and he may be the only one in the congregation who is devoting himself fully to ministering in the word, and he may be the only one in the church who is being fully supported financially by the church, therefore he is “the” minister.
In the early 1950’s when there were several public debates on whether or not an evangelist can work with a church having elders, the charge was made by certain men that when an evangelist becomes “the” minister there is a digression from New Testament teaching. G.K. Wallace in debate with W. Carl Ketcherside at Paragould, Arkansas, attempted to justify calling a preacher “the” minister. Wallace said, “We mean by `the minister’ that he is the one on whom the elders have called to assist them in a special work within his field of labor” (Wallace-Ketcherside Debate, p. 63). But since deacons are ministers, and since all other Christians are ministers, would it not be much better to refer to “the one on whom the elders have called to assist them in a special work within his field of labor” as “a” minister?
Flavil L. Colley in discussion with Ketcherside on the scriptural right of an evangelist to work with a church that has elders, would not defend the practice of referring to a preacher as “the” minister of a congregation. Colley stated, “I do not believe in `the minister’ of a congregation. I don’t believe in `Associate minister.’ I do not believe in `Assistant minister’ ” (Colley-Ketcherside Debate, p. 31).
All of us need to realize that every Christian is a minister (servant) of Jesus Christ. Elders have a ministry of shepherding the flock. Deacons have a ministry requiring certain qualifications. Evangelists have a ministry of preaching and teaching the word. Every person who enters the kingdom of God is given a ministry for the Lord. It is this writer’s conviction that we need to stress the fact that all children of God are ministers or servants.
Perhaps if each one of us who publicly preaches the gospel would stop identifying himself as “the” minister (and it really does not sound so bad when I say that I am “a” minister), and would emphasize that no preacher can do all the “ministering” that needs to be done in a local church, this would help to avoid the development of a “clergy” class and make unnecessary a lot of the teaching which we do on personal evangelism. I fear that many Christians do not think of themselves as “ministers.”
Do not misunderstand what I am saying. The word “minister” is a perfectly good word. Preachers are ministers. But the point is this: there are other ministers in the church besides the public proclaimers of the word. Our tendency to regard one who preaches publicly as “the” minister (and sometimes we spell it with a big “M”) may be leaving the impression that Christians in the pews are not ministers.
I appreciate being asked to write on this subject. I have tried to be objective in may approach. May God help us in studying and applying His word.
Truth Magazine XXI: 12, pp. 180-182
March 24, 1977