As you may know if you are a regular reader of this site, I have been devoting a lot of thought and study to the church – her nature, purpose and future. As I searched for a topic to write about today, my thoughts turned to an article I wrote last year entitled “Minister of the Word.” It seemed to speak to many of my feelings about the church, so I have returned to that article, have edited it, changed it, reworked it and added to it.
J.A. Wylie was a pastor and author who lived in the nineteenth century whose greatest work is the three volume masterpiece The History of Protestantism. The first book spends a small amount of time examining early Christian history and how the purity of the original church gave way to the corruption of the Catholic system. Wylie says “This change [making God less free in His gift of salvation] brought a multitude of others in its train. Worship being transformed into sacrifice – sacrifice in which was the element of expiation and purification – the “teaching ministry” was of course converted into a “sacrificing priesthood.” When this had been done, there was no retreating; a boundary had been reaching which could not be recrossed until centuries had rolled away, and transformations of a more portentous kind than any which had yet taken place had passed upon the Church.” (Volume 1, Chapter 2, page 8).
In short, Wylie believed that the downfall of the church began with assigning too much power to the clergy. When the office of pastor changed from a teaching office to a mystical, sacrificing priesthood, the clergy gained too much power and immediately passed the point of no return. It would take hundreds of years, periods of spiritual darkness and the world-changing events of the Reformation for the Church to regain the original beauty of the office of pastor.
After the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant clergy no longer taught that they held the mystical power of converting a simple piece of bread to the body of Christ and they no longer had the power to forgive sins. The primary, central role of the minister of the Word was to exposit the Word of God to the people. It was an office of honor and respect. The title “reverend” was often used to convey respect to those men who had the awesome privilege and responsibility of preaching God’s Word.
As the Protestant church has changed and evolved since the time of the Reformation, so has the office of pastor. Where in times past the minister wore a robe, collar or both to differentiate himself from the laity, it seems that today the pastor is often the person wearing shorts and sandals. Where a pastor once wore clothing that conveyed dignity and displayed the uniqueness of the pastoral ministry, today the pastor often tries to be the most unnoticeable person in the church. Where the term “pastor” was once largely reserved for the minister who led his flock, today we have pastors of every type – music pastors, counseling pastors, administrative pastors, and even lay pastors (which seems to be a contradiction in terms). Where pastors and office-bearers once held the keys to the kingdom and had the privilege of administering the sacraments, today the laity is permitted and even encouraged to do this themselves.
Other changes have taken place, especially in regard to the pastor’s role as the man who brought God’s Word to the people in a stirring and authoritative manner. Last night I found the following words by Os Guiness which seemed appropriate for this article. “When I was young in the faith, regular public worship was considered essential. It was both the practice of the ministers and the expectation of the people that the sermon would bring a direct, helpful, and practical word from God for his people. In many parts of the West this is no longer the expectation or practice. Church-going is viewed by many as merely optional; an increasing number of people have no regular experience of sitting under an authoritative word from God; and in many parts of the Western world preaching has fallen on very hard times. I have been in megachurches where there was no cross in the sanctuary and no Bible in the pulpit, and where sermons refer more to the findings of Barna and Gallup than to those of the Bible and God” (Prophetic Untimeliness, page 110).
Guiness goes on to speak of the two greatest preachers he has ever sat under – Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. He says that “Neither of them ever prefaced their sermons with, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ But neither of them needed to. Having prepared before God, come straight from the presence of God, and delivering what they said as from God and in the presence of God, their authority was unmistakable and its effect profound. No prophets could have stirred and challenged their audiences more deeply.” Many churches today have lost the “thus saith the Lord” nature of preaching, whereby a pastor can speak with God’s authority, when he speaks from God’s Word.
Some have suggested that the primary gift of the Reformation to the church was in handing Christian theology to the people. No longer was theology mandated from on high – popes, councils and catechisms – but it was in the hands of the people to study, accept or reject. Concurrently, the Bible was handed to the people in a way that was unique in history, for the printing press allowed access to the Word to almost anyone who desired to have it. These same people would have us believe that the next Reformation will be in the laity taking back the church, just as we have taken back Christian doctrine. The church, they believe, will be composed of small groups rather than large gatherings, and the teaching and practice of the church will occur amongst small bodies of believers. This can only reduce the role of the pastor further.
I sometimes wonder if we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I wonder if we’ve reduced the office of the minister of the Word to such an extent that it no longer carries with it the respect and uniqueness that God intended. Surely pastors are called to a high office and are blessed with unique privileges and responsibilities. When we take those privileges and dispense them liberally throughout the Church, I wonder if we are elevating the role of the laity or reducing the role of the clergy. Either way, I suspect we are not honoring God or the special role He created for the minister of His Word. I do not propose that we return to a mystical fear of ministers, but that we give them due respect as ones who have been specially called of God to speak His Words. And I propose that we encourage our pastors to take seriously the responsibility of preaching the Word, so that they will stir and challenge their audiences, “delivering what they [say] as from God and in the presence of God.”