Biblical Theology Articles

On the Dangers of Christian Shorthand: 'Word Ministry'

Christopher Ash


‘Word ministry’ has become something of a catchphrase in evangelical circles. We say things like, “I hope to be involved in word ministry”, or “My work is Bible-teaching ministry”. Sometimes we refer to members of a church’s staff as “the Bible-teaching staff” to distinguish them from, perhaps, the administrative staff.

This is a very helpful shorthand in some respects. We use it in the Cornhill Training Course where we want, under God, to equip men to preach, and to involve men and women in the ministry of the word of God in all sorts of circumstances. This shorthand makes it clear that the work of the pastor-teacher (like those who do related ministries that involve the teaching of the Bible) is not fundamentally a sacramental work, administering the grace of God through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Nor is it, at heart, a work of strategic leadership in which the core need is for ‘ministry skills’—an understanding of principles of church growth or church planting, etc. Nor is their work the ministry of the so-called ‘worship leader’, if this is defined in terms of being ‘gifted to lead people into the presence of God’. Nor is their work the work of a counsellor or amateur psychiatrist. Nor is their work the work of the skilled and charming manager of a voluntary society, keeping the club happy and harmonious by his enviable ‘people skills’. No, the fundamental ministry of the pastor-teacher is to serve the church of Christ by serving and preaching the word of Christ (Col 1:23, 25) because it is by this word that the church is brought into existence and is built up (e.g. 1 Pet 1:23-25). A pastor-teacher is a servant of the word or he is nothing.

But there is one serious danger with this shorthand. ‘The ministry of the word’ is shorthand for ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’. The work of the pastor-teacher is to speak to God first for people and, only in that context, to speak to people for God. A pastor-teacher who speaks to people for God without speaking to God for people may seem on the outside to be a faithful minister, but he is, in fact, a fraud. Let me try to persuade you of this by tracing what we may call ‘the double pattern of Christian ministry’ through three stages:

1. The double pattern of prophetic ministry

It is generally assumed that the primary work of a prophet was to speak the words of God to people. Although his work may have included (and sometimes did include) predictions of the future, fundamentally the prophet’s work was to be the mouthpiece of God. So God put his words into the mouth of the prophet who then, without distorting them, faithfully spoke those words to the people.

This is true. But we can easily miss that, alongside that ministry of preaching, there runs, like a golden thread through the Old Testament, a parallel and inseparable ministry which is the ministry of intercession. Abraham was a prophet. He’s explicitly called that in Genesis 20:7. And because Abraham was a prophet, Abimelech could be confident that Abraham would pray for him. Abraham the prophet interceded for Sodom (Gen 18:22-33).

Moses the prophet, who spoke the words of God to the people, interceded for them again and again—at the time of the golden calf incident (Exod 32:11-14, 30-32), at times of judgement in the wilderness (Num 11:2; 14:13-19; 21:7), and on Aaron’s behalf (Deut 9:20). The one whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut 34:10) was thereby equipped to speak to God for the people, just as he was empowered to speak to the people for God.

Samuel the prophet interceded for the people (1 Sam 7:8-9). He understood that, for him as their prophet, not to pray for them would be a sin (1 Sam 12:19-23). This was not a general obligation, as if every believer must pray for every other believer, without exception; that would be a heavy burden to bear! No, it is the specific obligation of the prophet to pray for the people whom he serves and to whom he speaks the words of God.

The critical moment of the great confrontation between Yahweh and Baal on Mount Carmel was not when Elijah the prophet spoke to the people for God, but when he spoke to God for the people (1 Kgs 18:36-37). We see the same double pattern in his relations with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24). Similarly, Elisha interceded for the Shunammite’s son (2 Kgs 4:32-37); Job, who is certainly associated with the prophets in James 5:10-11 and who spoke rightly of God in Job 42:7, prayed for his friends in Job 42:8-9; Isaiah interceded at Hezekiah’s request, as though doing so was a natural and well-understood part of his ministry (2 Kgs 19:4); Jeremiah was specifically told not to intercede in a way that makes it clear that, without this prohibition, he would have naturally interceded, for this was a well-understood part of the prophetic task (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11) ; Ezekiel interceded in Ezekiel 11:13; Amos interceded in Amos 7:2, 5; and Daniel interceded in Daniel 9.

Incidentally, we also see this double pattern of ministry in the symbolic priestly intercession of Aaron as he bore the names of the tribes before the Lord (Exod 28:12). And both Nehemiah individually and the people corporately engaged in such intercession (Neh 1:4-11; 9).

The prophet’s ministry was most certainly to be God’s mouthpiece—to speak to the people for God—but, equally and inseparably, it carried with it the expectation that he would speak to God for the people in intercessory prayer.

2. The double pattern of Jesus’ ministry

This double pattern of prophetic ministry is fulfilled in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, our great prophet and priest. For, as the prophet who was (and is) so much more than a prophet, just as he spoke to people words that never a human being spoke before, so also he interceded for his people with an intercession that transcended and fulfilled all the intercession of the prophets beforehand.

Satan asked to sift Peter like wheat. What was Jesus’ response? He prayed for him (Luke 22:31-32). If we wonder what and for whom Jesus prayed in his times of prayer in the gospels, we must surely take his great prayer of John 17 as a pointer to at least part of the answer. Just as he spoke to us from the Father, so also he spoke in intercessory prayer to the Father for us.

3. The double pattern of apostolic ministry

In Acts 6, the apostles famously make clear that the priority of their specific, apostolic ministry was to preach the word of God (Acts 6:2). They testified to the resurrection of Jesus—that in the resurrection he was declared both Lord and Christ. This word of God—the word of the Lord Jesus, the gospel—was what they must preach. And they were not to let any other ministry distract them from this.

But when they restated this priority in verse 4, they expanded the shorthand: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word”. I take it that this expansion is no accident; it arises from a deep scriptural understanding of this great double pattern. If they were to proclaim to people the word of God, they must—inescapably and as an equal priority—devote themselves to interceding to God for the people to whom they spoke for God. If they, as proclaimers of the word, did not intercede for the people to whom they proclaimed, it would be just as much a sin against God as it would have been for Samuel the prophet.

We see this intercession wonderfully lived out in the prayers of the Apostle Paul for the churches to whom he wrote. Even as he spoke to them the words of God in his letters, at the same time he interceded for them again and again (e.g. Rom 1:9-10; 10:1; Eph 1:15-16; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3, 9-14; 1 Thess 1:2; 2 Thess 1:11-12; Phlm 4, 6).

However there is one important difference between apostolic intercession under the new covenant and prophetic intercession under the old. The principle for both was that of James 5:16—that only a man who is righteous will be heard by God. Under the old covenant, particular people such as Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, could intercede, but other people could not. But, under the new covenant, the whole thing has become mutual so that, as well as offering intercession on behalf of others, the apostolic writers also asked that intercession be made on their behalf (Rom 15:30; 2 Cor 1:11; Col 4:3-4; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1; cf. Heb 13:18). Intercession is no longer a one-way mediatorial role, but rather a two-way process in which those who intercede also ask for intercession for themselves.

We may now move on from this great double pattern of prophetic ministry, of Jesus’ ministry and of apostolic ministry, to the double pattern of Christian pastoral ministry.

4. The double pattern of Christian pastoral ministry: prayer and the ministry of the word

We can certainly say today that, in general, Christians ought to pray for one another (e.g. Eph 6:18). But can we also say that there is a specific and particular obligation on pastors to pray for those in their pastoral charge? I think we can. Certainly, in the New Testament, it was not just the apostles who prayed for Christians; Epaphras struggled in prayer on behalf of the Colossian Christians (Col 4:12-13).

Although the Christian pastor-teacher is not a prophet or an apostle, the shape of his ministry is, in important respects, apostolic and prophetic. That is, he carries on the tradition of faithfully passing on to others the apostolic preaching of Christ (e.g. 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2). He is to speak as one who utters the very words of God in the face of opposition and hostility, just as the prophets did (1 Pet 4:11). He is to be faithful, not distorting his message to please his hearers, but speaking the words that God has given him in Scripture. And if his ministry is prophetic and apostolic in shape, surely we may also say that it takes on this double pattern. It would be unthinkable that the Christian pastor-teacher is now relieved of this obligation to intercede for those to whom he preaches. The point is not that he alone can pray for them (in a mediatorial sense, as under the Old Covenant) for they can pray as well as he can. Rather, he cannot pastor them authentically without praying for them faithfully. Intercession is a necessary and integral part of his pastoral office. If he does not pray, he cannot pastor, no matter how perfect the sermons he preaches.

This calling to intercession has been taken seriously again and again in the history of the church. Martin Luther famously said, “I have so much business, I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer”. Examples from great Christian biographies could be multiplied. However, rather than measuring prayer in hours and minutes (which would lead to discouragement), we do well to accept this work as God’s call in our lives to the circumstances in which we live with the strength we are given. A heart for prayer that develops habits of prayer is of far greater importance than measuring minutes of prayer.

We must take with great seriousness this obligation. For if we do, it will have three benefits:

(a) It will preserve us from an impersonal and functional concept of ‘word ministry’ Just as the apostles proclaimed Christ in order that men and women would be drawn into fellowship with them, as well as with the Son and the Father (1 John 1:3-5), so are we to preach as those who long to be in fellowship with those to whom we preach. Our preaching is not an impersonal job we do, that we may emerge from the study to go into the pulpit, deliver our polished sermon and then retreat. No, it is a task done in the context of passionate intercession for those to whom we preach. The more we remember this, the more our churches will be relational as well as functional.

(b) It will enable us to teach, since the ability to teach is relational as much as it is intellectual No man is able to teach unless he loves the people whom he teaches. I used to think that the aptitude of teaching was primarily an intellectual quality—the ability to understand Scripture accurately and then to convey its truth with clarity (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24). But the context in which the word is used in 2 Timothy 2 makes it clear that the aptitude of teaching includes the disposition to love the people we are teaching —even, indeed especially, when they are difficult and recalcitrant!

And if we intercede for our people, we will love them. The systematic, deliberate determination to pray for the people to whom we preach will also work in us a heartfelt love for them, so that we will hold them in our hearts and find ourselves loving them with the affection that is in Christ Jesus (Phil 1:7-8). And this will enable us to teach them.

(c) It will promote a humble dependence upon God and protect us from pride in our preaching Every time we intercede for our hearers, we drive home the point to our own hearts that the struggle in which we are engaged is a spiritual struggle—that our eloquence (if we have any), our ability to ‘get Scripture right’ (if we do) and our clarity in getting the message across (if we succeed) are of no value unless and until God works sovereignly by his Spirit to open the hearts and ears of us and our hearers so that they may hear and obey. We will cry to him, not because we have been told to (e.g. by an article in The Briefing), but because we know that, until and unless he works, our work is in vain.

In his Lectures to my Students, Charles Spurgeon speaks vividly of the minister who limps along like a lame man with unequal legs, “for his praying is shorter than his preaching”. Let us who are involved with ‘word ministry’ resolve never to forget the second leg of that ministry—the ministry of intercessory prayer for our hearers.

Endnotes

Jeremiah’s intercessory role reappears in Jeremiah 37:3 and 42:2.

Charles Spurgeon, ‘Lecture III: The Preacher’s Private Prayer’, Lectures to my Students, Marshall Pickering, London, 1989 (1954), p. 48.


This article first appeared in The Briefing April 2006, Issue No. 331, 21-24 (UK edition) and appears here with permission. No part of this article may be copied or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the author and the publisher.

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