This is the season of graduation, and I recently watched quite a few of my own students receive their seminary degrees. It is always a joyful occasion to see the graduation of students one has, as a Bible professor, taught over the years to be faithful ministers of the Word of God. I have never been asked to deliver a graduation address; an outside speaker is brought in to do this. My job is over, and I sit back to reflect on the work accomplished, consider each student’s gifts and training, and watch the graduation exercises.
I have listened to a good number of graduation addresses over the years. These are occasional (epideictic) speeches, flaring up for a moment in the context of the larger event of graduation, then forgotten, for the most part, as the parade of graduates exits the building. The important things that needed to be said were already taught in the pursuit of the degree. Yet, one final lesson pounds in my head during these graduation exercises year after year: ‘Be ministers of the Word of God.’ As Paul said to Timothy,
2 Timothy 4:1-2 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
One of my greatest fears is that the seminary faculty might be graduating students for ministry who perpetuate the status quo rather than reform it for the new challenges of a new day. Will they become ‘functionaries’ in an already-defined form of ministry that oversees programmes of ministry, or will they be radical disciples with fire in their breasts who want to turn the world upside down with the Gospel? Will they be ordained to an ‘office’ that is concerned about respect for authority and job performance, or will they be commissioned to a ministry that stands before authorities to challenge them with truth and justice? Will they unquestioningly pass on the system of doctrine that they received, or will they open it up for scrutiny by the light of the Word, willing to hear the Scriptures afresh for what they really say?
Another of my greatest fears is that the graduates will sit loosely to historic orthodoxy, scrutinizing the Church’s doctrines not by Scripture but by whatever seems to them to work well. My fear is that they will challenge the Church’s historic teachings, letting the culture rather than God’s Word rule the hearts of people. As Paul says,
2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4.15), is not about being honest with people but about being ministers of God’s Truth, known to us in the Scriptures. For Paul, the gifts of God for the church are apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (Eph. 4.12) who, by speaking the Truth in love, will keep people from being ‘tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, and by craftiness in deceitful schemes’ (Eph. 4.14). The ‘unity of faith’ is not a unity among people who disagree on certain key issues but are all still called ‘Christians, as some would have it. It is the unity that the faith, the Truth, right Christian teaching, establishes for those who give up chasing the winds of disparate doctrines and settle for the Truth of God in his Word.
As I look over the graduating class, I ask myself whether their ethics or their concepts of a ‘successful church’ or their understanding of the Christian faith will be shaped by human standards. I also wonder whether they will become part of a non-denominational church that has little connectivity with other Christian ministries as it invents its own statement of faith, refashions ministry practices, and does everything on their own—as though the rest of the Church does not exist and the historical Church was simply irrelevant? Will their understanding of the church’s mission be whatever its members are doing rather than what God is doing and what the Church was commissioned by Jesus to do? Will they build their own little kingdoms or submit their designs to the Master Builder himself?
The Word of God, the Scriptures
Between these two versions of ministry can be found ministry of the Word of God. On the one hand, Scripture stands as the fountain of tradition; it is the unchanging, final authority in every matter of faith and practice. As the psalmist wrote so long ago, ‘Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 43.3). It is not something to be altered, played with, or ignored. God’s unchanging truth guides our lives. God is not evolving, Scripture is not to be altered, and the Christian faith is not a developing teaching to be restated for the convenience of modern people. It is a powerful truth, as the author of Hebrews states:
Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Thus the Word of God is not something to be subjected to a process that allows us to choose what we will accept in it and what we will discard from it.
On the other hand, Scripture is a radical challenge to the complacencies of our lives, the sinfulness of our hearts, and the devotion we give to things other than God. It is a manifesto for revolution led by God in a sinful world. It is, therefore, both the substance of truth, God’s Word, and the call for action, to the mission of God.
Ministers of the Word of God
My prayer for our graduates is that they will be ministers of the Word of God. My prayer is that they will make it the anchor that does not shift whatever winds of doctrine blow. May they cherish and honor it, read it, translate it, study it, teach it, obey it, and offer it to others as their chief responsibility in ministry. And my prayer is that they will make it their call to action to engage in the mission of God, to fulfill the commission of Christ, and to heed the admonition of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing as unchanging or as radical as the Word of God.
One problem with the language of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles (yet another problem with this language!) is that it places the focus on the person, the leader. Graduates leaving seminary expecting to ‘lead’ others through their ministry are susceptible to the danger of seeing themselves as the focus. Better the term ‘ministers,’ with the understanding being that they are called to minister the Word of God. They are servants, whose identity is not important, blending into the background, submitting even to indignities, only that what they serve is served well. The focus is not on the person but on what is being offered. May our seminary graduates be ministers of the Word, servants of God, and disciples of Jesus Christ.
In the mid-1600s, the Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, challenged ministers of his day to take up their pastoral duties (The Reformed Pastor). The very first duty of ministers (the language of leadership would only come along 350 years later), he stated, was to instruct every person in the Christian faith. For him, this faith—Christian convictions, ethics, and practices—was to be Biblically based. He expressed his point as convictions shared with other ministers of his day (‘Dedication’, The Reformed Pastor); they believed
1. That people must be taught the principles of religion, and matters of greatest necessity to salvation….
2. That they must be taught it in the most edifying, advantageous way….
3. That personal conference, and examination, and instruction, hath many excellent advantages for their good….
4. That personal instruction is recommended to us by Scripture, and by the practice of the servants of Christ, and approved by the godly of all ages….
5. It is past doubt, that we should perform this great duty to all the people, or as many as we can; for our love and care of their souls must extend to all….
6. It is no less certain, that so great a work as this is should take up a considerable part of our time.
In these points, one can see that Baxter is not primarily talking about teaching from the pulpit, if at all. He rather has in view Christian instruction of all in a parish as a regular feature of what constitutes pastoral ministry. He has in view personal instruction—no doubt teaching in small groups and individually in persons’ homes or places of work. The ministry of the Word is not confined to the walls of a church building. Teaching is not easily delivered as an exhortation from the pulpit rather than an instruction in the ‘principles of religion.’
Pastors take on many responsibilities—more than they ought. Richard Baxter understood this, for he went on to describe other pastoral duties and to give some advice regarding priorities. Indeed, he set before his readers the chief duty of the minister: to instruct every person in his charge as a lover and caretaker of souls. That instruction comes from the unchanging yet radically challenging Word of God. I long for and hope to hear stories from our graduates as they fulfill their callings in Christian ministry about the life-changing, transforming power of the Word of God that they have been called to minister as disciples of Jesus Christ.