Once a year, a small college in Michigan publishes a list of words that should be banished from the English language. These include words that have become incredibly over used, and still others that have been twisted to mean something entirely different from their original meaning.
As a writer, I am acutely aware of the power of words to shape and limit thinking, create attitudes and, thereby, change behavior. In the case of modern Western Christianity, we have a number of words that are so commonly used that the ideas they convey have become part of our culture, are rarely questioned, and, as a result, have changed our behavior in ways that are detrimental to our spiritual growth and the growth of the Kingdom. On top of that, they are non-biblical!
Here’s the first of a few such words.
“Ministry.” This may be the most commonly used non-biblical word ever. We all understand what it means: A special work that is in some ways closer to God’s heart than others.
There are variations. In one sense, “ministry” means the sanctioned work of the institutional church. So, for example, one could “enter the ministry.” We would all understand that the person is going to be employed by some institutional church, or perhaps some denominational body.
One could also have a ‘ministry,” in the sense of a part-time, typically unpaid effort that is designed to assist some needy group. Thus, we could say something like this: “She has a prison ministry,” and we would all know that she was giving some portion of her time to an effort to help prisoners.
Here’s why this word should be banished from Christendom: First, it is an unbiblical, man-made construct and, second, it has a devastating impact on our individual spirituality and on the Kingdom in general. Let’s look at both of these issues.
A number of years ago I became interested in this concept of ministry. So, I did a deep dive into the scriptures in an effort to discover what they had to say: What was a minister? What work qualifies as ministry?
What I found was nothing. No definition of a ‘minister,’ no definition of the work of ‘ministry.’ The word is often used in recent translations of the Bible as a substitute for “servant,” which was commonly used by all the older translations. Ministry/servanthood is not defined by the work that is done, but rather for whom it is done. Anything and everything done for the glory of God is ‘ministry,’ or ‘service.’
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,
24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
By substituting the word ‘minster’ for ‘servant,’ the translators of many modern versions have subtly changed the meaning to add to it a sense of ‘office’ or ‘formality’ that is not attached to the more earthy and common ‘servant.’ It just sounds more important and formal to say that you have a “prison ministry’, for example, than it does to say you ‘serve prisoners.’ It is somehow more elevated and structured to claim to be a ‘minister of the gospel’ than it does to be a ‘servant of Christ.’
This subtle shift in the meaning of scripture has engenderd a devastating impact on our spirituality and on the Kingdom in general.
Here’s the problem. Whenever we create a word to describe something, by that simple act, it implies the existence of things that are not that thing. For example, if we say that we are “Americans” that statement implies that there are other folks who are ‘non-Americans.’ When we hear pastors proclaim that the church building is “God’s house,’ that implies that everything else is not.
And therein lies the problem. When we hold some work apart as being ministry, we are in effect saying that all other work is not ministry. When we say that ‘ministry’ work is special, we are, at the same time, saying that all other work is ordinary and not special. And when we do that, we remove God and his power from all work that doesn’t fit our definition of ministry.
For a Christian, there is no such thing as work that is ‘non-ministry’ – except that which is sin. Everything done in service to our Lord, every thought we think, every breath we take, every action we make is either service to the Lord or sin.
Here’s an example. One of my clients has a sales person – actually a very good one – who left his job to ‘join the ministry.’ In other words, go to work for a church some place. Now, he certainly has the right to seek employment where ever he wants. My issue is with the process of elevating some work as ministry and some as not – which was at the heart of his decision. The Bible knows little of this idea and, in fact, proclaims the opposite.
Instead of joining the ‘ministry’ he more appropriately should have seen his job as a God-given place to exercise his gifts and talents to the betterment of his customers and his employer – his opportunity to be salt and light to the world he occupied. Instead, he became another powerful Christian influence lost to the concept of ministry.
Since the word ministry seeks to separate some of our efforts as special, and proclaim all the others as ‘non-special’ it damages our spiritual discernment and limits our ability to grow closer to God. If the sales person in question had no concept of ‘ministry’ he more likely would have taken a more Biblical view of his work.
So, too for countless millions of people who live lives that have been narrowed and hemmed-in by this false idea. In my own sphere of influence, I see thousands of Christian business people who hold to the concept of ministry. Since some things are ‘ministry’ and some are not, so the thinking goes, then their businesses are ‘not ministry’ and are relegated to the world of the ordinary, non-special ‘everything else.’ These Christian brothers and sisters are, therefore, hindered from seeing their businesses as powerful, holy entities in the forefront of the Kingdom’s advance into every nook and cranny of the economy.
What an incredible waste of gifts, talents, time and energy! Satan must love the word. Look at all the power of the Holy Spirit he has hindered and kept contained over multiple nations and many generations. It must be one of his favorites. Let’s banish ‘ministry’ from our language forever.
What other unBiblical practices of the church have you accepted without question? Maybe it’s time to question some of them. Read “Is the Institutional Church Really the Church?”