Water is thicker than blood
Religion & Liberty Online

Water is thicker than blood

In the current edition of The Weekly Messenger (no longer active), John H. Armstrong examines the role of pastor in the Protestant church. In “Getting the Role of Pastor Right Again,” he writes,

For a long time I have had serious doubts about many of the models of pastoral ministry used and promoted in the West. These models range from academic and biblical teacher models to chief counselor and care-giver. In my estimation they all fail the biblical test at some crucial point, and some fall even further short than others. Worse still these various models generally hinder the church from being the church in the best sense. Until these models are radically altered I do not believe that we will see the kind of renewal that we need in the church in America.

He goes on to critique what he sees as two primary models: the scholar/teacher and the CEO/manager. Armstrong raises some very important issues, and he indirectly attempts to redefine the terms of the pastor’s calling. He writes that “the pastor can only complete the work Christ gave to him when he has taught and prepared the people so that they can be engaged in the mission of Christ, namely service.”

I find that a great contributing factor to the problems Armstrong examines in the contemporary role of the pastor stem from an improper view of the importance of pastoral ministry.

In the following, I’ll assert some biblical truths against the conception that all vocations are equal. I’m inclined to think that the source of this popular misconception has its origin in an interpretation and extension of Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty, due in large part to codification by Herman Dooyeweerd.

This error, in terms of individual vocations, is expressed in the idea that the calling of a plumber, poet, or president is just as important, valuable, or eternal in service to the kingdom of God as that of a pastor. The correlative to this is the idea that service in various spheres of life, business, education, family, are equally important as service in the church.

The source of error, despite its historical interest and value, is perhaps less important than its current popularity. We might describe it the democratization of vocation or the egalitarianism of calling. My purpose here is not to denigrate the valid and important vocations that Christians live out everyday in this world. It is rather to properly balance the value of these callings, the fidelity to which has its own eternal consequences for individuals, with the task of the minister of God’s Word, the care of a community of souls.

It is my impression that the task of ministry has been largely stripped of its respect and dignity. No doubt in many cases this is due to the failings of the ministers themselves. But in other cases, an anti-authoritarian spirit is at work in the church, unbending in the face of rebuke, unyielding to prophetic testimony. The tendency for this to manifest itself is likely in some part related to the form of church polity, as in some necessary sense, a congregational polity is more prone to produce pastors who preach messages comfortable to their congregants. (Note an example here that any move toward giving the pastor a measure of independence can easily be understood as a move toward papism or clericalism.)

All this stands in opposition to the observation of the puritan Richard Baxter, that “God hath hitherto made use of the qualifications of the Ministers as the special means for the welfare of his Church.”

But of what importance is this church? Is it not merely just another sphere of human redemptive activity? Clearly not. There is a bright dividing line between the realms of the world and the church, the service of God and the service of Mammon. Armstrong gets at this when he writes, “Pastors must stress mission to the world over separation from the world. As the Christendom model increasingly fails this will becomes more and more obvious. This means we must become less and less interested about who is in and who is out. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are meant to provide the real boundary markers and churches that recover their proper place will be better able to pursue mission.” The manifestation of common grace in the world does not simply sacralize the world this side of the eschaton.

The radical ontological priority of Christ and his church in the Christian life is made clear over and over in the Bible. Let us compare what the Bible says, for example, about the church and another sphere that might be considered its greatest competitor for loyalty: the family.

When challenged that he had been ignoring the call of his family members, Jesus replies, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50 NIV)

The message is clear: the bonds of Christian fraternity far surpass those of familial relations. These natural relations are understood to function in the world but are juxtaposed against the spiritual bonds of the church, as Jesus asks, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13 NIV) One could not ask for a clearer distinction between common and special grace.

Indeed, natural familial bonds must be upset and reordered in the face of the Gospel. Jesus predicts that “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22 NIV)

So the church will be opposed by the world, but it too must also respond in kind. The loyalties of the Christian must rest in their ultimate expression solely in Jesus Christ. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27 NIV)

In an important sense, the cross of the Christian life is a testimony to the priority of the spiritual over the natural, the eternal over temporal. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38 NIV, emphasis added)

This priority of the spiritual over the natural does not merely reorder the Christian relationship to the family. In reorienting the Christian to this most fundamental natural bond, how much more does this conversion redefine the Christian’s relationship to more diffused spheres?

With respect to national, racial, or political loyalties, Franz Hildebrandt utilizes the Gospel to show the anti-Christian beliefs of Christians in league with the Nazis. On the eve of the national church election in 1933, in which the German Christians would seize power and place the church under the sway of Hitler, Hildebrandt circulates an election pamphlet, comparing the views of the German Christians to the Bible. He writes, in part:

The German Christians say: A godless fellow-countryman is nearer to us than one of another race, even if he sings the same hymn or prays the same prayer. (Hossenfelder, Hamburg)
The Bible says: Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Mark 3. 35)
No Rusty Swords, p. 210

The church, in both its organic or institutional form, is not merely just another valid sphere for living Christian life, along with family, business, or politics. It precedes all of these in importance for every Christian, because of its spiritual unity and solidarity as the body of Christ.

All spheres are not equally important, and all vocations are not equally commendable. Let us never forget the pastoral task of the minister of the Word, the shepherd who feeds Christ’s sheep (see John 21:15-19), is most important, weighty, serious, and worthy vocation to which a person can ever be called. And the Reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should not be construed to mean that the ministerial task is just as important as the task of the plumber, but rather that the task of the Christian, whether minister or plumber, involves a commitment to the Great Commission. As Armstrong writes, “Every-member ministry is not just a 1970s fad, it is the biblical model lost throughout much of the church’s history.”

The water of Christian baptism is thicker than the blood of natural flesh. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10 NIV)

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.