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On Ministry


  1. The Church bases its life on the sending of Christ into the world and the sending of the Holy Spirit that men and women may be joined to Christ in his service; its authority is inseparable from its service in the world which is the object of God's creative and reconciling love. As servants of their servant Lord, ministers of the Church must serve the world with wisdom and patience. Without lively personal discipleship, there can be no credible exercise of office. At the same time, those who bear office in the Church must adhere to the promise that the Lord determines to build up his community even through imperfect servants. Our common effort at a deeper common understanding of the nature of ministry in the Church has also to be motivated by concern for the service of the Church in the world.


  2. The whole Church is apostolic. To be an apostle means to be sent, to have a particular mission. The notion of mission is essential for understanding the ministry of the Church. As Christ is sent by the Father, so the Church is sent by Christ. But this mission of the Church has not simply a Christological reference. The sending of Christ and the equipment of the Church in his service are also works of the Holy Spirit. The mission of the Holy Spirit belongs to the constitution of the Church and her ministry, not merely to their effective functioning. Too often, imbalances in theologies of the ministry are the result and sign of an insufficiently trinitarian theology. It is by the power of the Spirit that the Lord sustains his people in their apostolic vocation. This power manifests itself in a variety of ways which are charismata - gracious gifts of the one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:4ff). Guided by and instrumental to the work of God in this world, the Church has a charismatic character.

  3. The Church is apostolic because it lives the faith of the original apostles, continues the mission given by Christ to them, and remains in the service and way of life testified to by those apostles. The canonical scriptures are the normative expression of this apostolicity. It is within the normative expression of this apostolicity contained in the New Testament that a witness is given to the special ministry given by Christ to the Twelve, and to Peter within that circle of Twelve.

  4. The extension of Christ's ministry, including his priestly office, belongs to all members of his body (cf. 1 Petr 2:5-9). Each member contributes to that total ministry in a different fashion; there is a distribution of diverse gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:4-11), and every baptized believer exercises his or her share in the total priesthood differently. This calling to the priesthood of all those who share in the body of Christ by baptism does not mean that there are no particular functions which are proper to the special ministry within the body of Christ.

    Special Ministry

  5. Within apostolicity in general there is a special ministry to which the administration of Word and Sacrament is entrusted. That special ministry is one of the charismata for the exercise of particular services within the whole body. Ordination, or setting apart for the exercise of these special services, takes place within the context of the believing community. Hence consultation with that community, profession of faith before that community, and liturgical participation by that community belong to the process of ordination. This is important to underline because we need to go beyond an understanding of ordination which suggests that those consecrated to the special ministry are given a potestas and derive a dignity from Christ without reference to the believing community.

  6. The liturgical validation at the time of the act of ordination includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit ("epiclesis") with the laying on of hands by other ordained ministers. The invocation of the Holy Spirit is a reminder of the essential role which the doctrine of the Trinity must fulfil in any balanced understanding of the ministry. It gives proper weight both to Jesus Christ's historical and present action and to the continual operation of the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands is an efficacious sign which initiates and confirms the believer in the ministry conferred. It is not the community which produces and authorizes the office but the living Christ who bestows it on the community and incorporates this office into its life.

  7. The continuity of this special ministry of Word and Sacrament is integral to that dimension of Christ's sovereign and gracious presence which is mediated through the Church. The forgiveness of sins and call to repentance are the exercise of the power of the keys in the unbuilding of the Church. This power Christ entrusted to the apostles with the assurance of his continued presence to the end of the age. The apostolic continuity depends not only on Christ's original commission but also on his continual call and action.

    Apostolic Succession

  8. There are several senses of "apostolic succession" ; but when it is taken in its usual meaning to refer to the continuity of the special ministry, clearly it occurs within the apostolicity which belongs to the whole church. Reformed and Roman Catholic both believe that there is an apostolic succession essential to the life of the Church, though we locate that succession differently (see below). We agree that no one assumes a special ministry solely on personal initiative, but enters into the continuous special ministry of Word and Sacrament through the calling of the community and the act of ordination by other ministers.

  9. Apostolic succession consists at least in continuity of apostolic doctrine; but this is not in opposition to succession through continuity of ordained ministry. The continuity of right doctrine is guarded by the application of Holy Scripture and transmitted by the continuity of the teaching function of the special ministry. As with all aspects of the Church's ministry, so with the particular case of apostolic succession: it requires at once a historical continuity with the original apostles and a contemporary and graciously renewed action of the Holy Spirit. The Church lives by the continuity of the free gift of the Spirit according to Christ's promises, and this excludes a ritualistic conception of succession, the conception of mechanical continuity, a succession divorced from the historical community.

    Episkopé and Collegiality

  10. We agree that the basic structure of the Church and its ministry is collegial. When one is consecrated to the special ministry, one accepts the discipline of being introduced into a collegial function which includes being subject to others in the Lord and drawing on the comfort and admonition of fellow ministers.

    This "collegiality" is expressed on the Reformed side by the synodical polity, and, on the Roman Catholic side, by the episcopal college, the understanding of which is in process of further development. In the Reformed polity, the synod functions as a corporate episcopacy, exercising oversight of pastors and congregations. We consider it would be worth while to investigate in what ways the diverse functions of the Reformed office of elder could be further developed in a modern form and made fruitful in the life of the Church.

    We agree that the collegial structure must be expressed in different ways in different times and we have to be sensitive to the pluriformity of charismata. This principle of collegiality is not to be limited to the level of the synods, and in the Roman Catholic Church not to the episcopal college, neither to clergy only, but to be realized at all levels of church life. The vision of "Sobornost" may be a help here.

    Different Emphases within Both Traditions

  11. There are theological positions on the ministry which cut across confessional loyalties; different emphases are present in both traditions and are not as sharply to be sorted out along denominational lines as has been commonly thought. Some emphasize the "over-againstness" of the Spirit and structure; some emphasize the Spirit's work to shape and animate structure. One position more or less deplores the restriction of apostolic succession, for example, to institutionalization by means of what it takes to be mere continuity of laying on of hands. Another position more or less rejoices in that institutionalization as another instance of Christ's mediating his gracious presence through earthen vessels. Some locate apostolic continuity almost entirely in the succession of apostolic proclamation, while others locate it in an unbroken continuity which also indispensably includes the laying on of hands.

  12. Some Reformed see God's fidelity as known mainly through his overcoming the Church's infidelity, and in this case tradition is seen as much as betrayal as transmission. Others, including Reformed and Roman Catholic, take a more confident view of the way the Church is able, by God's fidelity, to sustain a faithful deliverance of that which was once received. Some see in an application of the analogy of the incarnation to ecclesiology a de-emphasis on the work of the Spirit and the Lordship of Christ over the Church. Others see incarnational analogies appropriately applied to the Church when set in a trinitarian context which provides for the dynamic of Christ's work through the Holy Spirit. This may mean that one point of convergence is that no one wishes to speak of the Church as "extension of Incarnation" but that real divergence occurs among us in the way we use incarnational language about the Church.

    Different Emphases between the Two Traditions

  13. The divergences which do exist between Roman Catholic and Reformed doctrines of the ministry often arise less from conceptions which are objectively different than from differences of mentality which lead them to accentuate differently elements which are part of a common tradition. In any event, there are differences of doctrine which lie behind the varied ways ministerial office is dealt with in the Reformed and the Roman Catholic perspectives. We are not to minimize the way the doctrinal differences have been shaped in part by particular cultural, sociological, economic factors as well as different nuances of spirituality.

  14. Both Roman Catholic and Reformed theology are particularly aware of the importance of the structure of the Church for the fulfilment of its commission. The Roman Catholic Church, in this regard, has derived a predominantly hierarchical ordering from the Lordship of Christ, whereas, from the same Lordship of Christ, the Reformed Church has decided for a predominantly presbyteral-synodal organization. Today both sides are taking a fresh look at the sense of the Church as it appears in images of the early Church.

  15. IThere is a difference in the way each tradition approaches the question of how far and in what way the existence of the community of believers and its union with Christ and especially the celebration of the Eucharist necessitates an ordained office bearer in the Church. In how far does the institutional connection with the office of Peter and the office of bishop belong to the regularly appointed ministry in the Church? For Roman Catholics, connection with the Bishop of Rome plays a decisive role in the experience of Catholicity. For the Reformed, catholicity is most immediately experienced through membership in the individual community. When it comes to the relations between ministry and sacrament, the Roman Catholics find that the Reformed minimize the extent to which God, in his plan for salvation, has bound himself to the Church, the ministry and the sacraments. The Reformed find that too often Roman Catholic theology minimizes the way the Church, the ministry and the sacraments remain bound to the freedom and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

    Open questions

  16. As with our dialogue about the Eucharist so with our dialogue about Ministry we have come to recognize some continuing questions which we face in common. These questions confront both traditions and we need each other in the future to come to an even fuller understanding of Ministry.

    How essential are the distinctions of rank within the ministry ? What theological significance is to be assigned to the distinction between bishop, priest and deacon ? Can it be said that in many cases the ordained pastor exercises the episcopal office?

    What closer definition can we give to the tension between office and charisma?

    How are we to define more closely the relation between office and priesthood which has traditionally been very differently understood in the different churches?

    Does the distinctive feature of the office consist in the role of president, understanding this presidency not as a title of honor but rather as a ministry for the unbuilding of the Church: as leadership, proclamation, administration of the sacraments?

    On the other hand, how do we view the tendency to make the task of leadership and administration independent of the actual exercise of preaching and administering the sacraments?

    What place is there for a real theological understanding of the ministry between the Western emphasis on legal organization and the Eastern emphasis on the relationship to liturgy?
    How are we to understand the principle of corporate leadership of the congregation as developed in the Reformed tradition, and how is the relation between pastors and elders to be ordered?

  17. What is the meaning of the laying on of hands: mission, transfer of a polestar, or incorporation into an order?

    To what extent can the laying on of hands with an invocation of the Holy Spirit be described as a "sacrament"?

    What conditions (in substance and in form) are to be envisaged for a mutual recognition of ministries?

    What meaning is to be given to the term defeats? Can a ministry be called in question or be nullified as such by a formal defeats - or can the latter be compensated by reference to the faith of the Church?

    To what extent can abuses in the Church's ministries be dealt with by institutional measures? Examples of abuses: false doctrine of the leader or the majority, triumphalism, mechanical conception of ordination, church personality cults, dominance of the structure.

    - Possibilities of correction in the direction of the collegiality principle (reference of the one to the other - combination of the hierarchical with the synodal pattern).

  18. A particularly urgent question, it seems to us, is the extent to which our reflections concerning the ministry are determined by distinctive Western thought patterns and historical experiences. To what extent is our concern with the past a hindrance rather than a stimulation to the development of a new shape of ministry? How can we be faithful at the same time to insights of the Christian tradition and to new experiments of the people of God?

    These questions aim at further clarifying the nature of the total ministry which belongs to the whole people of God, and of the special ministry within it. Such further clarification is necessary for the continual reform and edification of the Church as a fit instrument of Christ's service in the world.

[Information Service 35 (1977/III-IV) 18-33]

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