Christian Ministry as Communion: Contributions of Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue to a Reformed Theology of Ecclesial Ministry

By Martin, Robert K. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Christian Ministry as Communion: Contributions of Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue to a Reformed Theology of Ecclesial Ministry


Martin, Robert K., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Among the churches that comprise the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, there seems to be little consensus regarding the nature of Christian ministry and the institutional forms through which it is expressed. At neither the local nor the denominational levels is there common agreement about what the church is. Is the church more like a nonprofit organization in the management of its institutional affairs, a social-service agency as it attempts to address the suffering in the world, an extended family that celebrates its kinship in Christ, a moral and civilizing force in society? Is there anything particularly unique about how the Body of Christ is socially constituted? Is Christian ministry to be characterized primarily by a prophetic activism against societal oppression, or by an ascetic lifestyle eschewing the comforts and distractions of the world, or perhaps by a priestly celebration and enjoyment of the best that the world has to offer? Is Christian ministry mainly directed to the devoted service of Go or of the world? Questions such as these often arise in discussions of Christian ministry and the nature of the church among clergy, laity, and theologians alike. However, these questions betray the cultural normativity out of which they arise.

Oftentimes, questions about the church and Christian ministry are severely limited by a kind of conventionalism that rarely breaks out of the normative categories of a modern, Western mindset, one that is aggressively imperialistic. Because of a pervasive lack of theological understanding about what the church is and how Christian life might be lived out truly in a plurality of cultural forms, never has there been a more urgent need for Reformed ecclesiology to retrace its roots to its true and rightful theological source in the Person and ministry of Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the historic fullness of the Reformed tradition. Never has there been a more urgent need for an ecclesiology that is theologically rooted in the long tradition of the church, philosophically sophisticated, and yet intelligible to members of local ecclesial bodies. I should like to call attention to and develop an understanding of the church and its common life within a Reformed perspective by drawing upon the shared insights generated by and associated with the historic dialogue between Reformed and Orthodox churches. This essay will not trace the historical development of Orthodox-Reformed discussions as such but, rather, will seek to discern in them possible clues of a fundamental structure by which the diversity of institutional forms and ministerial practices of churches may be more truly theologically oriented by the Holy Spirit as the sacramental embodiments of Christ's ministry.

The Ministry of the Body of Christ

The Latin root of "ministry" refers to the service performed by a person of inferior rank, that is, a servant. When one considers that the very Son of God condescended and emptied himself to become a servant of all according to the will of the Father, it is fitting that Christian ministry should likewise be considered a "service" to the incarnate God Who acts redemptively in and through the church for the sake of the world. Oriented to Christ and participating in Christ's own ministry through the Spirit, ecclesial ministry is a priestly and prophetic service to God and to the whole of creation. Historically, it has been helpful to identify at least five dimensions that together comprise Christian ministry: leitourgia, commonly interpreted as the worship of God; kerygma, the proclamation and enactment of the Word of God; diakonia, the service of Christians in and beyond the faith community; didache, which is identified with the teaching office and the continual expression of the kerygma for the edification of the faith community; and koinonia, the true form of community appropriate to Christian fellowship.(1) These five dimensions constitute the unity of Christian ministry only as each dimension is implied in the others and, reciprocally, as the others are implied in each.

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