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Daniel MacDonald: A Trinitarian Order and Approach to the Meaning of Ministry

What does it means to be separated out for a specific, accountable ministry within the priesthood of all believers? It originates with a sense of call from God. A rich theology of ministry, therefore, does not begin with the lens of ecclesiology – what might be understood as the church ordaining individuals to address the needs of the Church – but rather with Christology and pneumatology, understanding that ordination is the church’s own recognition and acceptance of an individual’s capacity and gifts for specific, accountable, and authoratative leadership within the church. Ordination is at once an act of official acceptance by the ordinand of the vocational gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit; of recognition by the Church that the teachings of Christ will continue to be faithfully communicated and safe-guarded through the example and ministry of this individual; and of commitment by both the individual, the local community and the wider Church to continue to work to build up the mission of God through a community of faith, embodying that mission in thought, word and deed.

Never, according to biblical interpretation, was ordination meant to cause a separation that denied the dynamic power and ultimate holiness of God. Like all other expressions of ministry, separation for a specific, accountable ministry is a gift of the Holy Spirit and it is to that Spirit that the ordained are accountable. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you… Devote yourself to [it]” writes Timothy (1 Tim. 4: 14-15), “rekindle the gift of God that is within you… for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1: 6-7).  This is a high calling which Timothy reminds us again, is not to be taken lightly or rushed into (1 Tim. 5: 21-22).

This act originates from and is mediated by God and is not self-determined or egocentric. In fact, through ordination, the individual becomes a relational entity; inextricably linked to both Christ and the Church Universal. Therefore, the fullest theology of ministry is one which is grounded in the relationality of ministry, measuring functionality in degrees of collaboration rather than responsibility.  The inherent relationality of ordination is not merely the result of any ecclesial authority, but also the dynamic power of God through the Holy Spirit. It is because of the involvement of the Holy Spirit that the very being of the ordinand is altered, and it is because of the movement of that same Spirit through a specific ecclesial body that the ordinand’s relationship to the Church, both at the local level and within the universal Church, is changed.

            A Song of Faith affirms that it is through ministry and other gifts of the Spirit that the Church is meant “to embody God’s love in the world”. This conviction implies that through all acts of recognition and reception such as baptism, confirmation, commissioning or ordination, one’s being is fundamentally changed into an embodiment of Divine love. This makes clear that ordination does not confer any special or divine favour – what might be termed ontological superiority – instead, it acknowledges that all who participate in the wide range of ministries of the Church, through their commitment to embody the love of God in the world, are fundamentally changed. To maintain an ordered and ordained stream of ministry alongside this  belief supports and emphasizes a perichoretic theology of ministry in which each minister, ordained or otherwise, not only functions a certain way, but represents certain characteristics and persons within the dance of the Trinity. Perhaps the blending of functions that has been occurring within our denomination will give us a chance to highlight the representational and collaborative nature of all our ministries, living into an embodied perichoresis. We affirm that ministry often takes a prophetic shape. Could it be that our existing models of ministry are now challenging us in prophetic ways?

The overlapping functions of the various streams of specific, accountable ministry have confused the larger discussion about the meaning of ministry. Perhaps, therefore, it would be more appropriate to speak in terms of privileges and vocation. Throughout our history and even within the traditions of our founding denominations, it has been clear that the specific privileges of ministry –  preaching, administering sacraments, pastoral care, worship leadership – have been understood as shared and not linked to specific offices; indeed, all of these privileges may be given to any member of the church provided the required training is received. Though these training processes may need revising, the question emerges: why have we maintained distinctive streams of ministry? Polity and societal influence may be the reasons, but I would suggest that vocation equally plays a role; not vocation in the sense which places one ministry over above another, but rather a sense of vocation which is grounded in a rich theology of ministry, acknowledging that “the ministry is an order for and within the Church”[1]. Although ordained and all specific, accountable ministry is deeply influenced by and rooted in an ecclesial body, it is even more devoted to embodying and proclaiming the mission and ministry of the triune God. In this way it is as equally of and for the Church as it is of and for the glory of God. The maintenance of distinctive streams of ordered and designated ministry does not confuse or obscure specific privileges. It sustains the richness of vocation and ensures the continuation of a people who seek to fully embody the love of a triune God.

What forms of ministry will faithfully and effectively serve the life of the church into the future? They are those which acknowledge that ministry is as much an ecclesial matter as it is a commitment to living out the perichoretic dance of the Trinity to the glory of God.

Daniel MacDonald is a Master of Divinity student at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. He is a candidate for ministry through Four Winds Presbytery, Bay of Quinte Conference.

[1] Draft of a Statement Concerning Ordination to the Ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, The Methodist Church, the Congregationalist Churches in Canada and the United Church of Canada (Toronto: The United Church of Canada, 1926), 74.

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