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Article 23 — Of Ministering in the Congregation

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Posted by Rod Thomas, 25 Mar 2017

Rod Thomas unpacks what the 39 Articles say about calling to ordained ministry and its public authorisation.

XXIII — OF MINISTERING IN THE CONGREGATION
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

Committed disciples of Jesus Christ will periodically ask themselves how they can best serve the Lord within his church. For a number, this question will take the particular form of asking whether or not they ought to set their sights on the ordained ministry. They will then, with the encouragement of senior church representatives, start wondering whether they have a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ for ordained ministry. If they believe they do, then it may not seem right to them that anyone should deny them the opportunity of pursuing this goal.

Article 23 helps us to see this issue from a more biblical standpoint. The Bible has a number of things to say about a ‘calling.’ It stresses that the first and most fundamental calling is that of God who calls people to belong to his family (Romans 8:28-30). That same passage also tells us that once we have been adopted into his family, we are called to grow into the likeness of Christ.

However, when it comes to our role within the church, Article 23 reminds us that ‘calling’ is primarily something that congregations do towards particular individuals, through authorised representatives: ‘And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.’

So although as we shall see, the subjective prompting of the Holy Spirit has a part to play in deciding on ordination, a calling is primarily from other people. Thus in Titus 1:5, Paul gives to Titus the responsibility of appointing elders in every town and is given the characteristics for which he should look. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul tells Timothy to ‘entrust to faithful men’ what he has heard from Paul, so that they can teach others also. Timothy himself only received his gift when, according to 1 Timothy 4:14, the ’council of elders laid their hands’ on him. It seems therefore that ‘selection’ by others is the primary evidence of a calling to ordained ministry in an individual’s life.

The Church of England therefore takes an entirely biblical approach in having a selection process for those who are going to be put forward for ordination training. The fact that the selection process can be long drawn out and therefore frustrating to some, should not lead us to deny its place in church life.

What then should ‘selectors’ and ultimately bishops (i.e. those ‘who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation’) be looking for in determining whether or not to call people into the ordained ministry?

Both Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 emphasize that godliness of character is primary. This is to be looked for both in their personal conduct and habits as well as in their family relationships. They are to be ‘above reproach’ and therefore have a good public reputation. What is more they should not be recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6), lest they become ‘puffed up.’ These are such wise words since it is all too easy to fall in behind someone who is enthusiastic in their ministry, but whose lack of maturity has led them to glorify themselves rather than Christ.

There is an additional requirement for overseers/elders. According to 1 Timothy 3:2, they must be ‘able to teach’. Titus 1:9 puts it like this: ‘He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.’ The primary job of the ordained minister is to teach God’s word. This doesn’t just mean standing up every Sunday and declaring sound doctrine. Teaching certainly involves preaching, but it also involves helping people discover truths for themselves; building loving relationships and showing care, so that the message we convey has credibility; and it is about having the courage and sensitivity to know how to put it into practice in church life — so that members of our congregations can see we are taking the Bible’s teaching seriously.

The traditional view of ‘vocation’ is that this is the result of someone combining a gift with a personal inclination to use that gift in their everyday work. So if the Bible tells us that ‘gifts’ have to be recognised by others, does it have anything to say about our personal inclination?

The answer is ‘yes — but not much’! in 1 Corinthians 14:1 we read: ‘Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ — the context being that one of these gifts is teaching. And in 1 Timothy 3:1, ‘The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.’

The implication of these references is that individuals may expect to have an inner conviction, prompted by the Holy Spirit, that ordained ministry is the right avenue to pursue — but that on its own such a conviction does not yet amount to a calling. As Article 23 says: ‘It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.’

Rod Thomas is the Bishop of Maidstone. For more on what the Bible and the church say about calling and training for ministry, you can listen to this talk by Lee Gatiss on 2 Timothy 2 (mentioning Article 23) from last year's JAEC.

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