What Does It Mean to Be a “Minister”?
1, 2. (a) What ideas does the word “minister” bring to mind in different countries? (b) What do we need to note about the modern use of the word as compared with its earlier use?
WHEN you see or hear the word “minister” in some languages, of what do you think? In the language of some lands, the corresponding word refers only to a political official, such as a “Minister of Justice” or a “Prime Minister.” But in lands with languages that are based on or strongly influenced by Latin (where the term originated), the word “minister” may also call to one’s mind a religious official, generally a Protestant or Evangelical clergyman.
2 Actually, the word “minister” as used today and as understood by most people has a meaning quite different from what it had in the early centuries of the Common Era. And in the same way it has a meaning that is quite different from the meaning of the Greek word di·aʹko·nos as used in the inspired Greek Scriptures of the Bible, though this Greek word is often translated in various languages as “minister.” What is the difference, and how did it come about?
3, 4. (a) What was the original sense of the Latin word mi·nisʹter, and so what use was made of it in translating the Bible? (b) What change took place in the use of the term, and due to what circumstances?
3 Back in the early centuries of the Common Era the Greek word di·aʹko·nos and the Latin word mi·nisʹter meant basically the same thing: a servant, such as an attendant, a waiter, or other personal servant. And so, when the Bible began to be translated into Latin, mi·nisʹter was the word generally chosen for rendering diaʹko·nos. But in course of time the idea of humble service began to disappear from the term as it was used. In considerable measure this was because of the apostasy from true Christianity that took place.
4 Speaking to Ephesian elders, the apostle Paul forewarned them that, after his going away, “oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” Such selfish men would not operate on the principle that “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” (Acts 20:29, 30, 35) Their course would betray that they were not God’s servants but servants of his adversary.—2 Cor. 11:12-15, Int.
5. What did the Scripturally foretold apostasy result in, and what effect did it have on the superintendence and direction of the Christian congregations?
5 This foretold apostasy is what eventually produced Christendom, with its many religions and its clergy and laity divisions. However, there were no such distinctions in the early congregation, as M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopaedia (Vol. VIII, pp. 355, 356) points out with regard to “elders”:
“As no specific account is given of the mode of their first appointment, we are left to infer that it may have occurred as a natural designation of respect for seniority . . . , somewhat after the analogy of eldership among the Jews.”
The Cyclopædia goes on to say that later “the apostles recognized, possibly appointed,” elders, and adds:
“There would exist in every body of elders the necessity of a presidency or primacy for the purpose of general superintendence and direction. Thus one of the number would be designated, either by seniority or formal choice, as a primus inter pares [first among equals], who should serve as overseer (ἐπίσκοπος of the body and the flock under them.”
Further, the Cyclopædia states concerning the overseer’s position:
“Nothing in its original character would prevent its being held in rotation by several elders in the same church or diocese, yet a successful administration of it would tend to its perpetuation in the same individual. Hence it soon became an office for life.”
So, one elder or overseer came to exercise permanent primacy over the others, excluding others from privileges enjoyed. In this way congregational direction by a body of elders was gradually eliminated.a
6. (a) What is meant by a “monarchical” arrangement as regards the congregations, and what contributed to the development of such an arrangement? (b) Do the Scriptures show that concentration of authority in one person is the Christian way to maintain genuine unity of faith and belief? If not, then what is the means by which to do so?
6 Thus a “monarchical” arrangement developed, that is, a system where administrative authority and privilege were vested in one person to the exclusion of others. (Compare 1 Corinthians 4:8.) Jerome (of the fourth century C.E.) is quoted as saying that the supremacy of a single overseer (e·piʹsko·pos) came about ‘by custom rather than by the Lord’s actual appointment,’ being a means used to prevent divisions. Hence, the view was that unity could best be maintained by placing great authority in one person who would, by his increased power, be able to ‘keep in line’ any who disagreed. (Compare 1 Samuel 8:4-7, 19, 20.) By contrast, the apostle Peter urged fellow elders to shepherd the flock in their mutual care, not “as lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock,” humbly submitting to one another. (1 Pet. 5:1-6) The apostle Paul also shows that it would be by ‘holding firmly to the faithful word in his teaching’ that an overseer would be able to “exhort by the teaching that is healthful and to reprove those who contradict.” They were to show faith in the power of the truth and of God’s holy spirit.—Titus 1:7, 9-11, 13; compare 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
7. What effect did the apostasy have on the use of the Scriptural terms for those having congregational assignments of responsibility? And how was this true of the Greek term for “overseer”?
7 Because of the apostasy, the Bible terms used for those serving their brothers in responsible positions in the congregation in time came to take on a different meaning. The Greek term e·piʹsko·pos, meaning “overseer,” originally described each and all of the elders who had the duty of looking out for or overseeing the interests of the congregation, caring for their spiritual welfare like a shepherd. (Acts 20:28) But the English word “bishop” (drawn from e·piʹsko·pos through the Latin e·piʹsco·pus) came to stand for a religious official who exercised dominant authority over many congregations in a wide area. This culminated in the development of the papacy in which one overseer, the bishop of Rome, claimed primacy and the sole right to preside over and direct all Christian overseers and congregations everywhere.
8. What similar change took place as regards the term “minister”?
8 Similarly with the word “minister.” In Latin this word was used to translate the Greek di·aʹko·nos and, hence, originally meant a “servant,” and, in a religious sense, one of the body of congregational “servants” that worked along as assistants to the body of elders. Since then “minister” has come to refer to a religious official who generally has sole and complete administrative authority over a congregation or church (though larger groups might have ‘assistant pastors’). He is thus viewed as God’s special servant (minister) in that congregation. In many countries today the word “minister” is used almost exclusively of Protestant clergymen, as distinguished from Catholic priests (the term “priest” being drawn from the Greek pre·sbyʹte·ros [elder] through the Latin presʹby·ter). In Latin America, for example, if a person introduces himself as a “minister” he is often thought of as a Protestant preacher, one who teaches a congregation from a pulpit in a Protestant church building.
9. Contrast the modern idea conveyed by the world “minister” with the meaning the term had in Latin back in the early centuries of the Common Era.
9 Thus a term that initially expressed humility and lowliness has come to be one that implies a relatively high position in the community. In ancient times a Latin-speaking person who introduced himself as a minister might mean thereby that he worked as somebody’s house servant, like a butler or maid. But today the title of “minister” is generally one of considerable worldly eminence and prestige, according the person a standing along with men such as doctors, lawyers and professional men in various fields. This is very different from the sense in which the word di·aʹkonos is used in quotations of Jesus’ statements. As we have seen in preceding articles, in his statements a di·aʹko·nos (servant or minister) is placed along with a “slave” and as the opposite of those viewed as “great” or “first.” (Matt. 20:26-28) So, just as with the word “bishop” (e·piʹsko·pos, overseer), ecclesiastical usage has obscured the original meaning of the Latin word mi·nisʹter in the minds of most persons.
10. (a) What do these ecclesiastical perversions make necessary for us as students of God’s Word? (b) If a Bible translation uses the word “minister” to translate the Greek word di·aʹko·nos, what mental picture should the world then bring to our minds?
10 What does it mean for us if we are sincere students of God’s Word? It means that whenever we read the term “minister” in a translation of the Bible we need to adjust our thinking and recall the original meaning of that term, otherwise we will fail to get the point of Jesus’ counsel and of the inspired expressions of his apostles and disciples. Rather than our getting the mental picture of a person in fine or formal dress, having unusual speaking ability and administrative ability, we would get a more fitting mental picture of a di·aʹko·nos or minister (in the original Latin sense of the term) as being that of an unpretentious servant of God walking down a dusty road in the heat of the sun, or perhaps of someone wearing an apron as he served others at a table.—Compare 2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Luke 17:8.
11, 12. (a) How extensive is the use of the term “minister” in a religious sense throughout the world? (b) How does the German translation of the book Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose illustrate problems that can arise in translating this term?
11 It is also worthy of mention that many, in fact, most, languages have no term that corresponds to the English word “minister” in its religious sense. Latin-based languages, such as Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, do have such a term. But in languages such as German or Dutch or in the languages of Scandinavia (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish) and in the Slavic languages (Polish, Russian and others), as well as in languages of Asia and other parts of the world, there is no corresponding word for “minister.” In Germany the ordained clergyman is called “religious servant.”
12 To illustrate, in the English edition of the book Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, page 223, reference is made to the claim that “all of Jehovah’s witnesses who regularly and customarily teach and preach the gospel are ministers.” In the German edition, the last portion of this statement says that they are “preachers, that is clergymen,” and the English word “ministers” is inserted in brackets (Prediger bzw. Geistliche [ministers]). On the same page, in quoting from a communication of the Selective Service System of the United States, in which the term “ministers of religion” is used, the German edition of this book again uses the German word for “preachers” and follows it by the German word for “clergymen” in brackets (“Prediger” [Geistliche]”).
13, 14. (a) Where the New World Translation has been translated into languages not based on or influenced by Latin, what terms are used in place of “minister” and “ministry”? (b) In place of “ministerial servant,” what expressions do some of these translations use?
13 Similarly in other cases, when the New World Translation of the Bible was translated into such languages as Danish, German, Dutch and Japanese, in all instances where the English words “minister,” “ministry,” and the verb forms of “to minister” were used, it was necessary to translate these by terms meaning “servant,” “service,” or forms of “to serve” in those languages.
14 In Japanese, for example, a composite word, ho·shi-sha (“humbly-serving person”) is used to translate di·aʹko·nos. The expression “ministerial servants” found in the English edition of the New World Translation is rendered in Danish by a Danish word meaning “congregational servants”; in Swedish the expression “assisting servant” is used; while in German the term Dienstamtgehilfe appears, meaning, literally, “service office assistant.”
15, 16. (a) While not quibbling about words, what proper concern should Christians have as to the use of Bible terms? (b) How will they manifest this in their presentation of the good news to people of all nations?
15 Words are simply vehicles used to convey ideas from one mind to another. The important thing is that the correct idea be transmitted. Among Christians in particular, unity of thought and harmony of viewpoint is vital. As the inspired apostle says at 1 Corinthians 1:10: “You should all speak in agreement, and . . . there should not be divisions among you, but [you should] be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”
16 This gives added reason for our keeping in mind the Bible thought of a humble servant, rather than the common thought of a religious preacher, if we read or make use of the term “minister” as standing for the Greek term di·aʹko·nos. As part of a worldwide congregation, we will try not to formulate our ideas of Christianity or of its standards on the basis of any one term, especially if that term is peculiar to certain languages, but is not found in others. We will always seek to use expressions that are understandable and that clearly express the correct thought. To the degree possible and to the extent that translation allows, these should be expressions that are easily grasped by people of all kinds, wherever they may live or whatever language they may speak. For, as the apostle Paul also said: “Unless you through the tongue utter speech easily understood, how will it be known what is being spoken? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.”—1 Cor. 14:9.
WHERE DOES “ORDINATION” FIT IN?
17. What does the word “ordain” mean?
17 As used in English, the word “ordain” means “to invest with ministerial or sacerdotal [priestly] functions: introduce into the office of the Christian ministry by the laying on of hands or by other forms: set apart by the ceremony of ordination.”—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
18, 19. (a) In what sense might all true disciples of Christ Jesus be said to be “ministers”? (b) Do all those who become baptized servants of God receive an “appointment” to particular assignments of congregational service and responsibility?
18 All those becoming genuine disciples of Christ Jesus become “servants” of God. According to the old meaning of the Latin word, they could all be called “ministers,” for the Latin word originally meant the same thing: “servants.” As we have seen, however, the Bible does show that some are “servants” in an appointive sense, having a congregational ‘appointment’ to serve in a particular assignment of service, as in the instance of elders or assistant servants.—Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:1-13.
19 These do not receive such appointment through baptism. The apostle Paul was not referring to baptism when he wrote Timothy, “Never lay your hands hastily upon any man,” but was referring to the action of appointing a man to a congregational assignment of service and the responsibility that went with it. (1 Tim. 5:22; compare 1 Timothy 3:1-15.) Paul himself, along with Barnabas, had been ‘set apart’ for a certain work by holy spirit. The body of elders at Antioch, in recognition of this, then “laid their hands upon them.”—Acts 13:1-5; compare the action of the apostles in ‘appointing’ the “seven certified men” to handle a certain assignment of service, as recorded at Acts 6:1-6.
20, 21. How do the examples of Paul, Timothy and Archippus illustrate that certain congregation members are “servants” or “ministers” in an appointive sense, by congregational assignment?
20 So, while all true Christians (brothers and sisters alike) serve (or “minister”), only some of them are appointed to a particular service in a congregation. But this does not mean that the brothers and sisters who do not have such an appointment are a laity class. When the apostle Paul said: “I set no store by life; I only want to finish the race, and complete the task [di·a·ko·niʹa; the service, Int; the ministry, NW] which the Lord Jesus assigned to me, of bearing my testimony to the gospel,” he was evidently referring to the special assignment of service he received to “bring [Jesus’] name before the nations” or Gentiles. (Acts 20:24; 9:15, NE; compare Acts 21:19; 1 Timothy 1:12; Colossians 1:25.) At Romans 11:13 he says: “Forasmuch as I am, in reality, an apostle to the nations, I glorify my ministry [di·a·ko·niʹa; service, Int].”—Compare also Acts 1:15-17, 20-25.
21 Similarly, when Paul wrote to Timothy, “do all the duties of your calling [fully accomplish your ministry (di·a·ko·niʹa), NW],” he was referring to the particular assignment of service entrusted to Timothy in Ephesus, where he was left to help correct certain congregational problems. (2 Tim. 4:5; NE; 1 Tim. 1:3, 4) At Colossians 4:17 (NE) Paul gave “this special word” to Archippus: “Attend to the duty [di·a·ko·niʹa; ministry, NW] entrusted to you in the Lord’s service, and discharge it to the full.” While all the other disciples there in Colossae were servants of God, Archippus had evidently received some kind of specific assignment of service, doubtless accompanied by the laying on of hands by a body of elders.
“ORDAINED” SERVANTS IN CONGREGATIONS
22. In the sense that the word “ordained” is used today, to whom would it apply, in harmony with Scriptural precedents set by Christ Jesus and his apostles?
22 What do we see then? That, though Jesus had many disciples, he selected twelve, ‘choosing’ and ‘appointing’ them, as apostles. (Mark 3:14, 15; Luke 6:12, 13; John 15:16) We see that Paul and Barnabas were specially “appointed” from among the disciples in Antioch to carry the good news to the nations. (Acts 13:47) Also, that Paul told the Ephesian elders that they were “appointed” by holy spirit to serve the rest of the congregation. (Acts 20:17, 28) In all these cases such appointment came, not at the time of their baptism, but subsequent thereto. So today there are, in the congregations of God’s people, men (usually baptized for some time) who are appointed to serve the congregation in certain assigned capacities. Those who have received such congregational appointments to particular services may be said to be “ordained,” in the sense in which the word is used today.b
23, 24. (a) How do governmental agencies generally understand the expression “ordained minister” as applying, and if this expression came up in an inquiry by them, how should one reply? (b) Would it be reasonable to refer to people in a territory where public witnessing is done as one’s “congregation” and to their doorsteps as one’s “pulpit”?
23 In view of all of this, what should one do if, as at times occurs, a governmental agency inquires into the profession or position of citizens? By them, the expression “ordained minister” is understood to mean one who is an appointed caretaker and server of spiritual things to a congregation, one who acts as a “pastor” or shepherd of a congregation. Dictionaries, for example, give the generally understood ecclesiastical definition of a “minister” as “one authorized to conduct religious services.” By the term “minister” such governmental agencies do not describe or mean the service that every individual Christian may perform in his or her personal efforts to share the good news with others. In answering the inquiries, then, one would reasonably reply in harmony with what the official inquirers are seeking to know, rather than imposing one’s own definition on such terms.
24 People would not expect, for example, a house-to-house publisher to say that the “congregation” that he serves consists of the families in a territory where witnessing is done, inasmuch as the people living in that area may not themselves recognize or accept the one doing the witnessing as their “minister,” and may, in fact, belong to a religion of their own. Similarly, would they properly understand the reply if we refer to the doorstep of the people there as the “pulpit” of the bearer of the good news, even if he gives what he calls a 3-minute or a 5-minute “sermon”? Such “pulpit” is generally understood to be the speaker’s stand in the building to which the public in general are invited to come.
25. If one does have a congregational appointment to service, what date could he give as his date of “ordination”?
25 Of course, if one actually has been appointed by the duly authorized men to a particular position of service, he can so reply and can give, as the time of his “ordination,” the date—not of his baptism—but of the time when the Christian appointive body, in effect, ‘laid hands upon him’ by giving him such appointment.
26. Did all early Christians have a congregational appointment (or “ordination”) to a particular assignment of service, and did this affect their unity?
26 In the early Christian congregation all baptized believers were “anointed” with holy spirit, having a heavenly calling. Yet not all were apostles, prophets, teachers, elders or ministerial servants. So not all received an official appointment to some particular service after their baptism. Yet all served together, even as a body has many members that all cooperate together and have “the same care for one another,” as the apostle points out at 1 Corinthians 12:12-30.
27. What healthful attitude, then, should all of us gladly take today as regards our service to God and to our fellowman?
27 So, then, whether we have qualified for and received such an official appointment to a particular service and responsibility or not, may all of us serve together shoulder to shoulder to accomplish God’s will for our time. Let us all treasure and zealously use the privilege we hold in common of speaking the truth to others, sharing with others the good news that has brought light and hope into our lives.
a Douglas’ New Bible Dictionary (p. 158) also suggests that “monarchical episcopacy [overseership] appeared in the local congregations when some gifted individual acquired a permanent chairmanship of the board of presbyter-bishops [elder-overseers].”
Also, the Jerusalem Bible, in its footnote on Titus 1:5, says that “in the earliest days each Christian community was governed by a body of elders,” and refers to “the transformation of a local assembly ruled by a body . . . into an assembly ruled by a single bishop [overseer].”
b Acts 14:23 speaks of the work of Paul and Barnabas in cities of Asia Minor and says that they “appointed older men [elders] for them in [each] congregation.” Here, for the word “appointed,” the Authorized Version says “ordained.”