A sermon by Rod Benson
What makes us who we are? What distinctive passions and practices shape our identity as Christians who are known as Baptists? One of our distinctives is a commitment to shared ministry, or the priesthood of every believer, or “every-member ministry.”
The first time I entered a Baptist church was, as I recall, during my teenage years in Lae, Papua New Guinea. My family usually attended the Taun St congregation of the Evangelical Brotherhood Church of PNG, founded in Switzerland by Arminian Christian Fritz Berger in the nineteenth century, but one day we visited Taraka Baptist Church near the university where my father taught for many years.
There was no pastor. The preacher was a lecturer from the university, who taught from the Bible, although I have no recollection of what the sermon was about. Several people prayed. There were musicians with guitars, and I seem to recall various people contributing to the service who seemed to know what they were doing.
This is certainly not the experience of every church fellowship, but it is normative for countless thousands of churches around the world today, and has been for 2,000 years.
In his commentary on Ephesians, British Anglican pastor and author John Stott (who is thoroughly baptistic, or biblical, when it comes to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers) asks: What model of the church should we keep in mind (as we read the New Testament)? He responds:
The traditional model is that of the pyramid, with the pastor perched precariously on its pinnacle, like a little pope in his own church, while the laity are arranged beneath him in serried ranks of inferiority. It is a totally unbiblical image, because the New Testament envisages not a single pastor with a docile flock but both a plural oversight and an every-member ministry.
Not much better is the model of the bus, in which the pastor does all the driving while the congregation are the passengers slumbering in peaceful security behind him.
Quite different from either the pyramid or the bus is the biblical model of the body. The church is the body of Christ, every member of which has a distinctive function. Although the body metaphor can certainly accommodate a concept of a distinct pastorate (in terms of one ministry – and a very important one – among many), there is simply no room in it either for a hierarchy or for that kind of bossy clericalism which concentrates all ministry in the hands of one man and denies the people of God their own rightful ministries.
This is precisely what we find when we consider Ephesians 4:1-16. The same may be said about the increasing tendency today to concentrate spiritual authority (power) in the hands of a single individual, either in the local church or in the denominational association.
Such trends deny the people of God their freedom of conscience, and their freedom to serve God as God calls them to serve. Such trends also deny local congregations their freedom to organise and appoint leaders as they see fit. Such trends are not in keeping with the Baptist approach to church life and governance, and will ultimately result in schism and ruin unless accompanied by rigorous accountability.
The Bible teaches that all of God’s people are gifted for ministry (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:4-12; Eph 4:1-16; 1 Pet 4:10f). The church membership roll should serve as the church ministry roll. See especially Ephesians 4:1, 7, 16. We are not all called to lead, but we are all saved to serve. All of us, without exception.
As Paul Beasley-Murray makes clear in his book about the identity and mission of Baptists, titled Radical Believers, when it comes to a specific church model or structure, “Scripture is no guide in terms of detail. What is important is that there is shared leadership. Baptists do not conceive the task of a pastor being to ‘run’ the church on his or her own.”
One of the great biblical truths that Baptists emphasise is that every Baptist church is under the direct rule of Jesus Christ. There are no exceptions. Further, the rule of Jesus Christ is expressed in servant-leadership. In the Gospels, “his authority lay not in bossiness but in servanthood shown in the way of life he led, the truth he spoke and in his dedication to serving God and his people.”
The practical teaching of Ephesians 4 rests on the profound doctrinal foundations of chapters 1-3, which expound God’s amazing grace and eternal plan revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and whose goal is the summing up of all things in Christ. His resurrection victory and glory qualify him to “fill the whole universe.”
That’s quite a claim! The fullness of that totalising vision awaits its fulfilment at the end of history as we know it, but in the meantime there is work to do.
In view of what God reveals through his word in chapters 1-3, we are called to work hard to live in keeping with our divine calling (v. 1). We are called to pursue and protect “the unity of the Spirit” with eagerness and passion (vv. 2-3). Verses 4-6 declare “a seven-fold confession of the unifying realities of the faith, which provide a strong motivation for the appeal for unity.”
Then Paul moves on from the theme of unity to an emphasis on the necessary diversity and harmony we should expect among members of the local church (vv. 7-16). Note especially the phrase “each one” in verses 7 and 16, book-ending the section.
Each one of us is saved by grace; each one of us is saved to serve. “Saving grace” is the divine grace which saves sinners, and is given to all in equal measure; “serving grace” is “the grace which equips God’s people to serve [and] is given in differing degrees according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Walk into almost any Baptist church service, and you’re likely to find a preacher, usually a paid pastor or a visiting evangelist. You may also find a team of others, mostly volunteers, including a service leader or worship leader, musicians, someone leading public prayer, another sharing missionary news, and Sunday School teachers.
Perhaps not immediately obvious, but often listed somewhere in the church bulletin or order of service, you’ll find reference to a church secretary, treasurer, other administrative staff and volunteers, ushers, elders, deacons, missionaries, pastoral carers, cleaners, offering stewards, communion stewards, sound desk technicians, janitors, bus coordinators, and more. Each one has a task to attend to. Each one is gifted and has a job to do, a place to serve.
Malcolm Goodspeed makes the important point that
the title ‘priest’ [the office of a religious professional], which was common to Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, was never used by the first Christians for a church leader or office holder. The significance of this is that it was the believers who exercised priesthood together in bringing the world to God and God to the world (1 Peter 2:9). All were priests, not only the leaders. Leaders had the responsibility of enabling the church to fulfil that task.
Goodspeed goes on:
From the New Testament we learn of several kinds of leadership that enable the church to follow God’s ways to greater effect. The words used to describe leaders point to the functions carried out rather than to their positions … Some came from the Jewish background and others from the Greek or Roman world of city government and pagan religion.
This is the Baptist way of organising church and ministry: a plurality of ministry leaders, and everyone a minister, everyone a priest serving God together.
There was a time, not too long ago, when many Christians assumed that verse 12 taught that only ordained ministers were called to do the work of ministry. A “fatal comma” was inserted after the first phrase in the verse, in the first edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, implying that clergy, and clergy alone, had three primary responsibilities: to equip the people, to perform works of service, and to build up the body of Christ.
But no! The truth is that the risen Jesus has given gifts to all of his redeemed people to equip all of them for the work of ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. As Peter O’Brien observes:
The presence of gifted persons within the body makes us dependent on one another, and as every Christian fully utilizes his or her gifts for the growth of the body, divine fullness will be experienced.
Those are wonderful, promising, challenging words. As I conclude, let me ask you some questions:
What is God calling you to do in service for Jesus (v. 1)?
What gift of “grace” has Jesus given to you, empowering you for service (v. 7)?
What “works of service” does God have in mind for you (v. 12)?
As a member of the “body of Christ” here at Lithgow Baptist Church, where do you fit? What is your role?
What are you doing, or what should you do, to ensure that the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (v. 16)?
Sermon 668 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 24 April 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester: IVP, 1979), p. 167.
 Paul Beasley-Murray, Radical Believers (Wallingford, UK: Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1992), p. 92.
 Malcolm Goodspeed, “Leadership in the local church,” in Derek Tidball & Gerald Ball, Baptist Basics (Glebe, NSW: Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996), p. 32.
 Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 273f.
 Stott, Ephesians, p. 155.
 Goodspeed, p. 33, emphasis added.
 O’Brien, Ephesians, p. 316.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.