What is Ministry?

May 26, 2020 | Article, Bible Q & A, Christian Living, Podcast

What is ministry? The word “ministry” has a variety of contexts, and I think it’s something quite often misunderstood.

There’s a danger in thinking you are not really in ministry unless you are serving full time in a pastoral position.

I think this is quite mistaken thinking.

It is true that certain people are called by God to do specific tasks that we often associate with “ministry”—however, as we’ll discuss below there’s much more to it than that.

More Than Professional

Right off the bat, it seems clear to me that ministry is something that goes beyond being a pastor, elder, or deacon for a local church.

The word most often translated “ministry” in the New Testament is diakonia. It appears 34 times and in a variety of contexts. It appears twice in Acts 6:1-4, in an interesting way:

And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.

“Ministration” in v.1 and “ministry” in v.4 are the same Greek lemma, diakonia.

Notice the issue of the passage: Almost humorously, smack dab at the beginning of the church, people are complaining because their needs are not being met.

What’s going on here is that Christianity is spreading so fast and the disciples of Jesus were working so hard to minister in teaching the Word that some of their other duties were being neglected.

Thus, they appoint other disciples to take over these particular duties in order that they can continue “the ministry of the Word.” But does this mean the ministry of the Word, whatever that is, is more important?

It seems to me this question requires some nuanced thinking:

In one sense, it certainly seems appropriate to say that the preaching and teaching of God’s Word is of maximal importance. After all, the preaching of God’s Word is how people come to believe (1 Cor. 1:21). The disciples obviously thought this role was extremely important.

However, it is also true that God’s plan for bringing people to himself involves ministering to others through service. In fact, to see this, we need not look further than the next few verses of our same passage (v.5-7):

And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.

As a direct result of this decision, the Word of God increased, the number of disciples multiplied, and even many priests were converted!

Grant Osbourne reflects on the success of this decision:

All three verbs in verse 7 are imperfects, stressing ongoing activity. The “word” is not just the gospel but an epithet for the church as the people of the word. So it means, “the church kept on growing.” Moreover, it did not just grow; it “increased rapidly” (or “kept on multiplying greatly”), perhaps even more than earlier. Most astoundingly of all, “a large number of priests,” who had replaced the Pharisees as the major opponents of God’s people, “became obedient to the faith,” another epithet for conversion. Scholars estimate there were between 18,000 and 20,000 priests and Levites all told. That a significant number became Christ followers is a major sign of God’s blessing on the church. The principle is clear—every crisis is a Spirit-led opportunity to surrender further to him and discover a newfound depth of strength, resulting in an even greater growth of the church.1

These seven men who were appointed could have chosen to complain because they did not get to pray, study, and teach the word full-time. Instead, they were obedient to their spiritual vocation, and the church multiplied.

The lesson is important: When God’s people are obedient, his glorious purposes are fulfilled and his blessings rain down.

Don’t think that because your ministry doesn’t look like somebody else’s, it’s not “real” ministry. That’s misguided—and unscriptural—thinking.

But Also Professional

Sure enough, though, there are particular offices of ministry given for the local church. There is a need for pastors, deacons, elders, evangelists, etc.

As we saw just above, there are those who are gifted with the ability to teach, to preach, and to shepherd a flock.

While a great many churches have a bi-vocational pastor, you do see many churches who employ an entire pastoral team full-time. And whether or not they are able to devote their entire schedule to the ministry, they are no less devoted in station.

There are different “professional” ministry stations, most of which are represented in Ephesians 4:11-13:

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

Here, have distinctions made between roles that also happen to overlap at times. Andrew Knowles puts it succinctly:

Paul lists some gifts that help the church to preach and teach God’s word. Apostles are sent by God to pioneer church growth in new areas. Prophets speak God’s word in a direct and challenging way to particular situations. Evangelists share the gospel clearly, so that people can understand and come to faith in Christ. Pastors and teachers are able to care for and teach local congregations.

There are many kinds of spiritual gifts. There is a different selection in Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:6–8). But all spiritual gifts have the same purpose: to build up and strengthen God’s people. Every gift is to be used in serving others, both inside and outside the church.2

There’s a temptation for Bible nerds like myself to get caught up debates like whether the apostleship continued, whether the same thing is meant by the terms “pastor” and “teacher” or if they connote separate duties, etc.

Instead, let’s capture the wider point. There are official positions of ministry, but just as the “unofficial” positions, they are for the purpose of serving the flock of God and bringing more people to him.

Spirituals Gifts

In 1 Cor. 12, the Apostle Paul launches into comprehensive teaching on spiritual gifts in the church. Lowrey summarizes this way:

The list here includes nine gifts. (1) Wisdom refers to insight into doctrinal truth. Paul exercised and expressed this gift in this letter (e.g., 2:6). (2) Knowledge refers to the ability to apply doctrinal truth to life. Paul also exercised and expressed this gift in this letter (e.g., 12:1–3; 11:3). (Cf. the recurrence of the phrase “Do you not know” in 3:16; 5:6; 6:2–3, 9, 15–16, 19; 9:13, 24; also cf. 8:1–3, 10–11). (3) Faith as a spiritual gift is probably an unusual measure of trust in God beyond that exercised by most Christians (e.g., 13:2). (4) Healing is the ability to restore health (e.g., Acts 3:7; 19:12) and also to hold off death itself temporarily (Acts 9:40; 20:9–10). (5) Miraculous powers may refer to exorcising demons (Acts 19:12) or inducing physical disability (Acts 13:11) or even death (Acts 5:5, 9). (6) Prophecy is the ability, like that of the Old Testament prophets, to declare a message of God for His people (1 Cor. 14:3). (7) Ability to distinguish between spirits is the gift to differentiate the Word of God proclaimed by a true prophet from that of a satanic deceiver (cf. 2 Cor. 11:14–15; 1 John 4:1). If the Corinthians possessed this gift (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7), it was not being put to good use (cf. 12:1–3). (8) Tongues refers to the ability to speak an unlearned, living language (e.g., Acts 2:11). (9) Interpretation was the ability to translate an unlearned, known language expressed in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:27).

With the possible exception of faith, all these gifts seem to have been confirmatory and foundational gifts for the establishment of the church (cf. Heb. 2:4; Eph. 2:20) and were therefore temporary.3

Again, here, there’s the danger of stepping into a theological debate that would miss the point. While I do think many of the gifts mentioned here are not necessarily relevant today, I also believe God can do what he wants. Thus, suffice it to say that I place myself into what is colloquially called the cautious but open category.

Paul’s point, though, can be applied to ministerial gifts of all kinds. Do you serve on the worship team at church? In the media ministry? The bus ministry? The nursing home ministry? The women’s ministry?

The point is you are in ministry! Paul clarifies the importance of each and every role given to the body of Christ:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular (Eph. 12:12-27).

Ministry is therefore something we can all be involved in. If you’re a follower of Christ, you have a role in ministry.

The question is, what are you doing for heaven’s sake? Are you stepping up in the areas you know you can, or do you just a warm a pew each Sunday?

I have moved churches twice in my adult Christian life. One time was an intentional choice based on a variety of factors, the other time was due to relocation. In both instances, I made it a point to let the leadership of the church know how I could help.

In my opinion, that’s all it takes. There is no shortage of work to do! You don’t have to insert yourself! All you have to do is be willing, able, and available.

Those folks God has appointed to lead you will, if they are being faithful to their task, help you to use your gifts and abilities for the Lord in the ministry of the local, New Testament church.


  1. Osborne, G. R. (2019). Acts: Verse by Verse (p. 125). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  2. Knowles, A. (2001). The Bible guide (1st Augsburg books ed., p. 618). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  3. Lowery, D. K. (1985). 1 Corinthians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 533). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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