This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part VIIb


Today we explore chapter 18, “Of the Ministers of the Church, Their Institution and Duties.” In this chapter is one of my favorite descriptions of what pastors do…see if you can guess which one it is.

God uses ministers in the building of the churchBullinger argues that ministers have always existed for the purpose of gathering, organizing, and teaching God’s people–and by always, he means always–all the way back to Abraham. “Ministers are to be regarded, not as ministers by themselves alone, but as the ministers of God, inasmuch as God effects the salvation of men through them.” What? Our salvation comes through ministers? That sounds suspiciously like what the Reformation was against, not what it was for. And so he expounds upon this–“How are they to believe in whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)And then this: “Yet, on the other hand, we must beware that we do not attribute to much to ministers…”No one can come to me unless by Father draws him” (John 6:44). God moves the hearts of Men. Therefore, let us believe that God teaches us by his word, outwardly through his ministers, and inwardly moves the hearts of his elect to faith by the Holy Spirit; and therefore we ought to render all glory until God for this whole favor.” In other words, Bullinger reaffirms that faith and salvation are gifts of God, given through the Holy Spirit (as per Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12), but reminds us yet again that these gifts come through hearing and experiencing–if we never hear, if we never share the good news, how can we expect faith to grow?

What do you think about this? What does the ministry of others have to do with your own faith development?

In the New Testament, “Ministers are called by various names: apostles, prophets, evangelists, bishops, elders, pastors, and teachers.” Apostles went throughout the world sharing good news and gathering churches, and “once established, there ceased to be apostles and pastors took their place.” Prophets interpret scripture and share God’s vision for the world. Evangelists share the good news through writing and speaking. Bishops “are the overseers and watchmen of the Church, who administer the foods and needs of the life of the church.” Presbyters (elders) govern the church with “wholesome counsel.” Pastors “keep the Lord’s sheepfold and provide for its needs.” Teachers “instruct and teach the true faith and godliness.”

Therefore, since there are plenty of roles and names for ministers in the New Testament, all the “Papal Orders” are unnecessary–“for us the apostolic doctrine concerning ministers is sufficient.” And monks…well…“they are of no use to the Church of God, nay, rather, they are pernicious.” When they were hermits, earning their living and being part of the local church, they were fine. But “now”–remember it’s 1566–“the whole world sees and knows what they are like.” Remember that monastic orders were extremely wealthy, were often the major landowners keeping people in the feudal system, and were believed to live completely in opposition to their vows, living a life of leisure and wealth at the expense of the poor. Bullinger has no room for that kind of life.

Ministers are to be called and elected –ie, you can’t just start proclaiming yourself a minister, you have to have a call from both God and the people, elected by a congregation, and must be “distinguished by sufficient consecrated learning, pious eloquence, simple wisdom, by moderation and an honorable reputation.” Those elected will be “ordained by the elders with public prayer and laying on of hands.” Again, you can’t just make things up–you need to be gifted, educated, called, elected, and ordained by a community.

Why? Because ministers are not priests–separated from the community for the purpose of making sacrifices on behalf of the community, communicating with God in a way that regular people can’t. Instead we are part of the “Priesthood of all Believers” –everyone can “offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ”–aka, anyone can communicate directly with God. “Therefore the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another. For the priesthood is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry.” This seems in direct opposition to what we say often–that everyone does ministry. The issue here is language–“the ministry” is what Bullinger uses to describe pastors, people whose function in the community is to preach and teach and celebrate sacraments. Each Christian is called to the priesthood in the sense that we can all have access to God that used to be reserved only for priests, and each Christian is called to minister in various ways, but “the ministry” is a particular office and task within the community. This task is to be a “Steward of the mysteries of God.” The mysteries of God as understood by Bullinger  = the gospel and sacraments. “Therefore for this purpose are the ministers of the Church called–namely, to preach the Gospel of Christ and to administer the Sacraments.” So minsters are to be wise and faithful stewards, taking care of these mysteries and ensuring that people are able to grow through them.

What do you think about the role and purpose of the minister, as compared to the role and purpose of every Christian person?

Power: We know that the Reformation was in part a reaction to power abuses by the Roman Catholic church, its ministers, hierarchy, and various orders. So naturally we expect that the minister has power only under Christ, the head. In addition, all ministers of the church are equal in power–no one is above another, with greater power or authority.

“The duties of ministers are various…the teaching of the Gospel and the proper administration of the Sacraments…to gather together an assembly for worship…to teach and to exhort, to urge idlers and lingerers to make progress in the way of the Lord…to comfort and strengthen the fainthearted…to rebuke offenders…to recall the erring into the way…to raise the fallen…to rebuke wickedness…to preserve the faithful in a holy unity…to check schisms…to commend the needs of the poor to the Church…to visit, instruct, and keep in the way of life the sick and those afflicted…attend to public prayers in times of need, together with common fasting.”

No pressure. On the bright side, even when we fail, still Christ can work through us (in contrast to what the Donatists taught about the work of priests who had failed being ineffectual).

Last but not least, “The worker is worthy of his reward. All faithful ministers are also worthy of their reward and do not sin whtn they receive a stipend, and all things that be necessary for themselves and their family.” 

phew–a long chapter with lots of stuff in it! What do you think? What makes you wonder? What questions do you have? What sounds familiar and what sounds strange? What do you think Bullinger may have left out when considering ministers and The Ministry? What might be different about The Ministry in the 21st century?


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