Several years ago I was sitting in the pew on Sunday morning at historic All Souls Church in central London listening to John Stott preach. To illustrate a point, he recounted a conversation with a friend of his. Apparently John's friend had shared with him some news about a mutual acquaintance, explaining that this person had recently gone into “the ministry.” John then replied, “What ministry might that be?” John’s friend was confused by the question, particularly from such an astute theologian. So to clarify, the person said, “You know, THE ministry!” John feigned confusion, indicating he still didn’t understand what the person was talking about. They went back and forth for a while, until finally the individual said that the person in question had gone into pastoral ministry. At this point John exclaimed, “Why didn’t you just say so?”
What was John’s point? It’s a subtle yet very important one. John deeply understood the concept that every singly Christian is "in ministry" since we are all called to be priests (1 Peter 2:9-10). In other words, every believer is called to be a “full time Christian worker”—even if we will not all receive financial compensation from a church.
Beyond the important theological issue, however, John also demonstrated an understanding that the most powerful statements are not the verbalized ones we make, but the assumptions underneath them that go unchallenged. He was willing to risk alienating a friend with his seemingly inane line of questioning, all to make the simple yet critical point that every ministry is equally valid, whether it is a pastoral ministry, a frontline ministry, or some other kind. On one level, it wasn’t a lot John was asking – the issue would have easily been resolved if his friend had used a simple adjective to describe the type of ministry at the beginning of the conversation.
However, there is a larger issue at stake, since there are real consequences if we elevate one type of ministry above others, especially in our assumptions. For example, if we subtly indicate a belief that pastoral ministry is a higher calling than frontline ministry, we not only dis-empower those serving God on the frontlines, but we also may inadvertently upend one of the major principles of the Reformation—namely, the priesthood of all believers. On the other hand, if we elevate frontline ministry above pastoral ministry, we run the risk of having fewer people serving God in this vital role. Instead, all Christians, no matter what type of ministry they may find themselves in, should be looking for ways to affirm the equally important ministries of their brothers and sisters—for we are all members of one Body (1 Co 12:21-27).