Ministry in the 21st Century

Of this year’s six new entrants to our BTh programme only two are candidates for the ministry.  The remaining four, including three women students, have other careers in view.  Though the numbers are disappointingly small, the trend is welcome, and should help dispel the idea that the Free Church College is only for ministers and only for men (though the main illusion at the moment seems to be that the College is only for international students, not for home-grown ones.  Our own young people seem to suffer from Free Church College phobia.)

Yet the training of ministers is still a priority, and the greater diversity of the student body should itself be seen as a valuable contribution to that training.   The odd thing is that the Bible lays down few principles with regard to ministerial education.  A 19th century Free Church Professor, A. B. Bruce, once wrote an extended commentary on the gospels under the title, The Training of the Twelve, but if Jesus chose the disciples so that he could act as their mentor he couldn’t have been very happy with the outcome.  By the time he died, they were a poor lot, and certainly no advert for non-college training.

Apollos, a promising young disciple of John the Baptist, was taken in hand by Priscilla and Aquilla, but if Priscilla was the first-ever female Professor of Theology the Book of Acts blows no trumpets about it, simply noting that she and her husband explained to him the  way of God more adequately.  Timothy is sometimes portrayed as having Paul as his mentor, but this is reading too much into the fact that they were companions on the missionary journeys.  The instructions conveyed to the younger man in the epistles to Timothy are the instructions of an apostle, instructing the universal church, not simply the personal advice of a mentor.  In Paul’s own case, he was no sooner converted than he began his life’s work, “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.”  (Acts 9.28).  Whatever happened during his three years in Arabia (Galatians 1.17), they were certainly not spent at College.

The closest we come to a directive with regard to ministerial training is the instruction given by Paul in Second Timothy 2.2:  “what you heard from me through many witnesses, pass on to faithful people, who will be able to teach others in their turn.”  This certainly directs that the church’s teachers must themselves be instructed, but it says nothing about how that instruction should be delivered.  That seems to be left to circumstances; and in assessing our circumstances we have to depend on what the Confession of Faith calls, “the light of nature, and Christian prudence”.

This means that a three-year course at the Free Church College is not a matter of fixed theological principle, but a matter of practical Christian wisdom.  Many of the greatest preachers in history had no formal training at all.  Augustine, Spurgeon and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones were all self-taught; and while the Free Church from the very beginning placed a premium on a learned ministry it has always been willing to waive its own regulations when circumstances warranted it.  In 1859, for example, the General Assembly formally recognised Brownlow North as an evangelist even though he had had no theological training (this doesn’t mean that he knew no theology: Rabbi Duncan described him as “an untrained theologue”).  Later, when the number of vacancies far outstripped the number of ministers, the Church authorised lay-preaching, creating a band of “missionaries” who rendered sterling service, particularly in the Highlands.  Occasionally, some of these “missionaries” were formally ordained to the ministry.   Among them were men like the Reverend Duncan Morrison of Duirinish and the Reverend Murdo MacIver of Shawbost, who were among the most revered preachers in the Church.


In the circumstances facing us today, there are two factors we cannot afford to ignore.  One is that Scotland is now a post-Christian nation.   This is no sudden development.  Even in the 19th century, according to Professor Gordon Donaldson, scarcely one Scot in five had any church connection.  Today, things are even grimmer.  Scarcely one in five even knows anyone who goes to church, and the Bible is little better known than the Book of Mormon.  Scotland is a mission-field, and the ministers it needs are the kind we used to send to India, Africa and the Polynesian Islands: people driven by a passion for souls, able to work alone in hostile environments, and able to communicate the gospel to the biblically illiterate.

This is not the kind of ministry envisaged in historic Presbyterian documents like the First and Second Books of Discipline.  Both of these were produced by brilliant Christian visionaries: the First by John Knox in 1560 and the Second by Andrew Melville in 1578.  But the ministry they have in mind is a ministry for a Christian nation: not men to convert pagans or plant churches, but men who will look after Christians and shepherd existing flocks.

That is the kind of ministry the Free Church College was built to train, although, there is an element of paradox here.  Most College students would have given a high priority to evangelism, and seen themselves as failures if their preaching produced no converts.   But the evangelism they had in mind was evangelism within the church, trying to persuade uncommitted adherents to become wholehearted Christians.  This will no longer suffice.  Our churches are no longer packed on a Sunday night with half-way Christians, and if we are to reach the unsaved we have to find a whole new kind of ministry aimed at those who would never darken the inside of a church.

The College fully recognises this and is already prodding the Training of the Ministry Committee to draft proposals for the kind of ministry which Paul describes in Romans 15:20: a ministry of dedicated evangelists,  able to work where there is no church, and  to preach the gospel where Christ is not known, nor even heard of.

In the last analysis, only God Himself can give us such people, and we must pray that He will.  But would we even recognise them?  We must banish at once the idea that this is an easier alternative for those not gifted enough for the “real ministry”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Evangelism is the most demanding ministry of all. As James Denney once pointed out, there is no more demanding task than to preach the love of God, and preach it in such a way that people will believe it.   Saul of Tarsus, the greatest evangelist of all, was a brilliant scholar, a towering intellect and a dynamic leader; and so were such missionaries as St Columba, Hudson Taylor and William Carey.  Yet, intellectual gifts are not the chief thing.  Simon Peter was no Saul of Tarsus, and the effective modern evangelist could very well be a Billy Bray or a Finlay Munro.  He would  need to be a driven man, not content merely to preach, but desperate to see a spiritual harvest; one to whom ordinary people would listen gladly; one able to guide new converts through the first faltering steps of discipleship; and humble enough to move to a new site once he had laid the foundation.

The survival of Christianity in Scotland depends on God giving us such labourers and on our recognising and training them.

Auxiliary ministers

The other critical fact in our current situation is the dramatic rise in the general level of education.  We mustn’t let all the talk of “dumbing down” blind us to this fact.  When John Knox drafted the polity of the Church of Scotland in 1560, the only clergy available were those of the old, un-reformed Roman Catholic Church, and they were both woefully ill-educated and few in number.  To add to his difficulties, the laity (including most of the elders) were illiterate.  It was these circumstances that led John Knox to create a special office of “Reader” whose task was simply that.  In the absence of a minister, they could read the Psalm-book, the scriptures and the Book of Common Order.

Today, we are in an entirely different situation.  We have a highly educated eldership, and this presents a remarkable opportunity.  We already allow “lay-men” to preach.  Yet we debar these same men from administering the sacraments.  This turns the priorities of the Reformation upside down, downgrading the Word and re-investing the sacraments with that aura of mystery which was the curse of the mediaeval church.  From a Reformed point of view, anyone who is fit to preach is surely fit to administer the sacraments.

We already have a large number of experienced, well educated elders who preach regularly.  We also have a large number of vacant congregations.  Can we not bring these two facts together and appoint some of these elders the ministers of these congregations?  If they were full-time, they could be called auxiliary ministers; if part-time, they could be non-stipendiary.  The name doesn’t matter.  They would be recruited from the proven eldership of the church; they would be given basic training; they would be called, tried, ordained and inducted in the usual way; and they would be authorised to perform all the functions of the ministry, including administering the sacraments.


But what, then, of the ordinary pastoral ministry?  It is needed as much as ever.  After all, we still have some 20,000 members and adherents in 180 congregations.  All these congregations need ministers.

But what sort?  Every Presbyterian church has a team ministry consisting of minister and elders, and this arrangement is safeguarded by a few clear, fixed principles.  Every member of the team must be chosen by the congregation, every member has an equal voice in the Kirk Session and all the members together are responsible for the pastoral care of the congregation.             Yet, however we emphasise the team aspect, and however we deplore “one-man ministries”, we must also recognise how the ministry has evolved over the centuries.  The minister may no longer be the only educated person in the congregation, but he is the only one who is freed from secular employment and pledged to devote his whole time to serving the church; and he is the only one required to undergo years of rigorous training.  This immediately sets him apart.  His primary qualifications for office are spiritual.  But he is also a professional.  More than anybody else he will regard the congregation as his; more than anybody else he represents it; and more than anybody else his influence can be decisive.  Congregations can flourish despite having an ineffectual elder or two.  They can seldom flourish when they have an ineffectual minister.

One reason for this is that ministers provide leadership.  In the Kirk Session, of course, all elders are equal.  But the minister is almost inevitably the first among equals.  He is the first to be told what pastoral problems have arisen, and the one with the time to take the main part in dealing with them.  And he is the brooder with the new ideas.  He cannot, of course, impose these on others by naked authority.  But he can mature them, present them to his colleagues, adjust them and persuade the Session to accept them; and as the full-time professional he can take responsibility for carrying them out.  The Session (and the Church’s constitution) will quite rightly prevent him from acting high-handedly, but they shouldn’t reduce him to frustrated inertia.

It is the minister, too, who presides over public worship every Lord’s Day.  This is not a matter of theological first principles, any more than the regulation that all ministers must have undergone three years’ theological training.  In our age of universal literacy an elder, deacon, student or ordinary member (male or female) might be quite capable of presiding over public worship, and none of us would dream of arguing that the worship cannot go ahead because there is no minister present.  But it is a matter of good order, warranted by “the light of nature and Christian prudence” that divine worship should normally be conducted by someone with appropriate training.  Indeed, our great Presbyterian doctors were every bit as fussy about liturgy as their Anglican counterparts.  That’s why Knox drew up his Book of Common Order, why the Westminster Divines gave us the Directory for Public Worship and why Alexander Henderson deplored the idea that every minister and congregation should be left to conduct worship according to their own “extemporary fancy”.   Worship is worthship, and the whole point of divine service is to fill, and even overwhelm, congregations with a sense of the worth of God:  “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11.33)

Our Reformers knew this.  They knew that the first, opening words of a service mattered; that the songs to be sung mattered; that the prayers mattered, and the readings, and the sermon, and the collection.  They knew that there was a best order for these various parts of the service, and no less for the Supper and for Baptism and for Marriage and for Funerals.  Even such things as prayer at the bedside of the sick and the dying had to be thought about deeply.  These were solemn things.

The highlight of the Christian week is divine service on the Holy Day.  Those who preside over it are highly honoured, and their whole week should be dominated by it.  Having spent their days in study and closet they should emerge to bring a breath of heaven to those who have had to spend the week in the drudgery and stress of a world which often blocks out all thought of heavenly things.

But the minister is still first and foremost a preacher and teacher.  Again, this does not mean that only he can do it.  Many lay-people are perfectly capable of doing it occasionally, and in times of emergency the church has often had to rely entirely on the preaching and teaching of untrained believers.  But the precise calling and responsibility of the minister is to be a herald of the gospel and a teacher of the faithful.  Other tasks he shares with others.  The ministry of the Word is his peculiar calling.

By the same token, the primary responsibility of the College is to train people for this specific ministry.  But let’s be clear as to the limitations of what we are attempting.  Before students arrive at College, their home congregations will already have taught them the most important lessons of the spiritual life; they will have received from the Lord Himself the spiritual gifts which alone can make a minister; and they will have been to university.  There they will have lived in the “real world” of their non-Christian peers.  They will have met the theories of philosophers, the reports of sociologists and the effusions of the world’s great literature.  By the time they reach College they shouldn’t need to be told that we live in a secular society or that modern philosophers discount all possibility of a scientific knowledge of God or that contemporary science is profoundly materialistic or that poets, novelists and dramatists provide brilliant and sometimes searing insight into both the heroism and the barbarism of the human species.

The College doesn’t need to repeat any of these lessons.  It has to build on them, providing the additional professional knowledge and skills needed by those called to be leaders, carers and, above all, teachers of the church.

This means, first of all, training them to probe beneath translations to verify for themselves the precise meaning of the original scriptures.  This is the very least the church can expect from its professionals.  If every sermon is to be, as Karl Barth insisted, a homily (an exposition of scripture) it is imperative that the preacher should know the exact shades of meaning suggested by the writer’s grammar, syntax and word-selection.  The day the church becomes dependent on the New International Version we shall be heading for a new Dark Ages.

Secondly, the preacher needs a comprehensive grasp of the Christian message.  Of course, there is a “simple gospel message”: those cardinal truths which every student knows long before he comes to College.  But the preacher must know the whole counsel of God.  Otherwise he will never be able to understand the scriptures, where the various parts are illuminated by the whole.  Nor will he be able to meet the needs of his congregation.  Why stay in the shallows when we have the unsearchable riches of Christ; or preach platitudes or social commentary when we have enough material to fill every heart with wonder, love and praise?  Besides, in this day and age the preacher cannot do all his work from the safety of the pulpit.  He has to come down to where he is vulnerable; where people can pose objections and ask questions, without prior notice.  Evolution?  Predestination?  Millennium?  Tongue-speaking?  What’s the difference between God speaking to Abraham and a murderer hearing voices?  How can you believe in a God who asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son?

But the pastor-teacher also needs a sense of theological proportion.  This is one of the great purposes of church history.  There are some minds to which only the most recent book is important.  To others all truths are the same, and they would as soon divide a church over the date of Easter or the inerrancy of the King James Version as over the Resurrection or the Incarnation.  But church history reminds us that there is a hierarchy of truths.  There are fundamental doctrines which must be known in order to salvation.  These are the doctrines which have been enshrined in the great creeds: doctrines which have been agreed by all Christians, always and everywhere; beliefs shared by men like Owen and Baxter, Wesley and Spurgeon, Kenneth MacRae and Billy Graham, even when they disagreed on much else.  These are the main things, and they figure in our preaching week in, week out, while other, lesser truths crop up but now and again.

And, finally, ministers need a thorough grounding in Practical Theology.  This is what students love and what they always complain they aren’t getting enough of; and this is what all the practical men in the Church think is the only thing that matters.   But these observations often rest on a confusion.  Practical Theology is not “practice”.  Only experience can give practice, and candidates for the ministry receive that experience not in the class-room but in their placements and week-end preachings.  Practical Theology is but the theology of practice.  It seeks to lay a biblical foundation for preaching, counselling, liturgy and all other practical matters.   It doesn’t mean that after a few lectures in Practical Theology the student is now qualified to practise as a psychiatrist, but it should mean that he knows what the Bible has to say about depression, anxiety, marriage, addiction and similar problems.  The only counsel a minister is qualified to give is the counsel of scripture; and that counsel may often include the advice to see a doctor.

There are two possible outcomes of a Free Church College training which would just about fill us with despair.  One is when students go out thinking they’re bosses.  The other is when they think they’ve now passed their Advanced Driving Test.  If anyone leaves us under either of these impressions our teaching has failed abysmally.  Every one of our ministerial graduates should know that every elder is his equal in authority, and that in every church there are people sitting in the pews who know more than he does.

And graduates should also know that far from being Advanced Drivers, they have merely removed their L-plates.  They are on their own, and the real learning is just beginning.  All we have taught them is how to teach themselves; and what we have sought to instil in them is not complacency, but a habit of self-reflection and self-criticism, so that every day for the rest of their lives they will ask, What am I doing?  How am I doing it?  And how could I do it better?

Let the words of the Lord Himself ring for ever in their ears:  Go and tell every human being, “I have Good News for you!”

This article was written for a special edition of the Monthly Record devoted, by kind permission of the Editor, Rev Alex MacDonald, to marking the 100th Anniversary of the Free Church College’s move to the Mound Buildings in February 1907.