The Ideal Ministry 1/11

In Memory of the 100th anniversary of the death of P. T. Forsyth, I will outline his eleven points in the chapter entitled ‘The Ideal Ministry’ (as printed in The British Congregationalist, 18th October, 1906), in the book Revelation Old and New.

  1. The Ideal Ministry: GOSPEL CENTRALITY

“An ideal ministry is one which is ideal to the Gospel not to humanity. The ministry is not the minister of the human ideal, but of the Gospel ideal in the New Testament. The ideal minister is first a servant of the Word, then to people. It is the Gospel revelation that sets up the ideal; it is not the needs, aspirations, or possibilities of human nature.

The ideal ministry is not even to be measured by the demands, dreams, or expectations of the churches. The ideal of the Church is apt to be a ministry that fills and manages large and busy buildings, undertakes much, and is kind, even to softness; whereas the dominant note of the NT, and especially of Christ’s teaching, is love’s severity. In his lifetime at least, Christ alienated far more than he drew, and made trouble for almost everybody who touched Him. The early Protestants described themselves not as servants even of the Church but as V.D.M. Verbi divini ministri. They served the Gospel rather than the Church, and the Church for the Gospel’s sake. A [person] is an ideal minister not by his success with the public but by his stewardship of the word, by his adequacy and fidelity to Him that called. There are signs today as if the churches did not care for the ministry, but only for preaching stars; as if they were losing the sense of Christian truth in the taste for personal interests and impressionist effect. Accordingly the religious press has to a large extent become the arbiter of ministerial success, and has set the ideal for the young minister in a very unfortunate way, in a way which is always apt to become more literary that evangelical. It is a wrong and unstable state of things. The assessment of its ministry is a function of the Church, which the Church must reclaim, with the Gospel for a standard. It is by the Gospel, his grasp of it, and his fidelity to it, that the minister becomes ideal. That is a far more taxing standard than success with men. And yet it is more just, more wise, more merciful. How many a man has spent himself on earnest efforts to impress his age or public has to cast himself in despair upon God and say, as he comes out with strength renewed for a certain indifference to the public, “It is better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into the hands of men.”

This is a matter we shall have to take to heart in the future even more than in the past. The whole genius and drift of the Christianity of today is social. Its effects on society is the chief test. We are invited to gauge the success of a minister by the extent to which he can commend himself to the democracy and canvass for its vote and interest. Well and good. We need not waste words of satisfaction that things take this general direction. But it does create for us new dangers. It certainly raises huge questions. We must have an efficient ministry. But what is ministerial efficiency? Is it the same as popularity? Of what is the ministry trustee in the first instance? Is it of the social future, of the human cause? Again, what is the ideal relation of the ministry to the democracy, the relation of the Church generally? The democracy has no low or mild ambition. Remember, it is no longer an oppressed class, a plebs. It is a world-power. It is not identical with the poor. It aspires to take the command of society and of history. Well, every -ocracy has done that. And with every -ocracy the Church has first allied itself and then it has had to fight for its life. We are now allying ourselves with the democracy; shall we ever have to fight it for the Church’s life, for the life of Christianity? I content myself here with putting the question rather than answering it.

But if we ever do come to that conflict it will be the severest of them all. It may well be the great Armageddon. Are we getting ready for the possibility of it? I would recall to you this, that the ideal ministry is not called to be the leader of the democracy but its guide. We are losing sight of that grave distinction. A civilisation led by the ministry is a Catholic idea; the Protestant idea is a civilisation guided by the Gospel. It is Catholic to have our social energies under the wing, or the roof, of the Church; it means perpetual social minority; what is Protestant is to have our social life going its own way under the power of the Gospel. It is easy to lead the democracy if you accept and work its ideas judiciously. But it is very different whenever you have to rebuke the democracy, or guide it to accept the ideas of Christ.

These are no more the ideas of the natural democracy than they are those of the natural aristocracy, oligarchy, or plutocracy. For the natural man is not a martyr for the things of God or the principle of His kingdom. The struggle is still greater when you press the democracy beyond the ideas of Christ, and insist on an absolute surrender and obedience to Christ. Are we making it clear that we can mean nothing less? The ideal ministry believes in the Church much more than in the democracy as the agent of the Kingdom of God. It believes in the Church whose organ it is, more than the society of which it is a citizen. And it believes in the Church as the only hope of that society, because the Church is the trustee of the Gospel, as of the Bible. It contemplates huge changes in the Church to enable it to serve and save society, both of creed and method. But its first charge is the unchanging Gospel, its second is the helpless or the pagan poor. And it must deal with democracy so that neither of these comes short.”

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