The ministry of all God’s people

Yet again I feel the need to emphasise that all God’s people are called to ministry. Only recently I reviewed a book with the title Edgewise? Experiences of some Anglican lay women. This should not be, I thought. Here we are in 2021: surely by now terms such as ‘laity’ and ‘lay’ should belong to the pages of history. The whole church is the laos, the people of God. The whole body of Christ is priestly. It is a theological nonsense to speak of the clergy on the one hand and the laity on the other. We are all called to serve God. Ministry, a term derived from a Latin word for ‘service’, is the prerogative of all God’s people.

This doctrine of every-member ministry is based on the New Testament as a whole, but comes to the fore in particular in Eph 4.11-12 where Paul writes of the Risen Christ: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (NRSV). Ministry for Paul is ministry of the whole people of God – it is not confined to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Furthermore, as Eph 4.11-16 makes clear, the body of Christ can only be built up as Christian in general are “equipped” for the work of “ministry”. Indeed, one can argue from the word Paul uses here for ‘equipping’ that without every member ministry the body of Christ will not function aright. For the underlying Greek word katartizein in other contexts is used of the setting of broken bones and the mending of broken nets: i.e. we can infer that where Christians in general are not fulfilling their ministries, the church can be likened to a hopeless cripple or to a fisherman seeking to catch fish with gaping holes in his net!

In many ways it is unfortunate that in Britain the ordained are known as ‘ministers’. The New Testament teaches the ministry of all and the leadership of some. It is even more unfortunate that so many Anglican ministers call themselves ‘priests’. The New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers. What is more, by calling themselves ‘ministers’ or ‘priests’, leaders in God’s church are effectively disempowering God’s people.

The fact is that all God’s people are gifted for ministry. This is the teaching of Paul in Rom 12.4-8 and 1 Cor 12.4-12, as also of Peter in 1 Pet 4.10-12. For example, Paul prefaces the list of gifts in 1 Cor 12.8-10 with the words “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12.7), and concludes “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12.11). In a very real sense all Christians are ‘charismatic’. Hence the need to hear again the words of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, an agreed theological statement published in 1982 by the World Council of Churches: “All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent”.

Notice in this statement that every-member-ministry is not restricted to the church, but is also to be exercised in the world. Indeed, I would go further and say that for most Christians their primary place of ministry is in the world beyond the church. Instead of sucking the energy of God’s people into the church, church leaders should be encouraging their people to put their energies into serving God in the wider community, in local government, civic leadership or a trade union.

Perhaps even more, church leaders need to emphasise that for working people their primary sphere of mission and ministry is in the world of work. Work is not just a way of earning money. It is there that God’s people need to serve as priests, representing God in the world..  In the graphic words of Edward Patey: “All orders are holy. Plumbers are as much in holy orders as the clergy, serving God and their fellows… Electricians, park-keepers, doctors and typists are all working as much with the things of God as the priest with the sacrament.” Or as Mark Gibbs and Ralph Morton put it in their Christian classic, God’s Frozen People: “There is no fundamental difference in calling between an Archbishop and his chauffeur, between a prime minister and a parish minister – providing they are both in each case faithful and committed Christians”.

Unfortunately, we tend to make unhelpful distinctions between these various callings. As Mark Greene wrote with tongue in cheek: “SSD [the ‘Sacred-Secular Divide’] leads us to believe that really holy people become missionaries, moderately holy people become pastors, and people who are not much use to God get a job”. He went on: “Beyond that, SSD teaches us that there is a hierarchy of holiness even among the 98 percent of non-church-paid Christians. SSD teaches us that people involved in the caring professions – nurses, social workers, teachers – are holier than those involved in industry or commerce. Indeed, it’s because of SSD that the church has historically treated business with some distaste, failing to recognise that the poor need jobs, not just aid, and that there is no poverty without wealth generation. As one businessman put it: ‘The church appreciates my tithe but not the enterprise that gives rise to it’”. Or to quote Richard Broholm, “What we have often failed to see is that the contractor who builds houses, the lab technician who tests for cancer, and the postal worker who bridges the gap between other distant friends are all engaged in a caring ministry even though it is unlikely they will ever intimately know the persons they serve”.

In summary, ministry is not the preserve of the ordained. The church – and, of course, the world – would be a better place if the ordained encouraged, affirmed, honoured and supported the ministry of all God’s people.


  1. This article may be tangentially relevant to Paul’s on the ministry of all God’s people.
    In Praise of Manual Labour
    I have just finished reading Jilly Cooper’s Class* ; a good read ,slightly dated now,
    but still largely on track in the matter of English social divisions. In the chapter on
    the Armed Forces she has:
    ‘An officer’ wrote Lord Stanley, in the nineteenth century, ‘shall be the son of a
    gentleman : a gentleman is understood to mean a man who has plenty of money, and
    does not exercise any retail trade or any mechanical profession’.
    Those words clanged a big bell for me who was once an engineering officer in the
    Royal Navy. My 1960 entry was one of the first years when the Navy abolished the
    coloured stripes from between the gold braid on the sleeves of the uniform. For
    example: if you were electrical branch you wore a green stripe, and hence were
    known as a ‘greeny’ . Engineers wore purple stripes and were known as ‘steamies’ or
    more likely ‘plumbers’. It was a subtle way of distinguishing officers who had officer
    status but were not quite the true blue model of the seaman branch who were the ‘real
    thing’. Thus when the colours were abolished, you couldn’t tell an officer’s branch
    and the seaman didn’t know whether to look down on you or across at you! However
    all became clear when at ‘stand-easy’ (elevensies) the engineers in white overalls
    were not allowed inside the wardroom They had to drink their coffee standing in the
    passageway in case any of that nasty substance called oil fell on the carpets.
    Why has manual labour always been ‘infra-dig’? Manus was the Latin for ‘hand’
    ,hence manual labour. Labour was for skivvies, slaves and those who couldn’t do
    anything else. But there is an awful amount of hypocrisy around in this matter. Why
    is it that school children and campers who pick up litter are considered
    environmentally good citizens, but those who do it for a living are walked past in the
    street? Why am I so disinclined towards the hoover? Why is it that we are prepared to
    honour physical prowess at the Olympics or Twickenham but we fail to honour the
    navvies who built the railways? If you think for a moment there is almost no human
    activity which requires the hand, which does not also require the brain? May I
    mention sailing, which requires great physical skill, knowledge of wind and sea,
    navigation, courage i.e. a demanding package. Then there is gardening (are you
    listening anthemis!) gardening is very physical but needs large quantities of artistic
    sense and design, knowledge of biology, horticulture etc. Similarly despite automatic
    pilots and avionics, I hope my airline pilots have their manual skills intact allied to a
    highly skilled training. May I also mention the farmers, who even in these days of
    stereo air-conditioned tractor cabs, need much physical prowess. Then there are the
    cooks and waiters and those who slave in hot taverna kitchens!
    One of the happiest post-Christmas breaks I ever spent was five days locked in a
    garage with my son, taking out the engine and gearbox from a mini-metro and under
    his direction stripping out and rebuilding the entire gearbox. In the weeks that
    followed I really appreciated his manual and engineering skill as the previous clunks
    and screetches had disappeared from the box.
    In a previous church in Hampshire we needed a fresh water main laid which was
    going to cost a lot of money. A member of the congregation who was a plumber said
    he would do the job as a piece of Christian stewardship provided the congregation
    was the manual labour! One Saturday morning all the men and some of the beefier
    girls became the navvies, dug the trench, and the main was laid at very low cost.
    There were no leaks and the church’s accounts balanced. But the main effect was a
    new respect for manual labour. The plumber later re-trained as a teacher; taught for
    eight years and then reverted to being a plumber. He said he could take no more of
    the stress of teaching in a modern comprehensive! (my most admired profession)
    Maybe manual labour is not the issue it used to be, now that JCBs and vehicles which
    lift wheely-bins have been invented , but we ought to respect those whose main skill
    lies in their physical energies and stamina. Even in church there is much physical
    work to be done. There is one advantage of the manual labourer: he (or she) sleeps at
    night! The book of Ecclesiastes says: ‘The sleep of the labourer is sweet , whether he
    eats little or much’.
    St. Paul summed it up in I Corinthians 12 v 21: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I
    do not need you’; nor the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you’. Quite the contrary:
    those organs of the body which seem to be more frail than others are indispensable.’
    In other words we need each other. So enjoy doing what you do.
    * Eyre Methuen ,London 1979.

    written originally by Clifford Owen for ‘The Corfiot’ magazine in Corfu 2006

  2. Well said, especially on the SSD and the subject of business work. Remembering this as I go to our new pastor’s (not “minister’s”!) induction service this Saturday!

  3. As I read this Paul I initially thought you were diplomatically avoiding the term “priesthood of all believers” by substituting “ministry”. But no. One third into it and there you go… “The New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers.” Well done! I admire a person who openly wears their proclivity on their sleeve!

    I admit that while having ended up at the top end of the candle, it’s no easy matter for me to drop 40 years of Baptist theology! You can take the boy out of the Baptist, but you can’t take the Baptist out of the boy.

    A couple of years back I was privileged to hear ++Stephen Cottrell here in Auckland. Seldom have I felt so indignant as when he said, “the protestant assertion of the priesthood of all believers is a heresy”. The old Fred who used to jump up in theology lectures and take on the tutor was almost resurrected, – but what do they say? Something about discretion being the better part of valor? I said nothing.

    But, here’s what I’d like to see. A gentlemanly debate between yourself Archbishop Cottrell on just this subject. Now that would be something to tune in for!


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