Thompson looks to Paul for answer on pastoral ministry
Most preachers have a list of bizarre questions asked by congregational interviewers. Ministerial search committees have differing expectations for their ideal candidate based on their understanding of the local preacher’s role. Historically, the preacher has been assumed to fill the roles of evangelist, motivator, chaplain and visionary leader. Lately, he also is expected to be therapist, local celebrity, politician and religious marketer.
But for a people who claim to follow the Bible only, we seem to have missed asking the relevant question: What does the Bible call the local minister to do?
The clearest New Testament model of a local minister is Paul. In this important work, James Thompson, Distinguished Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University, calls us to see the obvious. As he seeks a definition of the minister’s ultimate aims, Thompson lets Paul speak for himself in defining a theology of pastoral ministry.
He surveys literature concerning pastoral ministry and notes that he is not the first to suggest that Paul serves as the best model for a theology of pastoral ministry. In Pauline correspondence we glimpse the apostle’s interaction with various churches. Thompson shows that other writers have approached Paul with serious biases. Some see him as a church planter; others claim he reveals a therapeutic ministry; and others see an evangelist, a church growth expert or a single-minded exponent of justification by faith. These writers see the theology of their own commitment in the work of Paul.
Thompson points out that much of this manipulation is “based on an antiquated and inadequate understanding of Paul.”
Thompson has attempted the difficult (some would say impossible) task of objectively determining Paul’s goal in his interaction with the churches of his correspondence. Thompson concludes, “The center of Paul’s thought is a theology of transformation, which provides the basis for Paul’s pastoral theology.” He further asserts that ministry is “participation in God’s work of transforming the community of faith.”
In the letter to the Philippians and the first letter to the Thessalonians, Thompson discerns Paul’s theology of Christian formation. The essence of Christian formation is the development of the community in blamelessness. Thompson analyzes the letters according to the canons of ancient deliberative rhetoric, breaking the works into sections corresponding to exordium, narratio, propositio, probatio and peroratio. It is in the handling of the text that the transliteration of Greek intrudes and distracts. For those who are competent in the language, transliteration is not necessary; for those who lack Greek skills, transliteration is of no help. In both letters, Thompson presents the congregations as part of an ongoing narrative. The beginning of the story is the introduction of the gospel, while the end is the verdict of success or failure in becoming the true community of God’s people. The letters come in the middle of the story, while the issue is in doubt. Paul’s efforts will be judged successful if the community is formed in blamelessness.
In Galatians, Thompson notes obstacles that will impede such formation. Transformation is primarily spiritual, yet the Galatians remain fleshly, bound in the present evil age. Paul reveals his agony for the Christians in Galatia. They are in crisis, having manifestly failed spiritual transformation to this point. Paul calls them to be perfected in the Spirit, even as he fears his work is “in vain.”
When he turns his attention to Romans, Thompson describes the connection between transformation and the goals of Paul’s ministry. Paul conceives of himself as emissary to the Romans, carrying the message of grace. This is the message that will transform the Romans into one people of God. All are under the sentence of wrath; all can be a part of the new community of faith. The boundary of this change is, unexpectedly, not their faith but their baptism. It is in that sacred moment that the Romans are defined as those who have fully identified with Christ. The challenge then is to be conformed to the image of Christ — grace works out in a theology of transformation.
The Corinthian correspondence calls forth the special circumstances applying to a congregation that has lost its way. The Corinthians adopted “the basic Christian confessions,” but “they now interpret the Christian message on the basis of inherited cultural mores.” Paul presses them to overcome human obstacles to Christian formation and grow up into a building that will withstand the test in the last day. They are not to seek their own interests but those of the community, and they are to learn to deny themselves to serve the selfless Lord.
The final chapter of the book provides impressive suggestions for the application of a Pauline theology of pastoral ministry to today’s congregations. Thompson notes that a direct transference of Paul’s practice to contemporary churches is impossible. He traces the themes of a theology of transformation and notes the transcultural impact of a call to blamelessness. To churches preoccupied with being admired and respected in their various communities, Thompson challenges us with the statement that truly Biblical pastoral ministry “becomes not the clarification of the congregation’s own values but the transforming of its values through the Christian message.” He declares that such ministry will focus more on communal development than individual development and that fully faithful ministry will offer clear guidance in matters of sexual ethics and mutual love within the church.
Thompson has produced a thought-provoking book that draws ministers, elders and search committeesus to consider the ultimate aims of congregational ministry and challenges our shallow benchmarks of ministerial success.
CHRIS STINNETT preaches for the Church of Christ at Seminole, Okla.
July 1, 2006