The contemporary evangelical church employs a nearly endless array of philosophies of ministry. This is, for the most part, the result of an unthinking adoption of marketing principles from the world of commerce. Almost all evangelical churches are good at talking about their “distinctives.” Few are very good about—or much interested in—talking about the things that are or should be the same in all local expressions of the body of Christ. In business school we had a name for this: market differentiation.
One of the market niches in this endless array is occupied by those who claim special supernatural means. People come to Christ, they assert, when they see a live demonstration of His power in a healing or a psychic revelation or an ecstatic experience. But this approach is also essentially utilitarian: It’s good if it works, and it’s working if it attracts large numbers of people. Peter Wagner, long-time professor of Church growth at Fuller Seminary and co-founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, reflects this view, sometimes called the “signs and wonders” movement and sometimes “power evangelism.” In his book The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, Dr. Wagner writes:
I am proud to be among those who are advocating power evangelism as an important tool for fulfilling the great commission in our day. One of the reasons I am so enthusiastic is that it is working. Across the board, the most effective evangelism in today’s world is accompanied by manifestations of supernatural power” (p.87).
It’s hard to argue with “success,” but is a utilitarian philosophy of ministry biblical? “The pragmatist,” according to John MacArthur, “is concerned with what appears to work. The biblical thinker is concerned only with what the Bible says. Those approaches are usually in fundamental conflict” (Charismatic Chaos, p. 171). Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul expresses a similar concern about using the appearance of results to evaluate ministry:
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor 3:4-6).
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:6).
Paul is arguing here against the idea of evaluating and comparing his own ministry vis a vis that of Apollos on the basis of their apparent effectiveness or human attractiveness. He urges a biblical approach (“not to exceed what is written”) over pragmatism.
All of this begs the question, what is a biblical philosophy of ministry? Is there a proper biblical ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church), or is it as flexible as the fractured contemporary landscape would lead us to think? Does the Church have any actual authority in the lives of believers, and if so, who exercises that authority? I hope to address these and other related questions in future posts, but I’d be interested in your reflections now.