Crucifying Ministries


One of my favourite pastoral theologians (other than Karl Barth–who is very much a pastoral theologian, thank you very much!) is Andrew Purves of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I have been assigning his book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation (amongst others) in one of my seminary classes on pastoral theology. He has now come out with what you could call “Reconstructing-Lite,” entitled, The Crucifixion of Ministry. He essentially abridges the main points ofย Reconstructing for a more popular audience, but extends some of his arguments as well. Central to his argument are what he calls the “two forgotten doctrines” in ministry today: 1) the vicarious humanity and ministry of Christ (i.e., Christ is the one who accomplishes ministry to God on our behalf), and 2) our union with Christ in the Holy Spirit (i.e., our ministry is effective only because of our being united spiritually with Christ’s body through the Holy Spirit). At any rate, I highly recommend both of these books to pastors. But if you are really busy, then at least read Crucifixion of Ministry.

But to give a snippet, here are some great paragraphs from the opening of chapter 3. It will give you a sense of the “flavour” of pastoral theology Purves is offering.

We do not mediate Jesus Christ. We do not make him effective, relevant or practical. Neither is it up to us to raise the dead, heal the sick or forgive the sinners. Faithful ministry is just not that grandiose.

When we think that the ministry of the gospel is for us to do, that we carry Jesus around with us in our pastoral and homiletical tool bags, dispensing him here and there as we deem fit, we are in the way and have become a hindrance to the ministry of the gospel. As ministers of the gospel we are not ecclesiastical conjurors with magic hands, pulling Jesus out of our hats.

To repeat, here is the issue: Our ministries are not redemptive. Only Christ’s ministry is redemptive. If we stand in the way, focusing on our ministries, we have to shoved out of the way. When we have a severe preoccupation with ‘my ministry,’ that ministry has to be crucified. (73)

I love the first lines of the first and third paragraph. We are not mediators of Jesus, and our ministries are not redemptive. This aligns nicely with why I have been consistently opposed in past years to speaking about “incarnational” ministry, because such ways of speaking are constantly in danger of confusing or conflating the role of the Church and the role of Christ. We (the church) are not the incarnation of Jesus on earth; we are not the only Jesus some people will see. Jesus can show himself to people with or without us, thank you very much. Yes, we are his body, united to him, the Head, by the Holy Spirit. But we never have and never will replace Jesus. Keep that straight and you will save yourself a lot of pressure in ministry. You don’t have to be Jesus; all you have to do is let Jesus be Jesus, and enjoy the ride!

And furthermore, our ministries are not redemptive. We aren’t the ones doin’ the redeemin’! Again, if that doesn’t take pressure off of you in your ministry, I’m not sure what will! Rather, ministry becomes full of hope because we no longer need to worry about what will happen if–I mean, when–we fail. Not that we go around looking for ways to fail. But we can rest assured that when we fail, Jesus’ redemptive ministry goes on. Whew! What a relief!

Purves’ pastoral theology is at once startling and yet vitally refreshing. He takes Galatians 2:20 as paradigmatic for understanding ministry, and for setting it in contrast to many popular understandings of the task of ministry. For it is in Gal 2:20 that we read, “I yet not I but Christ…” As Purves paraphrases it, “I [Jesus], not you, do the ministry that saves and heals, that gives hope and blesses, that forgives and promises life.” (74) This is in stark contrast to the models of ministry that look at Jesus as some kind of “model” for ministry, someone whom we can emulate and imitate in our own ministries (i.e., WWJD applied to ministry–which, by the way, Purves critiques quite nicely on p. 51!) But frankly, the WWJD model of ministry is paralyzing, for who–really, who?–can live up to the exemplar by way of ministry? This isn’t to say that Jesus is not an example worth following. Paul thinks he is! (Cf. ย 1 Cor 11:1). But taken on its own, the exemplar model of ministry is simply inadequate to the task.

These issues of ministry are really close to my mind and heart these days, especially because it was publicly announced here at Briercrest today that I have been “reappointed” as Dean of the Seminary, and elected/appointed anew as Chair of the Christian Ministries division in the College–a dual role which has “ministry” at its heart. (I begin both these roles officially on August 1). And as I think about the tasks at hand, I am excited and full of trepidation–yet with Purves’ words ringing in my mind, full of hope!

But I ask you, my friends and colleagues, to pray for me that I would, from the start, crucify my ministry, and be ready and willing to ask, “Jesus, how can I get on board with the heart of your ministry here at Briercrest College and Seminary?” And not only that, I ask that you would pray that I would be able to bring that challenge also to my co-labouring faculty here at Briercrest as well–that we would refuse to build our ministry, but would constantly ask Jesus, “What do you want to do here amongst us and amongst our students?”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal 2:20


6 thoughts on “Crucifying Ministries

  1. Joshua

    Thank you for posting this David. You bring up a couple issues which I have been contending with in my own life lately. I’ll definitely have to check out these works.


  2. Congratulations on the re-appointment ๐Ÿ™‚

    Sounds like some good reading. From what you have said here, I wonder if it is too sharp a distinction. One the one hand it certainly is Christ who redeems, but when Peter and John heal the lame man in Acts proclaiming “get up and walk” there is an authority, given by Jesus Christ, that is exercised by the Apostles. So I ask, is it a matter of “whose ministry” or one of “whose authority”?

    As far as being mediators, in my late night really should be sleeping stupor, I wonder about the notion of the priest hood of all believers. Is the role of a priest not that of a mediator of sorts if only in a limited way? In what sense do we participate in the ministry of reconciliation?

    As much as I push against the “my ministry” paradigm, ministries (gifts) are given and exercised for the benefit of the Church. There seems to be a source and authority issue that underlies the discussion.

  3. Good word, David. However, I have a small issue with the second paragraph after the quote – the one about taking the pressure off if/when we fail. This is so typical of theologians who forget that the church is not just a theological creation, but it is situated in a socio-political world. The pressure to succeed in ministry comes from the parishoners who pay the pastor’s salary, and it is not lessened one bit just because our ministry isn’t incarnational. Let’s face it, pastors are paid to succeed. There’s no “Phew! I can relax” coming from me anytime soon.

    Now, because this blog medium is so impersonal, please read the above paragraph knowing I have that “stir-the-pot” glint in my eye and a silly grin on my face that says, “I know I’m going to get slaughtered in a second, but what the hey…” like I used to have when I’d sit in your office discussing these things with you.


  4. Grant, at least part of the pressure comes from what we pastors project on our people in terms of what we lead them to expect of us, and which we continue to allow our people to put on us. (I put “we” because even though I’m not a pastor of a church, I see my role as a seminary prof in pastoral terms). Yeah, no doubt there will always be real pressures–but having a proper view of ministry, I think, can reduce the pressure in areas where we ourselves have been prone to allow it to build.

    As a word of personal testimony, this mindset HAS made a difference to me as I have thought about my role in this past year. Indeed, it has given me a significant degree of freedom. It isn’t that it has made me feel like there is any less work to do, or that the pressures of day to day ministry aren’t there. But this perspective has slowly made a difference for me knowing: 1) that I’m far from indispensable to God’s work; 2) that whatever “successes” come, it is because the Lord is graciously using me; 3) whatever failures there are not simply explained by the idea that I didn’t do X or Y hard enough, long enough, sincere enough, smart enough, etc. I’m not advocating for not working hard or not being disciplined, but I am advocating that we stop beating ourselves up when people and situations don’t change as quickly or positively as we might like.

    I had a student my office just about 2 weeks ago who was facing tremendous pressures at many levels of the student’s life, many more problems than I knew what to say about, and deeper personal and spiritual issues that I felt capable of dealing with. And Purves’ advice came to mind and I asked myself, “What Word of God does this student need to hear?” At this point, I spoke simply of God’s promise never to leave or forsake us, whatever the situation. I saw the student just two days ago and asked how things were going. Well, things aren’t much different, the student said, but the Word which I spoke to the student has continued to encourage and help keep the student have perspective. That’s, I think, what I mean by taking the pressure off. I didn’t have to solve the problems, or bear the issues myself. I directed the student to Christ and his enduring presence, and for the moment at least, that is all that the student needs.

  5. amen, to all of it.

    i’m so thankful you assigned me to read Purves. it didn’t help me to pastor, it made it possible for me to pastor again.

    the condensed version is a welcome publication. everyone i recommend the other one too looks at me like i’m handing them a syllabus or something.

    congrats on the roles at the school. that’s great to hear, and amen to the prayer.

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