Images of Christian Ministry

Donald Messer, Abingdon Press, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Messer, president of the Iliff School of Theology, identifies five images with their implications for ministry (these are seen as supplementary concepts for the traditional concepts of priest, prophet and king).  These images are the wounded healer, the servant leader, the political mystic, the practical theologian and the enslaved liberator.

        Key is his insistence that ‘ministry is viewed as not simply the professional presence of the ordained but as an expression of the total church both clergy and lay’ (p 15).  The danger of compartmentalizing functions comes from viewing ministry as individualistic acts of service rather than as an expression of G-d’s gift of grace to the community of faith; Messer calls for liking lay and clergy together in common bonds of faithfulness and effectiveness.  ‘Christian ministry is G-d’s gift to all persons, ordained and lay’ (pp 16,17).

        The congregational thrust of his ecclesiology is expressed in ‘ordination is rooted not in the bishops’ authority to ordain but in the priesthood of all believers’ (p 37).  The minister’s image of prophet is developed well:  ‘the image of the prophet has always been a sociologically marginal metaphor of ministry’ (p 43).  Messer warns against the ‘cult of personality with its individualistic focus on the preacher’ (p44), and quotes P. T. Forsyth:  ‘the church does not live by its preachers but by its Word’; no one has the right to the pulpit by virtue of personality. A magnetic personality may endanger the communication of the gospel’ (p 45).

        Messer has a fascinating section on the church in China, which he sees as a new ‘post denominational church that provides an antidote to the denominational, bureaucratic model characteristic of most of the globe’s churches’ (p 158).  The church of the future will centre more on people and less on brick and mortar and flow charts. 

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.