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“You shall love the Lord your God.” Matt. 22:37

Re-Forming Ministry
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Karen Russell
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Why Word and Sacrament?

John Calvin is representative of a significant Reformation tradition that places Word and Sacrament at the heart of the church's life: "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists" (Institutes, 4.1.9). Calvin's marks of the church center on lived faith within congregations. He does not speak in the first instance about a church's orthodox doctrine or its sacramental theology, but about the faithfulness of proclamation and reception and about the faithfulness of broad sacramental practice within local Christian communities. Calvin's marks point us to congregations not academies, to churches not libraries. Word and Sacrament are matters of fundamental ecclesial faithfulness that allow the gospel to be received, believed, and lived.

Approaching ecclesiology from the perspective of Word and Sacrament is not mere nostalgia for Reformation clarity. Word and Sacrament provide the church and its ministers with foundational signs of ecclesial faithfulness, for the question to be asked of any congregation, seminary or judicatory, is whether Word and Sacrament are found at the heart of common life. Proclamation in Word and Sacrament is not the only thing churches do, of course. However, designating Word and Sacrament as marks of the church means that other church activities must not bury Word and Sacrament or push them to the periphery of church life. Furthermore, the whole range of church programs must remain subject to authentication by Word and Sacrament, for these crucial realities are the embodiment of the gospel in the life of Christ's women and men.

Presbyterian churches have sometimes added church discipline or order as a third mark of the church. All Reformed churches recognize the importance of discipline — ordered personal and corporate practices that ensure free space for Word and Sacrament to flourish. This traditional emphasis on discipline supports the centrality of Word and Sacrament in the lives of all Christians.

Word and Sacrament continue to be appropriate marks of the church, yet both are disordered. Baptism remains an isolated liturgical moment, with no connection to deepened discipleship, to grace-filled vocation and cruciform church life. The Lord's Supper remains a narrowly liturgical event, restricting its capacity to shape grace-filled service to the world and hope-filled church life. Neglect of sacramental life is coupled with an odd North American scarcity of the Word. In far too many congregations the scriptures have become strangers to church members, encouraging preaching that spotlights the congregation or promotes the church rather than proclaiming the One who is the head of the body. Furthermore, ordered practices, so recently recovered in the church, are in danger of becoming a disconnected collection of admirable activities with only tenuous connections to the gospel and little enduring capacity to transform congregational life.

In all of this, the church's pastors (formally termed "Ministers of the Word and Sacrament"!) are left in congregational isolation. The basic, fundamental practices of Word and Sacrament are separated from one another, detached from personal and corporate disciplines, remote from ordered church life. Pastors remain isolated from seminary faculty and church officials who, in turn, are only dimly aware of pastoral struggles. Word and Sacrament, broadly understood, are indispensable pastoral practices that provide a common entry into pressing ecclesiological issues. When pastors, professors, and church officials join in shared theological exploration of these matters, the pastoral-ecclesial culture can be transformed in ways that sustain pastoral excellence — not of the few, but of the many.


In the end, renewing the pastoral-ecclesial culture by recovering the shared teaching office of pastors, professors, and church officials is not only for the sake of the church's ministers. Sustaining pastoral excellence is for the sake of sustaining congregations and their members in faithful gratitude for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.

... And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

—Ephesians 4:7,11-12

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