The Ministry of the Word
By Clinton De France
What is the function of the body of Christ? What do God’s people do? To put it another way, what is the work of the church? The simplest answer to this question is – to promote the kingdom of God in this world. That is, to convert rebellious sinners to submission to Him, to become more like Jesus and promote the same transformation in others, to grow together in love and unity, and to fill the world with knowledge and glory of God. Everything the church does – whether corporately or individually, in assemblies or in everyday life – is aimed toward this one great end.
In this brief essay, we shall consider one aspect of what the church does to accomplish this goal. In Acts 6, a controversy arose among the believers in Jerusalem when some of the poor widows were neglected by those who were giving out food on behalf of the others. Evidently the apostles had been overseeing this work, which they called “serving tables.” The meaning was not that they were “waiters” in the modern sense of the term, but rather that they were overseeing charitable donations and helping to offer relief to the physical needs some of the brothers and sisters.
While the Spirit helped the apostles to find a solution – namely the appointment of deacons – the apostles made a meaningful observation when confronted with the issue: “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).
Note that the apostles did not deny that “serving tables” was part of the good work of the body of Christ, but they simply observed it was not the work God intended for them to be doing. Others should be appointed to that task, so that the apostles (and others like them) could give themselves continually “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” What is “the ministry of the word”? It includes all the various activities associated with “the word of God” – the teaching and revelation given to and preserved for us in the Old and New Covenant Scriptures.
Like most aspects of the Christian life, the ministry of the word is not confined to the assembly but reaches into every part of our lives. However, there are parts of the assembly in which the ministry of the word takes a leading and vital role. First, the congregation is expected to read the word – that is the Scripture, or the Bible – in the assemblies (1 Timothy 4:13; Colossians 4:16). Second, the congregation is expected to have someone to teach the word in assemblies (1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Corinthians 14:26). Third, the congregation is expected to allow for those who are so gifted to offer exhortations in the assemblies (1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Corinthians 14:3).
There are no restrictions on what parts of the Bible should be read in the assembly. In Israel, the whole Law was read every seven years and on special occasions to gatherings that included men, women, little ones, and strangers (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Nehemiah 8:1-8). In the early church “the Scriptures” consisted first of the Old Covenant Scriptures only, and then – as they were produced and circulated – began to include the writings of the apostles and prophets of Christ (Colossians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). Some object to reading the Old Testament in certain assemblies, but this objection is without biblical basis and runs contrary to the pattern set by the first congregations.
Teaching is to be offered in a reasonable and appropriate way – this is most likely the meaning of the expression “sound doctrine”, or literally “healthy, or good teaching.” It must come from “the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), it must be given without compromise or favoritism (Titus 1:9), and it must be offered in gentleness and humility (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Not every Christian is intended to be a teacher (Ephesians 4:11; James 3:1). The ability to teach – both in reference to the academic skills and capacity to reason so as to understand the scripture, and in reference to the skills in communication so as to effectively explain to others what it teaches – is a gift which God gives to some, but not all (Romans 12:3-8). Only those who have this gift should be invited to teach the church (1 Peter 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:2 and 24).
Exhortation is distinguished from teaching, and the Bible is explicit that teaching and exhortation are two different gifts (Romans 12:7-8). Teaching involves the explanation of the meaning of the text of Scripture. Exhortation involves the encouragement and admonition to put the Scripture into practice – either by one’s works, or by one’s attitude. The Greek word translated exhortation means, “to come along side another to offer aid or assistance.” Most of the time the word is translated consolation; other translations include encouragement or comfort. In all cases, the encouragement, consolation, or comfort must be based on the teaching and truth revealed in Scripture as it has been accurately explained (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
It may be that one who is gifted in teaching is not gifted in exhortation, and it may be that one who is gifted in exhortation is not gifted in teaching – however it is the will of God that every member serves according to his or her gifts (Ephesians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 12:5-7). Therefore, in the ancient assemblies, opportunity was given for teaching and exhortation, or for a combination of the two by those who were capable (1 Corinthians 14:26).
In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul teaches that women are not to speak in the church. This clearly includes teaching (1 Timothy 2:11-15), but in context it seems to also include prophecy, languages, and exhortation.
On the basis of the Scriptures and principles just discussed, I believe that assemblies should be structured to allow for more than simply “the teaching” – the reading of the Scripture and exhortation should also be included. Some persons are gifted by God with the ability to study and teach, others are gifted by God with the ability to encourage, comfort, and console, still others are gifted to do both. The apostles ordered the assemblies to allow for multiple speakers in carrying out “the ministry of the word” – thus allowing for the exercise of each gift.
NOTE: It seems to me that one of the roles of elders, implied in the term overseer (episkipos), is to help each member of the body identify his or her gifts, and to teach them how to serve God with those gifts in the proper setting and in the most effective way possible. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the elders to assign those who manifest the gift of teaching to teach in the assembly and those who manifest the gift of exhortation to exhort in the assembly and to train each to carry out his task appropriately.
 There are certain aspects of the Christian life, e.g., the Lord’s Supper, that are exclusively limited to the assembly of the congregation.
 Historically, some have said, “There are five items of worship: teaching, singing, prayer, giving, and the Lord’s Supper.” It should be noted that this list cannot be found in any passage of Scripture, and it has proven to be less than helpful over the years. As we shall see, teaching is a part of the ministry of the word – but not the only part. There may well be five expressions of worship which God expects Christians to perform in the assembly – however, we should not restrict ourselves from learning the truth by unreasonable insistence on following manmade formulas.
 Barnabas was called “the son of encouragement” – encouragement being the same word as exhortation in the original language – because he was highly gifted in this respect, but it seems he was also a gifted teacher and even a prophet.
 In the apostolic era, the gifts of prophecy and speaking in languages were practiced in the assembly, but they do not appear to be equated with the ministry of the word. These gifts are no longer active in the church, however, the regulations in 1 Corinthians 14 regarding orderliness and the roles of women are rooted in the nature of God and creation and apply with equal forces at all times and in all places.
 My recommendation to congregations is to assign a brother to follow the teacher with an exhortation based on the things taught by the first brother. Perhaps in the place where closing announcements and expressions of thanksgiving and appreciation are offered, one might also be assigned to give an exhortation. This is certainly not the only way to follow this pattern, but it is given for your consideration.