Canon & Ministry: How Scripture Works In Worship and Community

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prayers-1209076The life and work of ministry are canonical in that they are shaped by Canon, identified by Canon, constrained by Canon, and fueled by Canon. Ministry serves the community that is shaped by Canon and that gives to Canon its shape. It is the purveyor of the God revealed in Christ and the Canon that reveals that Christ. This can be seen most clearly in two specific areas. First, the minister is the director of worship that communicates and enacts Canon to God’s glory. Second, the minister is the guide to a community trying to live out Canon. At its best, ministry is transparent, a glass that transmits the God who stands behind the task just as he stands behind the text that creates the task.

Canon & Worship

One specific location where the Canon acts through the minister to shape congregational life is in worship. Peterson observes: “In worship the community of God’s people assemble to hear God’s word spoken in scripture, sermon, and sacrament. … All pastoral work originates in this act of worship.”1 Canon is not only alive in the text, but also in presentation and participation. Sacraments are visible words that articulate Canon in action, enacting mystery and opening a window to God’s grace.

In worship, the minister acts to bring the community near the voice of its God. Williams’ short text is a masterful treatment of the interaction of Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and prayer, each aspects of pastoral calling. He writes, “For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life.”2 Listening is done together with the community, for, “The Christian listens for God and listens in the company of other believers to those texts that, from the very beginnings of the Christian community, have been identified as carrying the voice of God.”3 The listening and speaking begins in the Canon and then is acted out in the sacraments. If the sacraments are visible words, then the Canon gives the shape and form of those words before they are made visible.

The communal listening extends even beyond the living. While certainly “it is the nature of a canon to be closed,”4 still Canon is not heard in isolation. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” continues to speak. Tradition contributes to the task by clarifying and adding layers of harmony beneath the voice of the text. “We need to listen not only to what the Bible is saying, but to what it is saying to those around us and those in the past. That is one of the meanings of ‘tradition’ in the Church.”5 The church in worship calls up the voices that speak alongside the Canon and continue the conversation with God. As Medieval author, Maximus the Confessor, states,

By the hearing of the divine words there is effected the firm and unchangeable habits and dispositions of the realities just mentioned, that is, of faith, virtue, and knowledge. Through the divine chants which follow there is effected the deliberate consent of the soul to virtue as well as the spiritual delight and enjoyment that these arouse in it. By the sacred reading of the holy Gospel there is brought about the end of earthly thinking as of the world of sense.6

Together with those that have gone before, the church in worship bears witness to the creation of the new reality bursting forth from the pages of Canon. As always, it is God who acts. God acts in his Christ. Christ acts in Canon. Canon acts in the minister. The minister acts in worship.

Worship is not pastoral work to the exclusion of personal interaction but as the creator of personal interaction. Peterson states, “Pastoral work begins at the Pulpit, the Font, the Table; it continues in the hospital room, the family room, the counseling room, the committee room.”7 Likewise, he grumbles, “The pulpit is grounded in the prophetic and kerygmatic traditions but the church office is organized around IBM machines.”8 Never should a dichotomy be accepted that separates holy worship from the mundane. The holy reshapes the mundane. It gives life to the ordinary and fuels the personal interactions that make up the majority of the minister’s time. Personal interactions are sacraments of sacraments, actions that act out the actions that act out the actions of God.

Canon & Community

Theology is trivia in the abstract but becomes life itself in the Christian community. Until theology is worked intentionally into congregational life, neither theology nor the community can effectively influence the world. Once more reading from Volf,

To the extent that theology is able to shape broader society at all, it will be able to do so largely to the degree that it is able to shape the life of Christian communities. … Christian communities, to the extent that they are specifically Christian, are primarily nourished through the reading of the Bible, whether that reading occurs in liturgies, sermons, circles of friends, or private study. … Take the Scriptures away and sooner or later you will ‘un-church’ the Christ.9

Likewise, he states,

For the Bible to be the sacred text of the Christian communities means, at minimum, that it is not merely a witness to how God as its main character acted in the particularities of the past events narrated, but also a medium of God’s involvement in the lives of people today – maybe a bit like a historical drama performed before a live audience, though designed to address more immediately each reader and every human being than dramas normally do.10

In each of these passages, what becomes clear is Volf’s sense that theology’s effectiveness in the world is in its incarnation in the church and that theology shapes the church as mediated by the Scriptures.

Ministry is to facilitate this communication and formation. It takes the Canon and draws from it theology. It takes community and shapes it under the influence of that canonically shaped theology. When theology grown from Canon reaches the personal choices and worldview of specific persons in the community, then it has become pastoral. “Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary.”11 Furthermore, “It is the unique property of pastoral work to combine two aspects of ministry: one, to represent the eternal word and will of God; and, two, to do it among the idiosyncrasies of the local and the personal (the actual place where the pastor lives; the named people with whom he or she lives).”12

Thomas Oden describes this as the “ministry of the word,” and states that it is the “pastoral conversation in which the word is being communicated personally in one-to-one dialogue.”13

Ministry also has a reverse function. In bringing the holy attention of the community to the Scriptures, the minister continues to create the reality of the authority of Canon for that community, maintaining it as a text that shapes lives and requires honor. Johnson states,

The canon and the church are correlative in this sense: Without the community regarding them as addressing it in an authoritative and normative way, these ancient writings would not be Scripture. On the other hand, without such a fixed frame of understanding, which mediates the identity of the community from age to age, there would not exist any historical community identifiable as the church in the first place. … Canonization, therefore, is more than the residue of past decisions. It is a decision renewed by the church every time it reads these writings in the assembly for worship; when it looks to these writings alone as its unmeasured measure of self-understanding; when it allows these writings to question and interpret its present existence in a way it will let no other writings do.14

Ministry is the conduit of this bidirectional current of meaning and identity. It is the link that permits the shared identity of Church and Canon. As much as Canon and community shape ministry, it is also the inseparable coupler that allows the two to exist together symbiotically in God’s world.


  1. Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 18-19.
  2. Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 21. It should be noticed that Williams acknowledges the relative modernity of “reading” scripture as opposed to listening.
  3. Ibid., 22.
  4. Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture & Discernment: Decision-Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 36.
  5. Williams, 39.
  6. As cited in John R. Tyson, ed., Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 133.
  7. Peterson, 19.
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. Volf, 10.
  10. Ibid., 20.
  11. Peterson, 1.
  12. Ibid., 5.
  13. Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 127.
  14. Johnson, 31-32.
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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