Andrew Purves, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1978 from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.

Ministers are not messiahs — their role is to join the Messiah in the work he is already doing.

Edited transcript

Michael Morrison: I wanted to talk to you today about one of your recent books, The Crucifixion of Ministry. That’s an intriguing title. Why should I want to crucify my ministry?

AP: Because it means putting to death our messianic pretentions — our pretentions that lead us to think that we are the messiah, that we can raise the dead, forgive the sins, fix the divorce, un-diagnose the cancer, do all these things that is the Lord’s job to do. The book is about letting the Lord be the Lord, and we are not the Lord. As I thought this through, I thought sometimes we are so fixed on my ministry, my church, that we forget it’s not my ministry, it’s not my church. It’s the Lord’s church. He is the one who is messianic, who will raise the dead and forgive the sins and at the end of times will dry every tear and everything will be made whole in him.

The book is about what it means to have our ministries displaced, so that we are not in the center of things, but he is in the center of things, and then through our union with him, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, joined to him… a John 15:1-11 image, that we are the branches, he is the vine, and we are joined into the vine, the work of the Spirit, abiding in him. Through sharing in his ministry, we get in on his ministries — not he who gets in on our ministry, we get in on his, because it is his ministry that is the healing and saving, redeeming ministry, not ours.

I play with the image. It’s just a metaphor, but it’s an image in that sometimes we become so wedded to our own ministry that God needs to give us a great shove to get us out of the way. That shove might have to be strong enough that it feels like a death, because I’m no longer on the throne of the universe, and I want to be on the throne of the universe!

MM: It hurts my pride.

AP: It hurts my pride, my ego, my self-esteem. It’s a book about the lord­ship of Jesus Christ, thought through at the point of the nature of ministry — his ministries. What is his ministry, and how do I get in on his ministry?

MM: I was just going to ask you that. How do I see what his ministry is? How do I join?

AP: Who is he? The great theological question is essentially a who question, not how did you do that, or what did you do, or can I do what you did? The essential question is, “Who are you, Lord?” — Saul’s question on the Damascus Road. When we ask that who question, we discover that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and because he had a ministry in the past, in history, and we have the gospel attestation of that, we have the records of the early church, we have some fairly strong ideas about what he was, what he was up to, the kind of things he did, what he stood for.

And he’s raised. The interesting thing about him being raised…let me put it in a shock way, because sometimes as a teacher you like to say shock­ing things — it keeps students awake. The New Testament isn’t interested in the resurrection. The New Testament is interested in the resurrected Jesus. The issue is not the metaphysics of resurrection — “How did you do that?” The interesting thing is, “Who are you, Lord, now that you are raised and ascended?”

If Jesus, as we confess, is raised — and not just raised, ascended, so not just locked into the past but now ascended and so Lord of all time and space, Lord now of the present tense and not just of the past tense, it becomes a question then of, “What are you up to?”

With the resurrection of Jesus, we also have the resurrection of his ministry. His ministry is not just a past ministry, because if it remains a past ministry, Jesus becomes a dead moral influence — you ought to do this, you ought to do the next thing and so on… I’m not messianic, so that becomes a recipe for guilt and burnout, for depression. The mental health professionals tell us that the highest mental health insurance cost for any professional group in the United States are professional clergy.

Part of the issue is that we’re trying to be Messiah. We’re trying to do what is not within our constitution or capacity to do. But Jesus does it. So the existential question is, when I walk into a hospital room, a cancer ward, what am I going to do there? I can’t un-diagnose the cancer. I can’t raise the dead. But I am going to trust that Jesus is going to show up, if not in merely historical terms, then certainly at the end of time terms, he will have the complete victory. My job as a pastor is to bear witness to what he is doing.

MM: In some ways, it’s that we admit our incompetence. Yet we go to a seminary to become more competent, don’t we?

AP: There’s nothing wrong with good skills for ministry. Put it on this level — we’re dealing with people. You’ve got to know how people tick. You’ve got to know things…family systems and some of the sociology. When you bump into various forms of mental dysfunction, you’ve got to be able to recognize that and not get hooked into it, and to be able to refer your parishioners to appropriate professional contacts.

Our primary job is not to be psychological fixers. Our primary job, put in conventional terms, is to declare the gospel that Jesus lives, that Jesus died for their sins, in Jesus Christ they are forgiven, and to help them in the process of going into that reality so that they may grow up into Christ into him in every way who is the head, and that they may live lives of holiness, of sanctification. We need to recover our core job description of ministers of word and sacrament — to bear witness to Jesus and to help our people grow up every way into him who is the Lord. We need to have the people skills, but these don’t define our job. The theology of our life in Christ defines our job.

MM: So the role of a pastor and the members, too, is to stop looking to ourselves and look to joining Jesus.

AP: Yes, and by the Holy Spirit we are bonded to Christ. In my own tradition John Calvin is our theological father, and at the beginning of Book 3 of his Institutes, very famous theological four-volume work, he says that by the Holy Spirit we are bonded into Jesus Christ — bonded, as it were, cosmically glued into Jesus Christ! It’s almost like we’re covered head to toe, inside and out, spirit and body, by super glue, and we’re bonded to Jesus Christ. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, so that our being, our identity is in Christ. That’s Paul’s teaching, who is a Christian in Christ.

MM: Right. In your book you use the phrase union…

AP: Union with Christ.

MM: Is that what people are getting at with the phrase “relationship with Christ”? Or is that somewhat different?

AP: It’s on the way. The problem with the word “relationship with Jesus” is you can think of yourself, “Here am I, independent, self-actualizing person, here is Jesus, and we’re going to come to some sort of neutral little arrangement here.” It’s more radical than that. Because in union with Christ, his life becomes my life, his being becomes my being, so that even I have the mind of Christ. I am in Christ. He is the second Adam, and so in Christ is in the second Adam. My whole humanity is remade, reconstituted. I’m a new person, a new creation. It’s not just that the old Andrew Purves is having a nice little relationship with this guy called Jesus, it’s that Andrew Purves is turned inside out, converted in a fuller sense of my being so that I’m a new person.

The old Catholic monastic habit, when you become a monk or a nun, you got a new name. I like that. When you’re in Christ, you’re a new person. Have a new name to identify…I’m a new person! The old baptismal theology…in baptism the old Adam died and in Christ, through the waters of baptism, I’m bonded to Jesus Christ in a new person.

Union with Christ to me carries something more of that profound personal transformation. The question is, will I live it? The question is, do I believe it? Martin Luther says somewhere that “I thought that the old Adam drowned in the waters of baptism, but I discovered the miserable wretch can swim.” Until we rise again at the end of the age with Jesus, there’s a kind of a “yes, but”… also, “but not yet” tension in the Christian life, that we have the power and blessing of the Spirit, but this mortal body will die, yet to be raised. All things are not complete. In this life, and in ministry, it’s strange to say, the old Adam still creeps around, thinking that I can save my congregation, I can renew my congregation, I can be the savior of my people.

MM: That’s what they pay me for!

AP: That’s right, but you’re not a messiah. So The Crucifixion of Ministry is about putting to death our messianic pretentions. Crucifixion is a good word. It’s a saving word, it’s a redeeming word, it’s a death word, and it’s a deadly death word. I see the crucifixion of ministry as God saying, “I’m not done with you yet. I am reclaiming your ministry even in mid-career, and bonded to Jesus Christ, we will do great things with you.”

MM: What does the congregation do when the minister that they knew is crucified and stops doing the approach that the ministry used to have?

AP: I don’t have a slick packaged answer for you, other than to say this: We ought to take a far bigger responsibility for teaching the people. Teach the people about who Jesus is and what the church is in him, and what the job of the pastor is in the church.

Let me give you an example. I often hear pastors tell me, “I serve the Timbuktu Presbyterian Church.” I will say to the pastor, “No, you don’t serve the Timbuktu Presbyterian Church. You serve Jesus Christ as Lord, and Jesus serves the Timbuktu Presbyterian Church, because he’s their Lord. You serve the Lord.” When that focus is in place, it redirects ministry, because then the attention is “What is the Lord doing…what has the Lord called me to do? What about his ministry am I called to bear witness to for the sake of the people?” — because what they need is him. They don’t need me as the pastor.

MM: Then the pastor is just a facilitator in some ways — is that what you’re saying?

AP: No. You’re a New Testament scholar. The word for martyr is martyres, bearing witness. I think our primary task is to bear witness. Here’s the issue. Do you think Jesus is up to anything, or is he just back there as a dead moral influence? That’s the critical question.

MM: Or is he unemployed up in the sky?

AP: That’s right. Is he, in the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit, an actor in history? The New Testament is saying yes, the church at its best is saying yes, and so I think the issue is fundamentally Christian — do we believe Jesus lives? If he’s living, he’s up to something. The issue is, how do we as a congregation, how do I as your pastor help us as a congregation get in on this?

MM: The pastor is to be a witness for that.

AP: Be a witness to what Jesus is doing. That’s right.

MM: And the other members of the congregation…

AP: Get in on it.

MM: They all have a ministry.

AP: Two things will happen. When we are in Christ, bonded to Jesus Christ, two things will inevitably happen. You’ll become a person, you’ll become a congregation that worships in Christ. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, all of our prayers and worship go to the Father and the Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord. But also bonded to him, we share in his continuing mission from the Father. So we’re thrust out into the world. We become dialectically a people of worship and a people of ministry and mission — both/and. The trouble is, we have a lot of ministry and mission stuff going without a lot of worship stuff going. Sometimes we forget to see that in Christ we share in his communion with the Father and in his ministry from the Father.

MM: As people join in the ministry of Jesus, pastors or members, how do they know what he’s up to? They know who he is. What difference is it going to make on the street in the way they actually interact with one another or with the world?

AP: As I said earlier, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We have the Bible. But we’re students of the Bible not just to know what the Bible said. We’re students of the Bible to know what God is up to. That’s one radical statement. It’s one thing to know Bible verses, it’s something else to be…as it were, to go through the Scriptures and apprehend and be apprehended by the living God.

MM: So we need to be reading not just the words but read through them…

AP: Read through the words to a reality that can’t be contained within the words, but that the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, use these words in a unique and authoritative way — that we go through them to a reality… These are just words on a page. I don’t worship words on a page, I worship the living God. But through this, we know the Lord, and then we have the doctrines of the church, we have the great confessions of the church. So we have structures, lenses as it were, like my glasses, by which we can interpret the Scriptures in way that the church has said, “This is faithful.”

There is some degree of caution — we also have the Lord in our lives. It’s not just left-brain or cognitive, but everybody in your congregation has been met by the Lord — small ways, big ways, quiet ways, loud ways, he still meets us on the Damascus Road. He still meets us in the hospital room. He still meets us wherever we are, because he’s a living Lord. Helping the people then not just to know the Scripture, not just to know the great traditions of the church, but how does the Lord work in your life? Where has the Lord met you in your life? Get people telling these stories.

MM: Aren’t people often oblivious, unaware of his presence, of what he’s doing? And the pastor’s role is to help them see a different perspective on what’s already happening?

AP: Sure, and maybe stop talking and being a little quiet and learning to name and own your story, your story with the Lord. How has the Lord dealt with you? How did the Lord deal with you when you met your spouse and you fell in love? How did the Lord deal with you when your first child was born? How did the Lord deal with you when your first parent died? Etcetera, etcetera.

MM: Aren’t people a little reluctant?

AP: Yes.

MM: Why is that? Why would people be so reluctant to think that the Lord is working with them?

AP: It’s very personal — it makes you vulnerable when you speak this stuff out loud. So the pastor, with appropriate respect for boundaries (because you don’t say all things), you begin to model, to show by your life an openness, a vulnerability, a sensitivity to, an awareness that God is a God who gets involved in the lives of people, even my life. I would trust that slowly a congregation would begin to be aware, yeah, this is a living Lord — not just giving assent to propositions, but to a living Lord who is involved in my life.

MM: Some people might prefer that God stayed at a distance and stayed out of their lives — that he’s good for fire insurance, but they don’t want him crucifying their life.

AP: Yeah…Augustine famously said in his confessions, “Make me chaste Lord, but not yet,” “Make me holy, Lord, but not yet, there’s still a few things I want to mess with here.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German martyr, Lutheran theologian killed at the end of World War II in a concentration camp, wonderful theologian, in one of his books says, “When we are encountered by the living Word, one of two things must happen. Either the Word must kill us, with us being born again, or we must kill the Word.” This Word is not tame. This Word, who confronts us with an unconditional claim on our life…

MM: It meddles…

AP: It meddles, and that may mean there are some things in my life I have to put to death. Paul is full of this stuff — put away, put away, be done with…lists all over the place in the second half of all of these letters…put away all of that, but on the other hand, this is how you are to live. Yes, there is a moral inventory involved.

While we are not perfect, and as a Calvinist, I am pretty skeptical that I will be perfect this side of eternity, nonetheless, I’m in process. There are issues I struggle with and try to deal seriously with, and do so under grace and not under law. I try to do so because I am loved and I want to respond with gratitude, not because I am fearful and want to respond with fear and terror of a God who is out to get me. I believe, rather, I am dealing with a God who has unilaterally and unconditionally said, “I know your name and I love you, and my name is Jesus.”

MM: In the end he can be trusted.

AP: Yes, he can be trusted.

MM: What happens when the pastor is transformed, has a revised ministry, and the congregation catches some of this vision? How would the congregational life be transformed by a renewed understanding of who Jesus is?

AP: That’s contextual, because each local community has its own issues and its own life and ministries in response. So I don’t want to slap on a grid and say this is always what will happen. But some things surely will happen… The preaching will not be dull, the worship will not be dull, and the people will be caught up in the ministry of Jesus in some regard. As grandparents, parents, schoolteachers, plumbers, guys that fix roofs, guys that dig holes in the road, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, whatever they do… The criterion of holiness is not “how do we live for the Lord on Sunday morning” but “because we live for the Lord on Sunday morning (and that’s not a throwaway, that’s real), how then am I going to live for the Lord on Monday morning?” The criterion of holiness is what I do the rest of the week. That reality is taken into business, the marketplace, where consciously and intentionally I am saying the bottom line is my faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Where is he in this bank? Where is he in this business?

I’m not a great lover of dentistry, but it’s a necessary reality. My dentist gets the list every morning of the patients, and before a patient has come through the door, he prays for every patient. That’s a Christian dentist — that even drilling teeth and scraping plaque is done for the glory of the Lord. Paul says do all things in Christ — not just Sunday morning or pious things — so drive your car in Christ, make love and have babies in Christ, grade papers, teach a class in Christ, pay your taxes in Christ. What does it mean to live in Christ in all things, so that we concretize this reality that has personally claimed us, and whose name is Jesus and who is at work doing what he is always doing — bringing in the reign of God.

MM: This will transform people’s understanding of who they are, but for some people this is a little stretch.

AP: Yeah. I think we’ve made it too tame, on the whole. We’re too much of “Jesus at home in our culture.” I’m not advocating an angry Jesus, but even in Palestine 2000 years ago Jesus wasn’t always at home in his culture — challenging, provoking, particularly the religious…

MM: And his culture rejected him.

AP: Right. What does it mean to have a Jesus who might be a provocateur in our culture… I’m a Scot, I’m not an American. Just to say something that’s deliberately provocative, what would it mean for our thinking and acting if we were to say that I trust that Jesus is Lord, what therefore does that mean for defense policy? What does that mean for economic policy? If he’s Lord of all, not just of a little religious parcel of my life, but Lord of all — and I’m a Christian and I’m a defense contractor — nothing wrong with being a defense contractor — what does that mean for the ethics of my defense contracting? Or I’m in the military — what does that mean for my ethics as a soldier?

I think we are called into these difficult places of life to bear witness that Jesus is Lord and to expect…how do the Acts of the Apostles put it? These people are turning the world upside down. When you turn something upside down, that’s called a revolution. The revolution of the reign of God. A new heaven and a new earth. I get excited about that. That’s worth getting up for in the morning. That’s going to get me into a pulpit or into a lecture room with some excitement! The Lord is doing something, let’s get on and pray the power of the Spirit to bond us to what he’s doing and let’s get on with the work.

MM: You say it’s upside down, but in a way, the world we have now is what’s out of kilt.

AP: That’s right. It’s not Jesus who is upside down, it’s we who are upside down.

MM: But it’s hard… I’ve heard the story of the glasses that will change a person’s vision so they see upside down… they’ll adjust to it. But when they take them off, they have to go through the adjustment process again.

AP: Is this not Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”? Our minds have to be rewired. We have to learn how to think out of a center in Jesus Christ, not out of a center in ourselves, not out of a center in our culture, not out of a center in given values, but out of a center in Jesus Christ.

Because we live in a culture, I can never be in Christ apart from being a Scot. There’s always a tension here between Christ and culture. It’s not one or the other, it’s Christ in culture, Christ transforming culture, not Christ apart from culture. I’m not going off to some desert to play monk; I’m in a culture. I speak of God in Scottish accent. But how can I do that more faithfully and more convertedly and more consciously and more critically, rather than less so. That is the challenge. Only at the end of the age when I am raised with Jesus, will I then see face-to-face. But for now I am in an inevitable tension between Jesus is Lord, and I live in a culture. That’s part of the missiological frame within which we go in the world.

MM: Jesus was in a culture, and he spoke with Galilean accent.

AP: Right.

MM: Romans 12 tells us, “Don’t be conformed to the world,” yet in some ways there are aspects of the world we need, and we need to discern the difference.

AP: That’s right. I have to pay taxes, I have to drive under the speed limit. Laws and rules are given, mostly, for our good and for the well-being of the commonwealth. There need to be politicians. Praise God sometimes when there are Christian politicians. I don’t think any aspect of the world’s life is intrinsically evil. Every aspect of the life of the world, Jesus is present there. In hidden ways, perhaps, and that’s our job, to make that visible. But there is no part of the world’s life over which Jesus is not Lord.

MM: There’s a common saying of “what would Jesus do,” but it seems you would want to change that to say, “what is Jesus doing now in my life?”

AP: What is Jesus doing now? That’s right – and in the life of my community. It’s not just what would Jesus do, that’s appealing to a past moral influence. It’s naïve. We think our children will look down at their bracelet… I was a 16-year-old male once, and I’ve seen some mischief I can get up to, and I look down at my bracelet and think, “WWJD, oh, I’m going to stand up and fly right.” That’s naïve.

I think the power question is to ask, now what would Jesus do? It’s not a bad question, I just don’t think it’s the most powerful question, but what is Jesus doing now? That’s a living Lord.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 10:56 AM