The Centrality of Jesus—Not the Ministry

There is a huge emphasis in meetings on who can legitimately preach the saving Gospel of Christ. The assumption that underpins the entire meeting system is that one must be a part of the ministry of the workers (selling all to enter the ministry, to enter a lifelong commitment of homelessness, itinerancy, and celibacy) in order to present a saving Gospel.

The emphasis is not so much on the CONTENTS of the Gospel, but rather on WHO must share it. In fact, I’m quite certain that if you asked 100 different friends and workers, “What is the Gospel?” you would probably get close to 100 different answers.

If you asked the question that Jesus himself asked, “Who is the Son of Man?” or “Who is Jesus?” you would likely get another plethora of responses. But if you ask who are the true servants of God?—there’s only one answer. The workers. That’s the thing that binds everyone together. That’s the foundation of “The Way.”

This is an important thing to notice about the ministry of workers and friends, because in the Bible, the emphasis is on the exact opposite end of the question. The emphasis is not WHO should preach the gospel, but WHAT people should preach (Or WHOM they should preach about).

Consider this commonly used verse in Matthew 10. “Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me” (Matt. 10:40 NLT).

We’ve been taught that as Jesus was in this context appointing his disciples to go out and preach in pairs, without bringing along provisions or money or anything, that when he says, “whoever receives YOU,” he is referencing that specific group of people, the 12 apostles—or better, the specific role of unmarried, 2 x 2, homeless and celibate preacher.

But we should compare it with a little story in Mark 9:33–37. “After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked his disciples, ‘What were you discussing on the road?’ But they didn’t answer because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, ‘Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.’ Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ “

So, the apostles were really feeling important. After all, Jesus had said some pretty big things about them, like how receiving them was the same as receiving Jesus himself, which was the same as receiving God.

And yet in this moment, Jesus is using the same terminology to teach something else. It’s actually not about them, or even their role, at all. It’s simply about coming in the name of Jesus. So, he picks out a very ordinary little child. Not homeless, not itinerant, and not an apostle. And yet he makes the same statement about this little child that he made about “the ministry” earlier. If this child, or in other words, if anyone at all, regardless of their role or merit or calling or title, comes to you truly in the name of Jesus, then to receive that person is the same as receiving Jesus.

Jesus goes on in the next few verses of the Gospel of Mark to underscore the same point. The apostle saw someone who had been able to do miracles in the name of Jesus. But that person was not following with their group. The apostles were concerned with WHO could rightly preach and heal and give testimony to Jesus. Jesus was not concerned with that at all. He simply pointed out that anyone who comes in His name, and has His power, is on His side.

This same concept is again illustrated by Paul in the book of Galatians: “Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed” (Gal.1:8–9 NLT)

Paul is abundantly clear here. The thing to be careful of is NOT whether or not it’s the apostles presenting the Gospel. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all WHO it is. Could be apostles, could be angels, could be anyone. The important thing is WHAT Gospel is being preached! It’s not about the envelope carrying a message, it’s about the message. If the message simply refers back to the envelope (i.e. by saying that the Gospel message IS about those who deliver it), you have a circular argument and no message at all.

Rather, what is actually the Good News of this whole tired world? WHO is the good news? And why? What’s the bad news? How did we get into this mess? Is the solution simply to try harder? Is the solution to know the right people? Is the solution to simply keep on keeping on and hope for the best? Or is there an actual Answer, an actual remedy, that has nothing to do with who presents the message to us?

One unfortunate result of focusing on WHO presents the Gospel vs. WHAT the Gospel is, is the elevation of a person or a rule to a cult-like status. If you’re unsure whether this applies to the meeting group, simply go to a convention, listen to the friends’ testimonies and count the number of times they give thanks for the workers versus the number of times they give thanks for Jesus.

The Catholics interpret Matthew 16:18 as Jesus building the church on Peter. Again, they focus on WHO is the leader of the church, and not WHAT is the saving faith of the church. Out of this, we see that Peter becomes the first “pope” of the Catholic Church, and everyone who follows after Peter in that same role of pope is afforded the same power and authority as Peter.

In a similar way, the fellowship of the friends and workers allot the workers exclusive rights for all time in the sharing of the Gospel. The entire group of workers is elevated to the status of priesthood, as an intermediary between God and man. We know this because of the importance placed on “meeting a worker”, “hearing the Gospel from the true ministry”, or “coming to meetings” in order to be saved. We also know this because if someone leaves the meeting group, although they retain or even deepen their faith in Jesus, they are said to have “lost out”, or at the end of life, to have “died outside.”

In a series of meetings in 2017–2018, the verses in John 15 about the vine and branches were expounded very clearly, multiple times, and even reiterated in the children’s questions this way: Jesus is the Vine, the workers are the branches, and the people who believe in Jesus through the workers are the fruit.

There can’t be a much clearer picture of extolling the position of “the ministry of the workers” as an intermediary between humanity and Jesus. Although I was sickened by this teaching, I was also in a way thankful for it. Few people will make the teaching so plain. Often it is taught and lived out in 1000 less obvious ways. The teaching is there, every day, in every meeting, whether or not anyone says it is clearly.

The teaching of the centrality of the workers for receiving salvation is evident when a newcomer comes to a Sunday morning meeting and is not allowed to speak in the meeting if they have not “professed” in a workers’ meeting. No matter their experience with, or faith in, God through Jesus Christ his son, they are counted as outsiders until they join the group.

It’s evident in the fact that no preachers, or testimonies or books written by anyone outside the group are ever referenced or discussed. It’s evident in the way the friends and workers refer to the group as “The Way” or “The Truth”. It’s evident in the fact that someone who has believed and been baptized in a different setting than the meeting group (no matter whether or not they experienced true conversion) will need to be re-baptized by the workers if they want to be actively involved in the meeting group. It’s evident in hundreds of small ways, but most people will not come right out and say it.

This can feel extremely confusing and often like gaslighting, when there are so many practices in place which point to an obvious conclusion of exclusivity, and yet many will quietly say that they believe others outside the meeting group may also be saved.

This teaching, that ANY ministry (no matter how “Scriptural”) could stand in a mediatorial role between God and man, is in direct contradiction to the teaching in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 KJV)

By Heidi (Foster) DenHerder
September 26, 2022