Acton Commentary

Ministers of Common Grace


In a recent essay, Bryan Fischer makes the controversial claim that the president of the United States should be seen as a “minister of God.” Citing Romans 13:6, which reads that “the authorities are God’s servants” (NIV), or that “the authorities are ministers of God” (ESV), Fischer, a radio host for the American Family Association, concludes that “if we allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves, we are in fact choosing a minister when we select a president.”

Opposition to Fischer’s contention comes from both ends of the American political spectrum. Candace Chellew-Hodge speaks for progressive Christians when she criticizes Fischer for his lack of regard for context: “Romans 13 cannot properly be understood without reading Romans 12—and the rest of the book, for that matter.” Curiously devoid of contextual support, however, Chellew-Hodge concludes that the identification of the authorities in Romans 13 as “ministers” is more about the Roman rulers’ self-understanding as having been divinely-ordained, and was “most likely put in there to ingratiate Paul to those same-said authorities.”

Daryl G. Hart, currently a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College, represents a more conservative strain of opposition to Fischer’s view, as he contends that ministry “invariably goes with ‘the word’ as in minister the word of God.” Hart points to “the neo-Calvinist/evangelical clutter of ‘every member ministry’” as a misunderstanding of the scriptural conception of ministry.

Now it is true that we can find Fischer’s assertion that public officials serve the common good of society, and are “ministers” in this sense, to be valid without following him in arguing that the qualifications for ordained ministries elsewhere in the New Testament must apply to such public ministers. On this point, Hart’s criticism certainly rings true: There is a critical difference between the ordained ministries of “special grace,” or ministries of the Word and Sacrament, and what might be called “common grace ministries,” including political service.

But the understanding of political power as a form of God-ordained ministry or service is longstanding within the Reformed tradition. As the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli writes of Romans 13:6, the Greek terms translated as ministers “pertain not (as some think) to holy services only,” but indeed, “those words properly signify public offices and functions.” Likewise in a prefatory letter to the king of France to his Institutes in 1536, John Calvin contends, “The characteristic of a true sovereign is to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God.”

Although these reformers would include some element of responsibility for religious expression as legitimately within the scope of the ruler’s mandate, it is also clear from Paul’s original context that even in times and places where the ruling authorities are not Christian (as in Rome) or there is a structural division between church and state (as in America), such magistrates still act as means of God’s common grace, preserving and maintaining civil order. And as Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, has written eloquently, the implications for such common grace ministries are manifold. Indeed, writes Mouw, “common grace ministries are not restricted to the political realm.”

The ministries of common grace are in fact as numerous as the forms that grace takes in human life, and the implication for the Christian life is clear. “We should also think about the ways in which we ourselves, in performing righteous acts that affect the lives of unbelievers, can promote the gifts of common grace,” says Mouw. Another scriptural term, that of stewardship, can helpfully describe the pluriformity of God’s grace, both special and common: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10 NIV).

Better attention to the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms would help us avoid a couple of errors. On the one hand, recognizing that ministry can have both a narrower and a broader meaning would help us avoid conflating or equating the kinds of service performed by ordained pastors and elected politicians. On the other hand, recognizing the validity of callings to all areas of life, including politics and business, would help us see how service in such realms can be truly other-directed and God glorifying.