Government & Ministry in the Early Church


This study looks at the way in which the structures for government and ministry first developed within the early church, with particular reference to the manner in which such structures met the church’s need for pastoral, doctrinal and prophetic input. It closes with a review of the lessons that we might draw from this for our own church structures today.

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1.1 The Jewish Pattern

The ruling Jewish council at the time of Christ was the Sanhedrin (συνεδριον – sunedrion). This was composed of chief priests (αρχιερευς – archiereus), elders (πρεσβυτερος – presbuteros) and scribes (γραμματευς – grammateus) (Lk 22:66, Mt 26:3, 57-9, Mk 14:43, 53, 15:1, Acts 4:5(cf Acts 4:23)). Mk 15:1 infers that the full Sanhedrin may have included others also. The common practice of referring to all three groups explicitly when speaking of meetings of the Jewish leadership indicates that the terms were by no means equivalent: but that all played a prominent role in government.

The term ‘rulers’ appears to be equated with chief priests but distinct from elders in Acts 4. In some other references we read only of priests and elders: but comparison with other passages shows that in these cases the inclusion of the scribes is inferred (Mt 26:47(cf Mk 14:43), Mt 27:1(Mk 15:1)). This suggests that ‘elder’ was to some extent a blanket term which could include those normally designated as scribes. Gamaliel, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, is described as ‘a teacher of the law’ (νομοδιδασκαλος – nomodidaskalos) in Acts 5:34) – this little-used term also appears in Lk 5:17-21, where it appears to be applied to the scribes.

In principle this system of government embodied pastoral, administrative, doctrinal and even prophetic ministries (the latter in the person of the high priest (Jn 11:49-52). Its fatal weakness lay in the men themselves. They clamoured for public recognition and had ceased to be servants (Lk 11:43 & 46); they placed human tradition before God’s word (Mk 7:6-13) and had lost any real doctrinal or prophetic insight (Mk 12:24-7, Jn 3:10-12 & 5:37-44).

1.2 Modification of Jewish Structures

Of the above three groups only one, ‘elders’, carried its title forward into the church structures; although even in this case the title lapsed for a time.

The petty wranglings of the scribes of Jesus’ day had made them an object of derision to the early church (1 Cor 1:20), and those seeking to be ‘teachers of the law’ (νομοδιδασκαλος – nomodidaskalos – 1 Tim 1:7) were frowned upon. This was far from being a rejection of the teacher’s ministry, however. The scribes’ teaching had been stale, speculative and nit-picking: whereas the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching, and of those who followed him, was that it was fresh, authoritative and concerned with the spirit rather than the letter of the law (Mt 13:52, 7:28-9, 23:23, Jn 3:10-11, 1 Pet 4:11 (this last reference does not cover teaching only)). Thus, although the term was dropped, the teaching function continued and was greatly honoured under the simple title of ‘teacher’ (διδασκαλος – didaskalos).

The priesthood as an institution was completely superceded by recognition of Jesus as our one High Priest (Heb 7:11-28), and of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9). Their intermediary role was superfluous and their other functions were devolved on others. The apostles were probably the nearest N.T. equivalent.

2. APOSTLE(αποστολος – apostolos)

2.1 Jesus’ Calling of the Twelve

2.1.1 Who were they?

  • Simon and Andrew Barjona (‘son of Jona’ c.f. John 1:42, 21:15, Mt 16:17). Simon (‘a reed’) was renamed Cephas (Aramaic) or Peter (Greek – both mean ‘a stone’). They were fishermen from Bethsaida, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee (Lk 5:10, Jn 1:44).
  • James and John, sons of Zebedee, also fishermen from Bethsaida (Lk 5:10, Jn 1:44). Their family were possibly prosperous fish merchants, as they had hired servants (Mk 1:20), powerful contacts in Jerusalem (Jn 18:15-6) and an ambitious mother (Mt 20:20-1)! They were surnamed Boanerges (‘sons of thunder’) by Jesus (Mk 3:17).
  • Philip, who was allso from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44).
  • Bartholomew (Aramaic, ‘Son of Tholmai’). John’s gospel instead refers to him as Nathanael (‘gift of God’), which was probably his first name. He was a friend of Philip, from Cana (Jn 1:45-51 & 21:2), about 12 miles (3 hours’ walk) W. of the Sea of Galilee and 8 miles N. of Nazareth.
  • Thomas (Aramaic) or Didymus (Greek – both names mean ‘the twin’). He was a doubter, but loyal (Jn 11:16 & 20:24-9).
  • Matthew (‘gift of Jehovah’), also referred to as Levi (‘joined’), the son of Alphaeus. (c.f. Mt 9:9 (Matthew) with Mk 2:14 & Lk 5:27 (Levi). He was a collector of taxes (AV ‘publican’) for the Romans – a very unpopular job! He was from Capernaum (where Jesus also stayed c.f. Mt 4:13, 9:1, Mk 2:1). This was by the Sea of Galilee, 3½ miles S.W. of Bethsaida.
  • James the son of Alphaeus. None of the references infer any family connection to Matthew, whose father had the same name.
  • Lebbaeus, who was surnamed Thaddaeus (c.f. Mt 10:3 & Mark 3:18) but also referred to as ‘Judas of James’ in Luke 6:16 and John 14:22. Jesus had two half-brothers named Judas and James (c.f. Mt 13:55): but we are told that they did not believe in him during his earthly ministry (Jn 7:5 & Mk 3:21-32), so it is more probable that James was his father’s name.
  • Simon Zelotes (Greek) or Kananites (Aramaic) – both meaning ‘Zealot’. The Zealots were Jewish anti-Roman revolutionaries. Kananites also means ‘inhabitant of Canaan’ (a term covering a large part of western Israel).
  • Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. He looked after the money; but dishonestly (Jn 12:6).

2.1.2 First Encounters

Jn 1:35 – 2:25. Jesus’ first meetings with John (the unnamed disciple), Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathanael, just after his temptation in the wilderness, give us some valuable insights into the way he exercised his leadership.

  • Before calling for commitment, Jesus invited them to observe (Jn 1:39).
  • He wanted disciples who had counted the cost (c.f. Lk 14:25-33). (Of the 11, all but John would be martyred!)
  • This observation covered every part of His life – not just his public ministry. Far too often, we concentrate on people’s ministry gifts and neglect their personal life.
  • Jesus even has them spending time with His family; which can’t have been easy, as His brothers didn’t believe in Him (Jn 2:12 & 7:5). Think about that – what effect would it have had on you to see all this?
  • Jesus did not resent scepticism (Jn 1:45-51).
  • He gave a new name and a new vision (Jn 1:42 & 50-1). If we are to lead effectively, we must take people beyond their limitations in the way they see themselves and their future. We need to show them their potential in God.
  • He took the trouble to know them personally (Jn 1:39 time, Jn 1:42 initimate understanding, Jn 1:43 seeking out, Jn 1:48 prayer). If you aren’t doing this for those who are directly answerable to you, who else will be?
  • He demonstrated the reality of what He taught in both power and personal commitment (Jn 2:11 & 17).
  • He avoided making over-hasty commitments (Jn 2:23-5). Some of these converts must have been genuine: but, rather than declare Himself, and seek or offer too much, too soon, He was prepared to trust and wait.

2.1.3 Early Discipleship

Jn 3:22-4 & 4:1-3. These events took place before the arrest of John the Baptist, and therefore before any of the encounters with the twelve that are described in the other gospels (see Mt 4:12 & Mk 1:14). Although only John, Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathanael have been mentioned by name, Acts 1:21-2 suggests that all twelve encountered Jesus during this period.

Yet Jesus had already started discipling these men, even though, as we shall see, they had not yet made a total commitment to Him. And this involved more than just listening. Jesus already had them baptizing others (Jn 4:2)!

Note that this was a baptism of repentance, with no personal commitment to Jesus (first references to that are Mt 28:19 and Acts 2:38; which explains why Jesus didn’t baptise anyone). We can’t ask a person to baptise someone in Jesus’ authority if they are not fully submitted themselves: but any sinner can help another to confess their sins. Jesus was keen to involve his disciples as much as possible, as soon as possible.

2.1.4 Decision Time

Lk 5:1-11 (Mt 4:18-23). Up to now, the twelve are part-time disciples. After Jesus’ catch of fishes, Peter sees how shallow his repentance and commitment was. Jesus now calls the disciples to give up everything for Him.

Similarly, Jesus calls Matthew, who promptly gives up his tax collector’s job Mt 9:9-13, Mk 2:14-7 & Lk 5:27-32. Incidentally, what do you think is the crucial difference between Matthew’s farewell party and the would-be disciple who wanted to go and say goodbye to his people at home (Lk 9:61-2)?)

2.1.5 Choosing the Twelve

Lk 6:12-6. Even though Jesus had now spent quite some time with his disciples, before deciding which to appoint as apostles He spent the entire night in prayer.

This should give us a sense of the importance of being very careful who we appoint to any office in the church.

It also underlines the importance of seeking God’s direction, rather than relying on our own understanding. It is easy to be misled by appearances (1 Sam 16:6-7).

2.1.6 A Betrayer for a Friend

Jesus probably knew all along that Judas would betray Him (Jn 2:25). But He cared for him so unstintingly that, even on the last evening, the other disciples had no idea he was the traitor. So if others let you down, thank God for not telling you in advance and that, unlike Judas, there is hope they will improve.

Note the seeds of Judas’ destruction in Jn 12:4-8. He is probably spending extra on himself when no-one is looking; but tries to ease his conscience by finding fault with others (in this case, Jesus). It was just what Satan was waiting for (c.f. Matthew 26:6-16 & Luke 22:3-6). Before criticising others, always ask yourself, “Do I ever do things like that?”

2.2 Crunch Lessons in Leadership

2.2.1 The Nature of Leadership

  • True Leadership is Servanthood. Mt 20:20-9 & Jn 13:1-17. Totally unlike the Jewish leaders (Mt 23:2-12).
  • Authority comes from being under authority. Mt 8:9, Lk 9:1-2, Jn 5:19-23, 15:4-17.

2.2.2 Key Principles

  • Availability. You can’t Lead if you don’t Listen! To God, in prayer, and also to those under you (Mk 9:33-7).
  • Focus. Rather than try to teach everyone, Jesus discipled a few, and taught them to disciple others Mt 28:19. This principle applies equally to church leaders today – our primary task is to equip others (see Eph 4:11-2).
  • People who try and fail accomplish more than those who don’t try (e.g. Mt 14:25-32).
  • Delegation and Trust. He encouraged the disciples to do things (e.g. Mt 14:16, Lk 10:1-20).

2.2.3 Object Lessons

  • Leadership doesn’t depend on your resources. Lk 10:3-4.
  • You must be at peace to give peace. Lk 10:5-6 (note that it is your peace that is given). We impart what we are rather than what we say.
  • Leaders must be able both to give and to receive. Lk 10:7-9. It is a privilege to give: but when we humble ourselves to receive, we can also be a means of blessing to the giver (e.g. Jn 4:6-15).

2.3 Development of Apostolic Ministry

2.3.1 Judas’ Replacement

Acts 1:15-26. The apostles’ criteria for a replacement for Judas reveals that the 12 were not the only ones who followed Jesus throughout his ministry. We don’t know how many others there were; but the two best, Joseph Barsabas Justus and Matthias were equally well qualified; and in the end they resorted to prayerfully casting lots to choose between them.

Note the exceptional circumstances in which this practice was used. Firstly, they considered the scriptural criteria governing the choice, then the suitability of the candidates, no doubt including what they themselves knew of the moral character of these men. Only then, finding nothing to choose between them, did they ask for a sign. Don’t ask for signs if there are scriptural and moral reasons why you should or should not make a certain choice.

Some scholars have claimed that the apostles made a mistake in appointing Matthias, and that the twelfth apostle should have been Paul. This is questionable for two main reasons: firstly, Paul was not a witness of Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection (Acts 1:21-2) and, secondly, it presumes there should only have been 12 apostles.

But what about Joseph, the almost-apostle? We can’t all be apostles: but imagine yourself in his position. Would you have sulked, been angry at God for not choosing you, or been jealous of Matthias? How will you react if a brother’s ministry gets more attention than yours? Who has the right to choose? Who are you serving, and for what reason?

2.3.2 The Role of Peter

Notice in the above that, although Peter begins the process, the decision is made corporately (cf. Acts 1:15,23,24,26).

Mt 16:19 has aroused great debate between Catholics and Protestants, mainly over the issue of whether ‘this rock’ means Peter, his confession of faith in Jesus, or Jesus himself. Jesus’ following words, ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ are addressed to Peter individually, confirming Peter’s leading role among the apostles. But it is dangerous to build doctrines on arguable interpretations of a verse. In Mt 18:18, Jesus makes a similar promise to all his disciples; showing this authority is not restricted to Peter or even just the apostles (unless you think Mt 18:19 also only applies to them!).

Peter was overall leader, as indicated by Jesus (Lk 22:31-2, Jn 21:15-7). But if we look at the actual practices of the early church we see that, as above, decisions are based on a corporate discernment of the will of the God. Peter did not have a casting vote, or even necessarily the final word (see below). Nor was he above error or correction (Gal 2:11-4). Leadership does not confer infallibility, or entitle the leader to disregard the counsel of others with spiritual discernement.

2.3.3 James

In Acts 8:1 & 14 the leadership still appears to be exclusively in the hands of the apostles. Similarly Acts 9:27, describing Paul’s first visit to the church in Jerusalem makes no mention of elders, but only the apostles. But Paul states in Gal 1:15-19 that three years after his calling he visited Peter at Jerusalem and, more interestingly, that Jesus’ brother James was also regarded as an apostle. Apparently the other apostles were away at this time (cf Gal. 1:19), and James was now part of the Jerusalem leadership.

(It is difficult to date Gal 1:15-24&2:1-10, as correlation with Acts 9:26-30, 11:29-30&12:1-25, 15:1-30 and Paul’s testimony in Acts 22:17-21 presents some problems. There are two possible explanations. Firstly, the Acts 9:27 meeting appears to have been no more than a hearing to decide if it was safe to let Paul associate with the church. Since Gal 1:15 begins from his calling to preach among the heathen, Paul may not have felt this had any doctrinal relevance to his Gentile ministry: in this case Gal 1:18 and Acts 22:17-21 may refer to his visit in Acts 11:29-30&12:1-25, with the vision he describes leading up to the events in Acts 13:1-3. The visit described in Gal 2:1-10 would then be that described in Acts 15:1-30, after his first missionary voyage. Alternatively, it may simply be that Gal 1:17-8 describes a three-year interval between Paul’s conversion and his admission to the Jerusalem church, in Acts 9:27; which places the recognition of James’ apostleship somewhat earlier. I now favour the latter explanation, as it would appear that Paul’s second visit, which was solely for the purpose of delivering relief aid to the elders (Acts 11:28-30), took place during a period of severe persecution (Acts 12:1-25); when even the apostles had limited contact with each other (cf. Acts 12:17). There is no mention of any direct meeting between Paul and James or any of the apostles during this visit; which would explain why Paul does not mention it in Gal 1:15-24&2:1-10.)

Peter’s instruction to the church to tell the news of his escape ‘to James and the brethren’ in Acts 12:17 suggests that he was the effective leader of the church in Peter’s absence. His preeminence is even more apparent in his role in the debate over circumcision in Acts 15:13-22, where he appears to be given the final word on the issue.

When Paul returns to Jerusalem for the last time, he appears before James, in the presence of the elders (Acts 21:18). He is the only one mentioned by name, inferring that he was the recognised leader: although it should be noted that the proposal put to Paul is clearly portrayed as a collective response. There is no mention of any of the other apostles: either their identity had been merged into that of the eldership or, more probably, they were operating in more distant regions.

2.3.4 Other Apostles

We do not know precisely how many other men in the New Testament were given the title of ‘apostle’. Paul, in 1 Cor 15:5-7 says that Jesus was seen by Peter, then the twelve, then by 500 brethren at once, then by James, then by ‘all the apostles’, and finally by Paul himself. The phrase ‘all the apostles’ may merely be a reference to the twelve plus James; or it may indicate that even prior to Paul’s conversion there were others who had been recognised as apostles.

In Acts 14:4 & 14 we find Paul and Barnabus both identified as apostles, bringing the number of known apostles to 15. Paul regularly describes himself as such in his letters.

Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7) are sometimes also cited: but it is debatable whether the expression, ‘of note among the apostles,’ means that they themselves were apostles or simply that they were well thought of by the apostles.

‘Apostle’ was an ordinary Greek word (meaning, ‘one who is sent out’, or ‘messenger’) which was then adopted as a title. It should be noted that there are three other NT references, not normally translated as ‘apostle’, which also use it: John 13:15, 2 Cor 8:23 (re. Titus) and Phil 2:25 (Epaphroditus). In each of these cases the word is used without the definite article; and in the absence of other contextual support we cannot be sure that it is intended as a title rather than simply meaning ‘messenger’ in these instances. At the other end of the scale, Jesus is also described as, ‘the Apostle,’ in Heb 3:1.

2.3.5 A Transient Role?

The original requirement for the ‘twelve’ was that they should have been disciples from the time of John’s baptism till the ascension, in order that they might be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:21-2). Although this criterion does not apply to James, much less to Paul, some argue that 1 Cor 15:5-8, coupled with 1 Cor 9:1, indicates that to have actually seen the risen Jesus was a prerequisite for apostleship. From this it is asserted that apostles were for the early church only. However, such a conclusion is essentially circumstantial. Although examples of people being called apostles after the end of the NT era will naturally not occur in scripture, a closer examination of these and other passages gives good reasons for doubting such a conclusion.

Firstly, let us look again at 1 Cor 15:7-8: ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.’ When Paul says, ‘all the apostles,’ he clearly does not even mean, ‘all who are now apostles,’ let alone, ‘all who will ever be;’ since his next words make it clear that he was not including himself. Therefore we may reliably apply this phrase only to those who were apostles at the time of Jesus’ appearance. And if Paul was excluding himself we cannot assume that he was including Barnabas, who is first called an apostle at the same time as Paul (Acts 14:4). So in Barnabas we have an apostle of whom there is no clear testimony that he saw the risen Christ.

Paul’s remark in 1 Cor 9:1, ‘Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?’ forms a series of rhetorical questions, each of which lends weight to one basic premise; namely, ‘What right have you got to judge me?’ (see 1 Cor 9:3 onwards). There is nothing here to suggest that he is attempting to define prerequisites for apostleship. Otherwise, what is the significance of his question, ‘Am I not free?’; which is an integral part of the same series?

Moreover, the experience of Paul was significantly different from that of the twelve and James in that he saw a vision of Jesus after the ascension. People still claim to have visions of Jesus today; so even if such an experience were a requirement for apostleship there could still be potential candidates. But how would the validity of such a claim be judged?

It was a relatively simple matter to establish who had actually been with Jesus, and scripture is clear that due enquiry was made when appointing Matthias. However, in the case of Paul and Barnabas, who are only called apostles after they had been sent out from Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1-3 & 14:4), there is no suggestion of any enquiry as to whether or not they had seen Jesus. Even for someone who fully satisfied the Acts 1:21-2 criterion, becoming an apostle was ultimately a matter of God’s choice (Acts 1:23-6). In the case of Paul and Barnabus the emphasis was on appointment by the Holy Spirit to a specific task.

It is particularly significant that, whereas the primary requirement for the twelve was that they must be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:22), in Acts 13:31 Paul and Barnabus pointedly avoid describing themselves in these terms; reserving that role for those who ‘came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.’ Thus we have a clear indication that the function of the later apostles was perceived to be significantly different from that of the twelve in this particular respect.

From this it appears that, whilst the twelve (and to a lesser extent, James) occupied a unique place as eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life and resurrection, it was recognised in New Testament times that there were others whose ministry and function within the church entitled them to be called ‘apostles.’ We may be wary of using this title today for fear of spiritual conceit: but that is not to say that there may not be those who have similar ministries to those of the later apostles.

2.3.6 General Characteristics of an Apostle

Apostles were seen as a ministry gift given to the church by Christ (1 Cor 12:28-9 & Eph 4:11-2). They were church builders. In 1 Cor 9:2 Paul comments, ‘Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.’ Clearly, he saw the church which he had established as a sign of his qualification as an apostle.

The twelve clearly had a supernatural ministry (cf. Acts 5:12). It is evident that Paul considered this to be a necessary proof of apostleship; for in 2 Cor 12:12 he says, ‘The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.’

However, these things alone do not make an apostle! Philip pioneered the church in Samaria and had a signs following ministry (Acts 8:5-13): but he was never referred to as an apostle; only as an evangelist (Acts 21:8). To understand why, we should note two other characteristics of the apostles.

Firstly, apostles were men with spiritual authority in matters of church government and doctrine (Acts 2:42, 15:2-6, 16:4, 1 Cor 5:3-5, 2 Cor 10:2-11 & Gal 1:8-9). (The doctrinal role was particularly important before the NT texts were written as a means of preserving the purity of the gospel and determining how it should be applied to novel situations, such as the conversion of the Gentiles. Note however that then, as now, the acid test was how any doctrine related back to the specific teachings of Jesus and the existing body of Scripture; and only after that to the teachings of the twelve and the later apostles (cf. Mk 8:38, Acts 15:7-21, Gal 1:8, 2:2 & 2:14).)

In Philip’s case he gave the people the gospel: but there was a road-block when it came to bringing them into a place where they could receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This was not removed until the Samarian church came under the ministry of the apostles (Acts 8:14-25).

As noted earlier, apostle means ‘messenger,’ or, ‘one who is sent.’ Although there is no question that the Holy Spirit was with Philip, he had received no specific authority from the church to preach the gospel in Samaria. As such, he had an anointing; but not the authority needed to establish the church.

A second key distinctive betwen one who simply plants a church and an apostle appears to be a specific commissioning by the Holy Spirit to perform this function. Like Philip, those who planted the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-21) are nowhere referred to as apostles. Although the church was brought under the authority of the apostles by sending Barnabus as their representative (Acts 11:22-4), neither here nor previously does Luke describe Barnabus as an apostle; simply as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith’. Even as late as Acts 13:1 he merely classes him amongst the ‘prophets and teachers.’ But after Paul and Barnabus are sent out by the Antioch church at the bidding of the Holy Spirit he begins to call them both apostles (Acts 14:4).

Note that it is not a matter of the apostles in Jerusalem having directed the church in Antioch to reach out in this way; nor is there any evidence of anyone being present who was already recognised as an apostle. This was an initiative of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2 & 4) that was recognised and endorsed by the local church (Acts 13:3 & 14:26-7). Although spiritual authority depends at least in part on the existence of right relationships to other God-ordained authorities within the church: the apostolic calling is essentially a call of God, as Paul himself stresses in Gal 1:1.

It may also be noted that all the apostles had translocal ministries; being concerned with the establishment or oversight of more than one church. This didn’t necessarily mean that they travelled much: we are told that it was the ordinary believers, not the apostles, who were responsible for the initial outward explosion of the church from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4). James appears to have spent most of his time in Jerusalem: but his epistle demonstrates his concern for the entire Jewish wing of the church (Jas 1:1).

Paul’s comment in 1 Cor 9:2 , ‘Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!’ is interesting, as it indicates that Paul viewed apostleship in relative terms. A man might not be viewed as an apostle by the church as a whole; but nevertheless be an apostle to some part of it. We see this thought also in Gal 2:6-9 where Paul observes, ‘For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.’ It does seem that there are degrees of apostleship, ranging from the local to the world-wide church. If that is the case, need we be so wary of using the term today, as long as we are careful to define the limitations of such ministries and not let the title become a means of personal aggrandisement?

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