Thursday, February 5, 2015

The So-Called Fivefold Ministries: a study on Ephesians 4:11

The traditional, cessationist understanding of Ephesians 4:11 is that the five gifts listed--apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers--were offices of the early church, leadership positions and types of ministry that God had established, and that some of them passed away at the end of the Apostolic age. By contrast, many people, especially within some charismatic congregations, view this verse as teaching that God has established these five offices as the model of church leadership which should remain functioning throughout the church age. A variation of this view has recently come into prominence, arguing that every believer possesses one or more of these five gifts and should function in ministry according to whichever one is primary.  A closer examination of the passage yields an answer different from any of the above formulations.

In brief, the present study, originally published as four separate blog posts, argues that the so-called "fivefold" ministry gifts are only some of the many giftings that believers may have, and thus not all believers should be categorized as one of these five. They are indeed still functional and have been throughout the church age, but have in some cases been known under different names. Specifically, biblical Apostles are church-planting missionaries, and should be designated as missionaries to avoid confusion with the specific role of the Twelve. Prophets should be understood on the model of Old Testament prophets, typically people outside church leadership who call God's people (especially leaders) back to God's covenant. Evangelists are non-church-planting missionaries: i.e., their function is to preach the gospel to the unreached, not to stir up congregations of believers. Pastors and teachers should be considered as one group with two significant aspects (possibly with some members leaning toward one aspect or the other) that function as the primary leaders of an already-established local group of believers.


The term "apostles" (Gr. apostoloi) is traditionally reserved for the original twelve that Jesus chose for intense discipleship and commission into ministry (Mat. 10:2; Lk. 6:13; Ac. 1:2) as well as the Apostle Paul (e.g., Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). Biblically, however, the term is used more broadly than that:
  • On Paul's first missionary journey, Barnabas is included with Paul as an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14);
  • Paul refers to "our brothers" (two men whom he was sending to Corinth along with Titus) as apostoloi (NIV, "representatives," 2 Cor. 8:23);
  • Epaphroditus is referred to as hymon apostolon (NIV, "your messenger" , Php. 2:25);
  • Paul refers to himself and his traveling companions Silvanus and Timothy as "apostles of Christ" (1 Th. 2:6);
  • Jesus is called an apostle in Hebrews 3:1.
Although translations in these passages tend to shy away from the term "apostle" if the referent does not include Paul, the Twelve, or Jesus, the same Greek term--of which our English word "apostle" is merely a transliteration--is used. It does not appear that the term is restricted as a technical term for a fixed group of people in the New Testament. 

Based on this expanded understanding of the term "apostle," some church groups are choosing to adopt the term for themselves. While there is no universally-accepted definition of an "apostle," the term as it is used among these churches generally indicates some degree of authority above that of an ordinary pastor. It may be used of a senior pastor in a multi-staff church. C. Peter Wagner, in Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow!, argues that it is someone who exerts authority over a group of churches, using Pastor Chuck Smith of the Calvary Chapel fellowship of churches as an example.  
However, while many references to apostles in the New Testament do indicate that those apostles were accorded authority and respect, neither the etymology of the word nor its usage in classical and Jewish parallels indicates authority as a primary component of its meaning. Literally meaning "one sent forth," the term refers to an emissary or ambassador: a messenger more official than an angelos. When we examine those described as apostoloi in the New Testament, especially in the larger circle beyond the Twelve and Paul, it becomes clear that those designated "apostles" were in fact missionaries. Paul, of course, in the New Testament becomes the apostle par excellence, and was largely responsible for the missionary work that evangelized the western world, and several of the others so designated were his traveling companions. This also makes sense of how Paul expresses his apostolic authority: he reasons with the churches that he has established on the basis of his prior relationship with them; he doesn't merely assert authority on the basis of God's having appointed him as an apostle. Additionally, if we assume that an apostle is in fact a missionary, the lack of the latter term's appearance in the New Testament is explained. For reasons that will become evident later, I would argue that an apostle is specifically a missionary who plants churches. 

Since there are still church-planting missionaries today, I do believe that there are modern-day apostles, but I do not advocate restoring the term "apostle" to these modern-day counterparts. First, in the present-day context, the wrong people are being termed "apostles"--generally, senior pastors or leaders of denominations or fellowships of churches. Unless these leaders have become leaders by personally going out and planting these churches, they are not doing the work of New Testament apostles. This is not to denigrate them in any way; it is merely to say that their gifts lie in other directions. The term, "apostle," has become so identified with the Twelve and Paul that taking the appellation today seems necessarily to involve assuming an equality of authority with those early apostles; such an assumption is presumptuous at best. Since we have a modern term for those who do the work of a New Testament apostle--"missionary"--there is no reason to go back to the older term, which is really no more than a transliteration of the Greek term. "Missionary" is quite an apt term, deriving from "mission" in the same way that apostolos derives from apostello ("to send out"). There would be a better argument for translating apostolos as "missionary" throughout the New Testament than there would be for calling modern-day missionaries, "apostles." "He appointed twelve--designating them missionaries--that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14). What's wrong with that?  


To get a sense of the role of prophets in the New Testament, a survey of New Testament references to prophets and to prophecy is necessary. Throughout the gospels, the term "prophet" refers most often to the prophets of the Old Testament, and usually to the fulfillment of their prophecies in the person of Jesus. The term is also used of Jesus; in fact, Jesus refers to himself as a prophet (Matt. 13:57, Lk. 4:24, Jn. 4:44) as well as John the Baptist (Lk. 7:26). There is a sense of continuity there: what the prophets are is defined in the Old Testament, and part of what Jesus and John are doing is continuing that prophetic tradition.

In Acts, references to Old Testament prophets and to Jesus as a prophet continue, but others are also referred to as prophets: Agabus, one of several in 11:27, who predicted a severe famine throughout the Roman world, and who also foretold the Apostle Paul's arrest in Jerusalem (21:10); the "prophets and teachers" who appear to have been leaders in the church at Antioch and who were led by God to comission Barnabas and Saul for what became the Apostle Paul's missionary journeys (13:1); Judas and Silas, who brought the news of the Jerusalem council to the Gentile believers (15:32); and the daughters of Philip the evangelist (21:9). 

In the epistles, Paul mentions prophecy among the gifts given to the Body (1 Cor. 12:10, 28-29) and gives instructions for the proper use of that gift within the gathered assembly (1 Cor. 14:29), contrasting it positively in that context with the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 22-24). Along with the apostles, they are called the "foundation" of "God's household" (Eph. 2:20). We can learn several things from this survey:
  1. There is a continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament with regard to the role of the prophet. New Testament writers refer to Old Testament prophets as well as to contemporary prophets with equal ease and without distinguishing between the two. Just as Old Testament prophets spoke directly for God and yet did not supplant the foundational role of the Law, so New Testament prophets spoke directly for God and yet did not supplant the foundational role of Scripture. This should lead us to the position that New Testament prophets are essentially modeled after Old Testament prophets. Indeed, those living in the first century (especially Jewish believers) probably saw a renewal of an old gift, rather than the establishing of something radically different.
  2. Prophets are not necessarily inspired writers of Scripture, and do not necessarily have authoritative roles such as the original Apostles had. The cessationist viewpoint almost always raises the objection that contemporary prophecy somehow negates the authority of Scripture, essentially identifying the prophetic role as necessary before the finishing of the canon of scripture, but superfluous (and somehow dangerous) afterward. If that were true, we would expect prophets to be the writers of Scripture, since the cessationist position essentially equates the two gifts. But Agabus, Judas, Silas, the daughters of Philip, and unnamed others are not writers of scripture; moreover, they are referred to by writers of scripture without any hint of threat or rivalry. Paul seems to have been able to write his inspired letters without any concern that the prophets (whom he views as foundational to the church) may set up some sort of rival authority.
  3. Apart from a tortured interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-10, there is no sense in the New Testament that this gift of prophecy will cease prior to the parousia, the second coming of Jesus. Paul gives instructions regarding the use of the prophetic gift in 1 Cor. 14:29-33, 39 (including the encouragement to "be eager to prophesy") that would ordinarily be considered binding to the present day, were he not referring to a gift that some have regarded as having ceased.
  4. Nothing in the New Testament ever equates prophesying with preaching the gospel. Attempts have been made to equate the two in order to have something of a nonthreatening continuationism. Paul's rules on prophesying in 1 Cor. 14 really don't make sense if one regards the "prophesying" as actually "sermonizing"--except perhaps in a Quaker context, in which no one person would take the lead but people would share as they felt led. However, this idea is far nearer to the Pentecostal model than the cessationist.
  5. There also seems to be little support for the idea of a "personality gift" of being a prophet. On the supposition that the gifts listed in Romans 12:6-8 are functions of different sorts of personality, it has been thought by some that certain tendencies of mind--particularly negative and critical tendencies--amount to a prophetic "personality gift." While it is probable that certain personality types lend themselves to certain spiritual gifts (most evangelists are probably outgoing, for example) and God, in his wisdom, may often marry the two, it does not follow that certain personality types by themselves equate to spiritual gifts, let alone offices.
So what do we have, then? A prophetic ministry that builds on the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, extends throughout the New Testament period and implicitly beyond, is different than preaching or teaching or the writing of authoritative scripture, and is not identified with major, authoritative figures in the church. The link to the Old Testament model is particularly fruitful. By contrast to the priestly and kingly offices, both of which were formal and hereditary, the Old Testament prophets were usually outsiders, people whom God called from all walks of life, often to challenge unworthy examples of the hereditary offices to return to the ways of God. Far from threatening the foundational authority of the Law given by Moses, the prophets are sometimes called God's covenant lawyers, bringing a lawsuit against God's people for neglecting His Law. The Law and the Prophets are not rivals but work hand in hand. And although prophets at times did fortell events in the future, that was not their primary role. They were more "forthtellers" than "foretellers," calling God's people to account in their own contemporary setting--at times, warning of impending judgment if they did not change--more than simply predicting what was to come. 

So should there be a office of "prophet" in the church today? While I believe that there are, in fact, contemporary prophets, I do not think that a formal office or title is necessary or desirable. The prophets were always informally related to the structure of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. To formalize the office would be to restrict God's hand in choosing whom He will to speak truth wherever it needs to be spoken. To take the title formally is both presumptuous and unnecessary. There may, in fact, be many who actually are in the role of prophets without necessarily being recognized as such or even recognizing themselves as such. I'm thinking of writers, people who are not actually in formal church ministry but who write, calling the church back to be what God wants it to be. I don't have any names to suggest; years ago I did, but I'm not so sure now. It may be that we are in a prophetic lull at the moment. But if there are prophets, it is likely that they are controversial and probably rejected by much of the church world. It was always that way.


When we come to the term, "evangelist," we are dealing with a term used far less often than "apostle" or "prophet." Euangelistes occurs only three times in the New Testament: Acts 21:8 refers to "Philip the Evangelist, one of the Seven.". In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul encourages Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist." The third reference is in the verse presently under discussion, Ephesians 4:11.

Etymologically, euangelistes means "one who preaches the Gospel." Most often, it is Jesus and the apostles who preach the gospel (euangelizo); presumably, an evangelist would be someone who preached the gospel and who didn't fit into one of the other recognized ministries. If we look at the example of the one person actually named an "evangelist" in the New Testament, we can gain a better perspective of what this office entails. 

As mentioned above, Philip is first mentioned in connection with the Seven who had been chosen to assist the Apostles in Acts 6:3. We next meet him in the aftermath of the persecution in Jerusalem that began with the stoning of Stephen (8:1-3). "Those who had been scattered preached [euangelizo]  the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there" (8:4-5). This is the first mission to non-Jewish people recorded in Acts. Philip's ministry was extremely effective--accompanied by miraculous signs and the evident conversion (signified by baptism) of many who had previously followed a sorcerer named Simon (8:6-12). It was only after the success of Philip's ministry ("the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God," 8:14) that Peter and John were sent to lay hands on the people for them to receive the Holy Spirit.  

Philip was next used in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40), the first recorded conversion of a fully ethnic Gentile. God had simply directed him to go by a certain route toward Gaza, which he never reached. He met the eunuch on the way, who was already reading one of the "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah, he "began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news [euangelizo] about Jesus" (8:35). The eunuch asked to be baptized, Philip did so, and was immediately transported to Azotus "and traveled about, preaching the gospel [euangelizo] in all the towns until he reached Caesarea" (8:40). 

So what is Philip's ministry? He goes to unreached people, preaches the gospel with effectiveness and supernatural power, baptizes people--and then moves on. The key term here is "unreached people." It appears evident that the evangelist, biblically, is yet another type of missionary: one who is called specifically to reach the unreached and whose work essentially ends with conversion. An evangelist is supernaturally empowered to bring the Gospel to the lost with the result that they come to faith in Christ. The difference between an evangelist and an apostle is that while the latter is a church-planting missionary who not only brings people to salvation but also births, nurtures, and provides subsequent oversight to communities of faith, the evangelist's work is more specifically to introduce the gospel to people and to bring them to a saving knowledge of Christ. It may be the case, as it evidently was in Samaria, that the evangelist spearheads the work in an unreached area and the apostle comes in subsequently to establish and ground the work. 

Or one person may fulfill both roles, as the Apostle Paul evidently did, and as did the other New Testament character associated with the term, "evangelist," Timothy. Included among the apostles in 1 Thess. 2:6, Timothy was appointed by Paul to stay behind in Ephesus while Paul traveled to Macedonia (1 Tim. 1:3), and in 2 Timothy, written when Paul was expecting to be martyred for his faith, Paul exhorts Timothy, in the midst of doctrinal confusion and rejection of the truth, to "keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry" (4:5). Timothy is never exactly called an evangelist, as is Philip; he is exhorted to "do the work of an evangelist"--presumably, one of Timothy's gifts is to preach the gospel to unbelievers and bring them to faith. Rather than being wholly distinct offices, we can see that the types of ministry that God had given to the church may be somewhat fluid; C. Peter Wagner profitably discusses a "gift mix" rather than each person having only one specific gift. But Philip most clearly embodies the evangelist qua evangelist: a missionary who reaches the unreached and brings them to faith in Christ. 

What appears to be clear is that the evangelist, biblically, is not what is usually termed an evangelist today--an itinerent speaker who goes from church to church, possibly with a message of salvation, but largely to excite, motivate, or possibly teach or otherwise minister to believers. The modern-day evangelist might better be termed a "revivalist." This is not to say that there is necessarily anything wrong with having such "revivalists"; it is merely to say that when Paul writes that "it was he who gave some... to be evangelists," (Eph. 4:11), he had in mind more of a missions emphasis and less of a revival emphasis than we normally associate with the term. In some sense, "evangelist" is to "apostle" what "preacher" is to "pastor": the former term boils the much larger and complex role of the latter term down to the essence of proclamation. Just as with "apostle," in "evangelist," we are dealing essentially with a transliteration of a Greek word. A native Koine Greek speaker would have heard "good news" in the very term, "evangelist," and that good news is very specifically the message of salvation through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  

Pastors and Teachers

On the "five-fold ministry" model, pastors and teachers are two separate ministries with differing gifts and roles to play in the Body of Christ. The Greek construction of this verse, however, strongly indicates that these are two different titles for the same group, or at least, that the two groups are being considered together in this context.  

Without going into actual Greek wording, we can see even in an English translation the repeated, "some to be..." construction, which occurs not five but only four times, the last time, before "pastors and teachers." What is not seen in an English translation are the articles. In English, there are two types of articles: indefinite articles ("a," "an") and definite articles ("the"). Greek has only one type of article, roughly corresponding to the English definite article, which tends to be used much more often than articles are used in English. If we were to add the articles to the passage, we would get something like this: "It was he who gave some to be the apostles, some to be the prophets, some to be the evangelists, and some to be the pastors and teachers." The one article covers both "pastors" and "teachers," strongly suggesting that they are being considered together here. There are also Greek words that form a bit of an untranslatable marker dividing the different groups (if one were to translate them, one might say, "on the one hand... on the other hand..." except that there can be as many "hands" as needed). Once again, this marker appears four times, not five, grouping the final two words together. 

So is it one group with two names, or two groups that are similar enough to be thought of together in this context? I would suggest that it doesn't really matter. Those with this gift ministering in a church setting are likely to be called pastors--but as we will see, a primary responsibility of the pastor is teaching. Those with this gift ministering in an academic setting are likely to be called teachers--but a teacher should teach with a "pastor's heart"; that is, with genuine concern for the spiritual development of each student. The two aspects of the gift go hand in hand. 

I have done a much more in-depth study on the biblical role of a pastor, entitled "What Is a Pastor?" (Quodlibet Online Journal 2.2). It seems clear to me that the term "pastor" is the same thing as is meant by "elder" (or "presbyter") and "overseer" (or "bishop"). As the church was beginning to coalesce and the role of apostles was increasingly less direct, terms were needed to describe leaders in the church who were not apostles. Generally speaking, "elder" came from a Jewish background--leaders among Jews were often called elders--while the Greek term translated "overseer" or "bishop" was the preferred Greek term for a leader. "Pastor" literally means "shepherd," and picks up on Jesus' frequent shepherding analogies in His teaching, as well as the Old Testament use of "shepherd" as an analogical term to describe Israelite rulers (it was also used of other Middle Eastern rulers as well), especially in Ezekiel 34, a highly instructive passage. 

When one looks at the passages referring to elders, overseers/bishops, and shepherds, when used metaphorically in Jesus' teachings and in the Old Testament, a pattern emerges:
  1. God the Father and Jesus the Messiah are together the preeminent Shepherd/Pastor over all of the people of God; the authority of local pastors derives from this divine authority.
  2. The focus of the ministry of the pastor is the welfare of the sheep--that is, the people who come under the leadership of that pastor. The pastor's work is not one of self-expression or self-gratification, but rather care for the sheep.
  3. The conduct of the pastor is to be exemplary. Much of what the Bible discusses regarding church leadership in general has to do with godly behavioral characteristics. Pastors teach as much by how they live their lives as by what they say.
  4. The content of the pastor's ministry is, largely, teaching. This becomes clear as one examines the pastoral epistles and sees how many times they focus on teaching and teachers. The one major difference between the qualifications of deacons and elders or overseers in the Pastoral Epistles is that the latter group need to be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2, 5:17; Tit. 1:9). A large component of this teaching ministry is protection of the people of God from false teachers (1 Tim. 1:3-7, 4:1-3). Although this protection may come partially in the attempt to silence false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3, Tit. 1:11), to a larger extent it comes as a result of patient explanation of biblical truth and drawing people's attention to topics that are important, rather than those that are spurious.
Going back to the context of the verse we are studying, Ephesians 4:11, it is worth noting that the goal of what we may now see as a "four-fold" ministry--the spiritual maturity of the Body (4:13)--has as its result the effect of protecting the people from being "blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (4:14).

The role of the Pastor/Teacher largely comes on the heels of the other three groups: Apostles (church-planting missionaries) establish the church in a new territory, Prophets proclaim God's truth directly and draw people back to the ways of God, Evangelists (soul-winning missionaries) reach the unreached and bring them to saving faith, and Pastor/Teachers care for the Body, teaching by example and verbal instruction the truths of God's word and the right way to live. It may be that Barnabas is the best example of a Pastor/Teacher that Scripture gives us. More or less a washout on the mission field--when the going got tough, Saul, suddenly called Paul, stepped to the fore (Acts 13:6-12)--Barnabas had done his work for years previously, sticking his neck out and nurturing a former persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus. Without Barnabas's patient instruction and godly example, would Paul have been able to be the foremost missionary the world has ever seen?

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