The Apostles Et al. (Part I)

Nathan Smith Blog

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” Ephesians 4:11

There is a good deal of debate around the meaning and implications of this passage. This has been especially true  within certain evangelical circles recently, as some within the “missional church” movement have insisted that each and every believer is gifted to be either an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a shepherd or a teacher. Another dominant view within missional church circles is the idea that, while perhaps not every individual believer is gifted in one of these ways, each and every local church body will have at least one person who is gifted in each of these ways. While it is certainly true that each person with the Church is gifted in certain ways, we don’t believe that this is the best way to view and apply this passage. In this series of posts, I’ll try to lay out what the Elders of Peine Ridge Church believe that the Apostle Paul had in mind here, and how it pertains to the Church today.

I’ll begin by saying that I think it is highly unlikely that Paul is intending to fit every believer within the scope of this list. If that were the case we would need to ask, “Who, then, are the ‘saints’ that Paul says are to be equipped for the work of ministry?” I suppose one could say that apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers are all equipping one another for the work of ministry, but this seems unlikely. It would be a very odd way of saying it, if indeed that is what Paul has in mind. Rather, Paul seems to have a clear distinction in mind between those who do the equipping (apostles, prophets, etc…), and those who are to be equipped (the saints).

In fact, Paul doesn’t say that this is a list of “gifts” that the Holy Spirit gives to people. In other words, he doesn’t say that Jesus gave some the gift of apostleship, some the gift of prophecy, and so on. Rather, he says that Jesus gave the gift of specific people (some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, etc…) to the rest of the Church (the saints) in order that those specific people would equip the saints for the work of ministry.

It seems that what Paul has in mind is the idea that Christ has established several different authoritative “offices” within the Church, and then He gave (and gives) men to the Church to serve as “officers.” There are several reasons for thinking that this is the case. As he lists them here in Ephesians 4:11, Paul uses the article (“the”) before each office. He gave the apostles, the prophets, and so on. In biblical Greek writing, this often has an effect akin to capitalizing something in English. So, it would be accurate to translate this: “And he gave Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, etc…” in the same manner in which we might say “We are governed by Senators, Representatives, Governors, etc…” So, this is one indication that Paul sees these, not simply as various individuals, but  as “offices” within the Church. Another indication of this is the fact that previously in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul mentioned “the apostles and prophets” as those foundational offices upon whose testimony about Christ the Church is built (2:20).

Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul says, “…God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…” and then goes on to list various gifts. From this passage, it seems Paul is saying that God has appointed either the offices themselves, or the men who fulfill those offices. I tend to think he means the former but, regardless, there is a clear distinction made in this passage. In one category, we have apostles, prophets, teachers. In another category, we have the various gifts of the Spirit.

Taking all of this together, it seems we shouldn’t think of individuals having an “apostolic gifting” or “evangelistic gifting” or even a “shepherding gift.” Instead, it would be better to think of these as offices that Jesus gives men to fulfill, and those men are then given various gifts by the Holy Spirit that enable them to carry out the duties of those various offices. Therefore, it can be helpful to use capital letters to refer to them, which I’ll do throughout the rest of these posts.

It’s important to notice that while Teaching is (depending upon one’s view) either a distinct office or tied to that of Shepherd, actually each of these offices is Word-centered and any man appointed to them must be a gifted teacher. By “gifted” I don’t mean the same thing as saying that someone is a “gifted” student, meaning that he is a cut above the rest. This is point is important enough that I want to attempt to clarify it, even though it’s somewhat of a sidebar. The “gifted student” use of the word “gifted” means “exceptional.” Used in that way (as we often do) someone who is “gifted to teach” would be someone who is an exceptionally eloquent teacher. A prominent New Testament example of such a person is Apollos (Acts 18:24-25).  That’s not what I mean by saying that any man appointed to these offices must be a gifted teacher. Exceptional eloquence is not a necessary qualification for fulfilling one of these offices. By some standards, the Apostle Paul was not considered an eloquent speaker (see 2 Cor. 10:10), yet he was an Apostle and was arguably the most gifted teacher that the Church has ever known. So, by “gifted teacher” I simply mean someone to whom the Holy Spirit has given the ability to discern God’s nature, will and ways and then explain God’s nature, will and ways clearly to others. An individual might be given other gifts that could help to fulfill his office as well, but the necessary gift for all Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Shepherd-Teachers is that of teaching.

The Word/Teaching-centered nature of these offices highlights the fact that the authority within these offices is a delegated authority. The authority of each office comes from the Word of God and, therefore, it can go no further than the Word of God allows it to go. The authority of each office is limited. In very practical terms, this means that while Pastor-Teachers can, should and must speak authoritatively on doctrinal issues, they cannot, should not and must not try to speak authoritatively on what color the walls of the church building should be.

In the next post, we’ll begin to look at each of these offices in turn, in order to see how Christ intended this delegated authority to work for the building up of the Church.