- The Explore the Bible lesson for Oct. 20 focuses on Ephesians 4:11-16.
In a church tradition like that of Baptists, where congregational polity and priesthood of the believer have played such a major role, the discussion of leadership is a precarious topic to tackle. Indeed, the issue has grown as a point of division in the confusing modern climate where some churches recently have turned to elder leadership, some adhere to deacon leadership that was the style of previous generations and others still are trying to find the balance between pastors and committees.
Despite the appearance that such discussions are new, however, the struggle of understanding the relationship between leadership and laity is nothing new. Paul tackles the question several times in his letters, including the passage under consideration here—Ephesians 4:11-16.
Paul has just completed a lesson on walking in unity as he moves into the discussion of leadership. The connection is not accidental. Paul is arguing in this passage that leaders are gift from God, sent as an instrument of order, in order to move all believers forward in their faith.
The fact that he had to highlight this truth suggests a struggle within the church at Ephesus over such a question. Just as in Corinth, the expression of gifts and their use seems to have led to people wondering about roles in the presence of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul is suggesting in his explanation of the offices of the church and their role in moving the church forward that such entities are neither in conflict with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, nor with the call for every believer to use their gifts. In fact, he says that all of these realities work together well to see God glorified and the church become the body it was intended to be.
Equippers Given (Ephesians 4:11)
When God wanted to bless the church and help it grow, he did what he often does, he gave them people to carry out that task. The idea is not that these individuals are more important than other believers, but simply that they are one expression of God’s gracious gifting to his church. Like nearly every other aspect of God’s work among his people, it is built through the concept of relationships.
There is some question as to if there are four offices listed here or five. The issue resides around the last pair of pastor and teacher. The phrasing is such that he seems to link the two as almost one role. In another similar list, Paul highlights teacher without mentioning the shepherding role (1 Cor 12:28), and in 1 Timothy 5:17, the office of elder seems to be distinguished from teaching in that it suggests there were elders who did not teach. Paul may simply be highlighting that teaching functions in a way to shepherd or direct followers, and thus ties the two together. In any case, it seems better, regardless of the conclusion that one draws on the relationship these two terms have, to see Paul’s emphasis on the relational nature of certain offices to further the Christian walk.
The other three roles seem familiar, but they likely fulfilled a different purpose in the first century church than we would assign to them today.
- “Apostle” is a term that can refer to different realities in the early church. It may someone who is God’s agent as a result of seeing Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9:1) or may simply refer to someone who was an envoy or agent of the church (2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). Taken as a whole, the office seems to refer to someone who was an agent of God with a gifting to explain and spread the nature of God himself. This would explain the oft mentioned necessity of them having to have actually known Jesus.
- “Prophets” seemed to be individuals who applied scripture to real life and who explained the will of God to people (1 Corinthians 14).
- “Evangelists” probably were not itinerant preachers, as the terms has become used today. Instead, they seemed to be stationed in areas for the purpose of explaining the gospel, both to believers and unbelievers (see Timothy’s station in Ephesus in 1 Timothy 1:3 and 2 Timothy 4:5).
In each case, the title/gift is expressed as a component of the work of God among his people to equip everyone for service.
Think of a pastor or teacher who greatly furthered your journey of faith. How did their teaching supplement your own giftedness and equip you to do the work of ministry?
To Move Believers Forward (Ephesians 4:12-14)
The history of interpreting verse 12 is a long and involved one and has direct ramifications for how church is done. The question resides in whether the three prepositional phrases that involve equipping, serving and building all refer to the work of the previously listed offices or if only the first does, with the final two being the work of all believers. Based upon parallels in Romans and 1 Corinthians, it seems that the latter idea is to be favored. Indeed, the flow of Paul’s whole argument has been the unity of church toward the carrying out of our mission. Something that requires all believers and gifts to be directed toward the work of service and the building up of fellow believers.
How do the various gifts work together to carry out the latter two tasks in this passage? What would be missing in such tasks if gifts such as encouragement, mercy, helps, and prayer are not included in such work?
As a Body (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Paul draws the ideas of equipping, serving and building together with the concept of the gifts of leadership in order to point out than in such, God has given believers what they need to find maturity. This maturity that Paul is highlighting is essential to be able to ward off false doctrine and teachings. It is striking that Paul suggests here that it is not just teaching that prevents such calamity, but all the gifts working in unison, to make us all whole or complete that accomplishes this task.
How might non-teaching gifts also serve to keep people from falling into false doctrines and beliefs?
Timothy Pierce, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion at East Texas Baptist University.