Recently we have been working through a familiar passage from the fourth chapter of the letter to believers in Ephesus where the divinely inspired author is describing the unity and diversity of those who make up the body of Christ. As we saw last time, this diversity within the unity was described by means of various and diverse gifting throughout the body. Among these, were those who had been gifted with specific functions, apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd-teachers. While there is some debate over whether these refer to church offices and officers, we concluded in that post it may be more helpful to seem them as individual and diverse functions in operation within the body of Christ. (See Ephesians 4:6-17)
In that last post, we sought to define each of these functions and rather than bring into the conversation a discussion on continuation or cessation of so-called spiritual gifts, a much more simple answer may be presumed when we note that those with these gifts function in different ways in different times. In that sense, certainly the Twelve apostles were unique in their calling and in their first generation relation to Christ, however there are more than twelve mentioned in the New Testament each with a unifying function of being sent to plow the fallow hard ground areas in preparation for receiving the gospel of Christ. Furthermore, as in the case of prophets, some of the more foretelling aspects of this function may have indeed ceased, particularly given the finalized revelation of God in Scripture. However prophesying need not be limited to the prediction of future events, rather it may also include the forthtelling of Scriptural truths, ala preaching. The Puritans had a robust understanding of prophesying and concluded that preaching the Word and public prayer were indeed, ‘prophesying.’ William Perkins defines prophesying as, “a solemn public utterance by the prophet, related to the worship of God and the salvation of our neighbors, as the following passages indicate: ‘But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men’ (1 Cor. 14:3). ‘But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all’ (1 Cor. 14:24). ‘For God is my witness, who I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son’ (Rom 1:9). Further, Perkins summarizes, “Preaching the Word is prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ.” We rounded out our discussion with a look at evangelists and shepherd-teachers, much more commonly understood in our modern times.
Those described above have been gifted for a purpose and those gifts are not an end in themselves, rather they are a means to an end. That end is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, the purpose of this post and towards which our attention will now turn. This equipping brings up two obvious questions. First, what does it mean or look like to equip the saints and second, what is the work of the ministry.
To answer these questions, we need only to look at the giftedness supplied by Christ seen earlier in our passage from Ephesians 4. Through the exercise of gifts, i.e. those sent, those forthtelling, those preaching the gospel, those pastoring and teaching…through these, the saints are equipped. The word translated here as equipped is only used here in the NT, however it comes from a root word meaning to make ready or prepare. It may also carry the idea of mending that which is broken, or making complete. The main purpose of those God has especially gifted and called as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherd-teachers is to equip other believers for service. This means educating, equipping, and encouraging, all for the purpose of preparing them for the work of the ministry. Every.Single.Member. That is their main function.
Can this be accomplished through a weekly 45-minute sermon?
We are told that this equipping is for the work of the ministry. The word ministry here is the same word from which we get the transliterated English word deacon, properly translated as servant. If we were to use that rendering, we’d say that the saints are being equipped for deaconing, or more properly for service.
Is this service a separate, side, or secondary function? Maybe those listed above are the starters and those doing the work of the ministry are the bench players? Maybe those we described in our last post are the main stars of the church show on Sunday morning and those they equip are for side-acts like watching infants in the nursery, running sound boards, playing in worship bands, working in soup kitchens, donating to charity, etc. Those things have their place (maybe), but that’s not what is being communicated in this passage. The main function IS the ministry of every believer. This includes the exercise of each believer’s spiritual gift (4:7) and that can only genuinely happen within the context of believers gathered together. While they are not specifically defined or listed here, the context is nevertheless the same as Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, where an idea of particular gifts may be gleaned.
Furthermore, this work of the ministry is where the body of Christ gets built up. Whereas the verse mentioned earlier, Ephesians 2:20, likewise mentions building (with apostles and prophets), there the context is of a structure, here the building up refers to the process. How is the household of God being built or to keep our metaphors consistent, the body of Christ being built? Through the process being described here as the every-person-ministry, the priesthood of believers. This isn’t a program, doesn’t require money or a building, it’s simply being faithful to use the gifts that Christ has given and trusting that He will build up and equip the saints. If the building up of the body is dependent upon every member working, exercising their individual gifts, what happens in a body where only one or two are given the freedom to exercise gifts? Atrophy. The body by necessity gets weak and will die. Not only that, but a plague of passivity is sure to spread. If you want to know why American Evangelicalism is so weak and powerless, it’s passivity. Not only that, but those who are doing all the work cannot maintain the entire body on their own. What does this necessarily lead to? Burnout A body might have a strong mind, strong tongue and mouth, but it cant walk without feet. Every part of the body is necessary for it to function the way it was intended.
As this passage progresses, we find that the building up of the body has a multitude of purposes, which the Apostle supplies as short phrases. Just as the chapter opened with a discussion on unity before developing the passage on the diversity of gifts, we conclude this chapter with a return to unity. Summarily it looks like this: Within the body, which is unified in Christ as it’s Head, their is a diversity of gifts each of which is required to be exercised for the mutual edification and building up of the body, collectively, such that it can again be unified in faith, knowledge, maturity, stability, and discernment.
Those gifted by Christ should be exercising their gifts to a replacement level degree. The New Testament knows nothing of a single man ministry, where one man does all the work. It knows nothing of a select few putting on a Sunday morning performance for people to show up and consume. Instead, it places the emphasis on every single individual member in the body, who have been given gifts, actually exercising those gifts by serving the body.
Simply put, the unity supplied in Christ for the body of believers will fail to reach its potential, united in maturity, apart from the individual exercise of every member’s gifts.
Also in this series: