Back in 2001 I had the opportunity to spend eight remarkable days with leaders of China's underground house-church movement. These amazing men and women--all of whom had spent plenty of time in prison for illegally preaching the gospel--were leading massive church networks. One man known as Brother Z was responsible for a movement of 13 million Christians!
This guy was like an apostle Paul. He had seen miracles, and he also had been beaten and jailed for his faith. I knew he functioned in an apostolic role because he plants churches, trains pastors, coordinates ambitious evangelism projects and works hard to stop the spread of heresy--which is common in China because of a lack of Bibles. But Brother Z didn't act like a big shot. In fact, when we gathered for meetings he sat near the back of the room.
I felt unworthy to be in this man's presence, but he was always gracious enough to invite me to sit with him at mealtimes. So, one evening over a dinner of fish and rice I asked Brother Z what titles he uses when referring to himself or other leaders. "Do you call yourself an apostle, a bishop or what?" I asked.
Brother Z smiled innocently. Perhaps my question amused him. "We don't really use titles," he said. "We just prefer to call each other 'brother' or 'sister.'"
His words haunted me during my journey home. When I got back to the United States I found myself wincing when I saw an advertisement for a conference. Under each featured speaker's photograph was his name and title. Apostle this. Prophet that. Bishop whatever. I felt grieved--not because these men and women didn't have the biblical right to use these titles, but because of the way we seem to flaunt them.
In China, apostles are called brothers. They start churches with new converts. Communist police chase them and sometimes torture them. They certainly aren't doing ministry for money. They have no scent of smugness or arrogance.
Meanwhile, on this side of the planet, we wear our titles right out in front, flashing in neon on our double-breasted suits. Some pastors today even appoint themselves bishops or apostles, then recruit churches to be "under" them as if they are building an Amway business.
In some quarters of American Christianity, where style is more important than substance, Bishop Big Head and Elder Ego compete with each other for the largest honorariums, the most luxurious accommodations, the biggest entourages and the grandest entrances. If Jesus rode past them on His donkey, I wonder if they would recognize Him? Would you?
During the course of 2004, we will be looking closely at the five ministry offices mentioned in Ephesians 4:11--apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist. All of us at Ministries Today recognize that the American church desperately needs a new paradigm for leadership. Hopefully, our coverage of this important topic will inspire you to move beyond the shallow substance of titles so that we can reclaim the deeper values of New Testament-style leadership. That's what we want to inspire.
In this issue of the magazine we'll examine the fivefold ministry in a broad sense. Then, in the next five issues, we'll look at teachers (to explore how we can effectively ground believers in biblical truth while combatting the current onslaught of heresy), pastors (to ask how we can provide godly oversight of our flocks without becoming controlling or abusive) and evangelists (to seek ways we can teach people how to share their faith without fear). Finally, in the last two issues of the year, we'll look at prophets and apostles--and offer helpful ways to make room for these vital ministries without losing our balance.
As we explore the issue of fivefold ministry--a topic that is triggering hot debate and some schism in the church today--I'll throw in what I think are three basic principles we must embrace.
1. We need legitimate fivefold ministry gifts today. I've never understood how charismatics and Pentecostals who believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit remained in operation after the Early Church Age would adopt a cessationist view of the ministry of apostles and prophets. Why would we not need these ministries today, when there is still so much ground to claim for Christ's kingdom?
The question on the table should not be, "Are there apostles today?" That's a dumb question, since (1) the Bible never says the ministry of apostles would vanish before Christ's return; and (2) there are so many gifted people functioning in this vital role today.
I've met apostles from Canada, China, Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Ghana, India, Ethiopia and many other countries. Most Americans have probably never heard of these behind-the-scenes warriors. Our churches today are led predominantly by pastors, but we can't go forward to claim new territory if we don't recognize the need for genuine apostles.
2. The title itself isn't the issue. I don't think it's wrong for a man or woman to use a biblical title if (1) they are called to that office; and (2) other leaders have confirmed their ministry calling. After all, Paul called himself an apostle (athough he often called Himself "a bondslave of the Lord" instead), and he commissioned Timothy and others to function in fivefold ministry gifts. The calling of God is holy, and it is not to be disparaged. But let's not cheapen it, either.
Perhaps one reason there is so much resistance to the concept of modern apostles is that we have seen too many false apostles--people who claim the office but don't bear the necessary fruit. Surely by now we all know that just because a man has the label on his business card does not make his title legitimate. We must learn to discern between the prophet and the profiteer. Unless counterfeit ministers are taken out of circulation, they devalue everybody else's credibility.
But we can't reject the fivefold ministry just because of the abuses of the past, or because the renegades and charlatans are spoiling it for the rest of us. What we must do is demand integrity and require accountability so that only those who are legitimately commissioned by God get the platform they deserve.
3. Jesus requires humility above all. When Jesus knew He only had one last night to teach His disciples, what did He do? He certainly didn't lecture them about the importance of titles. Nor did He hand out nametags. He dressed like a slave, washed His followers' feet and modeled humility as the most important leadership value.
Since my trip to China--and during subsequent visits with persecuted Christians in Nigeria--I've realized that God is attracted to humility, while He is repulsed by pride. I wonder if the humility I observed in the leaders of China's underground church has anything to do with the fact that they are leading an estimated 25,000 people to Jesus every day? If we want Chinese results, maybe we should adopt their attitudes.
J. Lee Grady is the editor of Charisma magazine and the author of 10 Lies the Church Tells Women and 25 Tough Questions About Women and the Church (both CharismaHouse).