We are called to promote the five ministries without exalting human ministers. We are called to release the gifts without relinquishing our responsibilities as shepherds and guardians of our flocks. We are called to lead our churches without suppressing the gifts that will ensure our churches' success.
In the early 1980s, I was a youth pastor at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana. Then, like now, certain biblical ideas would become fashionable for a while as everyone sought the secrets to building successful ministries.
In those days leaders were talking excitedly about the fivefold ministry gifts referred to by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13.
I must have heard these verses a thousand times in my early 20s as pastor after pastor told us how they held the key to implementing God's perfect plan for church leadership. Many popular Christian speakers felt traditional church-government structures ought to be abolished in exchange for a fivefold ministry team.
At the time, I didn't have strong opinions about the ministry mechanics of local churches. At Bethany, leadership roles were never really an issue. Everyone knew how the chain of command worked. We respected the variety of ministry gifts, but we all knew that ultimate spiritual authority lay with the senior pastor, Roy Stockstill.
At Bethany, apostolic missionaries were embraced and assisted with honor, but they didn't exercise governmental authority.
Prophecy was received in the services and in staff meetings, but it didn't hold total sway.
Evangelists helped us reach the lost in our city, and we had a dynamic evangelist on staff, but Brother Roy was the one who kept church growth steady.
We enjoyed teachers who could bring us an in-depth study of God's Word in the context of church history, current events and our own church family, but Brother Roy gave us consistent life-giving food.
We appreciated the breadth of ministry gifts available to us as a body, and because of the steady leadership of our senior pastor, the church served the community without scandal, division, confusion or disillusionment for more than 20 years.
Sadly, the cutting-edge pastors who were so excited about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers did not produce the same glowing testimony. Rather than enhancing ministry, their fascination with titles, roles and experimental church-government systems distracted them from genuine church work.
They were sincere in their desire to obey the Word and inculcate the five ministry gifts, but most of them are now out of ministry. Their churches have either failed or been restructured. None of them have enjoyed the growth and influence of a place like Bethany.
As I look back, I realize that both the Bethany staff and these pastors utilized the five ministry gifts. One group did it with great success and the other with failure.
The same possibility faces us today: if the gifts are misunderstood or misused, they can lead to decay. But properly used, the fivefold ministry gifts will be "body builders" that will strengthen and uplift the entire church.
In our thematic focus on the fivefold ministry gifts, we at Ministries Today are going to explore the many perspectives on this subject. We trust that you won't exalt the ones you agree with and condemn the others.
Instead, we hope this approach will help all of us consider the variety of interpretations and the different kinds of experiences we have had in dealing with this aspect of ministry. As we think through it, we will gain clarity and will learn together how to honor God in our use of the ministry gifts.
To begin, I want to offer some thoughts on each of the five roles. My intention is to be an advocate for the authentic function of the Ephesians 4 ministry gifts and to point us toward practical application of those gifts.
WHAT IS AN APOSTLE?
An apostle is one who is sent out. Many missionaries are apostles. The most obvious example of apostleship in the New Testament is the apostle Paul, who is the quintessential model of effective missionary work.
He planted churches, exercised spiritual and relational authority, gave instruction, submitted to the authority of the Jerusalem church, and identified the markers of apostleship: signs, wonders and miracles (see 2 Cor. 12:12). All those activities encompass the function of an apostle.
Apostles have specific assignments. Paul was assigned to the Gentiles, and Peter was assigned to the Jews (see Gal. 2:8).
Jesus Himself was an apostle (see Heb. 3:1), sent by God the Father. He had a very specific assignment while on Earth: He was sent to the Jews; He sought the lost; He sacrificed Himself and established the church; He performed signs, wonders and miracles to validate His ministry. Furthermore, He continues to exercise spiritual authority and is submitted to God the Father.
Jesus designated His 12 disciples as apostles, and sent them out to preach and demonstrate the power of God (see Mark 3:14-15). They were all involved in the establishment of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 2), and later went on to establish and strengthen churches throughout the known world.
Thus, the primary ministry of modern apostles is to reach into the darkest areas of the world and demonstrate the qualities of the first century apostles. Apostolic anointing is often the driving force of growth that propels the gospel forward and the church upward. I believe that the portions of the body of Christ that build the church the most rapidly are those that operate with apostolic strength.
Who are our greatest apostles today? They aren't hard to find, but often avoid assuming the title "apostle" because of its misuse within the body. Genuine apostles are the outstanding missionaries and leaders who are reaching into worlds of unbelief. Most of them use more humble titles, but we know they are apostles by the fruit of their ministries.
WHAT IS A PROPHET?
A prophet is one who speaks what God is speaking. Even the way the church canonized the books of the Bible offers insight into the prophetic ministry. Those who compiled the Bible did not just include verbal and written utterances from prophets such as Jeremiah, but the stories about their lives as well.
We accept all of it as inspired. The whole of the biblical account about Jeremiah is prophetic, not just his "Thus saith the Lord" utterances.
Obviously, Jesus was more than a prophet, but we can think of the Gospels much like we do Jeremiah. Not only do we accept Jesus' sayings as prophetic, but also His actions. Jesus was clear that what He said, He heard His Father saying, and what He did, He saw His Father doing (see John 8:28-29). In this, we find the Word of God among us.
In Paul's writings, he admits that certain things are directly from the Lord (see 1 Cor. 7:10) and other things are his own thoughts (1 Cor. 7:12). Interestingly, we canonized both and accept both as divine instruction.
The genuine prophets in the Old Testament, New Testament and modern days do not just try to quote God, but their whole lives and lives' message is the Word of the Lord for our generation.
Many of the most important prophets are not people whom we think of as prophetic, and the most prophetic voices often do not see themselves as such. Similarly, many of those who are promoted as prophets have little impact because of a lack of credibility or simply because they are so often wrong. Instead of communicating with their lives and words a lifelong message of radical obedience and consistency, they allow their own personal opinions and desire for power to corrupt the prophetic gift within them.
I believe that a major reason the modern church has lost the ability to influence society as salt and light is because it neglects and misuses the prophetic. We are so seduced by worldly trends that we fail to speak the Word of God. Then, people are drawn toward voices that claim to be speaking for God, but are doing so without reverence and fear. So we end up in a swirl of misunderstanding.
Recent "prophetic" embarrassments related to Y2K and other the-sky-is-falling cries have caused genuine prophets to minister under alternate labels. This is a tragedy. Honest Christians could operate in the ministry gift that God wants to flow into their lives, but are hesitant because the culture around prophecy is cluttered with foolish distractions.
WHAT IS AN EVANGELIST?
An evangelist is a person whose primary role is to persuade nonbelievers to become believers. We automatically think of Billy Graham, but obviously many evangelists never attain such notoriety. Paul encouraged his protégé Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5, NKJV), and we can see this as a general admonition for all believers to become effective witnesses for Christ.
Because of fraud in this field, characterized by the movies The Apostle and Leap of Faith, the role of the traveling evangelist has been diminished in the United States. Most evangelists today must operate within local churches in order to have credibility.
In our church, our best evangelists are our small-group leaders. We have more than 1,000 groups, and we regularly baptize hundreds of new converts who come to Christ as a result of the evangelism that goes on within these groups.
Although this requires greater relational skills than would be required if evangelism were done exclusively through public speaking, those who come to Christ at smaller, local church events have a much higher likelihood of walking out their salvation. I love the way the gift of evangelism is developing within local churches: small scale with long-lasting results.
WHAT IS A PASTOR?
Interestingly, the role of a pastor is the one spoken about the least in the New Testament. But the pastor is the senior spiritual authority in a local church. He is responsible for the healthy development of those within the congregation and community.
I believe that the pastor/teacher gifts are often combined, which is why it is the most visible and vital set of gifts in local churches.
You'll notice that the pulpit is in the center of most of our churches. That's because the pulpit symbolizes two primary things: First, the centrality of the Scriptures, which rest on the pulpit, and secondly, the necessity of the public reading and exposition of the Word of God. The pastor's job is to emphasize these two aspects every Sunday morning.
Pastoral care consists of both preaching and living out the Word of God within the body: ministering to the sick, caring for the congregation's needy and counseling members to live godly lives. In addition, in many of today's churches the pastor is the key person responsible for representing the congregation to the public.
Historically, pastors have been the backbone of the church. They plant deep roots. The more successful ones live in one place for extended periods of time. They "do" life with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other people in their region: marrying, burying and everything in between.
If there is a crisis facing the role of pastor today, it is a shortage of candidates. As more and more people come to Christ, we will need strong pastors dedicated to humbly and faithfully fulfilling the call to care for local bodies of believers.
WHAT IS A TEACHER?
A teacher is one who is gifted to explain, illuminate and persuade. Teachers educate the body on the meaning of Scripture, the history of the church and the current social context for Christianity. Teachers often have specialized knowledge in one or two particular areas, and we call upon them to draw upon this knowledge and learn how it applies more broadly to our lives.
God uses teachers to explicate central truths, ideas that reorganize our lives and ministries, ideas that critique our assumptions and help us to see things more clearly.
This gift, like the others, has been abused, mostly by men and women who claim teaching authority while they are working with misleading ideas, loose interpretations of Scripture or overly secular views of the world.
Other people hold powerful sway over groups because of their skillful rhetoric, but that doesn't amount to godly teaching. Our best teachers, like our best apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors, are people who are doing the work God has called them to do--humbly, simply and faithfully, people who expose the body to clearer and higher truths.
As we think through the individual ministry gifts, we should remember that people often have primary gifts and supporting gifts.
For example, I am a pastor with an apostolic anointing. I carry the responsibility of ensuring that the day-to-day ministry of our local church congregation is biblical and healthy. But because of my call as an apostolic missionary, our church focuses heavily on global outreach.
We are a local church, but we invest millions of dollars a year into missions. We have symbols of global concern in every room on our campus because I am a pastor with the heart of one who is sent out.
The five ministry gifts, working together, are the primary roles within the body of Christ that cause it to grow and remain healthy. In the past, including the very recent past, all of the gifts have been misused. But that is no reason to dismiss any of them. They all play vitally important roles in the body.
Without each of these five gifts, our church bodies become impotent and anemic. But as the ministry gifts are used properly, our church bodies can be built up and strengthened.
The key to authenticity and success in all the gifts is longevity and relationships. It is those who move around from place to place seeking to attain titles and failing to develop accountable relationships who end up having problems, and bringing disgrace on themselves and the rest of us.
As we work with the gifts and perfect the use of them with consistency and discipline, there will be nothing that can stop the advance of the cause of Christ in the Earth.