Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers: Understanding the Five Core Leadership Functions in Ephesians 4

Friday, October 12, 2012

Few chapters in the Bible are read as often as I Corinthians Chapter 13. However, the chapters that precede and follow Chapter 13 receive much less attention. I Corinthians 12 and 14 concern the spiritual life of Christians and Christian communities. They discuss the function of spiritual gifts within the life of the individual person of faith and within the community of faith.

 

Actually, it is not totally accurate to say that these chapters focus on spiritual gifts. Our translations of the Bible translate I Corinthians 12: 1 this way: "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed."

 

In fact the word "gifts" is not included in the original Greek text. The Greek word translated "spiritual gifts" is actually just the adjective "spiritual,"

 

 

 

1 with the noun the word spiritual is meant to modify left unsaid. The most literal translation would be "spiritual things."

 

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All scripture references are from the NRSV, unless otherwise indicated.

 

I Corinthians Chapters 12-14 are a discussion, not just about spiritual gifts, but about spiritual things, or the realm of the spiritual, within our lives of faith and communities of faith.

 

The church in infatuation

 

First Corinthians was written to a young community in the first thrills of love with God. The church was composed of the first generation of Gentile new believers and followers of Jesus. Their spiritual condition was not dissimilar to the stage of romantic love that we call infatuation.

 

Falling in infatuation and having your infatuation reciprocated is an experience unlike any other. You feel connected, complete, powerful and free. You feel as though nothing else other than your relationship is really important. You are willing to allow love to disrupt your normal patterns of life. You are open to experimenting with new ways of being. Falling in love is wonderful.

 

Of course, while love may last a lifetime, infatuation does not. For love to last infatuation must grow into commitment which honors and cherishes the partner even when the feelings are less heady and strong. For love to last, life must settle into new patterns and habits.

 

The Corinthian community to which Paul wrote in I Corinthians was in a state of spiritual infatuation. Theirs was an intense experience of community. Newly liberated people were discovering their own personal gifts that they could contribute to the life of the community. (As with any experience of infatuation, there were also excesses, of course.) There was an eruption of spiritual manifestations and powers within the new community.

 

The state of the young Corinthian community when Paul wrote this letter is one of amazing new energy and freedom that comes with infatuation. People who had no sense of personal empowerment before are stepping out and testing themselves in new roles of leadership.

 

 

 

The result is a certain level of creative chaos and confusion.

 

Part of the reason Paul writes chapters 12-14 of this letter is to give the Corinthian Christians some tools to evaluate and order all of the manifestations of empowerment and leadership that was emerging. So he begins to help the Corinthians begin to ask questions about their community life together: Are the new expressions of ministry and leadership consistent with the

 

 

 

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highest spiritual gift of all, which is love? (I Cor. 12:13 and 13:1-13)? Do they affirm or curse Jesus? (I Cor. 12:3) Do they build up the church? (I Cor. 14:12) Do they promote disorder or peace? (I Cor. 14;33)

 

As is the case when a person or community moves from infatuation toward commitment, the early Christian community moved toward more and more order. This is the way life works. None of us can stay in infatuation for ever. When infatuation moves toward commitment some aspects of the relationship are lost, but much is gained. Hopefully there will be periods of renewed infatuation along the way of the relationship, but a lifetime of infatuation would be chaotic and confusing. Love needs to find order in order for there to be peace and productivity in the relationship. Increasingly, the early church moved toward greater clarity in its order.

 

The Five Core Leadership Functions

 

The book of Ephesians was written many years after I Corinthians. It would be hard to find a biblical scholar who doesn't believe the Apostle Paul wrote I Corinthians. Most mainline scholars doubt that Paul himself wrote Ephesians. I Corinthians is usually dated between 53 and 55 CE. Scholars believe Ephesians may have been written as late as 95 CE and certainly no earlier than 70 CE.

 

By the time Ephesians was written the church has moved from its early energetic, somewhat chaotic beginnings to an increased sense of order. While I Corinthians lists long lists of manifestations and gifts of the Spirit and roles and functions, by the time of the Book of Ephesians, the church has identified five key leadership roles. They are listed in Ephesians 4:11:

 

Apostles

 

Prophets

 

Evangelists

 

Pastors

 

Teachers

 

These are the core leadership functions and their purpose is to train and empower the members of the congregation for ministry. The work of ministry belongs to the people of the congregation. The function of the leadership is to equip the members to do their ministry to each other and in the world.

 

Read Ephesians 4:11-16 carefully:

 

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

 

The writer of Ephesians is pleading for the Christians of Ephesus to move beyond infatuation to a more mature level of commitment. Infatuation can be fickle. It can be erratic. It can be fragile. It can be jealous and volatile and defensive and easily threatened.

 

 

 

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No, the writer of Ephesians says, it is time to live a steady, faithful life in Christ, to work in harmony with others toward a shared purpose so that the community will be strengthened.

 

Ephesians outlines five leadership functions that the church needs. It is not my belief that the writer of Ephesians was identifying a permanent leadership structure for the Christian Church. I do not think he is saying that churches, whether denominations or congregations, should have five offices – Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher. But I do think that each of these functions is important for either a denomination or a congregation and that these roles need to be fulfilled in order for a Christian community to thrive.

 

More importantly, as individual Christians, it is critically important that all five of these functions be happening in our lives if we are both to be equipped for our ministries and to grow in Christ.

 

 

 

If we are to be effective in the ministry to which we are called and to grow in Christ, we must have a process, practice or person in our lives that fulfills the function of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.

 

I also believe that the order of Ephesians listing in not insignificant. If the priority of these functions in our lives gets out of alignment, our Christian discipleship will run the risk of getting out of alignment as well.

 

Apostles

 

The word "apostle" was originally a secular word in Greek society that meant an ambassador or envoy, one who has the capacity to think in a way so attuned to the mind of an authority that he or she can embody her or his interests and concerns. Ambassadors and envoys can negotiate on behalf of a person in power. They can think with the mind of the king or president they represent.

 

The original Twelve Apostles were those who had been personally taught and trained by Jesus. Therefore, they could think like him. They could think with the mind of Christ. (I Cor. 2:16)

 

Paul called himself an apostle because Jesus had revealed himself to Paul, presumably on the road to Damascus after the stoning of Stephen. (Acts 9:1-9) "Am I not an apostle?" Paul asks in I Corinthians 9:1. His answer is "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?"

 

The role of the apostle is to have seen the mind and heart of God in Jesus Christ so as to understand the intentions and purposes of God in creation and history. An apostle is someone who has a grasp, even if only partial, of the big picture. What is God doing in the world? Where is history headed? How does God intend for us to live? What transcends my time and place in the world? What is the greater meaning of existence?

 

While I believe there are persons who fill the apostolic role and have known people I consider to be apostles, I do not believe that the significance here is on the individual but on this need for apostolic insight being fulfilled in our Christian lives and in our Christian communities. I would not suggest that anyone of us go searching out a modern-day apostle but we do need a process, practice or person in our lives that helps us grasp an apostolic vision.

 

Each of us needs a process, practice or person that fulfills our need for apostolic understanding. The most important issue of our lives is how we can align our lives with what God is doing across the span of existence. There is no more important question than this.

 

 

 

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In various issues that the church is facing today, when friends and colleagues are deliberating about how to position themselves in the debates and struggles, my advice to them again and again is to not position themselves on the wrong side of history. And by this I do not mean history in the short term but history in the scope of eternity, history in the scope of the vision of Revelation, of a New Jerusalem come down from heaven.

 

Is it possible that some of our dysfunctions in life could be cured by aligning our lives with God's will and by aligning our hearts and mind with God's heart and mind? All of us need processes and practices, time and space to pursue an understanding of what God is doing in the world.

 

This function is so central for Christians that without it as the priority and context for all of the other functions, they will be at risk of backfiring.

 

Prophets

 

Sometimes we think of prophets as seers or fortune-tellers. Other times we think of prophets as social critics who condemn the injustices of society. Both understandings are partly right; but only partly.

 

The most basic definition of the Greek word we translate "prophet" is "one who speaks for a god and interprets the god's will." Prophets speak the word of God or announce a word from God.

 

Prophets apply the apostolic understanding to the situation in which we find ourselves here and now. They speak a word from God that honors what God has done to bring us to where we are and calls forth new possibilities to move us to a new place. When we have become frozen in patterns and habits that are merely repeats of the past, the prophetic word unfreezes us so that we might move again. We all become stuck. The prophetic word set us free.

 

Walter Brueggeman, the author of

 

 

 

The Prophetic Imagination is right that the prophet draws from the realm of imagination. One of the reasons we get stalled or distracted as individuals, congregations and nations is because we lose the capacity to imagine new futures. The prophet draws from the past revelations of God to speak a new possibility into our lives. In the process, the prophet may need to creatively, and sometimes shockingly, shake us out of our old patterns and habits which are keeping us stuck.

 

There is actually more.

 

In his discussion of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians, Paul says something very interesting. He says: "You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak." (I Cor. 12: 2) The difference between God and idols is that God can speak. To say that God can speak is to say that God has creative power. To speak is not just to say something but to bring a new reality into being.

 

In Genesis 1, God created the universe by speaking. Every act of creation begins with the words: "God said…"

 

Then God said, "Let there be light and there was light…" (Gen. 1:3)

 

And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters … (Gen. 1:6)

 

And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together …" (Gen 1:9)

 

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation …" (Gen. 1:11)

 

 

 

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God speaking is not just God talking. When God speaks what God says comes to be.

 

So when a prophet speaks a word of God, he or she is not just talking. It is an act of creation. It is an announcement of the future that, rather than merely predicting the future, creates the future. It is a proclamation of a change to come that allows the change to be born.

 

The function of prophecy is to announce a new creation so that, in speaking it, it comes into being.

 

Again, the focus here is not so much on individuals who are prophets, but on our need for processes and practices in our lives that expose us to prophetic words. All Christians need ways that we can hear a fresh word from God that stretches our assumptions, revives our imagination and energizes us for new life.

 

It is critically important that prophetic processes and practices are within the context of apostolic understanding. Otherwise prophecy runs the risk of being merely random, idiosyncratic, or even self interested. On the other hand, an apostolic vision without prophecy is at risk of being merely abstract, impersonal and philosophical.

 

Evangelists

 

Our image of evangelists is largely shaped by recent assumptions and understandings, especially here in America which has a tradition for the past couple of centuries of evangelistic associations. In our mind, an evangelist is someone like Billy Graham who hold crusades and proclaims the gospel and invites people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. This is not the New Testament understanding.

 

Only one person is specifically identified as an evangelist in the New Testament. The second letter to Timothy (probably not written by the Apostle Paul) instructs Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist." (II Tim. 4:5) However, the writer also instructs Timothy to "convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching." (II Tim. 4:2) It is hard to tell from reading II Timothy what the writer actually had in mind when he instructed Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist."

 

The Book of Acts is more helpful. It identifies Philip specifically as an evangelist. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is describing his a journey when he is accompanying the Apostle Paul. He writes: "The next day we left [Tyre] and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven and stayed with him." (Acts 21:8)

 

Philip is our sole biblical example of an evangelist. This is what we know from the Book of Acts about Philip: He was not Philip the Apostle mentioned in the Gospels. (Only a very, very few scholars suppose that the same person could have been an apostle and a deacon.) He was one of the seven deacons chosen by the first Christian community to manage the distribution of food to widows when a conflict arose because Greek-speaking members of the community thought Hebrew widows were receiving preferential treatment. (Acts 6:1-7)

 

When the Jerusalem community was scattered due to persecution, Philip moved to Samarian where he proclaimed the gospel, cast out demons and healed. Many Samarians believed and were baptized, including a magician named Simon. It was apparently necessary, however, for two apostles --Peter and John-- to travel to Samaria to lay hands on the newly baptized

 

 

 

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Samarians in order for them to receive the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17) So the evangelist Philip’s work seemed to include proclamation, casting out demons, healing and baptizing.

 

Perhaps the most illuminating story about Philip as an evangelist is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch which seems especially told to illustrate the work of an evangelist. Philip is told in a dream to go to a certain place where he discovers an eunuch, a court official from Ethiopia, reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip used this opening to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus and then baptized him. (Acts 8:26-40)

 

As opposed to the contemporary focus on preaching and proclamation to large crowds, William Abraham, in his book,

 

 

 

The Logic of Evangelism, describes the work of the evangelist as the work of initiation. The evangelist guides persons into the practices that both characterize and nurture the Christian life. An evangelist shows persons practice the Christian faith, including being part of a Christian community, participating in spiritual disciplines and the means of grace, and living out faith in our lives in the world. For some of us, our parents were our primary evangelists. Sunday school teachers and confirmation mentors often serve the function of the evangelist. Throughout our lives, as our faith deepens and grows, we will need people, processes and practices that serve this function of introducing us to new depths of Christian faith and practice.

 

Because as we become Christians it is not merely a matter of joining a certain congregation or even a certain denomination, it is important that the function of the evangelist take place within the context of an apostolic vision. William Abraham rightly insists that to become a follower of Jesus is not merely to join a church but to live eschatologically in the Kingdom of God.

 

Pastors

 

We have come to call persons who lead congregations pastors. We even call some pastors the Senior Pastor. This is unfortunate because it overemphasizes one function of leadership the church needs out of proportion to the others.

 

The word "pastor" is based on the Latin word for "shepherd." The Greek word translated "pastor" in Ephesians 4:11 means "shepherd" and is actually translated more often in English translations of the New Testament into the word "shepherd" than "pastor." The emphasis is on tending and care-giving.

 

The clearest description of the pastor-shepherd is John’s description of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the Gospel of John. Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father." (John 10:14-15a) Jesus says: "The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." (John 10:3) Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11)

 

The shepherd-pastor knows your name. He or she knows what is happening in your life, your struggles, your fears, your hopes and successes. The shepherd-pastor spends time with you and gives him or herself to you. Pastoral care is being visited in the hospital when we are scared and needy and being comforted in our grief. A shepherd-pastor is someone who focuses on the needs of the members of her or his flock and who helps people endure pain and feel better.

 

 

 

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For a number of years I have been a member of the board that examines candidates for ministry in this region of the United Methodist Church. One of the questions that members of the board sometimes ask each other about candidates is: "Does he, does she have a pastor’s heart?" The pastoral function is focused on personal caring and meeting the needs of people.

 

Caring and being cared for is critically important in the life of Christians but there are two provisos. The first is that caring belongs to the community and not just to the clergy or church staff. The second is that the purpose of caring is to support people as they become stronger, not to keep them needy so that we can care for them. The third is that caring needs to take place within an apostolic vision.

 

We who are followers of Christ are called to live our lives on behalf of a greater purpose. We find our personal fulfillment in participating in what God is doing in creation and history. We believe that true blessedness and happiness comes not from having our needs met but from participating in what God is doing to transform the world into a kingdom of inclusion and justice. An overemphasis on caring ministries can lead to a focus on self that makes us the center of attention rather than God.

 

Part of the reason mainline churches are struggling is because we have made pastoral care the focus of our ministries out of proportion to the other functions of ministry. Once our focus becomes our own care independent of an apostolic or missional focus, we are a community waiting to die.

 

All of us need other people of faith in our lives who care for us personally. And we need people who we will care for personally. All of us need extra care during time of illness and grief. The pastoral function in the life of the church is important or Christian communities run the risk of becoming impersonal and businesslike. This is why small groups are important. This is also why teams trained to provide pastoral care, like Foundry’s Care Team, are very important. And it is also important that care happen within the context of an apostolic vision that keeps us always aware that our focus is not on ourselves but on God.

 

Teachers

 

Many of the functions we think of as the work of teachers within the church are really the work of evangelists – initiating people into the life of the Kingdom. This example of the contrast between the work of an evangelist and a teacher might be helpful: It is part of the work of the evangelist to guide and teach people how to read the Bible as part of their Christian life. It is part of the work of a teacher to tell people what it says in the Bible. In real life, the lines between all of these roles and functions get blurred, but it is good to have clarity about the people, processes and practices we need in our lives to grow as people of faith.

 

Teacher is a title used frequently for Jesus in the four Gospels. John 1:38 makes it clear that the Greek word we translate "teacher" is sometimes, perhaps often, used in the Gospels as a synonym for "rabbi."

 

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" (John 1:38)

 

The Gospels also suggest that Jesus' teaching was different from the type of teaching people were used to at the time. Matthew reports: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not

 

 

 

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as their scribes." (Matt. 7:28-9) Scribes, like rabbis, were considered authoritative teachers and judges of Jewish law and custom.

 

While Jesus was recognized as different from the scribes, still his listeners understood Jesus' teaching in terms of the teaching done by rabbis and scribes at the time. It was their job to teach and interpret Torah and the body of commentary that had developed throughout the centuries about the Torah.

 

It is this function that the New Testament identifies with the role of teacher in the early church. The teacher communicates and interprets the meaning of Scripture and tradition. The writer of Hebrews, for example, is trying to explain to the Hebrews the concept of how Jesus' obedience to God achieved salvation for those who believe in him. Then he scolds his readers because they lack understanding of god's word. He writes:

 

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:11-14)

 

Therefore, the work of the teacher is to understand, interpret and explain the biblical teachings.

 

The Books of First and second Timothy describe the Apostle Paul as a teacher of the Gentiles. (I Tim. 2:7; II Tim. 1:11) Paul's role was to take the scope of biblical history and teach Gentiles how it applied to their lives and included them. Paul does this again and again as he uses Scripture to explain how God's plan from the very beginning was to include Gentiles. (For example, Rom. 4:9; Gal. 1:16)

 

Like all of the functions of leadership and ministry within Christian community, it is important that the teaching function take place within an apostolic vision and mission. Otherwise there is no principle to put scattered verses into the context of the bigger picture and specific teachings or rules may actually be contrary to the movement of God in creation and history. The apostolic vision, however, always needs to be grounded and based in the biblical story, so the work of teachers is also important to apostles.

 

Summary

 

There was not a uniform list of leadership or ministry functions within the New Testament church. I would argue, however, that the five functions of Ephesians 4:11 – Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher – are the basic, essential and perhaps minimal listing of functions needed in order for Christian communities to thrive and for Christian people to grow in grace and faithfulness.

 

Rev. Dean Snyder

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