Gifts to the Church
David gave this talk at Commission's Westpoint Event in 2018. Click here to download it.
THE SCRIPTURE: Ephesians 4:7-16 (NLT)
“7 However, he has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. 8 That is why the Scriptures say,
“When he ascended to the heights,
he led a crowd of captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 Notice that it says “he ascended.” This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world. 10 And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.
11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
We often refer to Ephesians 4 ministries serving local churches. What do we mean by this?
The ministry gifts referred to in this section are given by the ascended Christ to his church for a purpose. They are gifts of grace - each believer has received grace for service according to the sovereign apportioning of Christ (v 7). It is important to note that the section starts with each believer, not with the leadership gifts. The gifts referred to in verse 11 are gifts of people to the church, unlike other lists of gifts which comprise gifts of some supernatural endowment to individual Christians.
The objective of these leadership gifts is not to do all the ministry in the church but to prepare all of God's people to fulfil their calling. They are therefore equipping and enabling gifts and need to be assessed as such as to their effectiveness. The result of these gifts functioning and then enabling the body to function are:
- Unity - we already have the unity of the Spirit (vs 3) - that is to be kept. We are to attain to unity in the faith - substantial agreement on truth. This does not mean uniformity which is never presupposed by the New Testament, rather variety is encouraged.
- Maturity. This is more than individual maturity as only corporately will we 'attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ'. Maturity involves:
- Being clear on doctrine and not tossed about by every new idea
- Being able to speak the truth in love
- Organic growth of the body
Each part functioning as it should – remember however, that this includes our work for the Kingdom in the world – more later.
Why do I believe all the gifts are for today? They are needed until the church comes to unity or maturity. The original apostles were more than the 12 plus Paul, and it is hard to divide these gifts up as to which continue, and which do not – despite varying attempts having been made.
The word 'apostle' simply means 'sent one'. It implied the meaning of power being conferred on someone to perform a task. It later came to have a specialised sense of a naval expedition sent on foreign service. The naming of the twelve as 'apostles' during the ministry of Jesus fits that understanding of the word; they were sent out to represent the one sending them, with his authority do specific things.
There are three "types" of apostles in the New Testament:
- Jesus Christ himself
- The apostles of the resurrection - the twelve - who are unique
- Those gifts of the ascended Christ sent out by the churches.
In a sense Paul straddles the last two categories.
Family context of the church and church movements
This is a concept until recently not much understood or given attention to in the church today, where we are now used to organisations, denominations etc.
God is Father – from him all fatherhood/every family derives its name. (Eph 3:15). God’s plan to bless the world was by choosing a man and his potential family. The purpose was to bless the other families of the earth. Paul refers to Timothy as “my dear child”. He says to the church in Corinth that “you do not have many fathers”.
Being fathers to leaders and churches therefore is a key part of apostolic ministry. It is very far from being the denominational leader or the “top of the pyramid” – it is not just a question of what has been called apostolic covering but a fatherly relationship. That could be representation by others who know the apostolic leaders doctrine, practice and way of life – e.g. Epaphras in Colosae.
The function is needed. There is a cry from many leaders for genuine fathers. There is a need for those who lead and motivate in world mission. There is a need for those who can lay good foundations in churches.
SO, WHAT DO APOSTLES DO?
Apostles bring understanding of revelation concerning the overall purposes of God in the earth as a foundation for church life. Paul describes this in his feedback to the Ephesian elders as teaching the whole counsel of God.
They lay a foundation in churches. They may plant them themselves or others may plant following their teaching e.g. Paul in Ephesus with the whole province of Asia, but apostles are responsible for the foundation laid. “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.” 1 Cor 3:10 (ESV). Paul knew he was responsible to lay the foundation, he knew the foundation had been laid and the Corinthian church knew who had laid it.
What about the so called foundational gifts according to Eph 2:20 - the foundation of the apostles and prophets? Does this mean:
- The foundation once and for all laid by the original New Testament apostles and prophets.
- The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles.
- The necessity for every church to have an apostle and prophet laying their foundation today.
I think that the foundation was once and for all laid in the New Testament and was based on the prophetic promises of the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ and revealed to New Testament apostles and prophets. However, it needs practically laying in every church in every generation and is best done by those gifted so to do. As we have seen apostles become like fathers to the churches and to the leaders of those churches.
Apostles involve the churches in the wider mission to the unreached regions of the world. They get the churches involved in world mission. Paul announced to the church in Rome that one of the main reasons he was coming there was so that they could be involved in his ongoing mission to Spain.
Apostles are very concerned for the poor. When Paul met with the other apostles in Jerusalem to have his own apostolic ministry confirmed, there was one condition laid upon him by the other apostles – that he should always remember the poor. This was probably even the context of his visit to Jerusalem at that time.
Where the foundation has not been laid well, then apostles need to be involved in checking the foundation and making up what was lacking e.g. Samaria.
There is a difference between a prophet and prophesying, which is open to all (1 Cor 14:31). A prophet is one who characteristically moves in prophetic gifts, has proven character, proven fruit, and is able to discern what the Spirit is doing.
There is not such a clear description of what prophets did in the New Testament. Examples are Agabus who was involved in general predictive prophecy - a famine (Acts 11:28), and specific personal predictive prophecy (Acts 21:10-11). Judas and Silas took the decision of the Council of Jerusalem to the churches and encouraged people thereby (Acts 15:22, 32).
However, from a study of the prophets role generally in Scripture one could draw at least the following job description:
- Bringing the cutting edge of God's purposes - the 'now' word both for the church internationally, nationally and specifically for the local church.
- Bringing a sense of vision and direction.
- Seeing through issues.
- Imparting gifting and producing a church which moves in the charismatic gifts.
- Discerning gifting either through a tested prophetic word or by picking things up.
Note that prophetic words must all be weighed even if from a prophet, and beware of churches which are all vision but see nothing built.
They are also to be involved in foundation laying alongside the apostle. It is not a different foundation but needs to be laid by the 2 ministries each bringing their own insight.
We have the picture of an evangelist who is either preaching to large crowds and seeing people saved or a person who is good at one to one individual witnessing. It is true that evangelists have different gifts but the Ephesians 4 emphasis is on their ability to equip others to do the work. They will of course be personally good at reaching others with the gospel - otherwise they cannot equip.
Some may travel to equip churches, some may function within a local church. They may particularly be used to help open up new areas (geographic or social) where there has been little evangelistic breakthrough, so that other gifts (eg pastors) can go in and establish and care for new converts.
The grammar could suggest that this is one function but it is not always the case in practice!
- They lead the sheep so that they can learn to feed for themselves.
- They produce one another care in the church.
- They ensure that members of the church are both well taught and trained to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2).
- They can discern wrong doctrine and deal with it so that people are not led astray.
Some by virtue of their capacity and extent of gifting may have a wider sphere of influence and be part of an apostolic team.
All of these gifts are equipping ministries whether they are translocal or not. Local pastors are also to equip.
HOW DOES IT WORK IN PRACTICE?
The church is led by a team of elders and other senior leaders e.g. deacons etc – team ministry is very important.
Those churches are served by an apostolic team who input them according to particular needs at a particular time. It is not a question of “regular” visits as such, rather, if a foundation is well laid and the church involved in world mission, then they may only need input at particular seasons – such as a transition of leadership - and the gift that serves the church at that particular time is according to the specific needs of the church. The apostolic team person inputting a church is not a “super-pastor” or another tier of leadership.
Churches associated with spheres in Newfrontiers have and will become increasingly diverse in style whilst built on the same apostolic and prophetic foundation and representing the same core values. This is a good thing for contextual reasons, both culture and vision for who are being reached. It's a contrast with what used to be said. Nevertheless, there should be certain key similarities – e.g. “family” feel, gracious way in which we handle people etc. Therefore, we need to reflect that flexibility whilst not compromising on values.
Apostolic teams teach principles, not the detail of how we do it in our own home churches except:
- For illustrative purposes – with no practical examples, mere principles are not always understood or retained – but please make it clear it is illustrative and not the necessary outworking of the principle.
- If asked, how do you work it out? Then again, ensure in the answer you give freedom to work it out differently.
I sometimes feel embarrassed when those serving churches are talking more about how they do it in their own church rather than focussing in on the specific issue.
We serve at the invitation of the local elders – though it needs to be clear that the act of inviting means that those elders are willing to receive relational authority of genuine servant leadership in the relevant gifting. We do not have authority over churches or their elders but we are given authority which then needs to be genuinely received, otherwise no real basis for the relationship. However, this is where the issues of principles and core values come into play. Teams sometimes loosely use the expression “overseeing churches” – no, elders oversee the churches; teams serve to equip with relational authority which we are given.
The teams relationship is with the church though and not just with the elders – Paul wrote to churches on only one occasion “with” the elders and deacons – so, we serve the churches and “coach” the elders and often other leaders (deacons according to Philippians).
The exceptions to this is when an elder or the elders are involved in:
- Moral or financial impropriety
- Teaching heretical doctrine
- Exercising domineering authority (e.g. as John had to handle with Diotrophes).
Then we have a responsibility to deal with it.
We sometimes define the work of apostolic teams as; “the care of the churches and planting new churches”. However, the expression “care of the churches” comes from one translation of 2 Corinthians 11:25 where the real meaning is actually “concern” or “anxiety” which was an illustration of the pressures on Paul. Rather, the emphasis is that we are concerned that churches do well in their calling and mission from God on the basis of the apostolic and prophetic foundation that has been laid in each of those churches, rather than simply being regularly overseen. The oversight of the churches is Biblically the responsibility of the elders when they are appointed – so Paul charged the Ephesian elders to deal with the “fierce wolves” in Acts 20:28-30, so that apostolic teams and the local church together can massively extend the mission. Obviously where there are specific needs, care is important. Apostles are not “super elders”, they are to encourage and coach leaders and churches into mission; elders are front line, day to day, care.
A FRESH LOOK AT EPHESIANS 4
I have recently had a fresh look at Ephesians 4 in the light of the truth of the Kingdom and not just the church in its internal workings which is how we have tended to focus this Scripture.
The words in a commentary on Eph 4 that recreated new thinking for me were these, “It follows a reference to the ascension of Christ showing his authority over principalities and powers. “Having achieved dominion over all the powers through his victorious ascent, he sovereignly distributes gifts to the members of his body. The building of the body is inextricably linked with his intention of filling the universe with his rule, since the church is his instrument in carrying out his purposes for the cosmos.” O’Brien.
So, I now see that Eph 4 ministries have a Kingdom purpose, a Kingdom equipping of God’s people for Kingdom life – extending the rule of God into every sphere of life. Eph 4 ministries then are not just about better organised churches, good doctrine equipping everyone to prophesy etc but essential for the church to be released into its Kingdom purposes – the outworking of the rule of Christ everywhere – that he may fill all things. AND that is a major part of what God is saying to us today: The filling of the universe. Eph 4:10 “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” Filling everything in Scripture means, firstly, that God rules everywhere.
It is why God gives gifts of ministry (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher) to enable the church to fulfil its calling. Another commentator put it like this, “Christ’s giving of ministers of the word to build up the whole body into his fullness is interwoven with the goal of his pervading the cosmos with his presence and rule”. “Now, the one who has been given to the Church as the cosmic Lord, himself gives to the Church to equip it fully for its cosmic task.”
The whole church is gifted for this purpose. “As a foretaste of this grand hope the very existence of the church, a society of pardoned rebels, a multiracial community in which Jews and Gentiles have been brought together in unity in the one body, is the means God uses to manifest his richly diverse wisdom to the principalities and powers in the heavenly realm.”
Eph 4 ministries have the calling to equip each believer to fulfil their own Kingdom calling evidenced by the gift of grace on their lives. You are also the “supporting ligaments” to enable and encourage this to take place. But there is a danger. The grace gift is to be used redemptively, transformationally, and often counter-culturally – not simply conforming to the pattern of the world for busy, prosperous individuals or whatever their cultural equivalent is.
It applies to each gift:
- So apostles – teach this truth and see it as a foundational vision.
- Prophets – let this vision shape your ministry – there may be a very insightful word of knowledge component but overall vision often forms the burden of the prophet and people are called to that vision – let it be truly Kingdom oriented.
- Evangelists – Equip people involved in Kingdom ministry to be strongly gospel-focused otherwise social action, for example, becomes social gospel in the longer term.
- Pastors – Honour, encourage, share e.g. at prayer meetings those whose grace gifts are affecting the society. However don’t neglect disciple making as those taking Kingdom initiatives can still have ungodly attitudes.
- Teachers – In your teaching, draw examples from all walks of life. If full-time can get detached and only use examples from corporate church or personal family life. Always think – how does my teaching equip and disciple artists, engineers, school teachers, but also those who lose their jobs or are on zero hours contracts and other pressures of today’s world. Even if “redundant” or in a seemingly routine job requires the grace gift of God to spread the rule of Christ.