Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ephesians 4 and the abdication of Christian responsibility via the "fivefold ministry"

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors (shepherds) and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ...

So read verses 11-12 of Ephesians 4. Commonly Western Christians take this passage as a confirmation of the ecclesiological structures in the midst of which they have grown up and which enjoy a remarkable ubiquity across denominational lines. Almost everyone takes for granted, for example, that "pastor" or that which is its de facto equivalent (like priest, or elder) is an office instituted by the New Testament for local churches. To paraphrase my friend Matthew Martellus, by "office", we might mean a position whose character is largely invariant with respect to the individual who fills that position. In other words, an "office" functions the same way (more or less) regardless of who is filling said office and which is generally independent of the people who fill them, which is why they have rules and procedures of succession.

When one asks for scriptural support for the idea of ecclesiastical offices, usually the first passage cited in response is Ephesians 4:10-16. Smuggled along for the ride is the idea that these "offices", or at least one or two of them, were meant by God to remain in place unto perpetuity in most every instance of local church, from the writing of the New Testament until the Parousia. But is this the case? Let us examine the passage in detail.

Verses 1-6 - a call to and explanation of unity

1Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
The regenerate have been called to the new birth, to regeneration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By His movement and power, He has grafted people into the True Vine and made them partakers of His divine nature, adopting us as children and giving us union with Christ so that we are His Body. This is our calling - the high calling of Jesus. Paul urges us in v1 to walk in a manner worthy of this calling. Humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance are essential for the loving creation and maintenance of unity within the different human beings that constitute the Body of Christ. We are to bear with each other in love and maintain true peace, reflecting between each other the peace that Jesus has instituted between us and God and within our own hearts. With that in mind, we move to the next:

Verses 7-10 - God gives immeasurable grace

7But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it says, “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.” 9(Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
Though we are united with Christ and with each other through Christ, we are to exercise the different gifts that God gave. This is why unity must be carefully preserved, as the differences between people can lead to conflict. We must take thoughts captive to obedience to Christ when tempted to divide from other believers. God gave gifts to His people through Christ's ascension and the subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide, and indwell us. As a matter of fact, 1 Corinthians 12:11 informs us that it is the Holy Spirit Himself who distributes these gifts as He wills.

Note that the word used here is "gifts", not "office". The Greek of the New Testament does not use a word that can be translated directly in such a way as to match the English word "office". The NASB uses "office" four times in the New Testament . Twice it refers to the "office of priest", which phrase is covered by one Greek word. In Acts 1, Judas' "office" (that is, "episkope") was to be transferred to someone else to fulfill prophecy, and then interestingly, 1 Timothy 3, the translators insert "office of" where the same word ("episkope") appears, but don't stop with "office", going on to add "...of overseer", thus translating the same word with a significantly different expression at 1 Tim 3 than that which they used anywhere else in the New Testament. At any rate, if God had intended to communicate the idea that in Ephesians 4 He was instituting something like what Matthias ended up fulfilling, He could have used "episkope" or something. Instead, what we see in Ephesians 4 is δίδωμι ("gave"), δωρεά ("gift"), and δόμα (again, "gift"), not to mention "grace" that was given.

Verses 11-13 - the gifts God gave and why He gave them

11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
God gives gifts for a purpose. What is that purpose for which He gave these gifts of people as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers? Verse 12 - for the equipping of the saints. Equipping for what? For the work of service, and for the building up of the body of Christ. We might presume that is perpetual enough, but let's look further down the passage as we continue. Paul goes on to indicate that there is a set of end goals that we are to attain via these gifts, in verse 13 and following:
--unity of the faith
--knowledge of the Son of God
--the full Christ-like stature

Those are good things because they make us like Jesus, of course, but there is more to the story.

Verses 14-16 - the desired result

14As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Once we have attained to unity, knowledge, maturity, and full stature as mentioned above, there will be tangible, visible results in every individual and group of individuals who have attained thereto. Namely:
--no longer children
--no longer tossed around by every wind of doctrine
--or by men's trickery or crafty scheming
--speaking the truth in love
--growing up in all aspects to Christ-likeness

And then, notice what happens at this point, which leads into my central contention - when this whole body in question, which we could say for short is an assembly of Christians in a particular area, has attained to these things, then each individual part exercises his or her gifts properly, in love, and causes the body to build itself up. But what was the point of the "fivefold ministry" as described earlier in the passage? Precisely that - to build up the body and equip it. Equip it for what? To build itself up in love. Thus we transition from a few people in a given body given by God to serve as examples and train less mature believers in that assembly... with the goal of turning them into fully-functioning believers who build each other up in love, every member exercising his/her gift(s) to build up everyone else.

Notice that this is what "we are to" do. That is a command - grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head - Christ. The whole body partakes of His life-giving sap and thus builds itself up by every part building up the other parts. Mutual love and benefit, rather than a top-down hierarchy.

"Until we all attain"

Let's go back and check another angle from the previous section. Notice that in v11-13 "He gave...for ...equipping (and) building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to" the aforementioned goals. Why does it say "until" rather than something else like "and continuing on past our attainment of" those things?

The word μέχρι is translated "until" here. At the linked page are listed all the occurrences of this word in the New Testament. Most NT occurrences** indicate that the action ceases after the event μέχρι (until) which the previous state of affairs obtained. μέχρι is used in the New Testament to indicate cessation. Let's check a few examples:

--Mark 13:30 - Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
Will the generation pass away after those things are all fulfilled? Yes.

--Acts 20:7 - On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.
Did Paul keep talking after midnight? No; he stopped at midnight.

--1 Timothy 6:14 - that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ...
This exhortation won't mean much in the New Jerusalem, the final resurrected state.

And Ephesians 4:13 says that God gave those gifts until we attain to the desired goals, and we ought to expect that the situation will change/cease after the scenario that precedes μέχρι has completed. So if you're equipped for the work of service and are mature and are building up people in the body, then that's the point of those gifts, the point for them is fulfilled, and something better has come - a mature believer. And when a whole assembly achieves this maturity, as we are all commanded to strive for, those gifts are fulfilled and are unnecessary, for that body is building itself up in love, in all aspects. Those gifts' utility has come to an end in this case, which is Paul's express hope for the believers in Ephesus.

Even though not every single usage of μέχρι does indeed connote a cessation, the context of the passage does not support a competing interpretation. Are we supposed to believe that the Apostle Paul meant to communicate that once we attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ, that nothing changes? Why then did he entirely neglect to mention the utility and purpose of these gifts once maturity is attained? If he thought that the gifts bring us to a purpose and then that purpose is reached, and then the gifts' purpose morphs into something else, he does not seem to have told anyone what that second purpose is.

One may argue that nobody ever actually attains to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. In that case, what good are these gifts, since the purpose of God fails? And what good are the gifted people, since they themselves are not mature? How can they help anyone else? Such an argument proves too much.

Modern American Churches

Let's compare that to the more prevalent current situation in virtually all local assemblies. Almost nobody functions like this. Few people zealously reach for full maturity but rather are dependent on the pastor and leadership, who, let's be honest, have numerous vested interests in keeping the laity in a state of perpetual immaturity. The few Christians whom the rest of the people identify as having a zeal for God are pushed inexorably to seminary. If they know an evangelist (which "office" itself is suspiciously* very rare compared to how many self-proclaimed "pastors" there are out there), the rest of the church people generally content themselves with patting him on the back and affirming his "calling" but show no desire to join and help him; the best he is usually able to get is a small team of people who "hold the rope" for him in prayer. And even then, most of the time the "evangelist" just travels around and delivers lectures to gatherings of mostly church people in other localities rather than going out consistently and frequently to evangelise lost people.

The presence of "evangelist" in the list of gifts is, by the way, another good reason to doubt the reliability of the generally-accepted modern American interpretation of this passage. There are tens of thousands of pastors out there. If there are hundreds of evangelists, there aren't a lot of hundreds. Is that because pastors are more needed than evangelists? In a nation where less than 10% of the population is credibly born again, that seems unlikely. Even if they were, are 100 pastors needed for every one evangelist? Could it rather be that getting a job as a pastor appeals more to the wallet and ego of people who just sank 3+ years of their lives in seminary than taking on the role of constantly bringing the Gospel to the world of lost people who hate it? It is likely in my considered opinion that the spate of pastors in the modern American churches is present largely because of something other than "gifting"; if it were gifting from the Holy Spirit, I'd expect to see a lot more evangelists and a lot more pastors who strongly encourage and assist those evangelists. We see the opposite, however.

Church life is centered around a precious few, who lead, cast vision, set up the Sunday rigmarole, and approve all the inward-facing programs into which the passive congregants are funneled to give them the illusion of business in kingdom work. Most everyone sits and soaks during the main assembly times. Real fellowship and accountability are in most cases illusory. Very few grow in real ways because to grow you have to exercise. The leadership all too rarely leads by example; rather they lead by position and by saying lofty words up on stage on Sunday morning. Thus people don't fulfill the Great Commission; how can they teach others to obey all Christ commanded when they're not trying to do so themselves? Thus whole assemblies refuse to please God. Thus the main source of light in our culture is incredibly dim.

Ephesians 4:10-16 is often used to justify this situation, and few are in a position to challenge that interpretation because they have already abdicated their responsibility to accurately handle the word of truth, which would show them (if they had eyes to see) that the pastor in their life is telling them a self-serving falsehood.

Are You Equipped or Aren't You?

But in reality, according to what we've seen, if you're equipped for the work of service and the other elements of the mature person are descriptive of you, the gifts God gave to bring about that maturity in you have been fulfilled. Now, to maintain, you are to build up the other people around you as they build you up, growing them into maturity and maintaining and sharpening maturity. Further, one who is mature in the faith has a good understanding of how to carry out and has experience in carrying out the functions that apostles/prophets/evangelists/pastors/teachers do. They repeat the words of God. They counsel people to forsake sin and forgive each other. They speak prophetically into the culture and into sinful situations. They evangelise regularly. They teach and admonish others and themselves are taught and admonished.

The body thus builds itself up because they are mature and they speak the truth in love and they are equipped for service/worship, they are not tossed about, each part works properly, etc. When new believers come into fellowship, the body as a whole builds them up. Of course everyone needs sharpening, and the body is where that happens. As new believers are still children and immature, they need a more pastoral role so certain parts of the body take on that role vis-à-vis that immature person to make them mature, and then they gradually withdraw from that sort of oversight role as the person matures and functions as s/he is supposed to within the body.

None of this should be taken to mean that I necessarily think that the Spirit later withdraws His gifts once bestowed, but then again, while it is often taken for granted that these are permanent from conversion until death, is such a thing expressly taught in the New Testament? I can't think of a passage that says so, and there is some scriptural evidence that this might be the case. For example, consider Acts 19:11-12 - "God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out." Compare that occurrence relatively early in his ministry to his inability to heal later in life, related in 2 Timothy 4:20 - "Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus." Or consider the case of Acts 14:11-18 in which Paul, who spoke "in tongues more than all of you" (1 Corinthians 14:18) seems unable to understand the words of the people of Lystra for quite some time, unaware that they were affirming that Barnabas and Paul were gods of the Greek pantheon. Finally, let us ask ourselves why 1 Corinthians 14:1 exhorts us to earnestly desire especially the gift of prophecy, as if we did not have it before. Thus there is scriptural evidence to lead us to the conclusion that spiritual gifts may not be as fixed as we often think of them.

That being the case, what in the Scripture would make us believe that these gifts of, say, pastor and evangelist are perpetual, especially when we have evidence that they are in fact given for a purpose and that God intends for that purpose to be fulfilled and when we see in the American churches plenty of demonstration that the perpetual-pastor / fivefold ministry teaching has as a primary effect the neutralisation of the salt that the people of God are supposed to be?

However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!”
--Numbers 11:26-29

*Being an evangelist doesn't sound as attractive to people as being a pastor, because it usually invokes the spectre of casting aside fear of man and regularly going out to engage lost people you don't know with the Gospel, which is a fearful thing and can lead to confrontation, debate, and sometimes persecution. Further, it is a well-paid gig less commonly than being a pastor is. Tons of people claim to be "called" to be a pastor, and I don't believe those "callings" are legitimate; they are not from God but are from another source. I think that if God were in the business of doing what everyone says He is, He would call a much higher evangelist:pastor ratio than is currently evidenced in American Christianity. Which leads to my suspicion that "the calling of pastor" is something that most people simply imagine is the case.

**This article originally read "every single one", but after publication I was made aware that the readout from Blue Letter Bible upon which I had relied for my analysis had not displayed all NT occurrences of "mechri". It appears that there are two or three that do indeed indicate continuing action after the "until" point is reached. For this reason, I have adjusted my argument.

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