This passage begins with a statement that “Christ himself gave.” Transformation begins and ends with grace. God provides significant leaders in different places to help mature His body, but the focus is never supposed to be on the leaders. It’s always on the One who gives the leaders. God never wants us to place spiritual leaders in places that only He can occupy. Our focus is not on catalysts for transformation or on the transformation itself. It’s on the author, the One who transforms. He’s the head of this project.
That said, Paul lists several important positions or gifts that form the foundation of leadership for the church:
Apostles. This term as it is used in the New Testament originally referred to anyone with a divine commission. It literally means “one who is sent.” It’s used in several ways in the New Testament and specifically applied to the twelve apostles, who were Jesus’ closest disciples (minus Judas plus his replacement in Acts 1). But other people are called “apostle” too, including Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 1:1; 2:6), James the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), possibly Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6, 9), possibly Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7), and of course Paul, who considered himself an apostle, was widely accepted as an apostle, and is often given that title prominently in our references to him today. At times, it refers only to those who were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ; at others, it refers simply to those who seem to have received a divine commission. Many people today use it to refer to people in pioneering and church-planting ministries, though it is sometimes more broadly applied to leaders of equipping ministries.
Some uses of the New Testament word—for example, as a reference to eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry—have already been fulfilled. Their testimony is carried on throughout the ages in the Scriptures and the doctrinal foundations they left us. Modern uses of the term are interpreted in a variety of ways by different denominations and streams of thought. What should never be lost in that discussion, however, is Paul’s purpose in mentioning them here. The apostolic gift was never given to establish a group of spiritual elites who do the primary work of ministry. It was given so these leaders could equip every believer to do the work of ministry.
Prophets. The second group on Paul’s list is prophets. Most people think of biblical prophets as fire-breathing preachers like Elijah or predictors of the future like Isaiah or Daniel. But while prophets could preach harsh sermons and foretell the future, the primary purpose of the prophetic gift is to interpret circumstances and events in light of God’s purposes and declare God’s purposes in light of circumstances and events. They are known as mouthpieces of the heart of God.
In the early church, prophets communicated God’s Word with the power to prompt life-change in the people who heard them. The authors of Scripture wrote God’s revelation with unique prophetic insight, and the documents they produced are foundational for us. God does not inspire prophets to write Scripture or introduce new revelation anymore. Yet Paul urged the entire Corinthian church to seek the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1), a man named Agabus warned of upcoming events on at least two occasions (Acts 11:27–28; 21:10–14), Philip had four daughters who had prophetic gifts (Acts 21:8–9), and Peter urged those who spoke publicly to do so as if they were declaring the words of God (1 Peter 4:11). However this gift is understood to function (or not) today—and interpretations vary widely—the main point is again the same as with apostles. These leaders do not bear the load of ministry; they equip the church to minister. Any prophetic gifts functioning today are given to clarify and present the truth of Scripture in powerful, culturally relevant ways to call the church into its fullness.
Evangelists. The next leadership gift Paul mentions is evangelists, who have a supernatural ability to share their faith in a way that draws people to Christ. Everyone is called to evangelize in the sense of sharing our faith, but the reference in this verse is to people particularly gifted in evangelistic ministry and able to equip others in it. For those who are not especially gifted as evangelists, our best opportunities to share our faith often come through exercising our other gifts. For example, some practice evangelism through service or hospitality that includes conversations about faith. Evangelists as equippers are able to teach and train believers to do that.
The early church was birthed by apostles, taught under the direction of prophets, and grew as evangelists broadcast the good news. It multiplied as many were converted through the working of these ministry gifts. Many evangelists today continue to spread the message of God’s kingdom and draw many to Christ. They lovingly and boldly proclaim the gospel wherever they go and equip the body to share their faith and fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20).
Pastors and teachers. Paul ends this short list with two more ministry gifts, each of which could be treated on its own but are perhaps more familiar to most of us today. Pastors and teachers probably looked a bit different from today’s versions of those roles, but they still carried out many of the same functions. Pastor means “shepherd,” someone who gives oversight, feeds, cares for, and directs. A teacher communicates the truth of God’s Word in a systematic, easily understood way. Together, they counsel and instruct the body of Christ, grounding believers in the truth that helps them grow. They serve in formal roles in churches, seminaries, and ministry organizations, but many also exercise these gifts informally in shepherding and teaching the hearts of God’s people. These two gifts may have been applied somewhat differently in New Testament times than they are today, but the point of their mention here is again to emphasize the equipping of every believer.
Why have we taken time to look at each of these ministry gifts and the roles and functions they fulfill? Because they spell out the purpose of leadership in the body of Christ, and leadership is vital to the transformation process. Remember, we aren’t talking here about the world’s kind of hierarchical leadership. In the body of Christ, “leaders” are meant to come under the people to serve, support, and equip all of its members to do the work of ministry. If we misunderstand the roles given to the renovation team and the work they do best, we will not be able to access the grace they were intended to provide.
In the church today, cultural norms have so skewed the roles of leadership that the average Christian thinks his or her primary responsibility is to come to church, possibly volunteer where needed, and support the pastor or clergy in “the work of the ministry.” But if you take that approach, you will miss the very place where God’s grace intersects with your heart. You may not grow in the gifts God has given you and fulfill the purposes He has for you because that approach steps back from the Holy Spirit’s desire to work powerfully through you and tries to pass it along to the “professionals.” This is usually a subconscious, unintentional choice, of course, and it comes from misunderstanding the ministry assignments we just discussed. But as we will see, God’s Word sets you up to benefit from those ministries and grow into all you were designed to be.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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