And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… – Ephesians 4:11-12
This is a well-known verse from a well-known chapter from a well-known epistle when it comes to talking about the Church as the Body of Christ. There’s a fair amount of argument over if this verse is a list of four roles or five. In English, it’s hard to tell; our translations don’t make it very clear. But the Greek does:
καὶ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους (apostles), τοὺς δὲ προφήτας (prophets), τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς (evangelists), τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας (pastors) καὶ διδασκάλους (teachers).
δὲ and καὶ both can mean “and,” but in different ways. δὲ can mean both “and” and “but,” because it’s more of an “also” sort of word. καὶ usually means “and,” but also can be translated “also” or “even” or “namely.” So while δὲ connotes alternatives, καὶ denotes things that equate. As a result, poimenas/pastors/shepherds and didaskalous/teachers are equated together as a joint 4th group on the list, rather than separate 4th and 5th items on the list.
With that behind me, I want to share some recent thoughts I had concerning how this “four-fold ministry” (as some like to refer to it) balances itself out. As Paul clearly stated, these gifts of ministry are for the purpose of building up the body of Christ. The way that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers accomplish this work, though, strikes me as a very close-knit balance. I’ll give the bullet-point summary first, and then explain each in turn:
- Apostles provide organized leadership for the Body.
- Prophets provide disorganized leadership for the Body.
- Evangelists help the Body to grow outwardly.
- Pastor-teachers help the Body to grow inwardly.
First, the apostles – what the heck are they? Literally, the word apo-stello means “one who’s sent out.” The original apostles in the New Testament were the people Jesus sent out in person, including Paul since Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. But even in the New Testament era, the word apostle was transitioning from that literal starting point to that of an official title or job in the Church. This starts in the first chapter of Acts, when the eleven apostles choose a replacement for Judas Isacariot, Matthias. Given the ministry that they reserved for themselves in Acts 6, and the nearly-identical job description for bishops in I Timothy, it seems pretty safe to assume that the overseer/bishop office in the epistles is the continuation of the ministry of the original apostles.
Additionally, we have a lot of insight into how Paul understood his apostolic ministry. His epistle to the Galatians, in particular, has a strong focus on the dual focus of apostolic authority and being a minister of the gospel. To this day, that remains the basic definition of the role of a bishop in the Church. Ensuring church unity is the primary purpose of authority, of course – just looking at Paul’s concern for the churches he wrote to makes that clear. So that’s what the apostle is all about – organized, defined, authorized leadership for the Body of Christ.
Then there’s the prophets, which I whimsically summarized as providing ‘disorganized’ leadership. I do not mean to insinuate that prophets are anarchists – anarchy by definition is about disunity, which is utterly antithetical to the idea of building the Body. By disorganized I simply mean outside of the official organizational structure of the Church. Apostles/bishops are appointed according to a list of biblical qualifications, are recognized leaders in the Church by virtue of their office (yes, office, that’s what they said in Acts 1), and have a lot of biblical instruction on how to be leaders in the Church appropriately. Prophets, on the other hand, have very little instructions for them in the Bible, and have no official structure to put into. Instead, they have a host of role models in the Old Testament.
The word pro-phete literally means “one who speaks forth.” From the Old Testament and the New, we see that prophets are basically just preachers, except with a clearer grasp of what God is saying to His people. There are two types of prophets – ones who deliver covenants to God’s people (such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus), and ones who enforce those covenants (such as Elijah, Isaiah, Malachi, and John the Baptist). By enforce I mean they call people out on their violations of the covenant and announce covenant curses that God has promised, as well as advise the leaders (be it the royal house of Israel or the Levites and priests of the Temple) on how to live according to God’s will as revealed in God’s word. Although that looks very different in the Church than it did in ancient Israel, the role is basically identical.
Prophets today, thus, are people who speak out to the Church and to the world under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, backed by the Bible, to identify where people are going astray and where people are going well. This is why they actually need to be outside the official structure of Church authority – they’re a checking balance to the apostolic ministry of the bishop. Ideally we should only need one or the other, as the Holy Spirit works through both, but because we’re still sinful human beings, God has provided us two parallel levels of leadership. I say leadership, not authority, because the Apostles made it pretty clear that they were calling the shots, but in Paul’s descriptions of the spiritual gift of prophecy, it’s pretty clear that prophets also have a key voice in the life of the Church as a whole.
Third comes the evangelists. Evangelists are people gifted to share the gospel in effective ways – euangelion is the Greek word for “good message” or “gospel.” Their contribution to the growth of the Body of Christ is fairly obvious: by effectively sharing the gospel to those outside the Church, they bring new converts in, growing the Church numerically. Additionally, either by example or by direct training, evangelists help others in the Church learn how to carry out the Great Commission in their own lives, lest the evangelists become some sort of elite group expected to do all of the mission work.
Finally there are the pastor-teachers. These people complement the evangelists perfectly. For while evangelism is primarily focused upon bringing people into the Church, pastor-teachers are primarily focused upon keeping people in the Church. The double title, pastor-teacher, is helpful here because pastors (also meaning shepherds) could arguably just keep the sheep in small sheepfolds to imprison them in blind faith, but because they’re also teachers, it’s more clear that they have to help the sheep mature, not just hide them from the outside world.
Pastor-teachers, then, are the ones who teach, preach, visit, and build and foster relationships within the Church. They help the Body to grow inwardly, in balance to the evangelists who help the Body to grow outwardly. Without this balance, the Church could become bloated with shallow believers at one extreme, or isolated ‘holy huddles’ at the other extreme.
So there you have it – apostles fostering ordered leadership for the Body, prophets keeping God’s voice fresh in the Body, evangelists helping the Body to grow larger, and pastor-teachers helping the Body to grow stronger. Together, they form a powerful network of ministries that keep the Church healthy and whole. Certainly, individual people might have gifts that link some of these ministries together. The best preachers, for example, are usually prophets and pastor-teachers. Bishops are expected not only to be apostles, but pastor-teachers as well. History has also seen a lot of missionary bishops (apostle + evangelist) such as the Apostle Paul. The more we engage with each of these sorts of ministers, the better advised we are in discerning God’s call for each of us in the midst of all this.