Let’s change the focus of discussion as we think about Ephesians 4:11.
“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.”
Instead of debating the particular leadership people/roles that existed in the first century church (or that should be represented in the church today), let’s talk, instead, about a few dynamics that are implied by this passage and about the polity model of the early church.
Whatever the particular leadership roles involved, there do seem to be some leadership realities that transcend the roles themselves. Consider:
#1: Legitimate leadership in the church is given by Christ and derives spiritual authority from him.
This statement is so self-evident, why belabor the obvious? Because it is good for us to be reminded that legitimate spiritual leadership flows from Christ himself. It is not conferred by congregational vote or organizational structure. No matter how revered or honored our leadership forms, the form itself cannot bestow spiritual authority. It must be Christ who gives, Christ who anoints, Christ who calls.
Implicit in Ephesians 4:11ff is a “theology of calling.” Christ was actively involved in determining the leadership of the early church. And not just the leadership roles involved but the particular people who filled those roles. [He chose the Apostles. His Spirit appointed elders (Ac 20:28), gifted prophets (1Co 12:10), and dedicated missionaries and preachers (Ac 13:2).]
If we believe that Christ remains actively involved with his church today (and that his Spirit continues to animate not only our personal lives but our communal life), we must recognize the role Christ continues to play in gifting his church with leaders. Christ still “calls” leaders and gifts them to the church today.
At the very least, this means that we must listen carefully to the range of leadership roles God is anointing for his church today. [If Christ is gifting the church today with evangelists, for instance, how does a faithful church recognize and respond to that gifting?] But it also means a willingness, an eagerness, to recognize the people on whom God has placed his hand and to honor their leadership as a consequence. (See A Theology of Calling.)
Among Churches of Christ, which have never developed a significant “theology of calling,” the idea of church leadership flowing from Christ and being a gift of Christ is challenging. Without this understanding of “calling,” however, church leadership devolves to personality and popularity.
#2: Legitimate leadership in the church is focused on the same goal, works towards the same purpose.
Paul carefully defines the “point” of spiritual leadership in this passage (Eph 4:11-16)—not a smoothly run organization or well-managed budgets, but the equipping and maturing of Christ’s people.
“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 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.
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. 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. 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.”
Not only are church leaders called by Christ, they are called for a purpose. That purpose is clearly focused on the members of the body: developing effective service, harmonious unity, spiritual stability, theological depth, and loving relationships. Such goals are intended to, quite literally, encourage “government for the people.” These member-focused-purposes become the standards by which effective church leadership is measured and evaluated.
Leadership in the church—whatever its form, whoever fills a particular leadership role—is a means to this common and primary goal. Every leader and leadership role must contribute to this shared end. Leadership that does not result in “building up the body” is, by definition, illegitimate. Leadership that leaves the body immature, vulnerable, ignorant, unloving and uninvolved cannot be the kind of leadership Christ intended to give his church, no matter the structure or roles.
#3: Legitimate leadership in the church is “shared” leadership.
No one person (and, as we will see, no one group) has a monopoly on leadership in Christ’s church. Even in a church dominated by Apostolic leadership (e.g., Jerusalem and Peter), other leaders and leadership roles played an important part. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers met together to discuss and decide important church matters (Ac 15). Men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” exercised significant authority in the Jerusalem church (Ac 6—an authority not just to distribute food but to perform miracles and stand as the church’s voice before hostile authorities).
While Churches of Christ tend to be strong advocates of “shared leadership,” we commonly address this concern by ensuring that each congregation has a plurality of elders. Leadership is “shared” among those appointed to this particular role in the local church.
While the New Testament speaks to this plurality of elders in congregations, it suggests that “shared leadership” in the first century involved more—not just several different people, but several different roles. Jerusalem enjoyed an embarrassment of leadership positions: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, elders, and teachers. A similar mix of leadership roles was evident in Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus.
As the next two points will make clear (I hope), this shared leadership among different roles was important because different roles had different responsibilities and giftings … and because only a variety of roles could ensure the kind of checks and balances that were fundamental to the functioning of leaders in the New Testament church.
#4: Leadership roles in the church have distinct responsibilities and gifting.
Even a cursory review of how different kinds of leaders functioned in the early church demonstrates a range of gifts and competencies for each role. [See prior article on “New Testament Model of Church Leadership.] Apostles were not synonymous with elders or teachers … evangelists were not the same as prophets. When it came to church leadership in the first-century world, one size did not fit all. Each leader had a differing range of responsibilities and each exercised a differing set of spiritual gifts.
We can debate what tasks and competencies fell under which roles in the early church, but the larger point still holds: different leadership roles were given different duties and were equipped with different capabilities. [Prophets (for instance) spoke direct revelation from God (about his will or the future), a capability not shared by elders or evangelists or teachers.]
If different leadership roles had different duties in the church, and if different roles were gifted differently by Christ to accomplish those duties, and if the range of roles and giftings were necessary for church leadership to have its intended effect on the Body, then limiting leadership to one role in the church today necessarily limits the effectiveness of that leadership to “equip God’s people” and “build up the body.”
#5: Leadership in the church must be accompanied by checks and balances.
One of the most remarkable aspects of leadership in the first century is how these different leadership roles monitored and regulated one another. Apostles and evangelists selected and anointed elders—honoring, warning, or rebuking them as necessary. Elders watched over the message of evangelists and teachers, guarding the flock. Evangelists identified and denounced false teachers and prophets. Prophets advised and counseled Apostles. No one leadership role was immune from the influence of or accountability to the others.
In fact—in the New Testament witness—there seems to be an expectation that leaders will go bad, lose their commitment, forget their message, compromise their character, and tear down the church rather than build it up. And not rarely (as we assume today). Not infrequently. Predictably. Inevitably.
When that happened, distinct leadership roles were expected to police themselves. Think of Paul and Peter in Antioch. Think of the warning to the elders of Ephesus: “Guard yourselves … some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth” (Ac 20:30).
But the expectation was also that different leadership roles would police each other. Evangelists would hold elders accountable (and vice versa). Prophets would test the soundness of teachers and evangelists (and vice versa). Leadership troubles were bound to arise. But this pervasive mutual accountability occurring in the church went a long way to limiting the damage when trouble came.
Of course, the only way effective checks and balances can occur is within a polity system where authority is shared, the legitimacy of different forms of leadership is recognized, and the right (the duty) of differing leadership roles to evaluate and critique each other is acknowledged.
I’m convinced that a discussion of church polity is long overdue among Churches of Christ. I’m further convinced that the discussion needs to center not on particular leadership roles but on fundamental leadership dynamics. Ephesians 4:11ff suggests that legitimate leadership derives its authority from Christ, is focused on a maturing goal, is shared among several roles, is equipped in various ways, and submits to mutual accountability.