From talking with several people, reading many books on the subject, and perusing blog posts about leadership, I think I have a view of Ephesians 4:11 that is a minority view. As a reminder, Ephesians 4:11 says:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers… (Ephesians 4:11 ESV)
I’ve written about this passage previously in several blog posts, including “Ephesians 4:11 and the Five-Fold Ministry” (and the associate series on Ephesians 4:7-16, which continues to be one of my most read series) and “Spiritual Gifts – Ephesians 4:11” (and the associated series on spiritual gifts).
As we begin to think about this verse again, we should start by reading it in its context:
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 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, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:7-16 ESV)
In this passage, verses 7-10 point out that Jesus has gifted all of his followers according to his grace. Similarly, verses 13-16 point out that all of Jesus’ followers have the same goal – maturity in Christ – and all must exercise their gifts in order for the body to build itself up in love. Thus, except for verses 11-12, it appears that this passage is about the gifted of the entire body of Christ.
However, verses 11-12 – and especially verse 11 – is usually interpreted to mean that only certain gifted individuals are given for the equipping of the body for works of service. That is, Jesus specifically gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to do a work that none others within the body can and a work that none other are supposed to do – equipping. This view leads to seeing these four (or five, depending on interpretation) types of gifted individuals as being “specially” gifted within the body. Sometimes, these four (or five) are even called “offices” in the church.
In this post, I’m going to suggest an alternate view – a view that I think better aligns with the context of this passage and with other teachings in Scripture about spiritual gifts and gifted individuals.
Instead of reading the four (or five) gifted individuals as a special type of gifting and the only ones who are called to “equip” the church, I read this list as a sample of listed individuals. Paul could have used any gifted individual in his list in Ephesians 4:11, because all gifted followers of Jesus are necessary for equipping and edifying the body of Christ. Thus, the following phrase would have been just as correct:
And he gave the servants, the healers, the givers, the tongues speakers and interpreters, to equip the saints for the work of ministry…
While this sounds strange to our ears – being accustomed to hearing the other gifts as special offices in the church – it seems completely in line with scriptural teaching about spiritual gifts.
For example, notice 1 Corinthians 12:28:
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28 ESV)
First, Paul easily shifts from gifted individuals (apostles, prophets, teachers) to the gifts themselves (miracles, healing, helping, administrating, tongues). Paul easily makes this same shift in Romans 12:6-8, listing both gifts (prophecy, service) and gifted individuals (the one who teaches, the one who exhorts, the one who gives, the one who leads, the one who does acts of mercy).
Second, notice that Paul’s ordered list in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (above) does not include the same “necessary offices” as the list in Ephesians 4:11. Specifically, Paul does not mention evangelists (or the gift of evangelism) or pastors (or the gifts of shepherding) to the Corinthians at all. This seems strange if Paul thought these were two of the necessary spiritual gifts for the church to be equipped for service.
Also, consider the follow passage from 1 Corinthians 12:22-25:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:22-25 ESV)
Here, instead of arguing that some “gifted officer” are necessary to equip the body, Paul does just the opposite. He says that those members of the body that seem weaker (less gifted?) are actually indispensable. Again, as in Ephesians 4:7-10 and 13-16, Paul emphasizes the importance for the entire body of Christ to work together to build itself up. Even more interesting, Paul says that God himself has given greater honor to those members of the body that seem to lack it. Could it be that in interpreting Ephesians 4:11 as a list of “offices” that we are honoring the wrong people – at least, not the ones that God honors?
Taking all of this evidence together, I believe that Ephesians 4:11 was not intended as a list of specially gifted individuals who alone can equip the church for service. Instead, I believe that Ephesians 4:11 represents a sample of gifted individuals, much like we see in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, and 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, none of which include all of the gifts because they are all meant as samples of spiritual gifts.
Just as Jesus gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church to equip us for works of service, he also gives servants, helpers, givers, exhorters, healers, tongues speakers, and tongues interpreters (and ALL believers) to the church to equip us for works of service. The church is equipped for works of service and the church is built up toward maturity in Christ when every member of the church exercises the gifts given by Jesus through the Holy Spirit for the benefit of all.