Toward a Structure for Church, Part 2

Servant Leadership & The Fivefold Ministries: Ephesians 4 Gifts Reconsidered

Originally published January 1, 2005


In my quest to explore a new structure for church, I want to consider the role of the fivefold ministries of Ephesians 4. I find myself in agreement with Len Hjalmarson’s assertion in “The Five-Fold Ministry and the Birth of New Movements“, that the fivefold ministries must be disconnected from heirarchical views of church leadership structure. Much of the view Hjalmarson presents on this matter seem to come from Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, which unfortunately I have not yet read.

My one concern with what Frost & Hirsch write (per Hjalmarson’s notes) concerning the fivefold ministries is that there seems to be a tendency to de-emphasize the gifts of the apostle and the prophet once the church moves out of its initial phases. To my mind, this is an echo of the dispensational view that the apostle and prophet were needed only to the establishing of the church, after which they were deprecated. Having previously rejected this thinking, I would not wish to return to this type of view on any level. That said, there seem to be much in these writings which is insightful and thoroughly helpful. At present however, I would like to outline the current state of my thinking on this subject over some years, rather than interact directly with other writings. It must also be said that my thinking on this remains subject to review and revision; some of what is presented here are longstanding views but others have been much more recently acquired.

Three Pauline “Gift-Lists”

Fundamentally, we seek an understanding of what Paul intends for the list of gifts in Ephesians 4, alternately called the “office gifts”, “ascension-gift ministries”, the “fivefold ministries” and probably other things besides. First, we will outline how this list differs from the lists given in Romans and I Corinthians, and attempt to understand the implications of these differences. We will then draw a few inferences from what is said and what is not said about the fivefold ministries, and consider how they should be viewed today. It is presupposed that all the gifts are active in the church today using the apparent definitions without redefining any of the gifts listed to remove supernatural elements.

In 1987 while in college, I was introduced to the charismata first-hand. Following a late-night spiritual encounter where a close friend and I had seen things that were (a) undeniable and (b) not at all within our expectations so far (I had been in conservative or cessationist churches to that time). While walking back to the dorm afterward, my friend asked me, “So, what does that do to your theology?” My reply was to make a shovelling and pitching over the shoulder motion with my hands. We both laughed, being in much the same position.

Later that year, I took a course title “The Corinthian Correspondence” with the college‘s then-resident rebel prof. This course had a most interresting assignment. Working in pairs, we were to attend a minimum number of meetings of at least two charismatic churches, interview the pastors of each, and report on the present practice of the charismata in the churches with a view toward Paul’s instruction to the church at Corinth. One thing I learned was that when two perfectionists work together on a writing project, it can lead to late nights discussing whether a definite or indefinite article is more appropriate for a given context – but on the other hand the work product can receive accolades from the professor to whom it is addressed.

One of the questions I had on the list to pose to each of the pastors was to explain the difference between the gift of prophecy and the office of a prophet – I think I had other terms for it back then, but it was essentially a request to compare and contrast the different gift-lists in Pauline literature. In each of these lists, Paul lists gifts that seem to be of a quite different nature such that they aren’t merely excerpts from one common list – there’s something different between these groupings of gifts. This remains a presupposition I continue to hold: each “list” of gifts is somehow fundamentally different from each other. This, I believe, can be under-appreciated.

Romans 12

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, [*] and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, [*] with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Note that “one who leads” may be alternately translated as “one who gives aid” according to the ESV translation team. We’ll come back to that later.

These gifts are “graces” which are in some way resident in an individual, part of what drives them, and something that is associated with them in the manner of a character trait. Except for prophecy (unless it’s redefined), this list is the one that conservative churches are comfortable with. It may be inferred that all believers have at least one “grace-gift” in the fashion of this list, and the particular “grace” given the believer is assigned by God. Despite the manner in which many popular questionnaires will explain to you which of these gifts is “yours”, it would probably be a mistake to assume that this list is exhaustive.

The context for Paul’s listing of these gifts is a discussion of how each individual should “present their bodies as living sacrifices” as an “act of spiritual worship” and an instruction that each member of the body is distinct and serves a different function within the body, such that each individual has unique value to and a unique role toward the whole. I believe we could also posit that these gifts ensure that the individual finds a role within the church body and that the practice of these gifts is a form of service which may be considered “acts of spiritual worship” in which the believer becomes “a living sacrifice” (despite someone else’s observation that the trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep climbing off the altar).

I Corinthians 12

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

These gifts are different than the ones listed for the Romans. These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which there are many “varieties” of gift. Our radical prof at the time loved referring to these gifts as “gracelets” (I think he got that either from John Wimber or Donald Gee), and it would not be inappropriate to imagine these gifts being almost like situational visitations of the Holy Spirit. The person exercising the gift in this list would have no claim to the gift and it would not be “resident” within him; the person in this case is simply a conduit for the Holy Spirit into a situation. Like the Romans 12 list, since this list is representative of “varieties,” it is likely that this list is not exhaustive either. The context for Paul’s discussion here is that the church in Corinth was valuing some of these “sign gifts” more highly than others, obviously in err.

Ephesians 4

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 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.

And so we come to the fivefold ministries, which are yet another type of gift. We start by noting the distinctive that these gifts are given by Christ to the church, and that they are in some way bound up with specific individuals. In other words – and this is crucial – the gift is not merely the type of ministry, but the individual person as well. Further, the gift is not given to an individual, but to a corporate group, the church. Unlike the prior two lists, the gifts listed here are probably a complete list.

Paul also clearly provides the purpose for these gifts, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” He also explains how long these gifts will be required, “until we all attain…” as noted above; a review of this description of what we are supposed to look like as the church tells us we’re not there yet, and as a result we still need these gifts functioning in order to get anywhere close to that description.

Three Types of Gift, Compared & Contrasted

Associated with each list of gifts is a comment on unity in the body – both diversity in unity and unity in diversity… and maturity in the process. We have noted that each list of gifts is associated with a different person in the Godhead, and I believe we may infer that this will lend us some understanding of the nature of the gift in relation to the giver.

Romans 12: Gifts from God to individuals and which are part of the individual’s makeup. We may term these gifts of being, or inherent nature. Function of these gifts is an act of worship which helps ensure that the church has all the functions necessary it its calling.

I Corinthians 12: Gifts of the Holy Spirit through individuals to express God’s heart in a situation, whether vocally or in the miraculous. We may term these gifts of manifestation, or visitation. Function of these gifts is for God to manifest himself in a given situation to communicate or to accomplish his heart or his will.

Ephesians 4: Gifts of Christ to the church, these are not only ministries, but also individuals given to the church. We may term these gifts of incarnation, or representation. Function of these gifts is intended to assist in the maturation process of the church.

Heirarchy Reconsidered

The objection to the fivefold ministries or “office” gifts is in the presumption of a heirarchy wherein the apostle is chief among the fivefold ministries, who rule the church, standing between Christ the head and the body. Presumably the fivefold ministries are therefore the neck; the analogy has to break down somewhere before this point, but I’ve actually heard it (implausibly) extended this far by some. Here we must begin to deconstruct a wrong orthodoxy and orthopraxy with respect to these ministries, recognizing that such deconstruction once complete may deconstruct entire leadership and authority structures as practised by some churches or denominations. Having previously held similar views, this is in some ways as disorienting to me personally as my first introduction to the charismata, but it holds within it the same air of authenticity, the type which leaves one open to a clearing of the slate of beliefs on a particular subject in order to build a stronger, healthier slate.

The fundamental problem with the heirarchical understanding of the office gifts is that it misunderstands the nature of service in the Kingdom. Jesus was among us as one who serves, and he was demonstrating how Kingdom leadership works: not to lord it over, but to serve. Rather than taking a title or position, Jesus exhorts leaders to humble themselves and become the least among among those they serve.

My Bible is a kind of almanac of the last near-20 years of my Christian life. In the pages of John 13 resides a prayer card given me years ago by a fellow I knew who went off to do inner-city ministry on Yonge Street in Toronto. The card reads, “He handed me a basin and a towel and said, ‘With things like these you will turn the world upside-down.'” The church could use some more upside-down, let alone the world. Michael Card puts it beautifully in “The Basin and the Towel.”

It seems that some leaders assert their position over those that they lead, rather than trying to serve them. You should be able to spot a leader because people are following him. Too often though, we think a leader is spotted because the church pays him to be a leader or gives him a position of some type. Unfortunately, none of this is how Jesus wanted it to be. Jesus was a pretty egalitarian kind of guy, but when it came to leaders, he tended to want to put them last. Unfortunately, as even the title of one article (Jonathan J Bonk, “Doing Mission out of Affluence: Reflections on Recruiting `End of the Procession’ Missionaries from `Front of the Procession’ Churches. (I Corinthians 4:1-13).” in Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4 (October 1989), 427-452) suggests, it is difficult to find people in North American churches who relish the kind of leadership Jesus desires.

Hjalmarson writes,

The second dynamic is almost underground.. unless you spend a lot of time at emergent websites :) …many… groups are not interested in controlling anything or establishing a kingdom of their own.. they are interested in supporting the growth of a new movement… of nurturing the growth of God’s kingdom in small ways wherever they see it happening. No one is interested in status or titles; many in fact are trying to avoid prominence. This is a trans-boundary, trans-cultural and trans-national movement because it is something that the Lord is doing. This second dynamic is apostolic because it doesn’t claim apostolic authority but would prefer to be invisible, it has a strong interest in marginalized people, it is non-hierarchical, and it is all about service.

Precisely. I believe a case could be further strengthened from The Didache that where apostles or prophets (perhaps any of the fivefold ministries) claim authority or demand pay for services, they and their ministry should be rejected. (Understand I’m not wanting to supplant all paid ministry or ministers here, just reaching to make a point that the paid versions aren’t always the necessity we often think they are.) In sum, one of the hallmarks of a true Ephesians 4 gifting is a desire to take on a supporting role and not expect remuneration based on the gifting.

Who Serves Whom?

Applied to the church, the fivefold ministries seem fairly clearly given in order to help the church mature, and to serve the body as they serve others. This is a unique and special calling, and to think of onesself as being a gift given to serve a group of people should be humbling in itself. Understand of course that if you are one of these people, you yourself are merely currency, given to be a servant to others. You can put away that phylactory anytime now. Note that without this understanding of being given to a people to serve them, the church will be filled with pastors seeking positions in more prestigious churches, and youth pastors who hope one day to “mature” into “real” pastors who care for adults instead of youth, which are a mere stepping-stone to their ultimate ministry goals.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the fivefold ministries became ruling offices, although the Bible does not equate the two concepts – at least not in Ephesians, and as far as I can see not in the New Testament, or at least not without a few creative constructs of systematic gymnastics. There are “ruling” leaders referenced in the New Testament – these are called “elders” and their specific role will be left for another article… suffice to say for now that the fivefold ministries are not here equated with elders, nor are they charged with leading or ruling the church – just equipping them. The failure to make this separation was perhaps the end of servant leadership and the beginning of the wrongside-up-ing of Kingdom leadership. It should be acknowledged that to say the fivefold ministries are not elders because Paul doesn’t say they are would be an argument from silence and hence not defensible. It would follow though that if elders “rule” or lead the church, an elder may or may not be called to one of the fivefold ministries; one should not be seen to require or preclude the other.

It is noted that I Timothy 5 indicates that elders who rule well are worthy of double honour, especially if they labour in preaching or teaching… which indicates at the least that not all elders did so, and therefore that eldership and the Ephesians 4 gifts are not necessarily equated. This pasage may indicate that some form of stipend is appropriate to a teaching or preaching elder who rules well, but again, this is not equated with Ephesians 4 ministries.

I read an article on church leadership this week where this instruction to Timothy was cited as proof that elders were pastors, but I think that’s a non sequitur unless someone could prove that the Greek word translated “especially” means something wildly different in this passage. Doubtful. I resort to logic – spot the fallacy:

A:  Some elders preach or teach.
B:  All elders are church leaders.
C:  All preachers or teachers are elders.

Clearly, A and B here do not lead to the conclusion of C desite how commonly it may be asserted. Note in each of these statements I’m summarizing, but I think the point is illustrated. To press the point, in many churches it would seem that one could preach or teach without being an elder, but if one were a pastor that isn’t an elder, one might be called a “lay-pastor” as though it were important to point out that one isn’t being paid for his services. In this example, substitute “pastors” for “preachers or teachers”.

Evidence of wrong praxis regarding the understanding of the fivefold ministries is what appears to be an assumption that anyone functioning in these ministries will be on staff with a church somewhere. In most churches, this is limited to pastors, teachers, and evangelists, where observable practice might lead one to conclude that prophets shouldn’t be paid except through “love offerings” to the independent ministry they represent, and apostles should be paid only by missionary agencies or denominational organizations. Fortunately, we are not compelled to take our cues from current practice, as we are at present seeking a correction.

In churches where this form of servant leadership is malfunctioning, the ruling leaders will tend to authorize, condone, bless, or otherwise direct all ministry. Unfortunately the ministry is supposed to be going on around them without their org-chart prowess, and they are meant to be going round to the people doing the works of ministry and asking, “Do you have everything you need for what you’re doing? Can I serve you in any way to facilitate your ministry to others?” The fivefold ministries should therefore have a primarily equipping and releasing function and operate largely as a behind-the-scenes ministry, not a “platform” one (though it would be equally wrong to preclude platform ministry). Unfortunately, the only behind-the-scenes positions normally available for pay in the church are the janitor and maybe the secretary.

Retaining the Fivefold Ministries

Frost and Hirsch (as summarized by Hjalmarson) suggest that every believer has one of the fivefold ministry gifts. Based on my understanding of the difference between types of gifts given by God (Spirit, Christ), I don’t think that the Ephesians 4 gifts are necessarily given to all, unless one understands this more in the sense of the gifts listed in Romans rather than as an calling. If one understands these gifts as serving the church to bring it to maturity as the church serves others, then it would follow that if everyone did this, the church would become ingrown and would cease to grow through contact with the world, which is to be its naturally-functioning state. It may well be that each believer has some measure of one of the fivefold ministries operating in them, but I’m not yet convinced of this.

The appearance of the gift of prophecy in each of the three lists of giftings is instructive. It tells us that the prophetic ministry has many facets to it. While it may be presumed by some that this commonly-listed gift indicates that the three gift-lists could form a single list, I believe that enough differences exist to support the assertion that the three lists are quite different from one another. If the lists were excerpts from a single list, it could be expected that more “overlap” would be stated than in just a single gift. I would suggest that the fact that the prophetic gifts are multi-faceted has led to their misunderstanding in the church, both then and now. In other words, a gift of prophecy that belongs in the Corinthian understanding or the Roman understanding would cause some measure of confusion if expected to function in the Ephesian understanding. This is true at the time these letters were written and remains true today.

I agree that there is a helpful perspective in Frost and Hirsch’s comparison of the fivefold ministries with the grid of organizational and social research, but I would be concerned that their application (as I understand it, second-hand) of this analogy could lead to a view of the fivefold ministries which place emphasis on one or another of these ministries at differing stages in the life of the church. My own view is that all of the fivefold ministries are needed at all times in the life of the church. Placing the necessity of apostles and prophets merely in the establishment phase not only sounds far too similar to the old cessationist position that miraculous gifts are only given until a church is established in a region, but it also deprecates them in the “mature” phases of the church or movement, which helps ensure that the church or movement will become institutionalized rather than remain fresh in the pursuit of the wind of the Spirit. In Hjarlmarson’s apt description, the shift is from “movement to machine.” Problem is, machines don’t think, and they don’t pay attention to the wind of the Spirit. Elsewhere I have outlined a shift from Movement to Monuement to Mausoleum – in keeping with a penchant for alliterated M’s, I suggest that Hjalmarson’s “Machine” is the transition from Movement to Monument. A Movement has good things in it, which become programmed to run on autopilot – a Machine. The Machine, or structure becomes something not to be tinkered with, a Monument. As the life drains out, it becomes a Mausoleum. As I see it, this is a prime reason to avoid becoming a “Movement,” or to at least avoid the kind of thinking that sets a Movement on the course toward Mausoleum. Movements not being inherently bad, the deathly step is the Machinization of a Movement, which firmly establishes the course.


We have seen distinct differences between the three listings of gifts which Paul provides in his letters, such that we view the fivefold ministries of Ephesians 4 as being different than the other gifts. In this context, we see that the fivefold ministries are in some way incarnational in that they are seen in individuals given to serve the church to aid its maturity. These individuals cannot be viewed ipso facto as being in any way entitled to a position of church leadership as an elder, nor be entitled to remuneration for their ministry effort. On the contrary, the hallmark of an Ephesians 4 gifting is service with no expectation of position or payment. The fivefold ministries may therefore function as described by Paul and still sit squarely outside a heirarchical church structure. To press home the point, the fivefold ministries are in no way connected with authority or heirarchy.

Hjalmarson writes,

It seems to me that we have three urgent tasks in the emergent church in relation to the biblical revelation on gifts and authority.. we have to disentangle leadership and authority, we have to disentangle the biblical language about gifting from the cultural mess of modern Christendom, and we have to find a way to embrace the diversity of gifts in the body. If we attempt to do one of these without the other, we will probably slide back into a familiar clerical mode with centralized and positional authority.

I agree with Hjarlmarson here. It is my hope that the disentanglement of gifting, leadership, and authority will not lead to a tossing of the baby along with the bathwater – in other words it continues to be my hope that the fivefold ministries can be maintained in something close to a traditional understanding of them in terms of their gifting, while disentangling them from the “authority tradition” that they have acquired. I can but hope that my thoughts here will assist with such a discussion as it relates to an understanding of the fivefold ministries and how these differ from the charismata of I Corinthians 12 and the Graces of Romans 12. As I have outlined the distinctions, I believe an outwardly-focused church is maintained, and heirarchichal structures are diminished, without losing or gymnastically redefining the fivefold ministries.