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Christ’s body: A brief history (Ephesians 4:11–13)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

And Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to prepare the holy ones, for the work of ministry, for building the body of Christ, until we arrive—all of us—at the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, at the grown-up man, at the measure of maturity, the fulfilment of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11–13

Are you a Roman? That is, are you the kind of person who really cares about organisation, strategy, pragmatics, and getting things done? The Roman Empire was famous for those things. And so the Romans ruled the world (or at least the Mediterranean world). In a very real sense, ‘Romans’ today—I’m now using the word to refer to people who care about organisation and strategy and leadership and management and doing stuff—still rule the world. You’ll go a long way if you’re a Roman. I’m a Roman. I’m an engineer by training. I want things to be organised properly. I want to achieve goals. I want to make it all work. I keep my inbox to zero. I love Craig Hamilton’s brilliant book Wisdom in Leadership,[1] which is full of insights and tips and warnings against common pitfalls for people in ministry teams, all set within a framework of humble gospel-driven wisdom. I highly recommend you read it too. We need more Romans in Christian ministry.

But.

Colosseum

If you’re a Roman, you can have a problem when you read the Bible. Because if you care a lot about organisation, strategy, and leadership, then you can end up reading the Bible entirely through the lens of those particular concerns. You can start to believe that the most important questions in the world are pragmatic questions. And so you can assume that the Bible is written to give you answers to those questions. So, for example, you can end up reading passages describing the church and ministry as if they’re extracts from a handbook designed to answer Roman-style questions: Who’s in charge? What does the organisational chart look like? What are the various offices and what exactly do they do? What’s the division of labour? Who are the support staff? Who is supposed to do evangelism? What are the other tasks that need to be achieved? How can we efficiently and effectively deploy our gospel soldiers in their various fields? What are the key strategies to employ?

These are all significant questions for Christian ministry. But by and large, the Bible doesn’t often provide direct answers to these questions. In fact, you might have noticed that when a Bible passage does look like it’s about to start answering these questions explicitly, the answers seem a bit obscure, or tantalisingly brief, or even contradictory. That’s because most Bible passages aren’t actually written to answer our ‘Roman’ questions. Of course, the Bible is always very relevant to our pragmatic questions. The Bible tells us about God and his purposes for his world and for us. The Bible gives us foundational truths that must shape every decision we make about church and ministry life. But that doesn’t mean that every Bible passage we come across is written to answer our specific organisational and pragmatic questions.

I think this is the case here in Ephesians 4:11–13. These verses (especially verses 11–12) are sometimes seen as a direct answer to some of the Roman-style organisational questions I’ve mentioned above. For example, it’s seen as a specification for how the church’s various ‘offices’ should be structured. Or it’s seen as a blueprint for the way leadership teams with varied gifts can work together to mobilise Christians for their various roles in church. But I don’t think Paul is trying directly to answer those questions here. Rather, in this passage, Paul is deliberately and explicitly referring back to things he’s already said in Ephesians. So far in Ephesians, Paul has said some incredibly important and mind-blowing things about God and Christ and mission and the truth of the gospel and the preaching of the gospel. But he hasn’t said much at all about detailed structures and pragmatics. I think the same is true here in Ephesians 4:11–13. These verses are more about what the risen Christ has done in the history of gospel mission than about how we’re supposed to organise ourselves. (If you want to read more on why I think this is the case you can check it out in more detail in what I’ve written elsewhere).[2] Here, I just want to outline what I think these verses actually say. And I want to show you that even though this passage doesn’t necessarily answer our Roman questions, it is still highly relevant to our Christian life and ministry.

The gifts of the ascended-and-descended Christ

Verse 11 says:

And Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers

Ephesians 4:11

The most important part of this verse is the subject: Christ himself. What has Paul said about Christ just prior to these verses? He’s said that Christ is a rich and generous giver, who has given various gifts to his people (verse 7). Remember, Christ is also the one who ascended and descended (verses 8–10). Christ ascended to heaven after he rose from the dead, which shows that he is victorious and powerful. And then, Christ descended, in the person of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost. When Christ descended at Pentecost, he gave gifts. Notice that Paul says “he gave”, not “he gives”: Paul is describing something that happened, not (at this point) prescribing what must keep happening today.

This God

What are the gifts that Christ gave? The gifts are actually people: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers”. Paul isn’t just talking here about any generic “apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc.”. He’s talking about particular people: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” Paul has already mentioned the apostles and prophets earlier in his letter (Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5). These people formed the nucleus of the early Israelite believing community. The apostles were the foundational witnesses to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We read a lot about them in Acts. The teaching of the apostles was the basis for the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Several of them became leaders in the mission itself as it went out from Israel to the nations. In Acts, the “prophets” were people who assisted and extended that Jerusalem-centred mission of the gospel. The evangelists and the teachers also play a key role in Acts. Philip, “the evangelist” (Acts 21:8) is an example of someone who preached the gospel to various people in Judea and Samaria (see Acts 8). There were also “teachers” who were working alongside “prophets” (Acts 13:1). “Pastors” aren’t mentioned by name within the early apostolic community, but Paul here in Ephesians associates them closely with teachers.

So Paul is here talking specifically about certain people with a key role in the early Israelite believing community. Why did Christ give these people to this community? Not so they could sit around enjoying their leadership status, but so they could do a job. What job? Paul doesn’t give us a detailed job description for each of these people. But he does tell us what they were all working together to do:

to prepare the holy ones

Ephesians 4:12a

OK, so who are “the holy ones”? Although elsewhere Paul says that all believers are “holy” (e.g. Ephesians 1:1), at this point and in this context, “the holy ones” is referring to the original Israelite community centred on the apostles in Jerusalem (see my note on Ephesians 2:19; see also e.g. Romans 15:25–26, 31; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12). But these original “holy ones” weren’t just supposed to sit around being holy in Jerusalem. They were being “prepared” for something; that is, they were being made ready and fit for some greater purpose.

What was that purpose?

People and the Post, Postal History from the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

The purpose of the holy ones

The holy ones were being prepared

for the work of ministry, for building the body of Christ

Ephesians 4:12b

Given what Paul has already said in Ephesians, the “work of ministry” must be referring to the mission of preaching the gospel to the nations. After all, that’s what Paul was talking about when he called himself a “minister” in Ephesians 3:7: “I became a minister of the gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that he gave to me… to preach to the gentiles the gospel”. There’s a common idea that the word “ministry” means “humble service”. Because of this idea, some translations even change the singular phrase “work of ministry” to the plural phrase “works of service” (e.g. the NIV). This makes it sound as if Paul is talking here about all sorts of different ways of serving one another, and implies that the apostles, etc., were service-facilitators of some sort. But this isn’t a right way of understanding the word. Of course, Paul does talk about varied kinds of service in other places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12). But that’s not what the word “ministry” means here. It actually means bringing God’s word—the gospel—to the world. And that is the reason the holy ones were being prepared. (If you want to know more detail about why the word “ministry” means bringing God’s word and not “humble service” or “works of service”, then you might like to check out what I’ve written elsewhere).[3]

Does this mean that every individual in the early Israelite believing community was an evangelist? Are we to assume that they all individually ran off and preached the gospel to the ends of the earth, and nothing else? Paul doesn’t answer that question here, because it’s not a question he’s directly interested in. It’s another one of those ‘Roman’ questions about organisation and strategy. But given what we read in Acts, it’s unlikely that this is how it worked. It’s more likely that each individual played a different role in the mission at different times: praying, encouraging, caring, teaching, supporting, preaching, etc. But the point Paul is making here is that “the work of ministry” was the purpose they as group, collectively, were being prepared for. They may have had different roles, but their corporate role in God’s purposes was to be the people from whom the gospel went out to the world.

The work of ministry is all for the sake of “the building of the body of Christ”. Again, given what Paul has already said in Ephesians, this must be about growing Christ’s people through preaching the gospel. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul used “the body” to refer to the church, the fulfilment of God’s cosmic purposes in Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23). A little later, he said that “the body” comes about through Jesus’ death on the cross and through the preaching of the gospel. Christ’s purpose was “to reconcile both [Jew and Gentile] in one body to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16), and then Christ “came and preached the gospel” to both Jewish and Gentile hearers (Ephesians 2:17). In this way, believers are “built”, in various ways and places, into a dwelling-place for God (Ephesians 2:20–22).

The goal of the whole body

In verse 13, Paul moves on to describe the vision and goal of this body-building work: it’s to happen

until we arrive—all of us—at the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, at the grown-up man, at the measure of maturity, the fulfilment of Christ.

Ephesians 4:13

This is the point where Paul begins to refer directly to the situation of his readers. Before this point, he’s been speaking in the past tense (“he gave”); now he starts to look to the future (“until”). Before this point, he’s been talking about other people (“the apostles, the prophets,… the holy ones”); now he starts talking directly about his readers (“we… all of us”). Before this point, he’s been talking about what Christ did; now he starts to talk about what Christ is doing and how his readers are involved. So this is the point where we can see ourselves more directly involved in what Paul is saying.

What is he saying? He’s talking about what Christ’s body should look like. He’s not talking in terms of how Christ’s body should be organised, or who’s in charge, or what the various roles should be. Rather, he gives us a vision and goal of unity, maturity, and fulfilment. This is what should happen as the body is built through the preaching of the gospel. The “unity” Paul is talking about is a unity in “the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God”. As the gospel is preached, as people believe that gospel, as they come to understand it more and more and come to know Jesus himself more and more, the body becomes united. This is Paul’s vision (it’s Jesus’ vision too! See John chapters 14–17). And significantly, it isn’t just something for the original “holy ones” in Israel; it’s something for all of us, Jewish and gentile, as we hear the truth of the gospel and respond to it in faith and grow together in loving and knowing Jesus Christ more and more.

In this way, the body becomes a grown-up adult. In other words, Paul’s vision for Christ’s body isn’t just of a body made up of gentiles who have only heard the basics of the gospel, centred around a core group of Jewish “holy ones” who heard it first and so know it really well. He sees Christ’s body as made up of people who all know more and more about Christ and who care deeply about him and his church and work together for the good of us all. This is the measure of maturity—in fact, it is the “fulfilment of Christ” with all the heavenly and cosmic implications that Paul has spelled out in Ephesians 1:20–23.

Sun over city

What does that mean for us?

So how do we apply this passage to our own situation and our own ministries?

Clearly, we should apply verse 13 (and the following verses) quite directly to ourselves. That’s because verse 13 is the point where Paul starts talking about “all of us” and describes what the mature body of Christ should look like. This verse tells us that our churches should be places where we are aiming for maturity—together. Yes, it’s true that the gospel has a wonderful simplicity, and so it’s something even a child can understand and respond to. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for everyone in our churches having an infantile faith. The gospel also has huge, multidimensional implications for our lives and for the world. So we should be aiming to grow up, to know Christ more and more, together—in different ways, and in love for one another. In the following verses, Paul talks more about what this should look like, with key phrases like “speaking the truth in love”. We’ll see more of this when we come to these verses in future posts.

Does that mean verses 11–12 don’t apply to us at all today? Of course they apply to us. But because they’re primarily describing what Christ did rather than prescribing what we must do, they apply to us in a different way (much like the book of Acts applies to us today). There are very important things to learn from the description of the early Israelite believing community in verses 11–12.

Firstly, these verses reinforce the fact that Christ is a rich and generous giver, who gives his people what they need to live for him and serve his purposes. Secondly, they tell us that one of the things Christ gives is people. Here, Paul is talking specifically about key people in the early Israelite believing community. But in various other places in the New Testament, we can read about key people in other Christian communities who have similar roles—especially when it comes to evangelists and pastors and teachers. In Acts 20, for example, we read about the Ephesian elders whom Paul urges to follow his example in “teaching” (Acts 20:20) and “pastoring” the “flock” (Acts 20:28–29). In 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Since there were clearly roles for certain people in various early Christian communities that look similar to the later parts of this list in Ephesians 4:11, it makes sense to assume that part of their job was to do similar things for their own Christian communities.

What things? The task of the people in Ephesians 4:11 was to work together to prepare their entire Christian community for the purpose of seeing the gospel go out to the nations (Ephesians 4:12). And since the gospel still needs to go to people in our world today, we can conclude that preparing people to see the gospel proclaimed is a significant role for church leaders today as well. In other words, we should apply Ephesians 4:11–12 in a similar way to the way we apply the descriptions we find in Acts.

But we can’t go so far as to insist that Ephesians 4:11–12 (or Acts, for that matter) is giving us a detailed blueprint with a set structure for how our churches must be organised today. Some people do, in fact, do this: they treat verse 11 as a direct blueprint for today, and insist that we must replicate all of the “offices” described here, including apostles and prophets. This is called “fivefold ministry teaching” and it is central to what has become known as the “New Apostolic Reformation”. But this is simply not what Paul is saying here. He’s describing what Christ did, not giving us instructions for what we must do today. If we start to treat this passage as a blueprint with instructions for today, we can end up (wrongly) using God’s word to back up our own human inventions and authority structures, with (unsurprisingly) disastrous results.

Sometimes, people take these verses more as a loose schematic for what Christian ministry should look like: a leadership team with people having different responsibilities working together to enable various kinds of service in the church. Now, of course, as we’ve seen from other places in the New Testament, Christ did continue to provide for his people through leaders (often called “elders” or “overseers”). And in other parts of the Bible, we see examples of what we might call “team ministry”. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he has quite a lot to say about the way he worked with various people in ministry teams (e.g. Romans 16:1–16). In Philippians, Paul talks about how the church is working with him in his gospel ministry (e.g. Philippians 1). So we can see more generally from the Bible that ministry leadership does very often happen in teams of people with different gifts, and this ministry does involve equipping and training others for sharing the gospel and loving one another. And so it may well be right and wise, under God and in light of his word, to do the same. However, we need to remember that this is not the primary purpose for what Paul is saying here in Ephesians 4:11–12. And so we need to be careful about loading all of our godly wisdom about church structure into this one verse, as if this verse is giving us a detailed blueprint that is the key to everything else (which it isn’t). The point about team ministry is important, but it doesn’t come just from Ephesians 4:11–12. It comes from reading the whole Bible in light of God’s purposes and plans.

Colosseum with cross-shaped clouds

And of course, in all of this, we must not miss what this passage is telling us directly. Paul is saying some incredibly important things here about God and his work in the world. The risen Christ fulfils his purposes by ensuring his word goes out to the world through his people, and so building his body. These things are all very relevant to our own questions about how to organise ourselves, aren’t they? And yet, let’s not just get caught up in how to organise ourselves. We need to keep ensuring we are seeking to understand what God’s word is actually saying first before we start asking our own questions. Then, once we see what God cares about most of all, we will come to love what God loves. And then, when we ask our own questions, we will be able to apply godly wisdom to them, based in the things that matter to God.

This will help to answer many of our “Roman” questions. But it will also help us to remember that our pragmatic “Roman” questions aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. Pragmatics matter. But when it comes to ministry, we need far more than pragmatics. We need theology. Theology is what the Bible is for. So we need to keep reading the Bible for the sake of theology—that is, knowing God and his purposes—and applying that theology to every situation in our lives.

For reflection

What have you learnt from this passage (and from other parts of Ephesians) about the things that God cares about most?

How does understanding what God cares about help you as you face your own questions about Christian life and ministry?


[1] Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership: The How and Why of Leading the People You Serve (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2015).

[2] Lionel J. Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (NTAS; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), pp. 188–194.

[3] Lionel J. Windsor, “The Work of Ministry in Ephesians 4:12.” Pages 1–25 in “Tend My Sheep”: The Word of God and Pastoral Ministry (Keith G. Condie, ed.; London: Latimer Trust, 2016).

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Want more?

This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

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