I recently preached through Ephesians and stressed a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers’ understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.
In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.
Verse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:
- Pastors; and
We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.
Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)
The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God. While there’s a temptation to say, “now my relationship with God is reconciled, I’m set,” Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other.
It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described in Ephesians 4, but without establishing credibility in a local congregation, there’ll be very few, or zero, opportunities to exercise that gift. Occasionally, Christians attend a church for a long time but choose not to place membership. The downside to this is that when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they create uncertainty about their commitment to unity.
Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult for leaders to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when they don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.
While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that Ephesians was written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted. The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various pressures they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptized in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.
While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of their local church family.