Government & Ministry in the Early Church (pt3)

Specialist ministries, the balance between ministries in government, and Conclusions.

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Ephesians 4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (or pastor-teachers), often referred to as the ‘ministry gifts’. 1 Corinthians 12:28 is a more generalised list, omitting evangelists and pastors, but emphasisising apostles, prophets and teachers, in that order, and adding miracles, gifts of healings, helpers, governments and tongues.

6.1 Prophets

The first mention of prophets in the church is Acts 11:27-8, when they come to Antioch from Jerusalem and one, Agabus, foretells famine in Judaea (he also foretells Paul’s imprisonment in Acts 21:10). Prophets were not necessarily itinerant: Paul received prophecies in every city en route to Jerusalem (Acts 20:23), suggesting they were resident in most churches.

Some prophets had governmental authority, such as those leading the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). Judas and Silas, sent to Antioch with the letter about circumcision, were also prophets (Acts 15:32). The apostles Peter (Acts 5:1-10, 10:9-20), Paul (1 Cor 15:51-2) and John (Rev 1:1-22:21) all exhibited prophetic ministries; as did Stephen (Acts 7:55-6).

Note that 1 Cor 12:8-11 & 28-29 gives two distinctive lists: the first describes particular ‘manifestations’ of supernatural spiritual gifts, given at will by the Spirit: the second describes people’s ministry in the church and includes more natural abilities such as administration. An occasional manifestation of a prophetic gift is not proof of prophetic ministry (e.g. 1 Sam 19:20-24); consequently it is uncertain what proportion of those exercising gifts of prophecy would have been recognised as prophets. Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9); but they were not described as prophets.

6.2 Evangelists

Philip, originally one of the seven, became actively engaged in evangelism, with a ministry of signs and wonders, following the scattering of the Jerusalem church under Saul’s persecution (Acts 8:4-40). He appears to have settled at Caesarea (Acts 8:40 & 21:8) and was known as ‘Philip the evangelist’.

Timothy is urged by Paul to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim 4:5). Although these are the only ones known by name, it is evident that there were many others with a similar ministry, many of whom do not appear to have held any governmental position (Acts 8:4, 11:19-21).

Clearly Paul’s own ministry was no less evangelistic than Philip’s: but Philip was apparently weaker on follow-up ministry, needing apostolic input, for example, to bring his Samaritan converts through to a proper experience of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-7). Philip does not appear to have risen above the governmental rank of deacon; but having no other examples to go on, we cannot say if this was typical.

6.3 Pastors

Attributes of pastors have already been discussed above under ‘elders’. However, the fact that Paul uses separate words for pastor and teacher in Eph 4:11 indicates that, in this context he is thinking of the pastoral aspect primarily in terms of caring and government. Clearly elders had a pastoral ministry: so also, in the caring sense at least, did some deacons such as Stephen, Phebe and Epaphras (Acts 6:8-10, Rom 16:1, Col 4:12-3).

But since the term only appears once, and it is often unclear if people were deacons or not, we cannot be sure if there were any who had a recognised pastoral ministry but no governmental authority. Such a lack would inevitably have limited the scope of such a ministry; but Dorcas (Acts 9:36) or Onesiphorus (1 Tim 1:16-8) might warrant consideration.

6.4 Teachers

The ministry of teaching figures prominently in Acts (Acts 4:2,18, 5:21-8,42, 11:26, 15:35, 18:11, 20:20, 21:21,28, 28:31). The apostles initially appointed the seven in order that they might not be distracted from what they saw as being their primary ministry, namely ‘prayer, and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:2,4). The prophets and teachers at Antioch were likewise devoting themselves to prayer when they were directed to send out Paul and Barnabus (Acts 13:1-3).

This last reference is the only use of the title ‘teacher’ in Acts; but Paul applies it to himself in 1 Tim 2:7 & 2 Tim 1:11, as well as listing it in 1 Cor 12:28 & Eph 4:11. We have already noted that all elders had to have teaching ability: but some had a particular ministry in this area. The deacon Stephen (Acts 6:9-10, 7:2-53) also displayed a strong teaching gift.

Apollos was an itinerant teacher and ‘mighty in the scriptures’ even before his conversion (Acts 18:24). He may have later been appointed as a deacon; but the use of the term in 1 Cor 3:5 appears primarily figurative. Timothy was urged to ‘Study to show yourself approved unto God .. rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15). The writer to the Hebrews appeared to think that all Christians ought to be teachers (Heb 5:12)!


7.1 Apostles and Apostolic Delegates

In looking at the N.T. structure, it has been seen that examples of all the above ministries, including that of evangelist, are found amongst the apostles. This is to be expected, since their work of establishing the early church necessitated that they be capable of functioning in every area until such time as men were raised up under them to whom they could delegate. Their priority, however, was ‘prayer and ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4).

The same appears to be true of the apostolic delegates, although they may well have been selected with a view to their specific ministries and the nature of the task to be done (cf. Acts 4:36,11:22-4, 15:27,32).

7.2 Deacons

It is not clear whether the term ‘deacon’ is properly applied only to those who were attached to a specific church. Even after leaving Jerusalem, Philip the evangelist was still described in Acts 21:8 as ‘being one of the seven.’

The specialist nature of a deacons’ service would naturally tend towards a diversity of ministry. Even among Stephen, Philip, Phebe and Epaphras, there is evidence of each of the above ministries. If the definition were extended to embrace trans-local ministries this diversity would probably be even more apparent.

7.3 Elders

It is clear that the elders’ primary function of ‘shepherding’ placed particular emphasis on pastoral and teaching gifts (1 Tim 5:17). But although there is no example of an ‘elder-evangelist’ there is no real reason to suppose that elders could not exercise such a ministry.

However, bearing in mind the apparent importance attached by Paul to prophets and teachers in 1 Cor 12:28, it is worth noting the relative balance of these ministries in the Jerusalem and Antioch churches and the apparent consequences.

7.3.1 Antioch

As already noted, the Antioch church appears to have been run by men who were noted for their prophetic and teaching ministries. The church was characterised by a very outward-looking ministry, which owed much to prophetic input both on the practical and spiritual levels (Acts 13:1-3 & 11:27-30). As a result it became the focus of early efforts to evangelise the Graeco-Roman world.

It also demonstrated an uncompromising adherence to the doctrine that the grace of God had freed us from servitude to the law: but without ever denying the essential heritage of Jewish believers (Acts 18:18, 20:16, Rom 3:1-3). This was especially due to Paul’s influence.

On the pastoral side, both Barnabus and Paul had proven ability; and in their absence it is likely that there were others available to assume these responsibilities.

7.3.2 Jerusalem

In the early days the influence of the apostles gave the Jerusalem church a strong teaching and prophetic input; and Jerusalem was the effective centre of outreach for the church. This influence appears to have diminished as the twelve gradually relinquished local responsibility to the eldership. For Jewish Christians, including Paul, Jerusalem retained its importance: but its impact on Gentile Christianity declined following resolution of the circumcision issue; and indeed was not always entirely helpful.

Doctrinally, it seems that the church had not fully extricated itself from the hangover of Jewish exclusivism. Thus, when Peter was in Antioch and visitors came from James he felt it necessary to stop eating with Gentile Christians in order not to offend the newcomers; forcing Paul to deliver a public rebuke (Gal 2:11-6).

When Paul returns to Jerusalem for the last time, the elders appear wholly concerned with pastoral matters; namely the response of the Christian Jews to news of Paul’s arrival (Acts 21:20-2).

Prophetically, there seems to have been a lack. Paul received testimony to his forthcoming imprisonment in every city en route to Jerusalem (Acts 20:23, 21:4,10-4): but not here. His arrest was probably unavoidable; but, considering the increased risk of recognition to which the elders’ proposed high-profile course of action exposed him, the lack of discussion of his own danger suggests that the elders were unaware of what the Spirit had been saying (Acts 21:20-4).


8.1 The Need for Translocal Ministries

Although many new churches in Acts were founded without prior reference to the apostles, they were subsequently placed under the apostles’ authority and direction. We only hear of one church where this was not so: and it was not a healthy situation (3John 1:9-10).

In many parts of the church there is still the idea that apostles died out with the end of the N.T. era. Sadly, that was all too true: but the evidence discussed above indicates that it should not have been so. The need for recognised translocal ministries is if anything greater now than it has ever been; in order to prevent fragmentation in the church and develop a common vision and purpose.

Perhaps the problem is that we have too exalted a picture of apostles, and so fear the ‘conceit’ of calling someone by that title. But it is the function rather than the title that matters: whatever we call them, we need them.

Nor should we forget that not all translocal ministries were apostles. Far too often church structures make inadequate provision for the support of ‘shared’ ministries: and as a result people with potentially valuable ministries remain frustrated in their local situations while the church at large suffers.

8.2 The Value of Team Ministry

From the earliest days, when Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, the lone worker was the exception rather than the rule. As already noted, there were normally a number of elders in each church. Even when Paul separated from Barnabus he seldom travelled alone. It did of course happen that circumstances and stretched resources would result in individuals being left alone for a time to carry on some venture for the Lord: but such situations were not allowed to persist longer than necessary.

It was recognised that few individuals had a sufficiently ‘all-round’ ministry to handle all eventualities alone; and that in any case they still needed support, encouragement and even correction. Neglect of this principle meant risking shortcomings in the resulting work (Acts 8:14-7), discouragement (Col 4:14-8) or conceit (3John 1:9-10).

8.3 Balance in the Local Eldership

It appears that pastoral, teaching and prophetic ministries figured most prominently in local church leadership. Each elder was expected to meet certain basic requirements in respect of teaching aptitude and availability to other people; but they were not necessarily expected to excel in every area.

It was considered especially important that an eldership should include those with rulership and teaching abilities: but there is also evidence to suggest that the inclusion of prophetic ministries imparted a greater sense of vision and direction. Thus the ‘ideal’ eldership would be one which incorporated all three.

8.4 ‘Open’ Leadership

There are many Christians today who look back with horror at memories of ‘church meetings’ where everybody tried to run the church at once, and the most vociferous usually got their way. However, there has in some cases been an over-reaction in the direction of decisions being taken by ‘the leadership’ and handed down from above with little or no prior consultation or subsequent explanation.

It is certainly the case that pastoral issues concerning individuals should only be made known to the church as a last resort (Mt 18:15-7, 1 Tim 5:19). Clearly also, when God initiates an action by direct revelation to the leaders, there is nothing for them to do but get on with it (Acts 13:1-3).

However, when issues arose within or without the church that impinged on all the membership, the N.T. pattern was to give opportunity to the members to present their views, normally in an open meeting (Acts 6:2, 15:4, 21:22). The final say in the matter was kept firmly in the hands of the leadership, meeting in private if necessary (Acts 15:6), but it was clearly seen to have been a decision of the entire church (Acts 6:5-6, 15:22).

The merit of this approach is threefold. Firstly, it gives greater scope for those possessing ministry gifts but no governmental office to bring their input to the situation. Secondly, it helps believers to see that their views and feelings are important to the church as a whole and, thirdly, that as all have participated in the decision all should participate in ensuring its success.

Naturally, as can be seen in the examples cited, this did entail a certain amount of airing of dirty linen: but the end result was unity due to corporate acceptance of the proposed solution, rather than discontent left to simmer under the surface.

8.5 The Need for Flexibility

Although it is relatively easy to identify those who were apostles, and to establish the basic qualifications for elders and deacons, there are a great many grey areas where it is difficult to say with certainty what official position certain individuals held or precisely what was required of people in a particular office.

Firstly, there is the uncertainty as to who were deacons and who were not. In one sense, ‘deacon’ meant those with a limited authority delegated to them by the local elders or apostles; in another it embraces all who serve in the church, from apostles downwards. This uncertainty is compounded by the position of the apostolic delegates; seemingly neither apostles nor elders themselves, yet in some cases empowered to appoint elders.

The other area of uncertainty is concerning the degree of overlap between ministries and governmental office in the church. Except for that of apostle, no ministry appears inextricably tied to any one office. Prophets and teachers, for example, could be itinerant or local, and might hold no office or even be apostles.

Thus it is unwise to over-compartmentalize definitions of specific ministries or offices. The church is a living organism composed of unique individuals, and each local expression will have a different mix of ministries at differing levels of spiritual maturity. Our primary concern should not be the allocation of rank or titles, but the effective working together of all the local members.

It should also be noted that the N.T. structure had not previously been laid down in tablets of stone; but evolved to meet the requirements of the church. To misquote Mk 2:27: ‘The structure was made for the church: not the church for the structure.’ Although the pattern of apostles, elders and deacons became almost universal, it should be realised that each church developed at an appropriate pace; with elders not being appointed until they were judged ready for it.

Thus we should never rush into the appointment of officers simply to conform to what we see as ‘the scriptural pattern.’ Rather, we should concentrate upon the preparedness of churches and individuals to adopt such structures; or even the advisability of adapting the structure to fit the specific circumstances.

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2 thoughts on “Government & Ministry in the Early Church (pt3)

  1. Kevin,
    You discussion of church structure and the studies on individual “titles” / “roles” is precise and helpful, an overall lack of the role of the Holy Spirit is missing. One of the ways St Paul came at the discussion of the assembly of believers is through the language of the “body of Christ.” Some might call this a metaphor. I suggest that it is the actual organism or relational image that is closest to a relational trinitarianism and human relational understanding. That is, the Spirit performs the function of informing, sensitizing, and providing discernment throughout the body as to the needs and ministries required for the Service of Christ. The body “hears” the Spirit through it’s worship and prayer together. In this way the functions of leadership are fluid and structured based on ministry first and “leadership” second. I have found Emil Brunner’s book “The Misunderstanding of the Church” very helpful in this overall regard for the work of the Spirit and the “organism” nature of the body of Christ.

    Thank you for your time and energy in pursuing this discussion of leadership in the Church. It a lost subject and has dissipated the power of the ministry of the church as a witness to Jesus. Much more needs to be said about this.

    • Hi, Paul!

      Thanks for your encouraging remarks. Yes, on reviewing this article, it can be said that there is a lack of discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit: but this was simply because this particular study arose from discussions between folk for whom the absolute centrality of the Holy Spirit was never in doubt. I would have liked to have responded sooner (and at more length) but for the current crisis, which has taken up much of my time for the last week or so. However, every time I sat down to write a response I found myself unsatisfied with what I had written.

      I finally realised that I was being too theological; attempting to discuss the relative merits of the various images that illustrate the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. By doing that, I was interposing my own understanding of the Holy Spirit between Him and us; pushing Him into the background as someone who needs to be explained by me, rather than elevating Him as the one who reveals God to us, and us both to ourselves and to God. Such an error tends to leave us focussed on the level of our understanding rather than our sensitivity and obedience to His promptings.

      When Jesus ascended, he left Peter (and the rest of us) the task of caring for and loving one another (Jn 21:15-17 & Jn 13:34-35): but he appointed the Holy Spirit as His personal representative, to be in charge and to empower us for witness (Jn 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-8). Peter and the early church clearly recognised this (Acts 10:19-21; Acts 10:44-47; Acts 13:2-3; Acts 15:8; Acts 16:6-10. Also 1Cor 12:11).

      The images of the church as the Body of Christ (1Cor 12:12-27) and a temple of living stones (Eph 2:19-22. 1Pet 2:4-5) are especially useful in showing how we are meant to relate to one another and to God. That of the bride of Christ (Eph 5:22-33) highlights how we should feel and respond towards Jesus and how He feels about us. But in all of these the church is portrayed as an as-yet unfinished work, growing and developing under the direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

      But if we really want to understand Jesus’ perspective on this, I think we need to focus on his own most commonly-used descriptions. The most prominent of these is, ‘The Kingdom of God;’ which is a recurrent theme in many of his parables. These present the view of an as-yet unseen kingdom that is even now growing in the earth while it awaits the return of its appointed king, Jesus. Any kingdom is a very diverse entity, comprising many different people engaged in many different pursuits, but all united by one common factor — their devotion and obedience to their king. But therein lies our problem. As A.W. Tozer described it…

      The present position of Christ in the gospel churches may be likened to that of a king in a limited, constitutional monarchy. The king … is in such a country no more than a traditional rallying point, a pleasant symbol of unity much like a flag or a national anthem. He is lauded, feted and applauded, but his real authority is small. Nominally he is head over all, but in every crisis someone else makes the decisions. (A.W. Tozer in his leaflet, ‘The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches.’)

      Tozer points to the manner in which we have placed custom and intellectual interpretation above simple obedience to the commands of Jesus, as found in his Word. I would add to that the manner in which we have downplayed the importance of listening for, and following, the directions of Jesus’ own appointed regent, the Holy Spirit.

      Jesus’ other major descriptive image of the church is that of the Shepherd and his flock (Jn 10:1-30). That one flock, comprised of all those who know his voice and follow him (Jn 10:27), does not consist of Jews only but reaches out to all the world (Jn 10:16). A mere handful in Jesus’ own days on earth, they were destined to be the inheritors of the kingdom (Lk 12:32). But note that Jesus promised Peter, ‘I will build my church.’ He never promised to build Peter’s church, your church, my church or even our churches — only his church. And the ultimate authority for determining who qualifies for membership of that church — though always based on Peter’s faith profession, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,’ (Mt 16:16) — rests not with Peter or his successors, but the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:16-17). Whenever we lose sight of whose church it is that we are supposed to be building, we end up dethroning Jesus and mutilating his beloved.


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