The “5-fold ministry” is a philosophy of Christian church structure and administration constructed using 3 Bible verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:11-13). In these verses, there are 5 specific spiritual gifts (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher) identified as having the unique ability to “equip” members of the Church; meaning they all play roles in helping the Church to fulfill its role in the world.
The philosophy behind this concept is the thinking that because these specific gifts have this unique ability, they’re important to have functioning in every church. If churches would embrace them and allow them to function as they were designed to, they would be mature, healthy and fit to grow.
This concept is most certainly not accepted by all Christians. Some Christian traditions fully embrace it. Some view it as a historical model that’s not relevant today. Some embrace the underlying principles and modernize it. Still others are critical of it.
Where it began
When understanding biblical doctrines, finding out where they began and why can shed a lot of light on them. In the case of this one, is this idea really what the author meant when he was writing those three verses? Does this idea jive with the rest of the biblical story and the themes that are purposefully interwoven throughout?
As far as we know, this began in 1824 when a Presbyterian pastor named Edward Irving had an idea for how the Church could better fulfill its mission in the world (and usher in the “Millennial Kingdom of Christ”).
He began teaching that these 5 unique gifts had stopped operating as they should and needed to be restored in order for this to happen. Out of this, a new denomination was born (the Catholic Apostolic Church).
In his blog post “Rethinking the Five-Fold Ministry,” best-selling Christian author Frank Viola points out that…
The doctrine of the restoration of “the five-fold ministry” is over 180 years old. And it’s been repackaged from movement to movement.
To me, Frank’s point is that this concept is simply a fad; a misguided model based upon man’s own strategic ideas for growing the church, and brings many concerns.
Here I list 6 that come to mind…
Concern 1: The gifts mentioned are usually treated as offices
Proponents of the “5 fold ministry” tend to treat the gifts that Paul mentions in Ephesians as offices to slide people in and out of. They set up the offices and then insert people into them to perform the job description of that office.
They think if you have people in place performing the model’s job functions, then you’re executing the leadership model the right way and it will lead to healthy church life.
The problem is nowhere in the Bible will you find it to be the expressed will of God that communities of His people have offices that people hold like they do in the world’s system. While this did happen with the judges, priests and kings of Israel, it was not God’s ideal or desire for them to do so.
His desire has always remained the same from the beginning – that humanity would rule as co-equal partners together with Him. God wanted Israel to be a kingdom OF priests, not a kingdom WITH priests. Jesus made that a reality that the Church is called to live out.
The “Apostle” Paul?
Some mistakenly believe that Paul called himself “the Apostle Paul.” He did not. He addressed his letters as “Paul, an apostle…” The word order matters immensely. Paul wanted to communicate the specific function he was performing and not an office he held.
He had a grace from God to be effective at traveling, bringing people to the Lord, unveiling God’s eternal purpose and training them to be built together in Kingdom community.
The problem (one among many) with treating gifts as offices is sliding someone into an office doesn’t make them the kind of person that can function proficiently within it. This creates all sorts of problems.
The gifts Paul mentions are people, not offices. They are what people BECOME as they grow up into Christ from being a part of healthy church life. It’s like saying you have a PhD in Mathematics. You’ve done the work. You’ve put in the time. You’ve shown you’re proficient.
This takes us into concern #2…
Concern 2: The gifts mentioned are usually deployed prematurely
Whether or not the gifts are treated as offices, churches have a tendency to have people do things they’re not ready for. This is typically because they want to accomplish some goal they believe the Lord has given them vision for. A noble task.
And to accomplish that goal, they believe they need all the pieces and parts (these gifts) functioning to do so.
The problem is this ignores the PROCESS of how God builds His Church. The way Christ (and therefore his gifts) are formed in a church is similar to how a human body develops. At the beginning, there are no parts. There is just a fertilized seed.
Then as time goes on, formation happens. First the spine, then the brain, then organs, muscles, the skeleton and eventually arms, legs and others parts. The body is growing by the life inside of it. See the correlation?
What happens when you try to use a non-existent or underdeveloped body part prematurely? It can’t function the way it’s designed or needed to function.
Calling, preparing, sending
There’s a process you find the Lord uses of calling, preparing and sending. The Lord himself went through it. He was called from all eternity. He was prepared for 30 years. He was sent at his baptism.
Paul himself went through the same process. He was called on the road to Damascus. He was prepared for most of his life and then for 3 years in a church in the Arabian desert after his conversion. He was sent when Barnabas went to find him and bring him to Antioch to be a part of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles.
A big problem in churches is skipping the preparation stage. We go right from calling to sending, with maybe a few years of theological higher education in between. This is getting church leadership backwards and represents a significant misstep that many churches unwittingly take today.
For a church to thrive authentically, the fundamental understanding of embodying Christ’s Body and Family must take precedence. Introducing discussions about or establishing church leaders before mastering this foundational aspect poses inherent risks.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common in churches globally. Individuals are prematurely acknowledged or labeled as “leaders,” despite having limited exposure to or inclination for Kingdom leadership.
Genuine leaders, akin to the model set by Jesus, emerge organically through the immersive experience of New Testament Body/Family Life over time. Recognizing such leaders is a natural outcome, but attempting to reverse this process proves ineffective.
How formed are the people that are equipping a church?
This takes us into concern #3…
Concern 3: The gifts mentioned aren’t usually developed in the right environment
Any organic development requires certain environmental conditions to be present for that development to take place. A tomato plant needs nutrient-dense soil, adequate water and abundant sunlight for the life inside of it to flourish. The conditions determine its growth and development.
If they aren’t quite right, it affects the manifestation of the life inside of it. The plant either won’t grow to its full potential or die altogether.
Every spiritual gift is a unique manifestation of the Life (ability and character) of Christ. Their conditions determine their potential. The better the conditions, the more that person will grow and develop into their gifting.
But, we have largely abandoned those conditions; namely, close-knit healthy spiritual community of mutually submissive brothers and sisters learning to live by divine life. We’ve traded these conditions for more convenient, compartmentalized ways of living the Christian life in pseudo-community.
Where has this left us? We have little frame of reference of what the function of apostling, etc. looks like. Then, as mentioned in concern #2, we deploy those underdeveloped Christians that inherit these titles and use them as our frame of reference.
This leads us into concern #4…
Concern 4: There’s usually a warped understanding of the gifts themselves
What exactly is pastoring? Is it preparing sermons every week, visiting the sick, presiding over weddings and funerals, counseling people with problems and acting like a defacto organizational CEO?
What is apostling? Is it leaving one institutional church that has grown to go to another location and “plant” a new campus?
Over time, the world’s system inevitably creeps into the life of a church if it’s not very careful. How we understand spiritual gifts and how they should function is one of them.
So to set the record straight, here are descriptions of each of the gifts from these verses…
This is a person who travels around with the purpose of raising up and strengthening local churches. They are extremely gifted at bringing new people to the Lord, unpacking God’s eternal purpose to them and guiding communities of Christians in the process of being built together into a diverse, unified family that shows the world what God is like through their life together.
They never stay with a church while fulfilling an apostolic role (when they stay long-term, they do as a regular brother or sister). They establish and strengthen, and then leave it to itself.
They also take no authority in the churches they work with. The only authority they carry is the authority of the word of God. They are there to serve by imparting a deeper revelation of Christ.
Decision-making is in the hands of all the members of the church. They are like an outside consultant that comes in to establish and strengthen and then leaves a church to function on its own.
This person is gifted at clearly communicating timely messages from the Lord that can lift up, motivate and comfort churches. A common thread in their messages for churches will be a deeper revealing of Christ that beckons His people into a deeper commitment and obedience.
While they may foretell future events, their predictions come through discernment of recognizing God’s will as expressed through the Scriptures.
In this way, they are like a foreign ambassador of God’s word, boldly revealing the will of God’s government to His people whether joyfully accepted or not.
This person specializes in sharing the Gospel story to not-yet believers and getting a positive response. Because of the sensitive nature of that activity, they are highly skilled at explaining the Gospel simply and clearly, thinking on their feet, persuading others and doing it fearlessly.
Because they have a special interest in the lost, they spend much of their time concerned for and interacting with them. They also have a special ability to show other Christians how to be effective in sharing the good news of Christ. They have the natural abilities of a good salesman (an ethical one of course).
This person works mostly within a church to help it navigate the challenges of life and grow closer to Christ through them. They have a special ability to reveal Christ and motivate others to draw closer to Him and to each other.
They do this by helping people (and churches) through crisis (shepherding), as well as helping people (and churches) better understand God’s wisdom through His Word (teaching). Through both of these, they walk closely with people to guide them in understanding the Gospel and its application to life. They are like an expert counselor.
Now, you may be wondering why I only have 4 gifts here (combining shepherd and teacher) if it’s the “5 fold ministry.” It’s because there’s a misconception that this passage lists 5 gifts. Shepherd/teacher are joined as one. So there’s only 4.
The text uses the word “some” before each of the gifts. It is only used once before shepherds and teachers.
When there’s a lack of understanding about the gifts themselves, it leads to people being labeled (or labeling themselves) with these gift names and taking on roles they aren’t necessarily gifted at.
Bob becomes the “Outreach Pastor” because he’s a nice guy that likes to talk to people and reach out to the community. But Bob does not function as an evangelist.
Pete becomes a “Lead Pastor” because he paid a lot of money to memorize some theological concepts and regurgitated them well back to a professor. Now he preaches sermons every week. Pete does not function as a shepherd/teacher.
When this happens, it stunts the functioning and growth of a Body that needs “built up.”
Concern 5: The concept is taken from one single passage
Be careful when an entire doctrine is formed on one verse. If a concept can’t be seen woven throughout the entire biblical story, you have a cut-and-paste doctrine.
A cut-and-paste doctrine is when you come up with what seems or feels like good theology and then you find a Scripture passage to support your belief, making you seem to be correct. You can cut and paste a bunch of verses out of the Bible and into a list that seems to support your position.
Paul himself supplies two other lists of gifts that are slightly longer and in a different order (1 Cor. 12:28, Romans 12:4-8). So Paul clearly didn’t intend for the list in Ephesians to be cut out of the Bible and used to build a model of church structure. The one in Romans doesn’t even mention apostles, evangelists or prophets.
Concern 6: The gifts mentioned are usually treated as more important or necessary than others
A bigger theme of the entire biblical story is that we are all brothers and sisters with no tiers of importance (Heb. 2:11, Rom. 8:29). While one gift may be more necessary to perform a specific function at a specific time in the life of a church, no gift is more necessary to perform ALL functions at ALL times.
The source for cultivating spiritual health is not church models like this one. A church’s source for growth and development should be the Life of Christ itself. The more His Life is ordering its functioning and growth, the healthier it will be.
First and foremost, we’re called to create environments where his Life can flourish before ever worrying about spiritual gifts. In fact, when the environment is healthy, spiritual gifts just emerge.
Just like any living thing grows and there’s no thought to it. It grows according to the DNA of the life inside of it. But you have to wait for it to happen in time.
When the focus isn’t on cultivating healthy church life, we resort to forcing the emergence and use of spiritual gifts because of doctrines like the “5 fold ministry.” This of course snowballs into unhealthiness.
So what are the conditions that make the environment healthy for a church to grow into what it was designed by God to be, and for gifts like the ones Paul mentions in these verses to develop? Well, that’s beyond the scope of this post.
Where healthy church life begins
But I’ve written a whole series of posts called What It Means to Be Organic that breaks down how healthy spiritual community is ordered by the Life of Christ. Here’s a snippet of the introductory post of the series…
At a conceptual level, it means that you don’t control, program and manufacture it like you would do with building objects without life in them. It’s just like you don’t build a tree in a yard. If you control, program or manufacture the building of a tree, it doesn’t contain life.
You would have to make it out of inanimate materials. It would be something dead that poses like it’s a tree. This would be your option if you wanted to have a tree in your yard, but were in an environment that wasn’t conducive to the tree’s growth. It would also be an option if you were impatient and wanted a new tree right now.
This is what happens to many churches. They may sincerely want the Life of Christ to be what leads, orders and grows it; but those that are a part of it have little to no idea of the characteristics of the environment where this can happen.
So inevitably there are controllers, programmers and manufacturers that build something that doesn’t spring forth from Life. They operate in mechanical order as they build what they want to come to fruition. Artificial trees can look so real they fool you…until you examine them really, really closely.
What must be learned for a church to be truly organic – that is a community that grows and is sustained by the Life of Christ – is how to operate by the principles of organic order. This produces the environment that can allow the Life of Christ to be the Source of all it is and does.
Models built on doctrines like the 5 fold ministry quench the work of the Holy Spirit.
Our primary pursuit in our day and age should be cultivating healthy church life. Then we would have more people functioning according to these (as well as all the other) spiritual gifts.