THE GIFTS CHRIST GAVE TO THE CHURCH
By Wayne S. Walker
Human-founded churches have human heads—e.g., a pope, a president, or a moderator. However, the church of the New Testament, in the universal sense, has no earthly organization, only heavenly. The head of the church is Jesus Christ Himself (Col. 1:18-19). As the head of the church, Christ gave certain gifts to it in order for it to function as He desires. “Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:8-11). The purpose of this article is to look more closely at the gifts Christ gave to the church and how they relate to its functioning.
Again, Jesus Christ is the head of the church. To help Him establish His body, to guide it in its infancy, and to reveal His word, He chose certain men known as apostles (2 Tim. 1:11). It is important that we understand the work of the apostles. An apostle is “one sent” to do a special task for another (Lk. 11:49). The word can be used generally (Acts 14:14, Phil. 2:25), even of Christ (Heb. 3:1). But most often it refers specifically to “the twelve” (Mk. 3:13-19). After Judas hanged himself, he was replaced by Matthias, and Paul was later added to the number.
The authority of the apostles was given to them directly by Christ (Matt. 18:18). They served as His ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), stewards of His mystery (1 Cor. 4:1-2), and His representatives (Lk. 10:16). One example of their authority is found in Acts 4:34-37 where early disciples brought money for the needy saints to the apostles’ feet for distribution. Their basic work was to be witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:5-8). Acting as ministers of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:4-6) or “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:1-7), they revealed God’s word (Eph. 3:3-5). The result of their work is that they laid the foundation for the church (Eph. 2:19-23).
To be qualified as an apostle, one had to receive a divine call—not from man or through men (Gal. 1:1-12). He must have seen the resurrected Christ of whom he was a witness (Acts 1:21-22). Also he needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4) and the inspired guidance that the Spirit provided (John 16:13-15). In addition, the apostles had miraculous power to confirm their message as true (Mk. 16:17-20, 2 Cor. 12:12). Since the work of the apostles was foundational in nature and pertained to revealing the word, confirming it, and establishing the church, once it was done it needs no repeating. Hence, there are no living apostles today. We continue in the apostles’ doctrine by following the message which they revealed (Acts 2:42).
In addition to the apostles, there was a special class of people in the first century church who assisted in guiding the church and revealing the word known as prophets (Matt. 10:41). Since many claim to have the gift of prophecy today, we need to study the work of the prophets. From Old Testament background, we learn that the word “prophet” is defined as one who speaks forth for another (Exo. 4:15-16, 7:1). Thus, in the Bible it usually means one who speaks for God and reveals His will to others (Deut. 18:18). It always includes the idea of supernatural inspiration, if not in fact, at least in claim (Jer. 23:16, Ezek. 13:2; cf. Matt. 7:22).
There were prophets in the early church, as predicted in the Old Testament (Acts 2:17). One who is named was Agabus (Acts 11:27-28, 21:10). There were some prophets in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). Judas and Silas are identified as prophets (Acts 15:32). It is said that Philip’s four virgin daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9). The work of these prophets was two-fold. They are listed with the apostles in revealing the word (Eph. 2:20, 3:5). They also taught in the church while the word was in the process of being revealed (1 Cor. 14:1-6). The early church had to distinguish between true and false prophets (1 Jn. 4:1; cf. 1 Cor. 14:37).
In the Bible, a prophet was not just one who foretold the future. Many times they did foretell the future, and when their prophecies came true, it was a sign that their message was from God, but their main function was simply revealing God’s will to people. However, this gift was done away. It was predicted even in the Old Testament that after the fountain would be opened for sin, the prophets would depart (Zech. 13:1-5). Paul said in 1 Cor. 13:9-10 that when that which is perfect would come, that which was in part, including the gift of prophecy, would be done away. We now have the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25). There is no need for prophets today because all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and will make us perfect for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The work of prophets has ceased!
Another gift that Christ gave to the church is evangelists. The word “evangelist” literally means one who tells good news. Some people make unnecessary distinctions. They say that a minister is a preacher who works with a local church, an evangelist is a preacher who travels around, and a missionary is a preacher who goes oversees. However, God’s word does not make any such distinctions. Philip was called an evangelist, but he had a house in Caesarea (Acts 8:40, 21:8). What is the work of an evangelist? Paul told Timothy, who was to “remain in Ephesus” (1 Tim. 1:3), to “be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). Therefore, by examining various things that Paul told Timothy to do, we should be able to learn what the work of an evangelist is.
The primary function of an evangelist is to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). The word “preach” here means to herald or proclaim, as John the Baptist went “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Lk. 3:3). The word needs to be preached because it alone is able to save our souls (Jas. 1:21) and to build us up (Acts 20:32). The proper attitude to speak the truth is always in love (Eph. 4:15). In preaching the word, he is to “instruct the brethren” (1 Tim. 4:6). The King James Version says, “put the brethren in remembrance.” Why? Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). The word of Jesus Christ does not change (Matt. 24:35). Thus, there are many things of which Christians need to be reminded (cf. 2 Pet. 1:12-15).
An evangelist must “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). There always have been and always will be false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3). It is the duty of the evangelist to identify and rebuke them (Tit. 1:10-13). Of course, the way in which this should be handled is with meekness (2 Tim. 2:24-26). In order to fulfill his responsibilities, he is told to “meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them” (1 Tim. 4:15). Certainly all Christians should search the scriptures (Acts 17:11). But the evangelist has a special responsibility to “handle aright the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ASV). This demands a thorough knowledge of the word, and the development of this knowledge will require much time in study (1 Tim. 4:13-14).
In addition, the evangelist is told to commit the word to faithful men who then can teach it to others (2 Tim. 2:2). There is ever a need for teachers in the church (1 Cor. 12:28). We shall write of these later in this article, but many who ought to be teachers cannot because they still have need of someone to teach them the basics (Heb. 5:12). Each individual should seek to grow (1 Pet. 2:1-2). But the evangelist can help train teachers. And he should also “be an example to [of] the believer” (1 Tim. 4:12). Again, all Christians must “live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Tit. 2:12). However, especially ought an evangelist show himself “a pattern of good works” (Tit. 2:7-8). As a teacher himself, he has “a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1). These passages help us to understand better the work of the evangelist.
The word “pastor” literally means shepherd. Those who are told to pastor or shepherd the flock are also called elders. We shall look more closely at the meaning and application of these words shortly. However, we have noted that there were apostles and prophets in the first century church but there are none today for their work is no longer needed. There were elders in the first century church (Acts 11:30). And there are still elders today because their work is still needed. Why is this so? A Biblical study of the eldership (1 Tim. 4:14) will provide the answer to this question.
The word “elder” originally denoted seniority, the older of two or one older than others (Lk. 15:25, Tit. 2:2). Among the Jews, it was used to refer to certain leaders of a city and then of a synagogue (Matt. 15:2; cf. Num. 11:16-23). In the church it came to identify a particular work, called in the King James Version “the office of a bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1). In fact, three terms are used to describe this function in Acts 20:17-28). Paul called for the elders of the church at Ephesus. Again “elder” means a senior, one older, advanced in life, and mature in training and experience with the wisdom that comes from age (1 Tim. 5:17). He told these elders that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers or “bishops,” a word which indicates a manager, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things done by others are done rightly, any curator, guardian, or superintendent, hence a supervisor (Tit. 1:7). These elders or bishops are then told to shepherd or “pastor” the flock, a verb form of the noun that is defined as a herdsman of sheep, one who leads, feeds, and tends a flock, thus a presiding officer, manager, or director (1 Pet. 5:2).
There were elders or bishops or pastors specifically mentioned in New Testament churches at Jerusalem (Acts 15:6), Ephesus (Acts 20:17), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:12), and Philippi (Phil. 1:1). In fact, elders are to be appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). There must always be a plurality in each congregation (Tit. 1:5), never a single “pastor.” And they are always over one church only (1 Pet. 5:2), never one “bishop” over several churches. The qualifications for this office are found in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. The reason there are qualifications for the eldership in Scripture is that we might be able to identify those men who are capable of doing the work of elders. Indeed, elders have a work to do. Being an elder is more than just an honorary office. What is this work?
Elders are told, “Take heed therefore to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Surely all Christians must examine themselves (2 Cor. 13:5). But this self-examination is especially important for teachers and leaders because they “shall receive heavier judgment” (Jas. 3:1, ASV). Also, they must take heed unto the flock and watch for their souls (Heb. 13:17). According to 1 Thess. 5:12, the elders “labor among” the congregation. One example of this labor can be seen in Jas. 5:14 where those who are sick are told to send for the elders of the church to pray for them.
Next, elders are to take the oversight or “rule” (1 Tim. 5:17). They are called “bishops” (Phil. 1:1) because they manage or superintend the affairs of the congregation. An example of this function is found in Acts 11:27-30 where the funds from Antioch for needy Christians in Judea were sent to the hands of the elders, who then obviously oversaw their distribution. Then, they are responsible for feeding or tending the flock (1 Pet. 5:2). Like a shepherd provides physical food and water for his sheep (Ezek. 34:1-6ff), so elders should provide spiritual teaching. In this they do the will of Jesus who is the chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25, 5:4).
In addition, elders ought to be examples (1 Pet. 5:3). Again, all Christians are to be examples (1 Tim. 4:12), but as noted with evangelists, this is especially necessary in those who are leaders because of the influence of their position (Tit. 2:7-8). Elders rule not by “lording it over” the flock but by leading through a life of faithfulness, purity, and service. Finally, they will guard the church against false doctrine (Tit. 1:9-11). In order for men to do the work of elders, but must perform all the duties outlined in scripture. They cannot pick and choose which ones they want or think are more important.
When a local church is properly organized, elders will oversee with deacons to serve, and evangelists will preach. But there is yet another work to be done. In the church at Antioch, besides some prophets, there were teachers (Acts 13:1). It is important that we understand the work of teachers in instructing the church. In a sense, all Christians are to be teachers. It is part of the great commission to be “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). We have examples of teaching done by the apostles (Acts 5:42), Barnabas (Acts 15:35), Paul (1 Tim. 2:7), the elders (1 Tim. 3:2), and Timothy (1 Tim. 4:11). There is a time when we ought to be teachers (Heb. 5:12). One way in which some can teach is by “admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
However, our original text indicates that there was a specific group of servants in the early church known as teachers and implies that this was a public function which, along with evangelists and pastors, would result in the perfecting of the saints (Eph. 4:12). Not everyone falls into this particular category (1 Cor. 12:28-29). In order for one to be a teacher, he must possess certain characteristics. He must teach truth (1 Tim. 1:3), be knowledgeable (1 Tim. 1:7), be faithful (2 Tim. 2:2), be patient (2 Tim. 2:24), practice what he teaches (Rom. 2:21), and be diligent (Rom. 12:7). Not everyone is able to be an elder or an evangelist, but all Christians can do the work of teaching in one sense or another if they will apply themselves.
We all recognize that organization is essential wherever humans are involved, such as in civil affairs (Rom. 13:1-7), the home (Eph. 5:22-33), and business (Col. 3:22-25). The same is true of the Lord’s church. As we have previously seen, the universal church has no earthly organization. Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23), and He chose certain individuals as apostles and prophets to assist Him in establishing the church and revealing His word. However, local churches do have organization (Tit. 1:5). There are several different kinds of denominational church organization which often bind several congregations together into hierarchies, presbyteries, districts, synods, associations, and other human-founded societies.
However, New Testament churches are autonomous (Acts 14:23, 20:28); independent (1 Pet. 5:1-3); equal (2 Cor. 8:14); sufficient (Eph. 4:12-16); and identical in essentials (1 Cor. 4:17). Since He is the head of the church, Christ is also the head of each local congregation (Col. 1:18). The local overseers are known as elders or pastors or bishops (Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:1-2). Under their oversight, evangelists preach the word and teachers instruct in the truth. And all members should participate in the work (Rom. 12:4-8, 1 Cor. 12:27-31). Not everyone has the same abilities, but everyone should do what he or she can. This is how the church is organized according to God’s word using the gifts that Christ gave the church.
—-taken from Faith and Facts Quarterly; July, 2016; Vol. 43, No. 3; pp. 42-50