Recently I was talking with a ministry friend of mine, a man I like and respect. He loves the lost and wants to see churches make an impact in their communities. He has gifts and insights that I can learn from.
But I was caught off guard by something he said about Ephesians 4:11. He argued that for too long we’ve trained pastors to be shepherds and teachers, when the time has now come to train them to be apostles, prophets, and evangelists. The second half of verse 11 might have worked in a different time, but in today’s world we need ministers who more resemble the first half of the verse. His point was that we have lots of pastors who are well-equipped to care for the flock and teach the finer points of doctrine, but precious few who can exercise dynamic leadership and get into the community to make a difference and build the kingdom.
I’ve heard these arguments many times, in pockets of the church that are conservative and evangelical, and sometimes in pockets of the church more or less reformed. No one says that teaching is a waste or that doctrine can be ignored. But the general sentiment is that good preaching and congregational care are pretty well taken care of. What we really need are innovators, visionary-leaders, entrepreneurs, and community change-agents. The nature of pastoral ministry accounts for much of what divides the evangelical world, and even the smaller tribe of the new Calvinists. I don’t mean “divide” in a nasty schismatic way (though I suppose that happens too). I simply mean that you can get a group of pastors together who share almost all the same theology, but hardly agree on anything about “doing church” because they don’t have the same roles and goals in mind for pastoral ministry. Often these disagreements go unstated and simmer below the surface, and good Christians wonder what the hang up really is.
Let me a venture a few reflections on this disagreement, the nature of pastoral ministry, and Ephesians 4:11 in particular.
1. God gifts some people to be innovators, visionary-leaders, entrepreneurs, and community change-agents. We should be thankful for Christians who love people and serve their cities in that way.
2. These kinds of gifts can be especially useful for church planters and those working in places with few Christians around. If “apostle” means the ability to start a new thing in a new place, and “prophet” means the ability to speak into our culture, and “evangelist” means the ability to connect with non-Christians, then these are gifts many pastors would do very well to have and to cultivate. Different pastors will excel in different areas of ministry. Some will excel in turning things around, some in wading through conflict, some in keeping a good thing going, and others in starting from scratch. In a country where the religious “nones” continue to rise, pastors need to see their communities may be changing in ways that significantly affect their ministries.
3. Having said all that, we should not read our own definitions into important biblical terminology. While there may be apostle-like gifts and prophet-like gifts, Paul considered the office of apostle and the office of prophet to be uniquely foundational in the life of the church (2:20; 3:5). Paul didn’t say that Christ gave to the church some people who start things and some people who speak in the culture and some people who connect with non-Christians. Those may all be good things and even gifts from the Spirit, but we shouldn’t assume our commonsense notions of pastoral training are what Paul had in mind by these specific offices.
4. It’s telling that the office of pastor/elder/overseer is described chiefly as one of shepherding and teaching (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2; cf. John 21:16). Timothy is also told to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5), though the context suggests public preaching rather than a vague sense of being able to connect with non-Christians. If we read through the New Testament, and especially the pastoral epistles, we must conclude that responsibility of the pastor is not to cast vision or start new programs or even to engage with the community. His main responsibility is to shepherd the flock entrusted under his care, proclaim Christ, and faithfully pass on the apostolic teaching.
5. It’s also worth noticing what the four (or five) offices listed in Ephesians 4:11 all have in common. They all assume teaching gifts and are teaching offices. The apostles and prophets were the foundational teachers, the evangelists were (perhaps) itinerant teachers, and the shepherd-teachers were the pastors teaching in the local congregation. In one sense, the offices do not vary all that much. Christ’s singular gift to the church is in providing men who can boldly, clearly, and persuasively teach the whole counsel of God.
6. Which brings me to my final point and the title of this post: let pastors be pastors. There are men who want to love a church, lead their fellow elders, and preach solid sermons. And yet, they feel like they don’t have the entrepreneurial gifts or visionary personality to cut it in today’s church. They may still be called to pastoral ministry. Conversely, there are men entering the pastorate because they have great gifts for making things happen and great passion for changing their communities, but they should not be pastors because they cannot teach and have little patience for loving an actual congregation. I’m not at all convinced that our pastors are prepared to preach good sermons and shepherd a congregation. But even if we’ve been nailing this training for fifty years, it doesn’t make the continuing need any less real. Pastoral ministry as God describes it may not seem particularly relevant or cutting edge. But if we truly love our people, keep watch over their souls, and preach the word of God week after week, I’m willing to bet God’s people will be the entrepreneurial, cultural-engaging, community-shaping people we want them to be. We just have to get our calling squared away first.