The fivefold ministry. Or is it fourfold? Sevenfold?

by K.W. Leslie, 02 June
FIVEFOLD MINISTRY 'faɪv.foʊld 'mɪn.ɪs.tri noun. The belief the five gifts Christ granted to build up his body Ep 4.11 are best held by individual church leaders.

There are several different ways we Christians have chosen to run our churches. Some of ’em are run by archbishops, some by pastors, some by elders, some by democratic vote, and some are anarchist: Supposedly no one leads but the Holy Spirit. (I used to attend such a church, and discovered in practice, certain folks just happen to “hear the Spirit” far more often than others, and wind up leading by default. Sometimes they legitimately do hear the Spirit; sometimes not so much.)

Some of these leadership models are based on the bible. Some not. Is there a particular way God wants Christians to run his churches? I would definitely say so—but I’m not hard-and-fast on it. ’Cause regardless of your church leadership structure, the most important factor is whether your leaders and people follow Jesus. If they do, regardless of the leadership structure, the church is gonna work. If they don’t, again regardless of the leadership structure, the church is gonna go wrong.

At some other point I’ll list all the different models, but today I’m obviously gonna rant write about the fivefold ministry model.

It’s a relatively new leadership structure. Invented in the 1970s, a lot of churches in the charismatic “apostolic movement” have adopted it. It’s where the church is run either by five elders, or five teams of elders. (Since each of these teams tends to have a supervisor… functionally, five elders.) Each of these elders holds a different office, or job title, which corresponds to one of Christ Jesus’s five ministry gifts, listed by Paul in Ephesians.

Ephesians 4.11-12 KWL
11 Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
12 They’re for the purpose of setting up holy people for good works;
for building up Christ’s body till we’ve all arrived at a unified faith and knowledge of God’s Son;
for producing a mature, measured-up, complete Christian.

Now. Historically Christians haven’t taught these are five jobs, but five gifts: Different abilities to minister. Different aptitudes. One Christian has a knack for prophecy, another for evangelism. But in practice the Holy Spirit grants all these gifts—not one and only one—to various church leaders on an ad hoc basis.

Jesus is an obvious example of someone who simultaneously had all five gifts.

  • APOSTLE: Jesus was sent by God. He 3.1
  • PROPHET: Jesus shares God’s word. Mt 21.11
  • EVANGELIST: Jesus shares the good news of the kingdom. Mk 1.14
  • PASTOR: Jesus is our good shepherd, Jn 10.11 our leader.
  • TEACHER: Jesus is a rabbi, Jn 13.13 and our only rabbi. Mt 23.10

“Well of course Jesus could do ’em all,” various Christians reply, ”because he’s Jesus.” You know everybody’s favorite excuse for not doing as Jesus did: He exceptional. And he is, in a whole lot of ways. But not this one, ’cause loads of his apostles also simultaneously had all five gifts. Peter, John, Philip, Paul, James; and you’ll notice most churches expect their head pastor to have these abilities where necessary. Apostles in that God called ’em into ministry, prophets in that they can recognize God’s voice and share his will, evangelists ’cause they lead people to Jesus, pastors ’cause they shepherd the people of their churches, and teachers ’cause they gotta teach us everything Jesus taught.

Fivefold ministry advocates point out this is a whole lot of work to put upon just one person. They’re quite right; it’s why the mature Christians of a church need to step up and aid their pastor. But the fivefold folks claim the list in Ephesians is a jobs list: The Holy Spirit divvied up these gifts, just like he scattered his supernatural gifts among different Christians. 1Co 12.7 Therefore each church shouldn’t only have a pastor leading it, but have five leaders in charge. A pastor of course. And also an apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher.

The fivefold structure.

How are these offices supposed to work? Well, it varies by church.

Some of ’em figure apostle came first on the list, so the apostle’s meant to be in charge. Not surprisingly, apostles seem to be the biggest fans of this idea. The apostle’s usually the person (or people) who started the ministry or church in the first place. Many times they’re exactly like the pastor of any Protestant church, but instead of “pastor” (or “bishop,” “minister,” or “vicar”) they use the title “apostle.”

When there is a difference other than the title, apostles tend to do the big-picture stuff, and spend way less time ministering to the individuals of their church. Big-picture stuff? Sure, like setting church policies. Like “vision casting”—making grand plans for church’s future. Like determining where the church’s resources will go. You know, stuff most other pastors delegate to their board members. Basically apostles try to be the CEO of their churches (under Jesus, of course), and leave all the gruntwork, the actual shepherding, to the other ministers in the church.

Remember how the apostles in Acts bungled the food ministry, so they handed it off to deacons?

Acts 6.2-4 KWL
2 Summoning the crowds of students, the Twelve said, “The arrangement isn’t
that we set aside God’s message to serve at table.
3 Brothers, men, select seven witnesses from among you:
Full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we’ll put in charge of this need.
4 We will stay faithful to prayer, and serving people with the message.”

A lot of apostles take this as their justification for backing away from menial tasks. Their primary job is to talk to God, get direction, and lead. Gruntwork is a distraction. Leave it to others to wash feet; they have work to do in their ivory tower. So, among apostles with this mindset, you won’t see ’em interact with people too often. Too busy with higher callings.

And that’ll put the other folks in charge of the other ministries. Making new converts falls to evangelists. Proclaiming God’s “now messages”—the outside-the-bible stuff that shouldn’t be in any way inconsistent with the scriptures—falls to prophets. Proclaiming the scriptures falls to teachers. And all the many and varied other needs fall to the pastors, like caring for people, helping people, praying for them, and otherwise encouraging them to follow Jesus.

Other churches don’t care for any hierarchy chart which puts the apostle in charge, ’cause Jesus is supposed to be in charge. Since the five ministers (or teams) equally answer to Jesus, they’re put on an equal footing: They’re only in charge when their specialty comes up. When God has an apostolic mission, the apostle’s in charge. When God has a prophetic word, up pops the prophet. When it’s time to share Jesus with the neighbors, the evangelist is on deck. And so forth.

As I said before: If everyone’s following Jesus instead of chasing and coveting power, this structure can be mighty effective. Trouble is, every time I’ve seen the fivefold ministry in action, there are cracks in the structure.

Probably the most common, obvious problem: None of the leaders respect the office of teacher. Not even in the most functional of fivefold ministries.

This is because every Christian leader presumes to teach. As they should! When Jesus sent out his apostles in his great commission, it was to teach everything he taught ’em. Mt 28.20 When evangelists proclaim Jesus, they teach what he taught, teach the plan of salvation, teach the first steps of Christianity. When prophets have messages, they’d better darn well know the scriptures so they know their messages don’t conflict, and should be able to teach. Pastors especially: Paul instructed Timothy and Titus, multiple times, to teach. 1Ti 1.3, 4.11, 6.2, 2Ti 2.24, Tt 2.1

But under the fivefold ministry structure, supposedly teachers are primarily qualified and called to teach. And not just teach the congregation, but everybody: Teach the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors. Just like the prophets are called to prophesy over everyone, and would be greatly bothered if an apostle arbitrarily dismissed their prophecy. Problem is, that’s precisely what teachers experience. When the teachers attempt to use the scriptures to instruct or correct the other fivefold ministers—on anything, not just the fact they’re doing their jobs wrong—they’re routinely ignored.

When a prophet corrects a teacher, the teacher’s expected to accept the correction. As they should; iron’s meant to sharpen iron. Pr 27.17 But seldom have I seen this work as a two-way street. When a teacher corrects a prophet, the prophet always, always attempts to pull rank. ’Cause they know prophecy. They’re called to be a prophet, they function as a prophet—they hear from God! Who’s this teacher to correct them? And so it goes with every other fivefold minister. Each of ’em claims to be their own teacher. As much as they claim teaching is a fivefold ministry, they equally claim to be exempt from any authority the teachers may have.

I should point out: There’s still a debate going over whether Paul meant there to be five ministry gifts in Ephesians 4. Y’see, the way Paul phrased it was literally “the apostles, and the prophets, and the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers,” without an extra tus/“the” before didaskálus/“teachers.” So some Christians figure “pastors and teachers” describe one ministry, which includes both jobs. After all, a whole lot of the pastoral job is teaching. And like I pointed out, every other minister teaches—and kinda has to.

So yeah: When it comes to teachers, the fivefold leadership structure betrays the fact it’s not sticking true to its ideal. And as I’ve indicated, I don’t believe it to be the way God wants his churches run. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus indicate another structure, with supervisors, elders, and servants. This isn’t that.

In practice here’s what I regularly see:

  • Pastors who believe their fellow Christians need to step up in ministry. (And they’re absolutely right.)
  • Prophets who presume, because they can hear God, that they have just as much right to lead their church as the pastors do, and want him to get out of their way and just stick to apostolic stuff.
  • Evangelists—if the churches bother to have one—on the sidelines, with no real authority within the church leadership; they only deal with outsiders, ’cause they’re trying to get ’em saved, ultimately bring them inside… and then the other leaders take charge of them.
  • Teachers relegated to being small-group leaders, but the apostle and prophets are usually the ones in the pulpit.
  • And all the other ministers in the church now have this fancy new title of “pastor,” but everybody knows it’s just puffery; like when Walmart calls their employees “associates.”

Like I said, not true to its ideals.

The sevenfold ministry?

Remember that list of supernatural gifts the Holy Spirit distributed throughout his church? 1Co 12.4-11 Later in that chapter, Paul and Sosthenes gave the Corinthians a different list of ministries than Paul listed to the Ephesians. Quote it? Why yes I will.

1 Corinthians 12.28-31 KWL
28 This is who God put in the church:
First apostles. Second prophets. Third teachers. Then powers.
Then supernatural healing. Helpers. Leadership. Different kinds of tongues.
29 Not everyone’s an apostle. Not everyone’s a prophet.
Not everyone’s a teacher. Not everyone works acts of power.
30 Not everyone has supernatural healing. Not everyone speaks in tongues.
Not everyone interprets tongues. Right?
31 Strive for greater supernatural gifts!
And I’ll show you how—by an outstanding way.

If you believe in the fivefold ministries, here the apostles listed a few more than the five you’re fondest of. Paul and Sosthenes dropped the evangelists, but added faith healers, tongues-speakers, and tongues-interpreters. All told that’d be seven ministries.

Oddly enough, I don’t see a lot of people advocating for a sevenfold ministry, in which tongues-speakers get the same rank as a prophet. Maybe it’s because this was the very error the tongues-speakers were making in Corinth, which the apostles had to rebuke? 1Co 14.5

No, not every Christian has been granted the power to do all these things. But every Christian should aspire to do all these things. Paul wished every Christian to speak in tongues, and prophesy. 1Co 14.5 Moses wished all God’s people were prophets. Nu 11.29 And y’know, it’s for this reason God poured out the Holy Spirit on his church in the first place. Ac 2.17, Jl 2.28 Prophecy isn’t just for Christians with a special calling, or the office of prophet. It’s for everybody. It’s our birthright as daughters and sons of God. Don’t let any authority-coveting and -usurping prophet tell you different.

’Cause these lists are about gifts. Ministry gifts. Spirit-empowered gifts. Not job titles. Not offices. These are things any Christian in leadership ought to learn to do. ’Cause when you’re in leadership, man are you gonna need them. God better have given you this ministry as your mission. You need to be able, when necessary, to prophesy, to share Jesus, to teach, to lead. And cure the sick, raise the dead, Mt 10.8 speak in tongues, translate those tongues, work other acts of power—and as the apostles continued in 1 Corinthians 13, do ’em all in love.

Another failing I too often see in fivefold ministry churches: A lot of those ministers don’t function in love. See, they didn’t receive their positions by virtue of their character—which is the only qualification for leadership we find in the scriptures. Elders must be spiritually mature. But these ministers got their job by virtue of their aptitudes—and any jerk can teach a class. I know; I went to public school.

In the same way, any Christian can hear God and become a prophet; any determined person can fulfill their denomination’s qualifications (or fake ’em) and become a pastor; anybody can learn a few sales techniques and apply ’em to evangelism. But do we have the fruit of the Spirit necessary to do ’em right? Do we have the character and maturity to do ’em consistently? Or are we hoping nobody’ll notice we don’t, because we’re just so zealous and exciting?

Christian ministers are to perform all these functions as necessary. Limiting their job descriptions to only one ministry of five (or four, or seven) tends to produce responsibility-evading leaders who insist, “That’s not my particular calling,” to justify their inaction or apathy. When the evangelists promise all sorts of outrageous, unbiblical things to new converts, the pastors too often shrug and say, “Hey, they’re getting converts.” When the prophets mangle their bible quotes, or even start teaching heresy, they excuse their lack of preparation and carefulness with, “Silly me. Well obviously I’m no teacher.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen so-called “apostles” who are incompetent in everything but inventing grand plans… which go nowhere. I once joined a church led by such a guy. Is 20 years too long for a building campaign? He didn’t think so.

So as you can tell, I’m voting a big thumbs down on this particular leadership model. It based on an invalid interpretation of the scriptures. And too often, it’s not fruitful either.