11 June 2024

The fivefold ministry. Or is it fourfold? Sevenfold?

FIVEFOLD MINISTRY 'faɪv.foʊld 'mɪn.ɪs.tri noun. A form of church leadership in which an individual congregation is led by five leaders, with duties corresponding to the five gifts Christ granted to build up his body. Ep 4.11

Christians have come up with a number of different ways to run Christ Jesus’s chruches. Initially the church was led by the Twelve, although that proved impractical as it grew, and as the Twelve spread out to other provinces and countries, or died off. The model we see in Paul’s pastoral letters suggests they ultimately borrowed the setup of Pharisee synagogues: An ἐπίσκοπος/epískopos, “supervisor” (which evolved into the English word “bishop”) who oversees the various spiritually mature Christians put in charge of all the other duties and ministries. Among the Orthodox and Catholic churches this evolved into archbishops and priests, but you’ll likewise see it in some Protestant churches which have pastors and presbyters.

But other Protestant churches have experimented with all sorts of leadership models. I was once a member of a church with a pastoral team: Five pastors who shared the job, took turns preaching the sermons, and handling various duties. I’ve been part of a church which claimed to have no leadership, and that they were entirely led by the Holy Spirit. (In practice, certain folks just happened to “hear the Spirit” way more than others, and wound up leading by default.) I’ve also been in congregationalist churches, which are basically run by direct democracy: The church members meet every month, and vote on every item of business. In meetings which can go on for hours.

Are those leadership models in the bible? Nah. Is that a problem? Not really. Because regardless of which leadership setup you choose, the important factor which makes it work is the people and leaders follow Jesus. If they do, the leadership setup actually doesn’t matter, because Jesus is gonna rule. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how “biblical” your setup is: The church is always gonna go wrong. Guaranteed.

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, and adopted by a lot of churches in the charismatic “apostolic movement.” These church are meant to be run by either five elders, or five teams of elders. (Since each of these teams tends to have a supervisor in charge of it… functionally it’s still five elders.) And each of these elders holds a different office, or has different job duties, which correspond to one of Christ Jesus’s five ministry gifts, listed by Paul in Ephesians.

Ephesians 4.11-12 KJV
11And [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:

In short, the five leaders of a fivefold church are designated as an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher.

Now. Historically Christians haven’t taught these are five jobs, but five gifts. They’re different abilities to minister. Different aptitudes. I have a knack for teaching; another’s gonna have a knack for evangelism. Another for prophecy, another for pastoral care.

But, I should point out, while I have a knack for teaching, I sometimes do all the other things. Because I’ve been in Christian leadership long enough to know how to do all of ’em. I can evangelize. I can prophesy. I can pastor. I can even function as an apostle if the Holy Spirit gives me a certain task to accomplish.

’Cause in practice, the Holy Spirit grants all these gifts to various Christian leaders on an ad hoc basis. Not just one and only one gift to one person. 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 his 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!” Yep, that’s everybody’s favorite excuse for not doing as Jesus does: He’s exceptional. And to be fair, he is. But not in this are—’cause loads of his apostles also simultaneously had all five gifts. You see ’em in Peter, John, Philip, Paul, James; and you’ll notice most churches regularly expect their head pastor to have these abilities whenever necessary. Apostles in that God called ’em into ministry. Prophets in that they can recognize God’s voice and authoritatively talk about God’s 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 an awful lot of work to put upon just one person. They’re not wrong! It’s why the mature Christians of a church need to step up and help their pastor. But the fivefold folks claim the list in Ephesians is a jobs list: The Holy Spirit divvied up these jobs, just like he scattered his supernatural gifts among different Christians. 1Co 12.7 Therefore each church shouldn’t only have a pastor in charge, but have five leaders. A pastor of course. And also an apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher.

The fivefold structure.

How are these offices supposed to work? Well you’ll find it varies by church.

Some of ’em figure apostle came first on Paul’s list: therefore the apostle’s meant to be in charge. (Not surprisingly, apostles seem to be the biggest fans of this theory.) 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 really like use the title “apostle.”

When there is a difference other than the title, apostles try to stick to big-picture stuff, and spend way less time pastoring to the individuals of their church. What sort of big-picture stuff? Setting church policies, “vision casting” (making grand plans for the church’s future), determining where the church’s resources will go. You know, stuff most other pastors delegate to board members. Basically apostles try to be the CEO of their churches (under Jesus, of course) and create grandiose mission statements, and try to make ’em happen. 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 KJV
2Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. 3Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.

A lot of apostles take this as their justification for backing away from menial tasks. Their primary job is to talk to God, get his directions, and lead. Gruntwork is a distraction. Leave it to others to wash feet; they have work to do in the 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 which is not supposed to be in any way inconsistent with the scriptures) falls to prophets. Explaining the scriptures falls to teachers. And all the many and varied other tasks fall to the pastors—like caring for people, helping people, praying for them, and otherwise encouraging them to follow Jesus.

Other fivefold churches don’t care for any hierarchy chart which puts the apostle in charge, ’cause they figure Jesus is meant to be in charge. And if the five ministers (or teams) equally answer to Jesus, they’re given an equal footing: They’re only in charge when their specialty comes up. When God has an apostolic mission, the apostle’s in charge of that task. 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 covetous cracks in the structure.

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

This is because every Christian leader presumes to teach. The apostle teaches. The evangelist teaches. The prophet teaches; in some fivefold churches, the prophets teach more often than the teachers! Doesn’t matter if the teacher is particularly called to teach; everybody else imagines they likewise have stuff to teach, so listen to them!

Since I think the fivefold ministry setup is all wet, I don’t have any problem with this. If you have something to teach, by all means teach it! 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. Prophets had better darned well know the scriptures which confirm their prophecies, and should be able to teach on ’em. 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, the other offices aren’t supposed to usurp the teaching office. They have their own offices. They’d raise a giant stink if the teachers dared to step into their sphere. But there’s no reciprocal respect for teachers. At all. When the teachers attempt to use the scriptures to instruct, correct, or guide the other fivefold ministers—on any subject—they’re routinely dismissed or 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 this isn’t a two-way street. When a teacher corrects a prophet, the prophet always, always tries 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 it’s not just the prophets: Apostles, evangelists, and pastors do this too. Each of ’em acts as if only God gets to sharpen their iron. 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 even meant there to be five ministry gifts in Ephesians 4. Y’see, the way Paul phrased it is literally “the apostles, and the prophets, and the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers,” without an extra τοὺς/tus, “the,” before διδασκάλους/didaskálus, “teachers.” So some Christians believe “pastors and teachers” is meant to describe one duty—a pastor, and a great big part of this pastor’s job is teaching. (And like I said, every Christian will sometimes have to do all these duties, so I have no problem with this interpretation.)

But yeah: When it comes to teachers, the fivefold leadership structure doesn’t stay true to its ideal. Even in the fivefold churches which show a whole lot of respect to its teachers, every other minister gets to take the podium and claim to authoritatively teach.

In practice here’s what I regularly see in these churches.

  • Pastors who believe their fellow Christians really need to step up and minister! (And they’re absolutely right.)
  • Prophets who presume, because they can hear God, they have just as much authority as the pastor or apostle. And which they’d get out of their way, and stick to pastoral or apostolic stuff.
  • Apostles who prophesy. A lot. Sometimes more than the head prophets!
  • Evangelists—if the churches even bother to have one—kept on the sidelines, with no real authority within the church, because they’re usually sent outside the congregation to deal with pagans and newbies. (If they’re even allowed to train the newbies. Sometimes the teachers take that over right away.)
  • Teachers relegated to being small-group leaders, while the apostle and prophets are usually the ones in the pulpit and spotlight.
  • 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 Disneyland calls their employees “cast members.”

Like I said, not true to their 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 KJV
28And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. 29Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? 30Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? 31But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent 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, 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 all these things. Paul wished every Christian spoke in tongues, and prophesied. 1Co 14.5 Moses wished all God’s people were prophets. Nu 11.29 And y’know, it’s for this very 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, a special aptitude, nor 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 oughta 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 these ministers really don’t function in love. See, they didn’t receive their positions by virtue of their good character—which is the only qualification for leadership we find in the scriptures. Elders must be spiritually mature. But these ministers usually got their jobs 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 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’s based on an invalid interpretation of the scriptures. And too often, it’s not fruitful either.