Not Modern Structures

We will never understand the ascension gifts, if we start with our existing church structures. The common church hierarchy is pastor⇒elder⇒people. If the pastor is placed above the elders then the other gifts have to be put up there too. People often want to put the apostle above the pastor, so we end up with a new hierarchy: apostle (pseudo-bishop)⇒pastor⇒elders⇒people. The problem is that no place is left for the evangelists and prophets.

The starting point is wrong. The modern pastor-leader role just does not fit with Ephesians 4, because it does not exist in the New Testament. Apart from real sheep shepherds and Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, the Greek word shepherd is only used as a noun once in the New Testament. That is in Ephesians 4:11, and there it is used to describe a gift, not an office.

The word "pastor" is used as a verb in Acts 20:17,27 and 1 Peter 5:1,2. In both these cases, elders are told to shepherd (verb) the flock that is in their care. We do not have a verb for shepherd in English, so it is usually translated with the verb “to be” plus the noun shepherd/pastor. This translation is misleading, because it makes the role sound like an office. “Tend” or “look after” would be a better translation. These two passages both say that shepherding is something that elders should do. The use of a verb rather than a noun suggests that Peter and Paul are telling elders what to do, rather than giving them a name. Therefore, pastor is not a higher-level ministry, but a responsibility given to elders. This can be hard to accept, but it is the New Testament teaching.

Shepherds watch over their sheep, so tending includes watching. Therefore, it is interesting that these two passages also give elders a role in exercising “oversight” (watching over). Titus 1:6,7; Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1,2 also imply that overseer is another title that was used for elders. We confuse the situation by transliterating the Greek word “episkopos” as bishop. Actually, it is just a word meaning “watch over”, which is a task that elders are commanded to do by Peter and Paul.

We will never understand Ephesians 4, if we try to make the ascension gifts too big. They become a special ministry, with a special anointing, that does special work. This is dangerously elitist and unfortunately many people who take these titles are now being put in a special place above the rest of the body. Peter was quite happy to call himself an elder. We need to bring these gifts down to earth. When I examine what these gifts do according to Ephesians 4:12-16, it is pretty ordinary stuff: building relationships and helping people grow. There is no hierarchy above elders in the New Testament. This is why Paul only ever appointed elders.

Not Part of the Ones

A key point of Ephesians 4 is that while there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one of nearly everything else, the one thing that is not on this list is church leaders. There is not one church leader. A church needs more than one leader, because one person does not have all the gifts that are needed to be Jesus.

Gifts for Everyone

If we forget about modern practice and read Ephesians 4:11 directly, there is no reason to think they are a higher office. Paul is very clear that he is talking about gifts.

Eph 4:7 To each (ekasos) one of us, grace (caris) has been given (edoqh, didwmi), according to the measure (metron) of Christ’s gift (dwrea).

The gifts are for everyone.

To each one of us...

There is a gifting for each one of us. They are for all people, not just an elite, and not just for leadership.

He gave gifts to people (Eph 4:8).

This verse tends to be ignored. Most interpreters assume that these gifts are just for a few special people in a leadership role, but that is not what the passage says. Paul is clear that these gifts are for all sorts of ordinary people.

Eph 4:8 He gave (edwken, didwmi) gifts (domata, doma) to people.

The ascension gifts in verse 7,8 and verse 11 must be the same.

Eph 4:11 He gave (didwmi) some to be...

The ascension gifts are for everyone.

Paul says that "grace was given to each of us as measured by Christ's gift", and then quotes a verse saying He gave gifts to (all) men. Surely, the gifts given to each of us must be the gifts described in verse 11. If they are not, we cannot call them ascension gifts. Therefore, these gifts cannot be limited to a few people; they must be diffused widely.

The men .... de construction used in v.11 suggests that the list is exhaustive, ie some to be this, some to be something else and the rest to be that. This suggests that everyone should have one of these gifts.

Gifts not Offices

Paul is talking about gifts, so he does not call them ministries. A gift is not a role. It is something that someone in a role can use.

Nor are these spiritual gifts. The word used for gift in Ephesians 4 (doma) is not the same as the spiritual gifts (carismata) described in 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts are the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, which goes beyond what they can naturally do. In Ephesians 4, Paul is not talking about gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to people when they need some extra power.

Gifts can only come from two sources. They can be given by the Holy Spirit as he will, or they can be innate within a person's character. The spiritual gifts are the former, the ascension gifts are the latter.

These Gifts are People

These gifts are people. Paul is talking about people who are given as gifts to the church. These people are the gifts. The different personalities of the elders of a church combine together to strengthen it. This suggests that these gifts are personality traits with which people are born.

  • Some people are born seeing things in black and white (prophetic). If this ability is developed, they can become prophetic. If their gifting is not developed appropriately, they can become grumpy old men.

  • Some people are born with this urge to push the boundaries and break new ground. They love staring new things, but once the project is up and running, they quickly get bored and start looking for a new challenge. Many of these people become entrepreneurs. A few of these people become apostles in the church.

  • Some are born with a compassionate heart and an ability to care for people. When they see strife, they try to bring peace. When they see people hurting, they naturally reach out to touch them. A person with this gifting can become a very effective pastor-teacher.

  • Some people are born with the gift of relating to new people in all situations. They are animated when they are with new people. They love to have a crowd gathering around them. Many of these people get into sales and marketing or mass media. When these people come to faith in Jesus, they are natural evangelists.

The Holy Spirit will develop and extenuate these giftings as he works in our lives, but it is hard to see how this can happen, if the gifting is not already there. These personality types have to be anointed by the Spirit and shaped by him to manifest his fruit, but it is hard to move into a relevant role, if you do not have the appropriate personality.

The ascension gifts are not spiritual powers that are given to people (like the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12). The ascension gifts are the people that God gives to each church. Each church needs all each of these types of people to grow to maturity.

The church is not just for a certain type of person. The commitment to love allows totally different types of people to belong to the same body and work together for its good. For example, apostles like to start new things and go new places. They are not so good at dealing with people problems. If people change quickly and get going, they are fine. However, apostles get frustrated with people who need a lot of time to get back on track, because they are already wanting to move on to the next new thing. That is why they need to be working with pastors, who love this people stuff.

Ones and Many

When reading Ephesians 4, it is really important to follow Paul’s line of thought right through. The chapter begins with a challenge to be humble and gentle and to love one another. Paul's follows this with teaching about unity. The message of Ephesians 4:3-6 is that there is one God, one Father, one Lord, one faith, one hope, one baptism, one body, and one of nearly everything else.

Most readers assume that Paul goes on to a different topic in Eph 4:7 and starts a new teaching about leadership. This is not correct. His teaching about gifts is a natural consequence of his teaching about unity. Because there is one God, one Lord, and one of everything else, you could expect that there would be one leader, but that is the one exception. There is one church with numerous leaders. A church needs more than one leader, because one person does not have all the gifts that are needed to represent Jesus.

The ascension transformed the leadership of the church. Paul had already described the ascension in Ephesians 2. When Jesus ascended, he sent the Holy Spirit to earth, but this is not the gift that Paul is speaking of to the Ephesians 4. An important consequence of his ascension was that he opened up the way for most people to step into a leadership role. If he had remained on earth, he would have been the one leader of the church. Everything would have been directed to him. By going away and not appointing a successor, he made it possible for many people to become leaders.

He did not look for the most Christlike of his disciples on earth and leave him to control the church, because he knew that none of his disciples was up to the task. Jesus was a perfect prophet, a perfect apostle, a perfect evangelist and a perfect pastor-teacher. No other human could fulfil all those roles, so Jesus chose to have a group of elders to care for each local church. One would be a prophet. Another would be an evangelist. A couple might be pastor-teachers. One or two might have the potential to be sent out as an apostle. None of these people could fully represent Jesus, but together they could. Jesus knew that no human would be capable of being his successor, so he gave people with different giftings to care for the church together. It took a team of elders with balanced giftings to care for a body of people in the way that Jesus had cared for his disciples.

When Jesus ascended, he took with him all who would believe in him and set them free from captivity (Eph 4:8). Those who rose with him are seated with him at the right hand of the Father’s authority. All Christians ascended with Jesus, so Paul is writing about all Christians, not just a select few, who gain governance roles. They are not under any earthly human authority. Jesus did not leave one person or a special group of people to control and manage the church. He released from captivity people with a huge diversity of personality and gifting, but bound together by love.

Gifts for the World

Many Christians just read over Ephesians 4:8, assuming that these verses are one of Paul’s funny allusions that do not matter. However, he put these words there for a reason, so understanding them will help us to understand his teaching. Ephesians 4:8 is a quote from Psalm 68:12, which describes the arrival of a new king after a decisive victory. Everyone gives him gifts, even those who are his enemies. Paul gives this passage a twist.

When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to people (Eph 4:8)

The normal practice is to give gifts to a new king, but when Jesus ascended, as king, he gave gifts the people of the world. The gift Jesus gave to the world are the people that he raised with him. These are not the usual courtiers of a king, who would come and control them on the King’s behalf. They are given to serve the world by becoming part of a body that will bring the life of Jesus to the world.

These gifts existed in people prior to the ascension, but they were diffused and estranged from each other, so their benefits were lost. The ascension changed everything.

  • Jesus became the perfect high priest, which made the Old Testament priesthood redundant. It had become the dominant leadership form in Israel, but it was hereditary, stable and ordered, so it could not cope with the tension of diverse gifts.

  • Jesus sent the Holy Spirit. By listening to the Holy Spirit, people with different gifts and agendas could work together. In Antioch, there were prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1-2). They usually think differently and have different priorities, but because the Holy Spirit spoke, they were in perfect agreement about what should be done.

  • Jesus had moved out of the way. A person starting a new movement hardly ever does this, but Jesus left the gospel in the hands of his disciples. They had diverse giftings, but he had taught them how to work together by obeying him. They could only represent the one God, one Lord and one gospel by working together in unity. If elders with diverse gifts worked together.

  • Jesus new commandment was love one another, as he has loved us. This was not really new (see Lev 19:18), but Jesus raised the standard by dying on the cross and the new birth and the gift of the Spirit made it practicable for the first time. This agape love empowered the ascension gifts to work together effectively.

  • Jesus established the church to be a place where these diverse gifts would be at home, because they are at the core of what makes it unique. They would build the church up in love and unity.

Jesus ascension took the ascension gifts that had been hidden and useless and made them available to the church and the world.

Nothing to do with Governance

Ephesians 4 is not a treatise on church governance, it is an explanation of how a church can function without a formal system of governance. Good things happen when people with a diversity of gifting submit to each other for the love of Jesus.

These giftings are about as different as things can get. They do not fit together naturally. They have different agendas and different ways of doing so things, so there will always be tension between them.

Elders with different giftings and different personalities do not get on together easily. Diversity of gifting could easily cause disunity in the church, which would deny the unity of God and undermine the unity of the church. However, Paul had already given the solution to this problem at the beginning of the chapter.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:2).

This talk about humility and gentleness is very different from the usual approach that turns the ascension gifts for a privileged few who control the church. Paul is explaining how elders and Christians with different personalities can achieve unity, if they remain humble and gentle, and put love ahead of their personal preferences about the way things should be done.

Because the elders are committed to unity with each other, despite their different styles and giftings, they are able to teach the rest of the flock in their care to live in unity, despite their differences and their diversity. This is the goal of the church.

until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God... From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph 4:13,16).

When elders with different giftings do their part while bound together by love, the flock in their care grows to unity in Jesus. Despite this divisive diversity of their giftings, a church can be one, not because one person is in control, but by laying down their preferred way of working for the sake of unity.


I am constantly surprised when Christian who take the New Testament seriously speak of “fivefold ministries”. This language twists the plain teaching of the scriptures to support our modern governance structures. Firstly, there is no suggestion in Ephesians 4:7-12 that these are ministries. Paul speaks of gifts. However, there are only four gifts, not five as is often assumed.

Ephesians 4:11 is very clear on this one. It has a definite structure using the phrase "men de" in Greek, or "some to be" in English.

some to be apostles
some to be prophets
some to be evangelists
some to be pastors and teachers.

If Paul considered there were five giftings, he would have written:

some to be pastors
and some to be teachers.

Because Paul did not write this, we have to assume that "pastor and teacher" is a single gifting, which means that Jesus only gave four giftings.

Anyone who can read can see that Paul carefully stated that there are four giftings, but the church has consistently ignored this. The reason is that the teaching about the scriptures is controlled by people who want to be teachers. The problem is that people who function as teachers have a vested interest in raising the status of what they do. They like the idea of have teaching specified as a separate gifting in this very important passage. The group with the greatest vested interest in this are those who want to be teachers.

Paul is fairly clear that teaching by itself is dangerous. The reason is that knowledge puffs up.

We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor 8:1).

This is a serious problem with the so-called teaching ministry. Teaching just imparts knowledge, and knowledge puffs up. I know that many Christians have had their lives changed by listening to good teaching. However, I am sure that many more just listen and think to themselves that what they had read or heard was good, but then do nothing with it. I suspect that good teaching may have puffed up more Christians than it has actually built up. That is what happens when knowledge is imparted apart from love.

Teaching has Changed

The problem arises from a false understanding of what the New Testament means by "teaching". We mostly think of teaching as a transfer of information and skills. Modern teaching is usually a process whereby an expert passes on information to a group of students. They are quite free to ignore what is taught.

For the early Christians teaching was something quite different. They saw it as an activity involving personal direction and an exercise of authority. It took place within a relationship where the teacher had authority over the student. A student would submit himself to a teacher, whose lifestyle he admired. His aim would be to learn the way of life, and the truths which underlay it. So a teacher did not just give his views. He laid out what he expected the student to believe, and the way he expected him to live. So teaching in the New Testament was more like what we call "discipling". It included the formation of character.

We can see this in the way that Jesus taught his twelve disciples. He did not just impart information to them. By living in close proximity with them for three years, he developed a strong relationship with them. They submitted to Jesus and carried out all his instructions. He had complete authority over them. In this way, he formed their lives into a likeness of his own. And throughout the New Testament, teaching takes place within a similar pastoral relationship.

This all means that there are on four gifts listed in Ephesians 4, and "pastor and teacher" is one gifting. Every elder who teaches should be pastoring, and every elder who pastors should be teaching (1 Timothy 3:2).

Business World

The giftings described in Ephesians 4 are observable in the business world. A business will often be started by one person with boldness and zeal, but to keep going long-term, it needs four different types of leadership. The business founder (apostle) will be keen to movee on to breaking into new markets and launching new products. “Don’t worry about the details we will sort that out later”. They need an accountant/legal type (prophet) to sort out the details and keep them from crossing boundaries. To grow rapidly, they will need someone to do the marketing/sales (evangelist). They also need someone to do the HR/people management stuff that the business founder cannot be bothered about.

The problem in the business world is that the Christian concept of loving one another is not natural. What usually happens is that one of the giftings will tend to dominate the others. Unbalanced leadership is a common cause of business failure.

Some workplaces have used the DISC profile for personal development stuff. It puts people into four categories. There are other versions using dog breeds, etc, that are similar. I have always been intrigued by the way these categories parallel the ascension gifts.

  • Dominance/lion/ apostle - loves making decisions and wants to get things done.

  • Influence/otter/evangelist - makes lots of noise and loves working with other people.

  • Steadiness/labrador/pastor - works with people and keeps the ship steady.

  • Conscientious/beaver/prophet - wants stuff to be right. They get the details sorted out.

These categories illustrate diversity of giftings and show how a leadership team needs to be well balanced.

The interesting thing is that some secular organisations are often better than churches at harnessing the creative energies that emerge when these very different personalities work together in a team. They have made very effective use of the ascension giftings. Churches tend to put one person in charge, and everyone has to dance to his tune. Real growth comes when very different leaders can work together because they have committed to love each other.

Basic Tasks

The most obvious way to understand the role of the ascension gifts is to read what the scriptures say they do. Their role, which is fully described in the following verses, is:

to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4:12-15).

The tasks described in this passage are:

  • Equipping the saints for service
  • Building up the body of Christ
  • Establishing unity
  • Imparting knowledge of Jesus
  • Helping Christians to become mature
  • Binding the body together
  • Speaking the truth in love
  • Growing up into Jesus.

This is all grassroots stuff that all mature Christians should be expected to do. There is nothing special about these tasks. They are all things that the elders of a church would normally do. This explains the place of the gifts described in Ephesians 4:11. They are different types of people who operate in a different way when undertaking the eldership role of overseeing and strengthening the body of Jesus. There is nothing in the passage about governance.

Travelling Consultants

A common teaching is that the ascension gifts are travelling consultants. However, the tasks described above are basic stuff like building relationships and helping new Christians to grow. That is why they had to be of good character and proved themselves in running their households. Surely, these tasks have to be done by local leadership.

A travelling consultant cannot be effective in helping Christians grow in the Lord. City-wide leaders cannot teach difficult people to work together. A visiting prophet cannot teach people to get their lives in order. Only an elder with a close relationship can do these tasks. Equipping the saints for service must be done by elders who are local.

The problem is that many Christian leaders have gone into a regional or itinerant ministry and need a biblical justification for it. Rather than taking the plain meaning of Paul's letter, the word is twisted to fit their ministry. They look at their ministries and assume that Ephesians 4 describes it, but if they read the passage carefully, they would see that it does not describe their ministry. A justification for non-local ministry just does not exist in Ephesians 4.

We will never understand Ephesians 4, if we try to make the ascension gifts too big. They are often made into special ministries, with a special anointing, that does special work. This is dangerously elitist, and unfortunately, many people who take these titles are now being put in a special place above the rest of the body. Peter was quite happy to call himself an elder. We need to bring these gifts down to earth. Ephesians 4:12-16 describes some very ordinary stuff, building relationships and helping people grow. There is no hierarchy above elders in the New Testament.

Elders are Gifts

New Testament churches are led by elders.

Apostles are Elders

Some elders are apostles. The apostle John saw himself as an elder (2 John 1; 3 John 1). The apostle Peter also called himself an elder (1 Pet 1:1; 5:1). Paul was an elder at Antioch until he became an apostle when he was sent out. (Acts 13:1-2).

Prophets are Elders

Some elders are prophets. Judas and elders were elders in the church in Jerusalem, but they were also prophets.

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers (Acts 15:22,32).

One of the elders who prayed for Timothy was quite likely a prophet.

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you (1 Tim 4:14).

There were prophets among the elders of the church in Antioch.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul (Acts 13:1)

Pastor-teachers are Elders

Most elders will be pastors-teachers. There were teachers among the elders at Antioch. Paul referred to elders who work at teaching.

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17).

He also said that elders must be able to teach.

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach (1 Tim 3:2).

Peter described elders who are also pastors (shepherds).

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (1 Pet 1:1,2).

Paul challenged the elders at Ephesus to shepherd the church of God.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church... Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:17,28).

Evangelists are Elders

Some elders are evangelists. Paul spoke about elders who specialise in preaching.

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17).

Elders in the Church

The ascension gifts are different roles that elders can take. Each church in the New Testament was led by a team of elders (Acts 14:23). The minimum number of elders would be three or four. A church should be led by a group of elders working together.

The circles in the diagram below represent the elders of a church. The lines represent their commitment to each other and the relationships between them. The strength of these links between the elders is the source of the strength of the church.

An elder can be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, or a pastor and teacher. These gifts represent different tasks that an elder may do. Each elder will fulfil one of these functions, according to the gifts that Christ has given him. Not everyone is an apostle or a prophet, but each one exercises the ministry to which God has called him. Whatever his gifts, the elder uses them to strengthen the people of God and to build up the whole Church. Prophets, evangelists and pastors are just elders who care for a church.

All of the gifts present in the eldership gives balance to the church. Without this balance, the church will not grow to maturity and unity.

The prophet (R) will provide vision for the church and keep it on the right track. He will ensure that there is an emphasis on holiness. A prophet is really an elder, who has a passion for truth and righteousness. He asks the tough questions; challenges church members with besetting sins and specialises in getting vision for the church.

The elders who are evangelists will ensure that the church grows. (I have not dealt with the role of the apostle here, they are covered in apostles. They are just elders who are sent out to establish a new church.)

The pastors will ensure that new Christians are discipled and that all members remain united. Most of the discipling in the church will be done by elders who are pastor/teachers. The evangelist will be more occupied with preaching the gospel, than developing new Christians (unless they have an urge to evangelise). Prophets tend to have very high expectations of their disciples, with the result that they can easily be crushed. They will be more focused on developing holiness and vision in the whole church as a group. However, prophets will have a role in discipling potential prophets and evangelists will assist with discipling potential evangelists. Every member will need the ministry of the prophet from time to time. The evangelist will encourage all members to witness to Jesus. Sometimes new believers will be discipled by one of the other members of the church, with the more difficult aspects being handled by the elders.

The elders would work together at their task. Because they each have different gifts and experience, they would be able to complement each other. If an elder met a situation he could not handle, he would call on another who had the appropriate gifts. The prophet would be responsible for discipling any potential prophets in the Church. The evangelist would take care of any budding evangelists. Each Church member would have a strong relationship with one of the elders. At the same time, each elder would be responsible to the other elders for the way he exercises his ministry.

Replication of Ministries

Elders will replicate their ministries in their disciples (i.e. produce clones of themselves). This is an extremely important principle. Every person who has developed in a ministry should be training up several people in that same ministry. In this way, the ministries of the church will multiply. Multiplication of ministry is as important as multiplication of membership.

Potential evangelists will tend to be drawn to the evangelist. Potential prophets will be drawn to the prophet. Potential pastors will be drawn to the pastors. They will learn all that they can from them. That is why each elder is shown as having people with a similar ministry close to them in the diagram. Each elder will be developing some people who have potential to develop into a similar ministry. They will train someone to replace themselves, if they are called to leave. Jesus said that everyone who is fully trained is like his master (Luke 6:40).

The true test of the quality of a church is what has happened to a person who became a Christian in the church three years earlier. Are they functioning in a ministry (Jesus disciples were)? If they are not, then the church is not functioning correctly. Is there a development path for the new Christian? Can they expect to be functioning in a ministry within three years? In a quality church, this will be normal. (People who come to Christianity with severe problems may take longer to grow to maturity, but they should be on the same path).

The ascension gifts are for equipping others. The best way to be equipped for a ministry is to learn off someone who is further on, as Elisha learnt his ministry by following Elijah. An elder is just someone who has been around a little bit longer, so new Christians should attempt to start where they left off.

Look at a Radical Leadership Model or What is a Church for more