Equipping the saints...


The subject of Equipping the Saints is so close to the core of Vineyard values that there was briefly a publication from Anaheim, California with that very title. And not just the Vineyard: one of the great legacies of the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s was the rediscovery of “body ministry:” a de-emphasis of ordination and the release of “ordinary Christians” to engage in acts of ministry.

I have personal memories of those new-found freedoms. During my high school years a group of fellow students gathered around me one summer night and prayed for me to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. In my days at university I was baptized in a swimming pool by other college students--well after midnight because we had just read a New Testament passage about baptism. The clergymen were all in their homes, asleep.

Now, decades later, I am a pastor, and the notion of equipping the saints is perhaps one of the most difficult values to fully embrace. I am frequently the one sleeping at home while the Holy Spirit stays out late partying with the young firebrands. The challenge of equipping the saints is a personal challenge to each person who serves as a leader in the church. What is our function? Is there a model of equipping others? How do we discern the difference between equipping and releasing?

If you expect well-reasoned presentation answers to any of these concerns, I’m afraid you’ll have to Google Dallas Willard or John Wesley.

The phrase, ‘equipping the saints’ of course, comes from the New American Standard translation of Ephesians 4:11-12:

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

I’d like to share two observations about this brief passage, and then share a confession about my doubts.

First, about the “offices” mentioned in the passage: Let’s set aside for a moment our inability to define them to our satisfaction--we have difficulty determining whether we are talking about four or five positions here. For me the great challenge is how these roles should function in our day and time. For example, the traditional function of an evangelist is as one uniquely empowered with a “gift of evangelism.” Bring the Evangelist to your city, drum up a crowd and let the man work! The context of the passage, however, seems to suggest more properly that an evangelist would equip others for the task of evangelism.

In my lifetime I have only met one evangelist who was engaged in training others to evangelize. The idealist in me believes that each “official” role should train others to serve the church. What if pastors equipped everyone in the church with the skills to care for those in their charge? What if prophets trained others to prophesy? And, perhaps most controversial of all, what if Apostles denied the temptation to establish “networks of churches” and instead trained others to plant churches and then released them to the task? In short, why do these roles require a capital letter in the front of their name?

Second, it is commonly observed that the traditional distinction between clergy and laity frequently produces a professional class of leaders and an unmotivated class of followers. How do we re-cast those damaging roles? In re-imaging the Vineyard for the coming decades, I suggest we should consider presenting a gospel that portrays serving the King as well as receiving the King’s benefits. John Wimber observed that in most churches the members get what they want from the church, the deacons usually get what they want from the church, and the pastor tries to get what he wants from the church--but when does God get what he wants out of church? Each of us is called to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel. In my view we would do well to repeat Wimber’s phrase from our pulpits: “We’re just small change in God’s pocket; he can spend us in any way he wants.”

Finally, I would be less than honest if I did not share my doubts with you. The idealist in me wants to see a vibrant church filled with men, women, and children doing works of service and building one another up. Yet in just a few short years of practice, I too easily find myself settling for the art of the possible, like a politician trying to lead by pandering to the expectations of others.

My confession is I find the vision presented in Ephesians too grand. I feel like the helpless father who cries out to the Lord, “I believe! Help me in my unbelief!” This magnificent letter portrays a magnificent church, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:23); or this: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (3:10); or even in 5:27 “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Forget about faith sufficient for signs and wonders--my faith is too small at present to imagine that such a church is possible! This is perhaps why church leadership--in every function--requires connection to the Head, if only so that we can see His Bride through His eyes.