The grammar of equipping...


11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 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. 14 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. NIV

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till 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: 14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; KJV

Can a Vineyard value really hinge on the inclusion – or otherwise – of a single comma in scripture? Note that in the original KJV translation of Eph 4:12, a comma appears to separate ‘the perfecting of the saints’ from ‘the work of the ministry’, into two distinct tasks for which Christ has given these headline ministries to his church. The ‘work of the ministry’ then becomes a stand-alone task for the minister, alongside the separate task of ‘the perfecting of the saints.’ However, this comma has been eliminated in the 21st Century KJV – and so too in the NIV, NASB and other modern versions – such that the task becomes one: the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry.

The difference can be summarised as this: Is it the role of these ministries, who are gifts of the risen and ascended Christ to his church, (a) to do the work themselves, or (b) to equip the people to do the work? Clearly, there is a lot that can be said here. And it will not do to focus solely on these verses, either to over-rely on them or to over-interpret them; the entirety of the scriptural message must be considered.

Nevertheless, without being ignorant of the rest of scripture, constraints of space mean we will concentrate on this passage for now.

We might begin by staying with values. There is something I find very appealing about a de-hyped, ego-free, humble approach to Christian ‘ministry’ (an area fraught with temptations to a ‘star culture’), in which the focus is allowed to be on the Spirit’s work, de-emphasising the vessel through which he delivers his work. Popular evangelicalism has a spotty track record for that, having often been very personality-led, from its beginnings in early Modernity through to very recent times.

It seems like a value that is very much in keeping with postmodern thinking – negatively, in the de-throning of the individual’s priestly claims to religious hegemony, and positively, in seeing ministry as a community function and the goal of our endeavour as an unmediated direct experience of the divine.

Of course, we shouldn’t need a proof text to inform us of this value. Jesus’ own modelling of humble leadership through servanthood, for example, is clear to see; so too, the significance Paul accords to the contribution made by the ‘least’ in the body of Christ, in 1 Cor 12. And part of the topsy-turvy nature of the Kingdom, in God’s way of seeing things, is the last being first and strength being made perfect in weakness (which we usually endorse in theory but correct in practice).

So is it the case, then, that leaders – for convenience we will use this term as a collective noun for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – should just let the people get on with it? Yes, and no. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Preparing God's people (NIV), perfecting the saints (KJV) or equipping the saints (NASB) requires more than simply standing aside. The object is not simply letting everyone play, as if that were enough (even though the proper working of the body clearly requires that to happen too), but the building up of the body of Christ. What is this building up? It’s more than that people feel good about themselves and their contribution (though, again, this is important).

It also involves trying to achieve certain objectives. Namely, that the church community achieves a ‘togetherness’ in the Christian faith, a ‘togetherness’ in knowing Christ, and becomes mature – fully Christ-like. What does that involve? That’s partly answered by the alternative state of affairs described in v.14 – whilst there are senses in which we should be child-like (e.g. Matt 11:25, 18:3), the inability to distinguish good and bad doctrine and teaching is not one of them. The function of ministry is not just to ‘let go and let God’, it requires teaching the faith and a right understanding of scripture, as well as training people in how to love others, share their faith and pray for people.

It is perhaps inevitable that those trained in theology may have a bias towards the importance of teaching. And, that others may see hands-on apprenticeship and ‘doing the stuff’ as more important. It’s certainly true that ultimately Christianity is not about what you know but who you know. And CS Lewis was surely right in saying that a person can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works, and ‘the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanation that theologians have produced’ (Mere Christianity). And yet, these should be complementary, not competing, ideas. Perhaps this need for multiple facets to our teaching and training the saints is the reason why the various ministries listed in verse 11 are given the tasks that follow in verse 12 onwards collectively, rather than separate ones?

We have, of course, allowed ourselves to develop a kind of dualism, lurking just below the surface in evangelical Christianity, that separates ‘head knowledge’ (bad) from ‘heart knowledge’ (good), pouring scorn on the former and praising the latter. It’s a particular temptation for hands-on practitioner pastors who lack formal training. Partly, because they are only too aware that academic knowledge, in and of itself, is of limited value, and can even be damaging at the pastoral level. Partly because the academics among us are not always great at modelling Christian faith and attitudes in practice. And partly because of an understandable human inferiority complex. It’s complicated. But this complexity does not justify the anti-intellectualism that has so often characterised popular evangelicalism, particularly in its charismatic and pentecostal expressions.

The challenge is to find people who can turn good theology into good popular teaching, so that the body of Christ may be built up, and in so doing to contribute towards all of the goals of Ephesians 4:12-14; to ensure there is no dichotomy between living the faith and understanding the faith. This passage seems to gloriously mix the ideas, so that it is hard to separate the goal of knowing Christ from that of knowledge of Christ, or of becoming a mature Christian in practice from becoming an informed Christian in understanding.