How the New Testament Church Ministers to Itself

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We have seen in previous postings that the church’s first calling is to minister to God Himself. All other ministries are secondary. Worshipping God is more important than church growth, than a full range of programs to “meet all the needs” of the church members and even more important than eloquent sermons presented by a gifted preacher. We are to “continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips” (Hebrews 13:15), “exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool” (Psalm 99:5) and “enter… His courts with praise” (Psalm 100:5). Learning to corporately worship God is our primary calling as the church.

But the worship of the God who has saved us, is not just a personal experience but, more often, a corporate one. Christianity is not an individual sport, like golf. It is a team game, designed to be played together, not alone. The result of this ministering to God together is that the church’s ministry to itself begins to flow, as naturally as Summer follows Spring.

This is the throbbing, vibrant life of the New Testament church, a living organism that God Himself is creating. Corporate body life comes first, before any organization. This wine/wineskin distinction is rarely made. The new wine of the gospel of the unconditional grace of God precedes the church structure that contains that wine, and only comes because the wine must have a wineskin to contain, protect and preserve it (Mark 2:22).

We always endeavor to keep both aspects of church life firmly in hand—the structure and government of the church on the one hand (wineskin); life and ministry of the church (wine) on the other. Yes, there are human leaders, but the Lord is the only Head of His Body. Meetings have an organized agenda, but time and space is always given at any time for the Holy Spirit to move apart from the agenda. We teach objective truth from the Bible, the source of all truth, but that truth is useless without individual, experiential revelation.

So, the church is primarily an organism, but as it grows in size, organization will be increasingly important. The organizational structure must be properly functioning in order to hold the members of the body in place as the organism grows. As is so often the case in the church, here are two truths in tension. Our temptation is to emphasize one to the exclusion of the other. 

A healthy, well-functioning organism will naturally grow with no effort expended to cause that growth, and eventually, organization will be necessary. The Bible teaches that this organization is led by a corporate body of elders. Together they carry the authority in the church, and the members of the body are exhorted to obey them, as they have the commission to watch out for our souls, for which they will be held accountable (Hebrews 13:17). 

However, while structural authority in the church will eventually function through the office of elder, ministry, or spiritual influence, will always function through the spiritual gifts of all the members, apart from any office. These two facets of the church (office and gift) are totally different. We obey authority because we are commanded to do so in Hebrews 13:17; we receive ministry and influence because we want to do so; we can’t keep from it!

Ideally, the authority in the church—the elders (older, more mature men, as the name implies)—have spiritual influence or true ministry in the lives of those in the flock, but that is totally apart from their office. 

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that the elders do have influence. They may have been appointed because of money, prestige or reputation rather than according to the qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. But in any case, they certainly are not the only ones in the church with ministry.

How does this spiritual ministry occur in the church, irrespective of office and authority? There is a portion of scripture that beautifully portrays this for us in Ephesians 4:11-16.

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 

That we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head— Christ—

From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

This is the key passage that forms the foundation of the functioning of the New Testament Church. Two ministries are mentioned that cause the organism that is the church to grow: the ministry of the equippers, those with the five ministry callings in verse 11, and the ministry of those being equipped, the body at large. 

Because of a lack of understanding the difference between structural authority and spiritual gifts, many have considered apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to be offices in the church possessing structural authority. In reality, these are not offices, nor are they gifts given to men, but they are the men themselves given to the church (“And He Himself gave some to be… for the equipping of the saints” [vs. 11]). 

They are men with a calling on their lives to minister in a certain way. Jesus Christ has given these men as gifts to His church for its edification. They are men with a ministry that functions to build up the church, irrespective of office. They may or may not be elders with authority, but they function in their calling in the area of influence, and the church is established and edified as a result.

It is helpful to distinguish between three categories of spiritual gifts: motivational gifts, manifestation gifts and ministry gifts. These categories are listed in 1 Corinthians 12:5-7. 

5.There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.  7. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.

Motivational gifts (Gk., “activities” or “workings” – vs. 6) are given by GOD THE FATHER to every individual to give him a particular perspective on the way he views the world around him. They motivate him to act in a certain way and are listed in Romans 12:6-8. They are gifts given as a permanent possession to the holder and help to make up his personality and influence how he ministers in the church.

Manifestation gifts (Gk., “open to sight, visible, manifest” – vs. 7) are gifts given by the HOLY SPIRIT to any member of the body to deliver to another member who is in need of that particular gift. They are listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, and any member of the body can deliver any of these gifts at any time the Spirit sees fit to distribute them. They are like tools in the Lord’s toolbox that are given to use as the need arises. This gift is not the permanent possessions of the one delivering it, but he or she is simply a conduit, a messenger, by which the gift is delivered.

The third category of spiritual gifts, ministry gifts, are cited in verse 5 (Gk., “service”). As mentioned above, they are the men thems who have discovered that they have a calling on their lives to equip the church in a certain way for its edification. They are given to the church by JESUS CHRIST. This is the category of gifts that are enumerated in Ephesians 4:11.  These men may or may not be elders. They may be young men that are as yet not mature enough for church leadership or men who are not called to local structural authority (single men, for example), but their ministry calling is obvious. They are already equipping the church. 

We will explore how these ministry gifts equip the church next week.

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  1. Jerry Buccola says:

    Robert, good primer on gifts and ministries 🙂

    “Unfortunately, it is not always the case that the elders do have influence. They may have been appointed because of money, prestige or reputation rather than according to the qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.”

    An anecdote demonstrating your comment above: At the “bible believing” church that we left, last year, the elders didn’t understand these basics and they ignored the biblical qualifications of elders. They appointed the “worship leader” as a new “elder” who was unmarried, in his 30s, and who had been a follower of Jesus for only about 10 years. When I pointed out these facts and 1 Tim/Titus to the elders, I was met with silence 🙂

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