The Pattern for Church Growth (4)
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… Ephesians 4.11, 12
Our true completeness and perfection consist in our being united in the one body of Christ. No language more highly commendatory of the ministry of the word could have been employed, than to ascribe to it this effect. What is more excellent than to produce the true and complete perfection of the church? And yet this work, so admirable and divine, is here declared by the apostle to be accomplished by the external ministry of the word. That those who neglect this instrument should hope to become perfect in Christ is utter madness.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians 4.12
A healthy, growing church is one that, by the Word of truth and the medium of grace, realizes the peace of God in unity, and is always maturing as the Body of Christ in its community. We should measure the health of our churches, not by numbers of people, staff, programs, or budgets, but by the degree to which we realize unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto the discernment, witness, body life, and Christlikeness which are the fruit of truth, grace, and peace.
Paul is clear on this, even though we are not. If you are still measuring the health of your church and your ministry by the numbers, then you are not in step with the apostle Paul. You may be keeping pace, and staying even a little ahead of the other churches in your community, but that has nothing to do with – and, indeed, is patently inimical to – realizing the kind of church growth the New Testament commends.
Jesus is into Body-building (Matt. 16.18; 1 Cor. 12.7-11). He calls us to join Him in His work, all of us doing our part, so that the Body of Christ in which we exercise our membership becomes built-up in unity and maturity, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” In our personal discipleship, let us strive to be increasingly complete in Christ (Col. 1.27-29). And let the same be our goal for the building-up of the Body of Jesus Christ. We are not building with Christ and the apostles if we seek any other design or end for our churches than growth by the truth, grace, and peace of God in unity and maturity in the Lord.
We may be struggling to get our hands around this challenge. After all, we know what to do to increase the numbers in our churches. We’ve consulted all the latest books and authorities on positioning and marketing our churches, adjusting our worship to the image-and-entertainment mindset of the day, and making sure our facilities don’t look too churchy, especially around the coffee bar. All this we know, and all this we keep doing.
But our churches are not growing as Jesus, the Master Builder and Architect of our faith, intends.
Growing healthy churches depends on one crucial component being in place. If we want our churches to grow in unity and maturity, increasing as the Body of Christ and a holy community of beauty and joy within our larger community (Ps. 48.1-3), we need only focus on one crucial component.
Getting the saints to do the work of ministry, right where they are.
When the saints of God do the work of ministry that Jesus did, and greater works than these (Jn. 14.12), the result is a church that more consistently realizes unity and maturity in the Lord, thus fulfilling its calling as both sign and outpost of the Kingdom of God.
What is this work of ministry?
While Calvin, and many other commentators, want to assign the “work of ministry” to pastors and teachers, as a further elaboration of their calling to equip the saints, I think the original language of the text points in a different direction. Paul introduces both phrases – “the equipping of the saints” and “the work of ministry” by a preposition. If both of these actions applied to pastors and teachers, would it not have made more sense simply to say, “for the equipping of the saints and the work of ministry” than “for the equipping of the saints unto the work of ministry”? Is it really fair or wise to put the growth of our churches entirely on the back of the shepherds of God? While some pastors and teachers may relish such a pride of place, it is not what Paul prescribes.
Further, as if emphatically to separate these two ideas, Paul uses a different preposition for each phrase. The preposition πρὸς, used here with the accusative case, indicates action or inclination toward something. Pastors and teachers are to be seen at all times as inclining or moving toward the work of equipping believers (more on this later). Equipping saints for ministry is what defines a shepherd, just as pointing north is what defines the needle of a compass.
The phrase “the work of ministry” or simply “work of ministry” is introduced by the preposition εἰς, here with the meaning of into or unto. The equipping which saints receive is to launch them into work of ministry. The work of ministry is that work of serving others by deed and word which, grounded in the truth of God, conveys His grace with a view to bringing His peace to those we serve.
Thus, “work of ministry” should define the believer’s life at all times (Mk. 10.42-44). Wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, with whomever we find ourselves, the believer is to be moving toward or into the work of ministry, doing the good works for which we have been redeemed and saved (Eph. 2.8-10). These will vary according to the situations and people before us (Tit. 3.14), so we must become thoroughly equipped for every good work by studying God’s Word with a view to our own callings (2 Tim. 3.15-17).
The particular work of ministry a believer moves into will thus be based on the truth of God, mediated by and mediating His grace, and designed to result in His peace. Such works will be self-denying, sacrificial, sin-exposing (Jn. 15.24), spiritually empowered, and intended for the glory of God. Church members should continuously encourage one another in such work of ministry (Heb. 10.24). And when all the members of a local church are doing this work of ministry, people will want to know more, and many will stream up to the Lord’s house to learn about His truth, grace, and peace (1 Pet. 3.15; Mich. 4.1-8).
Ready and zealous
Jesus likened His people to salt, light, and leaven. When these are present, whatever is around them is affected. Christians affect others, touching them with the truth and grace of God, as they do the kind of works of ministry Jesus did, works of compassion, thoughtfulness, kindness, forgiveness, healing, burden-bearing, encouragement, edification, and proclamation. Such good works – the fruit of the indwelling Spirit and Word of God (Jn. 6.63, 7.37-39) – should issue from us as naturally as exhaled air. We must be zealous for good works, always ready to do them, careful to maintain them, and never allowing ourselves to grow weary of doing them (Tit. 2.14; 3.1, 8, 14; Gal. 6.9, 10).
When the members of Christ’s Body are unfailingly busy about the works of Christ, their churches will grow in unity and maturity in the Lord.
But such work of ministry doesn’t just happen. For the saints of God to live this way, always bending to serve and bear their neighbors’ burdens, they must be equipped. And this is why churches have shepherds.
Pastoral Hope Initiative
Prayer for Revival: A Jonathan Edwards Reader
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“He says that the church’s order has been so formed as to join the human race together in the profession of unity, so that all may be in Christ, having Christ as their single head, that is, as the source of life.”
- Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians 4.12.6
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T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).