It did not take long for the early church to create some basic structure. Of course, for the Jewish Christians, there was the existing model of the synagogue which was the local organization with different roles for members. While worship and sacrifice were focused on the Temple in Jerusalem until the destruction of the Temple around the time of Paul’s death, synagogues were local assemblies of believers. “Synagogue” is a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people but also refers to the place of assembly. Although the origin of the synagogue as a Jewish institution is unclear, by the first century they were found in both Palestine and the Diaspora, where they were used for a variety of communal needs: as schools, for communal meals, as hostels, as courts, as a place to collect and distribute charity, and for political meetings. As so often happens in new movements, they build upon the structure of the old. So, the church did not start from scratch. It adapted what was already there.
So, we see these roles described by Paul here:
“Some to be apostles, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers..” I call them starters, disturbers, spreaders, and protectors.
While there may have been special respect given to the apostles – especially the disciples of Jesus – it is clear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that while he saw himself as an apostle, he did not think about them in terms of being at the top of the hierarchy. “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they made no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.”
Still, apostles had a specialized task as did the others. They were not confined to one particular church but had authority throughout the whole church. They were something of the Supreme Court for the earliest church – James and Peter especially. There was only one criterion and that was they must have seen Jesus in life and seen him as the resurrected Christ. This is why there was so much controversy over Paul’s claim to be an apostle. Others thought he was merely a social climber or illegitimate late-comer wanting the mantle of authority. With some, he was accepted but with many, he was never admitted to the club. Of course, there was a built-in limitation as there were no apostolic successors or dynasty. They were limited to one generation and even though some churches practice apostolic succession there really is no such thing. Apostles could be replaced – like Matthew for Judas – but they could not be succeeded. They were starters.
Then there were the prophets or the disturbers. The word does not mean predictors of the future or fortune-tellers. It means those who speak for God and almost always spontaneously – like Agabus warning Paul about going to Jerusalem. Most often the “word from the Lord” was not the result of thought and study but was by inspiration. There were many claiming to prophets and many who spoke so convincingly that they created chaos in the church. That is why Paul says there must be interpreters for those who speak in tongues and confirmation of others for those who prophesy.
1 Corinthians 14
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.”
They were often wanderers going from church to church. Those who genuinely spoke for God built up the church and the false prophets only split the church by creating controversies and enriching themselves.
To some extent and for different reasons they also died out as did the apostles. The true prophets were the first to die when persecution came. They spoke out when it was not in their best interests to do so. They continued to disturb congregations that were increasingly unwelcoming to disturbers. They were a built-in check on complacency while they existed but too often the churches paid them little attention once they had settled into their routines. Sadly, there was also so much abuse of the role that people stopped trusting them – even the legitimate ones. Finally, they were replaced when the canon of Scripture was fixed and a spontaneous word from the Lord that was not directly from Scripture was suspect. I would say that is true even today. We still have prophets who disturb our comfort but having a word from the Lord would be suspicious. I attended a church when I was a new Christian and was scared to death one Sunday when all of a sudden with no warning people began to prophesy and speak in tongues throughout the congregation.
The evangelists, or spreaders, were mostly invisible as they went about their work of introducing the gospel to new areas. There were no newsletters or videos to send home. There were no furloughs or time off for fund-raising. There were no conferences for encouragement or finding new job opportunities. It was lonely work. They did not have the prestige, authority or influence of the apostles and prophets but they were relentless. Many of them followed the trade routes as people involved in opening up new areas of trade are also those most open to new ideas. There is receptivity wherever there is trade. Tariffs are not only economic. They also limit the exchange of ideas and opportunities. One of the earliest evangelists is Philip who was walking along a trade route when he encountered the Ethiopian eunuch. Mark was an evangelist who was sent to Egypt and became the founder of the Coptic church. Today, some of the most effective evangelists are the Christian Chinese entrepreneurs who have spread all over the world. The most effective evangelists in the Arab states are the Christian Filipino workers who are imported for low skill labor. Their work is invisible but extraordinary. Unlike our television evangelists who are often more like false prophets, they are the invisible power of the gospel changing lives day by day.
Finally, but again not in some hierarchical order, are the pastors and teachers. Sometimes they are the same person and sometimes they are different. Some pastors are natural teachers and some teachers are natural pastors but that is not always the case. For Paul, it was likely a double calling for one person but not necessarily. For some, teaching is a role they perform but they are not necessarily good pastors of people. You will sometimes hear people say, “I love his teaching but he seems removed from the people and not comfortable with pastoring us.” That’s true. I know a number of teachers like that.
Sometimes you will hear people say, “He’s no preacher or teacher but he loves us.” That’s true as well and I know a number of pastors like that. They spend more time with people than they do with their sermons but that does not seem to bother the congregation.
Pastors and teachers are not wanderers like prophets or evangelists but were settled and permanent. They tend to avoid controversy because they have to live there. They tend to be people-pleasers – unlike prophets – and understand the complexity and paradoxes of people. They listen with interest. They are not always looking for the next larger congregation or opportunity. They are the bedrock of a community of believers and the keepers of the story of the gospel and the congregation. They are the keepers of sound doctrine in a pagan culture and are the moral guides. People look to them to be examples of their teaching and are discouraged when they are not. They are often called the protectors or the congregation. Paul told the Ephesians that his greatest fear was that false teachers and prophets would come in.
“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 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Pastors and teachers are survivors and are virtually indestructible. It’s what seminaries produce by the thousands. Not many of them are leaders. In fact, George Barna estimates that only 3% of pastors are leaders. They are not as interested in growing organizations as they are in people. They are not as interested in bigger platforms and visibility as they are in protecting the parish and sound belief.
Prepared for Practical Works
All of these are designed to accomplish one thing: to prepare the people for practical works of service. That is far different from random acts of kindness or personal piety.
Prepare is the word used for setting a bone or mending a net. The basic idea is putting a person in the right place to accomplish a purpose.
Why do we set a bone?
Why do we mend a net?
The whole purpose in teaching is (or should be) to guide you into the place of practical service that is a fit for you and if you are not there then the Church is not doing what it needs to be doing in your life – no matter what else the church is doing. People complain they are not being fed. The problem is they are being fed but not being put to work. We count when people attend or give but little else. All the activities ought to have one purpose – to make you fit for practical works of service. Not more knowledge. Not more worship. Not more community. Not more variety.
Imagine this. You’ve joined Willowbrook or Hollytree country club and they consider you an employee and not a member with services and privileges like you expected. You don’t get to play golf or tennis for the first few years. They put you to work cleaning clubs or bussing dishes. They expect you to show up for work and take whatever assignments need doing. What would you do? How many of us attend or join the church with the same expectations? We don’t expect to be in a job training program unless we are volunteers. We are not here to work. We are here to be fed or help us on our search for meaning. How can the church do what it is supposed to do if we lose sight of what the purpose is?
But read further because even practical service is not the ultimate goal. What is it?
It is unity, knowledge and maturity. It is the parts working together. It is not just growing bigger. A mature grape is not a grapefruit. An enormous baby is not an adult.
But what is maturity? There are hundreds of ways to understand it and, most often, it is about individual maturity. We can use Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. James Fowler studied and wrote about the six stages of faith development. Erik Erikson describes the eight stages of life, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a guide for many, Lawrence Kohlberg’s three levels of moral development, and Scott Peck’s four stages of maturity are widely used. There are countless tools to help us understand ourselves: Strength Finders, DISC, Meyers-Briggs, Enneagram. The fascination with ourselves is endless. As a result, virtually all of them are focused on the maturity of the individual and not what Paul defines as maturity.
It is not what we become as individuals but as a body. We do not mature into the individual we want most to be but “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 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.” Maturity is not independence or freedom or even being wise, discerning, and well-balanced. It is not being a ship in a bottle. We are not coveted show cars but 18 wheelers carrying freight. We are not priceless jewels but industrial diamonds. One is polished and protected and the other is built to be rugged and enduring.
Our maturity is defined by our contribution to the whole. It is defined by how well we play our part in the body of Christ and whether or not we are being prepared for works of service. If there is an American heresy it is this emphasis on the ultimate importance of the individual even in our understanding of salvation and a personal relationship with Christ. That is not how Paul defines our relationship to Christ, is it? Maturity is our growth in the work of contributing to the whole. Growing up into something more than ourselves is our real purpose and we do people a disservice when we encourage them to find their purpose outside growing up as part of a larger whole.
That is the whole purpose for the structure of the Church – that “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, Christ. 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.”
See how Paul includes himself in this? It is not you but we. He understands the struggle for himself as well as for the believers in Ephesus. It is a struggle for us all.
What does that mean for you this morning? Are you a member of a club with privileges or a member of the body with responsibilities and a calling? Are you focused on personal growth or becoming a better part of the whole? Are you polished and protected or being fitted for work that matters? It’s important to know.