Previous | Next

Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 87–95 

No Clergy or Laity: All Christians Are Ministers in the Body of Christ, Ephesians 4:11-13

John Vooys

Every congregation which is not effectively “equipping the saints for work of service” will find itself being scattered and disbanded. 1

This text is not a warrant for “incipient ecclesiasticism.”

What is the nature and the function of the church? This fundamental question still needs answering especially by those involved in starting new congregations or even by those in long-established ones. The correct answer helps the new church get on a good footing; it helps an established congregation examine whether or not it is on course.

The message of Ephesians is contemporary. John Mackay, former president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote forty years ago that this epistle was “the greatest, and for our time, the most relevant of Paul’s works.” 2 Even if one quibbles about Mackay’s claim, the value of the book for the church today is without question.

A crucial text dealing with the nature and function of the church is found in the context of Paul’s discussion on the unity of the body (4:1-16). In the first part Paul exhorts his readers to put “hands and feet” to the unity which already exists in {88}the church because of the Holy Spirit (vv. 1-6). The church is a spiritual reality. In the second part Paul enlarges on Christ’s role in distributing grace gifts 3 and ministry functions in order to equip the saints and so fulfill the church’s purpose (vv. 7-16). Within the second part are verses 11-13. Markus Barth sees vv. 11-13 as “a locus classicus pointing out the coherence of the church’s origin, order and destiny.” 4 Christ has gifted his body, the church, so that all members may minister and grow to mature Christ-likeness.


It was he himself who gave some as apostles,
some as prophets,
some as evangelists, and
still others as pastors and teachers. (4:11) 5

The giver of the gifted persons is Christ. He alone is the subject of verses 7-11. Elsewhere God the Holy Spirit is highlighted as the giver of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:7-11). In Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Peter 4:7-11 God the Father is credited with giving spiritual gifts. In the Ephesian text God the Son is the dispenser of gifts. Clearly all three members of the Trinity give spiritual gifts. It is therefore unwarranted for only one member to be honored for this task. 6

The form of the finite verb (edoken) is sufficient to render “he gave.” The inclusion of the personal pronoun (autos) suggests some emphasis 7 although most English translations/versions do not so indicate. The reading is simply “he gave,” (KJV) or “It was he who gave” (NIV). However, some translators have sought to express an emphasis by phrasing “He Himself gave.” 8

Since Christ is the giver of the spiritual gifts and spiritual functions, there is no place for human pride, as if the gifts were self-generated or in some way earned. Similarly, there is no place for envy since Christ has gifted all and that in various and different ways. Nathan Baker observes that Paul illustrates this truth by listing several gifts, although his list is not exclusive. 9

Paul enumerates four spiritual functions: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers. Some scholars suggest that Paul refers to five functions, since the last mentioned, {89} “pastors/teachers,” consists of two distinct roles.

The nouns used for the stated functions are all masculine. This fact does not necessarily specific male recipients only, as some writers would have it. 10 The stress is not on the gender of the gifted one but on the gift. Although some translations have included the expression “some men” to define the recipients, 11 most common English versions, rightfully highlight function rather than gender. Such a rendering is supported by the fact that the quotation in verse 7 speaks of Christ giving “gifts to men (anthropois),” a term meaning human beings regardless of gender.

All Christians are gifted in some way. Such is the emphasis in all the spiritual gift “lists” in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 12:3ff; 1 Cor. 12:1ff; 1 Peter 4:7ff). This claim is especially transparent in Paul’s assertion: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given. . . . All these [spiritual gifts] are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:7-11) (NIV italics mine).

The first in Paul’s list of spiritual functions is “apostles.” In the New Testament this term is not alone the designation for “the apostles of Christ,” the Twelve he personally chose (Matt. 10:2-4 and parallels). The term is also used for those called “apostles of churches” such as Epaphroditus, the apostle of the church at Philippi. In such instances, modern versions render the term as “representatives” or “messengers” (cf. 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). The reference to “apostles” in our text is not to be understood in this sense; if so apostles would be gifts of other churches rather than of Christ.

In perhaps one case, the term is used as a designation for all of Christ’s followers. Jesus, in referring to his followers, states that “no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger (apostolos) greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16). As John Stott points out, “Every Christian is both a servant and an apostle . . . sent out into the world as Christ’s ambassadors and witnesses, to share in the apostolic mission of the whole church.” 12

Paul does not intend for the term “apostle” to have such a broad-ranging meaning, since the emphasis is on “some as apostles.” This expression is clearly a reference to “the apostles of Christ,” those who were chosen by Christ, who were witnesses of his life and resurrection, and who were the basis of his church. Support for this claim is that here, as elsewhere, {90} they, with the prophets, hold the priority position in the gift lists. Paul goes so far as to write that in the church God has set “in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets” (1 Cor. 12:28).

Prophets are those who had direct revelation from God and were thus his spokespersons. Along with apostles, they were “the human founders of the Church,” 13 the basis of “God’s household,” as their link with apostles makes clear (Eph. 2:20 and elsewhere 14).

Since the church has been established and God’s word has now been given to us in both the Old and New Testaments, the function of these primary roles is complete. In a secondary sense, the church still has apostles, messengers of the church such as missionaries and church planters. In this secondary sense the church still has prophets, those who proclaim God’s word for the present day and, at times, for the future.

In the 1970s, some “charismatics” sparked debate over whether apostles, in the primary sense, were still to be found in the church today. 15 One of the strongest arguments against this position, of course, is the impossibility of meeting the requirement of being an eyewitness of Christ’s life. In the 1990s the debate will likely center around the question of contemporary prophets. 16

Evangelists are defined by C. L. Mitton as “those whose special gifts enable them to take the gospel to those outside the church.” 17 Even though the church has been established under the apostles and prophets Christ has given, he still expects it to grow by the efforts of others who are especially gifted, such as “Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven” (Acts 21:8).

This is not to say that those who have not been especially gifted in this way cannot be trained. After all, the purpose of the gifted ones is to prepare all of God’s people for works of service (Eph. 4:12). A prime example is Timothy who, although not classified as an evangelist, was still expected to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).

The function of pastors and teachers is literally that of shepherd/teacher. The title “shepherd” (poimenas), gives us an insight into the meaning of “pastor.” It is only in this text that preachers are called shepherds, indicating that more than a “word ministry” is involved. There is an emphasis on oversight, leadership and care. Robertson observes that the word {91}poimen is from a root meaning to protect.” 18 The best modeling of this function is by the ultimate Shepherd, Jesus Christ himself. There is a natural link between the term “teacher” and “shepherd,” for most pastors are expected to teach. This expectation may not be wisest in all cases since some pastors, clearly, have greater strengths in shepherding than in teaching/ preaching. Teachers are listed as a separate group of gifted ones in two other gift lists (1 Cor. 12:28; Rom. 12:7). Teachers may not all be pastors, but it is only rarely that a gifted teacher will not also have a shepherding role.

Some scholars have assigned a late date for the writing of Ephesians; they also propose someone other than Paul as the author. These scholars are driven to such a conclusion because they understand the gifts as offices rather than functions. A reader could be misled and so conclude from the R.S.V. translation, “And his gifts were” (v. 11) as if the five listed were the totality of roles. 19

G. B. Caird laments the fact that some have read this sort of “incipient ecclesiasticism” into the Ephesian epistle. He holds that “Men become apostles, prophets, and the like, not because they are appointed to an office, but because they are endowed with a spiritual gift, each of which carries with it a direct commission from Christ.” 20


[His gifts were] for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ (4:12).

Punctuation can affect Christian belief and practice! The inclusion/exclusion of one extra comma after saints (hagion v. 11) can govern the conclusion as to who does all the ministry in the church. Some versions (e.g., KJV and ASV), place a comma there, implying that the gifted ones, alone, are commissioned to do all the work. The most obvious of such readings is found in R. A. Knox’s translation. There the gifted ones are given a three-fold task: “They are to order the lives of the faithful, minister to their needs, build up the frame of Christ’s body.”

However, if that comma is omitted, as the editors of the U.B.S. and Nestle’s Greek texts do, then the gifted ones are commissioned to equip all Christians for ministry. Modern {92} translations have generally opted for this second way of punctuating the verse, thus avoiding an “ecclesiological bias” as Mackay 21 has so aptly called it, and which is so clearly demonstrated in Knox’s translation above.

It is all the saints who are to be equipped for the work of ministry. “The ministry is Christ’s own programme of service to the world, which he entrusts to the whole membership of the people of God, not to a group of clergy within the church.” 22

These saints are to be understood as “all God’s people” (so N.I.V.). The New Testament does not elevate a certain class of Christians to be saints, nor does it designate a certain individual as a saint. All believers are saints. Paul uses the term in this way, as is evident from the way he addresses whole congregations (cf. Rom. 1:7, Eph. 1:1, Phil 4:21-22).

Everyone in the body of Christ is to be equipped. The term “equipping” is a translation of katartismos, a medical/technical term referring to mending or repairing. 23 It thus suggests the preparation, training and discipline necessary to equip believers to do the work of ministry. Work, ergon, is singular in number, indicating that there is but one work in the body of Christ, although it comes in various forms. This work is one of service, of ministry. When trained, all Christians are ministers.

The efforts of the specially gifted ones and the equipped ones, together, will be a ministry/service (diakonias) which will result in an expanded and stronger body of Christ. The result will be a church which is encouraged and built up. Such up-building comes from ministry to members and non-members alike. It is mutual service for believers and outreach to unbelievers. Service would include adding to the body’s numbers, integrating them into the body, maintaining peace, giving encouragement, and preventing any division which might weaken the body. 24


[His gifts were for the equipping of saints]
until we all reach the unity of the faith and
the knowledge of the Son of God,
to maturity,
to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (4:13).


Achievement in any venture is measured against set goals. Paul has a purpose for everyone in the church of Christ and, as Baker points out, that purpose is “not numerical growth, but the attainment of spiritual maturity.” 25 All believers, whether they be the specially gifted equippers or those equipped by them, have this assignment.

Earlier in the chapter, Paul had highlighted the importance of “maintaining the unity of the Spirit” (4:3). He now addresses the goal of reaching unity, particularly unity of faith, and unity of knowledge of Christ. Markus Barth holds that Christ is here the subject of the faith and the knowledge. He interprets the phrase as Christ’s faithfulness to his Father and to his people, and Christ’s knowledge of his Father and of his church. 26

Although this interpretation is attractive and accords with some of the recent emphasis in Pauline studies, 27 in context, it would seem more reasonable to take Christ as the object of the faith and knowledge in which Christians are to be united. They are to grow in their faith, in their belief and trust in the good news about Christ, and they are to grow in their knowledge of Christ, an intimate knowledge of God’s Son. It is true, however, that as the body is built up, it will come to resemble Christ in faithfulness and knowledge. The end result will be greater unity.

Christian unity is to be coupled with maturity, as the last two phrases of verse 13 show. The passage speaks of becoming “mature and reaching the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Although it is tempting to agree with Barth who sees andra teleion (“mature man”) as “the Perfect Man” 28 Christ, it is more likely that it refers to the whole church which is to mature.

K. Wuest states that the “apostle has in mind the spiritual maturity of each saint.” 29 Mitton also sees it as a reference to the individual Christian. 30 Other commentators argue for the notion of corporate maturity, and it seems reasonable to take this latter approach since all Christians, together, are to grow in Christ. Abbott believes that “the singular [mature man] is used because it refers to the church as a whole.” 31

Such a view fits in with Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians on the church as a corporate body which is made up of various individuals. However, we probably should not distinguish too sharply between the maturing of the individual and the {94} whole body. Even for corporate maturity to be a reality, each individual Christian must also be maturing. It is toward that end that equipping of all the saints is so crucial.

How is such maturity to be measured? The standard Paul sets is Christ himself! Mitton puts it well when he suggests, “It is as though in Jesus Christ God is saying: ‘This is human life as I meant it to be.’ ” 32 It is not enough for us to set all kinds of standards for the church, be they ethical or theological. There will, after all, still be a human measurement, even if selected from Scripture. The standard God sets is the “fullness of Christ.” This fullness must include the totality of his teaching and modeling. It must also include the fullness of God which is embodied in Christ. Certainly this is a high standard toward which the individual Christian and the church to strive! Nor is it a task which will be completed in this life!

We have come full circle in this passage. Christ is the one who has given specially gifted persons to his church. These particular gifted ones are charged with equipping everyone in the body so that they may all minister, and minister in such a way that the church is built up in Christ and becomes mature in Christ. This task is given to all who make up the body of Christ, the church, while she waits for the return of her Master. Such an ongoing maturing process is, as Paul promises, a protection against the negative realities of living out the Christian life in this world (4:14). Christ himself is the measure of Christian maturity. The astounding prospect is that believers will some day be like their Savior and Lord. The apostle John once wrote, “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).


  1. Rick Joyner. The Harvest (Pineville NC: Morningstar, 1989), 94.
  2. John A. Mackay, God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and This Present Time (New York: Macmillan, 1953).
  3. In Ephesians 4:7 charis is to be understood as a reference to spiritual gifts. John R.W. Stott writes, “Although Paul does not here employ the term charismata for ‘gifts’ (as he does in Romans 12:6 and 1 Corinthians 12:4), yet clearly it is to these that he is referring. For ‘grace’ is charis, and the ‘gifts’ are charismata.” (God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 155.
  4. Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 478.
  5. My own translation here and subsequently.
  6. {95}
  7. See the parallel emphasis on all members of the Trinity in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6.
  8. Intensive pronoun autos.
  9. See Kenneth S. Wuest. Ephesians and Colossians in the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, 100-101; T. K. Abbot. The Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. (ICC). Edinburgh: T& T. Clark, 1987, 116.
  10. Nathan Larry Baker, “Living the Dream: Ethics in Ephesians,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 22 (Fall 1979) 48.
  11. See James Allan Hewett, New Testament Greek. Peabody: Hendrickson Pub. 1986, 17.
  12. See Ephesians 4:11 in Beck’s and in Williams’ translations.
  13. J. Stott, God’s New Society, 160.
  14. C. Leslie Mitton, Ephesians. (The N.C.B.C.) Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, 150.
  15. See Ephesians 3:5; 2 Peter 3:2-4
  16. Note responses to this view: Eldon Woodcock, “The Gift of Apostleship,” The Alliance Witness 114 (February 21, 1979) 21,22; Robert Duncan Culver, “The Apostles and the Apostolate in the New Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 134 (April-June 1977) 131-143.
  17. Note the emphasis in the Vineyard Movement. The entire Fall 1989 issue of Equipping the Saints has the theme, “Introducing the Prophetic Ministry.”
  18. C. L. Mitton, Ephesians, 151.
  19. A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV. The Epistles of Paul. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931, 537.
  20. New English Bible “And these were his gifts. . . .” See also a very recent version: Heinz W. Cassirer, God’s New Covenant. A New Testament Translation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, 357.
  21. G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison in the Revised Standard Version (New Claridon Bible). Oxford University Press, 1976, 75-76.
  22. J. A. Mackay, God’s Order, 185.
  23. G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters, 76.
  24. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 537.
  25. C. L. Mitton, Ephesians, 152.
  26. N. Baker, “Living the Dream,” 48.
  27. M. Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 489.
  28. See the debate in relation to Romans 3:22, 26. E.g., J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary). Dallas: Word Books, 1988, 166; G. Howard, “The ‘Faith of Christ,’ ” Expository Times 85 (April 1974) 212-214.
  29. Markus Barth translates “Perfect Man” here, referring to Christ. For a detailed study see Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 489ff.
  30. K. Wuest, Ephesians and Colossians, 102.
  31. C. L. Mitton, Ephesians, 154.
  32. T. K. Abbott, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 120.
  33. C. L. Mitton, Ephesians, 154.
John Vooys is an instructor at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B.C.

Previous | Next