Understanding the Church of Christ Leadership Vacuum

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I want to be clear up front that the issue I am discussing isn’t directed toward any specific people or congregations but are more general observations over a long period of time.

The Restoration Movement often feels like a movement that isn’t moving. By moving I don’t mean radical anti-biblical changes. I mean movement in clear biblical instruction that would lead to health, vitality and growth in congregations. I believe this lack of movement is a direct result of the conclusions reached through the way we read the Bible that we need to reconsider.

Let’s start with what is often called the Fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4,

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his 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 people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 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.”

Eph 4:11-16

In attempting to restore New Testament Christianity a large number of Churches of Christ would narrow this down from a Fivefold ministry to a Threefold ministry – excluding apostles and prophets. Apostles would get excluded because they died and when one reads the New Testament looking for authority to approve practice, there wouldn’t be any reason to think the apostolic role is still warranted much less authorized. Prophets are excluded because, the thought goes, the gift of prophesy ended a generation after the apostles because that gift was only (so they say) given by the apostles laying on of hands so when the apostles died so did the ability to give those gifts (never mind people in Acts did receive the gifts directly from the Spirit like in Acts 10).

What happens when the Fivefold ministry becomes a Threefold ministry? There are two parts to the answer:

1 – Look at what Paul said the five parts were designed to do when the church has all five:

  • Equip the church serve others
  • Build up the church
  • Bring unity to God’s people
  • Increase our knowledge
  • Grow us to maturity
  • Keep us from heresy

What happens as a result of dropping apostles and prophets is – We have little equipping. I believe the church spends a lot of time building itself up, lots of fellowship, lots of encouraging. Unity is lacking. Knowledge is increasing. Maturity is lacking in many instances because we have equated maturity with lots of knowledge but maturity is more than that (more on that another day). We have been serious about keeping away from heresy.

However, we haven’t embraced the full range of what God wants for His church as seen in the list above because we reject the mechanisms God put into place to ensure these things happen. What is more, those who have gifts from God go unused because we don’t see much need for those gifts or those gifts are seen to challenge (rather than balance) the gifts we think do remain (see below on pastors and apostles/prophets).

2 – Look at what each role is designed to accomplish and consider what you are left with if you remove two and keep three. The results I just outlined at the end of #1 above make sense when you consider the roles that were kept and the roles that were not. When you lose your apostles, you lose your visionaries. You lose your church planters and lead equippers.

When you lose your prophets you lose the ability to have any authoritative way to critique the way things are. You are left with pastors who are tasked with shepherding the flock – making sure everyone is okay. Making sure everyone is okay needs the balance of apostles and prophets or else no one goes anywhere. Apostles and prophets need the balance of pastors to make sure everyone gets where God is taking them.

You are also left with teachers – those who will build the knowledge of the congregation but, again, without the checks and balances of apostles and prophets it is easy to get stagnant. Unapplied knowledge goes unchallenged and people become biblically obese.

Last, you are left with evangelists – the evangelists evangelized on Sunday to those who are already saved. Some did more and some produced fruit, let’s be fair. So much of the focus of the church became internal in the loss of the apostle (those sent out on mission) and the prophet (those given direction from God to critique the system).

We need to ask ourselves whether or not we were correct in tossing apostles and prophets. Keep in mind in the New testament there are over 20 named apostles. The apostolic role was not only for the 12. Are there people today who have the apostolic leaning? I believe there are and they go severely underutilized unless they want to go to a foreign country. Are there people in our midst who are in tune with the Lord on a very personal level that it would be important to hear their input?

If your answer is no to both of those items, that they aren’t warranted today, then it is important to figure out how to not grow stagnant within the convictions and interpretations you already possess – to be faithful to the scriptures that tell us to go out, to make disciples of the nations, etc even if you don’t think the roles exist. Maybe you are in the middle – open to these roles still having a place but not sure how it looks or works out. That’s good – pray that God would make that clear and that those who possess the abilities would be empowered to use their gifts. Or maybe you are already out ahead of the curve and bought into the Fivefold ministry in some form or fashion today. I would love to hear how that has been played out in your church and life.

I believe our lack of leadership is rooted in our lack of embracing all the gifts God gives the church and the source of those gifts – the Holy Spirit. If you no longer believe God gifts and sends people in the power of the Spirit to embody all God has for the church, the church has and will continue to suffer a leadership vacuum that won’t end well. If all you keep are the gifts that are internally focused (and even evangelists have turned inward thinking the invitation is evangelism) then the church will fail to thrive. But if we re-embrace the idea that God has gifted people among us to be sent on mission in our own neighborhoods and communities…and that God has gifted some with the ability to see things closer to how God sees them and give a healthy critique of what is happening in the church – then we can get back to seeing all of the purposes of all five gifts fulfilled. If not, the church will run on in an unaccountable, directionless, mission-less course where elders deacon, where evangelists teach the saved, and where teachers cover the same topics relentlessly for decades because that is how they were modeled what good biblical teaching looks like.

I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. I don’t mean to be harsh. I do mean to be direct. This requires a lot of prayer!

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