Rethinking Ephesians 4:11-13
Can shepherds and teachers be separated? The grammatical argument is well-known: the original literally says, “and he gave the apostles, and the prophets, and the evangelists, and the shepherds and teachers”, and this indicates that the last two refer to one sort of person (“shepherd and teacher"s) rather than two (“shepherds” and “teachers”). The fact that elders and leaders are elsewhere exhorted both to shepherd the church and to teach the church, particularly in the Pastorals, adds weight to this idea. Some continue to refer to the gifts of Ephesians 4:11 as the “fivefold ministry”, which is unlikely (although, to be fair, not impossible). But many others, though generally thinking in terms of four ministries rather than five, continue to speak of the “Ephesians 4 teacher”, which implies that the two are different. This is strange for three reasons: first, because of the inconsistency in speaking of four ministries but breaking this one into two anyway; second, because most people to whom such language is applied (including me) do not believe such a category should exist, which is ironic; and third, because the “Ephesians 4 pastor” is almost never mentioned alongside him, which is very mysterious. For my part, I think “shepherds and teachers” are simply elders. But even if they are not, I see no reason to see an “Ephesians 4 teacher” as an expert teacher who writes books and runs training courses; they (we) are those who both shepherd people and teach people.
Is there any reason to suggest all the gifts are itinerant? In the New Testament, every apostle we know about was a travelling gospel preacher (Peter, John, James, Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Silas), and early church tradition suggests the others were as well (Andrew in Scythia, Bartholomew and Philip in Turkey, Thomas in Parthia, and so on). The named prophets we know about (Agabus, Judas, Silas) were all itinerant as well, and so was the only named evangelist (Philip). Presumably it is this pattern that has led so many to think of these gifts as necessarily itinerant, and even, sometimes, to equate “Ephesians 4 evangelist / teacher” with “itinerant evangelist / teacher”. But this goes too far. Apostles, admittedly, are itinerant; you cannot be a sent one without being sent anywhere. On the other hand, the prophets at Corinth, who are the subject of much of 1 Corinthians 12-14, were not visitors but members of the local church. There is no reason to think Philip’s daughters were itinerant. Nor is there any reason to believe that “shepherds and teachers” in general were itinerant; Paul was, but he is the only one we know about, and as has often been pointed out, the other apostolic references to shepherds and shepherding link the word to local church elders (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Peter 5:1-3), who are also those who teach the people (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). This does not prove that no shepherds and teachers travelled around, obviously - Paul himself did - but it does demonstrate that there is no reason to think that they must. Elders, who shepherd and teach the church, are a gift from the ascended Christ, and are in no way inferior for not being itinerant.
Most challengingly: Do the apostles and prophets mentioned here continue today? There is no question that there is a category of New Testament apostle that does not continue today: that of being an eyewitnesses of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). To my mind, there is no question that there is also a category of New Testament apostle that does continue today: Apollos certainly did not see the risen Christ, Barnabas probably didn’t, and it seems that Silas and Timothy didn’t, so there is no reason to limit the word to “eyewitnesses” (let alone “Scripture-writers”). I enjoy capital letters, so I’ve talked previously in terms of Apostles (eyewitnesses) and apostles (leaders sent to preach the gospel, reach new areas and plant churches), and even those who find this objectionable or annoying would agree that there is a distinction between the role of sent eyewitnesses and that of sent missionaries. The question, then, is whether Ephesians 4:11 refers to Apostles, or apostles.
The main arguments for seeing it as about apostles, the like of which we have today, are twofold. First, there is the point that the other ministries (prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) all continue throughout church history, so it would be odd if the apostles didn’t. And second, Paul says that they were given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ ...” Since we have not yet attained to the unity of the faith and full knowledge of Jesus - and who would deny that? - all of the gifts must continue today. To my mind, however, neither of these arguments are conclusive. The first risks begging the question, since (as we will see below) there is also a question over whether the prophets spoken of here are the sort that continue today. And although the second may be reading the grammar of the sentence correctly, it might very well also mean (1) Christ gave the gifts once, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and (2) the saints are equipped for the work of ministry in order to build up the body of Christ until we reach maturity. In other words, the ministry that continues throughout church history could well be the ministry of the saints, rather than the ministry of all the gifts. Frankly, it is hard to be certain either way.
Within the context of Ephesians, the other factor that has to be borne in mind is the way apostles and prophets are spoken of elsewhere. I have previously raised the question of whether 2:20 refers to the apostles and prophets in the first generation of the church, to the scriptures, or to the ongoing gifts throughout church history, and concluded that it is probably the former. There is no such debate about 3:5: it is certainly referring to the apostles and prophets of the first generation. Therefore, it is reasoned, 4:11 must also have the first generation in view. To be honest, however, I don’t think this argument is conclusive either. The grammar of the sentence is different to that in 2:20 and 3:5; instead of talking about “the apostles and prophets”, which might sound like a collective and defined group, it talks about “the apostles, and the prophets, and the evangelists, and the shepherds and teachers”, which implies that the first two are just the preeminent ones of the list (which is also the way Paul introduces them in 1 Corinthians 12, when the ongoing gift of prophecy, as it functions within the Corinthian church, is clearly in view). So I’m not sure that settles it, either.
Personally, I think the question of whether Ephesians 4:11 refers to (in my terms) Apostles or apostles is difficult to decide with certainty. I lean slightly towards the latter, but I don’t think there’s decisive evidence either way, and I certainly wouldn’t use it as a key text to argue for apostles today; 1 Corinthians 4 is more promising than Ephesians 4 in that regard. So when faced with three affirmations I have often heard made about Ephesians 4 ministries - that they are itinerant, that they include Ephesians 4 teachers as a distinct category, and that they prove apostles continue today - I find myself disagreeing with all three. Which, as a so-called Ephesians 4 teacher in an apostolic movement, is a little disconcerting.
Mind you, I still teach people, I still shepherd people, I still champion the importance of including all the different gifts in church life, and I still passionately believe in (and argue for) apostles today. So perhaps, when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter that much.