In the New Testament letter known as Ephesians, we find a short list of what might be called “leadership roles” in the church. The word “leadership” does not appear in this passage. Neither does the word “roles.” What we do read is this: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
As we read this passage, we wonder about the roles mentioned. Who exactly were the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers? What exactly did they do? How is this schema relevant to the church today?
In my commentary on Ephesians, I offer some brief answers to these questions. Here’s what I have written:
Commentators, preachers, and teachers have proposed various answers to these questions. There have been debates about whether all of these roles belong in the church today, or whether apostles and prophets were only for the early church. Many have tried to define the precise function of each role. Some have built elaborate missional models based on the five-fold schema of 4:11. The main problem with these sincere efforts is that Ephesians 4 gives us so little to go on. This passage does not explain the distinctive work of each role, only what they have in common, namely their source and their purpose.
We can fashion, however, a rough idea of the roles mentioned in verse 11. Apostles were authorized and sent to preach the gospel and to plant, nurture, and oversee churches. Prophets communicated God’s truth to God’s people, not only concerning the future (1 Cor 14:1-40). The meaning of the word “evangelist” suggests that this role had responsibility to share the gospel with those who had not received it. Pastors were those who oversaw and cared for God’s flock, much like literal shepherds with their sheep. In fact, the Greek word translated here as “pastor” means “shepherd.” In the New Testament, it is used in the sense of “pastor for people” only here, except for passages that speak of Jesus as the shepherd of his flock (John 10: 11– 16; Heb 13: 20; 1 Pet 2: 25). Finally, teachers instructed God’s people in God’s truth.
The various roles mentioned in 4:11 overlap considerably. Take Paul, for example. He was an apostle (Eph 1:1). Yet he also evangelized (1 Cor 1:17), taught (Col 1:28), and exercised pastoral oversight of his churches (1 Thess 1–5). Moreover, it’s likely that Paul prophesied (1 Cor 13: 2: 14: 3–6, 37). Furthermore, the Greek language used in Ephesians 4:11 suggests a strong connection between the role of pastor and teacher. A literal translation of this verse reads, “[Christ gave] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” While the absence of the definite article in front of “teachers” might be stylistic, it seems more likely that Paul regarded the functions of pastor and teacher as inextricably linked. The emphasis in our passage, at any rate, is not on the distinctions between the roles, but rather on what they share in common. They are all gifts from Christ to the church.
So, all of the “leadership” roles mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 have a common source: Christ. They also have a common purpose, which appears in verse 12. The NIV renders it this way: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:12). The translation “works of service” strangely obscures the meaning of the original Greek text, which reads literally, “a/the work of ministry.” Ministry is not something done only by apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. Rather, their job is to equip all of God’s people for ministry, and this ministry will build up the body of Christ, that is, the church.
However we understand the different leadership roles of Ephesians 4, what’s clear is that they all come from Christ and are given to the church to equip Christ’s people for ministry. As we seek to make connections between the leaders in Ephesians 4 and those in the church today, we might say the same things about what matters most. Church leaders are gifts from Christ to the church. And, no matter their roles, they all should contribute to the equipping of God’s people for ministry, for serving Christ and people so that the body of Christ might be built up.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.