In keeping with the new format of reclaimingthemission.com, here’s the week’s second post from Ty Grigg, a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community. Read about him here. Ty is reposting his critique of the APEST polycentric paradym for church ministry that has become so ubiquitous among Missional churches. Based on the Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher distinctions found in Ephesians 4:11, this model of leadership advocates for a mutually submissive leadership that is led by these 5 gifted leaders. Most recently our friends Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim fleshed out their case for APEST in their book Permanent Revolution (it’s a good book). I don’t agree with everything Ty says. I did a M.A. New Testament thesis 30 years ago that convinced me the structure of the church’s leadership is charismatically derived (from the gifts -charismata – of the Spirit) and that it is mutually participative, not hierarchical. I’m an advocate of APEST but suspect it has been taken too far at times. Therefore I think we need to have these discussions in a well balanced Scripture driven way. Ty wrote this post to the website Release The APE, a really GREAT site dedicated to the reclaiming of the full APEST model of leadership for the church. Check out that website. I highly recommend it. Ty’s post is a great pushback. So read it carefully and let the discussion begin! David Fitch
Dear ‘Release the Ape’,
As you know, the “equippers” of Ephesians 4:11-12 has become a foundational text among many evangelicals. However the more I study Eph. 4 and I look at it in the context of the rest of the New Testament and the early church writings, I have a nagging suspicion that we have read a schema into the text that isn’t there. The APEST is like a trendy wool sweater. I see it in my drawer and I want to wear it, but then I put it on and remember how much it makes me itch.
Itch #1: There is no evidence that the APEST schema was ever “a thing” in the early church Pre-Constantine. In fact, the evidence of the NT and the early church fathers is that other offices/schemas had more influence on leadership offices and functions.
In the New Testament, there are only a handful of times when apostles are referenced outside of the Twelve (Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7; Gal. 1:19; 2 Cor. 11:5,13 “false apostles”) which indicates that there were apostles besides the Twelve but it doesn’t give the impression that they were common. In early Christian writings, ‘apostles’ are almost always talked about as a founding group in the past, not as a present ministry. I could only find one exception in the Didache (circa 50-120 A.D.) that mentions the practice of receiving apostles. Beyond that one reference, the mention of apostles as a present ministry is absent – a few centuries before Constantine. There are only two references to evangelists (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5). Surprisingly, ‘evangelist’ is left off Paul’s list in 1 Cor. 12:28. Shepherd is only found in one other place in the NT and it’s in reference to Jesus. In the early church writings and the pastorals (1 & 2 Tim., Titus), the APE is absent altogether and in its place are offices: overseers (bishops), elders (presbyters), and deacons.
Itch #2: Where do we get the clear attributes for each of these functions? It’s not at all clear that what we mean when we define apostles, prophets, and evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, is what Paul or the early church meant when they referred to these roles. In addition, it is not clear that Paul saw this list as exhaustive or mutually exclusive.
Most commentators note that the list in Eph. 4:11 is not a list of distinct functions but different aspects of the same function – the ministry of the Word of God. Wherever they are found in the NT, there is a lot of overlap between the roles. Paul refers to himself as an apostle and a teacher in 1 Tim. 2:7. In the Didache, apostles, prophets, and teachers are used interchangeably. To be an apostle implies that you are also a teacher and likely a prophet and evangelist too. In 2 Tim. 4:5, Timothy is exhorted by Paul to do the work of an evangelist immediately after Paul tells him to teach sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
To make it even more ambiguous, most scholars see Eph. 4:11 as clearly being a list of four instead of five with the last one being pastors who teach. Whether the list is four or five, the emphasis in Ephesians 4:11 is not about distinct gifts, but about a common Word-oriented leadership – these ministers all help equip the body for unity and maturity as guardians, proclaimers, and teachers of the Word of God.
Itch #3: Our fairness bias prevents us from seeing spiritual authority in Eph. 4:11.
Does each person in the church have one of these five (or four) orientations/ministries or is Eph. 4:11 describing leadership functions recognized by the church? The Release the Ape website states:
“The book of Ephesians was written to every day common people, not leaders! If you see leadership in this passage, it is because you are looking through a western lens of leadership and not through the Ephesian lens of the everyday common person who read this letter.”
I disagree. Each role listed in Eph. 4:11 implies the exercise of leadership and spiritual authority recognized by the community of believers. For example, the metaphor of shepherd was applied to kings in the Ancient Near East. A first century reader would likely hear the term ‘shepherd’ as a reference to a community leader, not just as a caring orientation. The role of apostle implies a commissioning (a sending) by Jesus or a community of Jesus. A teacher implies authority in relationship to students.
The most natural reading of the text points to these people as ones recognized in having spiritual leadership and authority in the church – not as intrinsic orientations that each believer develops. To force Eph. 4:11 to be for everyone, says more about our own uneasiness with the “unfairness” of some having authority and others not. We have a fairness bias (everyone gets the same thing) when we read Eph. 4:11. But God gives us what will make for unity and growth in the church. If everyone is a leader, then in essence nobody is a leader and the church is vulnerable to deceit and division.
Leadership and spiritual authority were especially important to the early church at a time when there was not a canon and false teachers and prophets and apostles were rampant. The exercising of spiritual authority through these APEST people kept the church established in truth and protected them from deceptive teachings.
Scripture is beautiful and messy in that it never prescribes a specific model for the church. There is a freedom and flexibility for our gospel communities to take shape in our own time, place, and culture – guided by the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, what itches me the most about this “fivefold sweater” is that it treats Scripture like a technical manual. We are reading for the schematics. We find a few schematic verses without their surrounding Scriptural context, without scholarly consultation, without a history of interpretation, and without seeing our own cultural biases. We think we have a missing piece of the puzzle that has held the church back for hundreds of years but in the end maybe we are missing the proverbial forest for the Eph. 4:11 tree.