Ministers speak as oracles of God
"If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen" (I Peter 4:11).
God has chosen certain channels to work through. He has chosen not only to indwell all believers by His Holy Spirit, but also to use men with His anointing to bring forth life to others. He has not chosen to use angels, but human ministers. He has given gifts to men, and we need not fear that He hasn't given enough. We should have confidence that He has given what we need.
A minister speaks for God. Our experience, our fellowship and history with God, and God's dealing with us will bring us to the place that when we speak, we speak as a mouthpiece for God. If we have really seen something that God has spoken to our hearts, we need to speak it. If we speak with faith as the oracles of God, the Holy Ghost will use what we speak. That word will be the word of the Lord. We must move with faith, and God can always correct us if we're wrong.
The Holy Spirit is the one who works the message in the minister. If the message is according to the Spirit and prompted by the Spirit, the words will be life to those who hear. He has chosen us to speak His words, and it is most important how we speak them. The hearers are learning not just from man but from God. When people listen, they should listen to what the Spirit of God is saying. They will learn from the anointing of the Spirit that is speaking through the minister. All the assembly should be listening for God, then going on to think upon the things they have learned.
In Acts 13:1 we see that there were prophets and teachers in Antioch at the time Paul and Barnabas were separated unto apostleship. We also read in the 27th verse, "For they that dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him." The Jews condemned the Christ because they could not hear the voices of the prophets. They had ears, but they could not hear. In a similar way, when ministry comes forth we are listening for the voice of God speaking to us within the words--not just the words that are coming forth. The words are important; God doesn't call us to stand up and "ramble." But while the words are important, more important is hearing the word of God underneath. The Spirit of God must be upholding the word. We must sense what God is trying to say to us through the words.
It is the Holy Spirit who discerns, and we who are open to receive. We should be more eager to receive than to reject. But we should never hear a word and receive it just because it's spoken by a certain brother. By the Spirit, we must try every word that is brought--not according to our own reasoning and opinions, but by the word of God. Both the speaker and the hearer should be moving in life under the anointing of the Spirit.
One revelation, differing ministries
In the body of Christ, Christ has given ministry: ministers and specific gifts. As we have seen, God's divine order is that the body might come into the unity of the faith through ministry. He has no other plan for the maturing of the saints. Whatever the ministry in a body sees and moves in is what the members partake of and move in. In some circumstances where God's plan is not able to function, God can reveal Himself to individuals. But all that He reveals in a believer's private prayer life, in his devotions, and in his reading of the scriptures, will bring him into the fellowship of the body. Believers will seek it out even at the cost of their lives.
The gifts of ministry are separate from the gifts of the Spirit. They are all manifestations of the Spirit, but the gifts Christ has given unto men (Ephesians 4) are men with the anointing of the Spirit and with the message worked in them by God. It is a continuing process, and the work of the Holy Spirit, but these men see something and they are here to bring the rest of the body into a oneness of faith. So these gifts have an important function. Any of the gifts of the Spirit could come through a minister, but I believe the gifts laid out in I Corinthians 12 are manifestations of the Spirit which may come through any brother to the church. Gifts of ministry are anointed by God for a specific purpose in the church, and they work continually. The gifts of the Spirit are also anointed by God for a specific purpose, but they are manifestations of the Spirit only for a specific need at a specific time.
Each of the ministries God has set in the body has its own purpose. The ministries are different from one another, but each one is only effective when the ministers are seeing the same thing. There is one revelation, but different ministries. If ministers are receiving from the Lord and God has truly called them, they should all be seeing the same truth and ministering the same truth. It may be in varying measures, but God has given each minister a measure of grace to minister what he sees. This God-given ability to minister is the only kind that will bring results. This doesn't leave anyone out, and it puts a responsibility upon those to whom God has given gifts. There is no ministry above another; they will all be held accountable for the grace that has been given to them.
Although it is very important, ministry of the word never eliminates the need for individual and corporate fellowship. Also, there may be brothers with functions other than those in the listing of gifts we about to consider. For example, one may have a ministry of exhortation, or praise. The whole body must function, not just a few of us. God, through ministry, will cause every member to function. The wisdom of God and gifts of the Spirit--not us in our own strength or wisdom--will supply whatever is needed at the time. The Holy Spirit is able to meet each need if we really believe Him. This leaves a full place for God to raise up anyone He wants to, and a full place for every ministry.
As ministers and as brothers, we must be co-laborers with God, moving in the same direction. We must continue to gain a fuller understanding of the purpose of God, and this gets right down to the smallest things. There must be love in all of our hearts as we get into this working, because it gets into very personal things. As ministers, we must humble ourselves before God so that His life might find expression in others. We're not trying to make others into what we want them to be; we're moving in the life of God, and we're workable.
The gifts of ministry are not a purpose within themselves, but they will bring forth a result that glorifies God. The gifts will pass away. Your ministry will pass away. In eternity we won't have need of these ministries. But right now, God has given them and we have great need of them! God has not chosen any other way. Sometimes we think, "God will take care of it," but God will not work in spite of us. There are serious consequences if ministry does not function in the church.
Five ministering gifts
"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13).
God has never removed the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers from the church. All five ministering gifts that God placed in the church originally are still in the church today. They are still functioning in the way God designed and for His divine purpose. Today there is a misuse of titles and definitions, so let us define these again for our understanding. When we see what these gifts are designed to do, we will have more knowledge of God's love and provision for us.
"And he gave some, apostles..." An apostle is "one that is sent." He is sent of God, separated unto the Lord for the work God has called him to do. Paul was an apostle. There were other men who were sent to do the work God called them to do: to go forth to minister the word, and to see God's people come together and give a local expression of the body of Christ.
An apostle, a delegate, or a messenger, is one that is sent with full "power of attorney" or authority to act in place of another. The sender remains behind to back up the one sent. So an apostle is one that is called of God and sent forth to do the things that Christ would do if He were here himself. The gift and works of the apostle have not ceased. Man has sometimes removed this gift, but God has not. There are still apostles that are sent forth with the full authority of God to do His divine will.
"...and some, prophets..." The prophet in the New Testament is one that keeps the divine will of the Father before the church. He keeps the church on course, right in the center of God's purpose. The Spirit uses the prophets to keep the living revelation before His church. I Corinthians 14 says that it is possible, and should be expected, to have inspired revelation come to the prophets as we gather together. By continual revealing through this ministry, we see how the church can move in God's purpose and fulfill His will.
In Acts 11:28, we see that Agabus signified by the Spirit that there should be a great drought throughout all the world, which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. The prophet may be used of God to foretell, but this is not the main purpose for which God gives prophets to the church. Prophets are ones who speak for God. They are primarily preachers of righteousness.
"...and some, evangelists..." Evangelists are called to proclaim the gospel. There were evangelists in the early church, and the gift continues today. An evangelist does see the purpose of God (what the church is), but he mainly has a burden and the grace working in his life to proclaim the good news of salvation. An evangelist is actually a "bringer of glad tidings." We see many times that the apostles and prophets, at some time or another, were used as evangelists to bring forth the glad tidings of the gospel as God moved upon them.
"...and some, pastors..." Pastors are also called bishops, overseers, shepherds, or elders. These words describe their function. A pastor or shepherd is one that watches out over, or oversees the body. Pastors or elders are always recognized in plurality, so that Christ may remain the head of His church as brothers function in the grace that is given them to watch out over the children of God.
The elder's function is to care for the flock of God. He is given grace to discern what is happening and to watch out for those who might rise up in the midst to draw away disciples unto themselves, or those who come in from the outside to defile the church of the living God. The New Testament uses two Greek words when speaking of elders or bishops. The word "presbuteros" is translated "elder" in Acts 14:23. The word "episkopos" is translated "overseer" in Acts 20:28 and "bishop" in I Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7, I Peter 2:25, and Philippians 1:1. These two Greek words imply the following: charge of the church; over, order, or direction; having charge of; a watch (sentry or scout), implying a goal or mark; to oversee; to beware; look diligently; take the oversight.
An elder is one that wants what God wants for His children. He is an example to the flock and leads them as God has given him charge. Elders have a care for God's children in a special way. This is the function for which Christ has given them to the church. Their ministry is effective only as the flock recognizes the authority (or anointing) God has placed on them.
"...and teachers..." Teachers are those that are given the grace (ability) to break apart the word of God and feed the church. The grace (ability to minister life) may differ in different men. Teachers are given spiritual insight and understanding, along with the ability (grace) to impart it to the assembly, by the Spirit. They teach the commandments of the Lord, expound the scriptures, and teach doctrines. The ministry of the word mainly comes to the church through the teacher and the prophet. We saw in Acts 13 that there were five prophets and teachers at Antioch, but we may have more or fewer, depending upon the need and the size of the gathering.
In Romans 12:5-10 we see that it is grace and faith which allow the supply of Christ to come to the body through the different ministering gifts: "So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another..."
"The supply of Christ" is the meaning of all ministry. This is not just good sermons; it is the supply of Christ coming to us in life. These gifts are in the hands of Jesus, and they should be under His control, to benefit the body of Christ. They are given for "the perfecting (maturing) of the saints," and "for the work of ministry," so that God can edify (build up) the body of Christ and so we can reach out and do what He has designed us to do. This perfecting is not going to take place in some other age. Paul plainly says that it will take place in this age, because only in the church age do we see these gifts that Christ gave for the perfecting of the saints. We are to come to full knowledge, be brought to full maturity--not halfway.
In the natural, physical realm, we realize that we need food to grow. In the spiritual realm it is no different. To grow, we must partake of nourishment, partake of life--the food God has for us. The words that are spoken will be life if they are coming from the hand of God. God does feed His own through the supply of the different ministers He has set in the midst.
The members of the body of Christ must recognize the authority flowing through these gifts if perfection (maturity) is going to take place in the body. We must be spiritual enough to accept God's word as it is brought, and God's divine will and purpose as it is worked in the midst of the body through these gifts. Until we as a church are willing to be obedient to God and His word, and willing to respect the gifts He has set in the midst, we will not come into the unity of the faith or to the knowledge of the Son of God. We will not know the fullness of Christ. Also, there is no place given for some to have it and some not. The scripture says "till we all come..."
One of the great troubles in the church today is the lack of members willing to be in subjection to the gifts God has set in the body. There is not enough respect and reverence given to the gifts of God, or to accepting the words given through these gifts to the church. This never implies that we get our eyes upon man. We get our eyes upon Christ, and by becoming spiritual, we are able to discern what is good and evil, not being carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). We will be able to discern those that are apostles and sent of God, those that are prophets, those that are God's true evangelists and pastors and teachers, and be willing to become subject to the will of God as it is worked out in the body.
Ministry of the word
Prophets and teachers must have the same revelation; they must be seeing the same thing. Their ministers differ in the manner in which the revelation is brought forth, but the end purpose is the same: to bring the church to oneness in Christ. The two gifts give balance to the ministry of the word so that the church might stay in the purpose of God and so that each member will have understanding in the plan of God. These ministries bring God's church into a unity of the faith so that the church's ministry--giving a witness to the world of the reality of Christ--will be manifested.
In Frankly Speaking, Vol. I, John W. Kennedy lists four things that result from the lack of adequate ministry of the word:
A smallness of spiritual understanding. (We are spiritually "narrow-minded," so to speak.)
An absence of spiritual discernment. (We discern by our natural minds and reasoning rather than by the Spirit.)
A weakness of spiritual character. (Ministry builds character. As ministry of the word is obeyed and we "eat" or act upon the word of God, we partake of the character of God. We start to reveal who God is in our daily walk.)
A limited capacity to work together and fellowship with others.
Sometimes because of our thinking about being "Spirit-led," we cut out the teaching ministry that would give direction, break down the word, and feed, week after week. When we do not have this in an assembly, ministry is just "shooting out" randomly--each one doing what he sees to do. But when we start to function properly, there will be both a prophetic ministry and a teaching ministry manifested through the overall ministry (not just one or two men), and we won't have this problem. People will come to the "edge of their seats." You won't be able to find a place on the front row when the word really starts to bring a demand. People will start to say, "Let's get there early so I can sit on the front seat!" When we start to give them something to feed on, the ones who want to move on will be there. We can't do this by changing the form; we just need to get under the control of the Spirit.
If we are going to move in God and be changed into His image, it is not enough just to have teachers in our assembly; we also need prophets to keep the revelation clear and God's purpose continually before us. On the other hand, we cannot have only prophets. We need teachers that are able to minister the word to feed us. (This was emphasized as Christ told Peter three times, "Feed my sheep.") We see that one without the other is not enough. We need all that God has provided. We must have God's perfect balance.
Many would put these gifts into two groups: one ministry appealing to man's emotions, the other ministry appealing to man's logic. This has never been God's purpose for giving these two gifts. I do not believe the revelation is limited to any emotional or logical explanation of the truth. All of God's revealing is by His Spirit to our spirit. As Christians, we do not know anything by the ability of our minds. We know in the ability of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:11-14). The simple difference between these two ministries of the word is not in the manner in which the message is brought, but whether the message comes in teaching or by more of a prophetic revealing of God's will and purpose. Although the expression may differ, the outworking of every message is Christ. These two ministries serve to do two different things, both necessary to the completeness of God's work in each believer. The revelation must be in balance as it is brought forth. Just as each member in the body has a function, so these two ministering gifts have their differing functions and purposes.
We cannot judge anything spiritual by the manner in which it is brought forth, nor can we judge the anointing by any outward evidence, other than whether it has a lasting effect on those who receive the message. Anointing is spiritually discerned, not emotionally felt. God does not try to appeal to the emotions or intellect of a man, but reveals Himself to us in the Spirit. The degree of inspiration can vary according to the fellowship between the vessel and God. God has given individuals the ability to discern by the Spirit the degree of inspiration and the truth of the message being brought forth at the time of utterance. Some utterances may have greater spiritual depth, but this does not mean we make a distinction in whom we look to for the revealing. We must all look to God and the anointing to teach us.
To see the benefits and purposes of these two ministries, we must be able to discern beyond the way and manner in which they deliver God's message. If we can see these truths, our faith can go ahead to receive truth and grow in grace and understanding in the mystery. If not, we will be continually taken up with personalities and abilities, or we could find ourselves judging God's anointing rather than being on the receiving end of God's ministering gifts. These gifts are given to the local church, and are a part of the local expression and subject to the body as the church is subject to Christ. When Christ calls a man and gives him a gift of ministry, He also gives the authority and ability to fulfill that ministry. These gifted men are part of the church, given by God to help bring it into perfection.
The reason for bringing out and emphasizing these two ministering gifts is to understand God's plan and why these gifts are placed in the church. Truth will set us free and give liberty to move in the Spirit, allowing God to call and set in His ministries. You may ask, "Where will these men come from?" I say, from the body of Christ and from the face of God. They must be God's men with God's message. These men must be those who look to God for what they minister to His church. We need the freedom of ministry. We need what God is saying, not what man has been taught in a school. We must know what the mind of the Spirit is for us as the body. We must have this ministry, because it is the only way God has designed for us to come to the stature of the fullness of Christ.
God doesn't delegate any authority in the New Testament church. Ministers are channels of spiritual authority, but God never puts His authority within them. God's authority is in the minister only as His life flows through him. The words the minister speaks must have God's authority and anointing on them. The members are submitted, not to the minister, but to the authority of Christ flowing through. In this way we submit one to another. Christ never relinquishes His place of headship. Recognizing God's authority will bring the church to oneness under the Head.
As individuals, we are always connected directly to the Head, whether we are ministers or not. There is no "small head" between members and Christ. Ministers must understand this, because it affects our ministry. Only as we understand this will we be able to function properly, with God's authority reaching out to affect others.
I believe the question of authority in the local church is brought forth in I Corinthians 15:24: "When he shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet." All rule and all authority must be put under Christ. He must be the last word. As we recognize this, we will respect the authority God has laid down in His gifts and in the word of God, and as we yield to the authority of God by the Spirit, then all of our judgments, our rules, and our authority will be brought into the perfect will, rule, and authority of Christ.
In I Corinthians 16:1 Paul says, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye." Paul took the authority of God, and spoke as an oracle of God, and men and women respected this. As they carried out the wishes of God (not the wishes of Paul), they were blessed. If we have the life of Christ in us, His commandments are not grievous. They are life unto us as we obey them. In I Thessalonians 5:12 Paul writes, "We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves." Paul asks the Thessalonian saints to recognize the authority of the ministers in their midst--not the men so much as the calling of God on those men. We are all members of the body, but all are not prophets, all are not teachers, all are not evangelists, all are not pastors. God has set gifts in the body as it pleased Him. Paul says we should recognize and give place to the gifts, and esteem them very highly in the love of Christ, for the sake of the work of their ministry.
II Thessalonians 3:14 indicates the authority in which Paul spoke: "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he maybe ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." Again, Paul spoke as an oracle of God. Just as we recognize Paul, John, Peter, and James as men that were inspired of God to write the scriptures we now are quoting, we must recognize the authority in the ministers God has set in the midst of the body in this hour, in this church age. If we are not willing to do this and recognize that God is using them and speaking through them, and that it is not man but God, we will not see the body of Christ come together, as is the desire in so many of our hearts.
Let us not look at great numbers. Let us not look to be condoned or recognized by man, because this is in direct contrast with the word of God. If men refused to recognize Christ as the Son of God, they will refuse to recognize those that are walking with God in the fullness of power. They will refuse to accept your ways and the ways that are set out in God's word. Be willing to be led by the Spirit, obedient to the Spirit, and be willing to take your place in the body of Christ and minister in the place God wants you to minister.
For the authority of God to flow through ministers' lives, they must be yielded to the Spirit and thus reflecting the life of Christ. Their lives must be beyond reproach, holy, hid in Christ. They must be willing to be obedient in all things as the Spirit of God leads them according to the word of God. As II Corinthians 7:1 says, "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." Only as the lives being used measure up to the life of God can these ministering gifts be effective. We must give no place for the enemy to come and bring division and strife into the body of Christ.
For spiritual authority to flow, we must abide in Christ and be obedient to the leading of the Spirit at any cost. We must forsake all outside authority and depend utterly upon the Spirit to reveal God's divine plan and will for us as we go forth day by day. We will have to pray without ceasing. We will have to gather together and continually stay before God for His divine purpose to be worked out in His body. We will have to stay abiding in the Vine. The only way the body can move in perfect coordination with the Head is to stay connected with the Head and in a healthy condition.
We see in the book of Acts that Paul and the other apostles, on their missionary journeys, appointed elders in different churches. We may take this to mean that the apostles were the ones that designated them. But we see in Acts 20:28 (NAS) that Paul said, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." Elders were set aside over the flock by the Holy Spirit. Paul is saying that even though the apostles appointed elders, the apostles were merely led of the Spirit to recognize those that were spiritual in the midst. It is clear that the authority of apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and elders comes directly from God by the Holy Ghost. They are set aside to do a work in the body, and the body must be willing to accept God's authority which comes to them and through them.
In II Timothy 3, Paul says that in the last days, perilous times shall come. He says that "men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away." This is what often creeps into the midst and robs the body of Christ of the authority that God has designated. Some men, even those who were appointed at one time to carry forth a ministry anointed by God, and through whom the gifts worked, fail to go on with God and let Christ become everything. When we fail to yield to the Spirit and the spiritual understanding that God brings, we will revert back to man's way.
Paul goes on to tell Timothy to "make full proof of thy ministry" (II Timothy 4:5). I believe that if we are spiritual, if we are seeking the Lord, and if we have refrained from the things of this world, we will know those that are God's by their fruits. If we are spiritual, we will be able to discern spiritual things and understand the things of God as He brings them to us and as He builds us into the fullness He is taking us into. Let us pray that God will show us His church by divine revelation, so that we might become part of it, making full proof of the ministry God has called us into, God making us one as we come into the fullness of Christ, taking on His mind and growing up into Him.
The authority that the church is shunning today is not the authority of man, but the authority of Christ. The book of Revelation states that Christ walks in the midst of the candlesticks and that He has the seven stars, or seven messengers of those seven churches, in His hand. If we shun the authority of God's messengers, in the forms we have spoken about, we are not shunning man, but God and His ways, His admonishments, and the edification He brings to us. So let us not be high-minded, but let us be in subjection to the body and to the leading of the Spirit, so that ministry might bring forth the fruits of righteousness.
The order of God in ministry
The order of God's authority is: God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, and man the head of woman (I Corinthians 11:3). If we move outside of this order, we will not see the fullness of God. Ministry is given to bring us to a place of fullness in God--fullness in functioning and fullness in fulfillment. We are "members in particular," and God has designed for each one to find fulfillment in Himself--in the exact place He has designed for him or her.
All the gifts of ministry we have just discussed have been given to men. Nowhere in scripture do we see women called to fulfill these ministries. I Corinthians 14:34,35 says, "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." This does not mean a woman cannot come and worship the Lord. She has a very important place in the outworking of God's plan. But God has given her no place of spoken ministry or authority in looking out over God's people.
We do see in the scriptures some called "deaconesses," such as one named Phoebe (Romans 16:1,2). Deacons and deaconesses are ones that serve. But this serving is not the ministry of the word. These may be ones who care for the saints. They may move from house to house, or they may wait on brothers passing through, like the apostle Paul in his time: serving him or waiting on his needs in such things as food. But nowhere do we see that the woman has been called to minister to or even address the church. Paul tells the women, if they have questions, to ask their husbands at home. If a woman does not have a husband, I think she can find a time to speak privately to those who have the care of the church. I know that God will honor this, and the plan of God will be worked out and lived out in a proper way.
If we find ourselves out of order, we need to get into order. Ministry is present to get us into order, and as we see what God has designed for ministry, we will start to order our lives accordingly. As we begin to "measure up" to these different qualifications, and as we start to see more clearly, grace will be manifested in individual members of the gathering. If the gathering is spiritual in any way, it will recognize grace moving through different brethren for ministry and for the care of their own souls. The body will submit properly and obey--and remember, all obedience is "as unto the Lord." We're not obeying man; we're obeying the Lord, just as the woman submits to her husband in all things "as unto the Lord." Everything is being done in direct relationship with the Holy Spirit, underneath the headship of Christ. We are connected to Him. We have received His life, and now we need to go on to receive His supply and nourishment.
Plurality of ministry
God does not call one man to lead the church. Men have allowed the one-pastor system to develop, but that does not mean it is the pattern of God. God's pattern is plurality, a functioning together, a flowing together, man not having the preeminence, but rather God moving, doing His perfect will in the church, feeding, keeping the church on course through the different ministries, with men watching out, caring for, and giving direction by the power of the Holy Spirit in each one's life.
"Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, 'Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.' And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:1-3). In this local gathering at Antioch, five prophets and teachers, ministers of the word, are named. We may conclude from this passage that these men were the spiritual leaders at Antioch. It is possible that the elders were represented in this group that "ministered to the Lord, and fasted." (In I Timothy 3:21, Paul states that an elder must be apt to teach.) There is a difference between a pastor and one that God calls to minister His word, but an overseer may also be a teacher or a prophet, or have some other gift. When the Spirit said "Separate me," the two that were set aside went forth as sent ones (apostles), but their ministry of the word and revelation of Christ did not change; they ministered as teachers and prophets. They also did the work of an evangelist where it was necessary. As we know, the winning of souls is the first labor of love in establishing a local assembly of believers. We can see that God is able to do His perfect work, and that He has chosen a plurality of ministry to function in the midst.
Many passages show us the plurality of ministry. Paul, passing by Ephesus, called for the elders to come to see him. To them he said: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified" (Acts 20:28-32). Here we see that there was a plurality of eldership. We see the function of overseers: what they do, their watchful care. Acts 14:23 says, "...ordained them elders in every church..." Titus 1:5 says, "and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee..."
Just because a man is called to be an elder and he meets the qualifications set forth in Titus and I Timothy does not mean he should go on to be the sole leader in a gathering. A plurality of eldership is required to meet the many needs of God's people. Shepherds or overseers can only care for a certain number of people. It takes grace to watch out over lives. It takes understanding in the purpose of God, and one man cannot watch out over hundreds of people as we see many trying to do today. We cannot say exactly how many elders are needed in a particular gathering, but we need more than just one. The number partly depends on how many people are gathering together.
If there is only one elder, we will see local churches being built around personalities rather than being led by the Spirit. The Lord has not designed that man should be the head of the body of Christ. Christ is the only head of the church. The only way Christ can rule as head of His church is by the anointing and by each member recognizing Christ as the head. We can only have the anointing if we are in God's divine order. If God's church is not in His order, there is always something out of balance.
If God's plan calls for two or more elders in every church, let us obey and allow the Spirit to take control and put the church in order. We will begin to see the beauty and perfect order of God as the Spirit moves through a many-membered body for oneness to His praise and glory. Every local assembly of believers that has Christ as its head bears the image of Christ and "one another" in all its life and activity. Oneness is the mark of God's church when the government and ministries are by His order and moving by the Spirit.
Locality of ministry
In the beginning, the apostles were sent forth under the leading of the Spirit to do different works. These works produced souls, and these souls came together to edify each other and to learn more of the word of God. As God added to the church, the ministering gifts began to be manifested in their midst. As these churches grew from a beginning work into the maturity of a local assembly with everything put in order, they sent forth other ones, and as more works were started, they also became established churches. This same pattern can be followed today.
The church is the "ecclesia," meaning those that are called out. It does not belong to a fellowship of churches or an organization. It belongs to Christ. It is made up of believers in a certain locality that gather together to worship and to receive the ministry of the word and gifts that God has set in their midst. Nowhere in the scriptures do we find that these groups are joined together even loosely. They are autonomous in their expression, and God gives ministry to each local gathering, to feed and to bring them to unity. This does not mean that the saints in different churches do not enjoy fellowship with other saints in the Lord, but they are "members in particular" in a certain locality. They gather so that the body might be edified, that they might be used of God, that the gifts might be manifested, and that the body might grow to the place of perfection or full maturity in Christ. As they mature, they will be led by the Spirit to reach out and start other works. Thus we will see other churches formed and the gospel spread according to the word of God rather than according to man's precepts.
If we find ourselves in a local gathering where we do not see the five ministering gifts coming together and ministering unto the Lord, we must look to the Lord to bring it about. We may run into difficulties, but this is where we stay before the Lord in prayer, seeking His face, and maybe even fasting.
I have talked to many leading men in the world who feel they have a ministry, but the problem is, they are not building the body of Christ together. They go beyond the area God has called them to work. If a man is a teacher, God has called him to work within the local church. Today, with the communication that is available, we can go way beyond what God intends, while not being under the authority of Christ and not seeing the body of Christ brought to the place of maturity--the very purpose for which God has given ministry!
An apostle may admonish and exhort in any local assembly, but he is there only by invitation and has no authority to oversee the gathering. In a similar way, an elder cannot be transferred to another church as an elder. If he moves to another area, he can become part of that local church and maybe after some time he may be recognized as an elder. But moving elders back and forth by man's choice is not according to God's word. The gifts of the Spirit work through elders in the same way as in all other members wherever they are, but they are only elders in their local church.
There are times that God may bring a minister from the outside to help and encourage us, and to labor for awhile, or someone in our midst may be used in an extra-local ministry to encourage the body of Christ in other places. But normally we look for God to work His ministry through local brothers. We need to bear the responsibility, realizing that ministry in the church will come from among the brotherhood. If God moves upon a man, he must be willing to submit to what God wants to do, because we are not looking for ministers to come in from somewhere else. We must stay before God as a brotherhood. There must be a desire in our hearts for God to move upon men's hearts in our midst with a burden of ministry. We must be actively engaged. We cannot let other areas crowd this out, but continue to wait upon the Lord for ministry.
Recognize those who labor among you
"But we beseech you, brethren, to know them that labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work's sake. Be at peace among yourselves" (I Thessalonians 5:12,13).
We don't vote on men to fill needs, nor do we force men to serve. It is the grace of God that moves in a man's heart. If he has a gift of God, and if grace is working in his life, he should be willing to serve. He serves out of the love of God that has been shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. He sees the vision, he sees the need, and more than that, he hears the voice of the Spirit of God speaking to him. He senses the responsibility placed upon him by God. It is a great responsibility to have the privilege of serving God's people, serving them Christ, watching out over them, caring for them.
When God gives ministry, we need to recognize it. We look for ministry to come through men who meet the qualifications. We can't choose men by a vote. We can't look at positions and ask, "Who's going to be this? And who's going to be that?" Ministers must be recognized for the grace of God working through them and for the qualifications which they meet. They must have lives that are upright; their families must be in order. In some situations, this may take some time, but ministers can't come and "set the church in order" until their families are in order. If a man does not meet the qualifications, he should not be pointed out as one who has a ministry. (Also note that when brothers are recognized as ministers, this may not necessarily mean everybody has recognized them, but there is a recognition by those who are spiritual and responsible within the body.)
Remember, this is all being done by the grace of God, the ability that comes from the Spirit of God. So no man can take the credit. The glory must be given to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the head of His church. These ministers are brothers in the Lord, sons of God, members in particular. We don't give them titles, as such. So many today want to give titles to leaders and honor them by the title. But let's honor each other by submitting to each other, looking to the Lord and partaking of the ministry coming forth from these brothers. Nowhere has God called us to honor these men above the status of "a brother." Each one is a brother among the brethren (see Acts 15:22). They are not "heads." Christ is the only head of His church. All of these gifts by Christ to the church are servants. They are called to serve, and if we remember this, we will avoid the common tendency to honor the person of man rather than glorifying God and honoring Him in what He is doing.
We may not realize the importance of these areas, but if we see Christ as the head of His church, it is important to give thought to the expressions we use or the names we put upon people such as "pastor," "elder," or "reverend." Many with more education like to be called "doctor" because of their degree. I say nothing against them except that this has no meaning in the working of God. We do not honor the person of man; we honor the person of Christ. If these men desire to function in the body of Christ, they can be nothing more than brothers among the brethren, serving and giving of themselves.
Have we usurped the authority of Christ by becoming "recognized" in the church in the wrong way? The leaders (those who serve) do need to be recognized for what they are doing, and we need to share with them in material things as they share with us the spiritual things (I Corinthians 9:11-14). But we are not to give them a place higher than God gives them. They are here to serve and to meet the needs of God's children, to watch out over them, and to see that there is movement, discipline, and training of the family of God.
Another area to mention briefly is the greed in men's hearts in the world today that can affect the outworking of ministry. Men cannot be laboring for money. Ministry must be born out of the divine compulsion of the Spirit of God in a man's heart, and he will labor unto the Lord whether he gets any money or not. We do need to support those who are laboring. We need to give as God directs us. The laborer is worthy of his hire (I Timothy 5:18). God knows we have to live and we have to eat, but if we want to have a spiritual ministry, we must approach everything from a spiritual standpoint. When God calls, God provides. If a man is looking to the material benefits of our age, rather than looking to the Lord, he is not fit to minister or to have a place of service in the body of Christ. The way man has devised seems easier: we bring a man in and pay him wages to serve us and do what we think a minister ought to do. But where we have a functioning body, and where we have ministers that God has placed in the midst, it is an entirely different working, and we need to understand this. Do we want God, or do we want man? Do we want to be religious, or do we want to become spiritual, growing up into maturity?
If we have come far away from God's plan, it will not be easy to humble ourselves. We may find that men will fight for recognition. We will have to wait upon God. If hearts are sincere, really looking to God, and we're seeing in some degree what God wants, I know God will give the grace and enable us to partake of what He is doing, and we will go on to grow and mature as we enter into the supply that He has for us--and God has abundance! He has done everything in fullness. God will give us what we need--not particularly what we want, but what we need. We must have eyes and ears that are spiritually attuned to God. We are not just listening to man. We are listening to what the Spirit of God is saying through man, the word that God has prepared for us. For as we have said, ministry is given that we might receive the supply from the Head.