The Bible, the church, and the ministry

To replicate the early church in faithful detail in order to be completed as the church of the end-time. Such was the goal of the Catholic Apostolic Church, as well as that of the newly emerging New Apostolic Church. But is such an objective even possible?

The founding fathers of the apostolic movement found the staples of the ministerial structure in Ephesians 4: 11: “And He Himself gave some to be Apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” So it was that the ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and shepherd came into being. But what about the fifth one? What became of the teacher?

Anything but clear

The fourfold number of ministries derives from the Swiss Reformer Calvin. Already a good 300 years earlier, he had regarded this as a blueprint for renewal. However, he arrived at completely different ministries, namely pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. He had been looking at more than justEphesians 4: 11—for example, Romans 12: 8 and 1 Corinthians 12: 28.

This just goes to show that the matter is not all that clear in the Bible—not even within the letter to the Ephesians itself! For example, the reference to evangelists and pastors is missing in verses 2: 20 and 3: 5. A more comprehensive look at the biblical record is thus required.

Apostles, deacons, congregational leaders

The only ministry that Jesus equipped with authority was the apostle ministry (Luke 9: 1-2; Matthew 28: 19; John 20: 21-23). Acts 6 relates how the apostles passed along a portion of their responsibilities, and called men to this purpose, through laying on of hands and prayer: the deacon was the first ministry to proceed from the apostle ministry.

The New Testament acknowledges two further ministerial designations: the bishop (epískopos) and the elder (presbýteros). The function of each was the same, namely to lead the local congregation. This is demonstrated in Acts 20: 17, 28, where Paul orders the elders in Ephesus to be summoned to him and then addresses them as bishops, which is rendered as overseers in the NKJV. (The original Greek text uses a term that means “overseer” in English).

Gifts instead of ministries

At times the New Testament provides a detailed description of the character of the respective ministry, as well as the associated call issued to those who were to bear it. Examples for the apostle ministry can be found in 2 Corinthians, examples for the deacon ministry can be found in 1 Timothy 3: 8–13, and examples for congregational leaders can be found in Titus 1:7-8 and 1 Timothy 3: 1–7.

For the evangelists and pastors inEphesians 4: 11, however, we do not find such explanations. These are therefore not ministries, but gifts to the congregation from within the congregation. This is also shown in 1 Corinthians 12: 28, where special gifts are listed, but not in association with a ministry.

The three-tiered church

Exegetes are agreed: there is no firmly defined ministerial structure in the New Testament period. This only begins to emerge in the second century

. In the process, the elder and the bishop diverge from one another. Linguistically, and in terms of content, the presbyter becomes a priest, whose emphasis is on divine service and sacrament. And the episcopate, on the other hand, becomes the church leadership.

It is in this way that the tripartite division of ministry that has since become common in all hierarchically structured churches—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, as well as New Apostolic—comes into being: apostles or bishops on top, priestly ministries in the middle, and the diaconate on the bottom.

Separation between ministry and hierarchy

That the intermediate ministerial levels in the New Apostolic Church are less of a spiritual nature is clear from the ministerial powers issued to each. For example, they are no different in the bishop than in the priest. This was something Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider also made clear when he presented an interim update on all things related to our concept of ministry in October 2017.

In so doing, he posed the question as to “whether the current hierarchical structure is still appropriate to the present needs of the Church”. After all, improved communication, simpler decision-making, greater reliance on individual competencies, and more consideration for the living conditions of an increasingly mobile society are among the demands of the time. “It is my conviction that today more than ever we need clearly defined responsibilities, firmly outlined duties, and—above all—greater flexibility,” he stated.

The importance the Chief Apostle attaches to this separation between ministry and hierarchy becomes repeatedly evident in the divine services: the authority of the ministry must not be used in order to justify organisational decisions. “That did not come into being at the throne of God, but rather in your head!” said the Chief Apostle in April 2017 in Guinea-Bissau. “We must be able to explain such rules. There must be a good reason for them. We must be able to convince people of them.”

Photo: Oliver Rütten

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