Preaching and the Five-Fold Gifts of Ephesians 4

26 Jan

Is there a connection between preaching and congregational leadership? Put simply, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” But what exactly is that connection? To begin, let us trace the connection between preaching and leadership. Here we need to return to basics: how can we define “leadership” in the first place? One of the best descriptions I have come across is that of leadership guru John Maxwell, who famously stated that “Leadership is influence.”[1] And what, after all is preaching in its essence? Basically it is nothing more than a preacher attempting to influence an audience by means of a sermon.

Preachers hope to accomplish a wide variety of outcomes in the lives of their listeners: for example, some type of change in attitudes, behaviours or values; the impartation of biblical or theological knowledge; skills by which to live a fuller and more fruitful Christian life, or perhaps to evangelize non-believers with the gospel message. Actually the list of potential outcomes is virtually endless, but the point to be made here is that for each potential outcome the key word is influence. Through the sermon the preacher attempts to influence the listeners to do, think, explore faith, believe or behave differently than they did at the start of the message.

The link between leadership and preaching can be accomplished through the concept of ethos, or credibility. In terms of rhetorical theory, or the study of the various means by which a speaker persuades an audience, this connection goes back to classical times. In the fourth century BCE Aristotle stated in this connection:

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others…It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”[2]

 

For the preacher character is therefore most effective means of persuasion that he or she possesses. To phrase Aristotle negatively, without credibility the preacher truly has little or nothing by which to achieve the influence he or she hopes to achieve in the lives of the listeners. Unfortunately too many of us have had the all-too common experience of having to endure sermons delivered by somebody whose character is in doubt. If the listeners do not believe the preacher to be a credible person in terms of life and leadership, why even bother to listen? Consider further what Isocrates stated in the fifth century BCE in this regard:

“For who does not know that words carry greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that the argument which is made by a man’s life has more weight than that which is furnished by words?”[3]

 

In other words, as the old saying goes, “actions speak much louder than words.” Thus for a preacher to intimate that the listener should “Do as I say, and not as I do” simply will not work over the long haul required by faithful ministry.

Having established the connection between preaching and leadership, let us explore this relationship further. The question needing further development is this: how can churches maximize the leadership and influence potential of its preachers? In order to answer this question this study will advance the notion that the fivefold ministry gifts in Ephesians 4.11-12 should serve as the main driver both for leadership and preaching. In other words, this study holds that a church whose core leadership team is made up of individuals who clearly demonstrate and utilize these fivefold ministry gifts has the potential to maximize both its missional and preaching potential.

The key to making this connection between preaching and leadership is found in the following maxim: one should ideally serve and minister in the capacity of one’s gifts. It is abundantly clear that one of Paul’s favourite images for the church is the metaphor of a human body, as seen in such places as Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and throughout Ephesians. His argument is essentially that the church should ideally function exactly like a healthy human body: each organ or part of the body contributes something to the functioning of the entire body itself. If each part does exactly that which it was intended to do, the body functions healthily and grows organically. As Paul develops his argument, he states that within the human body, the organs do not squabble over which one is superior to another; all parts work together as they were designed for the common good, without complaining. If only this were true of many churches!

Taking a closer look at the Ephesians 4 passage, it is also clear in the flow of the chapter that unity is the essential foundation upon which a healthy church must be built. Paul points out in the first six verses that in reality there is not all that much in terms of doctrinal agreement to achieve unity. This discussion leads next into the development of the point that as the head of the church, Christ gave gifts out for a sole purpose: for the leadership of his church, which is his body. The purpose of establishing these five leadership gifts—apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher—is singular in terms of its flow: so that these leaders can in turn equip the saints, who are then tasked with carrying out the functions of ministry on the basis of their own gifts.

In a perfect church, then, leaders are not put into positions of leadership so that they will do all the work of ministry while the rest do little else but sit back and criticize. This is all too common in many churches today, however. Paul argues to the contrary that Christ put leaders into place to equip the saints so that they are empowered to minister. When this happens, he states, the church body is built up and the members grow to maturity. This maturity takes the form of both speaking the truth in love to each other and also learning to avoid spiritual deception. As a result of this maturity the body grows both spiritually and numerically as each part does its work. This overall picture of the way a church is intended to function includes both the leadership and the congregation doing its part for the overall functioning and growth of the entire church body.

The Fivefold Gifts

Returning to the subject of preaching and the fivefold ministry gifts, how does this prior discussion relate? Let us return to the point made above that Christ apportioned out these five gifts for the purpose of church leadership. Imagine with me for a moment (despite what some theologians have argued to the contrary) that all five of these gifts are still operational today. Moreover, these gifts are intended to describe a leadership team of a church. Imagine further a church that deliberately seeks out for its core leadership team those who consistently demonstrate one or more of these gifts.[4] So what we have on this church leadership team is an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor and a teacher all working together as a unit to lead this church.

Without getting overly technical in terms of description, what types of leadership gifts are we describing here? An apostle fits the category of one who is sent out for some specific mission, such as a person driven by the desire to plant new churches and to establish and oversee those plants in order to help them mature and grow. Apostles are often frustrated by what they perceive as churches who seek to maintain the status quo and are passionate about getting people involved in missional engagement.

Likewise prophets oftentimes challenge the status quo within churches, and as a result just like apostles they can be viewed as a threat to those in established (and perhaps comfortable?) church leadership roles. As a messenger of God, prophets oftentimes appear to have some type of mystical connection with the divine. Prophets tend to be driven and passionate about what they believe God wants the church to be about, and can also be confrontational when they see what they believe to be hypocrisy in the lives of others.

The last three gifts tend to be more familiar to most than the first two. Evangelists, for example, are those who seek both to recruit people to the faith of Christianity and also to bolster the evangelistic skills of Christians. Those with the gift of evangelism often eat, sleep and breathe evangelizing, and like the apostle and prophet can likewise become frustrated at the lack of missional engagement within churches. Often for evangelists their entire life is consumed with building relationships with non-believers as well as seeking to equip Christians with the skills to be able to share their faith in relevant and faithful ways.

Pastors bring to mind the image of a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. Not only do shepherds guard and protect the flock from outside attacks, they also feed, nourish and care for the sheep under their care. As Jesus stated in John 10.11-18, he is the ultimate model of what a pastor should aim to be—a good shepherd who both intimately knows and is known by his sheep. The reason that his sheep know his voice, he maintains, is that he is willing to lay down his life for them—the ultimate in self-sacrificial pastoral love for others. One potential problem of those with pastoral gifting is that oftentimes they can be accused of seeking to maintain that status quo mentioned above in the interests of guarding the flock. At times congregation members tend to view the pastor as nothing more than a “paid professional” whose job it is to maintain that comfortable status quo.

Teachers, finally, are those who can take complex and difficult concepts and explain them clearly and coherently to others. The most effective teachers are those who have that special ability to relate their teaching to a variety of learning styles. Moreover, the best teachers are those who are not only passionate about things they themselves learn, but are also eager to share what they have learned with others. Good teachers are passionate about teaching and have a strong desire to see others learn and put that new learning into practice. Negatively, at times teachers can come into conflict with those who have more charismatic gifts and tend to operate more in the moment and flow of the Spirit. Since their desire is to explore and explain some may view them as a “stick-in-the-mud” constantly applying the brakes to all forward momentum within the church unless they are completely satisfied on exhaustive biblical and theological grounds.

As this brief overview makes clear, each of the above leadership gifts contains pros and cons, strengths as well as weaknesses. Imagine the difficulties of having a church leadership team made up of five people with these gifts attempting to work together! And yet that is exactly what this study is arguing for—an ideal leadership team made up of individuals who clearly demonstrate one or more of these gifts, working together in unity for the growth and maturity of the church, as the image below shows. Ultimately the church can engage missionally in their community as the entire church functions as it was meant to do.

It is the contention of this paper that oftentimes churches, or perhaps even entire denominations, tend to major on one type of gift over another for its leadership and preaching focus. On the one hand, the more Pentecostal and charismatic churches tend to weigh in more heavily on the apostolic and prophetic types of leadership. On the other hand the “Bible church” types of denominations focus almost exclusively on developing leaders that are pastors and teachers. This orientation can result in churches with little or no room for charismatic manifestations of the Spirit. Few churches or denominations are exclusively evangelist-focused; in cases where the main leader has the gift of evangelism, this can result in a “revolving door church”  where people are entering Christianity but, having nobody to disciple and teach them, go right back out again. The other possible outcome is that in such a church the pastor preaches the exact same evangelistic sermon week in and week out, but is also frustrated that the majority of the congregation apparently shows no desire to evangelize.

The Fivefold Gifts and Preaching

Given this situation that operates in many churches, how can the fivefold ministry leadership gifts impact upon the issue of preaching? This study contends that a core leadership team that is made up of the fivefold gifts ideally accomplishes three important functions in terms of preaching and leadership. The assumption at this point is that the church we are describing functions in terms of the leadership orientation laid out in Ephesians 4—that is, gifted leaders equipping and empowering gifted believers to minister. The first function is that those on the leadership team themselves must be freed up to serve, minister and preach in light of each person’s leadership gift. In this way those on the leadership team both lead and preach in terms of their personality, passions and gifts. For example, the apostle must be allowed to do what apostles do—to plant churches, to be equipping others for leadership of future church plants, and to preach sermons that fire up people for a similar vision.

Likewise the prophet must be permitted to be a prophet and to function in that role. Every church needs that prophetic voice both on a leadership level and in the pulpit, challenging the status quo and giving a fresh word of insight, direction and conviction from God—no matter how difficult it may be to hear at times. Evangelists are freed up to build authentic relationships with non-believers and to bring new believers into the kingdom of God. They are likewise given the voice on the leadership team to challenge whether or not the church is authentically and missionally engaging with its surrounding community, and are given opportunities to mentor other believers and teach them how to share their faith in relevant and authentic ways. From the pulpit, evangelists not only preach evangelistically-oriented sermons, but also challenge and inspire others to evangelize.

Pastors are given the space and time to do what they do best—to humanize and care for needy and hurting people, both within and without the church. The pastor’s voice from the pulpit is also needed since often words of comfort and care are required. Those with different gifts on the leadership team also serve to protect pastors from burning out, which tends to be an occupational hazard for those with this gifting. Finally, the teacher is allowed to do what he or she does best: teach and inspire others! The teacher’s voice is often a needed corrective both on a leadership level as well as from the pulpit, calling others back to examine and to explore both Scripture and tradition more carefully.

The second function is a corollary of the first, namely that in order to bring about this balance requires a team-preaching approach. In order for the church to hear “the whole counsel of God,” as it were, they need to be exposed to the point of view of each leader. In my experience establishing and running a preaching team is extremely difficult but at the same time it can be very rewarding, both for those on the team and the congregation. While a team approach to preaching can certainly be difficult, in my opinion the potential benefits far outweigh the effort involved in maintaining the team.

The third function that this fivefold leadership ministry orientation accomplishes is that of mentoring and discipling those within the church. When leaders are freed up to minister and serve in the capacity of their own gifts, this gives them the space and time to do what they do best. This is in distinction to many churches that over-burden one or two paid staff members with responsibilities for which they have neither the desire nor gifts to accomplish. Instead this “Ephesians 4 leadership orientation” gives the leaders both the time and freedom to model the type of behaviour they hope to see in those they are leading and discipling. This also solves the credibility problem inherent in many churches, since church leaders typically are asking (or even demanding) their members to do things that they themselves cannot or will not do. How many church leaders currently are given the freedom to develop relationships with nonbelievers outside the church? And yet paradoxically many of these same church leaders constantly harangue their members from the pulpit that they should feel ashamed of themselves because they are not evangelizing the lost.

Conclusion

The aim of this study was to attempt to work out, in terms of pastoral theology and homiletics, a practical theology for the church and its leaders. To reiterate, the study argued that the bottom line is this: that ideally each person in the church should lead, serve and minister in terms of his or her gifts. Paradoxically, even though this concept is abundantly clear throughout Paul’s writings, and is actually not difficult at all to grasp, this has not been the case at all in the history of the church. Since the time of Constantine, the dominant model within the church in the Western tradition has been that of a fairly strict top-down hierarchy. As is clear from the world of politics, most who achieve power seek but one thing: to maintain or even increase their power. In the case of the church, with much at stake to lose, any threat to the loss of that power can oftentimes result in severe reprisals, as for example the reaction of the Catholic Church to Luther’s attempted reforms.

This being the case with human nature, I am frankly uncertain as to whether or not the ideal described in the study above can in reality be actualized. If it is just an unobtainable ideal, however, I have to ask: why did Paul consistently describe the church in such terms as a healthy and functioning body, with each part working together as designed for the growth of the whole? He clearly seemed to believe that this description of the church was in fact the way it should be and not some romantic ideal to be supplanted with a strict hierarchical polity. In other words, for Paul the body metaphor was both descriptive and prescriptive.

I believe further that while there is always the possibility that an established traditional church could certainly change its leadership orientation toward that which Paul described, in reality this move would be extremely difficult and costly for those already in leadership. At this juncture perhaps the way forward is to start afresh with a new church plant that proceeds slowly and carefully down the path of exploration of this fivefold leadership and preaching orientation described by Paul in Ephesians 4.

Bibliography

[1] Maxwell, John. Developing the Leader Within You, 1.

[2] Aristotle, Rhetoric (Book 1, Chapter 2).

[3] Isocrates, Antidosis, (Speech 15, Section 278).

[4] Of course I am not overlooking the qualifications of church leadership as laid out in passages such as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In fact this relates all the more to the earlier discussion of credibility, since these passages have to do with the example that a leader sets both inside and outside the church.

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