Benjamin Quinn, assistant professor of theology and history of ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.
Here [in Ephesians 4:12] is the incontrovertible evidence that the New Testament envisages ministry not as the prerogative of a clerical elite but as the privileged calling of all the people of God. Thank God that in our generation this biblical vision of an “every-member ministry” is taking a firm hold in the church.
–John Stott, The Message of Ephesians
If we don’t help our students see the “every-member ministry” vision of the New Testament, we aren’t teaching New Testament the way we need to be. Ephesians 4:12 provides an especially clear window into that vision. It helps correct a major problem that can arise in our ecclesiology.
I was personally awakened to the need to teach this vision by a heartbreaking encounter with my older brother, Brandon, who serves as the principal of the public high school from which he and I graduated. He recently told me a story about a kid we’ll call “Cory,” who was in and out of Brandon’s office for reasons mostly related to drug possession.
As Brandon questioned Cory about the situation, he discovered that Cory wasn’t actually a drug user. Cory had a much bigger problem.
Cory’s parents were using him to deliver drugs to another kid at school, who then delivered them to his own parents. The logic from Cory’s parents was that if Cory got caught, his punishment would be minimal as a minor; if they got caught, it would likely mean jail time.
In one emotional conversation with Cory, Brandon asked, “Cory, do you want out of this?” Cory’s teary-eyed response was, “Show me how! There ain’t no way out of this!”
After sharing this story, Brandon inquired about my job as a college and seminary professor. “What do you do every day?” I told him about various theology courses and students preparing for pastoral ministry and mission work. I also expressed great delight in my work despite its challenges.
Less than three minutes later, Brandon said – with complete sincerity – “I just don’t see how what I do is as important as what pastors, missionaries, or seminary professors do.”
My jaw dropped and my heart broke. How could Brandon conclude that his work is less valuable than mine?
I was immediately gripped by the gravity of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:12 that apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers are gifted in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
I was awakened to the problem of the pulpit-pew divide. A physical space between the pulpit and the pew in worship spaces is necessary for practical reasons. But the spiritual distance we create between the “ordained” and the “ordinary” is unfortunate and unbiblical.
What John Stott called “every-member-ministry” is precisely what Paul calls for in Ephesians 4:12. Paul’s words dismantle the common misconception among Christians that the “ordained” among us do the work of ministry. Is it true that those who receive a paycheck from a local church or Christian non-profit do “ministry”? Of course.
The problem is assuming that they are the only people in ministry, or assuming that their ministry – their work – is more important than everyone else’s.
Ephesians 4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers as those who are gifted by Christ to lead his people. Verse 12 explains the purpose for which those in verse 11 are gifted: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”
Paul’s language in verse 12 leaves no room for thinking that those in verse 11 occupy the entire space called “ministry.” Instead, it insists that every member of the body of Christ dons the clerical collar, so to speak, regardless of where their paycheck comes from.
This text makes a vital contribution to the doctrine of ecclesiology. In the community of faith, there is a centrality to the role of the ordained, but not superiority. Every member of Christ’s body is a minister in God’s economy of all things, and those set apart for the ministry of word and prayer are responsible for equipping the saints who minister to God’s world.
I have altered my teaching on ecclesiology in two concrete ways in response to this insight. First, I strive to expose the pulpit-pew divide in my students. For example, during class I ask my students if they’ve ever seen a school teacher, business leader, food service worker or politician publicly commissioned in their church as is typically done for pastors and missionaries.
Second, I emphasize the pastoral responsibility of equipping the saints for ministry. I explain that the “saints” of Ephesians 4:12 are not pastors, elders, and missionaries; they’re everyone in the body of Christ. And for what are they equipped? They’re equipped for what the Architect of All Things said is the most important part of their job description: the ministry of loving God and loving others. This is the key moment where theological educators can help bridge the gap between the pulpit and the pew.
Portions of this essay were adapted from Every Member a Minister: Toward a Theology of Work and Vocation (tentative title) by Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland II, forthcoming from Lexham Press.