From Gift Ministry to Church Structure

NationsHeart's Spring Conference - August 1999


1) Axioms of gift and mission Theology:


  1. Every Christian has one or more gifts.
  2. Every Christian is called to exercise their gifts in the mission of God.
  3. The Ministry of every christian is required in the ministry and mission of the church
  4. Every gifting is equally important in the life of the church
  5. Gifts and ministry labels identified in the New Testament are not exhaustive. Other gifts and other ministries are equally possible.
  6. The Church exists only to achieve the vision and mission that God has given her.

2) Gifts in the New Testament: The New Testament lists a number of gifts throughout. They are in the terms: this "gift" minister did this or that. Most common are probably the Apostles and the Prophets. The Apostles clearly because of the high regard and the ground taking nature of the gifting. Apart from these references there are four lists:

  1. Romans 12 which is in the context of how we are to minister. In other words the burden of the passage is the spirit in which gifts are exercised.
  2. 1Cor 12:1ff which is the beginning of a long (3 chapters or 20% of the book) discussion on gift ministry. These gifts are clearly different in tone and quality to other giftings in other lists. In my theology I refer to them as the power gifts simply indicating that they are more difficult to fake than the others. They are offered in the context of body ministry.
  3. 1Cor 12:28ff which describes ministries in the church in the context of body ministry. This is the only list which specifies a hierarchy of gifts. Considering the Sitz and the context, care should be taken before pushing this hierarchy too far.
  4. Eph 4:11,12 This list is a list of ministries in terms of what Christ has given to the church for correct operation of the church.

3) The Hierarchy of Gifts I stated above that only one of the four gift lists has a hierarchy. 1Cor 12:28 reads: And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. It is important to read this verse in the context and consider the Sitz im Lieben. The Sitz or life setting of the passage is a church that is ruled by the spectacular. Specifically those with the gift of tongues were held in the highest regard. This is in direct contrast to the qualities for leadership outlined in 1Timothy. In the context Paul goes to great pains to emphasize two things. Firstly he emphasizes that despite the spectacular nature of tongues, in the broader strategic sense it doesn't achieve much (1Cor 14:5). Secondly he emphasizes the equality of giftings in the body. Paul writes in 1Cor 12:13: For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (see also vss 14-27) Once we place 1Cor 12:28 into this context and this Sitz the meaning becomes different to what it may appear at first reading. Paul is not describing a hierarchy within the church rather he is describing a hierarchy of usefulness to the strategic mission of the church. He is specifically countering the navel gazing attitude in the Corinthian's exaltation of tongues with the list of the most outlooking giftings and telling them to move on and seek the more outlooking gifts (1Cor 12:29 - 31a): All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts.

4) The problem of Measuring Gifts The last line of this quotation brings us to the next question: are the giftings static? Continuously through chapters 12 to 14, Paul encourages the reader to seek after and desire the "higher" giftings. This implies one of several things. It could imply that giftings are given by God on a non-permanent basis. In other words the gifting is something that can be given and taken away based on the specific direction of God and prayer of the person. Alternatively it could mean that giftings are something that the christian matures into. In other words as the christian matures, they exercise more gifts. I believe that the key is that they are giftings from the Spirit for the specific calling, ministry and mission of the person. As such both the above are to a certain extent true. The group of gifts that are exhibited by any one christian at any one time are dependent on their calling and the outworking of that calling in their ministry and their part of the mission. Callings tend to be relatively static - although they may not be - and for this reason giftings tend to be static apart from the maturity factor. It is well accepted that spirituality and operation of gifts ie skill in operation of gifts develops in exercise, for example people's sensitivity to the Spirit develops as they listen. This leads to the issue of how to measure the giftings of people. NationsHeart has used two methods: the gift survey (Hush) and secondly the Network process (Bugbee, Cousins and Hybels). Both identify giftings based on a series of questions about the abilities and passion of the person in various gift areas. While I believe in and applaud this approach to releasing people into ministry we must be aware of the problems inherent in this approach.

  1. They can only measure the point at which people are. There is the question of changing calling and changing maturity.
  2. They can only measure giftings that are being exercised or that a person has passion about. I exercise some gifts that I am not passionate about. I have developed passion and I exercise gifts that I didn't have two years ago.
  3. The survey is only as good as the understanding of the person that wrote it. I would be the first to state that any claim to total understanding belongs only to God.
  4. The survey is only as good as the person who interprets it.

These gift identification methods are very good tools in the process of ministry formation. We should continue to use them in this sphere. However we must remember that like all our creations they are flawed in various areas. I would suggest that any gift identification process will suffer from sampling error. It will suffer from snapshot effect - what is true today may not be true tomorrow - and the limitations of the process outlined above.

5) Five Fold Ministries of the Church (Eph 4:11):

Apostle: the apostle is a primary vision leader. They are the keeper of the tradition and a church planter. Their leadership style is a modelling leadership, a ground breaking leadership and a vision achieving leadership. They tend to fill gaps within the church to achieve the vision. While the vision defines direction and shape of the church, their role is vision formulation and expression.

Prophet: primarily the prophet is someone who re-points the church back to God. They are an identifier of issues, a messenger of God. They continually compare the church to the vision and also the standard of the Bible. They are called more than any other office to be independent and to be God's representative.

Pastor: the pastor is the christian healer. They soften the harsh edges of the world, and they support the christian in need.

Teacher: the teacher is an analyst. They are a keeper of the tradition. They apply and analyse the tradition to shape the church and the activities within the church. The teacher is also a keeper of the vision. Whereas the apostle and the Prophet hold the vision from the direction of the spirit, the teacher critiques the vision on the basis of the tradition.

Evangelist: the Evangelist has a heart to win souls for God. They point the church outwards to the needy world. They lay before the church the crying need of the sinner.

6) The fivefold ministries as Vision Leadership. The ministries in Eph 4:11 have traditionally been called the five fold Ministries of the church. It is important to realise there are a number of other Ministries, some defined in New Testament and some unknown, that are equally important. Each to a certain extent holds the vision. Each defines the vision to the Church. They each act in a different ways on the vision and have a different imperative when attempting to achieve the vision. It is the total viewpoint, across the five ministries, that defines the church's viewpoint. Attempting to structure the church, or achieve the vision without the viewpoint of each of the five fold Ministries will result in a church that is less than it should be.

7) Accountability, authority, and issues for leadership: Each of the five fold Ministries has a role in shaping the life of the church. Each is responsible for the out working of the vision based upon the imperative of their ministry. Because there are at least five different viewpoints within the Ministry of the church, the immediate result, at the two extremes is either dominance and a power struggle at one end or non- accountability and error at the other end. In between these two extremes is the place the Church has to find itself. The New Testament model is clear, no leader acted in a vacuum. Local churches were led by a group of one or more leaders accountable to the other christian leaders or churches. They were also accountable to the congregation. This is implicit in the strictures that Paul places on the choosing of leaders and also their discipline. In the Pauline model, Paul acted more as mentor. Paul rarely exerted his authority unless the churches that he mentored had strayed into serious error. Paul himself, as an itinerant apostle, was the closest thing to ministry that wasn't accountable. However he made himself accountable to the Council of Jerusalem . The New Testament model avoids the two problems at either extreme mentioned above, by giving autonomy to each leader while at the same time requiring accountability to the other leaders as a group and ultimately the rest of the Church.The accountability in this context does not mean a critique of activities or tasks but rather a critique of vision, Theology, maturity and righteousness. In practice this largely means a mentorial and supportive role between leaders.

8) Ministry Positions vs The Five fold ministries Paul's description of his process of choosing leaders in 1Timothy 3 is important for the understanding of the distinction between gift ministry and positional leaders in the church. In this passage Paul describes two key ministries in his churches that of Bishop or overseer and that of Deacon. In Chapter 5 he continues to describe a third office that of Widow. From careful reading of Paul's epistles it seems that he had a team of workers such as Timothy, Titus and John Mark who were sent to specific churches to lead at specific times or to deal with specific problems. Paul himself split his time between church planting ie staying in a town or city until a church could stand alone and itinerating around his growing flock of churches. In each of his churches, Paul appointed a leadership structure presumably based on the roles of bishop, deacon and widow. It is clear that the key leadership role was that of overseer or bishop. The other two roles were a caring, charity, practical love role within the church body and externally. It is interesting to note that the qualifications for leadership of the church are not based on giftedness but rather on maturity and upright character. When we examine the Judean church we find a similar structure. The Judean apostles were split between itinerating much as Paul did and ministering at home. The development of a leadership structure begins in Acts 6 with the choosing of the seven. At this point the twelve make very clear their calling. They were to be the keepers of the tradition ie the Gospel rather than administrators of churches. At the time of the first council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) there was a clear distinction between the role of Apostle and the presbuteros or elder. The church is being led not by the pre-eminent Apostle - Peter - but by the relatively unknown James the brother of Jesus who was presumably an elder. By the time of Paul's second visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21, there is no mention of Apostles at all, only the presbuteros or elders.

9) Leadership We come to a key question of this paper: "What is the relationship between leadership of the church and gifting?" It is clear from the cursory reading presented here in the section headed "Ministry Positions vs the five fold ministries" that leadership was not based in any one gifting in either the Jerusalem Church or in Paul's churches. Positional leadership of the churches was based in the roles of the elder and the bishop. These roles in turn were based in the maturity of the christian rather than their gift mix. Further if we identify the seven in Acts 6 as the beginning of the diaconate, then we find that their ministry beyond their commissioned roles can be described in the categories of Eph 4:11 & 12. Stephen, for example, appears to be operating in the gifting of evangelist (Acts 6:8ff) as does Philip (Acts 8:4ff). At the same time as identifying that in the early church there is no discernible relationship between positional leadership and gifting, I identify the generic issue that must be addressed. The issue is that the role of positional leadership in the church in the past 2000 years has ranged from abused, incompetent to highly effective. In our experience it appears that it is not enough to simply identify christian maturity and award the mantle of positional leadership. I would suggest that, despite it not being recorded, the basis of choice of overseers went beyond the lists in 1Timothy. Paul chose those people, who together with basic leadership qualities, demonstrated an understanding of the vision and ability to hold the vision. To support in this, he and his fellow workers regularly visited to cultivate the vision. I would suggest that this cultivation was a two way process between Paul and his itinerant teams and the churches. The qualities of vision leadership identified above are supported by what we know of the Jerusalem church. If we accept the thesis of the extra qualities in the choosing of elders and bishops, then the choice of James the brother of Jesus as the key positional leader becomes more plausible. On conversion, James had the opportunity to reinterpret his intimate knowledge of his brother in the context of the vision of the Jerusalem church. The vision of the Jerusalem church was keeper of the tradition expressed as the Gospel. A vision that had as its clear complement the missionary vision of Paul and others. I have made a clear distinction between positional leadership and gift ministry. Those chosen for positional leadership would be gifted leaders whatever other things were in their gifting. They would hold the vision, but beyond this there is no distinction. So where is the connection to gift ministry? If we return to the Jerusalem church, we can begin to understand. In the development of the Jerusalem church we have seen a slow but sure devolution of positional leadership from the apostles to the elders. In chapter 6 they appointed the 7 to do church administration to allow them to minister in their gifting. In the council of Jerusalem in chapter 15 it becomes even more clear that the only positional leaders are the elders. The question can be answered by closely considering how the Apostles were leading in these two incidents in the Jerusalem church. They were leading by ministering in their gifts. Whether an Apostle is in positional leadership or not, they effectively lead by shaping the vision. An apostle by the exercising of their gifting will be heard, will shape the church and will redirect the church in the way it will go unless the church totally rejects God's vision. Each gifting has a role to play in vision formation. They each critique and add to the vision based on the imperative of their giftings. This is what we see happening in the interplay between Peter and James in Acts 15. This is also, I would suggest, together with the outworking of the giftings, what Paul was getting at in Ephesians 4 when he described these ministries as gifts from Christ to the church. Once we have this understanding, we have the basis of how a council or college based leadership structure would work.

10) The Council or College The concept of a Council of mature leaders gifted in various ways in the Ministries of the church, implies that the leadership of the Church as a whole rests with a large number of people. The clear danger with a council is the number of people that have to agree for the Church to do anything. The role of the vision is to clearly define the direction of the church. The mature leaders, as the council, take the vision and implement it. A key part in this process is the role of the apostle. The apostle is the primary visionary leader within the church. It is the apostle's role to form and shape the vision, to articulate the vision and to cause the mature leaders of the council to internalize the vision. As the members of the council internalize the vision, they critique it, they re- mold it, they re- emphasise it in terms of the imperatives of their own ministry. They then proceed to implement their part of the vision. Having stated this process in this manner, it is easy to get the feeling that this is a one-way process, that it is a single cycle. This is a continuing process where the internalization and re- articulation of the vision by the council members adds further impetus to the vision definition process by the apostle. Equally true, is that while the Apostle is the primary vision leader, any christian can add to the vision of the Church. It is imperative that both the council and indeed the Church is open to the vision coming from someone unexpected.

11) Succession: If all the authority, the vision process and ultimately the Ministry of the Church is to be based within the council, then that council itself has to be accountable for the succession. There has to be a clearly defined process under which people become members of the council. The basis on which someone becomes a member of the council has to be transparent, objective and defensible. The rules have to be clearly articulated and the process formal. The reason for rules have to be clearly articulated is so that any person can look at an appointment to the council and say "yes that person fits those rules". Equally true, the process has to be formal enough so that in the memory of the church, people can say "yes that person went through the process". When I say rules, I mean that the Church should state that members will be released into ministry, which is what the council actually is, when they are mature, when they are trained, when they are responsible. I do not mean the kind of rules that generally surround these kinds of processes. When I say process I mean a preparation for ministry that includes a high profile within the church and at the end formal commissioning. The concept is two fold: firstly the members of the council are mature, trained, finished, ministers, secondly they have been recognised and perhaps even trained by the Church for that role. This is a variation of the master:disciple role that is so familiar from Jesus' ministry and others in the Bible. It is desirable that each person can demonstrate that they have gone through this process in this Church or another.

12) Redefining the term "Elder" It is unclear to me the basis on which the role of elder is defined in many churches. The New Testament uses the term Elder to refer to those ministers who have responsibility for the oversight of a church. This is subtly different to the role of elders on an elders council. When the New Testament says elder they essentially mean the kind of role that we pay ministers to perform. Thus the distinction between Elder and other ministers such as Paul or other apostles is and that they are not connected to a single church in an oversight role.

13) Redefining the term "Minister" In gift theology the term Minister, where it is used, identifies a person exercising a gift. In many churches, the term minister or its co- term pastor, identifies someone who is paid to exercise a strictly defined role. Payment appears to be inextricably linked with authority and position within the church. In the New Testament few, if any, ministers were regularly paid. Paul relied on either gifts from the various churches or on his trade of tent making. The practise of the payment of a stipend was the response to the practical issue of needing to release ministers from the burden of bread winning and allow them to concentrate on their Ministries. There is no link between payment and work on the one hand and payment and authority on the other. The authority is linked to position. It is just as the valid to have a paid position for the senior church leader as to have a tent maker position. I would suggest that any church's ministry team could easily be made up of both paid and unpaid ministers with identified positions, roles and responsibilities. It could also include ministers with no position, role or responsibility within the church, but rather were released to minister within their gifts in ways that were not directly affecting the church. This is coming back close to the concept of the council or college.

14) Accountability in a gift ministry and New Testament church ethos. It is important to realise that leadership within the church goes beyond those traditionally called elders and ministers. Because of the methodology of vision leadership, the attempt to cause everyone in the church to own the vision, they are not the only holders of the vision. To the extent that vision leadership has been successful, the Church as a whole will own the vision. In this context the leadership structure has to be accountable to the global ownership of the vision. It should also be noted that any vision is larger than one small group of people. As such we have to build structures to vision across the traditional divide between the pulpit and the pews.

15) Throwback thinking In moving forward into a gift ministry structure, we must be aware of the problem of throwback thinking. In this direction, you will be moving from a traditional hierarchical structure in which direction and authority is from the top down, to a structure in which everyone is empowered. Leadership is defined in terms of articulating vision and mentoring. This all takes time as it is a huge paradigm shift.

16) A Possible Structure: While we are wedded to concept of gift ministry, which includes the concept that everyone is a minister and ministering within their gifts, it is equally clear that there will be always some people within the church that are not moving into the leadership role. In this model, there is a council made up of those ministers who belong the church who are recognised as mature, finished ministers. There is no distinction between the Ministries currently described as eldership and those described as ministry team. There is also no distinction between paid and unpaid ministry. There is a clear method of succession via the ministers in training to the council. This process has two parts to it: training, which may be apprenticeship or formal training, and recognition and Commissioning to the ministers council. Within the council, there will be distinction based on role and responsibility and also maturity. However each minister is accountable to the others and also the congregation. Structures will have to be put in place to ensure this accountability and to ensure cross fertilization of vision.