American evangelicals have developed a rather unhelpful way of speaking about vocational gospel work. We use idioms like “going into the ministry” to describe full-time pastoral employment — as if “ministry” were reserved only for pastors or other full-time gospel workers.
These idioms can mirror a larger problem among evangelicals — an obsession with professionalization. Many Christians often, even unconsciously, live as if ministry is best left to the professionals.
Does a new convert need discipling? Call the church staff. Does a sister need counseling? Find someone with a license. Does your neighbor need to hear the gospel? Call the pastor over. Despite how many times pastors remind one another, “Brothers, we are not professionals,” they may yet have a way to go in convincing their congregations of the same thing. Church members often view the leadership as those doing real gospel work. “Ministry” belongs to them.
The biblical portrait is quite different. Certainly, Scripture designates the work of pastors as ministry. Paul, for instance, commands Timothy, “Fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). But the biblical authors don’t reserve the word ministry merely for those in vocational gospel work or for pastors. Instead, every Christian is involved in the work of the ministry. Paul makes this point explicit in Ephesians 4:11–12:
He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
For Paul, the ministry of pastors and church leaders is “to equip” the saints for ministry. One ministry serves the other. Pastors are the supply line; church members are the front line. Ministry belongs to the members.
Priesthood of All Believers
Once we’re familiar with redemptive history, we realize how shocking, even scandalous, Paul’s assertion is. In the Old Testament, ministry in the temple was reserved for the priestly class. Further, in the old covenant, the Spirit empowered extraordinary individuals such as kings and prophets to equip them for certain commissions (Exodus 31:3; 35:31; 1 Samuel 16:13; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24).
But now that same Spirit has come on all of God’s people, indwelling them and gifting them to serve the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7, 12–13). The fact that we all minister says something about who we are — new covenant priests before God (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6). Our ability to minister to one another is rooted in our identity — an identity “given to each one of us” by grace (Ephesians 4:7).
Yes, pastors are given specific duties and are commissioned to carry out a ministry distinct from church members. But by and large, the Epistles focus on the ministry occurring among church members to one another.
Even within Ephesians 4, Paul’s oft-repeated body metaphor underscores this point. Pastors equip the members, and the members are the ones “building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). Equipped by the word, we echo that same word to one another, “[speak] the truth in love” so that we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Thus, “each part” must do its job so that the body “builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). Paul emphasizes the centrality of the congregation to care for and minister to one another.
Serving, Teaching, Counseling
This description accords with what we see elsewhere in the New Testament. The apostles don’t tell pastors how to establish programs or instruct them in how to franchise problems out to the “right people.” Instead, they encourage church members to do the ministry.
Consider, for instance, the well-known “one another” passages. Service doesn’t belong exclusively to deacons; members also are to “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Pastors aren’t the only ones who teach; members also “instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). The church music leader isn’t the only one blessing others with musical praise; members also sing to one another (Colossians 3:12–16). Certified counselors aren’t the only ones who help us through life’s problems; members also “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Even during our corporate gatherings, a time many Christians view as focused exclusively on the leadership’s ministry, the author of Hebrews underscores the role members play in serving and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24–25).
Our Everyday Ministry
One reason Christians tend to view ministry as belonging to pastors is because the supply line frankly seems a bit more glamorous and significant than the front line. Preaching or other public ministries just seem to look like the place where “real” ministry happens. But Paul indicates that the church’s teaching ministry is, at least in part, preparatory. It equips the members to carry out ministry — ministry every bit as real as the ministry of preaching.
Perhaps we lionize public ministry as the real thing precisely because what Paul calls “the work of ministry,” the ministry that members carry out, seems so small. Yet consider what Paul himself highlights throughout the rest of Ephesians as “the work of ministry.” What does the church’s teaching ministry prepare us to do? It equips us to
- put away slander, falsehood, and white lies, and speak truth from a heart of love (Ephesians 4:15, 25);
- work hard at our jobs (Ephesians 4:28; 6:5–8);
- put to death stinginess and share what we have with others (Ephesians 4:28);
- refrain from dirty jokes, profanity, and other “corrupting talk” (Ephesians 4:29; 5:4);
- be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32);
- avoid being deceived by false doctrine (Ephesians 5:6);
- love our wives and submit to our husbands (Ephesians 5:22–33);
- raise our children in a way that honors the Lord (Ephesians 6:4); and
- treat employees equitably and justly (Ephesians 6:9).
What does “real” ministry look like for Paul? It looks like two young moms putting aside rivalry and comparison to love and serve one another. It looks like a young man refusing to tell a dirty joke for a cheap laugh and instead choosing words that build up. It looks like cheerfully punching numbers into a spreadsheet from 9 to 5 as an act of devotion to the Lord.
It looks like a man laboring to help his wife spiritually thrive, even as he overlooks her unfair criticism. It looks like a wife choosing to honor her husband, even when given the opportunity to speak disrespectfully about him. It looks like inviting members to a meal after church, sharing the gospel with a neighbor, or sending an email to a discouraged brother.
None of these actions, of course, looks glamorous. But for Paul, these things are real ministry. Pastors teach and preach to fuel this type of work among members.
Family of Servants
How then should we respond to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:11–12? If you’re a member of a local church (and I hope you are), don’t wait for pastors or program directors to ask you to do something. Don’t wait to serve by looking for a church-sponsored program where you can exercise your gifts.
The church is a family. Embrace your identity as a brother or sister in that family. If you see a need, fill it. If someone needs encouragement, encourage them. Open your home, share what you have with others, and invite unbelievers into your life. The Bible portrays the church not as a religious club brimming with ministry programs, but as a family brimming with servants.
During the government-mandated lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19, programs halted in my congregation. But brothers and sisters committed to discipling still texted, called, and Zoomed fellow members during their lunch hour to discuss a book. Members found new, creative ways to serve their communities and reach their neighbors with the gospel.
Even hospitality continued, as church members gathered in open spaces, sitting six feet apart, encouraging one another with God’s promises. These saints did this not because pastors instituted a “social-distancing discipling program,” but because they were equipped by pastors to do the work of ministry, even when that ministry occurred while social distancing.
This is just one example of how the word of God equips every Christian, endowed with Spirit-empowered gifts, to minister in the church. Don’t look to professionals or credentialed Christians to carry out the mission of the church. God gave us leaders to equip church members, not to supplant them. Ministry belongs to the members.