Even at the local community level, there was very little formal organization within the body of Christ, as depicted in the New Testament. What little organization that did exist was very simple and “organic” in nature–more closely resembling a family, a village, or an indigenous tribal culture than the modern corporate world. The Bible says:
And He Himself gave some as apostles, and others as prophets, and others as evangelists, and others as shepherds and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building-up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!
Ephesians 4:11-13, DLNT
“Apostles” were the original ambassadors of Christianity, men chosen by the Lord and recognized by the ekklesia” in the 1st century as having the direct empowering of the Holy Spirit; which they received on the day of Pentecost (See: Acts 2:1-12). They alone had the authority to pass along the miraculous empowering of the Holy Spirit to others (See: Acts 8:18-19). “Prophets” were men and women who were indirectly empowered by the Holy Spirit “through the laying on of the apostles hands” (See: Acts 6:3-8, 8:14-19) and through whom God’s word was made known during the first century, prior to the completion of the New Testament.
NOTE: The Bible says that “God’s household”—the family of God—is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20, NASB). There are no longer apostles or prophets in the world today because, after writing the Book of Revelation, thereby completing the holy and inspired written Word of God, the last apostle–the Apostle John–died; and the “empowering” of the Holy Spirit was no longer passed along to others–for only the apostles themselves had authority from God to do that. This is why there have been no additional writings added to the New Testament since the days of the original apostles and prophets of the 1st century. However, while we no longer have the apostles and prophets walking among us, the New Testament, which contains their inspired writings and teachings, continues to serve as the foundation of the Christian faith today.
In addition to the “apostles” and “prophets” who, as we have already seen, gave us the inspired, written Word of God, the Apostle Paul reminded the Christians living in Ephesus that God has also provided them with “evangelists… shepherds… and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building-up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12, DLNT).
~ teachers ~
It is important to have people qualified as “teachers” –we call then “study helpers” or “learning guides”–within each small-group. These are people who are well-grounded in the faith, life-long students of the Word, and who can help foster and facilitate deep Bible learning–both individual and small-group learning–among all God’s children. Two areas of caution with regard to teachers:
- Jesus, speaking with regard to the spiritual leaders of the day said: “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:6-12, NASB). When Jesus used the word [ῥαββί – Rabbi] in the passage, He was speaking of a significant “title” of importance. Strong’s Concordance defines the title as meaning: “my teacher,” or “my master.” But Jesus goes on to use another term that the Greek language translates as [διδάσκαλος (didaskalos)- teacher] when He says, “for One is your Teacher.” So it becomes apparent that Jesus didn’t want either term–Rabbi or Teacher–used as a title to define a position of authority within the kingdom of God. The term “teacher” should only be used in a utilitarian sense–describing some work or function–but never as denoting some particular position of importance or special status within the body of Christ. Furthermore, no child of God should ever look to someone else, or refer to another, as “my teacher” as though that person had the right to exercise spiritual authority over them; for our only Teacher is Christ who speaks to us, leads us, and guides us through His written Word! For these reasons, we much prefer to use phrases like, “learning guide,” or “study helper,” to refer to those brothers and sisters in Christ who help facilitate our exploration of God’s written Word.
- The prophet James, who we believe to be one of the shepherds among the family of God in Jerusalem, and the physical brother of Jesus, said: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Regardless of what we call them, those who step into the utilitarian role of guiding others in their study of the Word assume a great responsibility and liability; for they will one day give an account not only for themselves and what they believe, but for what they have led others to believe, as well.
~ evangelists ~
In addition to the teachers within each small-group, the Bible speaks of “evangelists”–well trained and qualified public proclaimers of the Word–who often speak among the larger assembly whenever the small-groups come together, but who also circulate among the groups seeking to educate, motivate, and encourage the family of God. Speaking of the work of an evangelist, the Apostle Paul said to Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2, NASB). So then, the evangelists are the teachers of the teachers. But the Apostle Paul also went on to tell Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, NASB). So the evangelists who labor among the family of God within any given city or region have a the very unique task of seeing to it that all of God’s children within the “ekklesian” (small-groups) in the area are walking in accordance with the will of God, as set forth within the Word of God.
~ shepherds ~
As God’s family grows spiritually and numerically in a given community, and as faithful Christian men grow in their love and knowledge of the Lord and become qualified by scripture, they should be recognized by all of God’s family living in that area as “shepherds” of the flock. Shepherds are also sometimes referred to as “elders” or “overseers” in the New Testament.
Some modern version of the New Testament translate the Greek word [ποιμένας (poimenas) – shepherds] as “pastors”. But the word “pastor” is a relatively modern English word and, like the word “church,” it conveys meanings and impressions that, while helping to bolster and facilitate modern, institutional, corporate, religious culture, are not altogether in keeping with actual Bible teaching. So, rather than using the word, “pastor”–with all the modern connotations that word brings up in people’s minds–we believe it is far better to use the word “shepherd,” as it is more accurately translated in the Disciples Literal New Testament (2011), or Young’s Literal Translation (1862), or the Wycliffe Bible (1395). Not only is the word, “shepherd,” the accurate literal translation, but it gives us a much clearer picture of the work and responsibilities of these wonderful servants of God.
Concerning the role and responsibility of the shepherds, the Apostle Peter wrote: Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:1-3, NASB). From this passage, we learn that the shepherds, or elders, do not wield any kind of legislative power or executive authority over the children of God. They do not constitute a Board of Executives. They are not lawgivers and judges. Rather, they are counselors and guardians. They do not “lord it over” those among whom they minister by forcing the children of God to believe and practice whatever they think, say, or believe. Instead, the authority they wield comes by way of their examples of faith, love, and submission to the Word of God. And, in response to their spiritual oversight, the children of God are admonished to, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV). These well grounded and faithful men of God must, as the Apostle Paul said to the elders of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NASB). It appears from scripture that elders, or shepherds, are to minister among the Christians residing within their local communities and among whom they live–not in large geographical areas or regions–in order to provide stewardship and spiritual counseling commensurate with their responsibility to shepherd God’s flock.
~ servants ~
We know that there were also men and women who served as designated public “servants” within and among God’s family. For example, to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul said: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess [diakonon – servant] of the church at Cen′chre-ae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2, RSV). Far from being positions of power and authority, these men and women were simply servants of the Lord who had been asked to take responsibility for seeing to particular needs and various things that needed tending to among the family of God. They moved among their respective Christian communities, and perhaps even the community at large, as representatives of God’s family–taking care of physical needs and providing hands-on assistance to others when and where needed.