Our view of ministry in the local church has been influenced by a lot of things. Scripture is among these, but the corporate world is often too influential. Listening to the “organizational effectiveness” mandarins makes one think that we need to place a premium on leadership. We should develop leaders, mentor them, give them opportunities to succeed and advance. But that mindset can be at odds with what we find in the New Testament. There, the emphasis is quite often on followership rather than leadership. It is on serving, rather than leading, it is on abasing oneself rather than seeking opportunities. The corporate model can make one think that the thing that matters is being in leadership—being a pastor or an elder. But an attitude that restricts ministry in the local church to those who hold official office, those who are designated as pastors or elders, is a skewed view of both the body of Christ, and ministry.
In contrast, Paul describes what this should look like in Ephesians 4:15-16:
“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
There are at least two notable things here. First, it is the headship of Christ that Paul identifies as the center, the goal. It is into him we grow, and indeed the whole body grows. I recall that shortly before I came to understand the gospel clearly, when I was still a cultural Christian, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. I said something about good preaching and good music, and I will never forget his reply because it seemed so utterly obvious once I heard it. “How about Christ-centered?” We must hold fast to him who is our head. We must remember that we are the body of Christ, but a body most certainly has a head. Some traditions have inverted this order, and it looks very much like the body telling the head what to do.
Second, the plural nature of ministry is clear. It is the whole body, every joint, and each part working together that leads to the body building itself up in love. It is, in a sense, reflexive. The body, in reliance on the head, building itself up in love. Even though the church has as its foundation the apostles and prophets, the building up of the body is not restricted to only those formally recognized as pastors or elders.
The goal of edification, of “upbuilding” in the body of Christ, is to reach “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Children are a singular blessing, but we expect that they will grow up, that they will not stay children forever. That would be tragic. Maturity in the Christian life means growth, understanding, wisdom, and it is not limited to a handful of people. In the first half of this verse Paul has given us an idea of the scope he has in mind. “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” It is not that some, a few, the “clergy” attain to unity of the faith, and to know the Son of God, but all.
The New Testament sets forth qualifications for office such that not everyone in the local church is able to be a pastor or an elder. Not all can meet these qualifications. The contention around this usually appears as “Can women be pastors or elders?” But I suggest it is a limited view of ministry in the local church that is sometimes behind this. To suggest that unless women can be pastors or elders, they are barred from effective ministry, is to misunderstand ministry. In other words, if we insist that all aspects of ministry, all offices in the local church, are open to everyone, is it a de facto admission that we believe the ones who really matter are those who hold these offices? Do we unintentionally demote the rest of the body to a lower status, to a place of lesser importance? There are in fact many men who do not meet the qualifications for office in the local church, and indeed the vast majority of men will never stand in a pulpit to preach. Do we tell these men that they can never really have a role in building up the body because of this? Both women and men can and should have their part in building up the body. Men and women who hold no office can edify, encourage, model Christ and be servants to the local church in many ways. Don’t think that your ministry will only be effective if you’re “official.” The New Testament says otherwise.