American evangelical Christianity has both influenced and been influenced by shifts in American culture since before the founding of the Republic. One of the shifts, which has had lasting effects, was the turn toward a more radically democratic turn in politics at the turn of the 19th century. That turn is symbolized by the election of “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), who served as President of the United States from 1829–37. Jackson continues to loom in the background of the American (sub)consciousness and history. He was, in part, the product of the democratizing forces unleashed in the First Great Awakening a century prior to his election. Some see an analogy between the populism behind the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency to the rise of Andrew Jackson.
There was a strong anti-clerical and even anti-ecclesiastical and anti-institutional element to the First Great Awakening, which helped to form popular American evangelical theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening, which began around (or just before) the turn of the 19th century and lasted through the first half of the century, was, in some ways a departure from the First Great Awakening but in other ways was radicalization of the democratizing impulse of the earlier movement. There were reciprocal relations between the social democratizing associated with Jackson’s rise from humble roots to the highest office in the land. Revivalist evangelicalism helped to create a culture, which, in turn, the democratizing forces of the early 19th century reinforced.
The democratizing, leveling impulses preceding and unleashed by Jackson have never really subsided. Consider the direct, popular election of United States Senators, which began only in 1913. Prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution U.S. Senators were elected by State legislatures. There were unforeseen problems with the original procedure but intent of the founders was that the Senate should act as a check upon the popularly elected U.S. House of Representatives. Now, more than a century after the institution of popular election of Senators, the Senate frequently behaves less like a check on the House and a more deliberative body and more like a more upscale version of the House with longer terms (6 years versus 2 years). The 17th Amendment did what it intended to do, make Senators more accountable but that was precisely what the founders did not intend. They wanted the Senate to be somewhat insulated from popular pressure and waves of popular sentiment. The House was meant to be the direct voice of the people.
The internet is another great example of a radical leveling force. It may be the most democratizing force in the history of the world heretofore. Never before has mass publishing been available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Everyone with a mobile phone is now, potentially, his own television network, radio network, newspaper or magazine. Where once it took millions of dollars and an army of technicians to do a live broadcast of a college football game, now anyone with an iPhone can broadcast high-definition video of the game live to anyone who cares to watch. The benefits of this technology are obvious but there are detriments. People now broadcast their suicides and mobs broadcast calls for others to join violent, illegal riots.
American evangelicalism has both contributed to and been influenced by these leveling forces. American evangelicals are suspicious of the institutional church. Their relationship to the visible, institutional church is nomadic. They wander restlessly from house church to congregation to small group to parachurch organization looking for the next big thing, the next wave of enthusiasm, which they inevitably ascribe to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Since the early 19th century American evangelicalism has been a decided low-church affair dominated by two great impulses that I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE).
American evangelicals populism has had consequences for the way we read Scripture. Recently I was meditating on Ephesians 4:11–12 which says,
And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, and some to be evangelists, and some to be shepherds and teachers toward the restoring of the saints, unto the work of the ministry, unto the upbuilding of the body of Christ.
The predominant evangelical understanding of this passage for the last three decades has been that Paul means to say that it is the calling and function of the various offices of the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers) to enable the congregation to do the work of ministry. This has come to be known as “every member ministry.” This view of ministry and this interpretation of Ephesians 4:11–12 owes more to the influence of egalitarian American populism than it does the Apostle Paul’s authorial intent.
In the interests of full disclosure I have been on both sides of this question. In seminary I concluded in favor of the traditional interpretation, as rendered above. As a pastor in Kansas City, where I read the “church growth” literature and felt a tremendous pressure to “grow the church” I adopted the populist view. Since then, however, I have re-considered. I am back where I began for a several reasons:
- I have a better sense now of how I was influenced then by American populist culture and by the pressure to fit the church-growth models.
- Though Paul was quite willing to flout the cultural norms of his time and place (e.g., Col 3:11; Gal 3:28) the revisionist view reads post-19th-century egalitarianism back into Ephesians 4:11–12.
- Read on its own terms, in its original setting, it is highly unlikely that Paul intended to teach that the function of pastors is to train the laity to do the work of ministry.
- The grammar of the passage itself leads us away from the egalitarian reading.
- The LXX background in Ezra leads us away from the egalitarian reading.
- The history of Reformed interpretation leads us away from the egalitarian reading.
Christ, as ascended Lord, who has taken captivity captive and given good gifts to his church, has given as gifts several offices. Some of them temporary, for the canonical period (e.g., apostles and prophets), and some of them permanent and intended for the post-canonical period (e.g., pastor-teachers). It is my firm conviction that the apostolic gifts have ended. Put briefly: had they not ended there would be no ambiguity. The very existence of ambiguity tells us that they no longer exist. There was confusion about how the apostles were able to speak in natural languages they had not naturally learned and how they were able to heal, raise from the dead, and put to death but there was no doubt that the did so. Today, there is great and quite reasonable doubt as to whether anyone actually has apostolic power. That is all we really have to know.
The question before us is why or to what end Christ the Lord, by his Holy Spirit, has given these gifts? Are those offices intended to facilitate ministry or to do the work of ministry? In vs. 12 Paul says Christ gave these offices “toward (πρὸς) the restoring of the saints…”. “Toward” is a neutral translation of the preposition which Paul typically uses to signal a direction or a purpose: “toward” or “unto” (See e.g., Rom 1:10; 1:13; 3:26; 4:2; 5:1; 8:31; 10:1). Romans 15:2 is a close parallel to Ephesians 4:12. Paul says, “Let each of us please (ἀρεσκέτω) his neighbor (πλησίον) unto (εἰς) good (ἀγαθὸν) toward edification (οἰκοδομήν). Here Paul uses two different prepositions to signal essentially the same idea: toward or unto or even “for the purpose of.”
The parallelism of the two prepositions is what I noticed (again) recently in Ephesians 4. Christ gave these gifts (offices) to the visible “unto” or “toward” (πρὸς) the restoring of the saints, “unto” (εἰς) the edification of the body…”. The two prepositions say essentially the same thing. There are slight differences but the second elaborates upon or explains the first, hence the comma. The intent is not that the saints and the church should do the work of ministry but that the officers should do the work of ministry with the result that the saints would be restored and the church would be built up. The gifts (offices) restore and build the church. The church does not restore and build itself.
You might have noticed that I am translating the noun (καταρτισμὸν) often translated with equipping as restoring.” I suspect that the translation equipping has contributed to the egalitarian reading. This word occurs, in this form, only in this passage. When, however, one looks at the use of related terms in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures, which heavily influenced NT usage) we find those terms relating to restoration or mending (e.g., Ezra 4:12, 16, 5:3; 5:9, 11; 6:14). It is hard to miss the parallel between the building project in Ezra and the spiritual building project under way in the new covenant. The Holy Spirit is building his holy, Spiritual temple, the church, which is composed of believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation. In the Psalter (e.g., 8:3; 10:3; 28:9; references are to the LXX, which differs from the English text) it often denotes “to strengthen.” If so, then it is a parallel to edification (οἰκοδομὴν).
Finally, It is interesting to observe the way older interpreters, who wrote either before the influence of modern egalitarianism or who had yet to be fully influenced. About this passage John Owen (1616–83) wrote
There is no other place of Scripture wherein at one view the grant, institution, use, benefit, end, and continuance of the ministry is so clearly and fully represented. And the end of this whole discourse is, to declare that the gift and grant of the ministry and ministers, of the office and the persons to discharge it, is an eminent, most useful fruit and effect of the mediatory power of Christ, with his love and care towards his church. And those of whom the apostle speaks (“Unto every one of us”) are the officers or ministers whom he doth afterward enumerate, although the words may in some sense be extended unto all believers; but principally the ministry and ministers of the church are intended. And it is said, unto them is “grace given.” It is evident that by “grace” here, not sanctifying, saving grace is intended, but a participation of a gracious favour with respect to an especial end. So the word is frequently used in this case by our apostle, Rom. 15:15; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:8. This gracious favour we are made partakers of,—this trust is freely, in a way of grace, committed unto us; and that “according to the measure of the gift of Christ,”—unto every one, according as the Lord Christ doth measure the gift of it freely out unto them. Thus in general was the ministry granted unto the church, the particular account whereof is given in the ensuing verses [John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 4.487.
Owen was at pains that we should understand that true ministry is the result of new life and divine vocation but his emphasis on the necessity of new life and true faith was not at war with his strong conviction that the Lord has ordained offices and means to do the work of ministry. In other words, Owen, even as a congregationalist, did not equate piety and spirituality with democratic egalitarianism.
In the 19th century, Charles Hodge (1797–1878), in his commentary on Ephesians, considered the egalitarian reading and rejected it. He concluded, “The “work of the ministry” is that work which the ministry perform, viz. the edifying of the body of Christ. This last view is perhaps the best.”
As Hodge noted there are challenges in this passage to be sure but if we are aware of the influence of the prevailing democratic-egalitarian culture in the USA since the early 19th century, if we pay close attention to the grammar of the passage, if we note the roots of the some of the language in Ezra, and the if we follow the older Reformed reading we should conclude that, on balance, Paul does not intend her to teach that ministers are equipping laity so that laity may do the work of ministry but rather that Christ has ordained ministers to do the work of ministry namely to repair and build up the holy temple that Christ is building by the Spirit, through the ministry of the Word and sacraments.