In the last couple of posts I have been sharing about the passage of Scripture that has most informed my call to vocational ministry: Ephesians 4.1-16. It is one of the most vivid descriptions of the identity of a Church that I know of, and it builds the foundation on this interesting image of Jesus as a Healing King:
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4.7-16)
It seems important that when Paul talks about the Church, he embeds it in the image of Jesus as a healing King. The identity of the Church has to take first take into account the consistently proclaimed message of Jesus that the kingdom of God was near. This is anything but an abstract idea – it affects everything about everyone of us. When that which God has created is under the complete management and rule of Jesus the King, we operate according to our design and thrive and flourish. When that which God has created is not under the complete management rule of Jesus the King, we self destruct and fall apart.
So what does that have to do with the identity and role of pastors?
Immediately after the image of a healing King, Paul moves into one of his clearest descriptions of church leadership: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” (v11)
That is so significant to me! When describing the role of church/pastoral leadership, Paul makes a direct link between the image of a healing king and the role that pastoral leaders are to play in the establishment of the Church (as an aside, I am not going to attempt to parse the different nuances of each of the five roles listed here. That’s a worthwhile exercise, but a separate conversation than the one I’m trying to start today.)
To make sure that his previous link to the healing King is not missed, Paul restates it in a different way in verse 12. This is one of the clearest job descriptions given for pastoral leadership in the entire Bible: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” (v11-12)
This played a huge role in the story of me sensing a call into ministry, and it completely flipped my understanding of both the identity of Church and the role of pastoral leadership. This is probably not very fair to some of the churches I participated in, and I don’t say it to diminish any of them. But somewhere along the way I picked up the exact opposite message conveyed here – I thought that the identity of a Church was a getaway from the real world, and I thought that pastors were the ones who were paid by the church to spend their 9-5 hours taking care of whatever management issues were needed (i.e. preaching on Sundays, being available for pastoral visits, taking care of the facility, etc)
Could that be more opposite than what Paul says here? What image is the identity of the Church wrapped around? A healing King. That means that when an individual is deeply involved in the life of a church, they should be able to sense that they are both experiencing the healing of the King and becoming ambassadors of that same healing ministry.
V8 says that the King has come bearing gifts for his people, so what else could that mean? We partake of the gift of grace, and we then use our gifts to extend it to others. We are recipients of his healing power, and we are also contributors to his healing plan. That is fundamentally what church is about.
Paul has now made his point in two different ways – first, a healing King and second, a people engaged in works of service – but that is still not enough for him. At risk of overkill, he applies one more image to get the point across. He says that the people of God are to be equipped for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
Do you see what he’s saying? It’s a logical progression:
First, we embed the identity of the Church in the greater identity of Jesus the Healing King. He has already won, already risen, and has distributed gifts to those that are connected to him by faith to experience the wholistic healing that comes form him.
Second, we recognize that Jesus has placed some folks in pastoral leadership to make sure that his healing project continues on course. They are responsible for a number of things, but chief among them is ensuring that the people of God are equipped to participate in works of service, which then extends the ministry of the healing King.
Third, and most mystically, he says that when these first two happen, the body of Christ becomes manifest before our very eyes. The same Jesus who lived in human form and dwelt among us becomes tangibly active once again in our midst. The same healing King who was bringing all things to himself becomes physically present when his people join by faith in his healing movement.
I don’t do this often, but if I may, I’d like to summarize this with a pointed message first for pastors, and then for everyone who is not a pastor but who takes church very seriously.
A word to Pastors:
There are many things that are required of us. Pastoring is one of the most demanding and unforgiving jobs out there. I commend you for taking your role seriously, and for giving the best of your time, energy, and passion to the work of Christ through the Church. As we continue in our calling, lets never forget that amongst the long list of expectations, what is listed here is among our primary responsibilities. Christ himself has appointed us to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. We get the privilege of pointing to a risen and resurrected Jesus that is King over this whole world. We serve a Jesus who is healing and renewing all things, and that should start with us. Our lives should reflect the healing power of Jesus, and our ministry should reflect a full surrender to the One who is establishing and advancing his Kingdom. Let us not grow weary and doing good, regularly reminding ourselves of verses like 1 Corinthians 15.58.
A word to church goers:
I know that many of you who are reading this are serious Christ followers, and therefore you are also serious about the local church. I’m grateful that you are. To you, and to all those who are even marginally involved, I believe this is one of the most important passages in the Bible for clarifying what we should expect both from the local church and from those that God has placed in positions of spiritual leadership. Pastors should take seriously the task of lifting up Jesus, to call us to spiritual maturity, to… in the words of Paul, “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” The primary job of a pastor is not to preach pleasing messages or be available 24/7 to whatever need might come up (though I realize availability of pastors is important). Primarily, pastors should be lifting up Christ, establishing paths for growing maturity, and igniting/equipping you to do the work of the Church. One of the easiest traps to fall into in our modern day church culture is to slip into a consumption oriented approach to church, looking for all the ways it can serve my agenda. To do so is conspire with the individualistic narrative that strips away our ability to join with a healing King that is renewing all things in the world. Remember – you are connected by faith to the most fearsome and wonderful power in this Universe. He has already ascended, already taken his throne, and is already at work in this world. He has gifted you to join him, and created the local church to inspire and equip that to happen.
The final words of this passage remind us that it is from Jesus… that each one of us does our part. The stakes are high, and you are needed.