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The Ministry of All Believers by Howard Snyder: Part 3

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 08-05-2012



The key passage here is Ephesians 4:1-16.  The passage speaks of unity in the church – one faith, one Lord, one baptism. Throughout the passage the themes of unity, diversity and mutuality intertwine. After the initial stress on unity, a contrasting theme is introduced in verse seven. “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (RSV)  The context indicates that Paul is not referring here to the grace by which believers are saved, but rather to the particular grace God gives his people for ministry.

In chapter three of Ephesians Paul says he had been given a particular grace, a special gift for ministry.  Now in chapter four he says this is true for all believers, although our ministries vary.  He is saying, in effect: Now that you have been saved by grace, you need to understand that God continues to give you grace — grace for ministry. The principle and power by which you were saved is the principle and power by which you serve.

The church operates by grace (charis) through the gifts of the Spirit (charismata).  The church is charismatic because it is saved by grace and serves by grace.   As believers, we are all one in Christ, all parts of the body, the community of God’s people.  God shares his grace with us from the fullness of Christ.  God’s fullness in Christ is not exhausted by the new birth; it includes abundant resources for ministry through the charisms or gifts given to the body.  As John Arndt wrote: “Christ lives and works in the members of his body so that each one might receive of his fullness (Jn.1:16), for he as the head has all the fullness of all and each gifts.”

Paul says that God intends the church to “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” The church grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph.4:15,16). And each part does its work, to some extent, through the exercise of the full range of spiritual gifts.

What does it mean to attain “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”? (Eph.4:13). Note that this passage is addressed to whole body, not to individual Christians. No Christian can grow into the fullness of Christ except as he or she is part of a growing, maturing body.  It is the whole believing community, not the individual believer, who reaches Christ’s fullness, and the individual believer reaches that fullness only in the environment of a maturing community of believers.  Such is the ecology of the church.

This is where spiritual gifts come into proper focus. As gifts are recognized and exercised, each part does its work in the body. When each believer discovers God’s particular manifestation of grace in his or her life for ministry, then the body grows and builds itself in love.  Paul plainly teaches that spiritual gifts are basic to the healthy life of the church and to redemptive ministry in the world.

We learn by looking at Jesus when we consider spiritual gifts. In Jesus we see almost all the gifts mentioned in Scripture. Jesus Christ was an apostle, a prophet, a pastor (Shepherd), a teacher, a healer.  He called and pastured his flock of disciples, the embryonic Kingdom community.

Many of the gifts specifically mentioned in the New Testament are exemplified in Jesus. Why?  Because Jesus Christ is the fullness of God.  All gifts are found potentially in Christ, and from him flow spiritual gifts as the Spirit animates the body of Christ.  No one believer is going to have all the gifts, for only Jesus is the fullness of God.  Most believers have one or two gifts, or however many God wants to give.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians that the Holy Spirit determines the distribution of gifts (1 Cor.12:11).  It is not up to a general conference or church council to give or restrict gifts. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor.12:7). No one can exercise all the gifts, but in community all the necessary gifts will emerge through the Spirit’s work.  And through all the necessary gifts working and mutually supporting each other, the whole body grows into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

More is involved in the fullness of Christ, and in growing in him, than simply the exercise of gifts. Sanctification, discipleship and growth in Christ likeness are all involved. This discipling, perfecting emphasis balances the stress on spiritual gifts within the ecology of the church. In Scripture the gifts of the Spirit are not divorced from the fruit of the Spirit. Christian character is not divorced from charismatic power. In the past some have emphasized gifts, particularly the more dramatic ones, without a sufficient corresponding stress on sanctification and the building of Christian character.

In contrast, others have insisted that gifts were for the early church only, that the important things now are love and sanctification, with no emphasis on gifts.  But the Scripture holds the charismatic and discipleship dimension together. And they belong together, both logically and practically, for in God’s economy gifts assist the body to grow in Christ likeness, and increasing maturity helps gifts function more effectively and redemptively.   This is precisely what   Ephesians 4 is all about.  The church quenches the Spirit when it fails to make enough space for the exercise of the gifts God gives. Regrettably, this is all too often the case. For the church to quench the Spirit would seem to be a contradiction in terms.  But apparently it is not.   Paul warns against it (1 Thess. 5:19).

The contemporary church does not believe profoundly in the biblical doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit. Such a broad generalization obviously requires significant qualification to fit the various branches of the church, but as a general description of contemporary Protestantism, especially in Europe and North America, it fits quite well.

According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit gives various specific, useful gifts to the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and other gifts such as healing, administration, tongues and so forth.  This is clear from 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and other passages.  Much of the church has long functioned, however, on the implicit assumption that these passages have no real importance today.

At least this is the impression one gets in comparing these passages with present-day corporate style Christian churches, organizations and denominations.

In many local churches one sees little evidence that it is the Holy Spirit who has appointed various persons to specific ministries. Too often we do not find every joint working together, so that nothing is lacking and the whole body is built up in love.  Why?

There is a reason, and it is crucial.  The New Testament assumes certain preconditions, and where these preconditions are lacking, New Testament results will not follow.  Paul’s teaching about the gifts of the Spirit assume a New Testament view of the church.  Those teaching make little sense when transplanted into a highly institutionalized concept and practice of the church.  Today, the Holy Spirit is often hindered in his ministry of distributing and igniting gifts among the members by traditional church structures. And so church structure quenches the Spirit.  For example:

The Spirit-led church chooses its leaders according to each   member’s gifts. The institutionalized church chooses leaders  according to how many positions it takes to run the organization. The Spirit-led church chooses those who are    spiritually most mature and qualified. The institutionalized church chooses some of questionable spirituality in the hope that responsibility will help them grow spiritually.  The Spirit-led church involves all the limit of their capacity and according to their gifts.

The institutionalized church piles responsibilities on the few with special gifts for organization or promotion and considers others as incapable of significant service.

The Spirit-led church enlists all who can make a contribution to the Kingdom, while the institutionalized church enlists only those who can maintain or extend the church’s institutional life.   And so, whatever its dynamism, it is not free for the Kingdom.

In the church for the Kingdom, the motto is not maintenance but mission, not survival but service.  In the institutionalized church the Kingdom dynamic has been domesticated, and the saints have lost the ability to see a difference between Kingdom service and organizational self preservation.

How do institutionalized church structures quench the Spirit? In the following ways at least:

  •  By defining service and ministry in organizational terms.
  •  By splitting the body of Christ into “clergy” and “laity”
  •  By a building centered programme.
  •  By organizational, instead of personal ministries.
  •  By institutional, rather than spiritual, goals, rewards and      measure of success.
  •  By the evangelism-social action split which blinds believers to many potentially crucial Kingdom ministries, or calls those ministries into question.
  •  By insensitivity to the fundamental ecology of the church.

As a second foundation stone for the ministry of God’s people, the gifts of the Spirit suggest three important things.  First, all ministry is by God’s grace. This truth is fundamental in the New Testament, and it is beginning to dawn upon the church in new ways today. Redemptive ministry for the Kingdom is not a matter of training, intelligence, experience or ordination, even though all of these have their place.  These considerations are secondary to God’s ministering through human agents by his own grace.  The importance of other considerations may vary according to the context, but ministry by grace is the normative and constant reality.

Second, God gives a wide variety of ministries, all of which are important for the Kingdom.  The early church understood spiritual gifts as meaning a variety of ministries as we see from 1 Peter 4:10-11 and Hebrews 2:4. With gifts, diversity and mutuality are the point.  We see here how the gifts and fruits of the Spirit go together.

All Christians are to manifest all the fruit of the Spirit, but not all believers are to have the same gifts.  We are all to have love, joy, peace, patience, self control.  It is not right for me to say that I have no love, but plenty of joy, or that I have no peace but much patience.  But with the gifts, the matter is different. I may be a prophet but not an apostle, or I may have the gift of evangelism but not of healing. The point is Spirit given diversity and functioning mutuality in the body, not uniformity.  The picture is that of the human body. The body is not all hands or feet. The church is to be like a human body, not a centipede or an octopus. The Christian community is a functioning, balance body of different gift-ministries, all according to God’s intentions and the manifestations of his Spirit.

Third, every believer has some ministry.  Every believer has at least one spiritual gift which is to be put to work for Kingdom purposes.  The biblical understanding of the church is revolutionary. It tells us that every person in the church in created in God’s image, every person is a gift, and God gives every person gifts for eternally significant ministry.  When even one God-given gift fails to operate, to that degree the Kingdom of God is diminished and the church’s ecology is twisted.  In Christ, individuals are not cogs in a great machine or boxes in an organizational  chart, but living, God-imaged persons capable of showing forth something true and lovely about God.  A person may be warped, twisted, sick, retarded, handicapped, oppressed or dispossessed.  But the church for the Kingdom is a healing, helping, lifting, liberating community where the Spirit shines through our distortions and lights the way to the Kingdom.

In the institutional view, people have value because of what they can do.  Talented people are worth more because they can do more; others are worthless because they perform less.  But in the biblical view, everyone has value because each person is created in the image of God. Through the work of Christ and the healing life of Christian community, God makes ministers of us all. What about the handicapped and the mentally retarded?

God knows how to make those warped and impaired by circumstances or sin and how to use them as instruments of grace in his Kingdom.  All of us have been warped by sin, both our own sin and the accumulated sins of society.  Yet God knows how, in the body of Christ, to take even those who are worthless to society and make them instruments of his grace.  This high view of personhood is basic to the scriptural understanding of who God is, who we are and, therefore, what the church is.

Linking the priesthood of believers with the gifts of the Spirit, we find they clarify and reinforce each other.  Both point to the same truth: Ministry is for all believers.  All are priests; all are gifted.  But spiritual gifts ass a complementary truth.  While priesthood tells us all believers have a priestly ministry, it does not tell us how believer’s ministries vary.  Here gifts help. Believers carry out their ministries differently, according (in part) to the gifts they receive from God.

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