The Incredible Influence of a Comma, Ephesians 4:11-16

After more modern editions than the King James Version of the Bible began to be used, some readers observed a change in the punctuation of Ephesians 4:11,12, which had tremendous implications for our view of the church, especially the respective responsibilities of the pastor and ordinary church members.

The King James Version read as follows:

    11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

a reading which clearly implies that pastors had three duties:

  1. to perfect the saints, that is, to lead the saints to maturity or equip them,
  2. to perform the work of the ministry, and
  3. to edify the whole body of Christ.

This had the potential of leading to extreme forms of clericalism, where all of the responsibilities for the care of members within a church laid heavily on the shoulders of one man: the pastor.

More modern translations, the RSV in the 1952 and the more evangelical NASB twenty years later, punctuated these two verses a little differently, dropping one of the commas and changing the meaning of the text significantly:

11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  (Eph 4:11-12 RSV)

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; (Eph 4:11-12 NASB)

The responsibility of pastors, in distinction from the saints, the ordinary members of the church took on a very different meaning: pastors aren’t responsible for the work of the “ministry;” the members of the church are, thus leading to the “every member ministry” movement in the church. The entire passage began to be read almost as job descriptions outlining the respective responsibilities of pastors and laity in the church: pastors equip; members minister. Both still have the same ultimate goal, building up the body of Christ, but differing responsibilities. This insight was greatly liberating both to the overburdened pastor and to the under-committed church member. Even as late as the 1980s, books poured out proclaiming this liberation from clericalism; for example, Melvin J. Steinbron’s, Can The Pastor Do It Alone?:  A Model For Preparing Lay People For Lay Pastoring.

Though I celebrate this liberation from clericalism, I am very concerned that we have somehow gotten stuck on a single insight from this passage. I doubt very much that Paul’s primary intent was to write job descriptions for the pastor and church members. An overemphasis on this distinction, “pastors equip, members minister” can still insinuate a different sort of clericalism where the pastor is distinguished from the body. Surely Paul considered these offices gifted to the church, listed in v. 11, as part of the body of Christ, not separate from it. As Paul puts it later, the whole “body builds itself up in love,” each member, including pastors, serving each other, using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has chosen to bestow on each.

I do not believe that this passage should be used to argue that pastors are not responsible for pastoral care. The very idea seems absurd. The one verb that is used most often to describe the responsibility of elders, bishops, or pastors—they are all the same thing—is to pastor, simply a transliteration of the Latin for “to shepherd.” What is pastoral care if it is not to shepherd the flock in such a way as to give an account to the Chief Shepherd for the well-being of His sheep entrusted to one’s care? (Heb 13:17, 20; 1 Pet 5:4) The idea that pastors cannot do it alone argues more for a plurality of elders as well as a fully engaged laity serving one another. I am afraid that focusing on this passage as a job description has caused us to lose insights that Paul probably did have in mind.

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 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 which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-16 NASB; 1995 update)

My first observation of this passage that its theme is truth: its propagation and preservation and our growth into it. The gifts Paul selects to highlight, in contrast with some of his other list of spiritual gifts, are the truth propagating offices Christ bestowed upon the church (v.11). The goal of church members’ joint growth is unity in “the faith” and knowing the Son of God (v.13). Although Paul has previously described a unity to be maintained (v. 13), here Paul refers to a unity that is to be attained. The NASB places the article in front of the word “faith” making it designate the content of our faith rather than our confidence in things not seen. It is “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 4). Given the other references to truth content in this passage I believe that article is correct. We are to be steadfast in discerning truth from falsehood, “not carried about by every wind of doctrine” (v. 14). We are to “truth it in love,” a literal translation of Paul’s verb in v.15, which I take to mean that all of us have the responsibility to apply scriptural teaching to each other as the occasion requires: encouragement, exhortation, consolation, admonition, rebuke. The church is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), which permeates all her activities, and the actions of every member of the body, pastor and flock alike.

The second and perhaps most important observation is that there is just one correct interpretation of scripture. This is clearly implied by the goal of attaining to “the unity of the faith” (v. 13). If there were several equally valid interpretations of Scripture, multiple truths with a lower case “t,” then unity would not even be theoretically possible. Yet Paul establishes this as the final end of edifying the body of Christ.

Third, growing in our knowledge of the truth is a measure of our Christ-likeness (vv. 13,15). It is as much a part of our ongoing sanctification as is our moral development. We are to make it our aim to measure up to Christ’s mature understanding just as much as we are to display His glorious virtues, to follow in His footsteps as He was berated, slandered, and mocked by His enemies (1 Pet 2:21ff.).

Fourth, this focus on truth must be saturated with love. We are to truth it with one another in love (v. 15) and the body builds itself up in love (v. 16). It is true that elsewhere it seems that Paul seems to contrast love and knowledge, but here, in this context, the two are mutually reinforcing: love must be informed by truth; truth must be saturated with love. Often the Christian encounters the need for what the military calls “ground truth,” truth that is not gained in the classroom but learned on the battlefield. We are faced with difficult real-world cases where the most loving thing to do is not always obvious. Paul prays precisely for such situations when he reports to the Philippians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent,’ or the marginal reading, “distinguish between the things that differ” (Php 1:9,10a). Such discernment is learned by practice in trying to apply biblical principles (Heb. 5:13,14) and by a resolute commitment to having one’s mind transformed by Scripture (Rom 12:2)

Finally and paradoxically, by implication we are to hold onto our doctrinal differences. If truth is as important to the church as this passage says it is, then we ought to take it seriously, not lightly. We ought to hold fast to our differences even if others ridicule them and use them as an excuse taunting us that the church cannot possibly have the Answer. If we disagree with each other over trivialities, then how can we claim to know what is right, true, and beautiful? Unless we are indeed differing over the things that are indifferent, such as those Paul lists describes in Romans 14 and 1st Corinthians 8-10, we must ignore such ridicule. We must hold fast to our distinctives while at the same time seeking unity. This is a part of our sanctification; it will not be attained this side of the resurrection any more than our Christ-likeness will be.

I have had a long-standing concern that we, the church, have been missing out on the beauties of this passage because of our fixation for reading it as a job description. I have never, in my forty years as a Christian heard a sermon about this passage that did not have the message “pastors equip, members minister.” I hope by writing this post I might have encouraged you to meditate more deeply on this beautiful passage of Scripture.    

UPDATE: I have received a few comments from readers that seemed to miss the point of my post. A couple have focused on the underlying Greek pointing out that we do not have the same preposition, “eis,” repeated three times in what are translated as three purpose clauses. The first preposition is “pros,” indicating that the first purpose clause is subordinate to the second. So, Paul could not have intended to set up three parallel purpose clauses here. I did not intend to advocate a return to the KJV translation. I accept the modern translations! My problem is with the fixation on the “job-description interpretation” of these verses. And I am very concerned that pastor/teachers are somehow distinguished from the body instead on included within it. I still very much doubt that Paul intended to write specialized job descriptions for pastors and members in the context of this passage. I would love to engage in a debate at that level.

Secondly, just to be contrarian, I am not always convinced by these arguments from changes in Greek prepositions, especially by non-classicists. I took two years of classical Greek while a young man in which the possible sound of the language was emphasized. I remember attending readings in which a scholar attempted to read classical Greek poetry using his/her reconstruction of its sound. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t possible that Paul used different Greek prepositions simply because to the Greek ear “pros” sounds better before consonants and “eis” sounds better before words that begin with vowels with smooth breathing. I do not claim to be enough of a scholar to settle the issue, but I think we ought to be more attuned (pun intended) to possible stylistic changes because it sounded better. Again, my point is NOT to dispute the modern translations; I celebrate the influence they have had in freeing us from a stultifying clericalism.

Finally, I was very disappointed to receive a note from a good friend that simply reasserted, “pastors equip, members minister.” This raises a point that I did not make in my original blog post: the use of the translation “ministry” instead of the more literal “service” even among those who use the NASB as I do. The word “ministry” carries with it far too much freight, connotations associated with the old clericalism. At least Steinbron’s subtitle is more honest: A Model For Preparing Lay People For Lay Pastoring. This is dead wrong unless we are talking about lay people who are called to be elders. The verb most commonly used to define the activities of an elder is “to shepherd,” transliterated into Latin “to pastor.” Even though Hebrews 13:17 refers to leaders and not pastor teachers, I believe Hebrews 13:20,21 tells us what the author had in mind, “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Pastor/teachers or elders are under-shepherds to whom has been delegated a special responsibility for the flock, and will give an account for the well-being of their people’s spiritual lives. This is not something safe to grasp at if the Lord has not called you, much less a responsibility to disperse willy-nilly. Our Lord is not safe! There is a pastoral care only pastors can/should give. That does not exclude a member care that members can/should give in small groups, Sunday School classes, or special ministries.

Just to repeat I’m afraid we have missed the riches in this passage because of our fixation on a job-description interpretation.

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