The Ministry of the Church
Series: We Are Citylight
Everything the church does can be summarized as ministry–service to God and service to others. But who does it? What is it? And what is the goal of it? That’s what this passage addresses.
We’re moving on to week 2 of our series on who we are as a church, what we do, why we do it. One word that’s used for what the church does is “ministry.” It’s a word meaning service. The whole “what we do” as a church falls under that banner of service to God and people. But who does it, what it is it, and why do we do it? Those are the questions we’re going to consider today, and while no one passage of Scripture covers everything the church does or all of its purposes, we’ll see from today’s passage that The ministry of the church is for the maturity of the church. So we’ll look at who does it, what it is, and then what maturity is.
Who does the ministry?
We began reading today in verse 11, where we read that Jesus gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers. He gives His church people, and through those people grows it to maturity. Already we see, then, that if we are to grow to maturity, it won’t just be us individually growing with Jesus; He works through apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers. Apostles and prophets are mentioned together in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, where they are described as those who received a revelation of the gospel directly from the Spirit, and who then laid the foundation of the church by proclaiming it. Once that foundation was laid, however, they did not go on appointing apostles and prophets. Their work is done, and so we have no living apostles and prophets today. People may have apostolic-type gifts and the gift of prophecy, but no one holds the office anymore. The way we receive their teaching is through the Scriptures which they wrote. The office of evangelist is less clear; there are only a few references to it in the New Testament, but it seems they were assistants to the apostles who spread the message they received from the apostles in the initial building of the church. There is also no provision made for the continuance of their office. However, the office of shepherd and teacher is one that the rest of Scripture teaches is to continue as long as the church is on this side of heaven. The grammar of the passage suggests that shepherd and teacher refer to one office, an office also called pastor, elder, or overseer, and the two are listed together because the way these shepherds do their shepherding work is by teaching. They feed the sheep by preaching God’s Word, protect the sheep by rebuking false teaching, care for the sheep by encouraging them with God’s Word, and lead the church by teaching them where God’s Word is directing them to go.
So there you go; that’s who does the ministry, right? Certainly they do, and they each have their unique contribution to it, but the purpose of all those different ministries is one thing in verse 12: To equip the saints for what? For the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. The “saints” is a word for holy ones, those to whom the letter of Ephesians is addressed: Every Christian. Every Christian has been set apart from sin to serve the Lord; that’s what it means to be a holy one. And the job of the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherd-teachers is not do the work of ministry for the saints, or to equip some other group like Citygroup leaders to do the work of ministry, but to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. In verse 15, it’s “we,” as in all of us, who are to speak the truth in love, and in verse 16 the body grows to maturity when each part is working properly.
Elsewhere in Ephesians the church is described as a house that God is building, and that building language continues here. To use that illustration, the apostles and prophets were responsible for laying the foundation of the house. The evangelists were like the realtors who go around advertising the house while the foundation is still being laid, saying, “40 units available July 2022; come get in on it.” Then the builders of the house that God uses are not only the pastors, but the saints. The pastors build too, but the goal of their building is to equip the saints to build.
You should expect to receive ministry from the pastors of your church, but you aren’t here merely to receive. You’re also a doer of ministry. Do you see yourself that way? I know many of you do, because you do so much ministry in our church. I was chatting with Michael recently about a member of the church I was considering inviting into a discipleship group with me, which is a smaller group of 3-4 where we’d meet every other week to talk about our lives, apply the Word to one another’s lives, and pray for one another. And he informed me he was already in a discipleship group with someone else. They did that all on their own, without my prompting or Michael’s, because they see themselves as doers of ministry. And honestly, that’s a normal story I hear in our church.
At the same time, I want to own a way that I feel I’ve led us poorly in this in the past. If you came to Citylight 3-4 years ago, you heard us talk about the part of our membership covenant where the elders commit to care for the members, and here’s how I would have explained it: “The elders care for the Citygroup leaders, and the Citygroup leaders care for the members.” But this text contradicts that on two levels: One, it does set aside a particular office of shepherd, and it’s not “Citygroup leader.” I farmed out work I should have been doing as a pastor to Citygroup leaders early on. It’s not a Citygroup leader’s job to shepherd the flock; it’s the shepherds’ job. Hence the name “shepherd.” Two, it shows us that the work of ministry, of building up the body of Christ, is not just the shepherd’s or the Citygroup leader’s job; it’s every Christian’s job. So on the flipside, I think our members have, at times, farmed out ministry they should be doing to Citygroup leaders. And I’ve noticed this at times when I talk to people about Citygroup leadership, and the response is something like, “Well I don’t know if I could take on that responsibility; then I’d have to really be aware of how the people in my group are doing, take responsibility to engage in their lives, disciple people.” What I want to say in response to that, on the basis of this text is, “That’s not what Citygroup leaders do; that’s what Christians do. If you’re a member of this church, those are things you should already be committed to.” And if you’ve felt that way before, I’m not blaming you or guilting you by the way; I blame myself.
So going forward, we are tweaking some things behind the scenes with how we train Citygroup leaders, but this is more of a mentality shift we’re wanting to see than a structural one: Citygroup leaders aren’t mini shepherds. The pastors are the shepherds are the elders, not Citygroup leaders. And we are here to equip every member of this church, not just Citygroup leaders, to do the work of ministry. So what is that work of ministry?
What is the ministry?
Verse 12 goes on to say that the work of ministry is for building up the body of Christ until we reach the maturity that verses 13-14 describe. It’s not so much to build up individual Christians to maturity; it’s to build up the whole body of Christ to maturity. The ministry activity on which this passage focuses is in verse 15, where we read that it’s by speaking the truth in love that we grow up in every way into Him who is the Head, into Christ. The ministry that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd-teachers were to equip the saints to do is to speak the truth in love so that the whole church grows to maturity. There is an interesting allusion in this passage to an earlier part of Scripture that may help shed light on why this is the work of ministry in which the saints are to be engaged.
Numbers 8:19 says, “And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” So there you have the Levites being given as a gift, like the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd-teachers are here, but here it’s so that they would do the service of the tent of meeting, to make atonement for the people of Israel. In other words, they offered the sacrifices, which were God’s appointed means to make atonement for the people of Israel. But now consider the situation: Christ has come and offered the perfect sacrifice to make atonement for all the sins of His church. So now the service, the ministry of the church is not the making of atonement, but the speaking to one another the truth that Christ has made the atonement for us! And there is no longer a holy class within the church that does the work of ministry alone, for all of God’s people are holy; we are all saints, and therefore we all do the work of speaking the truth, what Ephesians 1:13 calls “the word of truth, the gospel.”
And this speaking of the truth is to be done in love. Love should be our motive in speaking, love should determine what truth we speak, and love should be the context of our truth-speaking. It should be our motive: We should speak the truth to include, not to exclude. When the goal is to exclude, I speak the truth to show you you’re wrong in hope that I won’t have to deal with you anymore. But when the desire is to include, I speak the truth, even if you disagree with it, in hope of drawing both of us nearer to it and one another. Love also directs what truth we speak in each moment. If someone tells you they’re suffering; there are a lot of true things you could say. You could say the Phillies won the game last night; you could say, “well you know life is hard.” Or you could say, “God sees your pain, and He is with you.” All true statements, but only the last is the truth in love. And love is the context of our truth-speaking. If I speak the truth to you but don’t have any interest in knowing you, don’t give you a meal when you’re hungry, don’t care about the needs of your body, I’m not speaking the truth in love.
How can you engage in this speaking the truth in love, then? The first and most basic context in which it happens is in our worship gatherings. Ephesians 5:19 tells us to “address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” We make a melody to the Lord when we sing, but we also address one another. When you worship at home, the person on the screen is addressing you, they’re speaking the truth to you, but you aren’t speaking the truth in love to anyone else. And that truth can only typically be spoken in love if the people to whom you’re speaking it are people you know, if it’s to a church community of which you’re a part. The worship gatherings are also where the shepherds are present to teach the church, to equip all the saints for the work of ministry, because it’s the one gathering at which the shepherds and all the saints plan to be present. That’s another reason we want to be a one-service church going forward. At our worship gatherings we also have space to exercise the gift of prophecy if the Spirit chooses to grant it, which is a word we speak for the encouragement of one another based on a spontaneous revelation from the Spirit. So the worship gatherings of our church are kind of the basic, foundational, essential way we speak the truth in love to one another, but beyond that at Citylight I’ve already mentioned that we also have Citygroups, smaller groups of 5-20 that meet in peoples’ homes throughout the city during the week, and one of the main things that happens in those groups is we speak to one another. Sometimes I get restless about that and think, “Man why we just sitting around and talking?” but passages like this remind me that we need to be speaking the truth in love to one another if we are to grow in maturity. Discipleship groups are smaller same gender groups of 2-4 that get even more specific applying the truth to the details of one another’s lives.
And then there are the less planned, informal conversations. There’s the conversation after church where someone asks, “How did God use the sermon in your life today?” There’s the time one of your fellow members texts you to ask you how they can pray for you, and then calls you up a week later to see how that’s going. There’s the time another member has you over for dinner and tells you something that’s hard for them right now, and asks you to pray for them. There’s the time you share how you’re struggling to read the Bible, and another member asks if you’d like to do it together sometime. There’s the time you’re hanging out and you actually take a risk to share something hard in your life or a sin with which you’re struggling, and the other members you’re with don’t just give you blank stares. They say something. Maybe it’s just, “Tell us more,” but they care. And then over time, they help you connect your struggle to Scripture and ask if they could pray for you using that Scripture. How could you make space for this kind of ministry in your life?
The image here is of Jesus growing His church to maturity through the ministers of the Word that He’s given to His church. We gather for worship and receive the ministry of the apostles, prophets, and evangelists when we read aloud from the Scriptures they wrote. We respond by speaking the truth in love to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We receive the ministry of our shepherd-teachers through the preaching of the Word, and we respond again by speaking the truth in love to one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Then we are sent out, and we keep speaking the truth in love to one another over brunch after church, at Citygroup that week, in our discipleship groups, over dinner, while making dinner, at the bar, on the block, at the barber shop, the coffee shop, on a bike ride, while playing with our kids, while hiking in the Wissahickon, and so forth. That’s how a church grows to maturity. Finally, then, let’s make sure we define maturity.
What is maturity?
Verses 13 and 14 really paint for us the picture of maturity, and it gives us basically three marks of maturity: Unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God positively, and negatively, that we are no longer tossed to and fro by false doctrine. So what does a mature church look like? It looks like a church that is unified in the faith. It’s not just that we’re all in the same room; that’s what we might call the unity of the space, or the unity of the organization. This is a unity of the faith: We all share the same faith, and so that is bringing us together into a genuinely unified body, where we love one another across cultural, personality, generational, even political differences, because it is a unity of the faith, the faith once for all handed down to us by the apostles and the prophets. And you can see how that would begin to happen as we are speaking the truth in love to one another. If that’s the thing we’re always talking about, that’s the thing that will increasingly shape us and become the foundation for our unity. Gathering for worship in one service on Sundays won’t make us all best friends with each other. But gathering week in and week out does create a unity between us, a community identity, at the time when we’re at our most diverse: When we’re all gathered.
The next mark is the knowledge of the Son of God. What do you know? Speaking the truth in love grows our knowledge. And God cares about this. Jesus once defined eternal life as this: That people know God, and know Jesus Christ whom He has sent. The knowledge here is not abstract knowledge, but knowledge of a person: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It’s not mere knowledge about Him; it’s knowledge of Him. Of course, in order to know of Him, we must know about Him. A mature church will be growing deeper in doctrine. But, ultimately, the mark of maturity is that we have a living and vital fellowship with Him. We draw near to Him in worship and in prayer. Our doctrine is leading to doxology, which is a fancy word for praise.
And the flipside of this is because we know Him, we are not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. There are always false doctrines being repackaged and published in new books or new videos that tell you why the faith of the apostles and prophets isn’t true. One common way that’s done today is by suggesting that the content of our faith is really just some cultural product of white American nationalism. Lamont English, an African-American Christian leader living in California, recently said, “I’m all for deconstruction/sanctification. However, I’m not going to deny the clear teaching of Middle Eastern men in Scripture such as the reality of hell, healthy sexuality, the special creation of the world and Adam and Eve, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the sanctity of life, etc.” He’s not being tossed to and fro by the latest wind of the day. And a mature church will be growing in its knowledge of the Son of God in such a way that it too is not tossed to and fro by the winds of the day.
Because before the Son of God gave us the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherd-teachers, He gave Himself for us. The apostles and prophets laid the foundation of the house and we build it, but Christ Jesus Himself is the cornerstone. The word of truth, the gospel, is that He is the truth who loved us when we didn’t love Him. Instead of speaking the truth in love, we stay silent or shade the truth to manipulate people into liking us, or we speak the truth to exclude rather than include. Instead of doing the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ, we work to build our own individual lives on earth. Instead of striving for the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, we’ve held on to our prejudices and exchanged knowledge of the Son of God for lies. We speak the truth in love poorly because we love poorly, and yet look at how well we are loved.
On the cross the Son of God, in His humanity, suffered the judgment our refusal to love deserved. The cross speaks a word of truth to us: We are guilty of sin. If we weren’t, it would have been unnecessary. But it speaks it in love. It speaks it in a way that includes us. Jesus did whatever it took to include us, even to the point of giving Himself, and now that He is risen from the dead, we are included in that inheritance. Receive Him by faith. Then receive the gifts He’s given of the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherd-teachers to equip you to do the work of ministry. Jesus is the one cornerstone worth building on. Speak this truth in love to one another, until we grow to the full unity of the faith and to the firm knowledge of the Son of God from which no false doctrine can shake us. Hold on to Jesus, and He will surely do it.