Context is king. But we often ignore this king, especially when we are trying to make a point. For example, last week I read an article which stated that the congregation needs to understand that they are supposed to do the work of the ministry and not leave everything up to the pastor. The pastor is there to equip. So far so good. The author used Ephesians 4:11-12 as exhibit A. Here are those verses:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ
The author was particularly concerned that women get their rightful place in ministry. The author understood that women cannot be pastors/elders. But this verse along with some others proved that they could lead book studies, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, etc. After all, the entire congregation is supposed to do the work of the ministry. And the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers demands that women can and should do whatever men can do unless they are explicitly excluded from it, such as pastoral ministry. To have a church that really honors Christ women need to be fully involved in ministry.
There are numerous problems with this argument, including a faulty understanding of the priesthood of all believers. But I want to focus on the context of Ephesians. For this author when Paul uses the word “ministry” he means “official church work.” It may be mercy ministry or leading Bible studies or serving on the building committee or a host of other things, but ministry means official church work.
But is this what Paul means when he says “do the work of the ministry?” Does Paul mean that pastors are there to equip the saints to lead Bible studies? Does Paul mean that elders are there to equip the saints to serve on building committees or to be involved in official mercy ministry? Does Paul mean that pastor/teachers are there to equip women to be involved in every area of official church work except preaching?
When we ask this question in context the answer is no. There are two reasons for this: First, most of those things did not exist when Paul wrote. He cannot be telling us that women really can lead Sunday school because Sunday school was not around. Were there Bible studies or building committees in 58 A.D.? The most probable answer is no. Second, this is not his point in Ephesians. We must ask what does the word “ministry” mean in Ephesians? Not what does it mean in my mind and how can I make Paul’s words flexible enough to include what I want it to include.
Ministry (or service or building up the body) in Ephesians has nothing to do with “official church work.” Paul does not lead up to or follow the exhortation in 4:11-12 with a description of official church work and how the members of the body can get involved. He begins chapter 4 with a calling for us to walk worthy, which means loving one another, bearing with one another, and keeping the unity of the peace. He then reminds his readers that Christ has given them the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers to help them in this calling. The leaders are there to equip them for this ministry work. He then goes on to describe this ministry work: doctrinal faithfulness (4:14), speaking the truth (4:15), putting off the old man and putting on the new (4:17-24), which means not lying, guarding your anger, working hard and giving, watching your speech, putting away evil, being kind and forgiving each other (4:25-32).
Chapters 5-6 contain the same types of exhortations.
In other words, when Paul says that the leadership is there to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry he does not mean anything official. He means that pastors are there to equip the saints to love one another, bear with one another, submit to one another, forgive one another, speak kindly to one another, give to one another, teach one another through singing, etc. In Ephesians doing these things is ministry. And thus in the end, reading Ephesians 4:11-12 in context actually expands the ministry of the saints. A woman does not need to teach Sunday school to do ministry. A man does not have to serve on a building committee to be building up the body. When we love on another, when wives submit and children obey, when husbands die for their wives, when we put on the whole armor of God, when we obey at work, when we forgive, we are doing the work of the ministry, serving one another, and building up the Body of Christ.
Thank you for equipping us and exhorting us to study all things in context!