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Death by a comma (Issue 31)

Let’s eat Grandma. 

Let’s eat, Grandma.

One comma can be the difference between a polite invitation
and a threat of cannibalism. Punctuation saves lives. 

The comma that almost killed the church

In ancient Greek, punctuation basically didn’t exist. In fact, it typically consisted of a non-stop series OFCAPITALLETTERS. For the most part we’ve had no trouble working out what punctuation should be there, but sometimes we got it wrong.

Here’s the old King James version of Ephesians 4:11-12. “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” 

Notice all the commas! Let’s pause to remember: there are none in the Greek! 

New translations have rejected one comma, and as a result we get this: “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” (NIV).

In the first version, you have three clauses side by side – the professionals are to 1) perfect the saints, 2) do the ministry, and 3) edify the body of Christ. The second version is remarkably different just because of one comma. Verse 12 is no longer about what the professionals do, but the goal of their efforts:  to equip God’s people for works of service, and in that way the body of Christ is built up.

I’m not being pedantic here! This one comma took ministry away from the ordinary people like you and me and put it in the hands of professional Christians – ‘ministers’ were to do the work of the church while the rest of us were pretty much just spectators. That’s very different to seeing the minister’s role as equipping others to minister. It’s a huge paradigm shift, and one that I’m afraid we’ve still not fully shifted into!

Here’s my definition of ministry: it’s about equipping others to minister! If as a church leader you’re spending all you time ministering to people rather than empowering them to minister, then something’s off. And if you’re not a professional Christian, then you’re God’s primary work force! Our Christian gatherings aren’t supposed to be the focus of our faith – they’re meant to prepare and equip us for living for God in all of life. The real work of ministry is what happens Monday to Sunday through the whole people of God. Our homes are to be ministry centres. Our families are our ministry teams. Our workplaces and neighbourhoods are where God provides ministry opportunities. In a very real sense, the whole world is our parish! 

What about the ‘professionals’ anyway?

Let’s now read the passage again in the NCV (not correct version): “Christ gave the paid church leaders to equip God’s people…” That’s precisely not what the passage states, yet it seems to be how we live it out. Our churches almost always operate under a model where one (or a few) top leaders are paid to do pastoral and teaching work. But let’s actually read the passage: “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people…”

Apostles. Prophets. Evangelists. Pastors. Teachers. That’s five functions, not one (and nowhere does it hint that we’re talking about paid senior leaders). It seems my two year old can count better than the average church! For the people of God to mature in Christ (v13) we need all five working together to equip the church.

I don’t actually think the passage is saying that everyone is one of these gifts – the point’s that all are needed for the sake of all God’s people. But let’s pretend for a moment that each of us is gifted to offer one of these functions within the church. And let’s suppose that the functions are divided evenly – so that 20% of us are apostolically gifted, 20% are prophetic and so on. I think this gets to the heart of a problem I see in the church: even when we accept that we’re all called to participate in mission, we think it has to look a particular way. We see the whole of mission through the lens of particular giftings and callings and feel like that’s how it should be for us all. 

Are we all self-starters?

Let’s consider two examples. The reality is, we’re not all self-starters. That’s a special gifting that some of us have, which means it’s something many of us don’t have. Some people call this ‘apostolic’ – like the first apostles, these are people gifted by God to start new projects and ministries and movements. But at most, one out of five are apostolically gifted! That leaves at least four fifths of us who are likely not natural self-starters. Yet when we hear we’re all called to participate in God’s mission, we can feel like we’re supposed to get something started – whether something big or small. 

If you’re not apostolic, then maybe God’s not calling you to start something from scratch. Instead maybe you can partner with someone who is apostolic, using your gifts to overcome some of their shortcomings. Or maybe there’s a group or club or organisation in your neighbourhood that already exists which you could join to be salt and light – a school board, tennis club, advocacy group. Many of us struggle to be missionally engaged if we have to initiate it, but if we plug into what others are doing, there’s plenty opportunities to seize.

The same can be said about evangelism. Sermons on evangelism often claim we’re all evangelists, but I don’t think the New Testament shares the sentiment. Ephesians 4 suggests those who actually are evangelists are to partner with the rest of us so that together a clear proclamation of faith is heard. We’re all to have an evangelistic perspective, looking for natural opportunities to share, but only some of us are gifted to constantly create opportunities to proclaim the faith (look at the distinction between Paul and the church in Colossians 4:2-6).

Called as a community

A key take-away from Ephesians 4 is that God has called us as a community. Mission doesn’t really work when we go at it alone – and it’s not supposed to! When churches do take local mission seriously, we can be given the impression that we’re at it alone: “Be a missionary wherever God has you, whether in your neighbourhood, your workplace, your friendships.” We’re sent out as individuals, not a community, and as a result these sermons can actually become disempowering – they put on us a pressure to perform despite feeling unable and unequipped to do it.

Contrast that to the vision of the church in Ephesians 4, where a variety of leaders gifted in various ways are investing their energy to equip all of us to participate in God’s diverse mission: the apostolically gifted getting things started that we can join, prophetic people teaching us to hear and respond to God’s voice, evangelists teaching us to see the opportunities for sharing the Gospel and how to go about it, pastoral folk who nurture and care and encourage us to never give up, teachers grounding us in a solid understanding of the faith. It’s as a community, where all God’s gifts are flourishing, that we’re all called to participate.

For discussion

Have you felt equipped and empowered for everyday mission and ministry? Why or why not? What would a step towards equipping look like for you?

If you’re in any position of leadership, how can you better invest in equipping others for the work of ministry?

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Exploring today's missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email office@nzcms.org.nz. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.