We believe God equips His people for ministry.
We have already stated that the Lord’s Apostles, those whom Christ chose to lead the Church, have had a unique place in the life of the Church. They constituted the foundation of the New Jerusalem, according to the Book of Revelation, and were given the responsibility to write Holy Scripture (Revelation 21:2). Since them, no one has had that same sort of authority. Therefore, when we refer to the office of apostle, we are using the word somewhat differently than when referring to the original Twelve Apostles.
At the same time, we insist that the apostolic office did not cease with the death of the original Apostles. It was the original Apostles who felt the need to choose someone to take the place of Judas. Additionally, the Apostle Paul and a few others in the New Testament were called an apostle.
The apostolic office seems connected to the work of founding new ministries. Apostles found and developed new communities of believers, especially among ethnic groups new to the Christian faith. Naturally then, many missionaries have manifested gifts and callings that were apostolic in nature.
Methodus and Cyril for example—in spite of opposition from some of the church leaders of their time—established Christian faith among the Slavic peoples. They preached, baptized converts, ordained ministers, translated the Bible, wrote hymns, and even created an alphabet that Russians and other Slavic people use to this day. When the two brothers died, they left behind strong and stable churches, which is a clear and unmistakable sign of apostleship in history.
There have been many other examples of apostolic witness such as St. Patrick of Ireland, Columba of Scotland, and Francis Asbury in the United States. People like them have established communities of faith all around the world and throughout history.
An apostle then is one who helps believers “set up shop.” Although an evangelist may win converts, it takes an apostle to form those believers into functioning covenant communities.
Because the word “apostle” carries connotations that we do not always wish to convey, most Christians are hesitant to use that label to describe a living Christian leader. Fortunately, the label is not required in order to do the work. In fact, the label may create needless obstacles. Regardless of the title assigned to those who demonstrate such gifts, the Church receives the blessings of apostolic gifts in every century.
We can say similar things about prophets as we have of apostles. A prophet demonstrates a divine insight into the times and often moves the Church to respond.
A prophet warns, encourages, motivates, and reminds believers of the timeless values and mission of the Church. A prophetic ministry can be positive, revealing new opportunities for the Church, or negative, thundering against evil apathy. Either message can be unsettling for the guardians of the status quo. Thus, the prophet often makes us uncomfortable. Historical examples of prophetic persons are John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Knox, and Jonathan Edwards.
In the Book of Acts, we learn that the church in Antioch enjoyed the presence of both prophets and teachers. This is an interesting combination, which suggests that a vibrant Christian community needs various kinds of ministries even if they create momentary tensions.
Prophets typically try to mobilize the Church to change in some way. Pastors often try to maintain stability and peace. Evangelists win the world for Christ. Apostles seek to establish something new. Teachers work to instruct Christian communities in the depth of the Scriptures. We are at our best when we allow all these ministries to function among us.
In a local church, people in community observe the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow congregants. Ministries can, for this reason, develop under the care and accountability of those who love them and know them best. A local congregation can thus deal with an immature person with prophetic potential, for example, before he or she launches out to address the broader world. A congregation can observe whether a person who desires to be an evangelist is gifted at winning people to Christ before sending him or her out to work in other places. In order to ensure accountability and responsibility, healthy New Testament government requires the intimate community of all these sorts of ministers operating within the context of a local church.
It is obvious that our view of church government impacts our doctrinal confession. So let us look at church government before proceeding further.
In the old covenant community, God established three types of authority: prophet, priest, and king.
The prophets carried out a ministry because of a direct calling from God. They gave the people a fresh word from God. Because their ministry was charismatic rather than institutional, prophets could not pass down their position, as in the case with priests.
The priests held an office that was confirmed by their community and through which they exercised an institutional authority. They were called to care for the flock by walking with the people through the seasons of life and keeping the members of the community connected one to the other.
The king and his officials dealt with administration. These kinds of leaders are more easily identifiable because of the visible authority they embody.
In the new covenant community, there are also prophets, priests, and administrative leaders. Elders and deacons are institutional offices through which these prophets, priests, and administrators carry out their functions.
The deaconate is the first step of ordained ministry in the local and Universal Church; it is an order of ministry in its own right that is foundational and indispensable for forming healthy spiritual communities. All elders must first serve as deacons. This reveals the necessity that those who are called to lead the church must first learn the importance of serving the Church. As a result, some elders, who prove their calling by consistently caring for the people of God in ways that cultivate trust and loyalty, will go on to serve as presiding elders such as bishops or senior pastors.
Church governance, whether local or at a broader level, is the way in which Jesus Christ calls His Church to carry out the work He established the Church to do. Church leaders however are fallible human beings. They may make mistakes. They may even fall into serious error. Nonetheless, the Lord promised that His Church would ultimately succeed in the task He gave it to do because He would be leading His Church through those fallible people (Matthew 16:18).
Two thousand years of history is testimony enough that Christ has kept His promise.