The question I want to consider is this: why does the activity of Equipping the Saints seem to have such a low priority in normal church life today?
First, Is Equipping the Saints Important?
According to Ephesians 4:12, Jesus intended Equipping the Saints to be a priority leadership function in his church. The maturity of believers and the health of the church depends on every member being equipped “for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.”[i]
Equipping the Saints to do what?
Based on Jesus’ final instructions in Matthew 28:20, we can assume that the job of Equipping the Saints includes passing on a proficiency in the different ministry activities Jesus demonstrated and assigned to his first disciples. This would include teaching, preaching, healing the sick, casting out demons, and by extension, Paul’s instructions about the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the churches.[ii] We can also assume that the Matthew 28 mandate was taken seriously by Jesus’ followers, based on the evidence of these ongoing ministry practices in the records of the New Testament and early church history.
Nevertheless, little place or effort is now given for this priority in the majority of our churches today, at least the evangelical-type churches I’m familiar with. Why is that? Is there something we can identify that makes the priority and practice of Equipping the Saints more difficult to do, or less likely to be seen as relevant to church life today?
Second, Is the Absence of Equipping the Saints a Gospel Problem?
I think that part of the answer to the question of why Equipping the Saints is a missing priority has to do with how the gospel is presented in our churches. The gospel that is normally presented, at least in evangelical church circles, has little need or place for multiplying the number of believers who can do what Jesus did.
Consider this common summary of the gospel:
The gospel is the good news that although we are sinners, we can be justified and declared righteous before God by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, by which we secure forgiveness of our sins, satisfy the holy demands of God’s righteousness, become reconciled to God, and secure a place in heaven with God, forever.
Is This Common Evangelical Summary of The Gospel A Hindrance to Equipping the Saints?
If the above common description of the gospel is the whole story, then several implications may actually hinder the practice of equipping the saints in our churches.
First, if the main goal of the gospel is for humans to be forgiven, reconciled to God, and to go to heaven when they die, there is nothing that explicitly or implicitly compels personal responsibility for any kind of mission or service during the remainder of one’s lifetime on earth. This was one of the objections to the common versions of the Gospel that Dallas Willard raised in his writings.[iii]
Second, there is nothing in this common gospel summary that could be identified as a job description. In this common summary of the gospel, humans are mainly passive (except for their active sinning that incurs guilt and requires salvation). If there is no job to be done, the priority to equip someone is moot. There’s nothing to equip them to do.
What the majority of modern church attendees are left with is encouragement to attend services, give, avoid sin, fellowship together, behave ethically, raise your children well and love your spouses, etc., all good things, to be sure. But none of these really align with continuing the ministry of Jesus by doing the things he did in our communities today.
Third, is there a better way to describe the Gospel that should be preferred over the common Evangelical Gospel Summary?
Scholars like NT Wright[iv], Matthew Bates[v], and Scott McKnight[vi] claim that the common gospel summary in the previous section is not adequate, and that it confuses the benefits of the gospel with the gospel itself, which is the good news of what God has done by enthroning Jesus as King.
This is not to say that the common gospel summary is full of errors and is irrelevant to the New Testament gospel. For people who respond appropriately to the good news about what God has done through Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation there are great benefits. The New Testament promises forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, and eternal life. In other words, the Good News is the Gospel of the Kingdom, that Jesus has become King, or as Matthew Bates puts it, “Jesus has become the Saving King.”
The Gospel of the Kingdom better supports the priority of Equipping the Saints
Equipping the saints in Ephesians 4:11,12 should be understood as a logical imperative of the Gospel of the Kingdom. I would suggest the following statement as a more accurate way to describe the goal of the Gospel.
Rather than merely making a way for sinful humans to go to heaven, the enthronement of Jesus as the promised Lord and King has set creation back on track and returned the administration of the earth to Humans who were created in God’s image and who, as subjects of King Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, partner with Him to bring all of creation under the grace and glory of the Sovereign Creator.
The Logic of Equipping the Saints as a Kingdom Gospel Imperative
In the Kingdom version of the Gospel, we find a purpose for humans on earth that requires something more than passivity. There is a job to be done that requires knowledge, participation, and an ability to know God and to work with him. That, in other words, is something that requires the Equipping role of leaders who are placed in Jesus’ church just for that purpose.
Here are some New Testament ideas that build out the logic of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the priority of Equipping the Saints in normal church life.
Jesus is the Lord and the King: In the New Testament, Jesus, as the second Adam and the Image of God, was enthroned as the King promised in the Old Testament. Jesus the King is the full re-embodiment of God’s authority in humanity, restoring humans to their role in creation and achieving what was intended when God created man in his own image.
The correct response to Jesus is to acknowledge his rule. Furthermore, when we respond to the gospel of Jesus’ enthronement as the Saving King with faith[vii] in him, we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. As his disciples we begin an apprenticeship with Jesus to learn to live, love, and serve as image-bearers, just like He did. Jesus is, after all, “the first born among many brothers.”[viii]
Jesus is the Saving King: Finally, when the New Testament lists Jesus’ accomplishments, we find that through Jesus, God did all that was needed to resolve the problems caused by the fall of the first human image-bearers and to restore humans to their relationship and role in God’s Kingdom purposes.
In Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, God dealt with all the problems created by our participation in Adam’s sin that keep us from our original relationship with God and our role as image bearers:
- Our need for forgiveness for sin and willful rebellion against God, the king.[ix]
- Our need for deliverance from the principalities and powers.[x]
- Our need for reconciliation, that is, our restoration into the family of God.[xi]
By Jesus’ exaltation and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon those who are united with him by faith (allegiance, or loyalty, or trust), God re-enables humans to fulfill the creation mandate as image-bearers, beginning now and into the New Heavens and New Earth:
- Our need for transformation, that is, the putting off the old man and putting on the new.[xii]
- Our need for empowerment for living and serving out of the resources of God’s spirit and power.[xiii]
- Our need for equipping through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is our Teacher, so that we learn to live and work in our responsibility, authority and power as image-bearer and disciples of Jesus to do ‘good works’ as he did.[xiv]
We need to recover the New Testament Gospel of the Kingdom and explain in our preaching and teaching why the logic of the gospel of Jesus requires the priority of equipping the saints, and then do something about it.
We need to help our people understand who they are and what is their place in God’s world. I would suggest something like the following as a way to help them define their true identity and role as a member of the Body of Jesus, the King (Christ/Messiah of Israel.)
We need to teach people that they are created in the image of God. They need help to understand that as disciples of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the true Lord of the whole earth, they are being restored to their responsibility, authority, and power to manifest and manage the will and purposes of the Sovereign Creator, on earth as in heaven.
We need to help the members of our churches develop an expectation to do and experience what Jesus demonstrated in his ministry; that they can hear from God, be directed by God, and that through them God will speak and act in the lives of others to bring healing, comfort, and God’s love in tangible ways.
How can we expect to see the body of Christ become healthy and fruitful in coming generations if we allow them to be pew sitters and passive observers when they are called by their Lord to be his hands and feet and voice?
Other thoughts: How I approach the Question of the Gospel Priority for Equipping the Saints
First, my interest in the question of Equipping the Saints is not academic. If unclear or inaccurate thinking inhibits our ability to obey and function according to God’s plan and purpose for our lives in the church, then we should examine our thinking and revise it, where necessary.
Second, I assume that the work of Equipping the Saints is a subset of the Biblical ideas of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. The main focus of Jesus’ ministry was the announcement of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit must be seen within that context.
Third, I assume that the definition for the biblical phrase, Kingdom of God, is something like, “God’s kingly power exercised over creation and people,”[xv] or simply “God’s rule.”
Fourth, while the subject of the Kingdom of God in the Bible has a lot of moving parts (like George Eldon Ladd’s insight about the “already and the not yet”), I am looking at three specific ideas that are important for Ephesians 4:12.
- God has the Right to Rule everywhere over everything (He is the creator, after all).
- God rules in all the realms of his creation (the spiritual and the physical).
- The Bible, as God’s revelation of himself to us, tells us about how God’s rule from heaven (the spiritual realm) is implemented on earth (the physical realm).
Fifth, God’s authority as the Sovereign Creator (the absolute authority over everything he made) is not different (in kind) from the authority he invested in humans. Humans were created in his image and given the role and responsibility to fill the earth, subdue it, and to rule over it. God doesn’t have one kind of authority, and his image-bearing humans have another. Their authority is His authority, only it is embodied in them. What I mean is, His authority, being delegated to humans and backed up by His power, was how God, the true King of Creation, planned from the beginning to implement his rule on “earth as in heaven.”
[i] Ephesians 4:12 ESV
[ii] I Corinthians 11-14; Romans 12:3-8
[iii] Willard, Dallas, The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 2, The Gospel of Sin Management, p. 35ff
[iv] Wright, N.T., How God Became King
[v] Bates, Matthew W., Gospel Allegiance
[vi] McKnight, Scott, The King Jesus Gospel
[vii] Faith in this context should be understood as, Matthew Bates – “Gospel Allegiance,” Michael Heiser – “Believing Loyalty,” not mere intellectual assent to facts
[viii] Romans 8:29
[ix] E.g., Isa. 53:10-12
[x] E.g., Deut. 32: 8,9, Eph. 6:12
[xi] E.g., 2 Cor. 5:18-20
[xii] E.g., Eph. 4:22
[xiii] E.g., 2 Cor. 9:8, Titus 3:5, Gal. 5:16
[xiv] E.g., Acts 10:38; Eph. 2:10
[xv] Definition from the Lexham Bible Dictionary, Logos Bible