By: Neil Cole Jesus gave to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ. At times the church has thrived in movemental revival, and many of those times were marked by influential leaders who represented different functions of the fivefold APEST gifts speaking into the health of the body of Christ at large. What I find very interesting is that these gifted equippers, though contemporaries, were usually not found in the same organization. Perhaps there are reasons for this worthy of our attention. In this article I hope to shed some light on this.
Historical Examples of Contemporary APEST Roles Working Independently
During the eighteenth century, apostolic (John Wesley), prophetic (Charles Wesley), and evangelistic (George Whitefield) leaders worked together to launch what became the Methodist movement. Missiologists today tout this as perhaps the best example in history of apostolic church movements in a Western context. Whitefield couldn’t remain with the Methodists but shipped off to the new world. Here is an example of these gifts starting together but finding it hard to stay together over time as they mature beyond one brand.
In the nineteenth century, Hudson Taylor (apostle), D. L. Moody (evangelist), and C. H. Spurgeon (teacher) were active contemporaries whose work contributed to one another’s efforts. During this same era, William Booth (apostolic) and Catherine Booth (prophetic) started the Salvation Army, and George Mueller (prophetic shepherd) began his work with orphans.
I wonder what could happen if the church at large were intentional about releasing all the gifts without trying to corral them into a single ministry organization. Are we open to seeing all the gifts working together without restricting them to a single brand or logo? I have found that the very nature of the gifts will usually prevent all five from working under a single umbrella ministry or brand.
Reasons Why The APEST Roles Flourish in Different Environments
Besides the fact that there tends to be a chronological role these gifts play in the formation of ecclesia––some come first and others follow after (1 Corinthians 12:28)––it is also hard to get the diversity of gifts to work together in a single organization. I’m not saying that this is impossible, but rare.
Apostolic leaders tend to not want to build on another’s foundation and are more prone to start something new than to live under something that already exists. But just because you started something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are an apostle. The prophets also tend to want to have more flexibility than to stay within an established institution, and too often, religious institutions are in a hurry to get rid of them. The evangelist gift is also just as prone to entrepreneurship, if not more than the apostolic. Shepherds are a more relational gift and are happy anywhere that they can love people, but it has to be their people, those they feel assigned to. They are more inclined to stay wherever their “flock” is rather than have any impulse to go and start something new. All their attention is spent on an existing group that is their flock. Teachers are content when they can study, learn and teach others and likely couldn’t bother starting a new organization unless they absolutely had to.
Apostles and shepherds are less inclined to want to build a big thing as they thrive in more intimate settings––apostles to multiply, and shepherds to provide adequate care for everyone. In contrast to this, evangelists and teachers are more inclined to want larger audiences––the bigger the better. The measure of success for these different gifts is enough to merit divergent ministry expressions. An evangelist will feel like a failure if forced to stay with only a small group whereas an apostle or shepherd will never be able to accomplish their main purpose with a constantly growing gathering. In fact, each of the gifts will measure success and determine failure differently so the objectives of any one organization will likely fail to please all five. This is because the five gifts are bigger than any one organization, and so is the church that results from the equipping of all five.
It is not impossible to have a team of all five gifts working together, but to do so under a single brand and structure is where the rub comes. You will find that less mature expressions of the five gifts are able to work together for a season under a single banner, but in time the gifts will need to be released for a much broader scope of influence and in divergent ways. I think this is by design. The church was never meant to be contained by a single charter, brand or address. A church stifled in this way will not likely have capacity to utilize all the diversity of these five gifts simultaneously. Nor is it necessary that they do. The outcomes of all these gifts are way beyond the typical programs of a modern church as we know it, and the structures are too confining to utilize all the gifts effectively.
In fact, our current church structures are the byproduct of a couple of the gifts developing over the years at the exclusion of the others, so forcing all the gifts to work within those boundaries is problematic. The true church that results from the equipping of all five gifts is just too big to have an address, charter or brand.
When the APEST Roles Work Best
We are far more likely to have all five mature expressions of APEST working together when we allow freedom for each to have their own ministry outlet as well as a joint project. These gifts are best when they have translocal influence over many households of faith. The less organizational restraints and layers of control in a ministry, the longer we will be able to continue working together with all the gifts.
For over twenty years I have been a part of an APEST team that ignited the global organic church movement. We are the closest of friends, lifelong ministry partners, sworn to each other’s purpose. Even in our own experience, with each person catalyzing their own autonomous work and coming together loosely on a semi-bimonthly basis, we have regular bouts of frustration with one another and have to overcome our differences. Certainly, if all five of us were forced to work under the same roof, with a single objective, held to the standard of the other gifts, we would drive each other crazy and in diverging directions. It would blow up. Having all the different ministry expressions brought about by each one’s work, however, makes the whole movement better off anyway. Imagine how much we would lose if we were forced to all produce only one ministry organization.
Church As We Know It is Too Small For All Five Gifts
It is not the gifts or the giver that is faulty in bringing these gifts together to work under one umbrella. The gifts work in unison and are powerfully expressed together in the person of Jesus, so they should be able to complement one another and work in unison under the Head. It is the package that we call “church,” an artificial construct that attempts to confine these gifts, that is the real problem. The struggle of our own fallen nature in a structure designed for the flourishing of only one or two gifts at the expense of the others creates the greatest challenge to these gifts working together.
I do not believe that God’s kingdom was ever meant to be restricted to a single organizational structure with institutional boundaries as we are now familiar. Most spiritual gift tests are designed to help people find a ministry placement within the context of a single local church organization. The gifts are placed in submission to ministry assignments within an organization––under it’s schedule, mission statement, staff, budget, vision and geographical location. Right from the start, there is a bias that clouds the testing process and pollutes the results. The APEST gifts are useful in many more ways than a typical church allows. There are some gifts, designed by God to function best outside the boundaries of a single church. Paul was a father of many churches and not a regular ongoing presence in any of them. We simply must embrace this truth and get on with the holistic work we are all called to.
In a regional movement with many church expressions connected relationally you would find a better context for the five gifts to work together in their mature expressions. Even then, it is a challenge to find them all working simultaneously. It is possible, but a challenge.
One would think that the larger the church the more likely you would find all the gifts, and that is true in their raw state, but in the more mature equipping phases the scale of the church is not really the issue, it is more about each gift finding their niche environment where they are operating in their sweet spot. The very design of the gifts require different contexts to thrive, and even different timing in their responsibility. But it would be a huge mistake to consider this a disadvantage as though these gifts are the problem and not the solution.
I believe the church is so much more than one organization. Only when we begin to see the people of God from heaven’s point of view will we truly appreciate the diversity of these gifts and watch them flourish. As gifted people mature into equipping roles their influence should expand beyond the boundary of a single brand. Knowing our own gifts and the roles we play in the body of Christ is not enough. There is more to God’s plan than our personal fulfillment. Jesus didn’t give gifts to us; He gives gifts through us. Becoming a better person is not enough; we must become better collectively. Connection with the whole body is where the real party begins.
It is frankly selfish and infantile for a single organization to “own” a gifted person and withhold her influence from the rest of us. All of us belong to Jesus and only Jesus. His church is much more than your church. When we recognize this perhaps we will begin to benefit more from each other and all the gifts can work simultaneously. Only then will we all begin to resemble Jesus in this world together.
[This is an Excerpt from Neil’s Book Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church With the Five Gifts of Ephesians 4:11]