Moving backwards in 4:11, there is broad agreement that the construction “the pastors and teachers” indicates that these two offices/functions were inextricably connected, if not describing the same group (i.e., “pastor-teachers”). The latter appears to be the prevalent view of most commentators, including Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Jerome. Nevertheless, even if we conclude that these are distinct offices/functions (e.g., see Calvin's commentary on Ephesians), A.T. Lincoln is surely close to the truth when writes, “It is more likely that they were overlapping functions, but that while almost all pastors were also teachers, not all teachers were also pastors,” (Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, 1990, p.250).
“Evangelists” are also broadly understood (by the early church and most modern commentaries) as itinerant preachers who evangelized the unreached, and, apparently, equipped the church for evangelism. Generally, this has been taken to imply a spiritual gift of evangelism. However, interestingly enough, missiologist Ed Stetzer disagrees, observing that the gifts here are persons, not necessarily spiritual abilities. Nevertheless, most agree that evangelists “are to be seen as those engaged in mission and the founding of churches and, therefore, having responsibilities beyond the local congregation,” (Lincoln, p.250).
With regard to “the apostles and the prophets,” the traditional understanding of Ephesians 4:11ff. is well represented by Richard Gaffin Jr., in his Perspectives on Pentecost
“…the New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, are the foundation of the church [see 2:20]. They have a foundational, that is, temporary, noncontinuing function in the church’s history, and so by God’s design pass out of its life, along with the apostles.” (pp.95-96, 1979).
Hence, the remaining offices/functions of the post-apostolic church are: evangelist, pastor and teacher (or pastor-teacher). However, with the advent of the charismatic movement in the early 20th century, the received “cessationism” of our Protestant heritage began to be re-examined, re-asserted (e.g., B.B. Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles), and re-questioned (e.g., Martyn Lloyd-Jones). With this renewed interest in the possibility of a fundamental continuationism, the question of the contemporary relevance of “apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 4:11 was again on the table (e.g., C. Peter Wagner's New Apostolic Reformation). Many pronounced themselves and others as prophets, and pointed to this text as warranting their acceptance within the church. Others even claimed to be apostles.
More recently, a non-Charismatic approach to interpreting Ephesians 4:11 has emerged. The first popular expression of this interpretation that I am aware of is found in Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith’s 2003 book, Invading Secular Space. In this work, the authors argue that the “gifts” discussed in Ephesians 4:11 should be understood not as spiritual charismata, as the “gifts” (domata, 4:8) are leaders; neither should they be understood as ecclesiastical offices or titles, as assumed by Pentecostal and Charismatic claimants of prophetic and apostolic authority. Rather, they should be understood as functions; and these functions should all be operating in some measure in every church today. The function of apostle is understood as particularly important in the extension of the gospel beyond the ecclesial and geographical boundaries of the local church. This “APEPT model” has since been promulgated by authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (e.g., The Shaping of Things to Come, 2004 and The Forgotten Ways, 2008).
Typically in the New Testament (see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1994, p.911) and the writings of the early church fathers (e.g., Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus), “apostles” refer to those uniquely authorized eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and therefore necessarily limited to those personally commissioned by the glorified Christ in the first century. So how should we understand apostolos in Ephesians 4:11? It obviously extends beyond the twelve “apostles of the Lamb,” (Rev.18:20; cf. Acts 1:26) to include the “untimely born” Paul (1Co.15:8). Does it also include the broader category of those key leaders among the “apostolic teams,” such as Barnabas (Ac.14:14), James (Gal.1:19), Silas, Timothy (2Thess.1:1; 2:6-7), and perhaps Andronicas and Junais (Rom.16:7)? Would it entail even those outside the apostolic teams who are also labeled “apostles,” such as Epaphroditus (Phil.2:25) and other “messengers of the churches” (2Co.8:23)? That is to say, does it embrace not merely apostles “big A,” so to speak, but also apostles “little a.” And then of course there is the equally difficult question of the meaning of prophetes.
One of the mistakes often made in interpreting Ephesians 4:11 is eisegesis of the nouns in question. Rather than establishing the meaning of these nouns in their grammatico-historical context there is a tendency to read into them our own, idiosyncratic and popular conceptions. For instance, it is often communicated in Christian circles that “prophets” are those with personalities especially “wired” for a high concern for truth ... and stereotypically lacking in the social skills to communicate these truths with diplomacy or compassion. But is this lexically defensible? And would this caricature even be helpful in portraying the prophets of the OT? “Apostles” are often represented as “visionaries” and “catalytic leaders” who aggressively push the church beyond its present boundaries for the sake of extending the gospel. Yet we don’t know whether, prior to the catastrophes of AD 70 and following, the majority of the original twelve ever even left Jerusalem for the purpose of ministry.
I once had an opportunity to talk with a leading advocate of the APEPT paradigm, and asked him what he thought a “pastor” essentially was. He told me that it was someone with the gift of mercy, and was particularly compassionate toward people. Surprised, I asked him, “Why, I mean, how do you figure that?” He responded, “Because when you think of pastors, what do you think of? You think of the nice guy.” But surely this understanding of poimayn, the same word rendered “shepherd” in John 10:11-16, Hebrews 13:20 and 1Peter 2:25 (see also 5:4), is more representative of our modern caricatures of pastors than the first century context of Paul’s letter.
We need to be cautious then of pouring anecdotal and anachronistic meanings into these words. Having said that, what is the contextual meaning of “apostle” and “prophet”?
First and foremost, it is instructive to observe that the two nouns, “apostles” and “prophets,” appear together twice more in the same unit of Ephesians (2:11-4:16): namely, 2:20 and 3:5. In both of these cases it is apparent that these persons function in a foundational capacity in the historical structuring of the Church, establishing the revelational groundwork upon which God’s house is built, and subsequently enshrined in the New Testament documents. Unless there are compelling factors to interpret “the apostles and the prophets” (τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας) in v.11 differently from “the apostles and prophets” (τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ προφητῶν) mentioned earlier in the unit, common sense tells us they should be read the same way. If this is so, then it appears the traditional interpretation is basically correct, and that these offices/roles are no longer operative in the sense Paul intended.
We must also consider the interesting parallel in 1Corinthians 12:28. Here Paul offers an enumerated list of gifts distributed: “in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers...,” and then goes on to list other spiritual gifts without precise enumeration. Perhaps it is best to read this ordering in light of 12:31, and with Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 2000, pp.52-53, 122-23) understand it as a measure of the relative efficacy of these various gifts for the edification of the church. Or perhaps it should be read as chronological, as D.A. Carson argues (Showing the Spirit, 1987, pp.90-91): apostles were first commissioned, then prophets and other charismatic leaders in the early mission, and then teachers in the established churches. Whomever we identify as correct in interpreting the ordering of 12:28, Grudem (pp. 51-53) and Carson (p.90) are both in agreement that here “apostles” should be understood within the narrower scope of the word, i.e., big “A” apostles. This seems to be the straightforward meaning of the word, especially in light of its usage throughout the whole letter of 1Corinthians (see 1:1; 4:9; 9:1-5; 15:7-9). If so, then we have a strong parallel text which must inform our interpretation of Ephesians 4:11.
Given then the immediate context of the passage in question (Eph.1:1; 2:20; 3:2-5), together with the broader context of Paul’s writings (especially 1Cor.12:28), we are inclined to conclude with most commentators that “apostles” in 4:11 should be understood in this narrower sense. Furthermore, there appears to be nothing in the text to cause us to venture an alternative meaning or usage (e.g., a grammatical indication that all such “gifts” from Christ are on-going). Therefore, we should conclude that this particular gift, having already been distributed and having already accomplished its foundational function, is no longer necessary. For this reason, I think it is extremely unwise for anyone to employ the title “apostle” today, even if they distinguish its meaning from the NT’s typical usage. Perhaps “evangelist” should be employed instead to refer to those who extend the gospel beyond the community of the local congregation?
But what about the prophets? What are they, and should we expect Christ to raise them up today? The question of the meaning of prophete is enormously complex (see, for example, David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 1983).
Having said that, I find Carson’s in-depth study of 1Corinthians 12-14 in Showing the Spirit compelling, and concur when he concludes that Grudem’s treatment of prophecy is essentially correct (see pp.91-100). Grudem succinctly defines prophecy in the New Testament as a spontaneous revelation (“something God brings to mind”) that is then fallibly spoken (i.e., non-inspired) by the prophet. Given this understanding, there is no contradiction between a closed canon and contemporary prophesies within the church. They are not inerrant or absolutely binding, but rather must be continually “weighed” by the congregation (1Cor.14:29). And, according to Paul’s usage in his most extensive discussion of the topic (i.e., 1Cor.12-14), it would appear that a prophet is someone who regularly exercises the gift of prophecy for the benefit of the church.
So should we then understand the same meaning of the term “prophets” in 4:11 as used elsewhere in the New Testament? If so, then we must conclude that, unlike apostles, the function/role of prophets continues today. But what about 2:20 and 3:5? What about the unique, foundational roles assumed there by the apostles and prophets? Here it gets complicated.
Grudem writes, “It must be admitted that Paul is using the word “prophets” in Ephesians 4:11 to refer those who had the gift of prophecy in local congregations,” (The Gift of Prophecy, p.342). However, he also argues that “prophets” in 2:20 and 3:5 is used in a distinctive way. In particular, he makes a very careful argument that the construction “apostles and prophets” in both 2:20 and 3:5 should be understood as a hendiadys, referring not to two distinct persons, but to the same individuals; namely, the apostle-prophets (cf. “pastor-teachers” in 4:11). Grammatically his case is sound, and certainly the apostles were prophets in every sense of that term. Yet few remain convinced. It is an odd expression, isn’t it? More likely, most commentators are correct to understand Paul here to be speaking of the apostles (big “A”), on the one hand, and those inspired individuals who, to borrow Sinclair Ferguson’s phrase, “exercised a foundational ministry…as a kind of apostolic plenipotentiary,” (The Holy Spirit: Contours of Christian Theology, 1996, p.210), on the other.
But I think Grudem (see Appendix 6 in Gift of Prophecy) and Carson (pp.96-97) are correct in rejecting the thesis that this “foundational ministry” of the prophets here associated with the apostles is “a generalization that covers all the other New Testament statements on prophecy” (Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 1971, p.96). The phenomenon of prophecy in the NT is just too diverse to fit under such a generalization. Moreover, their authority, as witnessed in the New Testament and early fathers, typically falls significantly short of “apostolic” (see Carson, pp. 94-98). Therefore, I think it safe to conclude that the prophets mentioned in 2:20 and 3:5, at least, are distinct from other prophets mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1Cor.14:29-32), and in the subsequent history of the church. But what about the prophets mentioned in 4:11?
First, there is no indication that the prophets in 1Corinthians 14 exercised leadership or ecclesial authority within the congregation at Corinth. Yet, plainly, the prophets here in Ephesians 4 are presented as leaders. In other words, it would appear that though not all prophets were leaders, some leaders were prophets.
Secondly, we must affirm that these prophets, as in every other instance of the word in the NT, exercised the gift of prophecy. If they function as prophets, then it must be because they exercise a prophet’s gifts. The same could be said of pastors and teachers. And even if, with Stetzer, we question the existence of a spiritual gift of evangelism, surely, if we grant for the sake of argument that there is such a gift, we would have to conclude that the evangelist would possess it. I state this obvious truth only because so many today define “prophets” in 4:11 in the strangest of ways, typically leaving out altogether the actual gift of prophesying! However, it seems unavoidable that the leaders Paul here contemplates exercised the gift of receiving spontaneous revelation and giving articulation of it. The question here is whether such revelation was foundational and its articulation infallible. The immediate context suggests that it was. However, the parallel text in 1Corinthians 12 opens up the possibility that such prophets included the broader, New Testament conception of ‘little “p” prophets’, if you will.
Thirdly, if we grant the possibility that “prophets” refers to those leaders in the church who exercise the gift of prophecy beyond the locus of the foundational ministry of “the holy apostles and prophets,” then how should we conceive such leadership was exercised? This brings us back to question of function versus office. Were “the prophets” in 4:11 ordained officers within the church? Contrary to the claim that prophets emerged early on as “charismatic leaders” within the churches, prior to the subsequent institutionalization of the church with “ordained” officers (cf. Grudem, pp.153-160), a quick glance at the book of Acts and the epistles reveals that presbyters/bishops (and sometimes deacons) were installed as the recognized leaders of the church almost immediately within the apostolic mission (see Ac.14:23; 15:2ff., 20:17; 1Ti.5:17; Titus 1:5; Jas.5:14; 1Pe. 5:1, etc.). It is widely recognized today that the established pattern of church leadership was the two-fold office of bishop/elder and deacon among the churches of the first (e.g., Phil.1:1) and early second century (e.g., Didache 15:1). Hence, if the prophets were recognized as officers (i.e., official leaders) of the church, they were most likely recognized as elders (or possibly deacons) within the local congregation. Nevertheless, regarding the public recognition of leadership, what Lincoln says about the (local) leaders of the early church is undoubtedly true:
“…evangelists, pastors, and teachers were so called because they regularly exercised their ministries, and such ministries would have required acceptance and recognition by their churches,” (p.252).
The same must also be applied to the prophets, if they continue in the post-apostolic age. In short, function versus office, though a legitimate distinction, is not an absolute disjunction. Not all who exercised the relevant gifts were recognized as leaders in the church (e.g., the gift of teaching); but all the leaders necessarily exercised the corresponding gifts. And so “the prophets” would have been recognized as those who regularly exercise the ministry of prophecy, either as qualified elder within the body of overseers, or as gifted individuals serving under their authority.
The proper interpretation of Ephesians 4:11 – especially with regard to “prophets” – is particularly difficult to establish. And this should give us pause. I think we are wise to build our ecclesiology of leadership elsewhere first.
In particular, it seems most fitting to turn to the Pastoral Epistles where Paul is specifically addressing these matters to church leaders, who are establishing churches and installing new leadership. It is clear from 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 what the qualifications (godliness, hospitality, and maturity) and basic functions (administration, leadership and teaching) of leadership should be.
If we are prepared to argue that “the prophets” in 4:11 continue today as recognized leaders in the church then it seems we must expect (1) that they exercise the gift of prophecy, and that (2) as leaders they must (a) fulfill the biblical qualifications Paul lays out in his letters to Timothy and Titus, and (b) exercise a shepherding ministry together with their fellow elders.
Whatever the particular “gift mix” of those men the Holy Spirit raises up, in accordance to the standards of Scripture, these are to be vigorously employed in the co-shepherding of the church by the body of elders. Some will have the gift of prophecy, as, for example, Charles Spurgeon seems to have employed on occasion (see Grudem’s Appendix 7 in The Gift of Prophecy). Most perhaps will not. But certainly we should pray for this gift, especially among our leaders, as it is extremely profitable for the edification of the church (1Cor.12:31; 14). Others will be especially effective at pastoring at an administrative level, while others more so one-on-one. Some will be especially gifted preachers, while others will be adequate teachers. Some will be incredibly fruitful evangelists, while others will be faithful witnesses who see a handful of people come to know the Lord. All of us are called to “do the work of an evangelist.” Some will be particularly aggressive, and work to extend the gospel beyond the community of their local church, even leaving their community as “sent ones”; others will be buried in the churchyard as faithful missionaries to their hometown.
I personally am inclined to believe, contrary to Grudem, that the prophets named in 4:11 referenced the particular prophets associated with the apostles in 2:20 and 3:5. Andrew Lincoln, in his generally excellent commentary on Ephesians (marred significantly by his rejection of Pauline authorship), writes:
“The first two groups of ministers listed, the apostles and prophets, also appear first in Paul’s list in 1Cor 12:28 and have already been singled out as the object of the writer’s reflection in Eph 2:20 and 3:5. In these earlier references the apostles, as divinely commissioned missionaries and planters of the churches, and the prophets, as specialists in mediating divine revelation, were viewed as norms from the past.”
Though I disagree with the implication that the author wrote this letter after the apostolic era, I think Lincoln is correct that the apostles and prophets mentioned refer to the foundational ministries of the first generation of the church, and that as such, we should build faithfully on their foundation as evangelists, on the one hand, ever expanding the church’s width, and as pastor-teachers, on the other, always increasing the church’s depth (and height).