There can be few New Testament passages that the church has so openly ignored and even inverted than the fourth chapter of Ephesians and particular Eph 4:11-13. The passage looks for a diverse multitude of workers ministering to a single united local church that forms part of a single united global church. Instead we have many divided denominations the majority of which are locally ministered to by a single person.
Notwithstanding there is a little point in one person writing an essay to rail at Christendom; and to do so would actually be to again ignore the very issue that this passage is trying to teach! Instead I aim to simply look at the verses mentioned in some detail and will attempt to point out some areas where we could expand our thinking and begin to incorporate some of this scripture into our minds and actions.
Whilst it is somewhat contrary to normal good exegesis I believe the key to unlocking these three verses is to start towards the end of the last verse. Here we have the pinnacle to which the verses are climbing; the 'perfect man' with the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. The question we need to ask ourselves is: who or what is this perfect man?
The vast majority of the commentators have a very simple answer; the perfect man is the mature or fully formed Christian. It should be noted that the word rendered as perfect can just as easily mean fully grown or mature. Viewed as the mature man this could easily be seen as the alternative to us being children or even babes. Even the context of Eph 4:14 appears to suggest that this perfect is a result of the growing up of the individual believers.
I believe however that a close examination of the verses in hand show that this interpretation is not quite the full meaning of the passage. Instead I believe that the perfect man is actually a fully formed or mature church. Adam Clarke begins to head in this direction by suggesting that the believers must all be perfect for perfection to occur. Barnes states that the picture one of the individual having been brought to perfection by the church being brought to maturity. Matthew Poole however leaps completely over the individual and suggests it is the church that is primarily in view here. It is the perfection of the church that these verses are moving towards.
The immediate context of Eph 4:12,13 support this position. Note first that in verse 13 this 'perfect man' has the stature, measure and fullness of Christ. Are we to think that the individual believer is to be the match of Christ? We know we are to be the bride of Christ and thus we would expect to be helper comparable to Him; but is that true of the individual or of the Church in totality? Eph 5:32 makes quite clear that the marriage picture is one of Christ and the church. More tangentially it may be noted that Christ is said to have a wife, not wives. Thus I would suggest that whilst we will one day be like Him I don't think we will individually be of His full stature. But as a church we will be.
Another aspect of the immediate context that supports the notion that the perfection of verse 13 goes beyond the perfection of the individual is that the perfection of the individual has already been dealt with in verse 12. In fact Eph 4:12 appears to suggest that the church is, or at least should be, striving towards three goals: the perfection of the saints, the work of the ministry and the edification of the body of Christ (the Church). We are even told that the end of this period will be when we have unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. Of course we are not told that the church has to get itself to this stage; it could easily be that the coming of the Lord is required to achieve the end-goal. Nonetheless it would appear clear that progress should be in each of the three directions and that the end goal will be unity of faith and knowledge of Christ.
It is perhaps worth noting that the two end conditions are inseparable. It is regrettable that most attempts at achieving church unity have been at the expense of truth. The notion here is that we must sacrifice truth in order to achieve unity. However the inherent compromise defeats the second end condition: knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is equally regrettable that most pursuits of Biblical truth have resulted in schism and a new denomination or sub-branch of an old one. This of course defeats the first end condition unity. The fact is that the Bible only has one meaning and if we really wanted to see the church succeed then we need to get believers of different persuasions together and actually hammer out what truth is. It would take many years, possibly even a number of lifetimes to undo generations of tradition that obscure straightforward interpretation: but that is where the church should be heading.
Having dealt with the nature of the divisions we have within the church it is worth turning to Eph 4:11. Here we see the mechanism that the Lord has given us to bring about the perfection of the saints, the work of ministry and the edification of the church. And we find five different offices mentioned. The analysis of this section by Albert Barnes is mind numbing and shows how we have gotten ourselves where we are today. He notes the five offices and points out that two of them are not valid today. He then notes that in 1Co 12:28 that eight different offices in the church are mentioned. From this he concludes, or more accurately presumes, that this indicates that there is really just one grade of ordained ministers but that their function should change from time to time.
The natural reading of Eph 4:11 is that Christ was giving different people the offices mentioned. If I were to take a group of boys camping and told them that I wanted some to chop wood, some to fetch water, some to cook and some to pitch tents and then I returned to find one child attempting all four roles whilst the rest sat and watched then I would be rightfully aggrieved. The majority of modern churches are in the same predicament.
Interesting Adam Clarke identified this problem although he voices it somewhat more gently than I. He suggests that we still have at least three of these offices today and that there are men called to each. He then believes that we just call all three of the groups 'preacher'. The problem he sees is that if a man has only one of the gifts but then tries to work in one of the other ways then he is wasting his time. I suggest this is only half right however. It is not just a problem that the man is functioning the wrong way; it is also a problem that the other two individuals that could be exercising the gifts in the correct way are probably just sitting in the pews and watching.
My personal belief is that the term 'prophets' in this verse is really a forth-teller rather than a foreteller. I therefore believe it is still a valid office; that of the preacher. The apostles I do believe have now been replaced by the inspired word of God. The evangelist is the soul winner; the man that can plead with men's hearts. The teacher is the man steeped in the word that can bring it alive and make people remember it. The pastor is literally the shepherd; the man that can draw beside the individual and care and tend them individually. Most of us have pastors that genuinely attempt to do all of these; however I have never personally met anyone that can do them all adequately.
Whilst I have tackled this passage backwards I believe that the correct application of it is forwards; as we would expect. We must within the churches seek to identify all of the gifts that God has given. Not so that we can peel the people off to be one-man bands somewhere else. Rather so that we can make our churches a living organism where each person has a place that functions to build the church up. As we grow individually and corporately we need to then develop the strength to be able to reach out to other churches and to forge alliances with them based upon truth; however painful that must be. Frankly I do not have the faith to foresee this in my lifetime. I do have the faith to know it will happen eventually when we see our Lord. I hope that this paper will form some microscopic step towards beginning this transformation sooner rather than later.