The Bible mentions different ministries in the Bible (most notably, see Eph. 4:11).
But it also mentions 2 appointed positions:
- elders (Titus 1:5)
- deacons (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:10)
These positions can be referred to as “offices”. Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, it does seem to be an accurate sentiment for them, since these are appointed positions and people are given these titles (e.g. Phil. 1:1).
Ministries Are Not Offices
Ephesians 4:11 spells out 5 specific ministries:
- Shepherds (also called, “Pastors”)
Jesus is the one who “gave” these…”to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11-12). There is never a mention of these being appointed by the church. Nor is there a list of qualifications people should look over to assess if one is or isn’t 1 of these 5 ministries.
Elder & Deacon Offices Are Not Ministries
In contrast, the Bible reveals 2 “offices” (though the word is not used, the sentiment is) that are different than these ministries:
The church is seen appointing these offices (e.g. Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:10; Titus 1:5), qualifications are listed for them (1 Tim. 3; 5; Titus 1), and they are listed as the only two titles/offices given to the church as a whole (see Phil. 1:1). All of this makes these clearly contrast the ministries of Eph. 4:11.
Thus, elders and deacons should be viewed in a different category than Ephesian 4:11 ministers.
Undoubtedly, elders and deacons will also function in some of these ministries. But having such ministries does not automatically qualify you as an elder and deacon.
For instance, Apollos is seen as a powerful teacher (Acts 18), but not necessarily an elder (where teaching is only 1 of the qualifications listed – see 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Whereas Philip, one of the 7 deacons of Acts 6:1-6, also functions as an “evangelist,” (Acts 21:8).
The 12 Apostles = An Exceptional Office
Saying the above, there is 1 exception that should be noted. Namely, the 12 Apostles appointed by Jesus seem clearly to be offices/officers:
- They were “appointed” as the 12 apostles (first by Jesus, Mark 3:14, then by the disciples later, Acts 1:23)
- They are addressed by this title: “The twelve apostles,” (Acts 6:2) “The apostles,” (Acts 15:23). Etc.
- Qualifications were listed for becoming 1 of these 12 apostles (Acts 1:20-23; 1 Cor. 9:1)
- It was called a “position” or “office” (Acts 1:20 cf. Psalm 109:8)
- They felt the need to replace this position/office when Judas Iscariot killed himself (Acts 1:25)
In all these respects, the 12 Apostles should be seen as offices/officers, not ministries.
But they served a limited time period, and were not replaced repeatedly over the generations (for one, it would be VERY difficult to keep finding someone who saw the physically resurrected Jesus after only so many years to replace them!–see Acts 1:20-23; 1 Cor. 9:1).
12 Apostles Different Than Apostolic Ministry of Ephesians 4:11
In contrast to the 12 Apostles, the ministry, “apostle,” mentioned in Eph. 4:11, seems to indicate an ongoing ministry that goes beyond the 12, and applies to anyone who functions in an “apostolic ministry”.
The Greek word, “apostolos” used in Ephesians 4:11, is applied to others outside of the 12 (and even outside Paul, who arguably may be put into the category of the “12 Apostles”…see Was Paul Part of the 12 Apostles?).
For instance, James (Gal. 1:19), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6-9), and Timothy and Silvanus (1 Thes. 1:1 and 2:6) are all referred to as “apostolos”.
It literally means a “messenger” or “one who is sent”. From my understanding, the Latin word, “missionary,” comes from the same root (“one who is sent”). We readily recognize that missionaries persist as a ministry to the present day.
In fact, Ephesians 4:11-13 says: “Christ himself gave the apostles…until we all reach unity…and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Note that these ministers are given to Christ’s body until we reach full maturity (which won’t happen until Christ returns, cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). Thus, it seems we are dealing with a class of “apostles” that is outside the scope of the 12 appointed apostle offices.
In this respect, I see the 12 Apostles (plus Paul) as forming a unique office that no longer exists today. Whereas the “apostles” of Eph. 4:11 are ministers/ministries that are not offices/officers, and persist to this present day in people who are “sent ones” to church-plant, etc.
Shepherds And Elders
Just as the word apostle can sometimes refer to the “12 appointed apostles” and sometimes to more generic apostle ministries, so I think that a “shepherd” ministry of Eph. 4:11 is not the same as an elder office, even though elders are sometimes called “shepherds” (see 1 Pet. 5:1-2).
Again, I look at how the ministries of Eph. 4:11 are treated differently than the offices of elders and deacons throughout Scripture:
- the ministries are given directly by the Lord, without appointment (Eph. 4:11); while deacons and elders are appointed by people (Acts 6:1-6; 14:23; Titus 1:5), via the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), through the laying of hands (Acts 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:22)
- the ministries are apportioned to different people at the discrimination of the Lord (1 Cor. 12:29), similarly to how God appoints natural gifts (Rom. 12) and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12) to some and not others; whereas elders and deacons are something noble for all to “aspire to,” (1 Tim. 3:1), and are marked more by character traits (that all should aspire to do — see 1 Tim. 3)
- When addressing the church, God (through Paul) addresses only “the overseers [= elders] and deacons,” along with the rest of the saints (Phil. 1:1). He doesn’t address the pastors, apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. (cf. Eph. 4:11). Again, “overseer” and “deacon” are titles belonging to people in those offices, different than the ministries and ministers who function in them.
From all this, it just seems like trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole in treating the Eph. 4:11 ministries like the deacon and elder offices (or vice-versa). Thus, to assume the “Shepherd” (or “Shepherd-Teacher,” as some see it) of Eph. 4:11 is equivalent to the office of elder mentioned elsewhere seems quite untenable.
To me, a better solution can be found in realizing that, like “apostle” (above), the “shepherd” could hold a looser meaning (of a “shepherd” ministry, as I think it does in Eph. 4:11), or it could hold a more technical meaning, like it does when describing overseers as shepherds (see 1 Pet. 5:2).
Saying this, if my reading of the Eph. 4:11 “shepherd” ministry is correct (meaning, it is different than an overseer/elder), then Eph. 4:11 is the only place in the Bible where such a word is used to describe this type of a ministry. This does not make our reading incorrect, since we have examples of other ministries/gifts that are only mentioned in 1 place in the Bible (I think of the, “message of wisdom,” spiritual gift of 1 Cor. 12:8 that is only listed in that verse, for instance). But it does mean we should use caution in becoming too prescriptive of what a “shepherd” ministry should/shouldn’t look like. Our best bet is to look at other places in the Bible where shepherds are mentioned, and use those characteristics in helping us think through what a shepherd ministry looks like (for instance, John 10 shows that a good shepherd is considerate, nurturing, and sacrificial toward the sheep, so we could see those traits in a “shepherd” ministry).
Further, since “shepherd” is used both for Eph. 4:11 ministers and for overseers (1 Pet. 5), we should expect that there will be some overlap with what an elder does and what a “shepherd” ministry does. Just as there is overlap between what the 12 Apostles did, and what missionaries/apostles do today.