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Rethinking the Five-Fold Ministry

by Frank Viola

In virtually every city where I've spoken, I have been asked the question, "Frank, do you believe in 'the five-fold ministry?' And do you believe that God is restoring 'the five-fold ministry' mentioned in Ephesians Chapter 4?"

In this article, I would like to answer that question.

My answer is largely hinged on what one means by "the five-fold ministry." That is, what "five-fold ministry" are we talking about? Are we talking about the 200-year old doctrine of the restoration of "the five-fold ministry?" Or are we talking about the ascension gifts that Paul had in mind when he penned Ephesians 4:9-16?

The Five-Fold Ministry: The History of a Doctrine

In 19th century England, Christians were ripe to flock to apocalyptic prophecies about the coming Millennial Age. The upheaval that the French Revolution had produced left God's people wishing for a reign of peace under their Lord that would set all things right.

In the year 1824, Edward Irving, a Presbyterian pastor in Scotland, began teaching that "the five-fold ministry" of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers had disappeared from the church and were in need of restoration. According to Irving, the restoration of these ministries would usher in the Millennial Kingdom of Christ on the earth.

As a result of Irving's teachings, he and his followers began the Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832. Its chief purpose was to restore "the five-fold ministry" and usher in the Millennial Kingdom. The church ordained twelve "apostles" who were to be the last days equivalent of the original Twelve whom Jesus appointed. Henry Drummond, a wealthy banker from England, became the leader of the church. Drummond himself took the highest position . . . the "apostle to Scotland."

It was prophesied that these twelve apostles would be the last apostles to appear on the earth before Christ's return. (This is a throwback to Mani of Persia of the third century who labeled himself the "Apostle of Light," the very last apostle of Jesus to exist on the earth.)

Eventually these twelve apostles died (the last one dying in 1901). Upon their death, the Catholic Apostolic Church died in England. In Germany, however, the Catholic Apostolic Church ordained twelve more apostles and took the name New Apostolic Church.

In 1901, an erstwhile Congregational minister named John Alexander Dowie founded the Christian Catholic Church in 1896 and became its general overseer. In 1901, with 5,000 followers, Dowie established the "City of Zion" in north-east Illinois and ran it as a Puritan theocracy. In 1904, he revealed that he had been Divinely commissioned to be the "First Apostle" and told his followers to anticipate the full restoration of apostolic Christianity. In 1906, the community of believers in the City of Zion began to break down. Dowie passed away the following year.

Following the famed Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906, the restoration of "the five-fold ministry" and "a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit" just before the return of Christ picked up new steam. This spawned a new generation of apostles to appear. Luigi Francescon, "apostle to Italy," Ivan Voronaev, "apostle to the Slavs," T.B. Barratt, "apostle to Europe" were just some of them. Pentecostal denominations in Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States elected and ordained colleges of apostles to govern their denominations.

As the years rolled on, the restoration of "the five-fold ministry" doctrine somewhat faded. But it re-emerged again with a revival that was spawned at Sharon Orphanage in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1948. The New Order of the Latter Rain movement, as it was called, was prophesied to restore "the five-fold ministry" to prepare for the manifestation of the sons of God on the earth.

The restoration of "the five-fold ministry" doctrine again faded until it was given new life in the Charismatic Movement of the 1960s. It again began to dim until a group of men began to resurrect it with new fervor in the 1990s.

In 1996, Peter Wagner led a conference at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled National Symposium on the Post-Denominational Church. This conference spawned a new movement called the New Apostolic Movement, which Wagner claims is sweeping the globe with a new way of doing church. The churches who are part of this movement are being labeled New Apostolic Churches.

In 1999, Wagner sought to organize the movement under the name International Coalition of Apostles with Wagner as the "Presiding Apostle." The movement claims to be restoring "the five-fold ministry" today.

Sound familiar?

Parenthetically, the churches in the new apostolic movement are vanilla charismatic institutional churches replete with the office of modern pastor (now called "apostle"), Sunday sermons, pulpit, pews, church buildings, the 500 year-old order of worship, music led by a worship team, etc.

Point: The doctrine of the restoration of "the five-fold ministry" is over 180 years old! And it has been repackaged from movement to movement.

Running the Cart Over the Horse

So is God going to restore "the five-fold ministry?" To my mind, that's the wrong question. It's pushing the cart before the horse. The ascension gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4—which are gifted people given to the Body of Christ as gifts to His church—are the natural outgrowth and by-product of authentic church life. This is the case with all of the other gifts mentioned in the New Testament.

All in all, there are 20 gifts mentioned in the New Testament (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, prophecy, healings, discerning of spirits, miracles, tongues, interpretation of tongues, helps, administration, service, exhortation, giving, and mercy).

If a group of believers gathers around Jesus Christ alone—rather than a doctrine, theological system, or distinct practice—and they are void of a clergy system (a la, the modern pastor or a board of elders that dominates them)—then in time the church will produce all the gifts and gifted ones that exist within the Body of Christ.

It is no mistake that Paul uses the human physical body as an apt metaphor to describe the way the Body of Christ functions. When a baby girl is born, most of her physical capabilities are not present. She can't ride a bicycle, add and subtract numbers, eat with a fork and knife, nor can she bathe or dress herself.

However, within her body, she possesses the genetic codes that will produce the physical development by which to carry out these capabilities. If she is fed and nurtured properly, in time, these abilities will naturally develop within her. She will grow into them. Why? They are organic to her species as a human being. They are the product of life.

In the same way, when a church is born, it possesses within its spiritual DNA all of the giftings that are in Christ. But it takes time for the church to produce them.

What is needed, then, is the restoration of the experience of the Body of Christ. And that is what God is seeking to restore today as He has in every generation.

If we can discover how a church is born from God's perspective . . . and how it is to be nurtured and maintained . . . then we will see a restoration of all the gifts that are in Christ in the way that they were meant to be expressed.

(In So You Want to Start a House Church: First-Century Styled Church Planting For Today, I discuss in great detail how churches were raised up and maintained in the first century. The book is an indepth treatise on apostolic ministry and a sober antidote for the scores of Christian men who are suffering from apostle-itis. It's also a solemn plea to reinstate a missing ingredient in the house church movement.)

I've been meeting outside the institutional church for almost 20 years. And one of the most startling discoveries I've made is how the gifts of the Holy Spirit function in an organic setting of church life opposed to how they are manifested in the Pentecostal/charismatic world. The gift of prophecy, for example, that comes up out of the soil of authentic Body life looks profoundly different from the way it is packaged in the typical Pentecostal/charismatic church. The latter is largely based on imitation.

Forgive the personal reference, but I believe it will help to explain the last paragraph. In the 1980s, I was part of a spontaneous expression of church life. Most of us who were gathering at that time came from the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition. We functioned freely in spiritual gifts as they were modeled to us by that tradition. A number of years later a group whose background was anti-Pentecostal/Charismatic joined us. What a dilemma!

After a blood-letting church split, the Lord graciously showed us that what was needed is for both groups to lay down our ideas and practice of spiritual gifts and leave them at the foot of the cross of Christ. Though it was difficult, we let our ideas and practice of the gifts go into death. In a year's time, something remarkable happened. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were resurrected in our gatherings. However, they looked very different from what any of us had ever seen before. The Pentecostal/Charismatic packaging was utterly stripped away. And what was left was a pure expression of the Holy Spirit that glorified, unveiled, and lifted up the Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, the two groups came into a unified experience of the Holy Spirit's work.

Consequently, the pressing question is: Are we going to get serious about discovering how to gather around Jesus Christ according to the Divine principles outlined in God's written Word? Or are we going to blithely ignore those principles and for the next 200 years continue to hope (and prophesy) that "the five-fold ministry" will one day be restored?

Again, God's way of raising up the ascension gifts is by restoring authentic Body life. The ascension gifts do not magically appear because someone wrote a book prophesying that they will appear soon. Nor should we assume that they are restored when someone claims to be the "First," the "Last," or the "New Apostle."

The ascension gifts naturally emerge out of the expression of authentic church life. Authentic apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherd/teachers are gifted members who grow up in authentic churches not as leaders, but as brethren, equal in position to everyone else in the church. Because they have developed out of the soil of church life, they have been tested and proven safe to the Kingdom of God and to the Lord's children. Their outstanding landmark is that they glorify, reveal, present, magnify, and bring into clear view the Lord Jesus Christ in unusual depths and in practical experience.

This is the heritage of the Ephesians 4 ascension gifts. It was true for all apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds/teachers in the first century. And Jesus Christ has not changed.

The Peril of a Wrong Environment

What happens when gifted members of the Body of Christ are reared from a human organization built on unbiblical traditions rather than growing up organically out of the experience of the Body of Christ? To put it another way, what happens when a gifted Christian's only experience is in the modern institutional church?

The answer? Mixture . . . with a capital M!

Add to that a footnote: Malfunction.

What happens when you remove polar bears out of their natural habitat? If they survive (and some do not), they do not fully function as God designed. They lose their ability to reproduce. What happens when lions are caged and domesticated from birth? They lose their predatory and killer instincts. They lose something of the natural functioning with which God wired them.

Over the last decade, I've met scores of men who were self-proclaimed prophets and apostles. Some . . . not all . . . were genuinely gifted. Some of them had the gift of teaching. Others had authentic gifts of healing. Others had a genuine operation of the word of knowledge. A few of them (those whom I never met personally) have been helpful to me in my own spiritual walk, and I respect them greatly.

But most lacked any real depth into Jesus Christ and very little experience in understanding or embracing His cross. Further, I've yet to meet one who had a grasp of God's all-consuming dream and governing intention—His eternal purpose—the central object of all of His workings and dealings in and outside of space and time.

And most of them, if I can be perfectly honest, were very self-willed people who were fixated on their own importance.

Why is this? Because of the institution that raised them up. Or, in some cases, because they raised themselves up in isolation from other Christians. (The latter is an even more abnormal environment for a Christian to be nurtured. "He who separates himself seeks his own desire. He quarrels against all sound wisdom"—Proverbs 18:1.)

To put it in a sentence, such men did not grow up in their proper environment. Few if any of them grew up in an authentic Body life experience where they were simply brothers among other brothers. Few if any had spent any time in a first-century expression of church life where their weaknesses and blindspots were exposed to others of equal rank. Instead, most were part of several institutional churches and launched out into an independent ministry on their own without any proper training or sending. As Watchman Nee once observed, "The tragedy in Christian work today is that so many of the workers have simply gone out, they have not been sent."

The New Testament never envisions such a situation.

As far as apostles go, I have never met a self-proclaimed, titled apostle who plants churches that gather according to New Testament lines. (If such men exist, I desperately want to meet them. I say this soberly and in absolute sincerity.)

To place my concern into a question, where are the churches that the "new apostles" have planted that are gathering under the Headship of Jesus Christ without a clergy, where the members know one another deeply and are experiencing a depth in Christ, where decisions are made by the community, and where every-member functions in the meetings (services) without any man controlling, directing, facilitating, or dominating? Such is the hallmark of true apostolic ministry (1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 3:1-4).

Still more disappointing, every titled "apostle" in the new apostolic movement that I know of clings fiercely to and defends those church practices that are rooted in pagan tradition and have been hindering the Headship of Jesus Christ and the full functioning of His Body for the last 1800 years.

(If you don't understand that last sentence, I refer you to my book Pagan Christianity: The Origins of Our Modern Church Practices. The book demonstrates that most of our church practices have no basis in the New Testament, came out of heathen tradition, and are spiritually counter-productive.)

In short, at present, I'm monumentally unimpressed with the "new apostolic movement."

What Were the Ascension Gifts in the First Century?

When the ascension gifts emerge in an authentic expression of church life, their chief function is to nurture and encourage the believing community into spiritual maturity, unity, and every-member functioning. The success of these gifted members is rooted in their ability to empower and mobilize the saints for the work of the min­istry. In this way, the Ephesians 4 ascension gifts equip (Greek: katartismos = mend or fit) the Body to fulfill God's eternal purpose.

This equipping does not come about by giving sermons to a passive audience every week. Nor does it come about by dominating church services with one's gifts.

The ascension gifts are not offices which carry authority. Nor are they formal positions. The Greek text has no definite article connected with any of them in Ephesians 4 or anywhere else they are mentioned in the New Testament. And they are never used as titles or referred to as offices. They are merely people with peculiar "enabling" gifts designed to cultivate the ministries of their fellow brethren.

(Note: The word "office" in Acts 1:20; Romans 11:13; 12:4 and 1 Timothy 3:1, 10, 13 is a misnomer. In Acts and Timothy, the word has no equivalent in the Greek text. It was added by some translators. In the Romans passages, the Greek words mean "service" and "function." They do not mean a sociological slot that one fills.)


Apostles are extra-local, traveling itinerants. They are people sent by the Lord and by a particular church to plant churches. By "church," I don't mean the organization that is officiated by a pastor who gives sermons every Sunday morning. That's not the church as it is envisioned in the New Testament. (See my book Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church for details.) A church is a community of believers that gathers under the Headship of Jesus Christ and where every member participates in the meetings, functions in ministry, and participates in the decision-making process.

Apostles enable the church by giving it birth from the ground up. They also help it walk on its own two feet. Apostles, if they are to be trusted, grew up in a first-century styled expression of church life as non-leaders before they were sent out to plant churches of the same ilk.


Prophets are people who have a clear vision of Jesus Christ and who are able to articulate it lucidly. Prophets enable the church by speaking to it the present word of the Lord. Sometimes their words will simply reveal Christ to encourage, inspire, and comfort. Other times their words will recast spiritual vision when it is lost. They will seek to return to things as God sees them when they are forgotten or lost sight of. Prophets sometimes confirm the gifts and callings of other members. And they sometimes prepare the church for future trials.


Evangelists enable the church by modeling the preaching of the good news to the lost. They are fearless souls when it comes to speaking to unbelievers. And they have a genuine passion for the unsaved.


Shepherds/teachers are two sides of the same gift. In Ephesians 4:11, the apostles, prophets, and evangelists are mentioned separately, while shepherds and teachers are joined together. Further, the first three ministries are preceded by the word "some." But the word "some" is attached to shepherds and teachers together. This indicates that shepherds/teachers are one gift.

As shepherds, these Christians have a genuine and evident care for God's people. This care is coupled with a heart that reaches out to heal their wounds. They often counsel, console, comfort, and encourage the Lord's people in personal and private settings. As teachers, they have an ability to clearly instruct the people of God in spiritual things.

The chief task of shepherds/teachers is to help the church in times of personal crisis (shepherding) and to enlighten and cultivate the church's spiritual life by revealing Christ through the exposition of Scripture (teaching). Shepherding is the private side of their ministry, while teaching is the public side. According to the New Testament, Shepherds minister on equal footing as all other believers in the church meetings (1 Corinthians 14:26; Hebrews 10:24-25). Neither do they CEO, control, or direct a church. And they are never tagged with titles like "Revered," "Bishop," or "Pastor."

The ascension gifts are not the equivalent of local leaders. According to the New Testament, leadership in a local assembly comes from three sources. In the beginning, it comes from the church planter (or apostolic ministry). The church planter takes a strong lead in the beginning, but he is equipping the church so as to work himself out of a job. Leadership then shifts to all of the believers in the church who make decisions together and share the ministry.

In time, some who are more seasoned in spiritual life will begin to emerge and operate. These people mainly help the church through crisis, both corporate and personal. Their ministry is that of oversight, which is a largely passive role. The New Testament refers to them as "older ones" or "elders."

Apo­stles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherding/teachers may or may not be elders. But all elders have a gift of shepherding. Some may be teachers in the public sense.

None of these gifts dominate the meetings of the church, which is a meeting where every member freely functions and supplies Christ in the gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:26). Consequently, the idea that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds/teachers dominate the church meetings is unscriptural.

The Error of Titles and Offices

The idea that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers are ministry titles is a post-Biblical invention. It is also an anti-Biblical invention! It is sad yet prevalent today to hear men and women wielding these Biblical words as personal titles. "Apostle Tommy and Prophet Wilma," "Bishop Jaquanza," "Pastor Rotunda," and "Evangelist Billy-Bob" all run against the grain of our Lord's aversion for titles and position which was a mark of the Jewish mindset of His day. Consider His words:

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, AND YOU ARE ALL BROTHERS. And DO NOT CALL ANYONE ON EARTH YOUR FATHER: for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And DO NOT BE CALLED LEADERS; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matt. 23:8-12, NASB)

Gathering up the content of Christ's teaching here, we may glean the following:

* In the religious climate of the Jews there exists a class system made up of religious specialists and non-specialists. In the kingdom, all are brethren in the same family.

* In the Jewish world, religious leaders are accorded with honorific titles. (Examples: Apostle, Prophet, Father, Reverend, Pastor, Bishop, Priest, Minister, etc.) In the kingdom, there are no distinctions of protocol. Such titles obscure the unique honor of Jesus Christ and blur the New Testament rev­elation that envisions all Christians as ministers and priests.

* In the Jewish world, leaders are exalted into positions of prominence and glamorous display. In the kingdom, leaders find their work in the lowly towel of servitude and in the unassuming basin of humility.

* In the Jewish world, leadership is rooted in status, title, and position. In the kingdom, leadership is rooted in inward life and character. (In this vein, the current fad of bestowing honorary "doctorates" before the names of countless clergy is one example of how the modern church mirrors those leadership values that run contrary to God's kingdom.)

At this point, someone may retort by asking: "Didn't Paul use the word "apostle" as an official title when speaking about himself?"

Contrary to common thinking, most of Paul's cor­­respondence contains a subtext that affirms that he is not an offici-apostle. Granted, Paul regularly makes known his special function in the salutation of his letters (a la "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ"). But he never once identifies himself as "the Apostle Paul."

This is a meaningful distinction. The former is a de­scription of a special function based on Divine commission. The latter is an official title.

In fact, nowhere in the New Testament do we find any ministry or function in the Body deployed as a title before the names of God's servants. Christians who are "title-happy" need to reflect seriously on this!

Similarly, the New Testament never envisions apostles, prophets, evangelists, or shepherd/teachers as offices possessing official authority. Such was a mark of Gentile thinking in our Lord's day.

Recall that after James and John implored Jesus to grant them the glorified power-seats beside His throne, the Lord replied saying,

. . . You know that the rulers of the Gentiles LORD IT OVER THEM, and their great men EXERCISE AU­­THORITY OVER THEM. IT IS NOT SO AMONG YOU, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28, NASB)

And again,

. . . The kings of the Gentiles LORD IT OVER THEM; and those who HAVE AUTHORITY OVER THEM are called 'Benefactors.' BUT NOT SO WITH YOU, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.(Luke 22:25-26, NASB)

The Greek word for "exercise authority" in Matthew is katexousiazo. Katexousiazo is a com­bination of two Greek words. Kata, which means down upon or over. And ex­ousiazo, which means to exercise authority. The Lord also uses the Greek word katakurieuo in this passage, which means to "lord it over" others.

What Jesus is condemning in these passages is not oppressive leaders as such. Instead, He is condemning the hierarchical form of leadership that dominates the Gentile world!

That bears repeating.

Jesus was not just condemning tyrannical leaders. He was con­demning the hierarchical form of leadership itself!

What is the hierarchical form of leadership? It is the leadership style that is rooted in the benighted idea that power and authority flow from the top down. Essentially, it is built on a chain-of-command social structure.

Hierarchical leadership is based on a worldly concept of power. This explains why it is endemic to all traditional bureaucra­cies. It is present in the vicious forms of liege-lord feudalism and master/slave relationships. It is also seen in the highly stylized spheres of military and corporate Amer­ica.

While often bloodless, the hierarchical leadership style is harmful to God's people. For it reduces human re­lationships into command-styled relationships. By that I mean relationships that are ordered along the lines of a military chain-of-command structure. Such relationships are foreign to New Testament thinking and practice.

Hierarchical leadership is employed everywhere in pagan culture. Regrettably, however, it has been adopted into most Christian churches today.

Summing up our Lord's teaching on this style of leader­ship, the following contrasts come into sharp focus:

* In the Gentile world, leaders operate on the basis of a political, chain-of-command social structure—a hierarchy. In the kingdom of God, leadership flows out of childlike meekness and sacrificial service.

* In the Gentile world, authority is based on position and rank. In the kingdom of God, authority is based on godly char­acter. Note Christ's description of leaders: "let him be a servant," and "let him be as the younger." In our Lord's eyes, being precedes doing. And doing flows from being. Put differently, function follows character. Those who serve do so because they are servants.

* In the Gentile world, greatness is measured by prom­inence, external power, and political influence. In the kingdom of God, greatness is measured by inner humility and outward servitude.

* In the Gentile world, leaders exploit their positions to rule over others. In the kingdom of God, leaders deplore special reverence. They regard themselves "as the younger."

In brief, hierarchical leadership structures characterize the spirit of the Gentiles. Therefore, the implanting of these structures into the church is at odds with New Testament Chris­tianity. Our Lord did not mince words in declaring His implicit disdain for the Gentile notion of leadership. For He plainly said: "It is not so among you!"

All in all, there is no room in Christ's teaching for the hierarchical leadership model that characterizes the modern church. The so-called "five-fold ministry" is not a group of titles or offices. This ego-massaging model of ministry is incompatible with the primitive simplicity of the church and the upside-down kingdom of Jesus Christ. It impedes the progress of God's people. It suppresses the functionality of the believing priesthood. It ruptures the image of the church as family. And it places severe limitations on the Headship of Christ. For these reasons "it is not so among" those who bear the name of the Savior!

Equating the ascension gifts of Ephesians 4 with a sociological slot (an office) can only be done at substantial risk. We have to evacuate "shepherd" of its native meaning (one who tends sheep). We also have to evacuate "apostle" from its intended meaning ("one sent" to lay the foundation of a church). The same is true for the other gifts.

In short, Ephesians 4:9-16 does not envision a hired clergy, a professional ministry, nor a special priestcraft. It does not envision a special group of church "officials." Neither are these people a special class of Christians. Like Paul's catalog of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4 has in view special functions rather than formal positions. And these functions naturally and non-mechanically emerge out of the organic interplay of first-century styled church life.

Answering the Call

The burden on my heart is to see God's people far less concerned with a "five-fold ministry" that's supposed to be recovered someday. And instead, tend toward discovering what the church is supposed to be according to the mind of God. Upon making this discovery, the Lord's dear people will be faced with a decision. To answer the call of meeting around Jesus Christ alone in the way that He has prescribed. Or to remain chained to the unmovable traditions of men.

If the former path is taken, which will involve considerable cost, all the giftings in Christ will eventually come forth in the way that He designed. And those gifts will never usurp or dilute the ministry of the entire Body, where every member participates in manifesting Christ in His church.

In addition . . .

Would to God that all men and women who feel they are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds/teachers would soberly reexamine what these gifts and ministries were in the first century and in the thought of God. I believe that wherever this happens, many of them will be lead into brand new directions. Those directions will often lead them to meet a cross and to break with cherished traditions and popular concepts. Yet only by these elements will the house of God begin to be restored on a broad scale.
Published 2006

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