I am a natural debater. My Myers-Briggs personality is an “ENTP”, which is often referred to as “the Debater”. I enjoy verbally sparring—not in an argumentative way but as a means of thinking through an idea or concept. I often process things verbally. While I enjoy a good debate, there are some debates that simply do not interest me. It isn’t that the issue being debated is boring or unimportant; if the debate in question overlooks a far more important point, that debate will not interest me.
Today there are many who debate and argue over who can do what in a local church. Generally this debate centers on whether women can serve in the office of overseer / elder. This is an important conversation, even if it is a recent conversation. This was not debated in the church at all for 1,900 years. In recent decades patriarchy and even misogyny have marginalized women in the church and have relegated them to the background. We must correct this, but the debate focuses on the wrong things.
What gets lost in the debate is the importance of every single person in the church, whether male or female, regardless of whether either serves in an official capacity. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of members of a church will never serve in the office of elder and most will not serve as deacons. If the test of whether a person is valued for his or her contribution to the local church is service in an office of the church, then we have missed the point entirely. If a person’s value and contribution to the church is only found in an office, that would mean most in a local church have nothing to contribute since most will never serve in an office.
When we read through Paul’s letters, he focuses on the local church as the place where ministry happens. I don’t mean in a physical building, but in and through the people of God in a particular area. At New City, the ministry of New City happens in and through the people of New City, whether on Sunday mornings or in our City Groups or at various other times as we interact with one another or with friends and family and coworkers and neighbors, and even random strangers. Paul simply does not place the emphasis of ministry on the two offices of the church. Nowhere does Paul suggest that ministry only happens through the elders and the deacons of the church. Consider his words to the Christians in Rome.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.Romans 12:3–8 ESV
Notice that Paul does not say, “Having offices that differ, let us use them”, but, “Having gifts that differ, let us use them”. As we saw in last Sunday’s sermon, we must recognize the difference between office and gift. There are two offices in the church: overseer / elder and deacon. There are myriad spiritual gifts, however. Teaching, exhortation, prophecy, giving, leadership, wisdom, encouragement, service, mercy, tongues, etc. Paul lists spiritual gifts in a few of his letters and it’s clear that none of the lists is intended to be exhaustive. A spiritual gift is any manifestation of the Spirit of God by which he works through a person for the good of the church.
In that sermon I pointed out that in Ephesians 4:11 Paul is listing gifted people given to the church, not offices in the church. (There has never been an office of “evangelist”, for example.) By maintaining the distinction between a gift and an office, we can recognize that since gifts are given without qualification, they should be exercised by those so gifted. We can also recognize that since the church does the work of the ministry, the only requirement for the work of the ministry is a spiritual gift. An office is not necessary for a person to do the work of ministry! In other words, it isn’t that the elders do the ministry and everyone else just watches. As I said on Sunday, the elders lead the ministry and the deacons facilitate the ministry, but it is the members of the church who do the ministry. When elders and deacons engage in ministry, we do so as members of the church. The church does ministry.
The very fact that you and I have been given spiritual gifts means that you and I have been given the responsibility to exercise those gifts. This is because spiritual gifts are actually given for the church. We have received spiritual gifts on behalf of the church! This implies a responsibility to pass on these gifts. In the Romans passage above, the apostle instructs us to use the gifts we have been given, because we, together, make up the church. Offices in the church are just specific, formal roles that some are called to fulfill; it is much more significant for the life and ministry of the church that every member participates in the ministry of the church. This is the only way we can accomplish the work the Lord has given us to do.
The high qualifications that restrict the offices of overseer / elder and deacon should not be seen as limiting or preventing people from engaging in ministry. Rather, they should be understood as the very freedom to engage in ministry, for serving the Lord and his church is both the privilege and responsibility of every person in the church.