Ephesians 4:11-12 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
In recent years, writers have championed fivefold ministry or APEST from this passage. “APEST simply describes the five functions in this text: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, and Teacher,” write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come.
Many argue that we’ve emphasized the role of shepherd and teacher and missed the roles of apostle, prophet, and evangelist in the church. “The church’s inherent capacity to mature is inextricably interwoven with its capacity to foster a full-fledged APEST-style ministry and leadership system,” write Frost and Hirsch. “Paul actually sees APEST ministry as the very mechanism for achieving mission and ministry effectiveness and Christian maturity. He seems to be saying that without a fivefold ministry pattern we cannot mature. If this is true, it is impossible to estimate what terrible damage the church has done through the loss, even active suppression, of this crucial dimension of New Testament ministry and leadership.”
APEST has become ubiquitous within the church planting and missional movement, but it’s not without its critics. Ty Grigg argues that there’s no evidence that the APEST schema was “a thing” in the early church before Constantine; that it’s not clear what we mean when we define apostles, prophets, and evangelists, shepherds, and teachers; and that the terms were meant to refer to those who led the church, not every believer. “We find a few schematic verses without their surrounding Scriptural context, without scholarly consultation, without a history of interpretation, and without seeing our own cultural biases.” Later, Grigg observes, “There seems to be a disconnect between what commentaries/bible scholars/church historians have said in regards to Ephesians 4 and what practitioners are saying.”
I share some of Grigg’s concerns.
At the very least, we face some textual questions. Some, like O’Brien, argue that the role of apostle was foundational and has ceased. Others, like Gordon Fee, argue that the role continues through itinerant workers who found churches through evangelization. Some argue that shepherds and teachers are two different roles. Others see a connection and overlap in the text. The text may mean what Frost and Hirsch say it means, but we at least need to wrestle through some important textual issues.
We also face some questions about the intent behind the text. It’s one of five such lists, with twenty different gifts selected. “Each list diverges significantly from the others,” writes Peter O’Brien. “None is complete, but each is selective and illustrative, with no effort to force the various gifts into a neat scheme. Even together all five do not present a full catalogue of gifts.” Why choose this passage over others as paradigmatic?
We also face some questions about church history. While it’s possible that APEST was lost throughout church history and needs to be recovered, it seems to me that it’s never been used as a model for ministry throughout church history before now.
Don’t get me wrong. Frost and Hirsch, and those who argue for APEST, are on to something. God has gifted every believer for ministry within the church. We need the rich variety of God’s gifts. We can tend to overemphasize certain roles and ministries within the church. We do well to empower all of God’s people for ministry. In that sense, APEST may be a very good idea.
At the same time, I have questions about whether Ephesians 4:11-12 is clearly meant to define a schema — the schema — for how we function as a church.
APEST points us in the right direction, but may go a little too far. Let’s celebrate the diversity of gifts within the church but exercise some caution in applying this text as the model for how churches should be structured today.