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, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Two Aspects of Church Growth
Make no mistake. God has a plan for growing the church, and it isn’t wrong on our part to work toward growing the church. Just because churches have developed unbiblical programs intended to attract the masses whether they are believers or not, doesn’t mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should be interested in the church’s growth, but our plans should never be contrary to the Lord’s design. After all, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt 16:18).
To be clear, church growth has two parts. Where churches go wrong is emphasizing one aspect of church growth while neglecting the other. First, church growth requires evangelism (an increase in numbers). The Bible instructs us to make and baptize disciples. Second, church growth requires teaching and edification (an increase in spiritual maturity).
Again, we run into problems when we neglect one or the other. Churches that become seeker-friendly have a tendency to frame everything they do around gaining new members. Typically, their approach results in a shallow form of Christianity where Sunday worship is reduced to Christian-themed entertainment and sermons are little more than milk for the babes if that. Soon enough, believers in those places find themselves starving to death, but they’re often too immature to even realize what’s wrong.
On the other hand, some churches altogether ignore our God-given obligation to seek and lead the lost. We step into our protective bubble where we feel safe and comfortable, never bothering to even poke our heads outside. Sure, we talk often enough about evangelism, but as we all know, talk is cheap.
While we’re striving together for spiritual growth in the church, we need to remember that even the healthiest people in the world will eventually die. Seven times in the book of Genesis alone, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Ge 1:28). I believe the same principle applies to the church.
We need to pursue spiritual health, but how healthy can a church be if we’re not multiplying? Time and time again, the book of Acts reports, “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied” (Ac 6:7). It’s cause and effect. Spiritual growth within the church should lead to growth in numbers.
For those who say, “We shouldn’t worry about numbers,” I say, stop making excuses and do what God has called us to do. If God shows concern for the lost, which he does (see Luke 15), then we should be concerned for the lost.
For those who are consumed with merely bringing bodies into the church, I say, feed the sheep. Stop undermining the faith by watering it down or, worse yet, secularizing it. A membership count is meaningless when the church is filled with uncommitted, halfhearted, lukewarm moralists who rather enjoy the teachings of Jesus and maybe even the cultural identity of “Christian” but aren’t seeking Christ as their Savior or serving him as their Lord.
If that sounds harsh, then I encourage you to read Luke 9 or John 6. How many times did Jesus confront the masses who followed him out of curiosity or some vain hope they’d get to see a miracle? How did Jesus react to them?
In Luke 9, he told the crowd, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). One after the other said, “Sure, I’ll follow you, but—” They each had an excuse to explain why they couldn’t fully commit themselves to Christ, not yet anyhow. So Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
In John 6, the people wanted to make Jesus their king not because they believed he is the King of Kings, but because he filled their stomachs with food. Jesus used the opportunity to teach the people about himself. He described himself as “the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). Soon enough, the disciples grew concerned. They realized Jesus was losing his audience. They were thinking, Lord, you’re not being very seeker-friendly right now.
Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Do you take offense at this? … The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (Jn 6:61; 63-64). Why didn’t they believe? Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65). The fact is, Jesus was seeker-friendly but only to those who were genuinely seeking salvation in him. He had no interest in appealing to as many people as possible in an effort to pad his stats.
Paul told Timothy to “rightly [handle] the word of truth” (2Ti 2:15). I believe biblical understanding usually requires balance. If we get too hung up on one aspect of the faith or another, we get out of balance and the consequences can be damaging. We are supposed to seek the lost, but never to the neglect of our spiritual growth in the church. We are supposed to strive for spiritual growth, but never to the neglect of our evangelistic efforts.
Church Leaders Equip the Saints
In this chapter, Paul’s emphasis is spiritual growth. What is God’s pattern for building and strengthening the church? His plan goes like this: Church leaders equip saints to do the work of ministry. Notice that I did not say church leaders do the work of ministry.
If you happen to be reading from the King James Bible, you might assume that evangelists and pastors not only equip the saints, but also do the work of ministry and single-handedly edify the body of Christ. The KJV says, “He gave some … pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints [comma] for the work of the ministry [comma] for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12 KJV).
Paul, however, is not listing the responsibilities of church leaders. Rather, he’s showing the progression that leads to the building up of Christ’s body. It begins with evangelists and pastors, but the responsibilities do not end with them. The job of church leaders is to “equip the saints” (Eph 4:12). The saints, in turn, do “the work of ministry” which leads to the “building up [of] the body of Christ.”
Growing up in a small church with only one pastor (or elder), most people seemed to have the same misguided view that everyone in the church could be divided into two categories: the gifted and the ungifted; the pastor and everyone else. Very little was said about spiritual gifts. As far as most of us were concerned, pastors were the sole beneficiaries of spiritual gifts.
It didn’t help that “church” in our minds was limited to a couple of hours on Sunday morning. The preacher was the only one who even had an opportunity to display his gift. When worship was over, everyone went home until the next Sunday. Not only did we hear very few sermons about spiritual gifts from the pulpit, but we also never put ourselves into positions where our spiritual gifts could be used. In short, we thought pastors were solely responsible for building up the church, and they had one sermon a week to get it done. That’s not God’s intention for the church as we see here in Ephesians.
God has called evangelists and pastors to essentially carry out the Great Commission. In Matthew 28, Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). We might say that is the role primarily of evangelists. The pastor-teacher takes over in what Jesus said next: “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). The evangelist works to bring people to an initial understanding of the gospel while pastors work to teach everything beyond that.
3 Tools For Spiritual Growth
Together, evangelists and pastors are “[equipping] the saints,” those people whom God has set apart for salvation (Eph 4:12). To equip is to make complete. In ancient Greek writings, this word was often used to describe the setting of bones after they’ve been broken. Paul used the same word at the end of 2 Corinthians where it is translated, “restoration” (2Co 13:11). It means to restore something to its original condition, to make it fit for use.
The role of pastors and evangelists is to equip the saints, preparing them for service in the kingdom. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyhow. The church’s leadership is preparing the saints for spiritual service so their tools must be spiritual tools. In Galatians 3, Paul rhetorically asks, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). The answer is no. Only the Spirit can perfect us, so only spiritual means can be effective in equipping the saints.
What are those means? What are the tools for spiritual growth? I’ll give you three.
1) Pastors must feed themselves and the sheep with the Word of God.
Just the other day, I was reading about Willow Creek Church in Illinois. It’s one of the largest churches in the country with more than 26,000 attendees each week. A few years ago, their leadership became concerned that their process for developing disciples wasn’t working. After extensive research and conducting surveys, here was the conclusion they came to:
The common models of activating spiritual growth such as “getting people involved” in church activities (attending worship, participating in small groups, serving the needy) or sharpening their beliefs (salvation by grace, the authority of the Bible, person of Christ) were helpful but not the most effective vehicles for producing evidence of spiritual growth. The most powerful “catalyst” for moving people through stages of spiritual growth … was reading and reflection on Scripture.
I am not surprised in the least. What does Scripture itself say? “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be [what?] complete, equipped for every good work” (2Ti 3:16-17). If I were to read every passage which promotes the supreme value of consuming the words of God, immersing ourselves in what God has said, we’d be here all day.
First of all, the pastor himself has to be immersed in the Word of God. He cannot simply go to Scripture as he prepares his next sermon. The Bible is not merely a sermon prep tool. If the pastor is not personally and intimately feeding on the Word of God, not only will he suffer, but the entire church will suffer.
Second, the pastor has to immerse the church in the Word of God. There can be no spiritual growth without it. Peter said, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [referring to ‘the living and abiding word of God’], that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1Pe 2:2; 1:23).
I believe this step has two parts. First, the pastor needs to teach the church. He needs to provide them with a solid foundation, which will not happen apart from sound, consistent, and thorough Bible teaching. Second, he needs to instill a love for the Bible in the church. True story: I have been to churches where carrying a Bible into the building prompted someone to say, “You must be a preacher.” My thought was, Yes, I am, but that’s not why I’m carrying a Bible.
Think of it this way. According to John 1, Jesus is “the Word” of God (Jn 1:1). In John 6, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (Jn 6:51). In Jeremiah 15, the prophet says to God, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). There is a clear connection between our intimacy with the Savior and our love for the Bible. How can we claim to love Christ if we don’t love his Word? Jesus himself said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (Jn 14:23).
Do we treasure the Bible as we should? I was talking with a gentleman a couple of weeks ago who said that his church avoids trivial debates over the inerrancy of Scripture. They prefer to focus on much more practical subjects, he said. My question is, how can we address practical subjects if we haven’t first determined the inerrancy of Scripture? How do we decide whether women can be pastors or whether homosexuality is permitted if we haven’t even discussed whether the Bible is without errors? How would we determined what’s right and wrong?
We hear it all the time. Even Christians will make assertions without proof of Scripture. I’ve heard people say, “Homosexuality must be okay because God apparently made some people gay.” That sounds logical, but what does Scripture say?
God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men. (Romans 1:26-27)
The Bible refers to homosexuality as “dishonorable passions,” “contrary to nature,” and “shameless acts.” Jude calls it, “sexual immorality and … unnatural desire” (Jude 7). In 1 Timothy 1, Paul lumps practicing homosexuals together with murderers and slave traders. He calls them, “unholy and profane” (1Ti 1:9).
I’ll give you another example. How many times have you heard someone quote, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1). They’re quoting Scripture, of course, but they’re also leaving out Scripture. A few verses later, Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (Mt 7:6). How can we follow that commandment without committing some form of judgment? Again, the Bible requires a balanced interpretation.
My point is, we do a great disservice to ourselves, to the church, and to Christ our head when we do not ground ourselves in the Word of God. I encourage you to read the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness again. The devil used accurate quotations of Scripture to tempt Jesus, but Jesus survived the temptations because he knew the Bible well enough to detect the devil’s misuse of it. Immerse yourself in the Word of God.
By the way, we’re taught to eat the Word of God. In other words, Scripture should enter us, not the other way around. Don’t vomit your thoughts and feelings onto the Bible. Let the Bible shape your thoughts and feelings. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when I hear someone read a verse, then attempt to explain why that verse doesn’t mean what it clearly says. Paul said this, but what he really means is— No, he meant what he said. It’s almost as disturbing when I hear someone read a verse, then attempt to add a paragraph of text to it. It’s as though God has provided them additional revelation the rest of us don’t have.
If you remember anything from this morning, I suppose you’ll remember this: Eat the Bible; don’t vomit on it.
Point number one: Pastors must feed the sheep with the Word of God.
2) Pastors must pray as well as encourage the church to pray.
Prayer is a vital tool in the toolbox as we build the church. In the early days of the church, the apostles attempted to do everything themselves. They were handling both the spiritual and material needs of the church, so they established the position of deacon. They said, “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty [i.e., providing for the widows]. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Ac 6:3-4). They go hand in hand.
One of my favorite quotes about prayer comes from Robert Murray M’Cheyne. It’s incredibly convicting. He said, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.”
People are often mystified by the notion of communicating with God. We pray and read the Bible, yet we ask, “How will God speak to me?” The Bible is his Word. He’s speaking to you through the Bible. You speak to him through prayer, and he speaks to you through the Bible. Yes, but I don’t understand what I’m reading. That’s why prayer and Bible reading go hand in hand. Paul says:
We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)
We need God’s help to read the Bible. Everything we need to know is there, but God’s Spirit must open up those things to us. Pray for wisdom. Pray for insight. Never read the Bible without prayer. A pastor desperately needs prayer as he studies, and so does everyone else.
Maybe you’ve prayed and consistently read your Bible but still do not feel that God has answered you. First, I would encourage you to pray and read some more. Second, I would tell you to pray and read even more. Third, I would remind you that prayer and reading is sufficient. Expecting clear answers at our every request will only lead to anxiety and frustration. I would argue it is better for our prayers to be heard than clearly answered. The answers are coming, but they may come slowly and in a manner we never expected.
3) Pastors must be tested and prepare the church to suffer.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
God uses suffering to refine us. When we sin, he uses it to discipline us. Even when we’ve done nothing wrong, he uses it to teach us. After addressing the elders in the church, Peter says, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1Pe 5:10).
The benefits of suffering are not popular teachings today. Of course, no one wants to suffer, but the issue is made even worse by our culture’s demand for quick fixes. We want everything fast, especially solutions to our problems. We have no patience. Our perspective on trials is far removed from what the Bible teaches. We have an entitlement mentality, thinking we deserve comfortable lives all of the time. Worse yet, we hear popular preachers on TV telling everyone that God doesn’t want us to suffer. They claim he wants to give us abundant lives of health and prosperity. False!
James said, “Count it all joy … when you meet trials” (Jas 1:2). Don’t avoid them. Don’t run from them. Don’t complain about them. Don’t ask, “Why me, Lord? Why me?” Embrace them. Learn from them. Allow them to shape you to become more and more like Christ. Enjoy them. That’s what James said. “Count it all joy.” James wasn’t a masochist, no more than Paul when he said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2Co 12:9).
May I be candid with you? The role of pastors is not an easy job. Physically, at least in the United States, it’s a breeze. Emotionally and mentally, it can be severely taxing. According to Hebrews, pastors are responsible for your souls. God holds us directly accountable to perhaps a higher degree than anyone else as we strive to lead and protect you.
Our minds are continually consumed by thoughts of what this or that person needs. While I’m out with my wife on Saturday night trying to enjoy a nice evening together, I’m always distracted because the next morning I’ll be responsible for representing God as I teach. Paul says, God is “entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2Co 5:19-20).
Paul aptly expressed the goal of pastors when he said, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2Co 11:2). If the task weren’t challenging enough, we can’t force anyone to do what God’s Word says. We can’t force you to be pure and obedient. Peter tells elders to not be “domineering over those in your charge” (1Pe 5:3).
Meanwhile, we have to fight all of the inevitable temptations that come with being a pastor. After all, we’re supposed to be “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3). Pride, for instance, is a spiritual danger that’s always present. Paul said, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (Php 1:15). It’s relatively easy for a man in my position to become proud. Paul suffered for that very reason. “To keep me from becoming conceited,” he said, “a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2Co 12:7).
Another common temptation is greed. According to many reports I’ve read, the two lowest paid professions in the country are pastors and teachers. (Don’t expect Danae and I to get rich anytime soon.) Supposedly, the average salary of pastors is $28,000 a year while the average household income is about $53,000 a year. Even so, the Bible forbids pastors from seeking “shameful gain” (1Pe 5:2). Rather than charge for our labors, Jesus went as far as to tell his apostles, “You received without paying; give without pay” (Mt 10:8).
Ideally, pastors should be financially supported. Paul makes rather compelling arguments in 1 Corinthians 9. But not all pastors are supported which can tempt some men to go down corrupt paths. Peter warns, “In their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2Pe 2:3). Frankly, the truth doesn’t have as much market value as false teachings. In short, temptations abound for the average pastor.
An American pastor may not be suffering persecution, but he still has his unique trials. Contrary to conventional wisdom, these trials are for the best. He needs the insight which only suffering can provide. Why? No matter how peaceful things are in this country right now, things could change in an instant. Perhaps they are changing. The pastor needs to be prepared, and he needs to prepare the church.
Consider the parable of the sower. I’ll just read the explanation that Christ gives:
“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:19-23)
Who am I concerned about? The second and third groups. Notice that some receive the Word with joy, but they have no deep roots. When the first tribulation comes, they fall away. As for the third group, they seem to receive the Word as well, but it’s not long before materialism and worldliness destroys them.
How do evangelists and shepherds equip the saints? It won’t be with activities and programs. God says, “My people are destroyed for—” what? A lack of programs? No, he says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6). Their foundation was not the Word of God. They lacked the spiritual stability which only the Bible can provide. As a result, they were easy targets for destruction.
While I am concerned about the lost souls around us in our immediate community, my priority as your pastor is not the number of seats filled on Sunday. I like what Spurgeon once said to a pastor who complained that his church was too small. Spurgeon said, “Maybe it’s as large as you’d like to give account for on the day of judgment.”
Sound teaching, prayer, and suffering are the means by which a pastor equips the church for service. Next time, we’ll consider what that service is and how it works to build up the body of Christ.