Equipping the Saints

Church was never intended to be the spiritual equivalent of a spectator sport. Yet, somehow, this is how it has come to be treated, not only by many Christians; but by their pastors as well. Those who serve as ministers of Christ can easily approach their calling as though it is their job to please their people. While those who are under their care can hear them in such a way as to think it is indeed their job to do just that. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that congregations expand and shrink on the basis of perceived performance ratings.

Quite the opposite from being a spiritual theatre intended for the entertainment of the saints, church is actually a spiritual bootcamp where they are to be equipped for service and prepared for cosmic warfare. This is precisely what Paul tells the Ephesians whose churches were coming unstuck because of misperceptions over what church was meant to be and how its spiritual leaders were meant to discharge their calling as servants of the risen Lord.

Not only does Paul remind believers in this region that pastors are specific gifts of the ascended Christ – along with apostles, prophets and evangelists – for their edification; but, in conjunction with those who serve as shepherd-elders, their goal is ‘to equip the saints for the work of the ministry’ (Eph 4.12). In other words, each member of the church as the body of Christ is not only meant to see they have a specific place and role within that body; but also, that they be equipped and enabled to fulfil it.

We perhaps instinctively read this in light of the various programmes a church may run and the need to find volunteers to staff them. But the apostle has something far more radical in mind.

He sees the church as what John Stott calls, ‘God’s new Society’ made up of a rich range and blend of all kinds of people, from the entire spectrum of age groups and ethnic and social groupings as may be found in the local ‘parish’ the church happens to serve.

In that sense, the congregation or congregations in the area around Ephesus were meant to stand out through being attractively different from the secular and other counterparts which were there as well. This could only come about, as Paul goes on to state bluntly, ‘…as each part is working properly’ (Eph 4.16).

In other words, what the church needs more than anything is not merely gifted children’s workers, or those who can run other ministries, but Christians who each make a unique contribution to God’s new community by virtue of who and what they are in Christ.

Their personal gifts and personality are not taken away through conversion. Instead, by virtue of being ‘made new in Christ’ those abilities and traits are redirected as they are pressed into their Saviour’s service. Just as each member of our natural families has their own unique contribution to make to family life, how much more is this true for God’s family and its influence on the wider human family.

Often people looking for a new church ask the question, ‘What can this church give me, or do for me?’ (It is the spiritual expression of the consumerism so common in today’s culture.) Instead, the real question should be, ‘How might I be able to serve this congregation under its pastoral oversight and care?’

Our instinct may well be to answer, ‘Not much!’ But Paul does not permit such a response. As he tells the Corinthians, even those members of the body that seem insignificant, even embarrassing, have a unique place and are designed to make a unique contribution. There should be a place for people of all educational and practical abilities, from the whole cross-section of social backgrounds. Indeed, even those with mental and physical disabilities should be appreciated as having a place and role in the church that will enrich the wider congregation in ways that often proves surprising.

The more the church in our day rediscovers this ancient truth from the church in Paul’s day, the more we will be equipped and enabled to serve Christ effectively. As we serve the church family where he places us and, by extension, the wider communities where has placed us, he will use us to extend his kingdom. In so doing, we will all play our part in encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ and reaching a lost world with the good news of his great salvation.

Mark Johnston