What is the "five-fold" ministry? Does it continue today?

The New Testament describes several offices within the church of the first century. For instance, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians concerning apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (4:11). Some call this the "five-fold ministry," arguing that it provides a pattern for church leadership today.

Looking to Scripture, we conclude that the five-fold ministry was a necessary and foundational structure for the church of the first century, but does not continue today. Here are several reasons.

Apostles

First, the formal gift of apostleship was temporary. In Acts 1:21-22, we read that those with the formal gift of apostleship were specifically-called eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus Christ, from the time of our Lord's baptism to his ascension. As these apostles ministered and established churches throughout the Roman Empire, they left behind elders to oversee the churches, not other apostles (Titus 1:5). There is no biblical example of apostles ordaining other apostles to follow them, only elders.

While it is true that some beyond the Twelve and the Apostle Paul (later called directly to apostleship by Jesus Christ) were labeled "apostles," these were clearly called and sent by churches - not Jesus Christ himself. Barnabas is one such example (cf. Acts 14:14). Just as not all New Testament "servants" held the formal office of a deacon (Greek: DIAKONOS, meaning "servant"), not all called "apostles" (Greek: APOSTOLOS, meaning “sent from, messenger”) in the New Testament era were apostles in the same sense.

Prophets

Moreover, with the New Testament complete, the prophetic gift also ceased. Now having the entirety of Scripture, we are not to expect any new revelation from God (cf. Heb. 1:1). To his young protege in ministry, Paul declared that “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 complete, equipped for every good work [emphasis mine]. We don’t need new revelations; Scripture is sufficient. In fact, God warns us sternly in his Word against adding or taking away from its true revelation (Deut. 4:1-2; Rev. 22:18-19).

With these truths in mind, Paul referred to apostles and prophets as foundational to the church (Eph. 2:20). Their work was foundational, not perpetual.

Evangelists

Likewise, we believe the formal gift of evangelist, those entrusted with extraordinary authority to personally establish churches and ordain elders to oversee them, is also now ceased. Today, the establishment of churches and ordination of elders rests with the courts of the church, not extraordinarily-empowered individuals per se.

Pastor-Teachers or Pastors and Teachers

When it comes to the final two gifts listed by Paul, pastors and teachers, we find an interpretive issue. Depending on one's particular "take" on the Greek, these two words can denote either one office (pastor-teacher) or two offices (pastors and teachers). In either case, these gifts clearly continue today.

The New Testament provides clear qualifications for a perpetual office of pastor within the church (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). All holding this office must be "apt to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2). Further, even if we understand the gift of "teacher" as distinct from the pastorate, we find ample New Testament evidence for its continuation (cf. Rom. 12:7; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 1:7; 2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1; James 3:1; etc.).

Praise God for his gifts to the church. Whether foundational or perpetual, God’s used each to build up his church in love, for his glory and our good.

A Final Word

I believe those arguing for the continuation of apostolic and prophetic gifts claim extraordinary authority and revelation outside the bounds of Scripture. We do well to guard ourselves against those making such claims. They often do so with questionable motives and harmful results.


All Scripture quotations from The ESV Global Study Bible®, ESV® Bible. Copyright © 2012 by Crossway. All rights reserved.