Ephesians 4:1–16: The Key to Activating the Body of Christ
I want to restate what Christians have always believed about the authority of the book of Ephesians to define how we are to understand ourselves. We have always treated it as the book par excellence on the nature and purposes of the church. It represents the best thinking about the church— at least how Paul understood it. Ephesians is the spiritual template for the church in all ages. Certainly, there is a lot of DNA and code written throughout the book.
But like our own genetic code, the book of Ephesians does not so much describe or prescribe a specific cultural form or physical expression of a church. Rather, it presents us with something of the default settings coded in by God on a primordial level. Some have even called this “the invisible church” or, as Eugene Peterson calls it, “the church we cannot see.”
The invisible church in this sense is the ever-present, but largely unseen, primordial template that seeks to express itself in the life of every church, both now and throughout history. It needs soft eyes for us to perceive its pressure and to break through our theological blind spots and our ingrained ecclesiological habits.
But it is always present, secretly exerting its pressure to conform our expressions of church to the one that Jesus intended in the first place. In getting under the hood of this important book, Peterson notes that:
Ephesians is an inside look at what is beneath and behind and within the church that we do see wherever and whenever it becomes visible. … [It] provides our best access to what is involved in the formation of church, not so much the way the church appears in our towns and cities, but the essence that is behind the appearances: God’s will, Christ’s presence, the Holy Spirit’s work. This … is what we simply must get through our heads if we are going to understand and participate rightly in any church that we are part of. This is the only writing in the New Testament that provides us with such a detailed and lively account of the inside and underground workings of the complex and various profusion of “churches” that we encounter and try to make sense of. (Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 14–15.)
He is absolutely right generally about the whole book, but this must therefore apply equally to Ephesians 4:1–16. This text is weighty precisely because that is exactly how Paul intended it to be read: The language, the grammar, the theme, and the proposed outcomes—all indicate the sheer importance of the text.
Commentators have long-held that Ephesians as a whole is something of the constitutional document of the church. Like all constitutions, it is meant to guide all subsequent thinking and action in the organization so constituted.
Read it with this in mind; it is meant to define our understanding of the purpose of God in the church. By extension, constitutional theology ought to define who we are as followers of Christ, how we are to understand ourselves and how we are to direct our affairs in the world.
Here, then, is the text of Ephesians 4:1–16. I have accentuated parts that I think need emphasizing to grasp the significance of the text. I suggest reading it straight through, and then again with a view to the highlights:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors [shepherds] and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The sense of system functionality is woven throughout the Ephesians 4 text. Without the fivefold (APEST – Apostes, Prophets, Evangelists, Sherpherds, Teachers) fully active and present in the life of the church, we not only diminish our understanding of the faith, but we introduce significant dysfunction into the system.
Because they operate within a system, each individual APEST function enriches, counterbalances, and “corrects” the particular bias of each of the others. In fact, each function actually needs the other to be itself. For instance, your body’s cardiovascular system needs the nervous system to even exist. The same is true for the Body of Christ.
There is spiritual ambience and dynamic balance when all five APEST systems are operating at peak—this is what Paul called no less than the fullness of Christ. This system synergy and balance results in a more mature expression of church, more grounded in its core truths. If all the parts are present and functional in the way they were designed to function, then the system is perfectly primed to do exactly what it was designed to do.
So it stands to reason that if we tamper with the systemic logic of the text and the symmetrical integrity of the fivefold system, we should not expect to produce the outcomes it foresees. (The 5Q book comes along with an associated test instrument that will indicate dysfunction based on asymmetry in the APEST functions.)
In relation to the dynamic interconnected and mutuality of the Body, my colleague Tim Catchim says that in order for the APEST giftings to fulfill their Christ-given purpose, we are not only required to express our own gifting, we are also required to find a way to equip others to do what we have been gifted to do. For example, apostles are to equip the Body to function apostolically; prophets are to equip the Body to function prophetically, and so on down the line.
There is therefore a two-dimensional response required here—that God’s people express a calling as well as equip others. Responding to the grace that is given to each one of us in APEST moves us beyond mere self-expression into a dynamic, reciprocal process of training where each one of us becomes both a giver and a receiver, a leader and a follower.
*This is an excerpt from a free briefing from the book 5Q: Activating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ. Download free briefings from the book here:
5Q: Activating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ
In the pages of this book, Alan Hirsch takes us on a really deep dive into the fivefold (APEST) typology of ministry as articulated in Ephesians 4:1-16, but he takes us to a depth that few (if any) have ventured before. The reader is invited to join Hirsch on an thrilling journey of discovery that locates the roots of APEST in the nature and purposes of of God, tracks how these are laced throughout creation and culture, how they reconstituted and perfectly exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, are embedded into the the very foundations of the Church, and subsequently expressed through the lives of the countless saints that make it up. By laying out a comprehensive model that incorporates deep theory as well as practice, Alan Hirsch once demonstrates his almost uncanny capacity to change not only the conversation itself, but also the scorecard on how we understand calling, church, leadership, and organization.
- 5Q is a holistic lens by which we can see ourselves, our functions, and our churches/ organizations in a whole new light.
- 5Q gives a holistic framework and a practical application to release latent potential within you, your church and your community.
- 5Q takes the bible at it’s word; that APEST is connected to the idea of attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. It therefore provides us with a model of what it means to be the church, to follow Christ, and to be truly human.
- 5Q provides a scripturally rich and invaluable model for leaders who are committed to building, equipping and releasing the church.
- 5Q provides leaders with a vision of a healed, restored and perfected church which helps us overcome our historical dysfunctional and deficits (Eph 4.12).
- 5Q restores an understanding that God has given us all we need to get the job done in a world where everyone gets to play their unique part.
- 5Q provides practical, insightful and dynamic tools and training for transformative discipleship practice, leadership development and organizational change.