“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
The word “till” in verse 13, Mormons contend, proves that the church today still needs apostles and prophets as much as it needs evangelists, pastors, and teachers, since the church is not yet fully mature in faith and knowledge. LDS publications appeal to this text to demonstrate the need for a “restoration” of the true church, complete with apostles and prophets, through Joseph Smith.
In Ephesians 4:11-13, is Paul saying that all five offices are to exist in the church “until” the church comes to maturity? Although Mormons insist that the passage must be read that way, that is not at all what Paul is saying. It is the “edifying” of the church (v. 12) which must continue until the church is mature, not all five of the offices listed in verse 11.
As in the KJV, verses 11-13 in Greek are all part of a long, complex sentence, characteristic of Paul’s writings in general and of Ephesians in particular. (The sentence continues at least through the end of verse 14 and arguably through the end of verse 16.) The Greek word translated “until” (mechri) functions as a conjunction here in verse 13. (This is a different usage than its use as a preposition, where it is followed by a genitive noun.) As a conjunction, some action or state is said to occur or continue “until” the time indicated by the subordinate expression that mechri introduces. To understand its significance, we must find the verb or other expression that denotes the action or state that continues “until” the destination that the following clause (“we all come in the unity of the faith…”) expresses. It is that action that continues, as can be seen elsewhere in biblical Greek: “dried up…until” (Josh. 4:23); “until now I proclaim” (Ps. 71:17); “until…kept testing” (Ps. 105:18 ); “will not pass away until” (Mark 13:30); “I am in labor until” (Gal. 4:19).
In Ephesians 4:11-13, the action or state cannot be that expressed by the verb “gave” (ed?ken) in verse 11, because that verb expresses a past act of giving, “he gave,” not a repeated or continuous giving (which would be “he gives”). In context, Christ “gave” these “gifts” after he ascended to heaven (v. 8 ). The tense and the semantic character of the verb, as well as this context, together lead to the conclusion that “gave” refers to an act that Paul speaks of as past and completed.
In verse 12 there are three phrases that express an action: (12a) “for the perfecting of the saints”; (12b) “for the work of the ministry”; and (12c) “for the edifying of the body of Christ.” All three of these phrases use verbal nouns, “perfecting,” “work” and “ministry,” and “edifying.” Each of these three phrases denotes an ongoing or recurring or continuous action, and so any or all of them might be said to recur or continue “until” the goal is reached that is expressed in verse 13. Contextually, we should connect “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” specifically to the immediately preceding words “for the edifying of the body of Christ.” That is, Paul’s meaning is that the body of Christ will continue to be edified (that is, built up) until it reaches full maturity. Not only does this way of construing verse 13 connect it to the phrase that immediately precedes it, but these two parts of Paul’s sentence fit together most naturally. The “edifying of the body of Christ” is precisely the process that results in the church reaching its maturity in Christ, its goal of becoming full-grown in Christ.
Verses 11-13 form a complex chain of clauses and phrases that may be outlined as follows:
- Christ gave some apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (v. 11)
- The purpose of these ministry gifts is to perfect or equip the saints (v. 12a)
- The purpose of that perfecting is that the saints would do the work of ministry (v. 12b)
- The purpose of the work of ministry is to edify the body of Christ (v. 12c)
- That edifying will continue until the body of Christ is full-grown in Christ (v. 13)
Thus, Ephesians 4:11-13 simply does not say that Christ gives the church all five of these ministries until we all attain to the unity of the faith. Rather, Paul says that Christ gave the church these ministries to perfect or equip the saints to do the work of ministry so that the church would continue to be edified or built up until we all attain to the unity of the faith and full maturity in Christ. Paul’s wording leaves open the question of whether all five ministry gifts would continue in the church until that unity and maturity are realized. The most we can conclude from this text is that the ministry gifts of apostle and prophet were to continue in the church until their role in “perfecting the saints” was completed. The question, then, is just what that role was.
Before we discuss that question, though, one serious problem ought to be noted concerning the use of Ephesians 4:11 to justify the restoration of apostles and prophets in the LDS Church. Mormons acknowledge that apostles and prophets disappeared from the scene for some seventeen centuries. If, then, Ephesians 4:11 is saying that Christ gave the church apostles and prophets and that those ministries were to continue until the church was perfected, how is it that they were allowed to disappear? The persecution suffered by the church is no answer, since the apostles were not all killed at once and the church grew larger and larger during the fiercest times of persecution. If new apostles were needed, why didn’t Christ appear to some Christian men in the late first or early second century and appoint some?
With regard to the exegesis of Ephesians 4:11, Mormons are likely to argue that if evangelists, pastors, and teachers are all continuing ministries in the church, we should view apostles and prophets as also continuing. They may argue that they see no reason to bracket off the apostles and prophets from the other three offices listed in verse 11. However, there are very good reasons for doing so. In the very same epistle, Paul twice refers to the apostles and prophets as a distinct group. In Ephesians 2:20 Paul states that the church, as a new composite body of Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ (cf. 2:11-22), is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” In Ephesians 3:5 Paul states that Christ’s purpose to unite Gentiles and Jews in the church (cf. 3:4-7) was “revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Thus, Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 speak of the apostles and prophets as a distinct group of two ministries that played a special, foundational role in the Christian church, unlike the evangelists, pastors, and teachers. In this light, it is not at all implausible to view apostles and prophets as temporary ministries while viewing evangelists, pastors, and teachers as ministries that would function in the church throughout its history.
If we look more closely at these two references to apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2-3, we have further reason to reach such a conclusion. Paul describes the apostles and prophets as the church’s “foundation” (themelios, Eph. 2:20). Paul uses this term in earlier epistles to refer to a “foundation” of someone’s past accomplishment on which others might or might not choose to build. Thus, he told the Corinthians, “I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon” (1 Cor. 3:10). In that context he speaks of Jesus Christ as the only proper foundation on which to build (3:11-12). (There is no contradiction here with Ephesians 2:20; Paul is using the term “foundation” as a metaphor, and there is no reason why he cannot use the metaphor in different ways in different contexts.) In another epistle, he told the Roman Christians that his own mission was to preach the gospel to people who had not yet heard it, “lest I should build upon another man's foundation” (Rom. 15:20). A similar usage in a different context appears in 1 Timothy, where Paul speaks of those “laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come,” that is, a good foundation for the future, “that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:19). In all of these texts, Paul uses the term “foundation” in reference to someone or something in the past on which others later build. It would be quite in keeping with Paul’s usage elsewhere, then, to understand “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20) to speak of the apostles and prophets as temporary ministries on which the church would continue to build until its full goal was reached.
Ephesians 3:5 in context gives further support for this conclusion. Paul says that the mystery of Christ “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power” (Eph. 3:5-7). Paul here states explicitly that the apostles and prophets were the instruments through whom God revealed something that he had not revealed in previous eras. We have here an explicit statement contradicting the notion that God gives the same revelations or discloses the same truths to people in every era. The history of revelation is an uneven and progressive history in which God reveals specific truths at specific times through specific individuals of his choosing. God does not obligate himself to provide such revelations to everyone, nor does he promise that each generation will have revelatory spokesmen like the apostles and prophets that God graciously chose to serve him in Paul’s day. Those apostles and prophets served at God’s pleasure as the “foundation” (2:20) of the church as a community of Jews and Gentiles united as one body in Christ. As long as the church continues to grow and mature in God’s purpose for the church as Christ’s body, its “foundation” of the apostles and prophets continues to serve its purpose even after those men have passed from the earthly scene.
It is important to understand, then, that the apostles and prophets remain the foundation of the Christian church. That function never ends, even though the apostles and prophets themselves died. We do not need apostles and prophets living on the earth today for the church to rest on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Indeed, as I have explained, Paul’s usage of the term themelios suggests that they function as the “foundation” in the sense that those who come after the apostles and prophets build on what they started. What matters is how we build on that foundation (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10).