Does being American (or the citizen of any modern democracy) influence how one interprets the Scripture? Can one’s commitment to democracy affect how we even translate the biblical texts? Let’s consider one text, Ephesians 4:11-12. It names certain types of ministry leadership in the Body of Christ and then describes their purpose. Here is the text as translated in the KJV, under the reign of King James, pre-democracy of course:
(11) 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…
Now for the same passage in the New King James Version, translated some 350 years later:
(11) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, (12) for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…
Besides the addition of “himself” at the beginning of verse eleven, did you notice the removal of the comma in verse twelve? This significantly changes the meaning of the text pertaining to the purpose of the listed ministry leaders. In the KJV—and many other older translations such as Webster (1833), Young (1862), the Geneva Bible (1599), Douay-Rheims (1582)—verse twelve contains a list of three independent items which are functions of the ministry leaders of verse eleven. These leaders are given:
1) for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
2) for the work of ministry/service
3) for the edifying of the body of Christ
When you remove the comma, the first two items in the list actually become one function—the leaders are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. I have heard some describe this to mean that church leaders are simply in place to equip the common people so they can do the real ministry. In other words, the leaders don’t do the ministry, the people do the ministry.
Does this sound familiar? Does this not sound like democracy—of the people, by the people, for the people? The playing field is level—the power returns to the people—the leaders aren’t the real ministers–the people are! Unfortunately, I have all too many times heard this verse used to legitimate grumbling by lay people who were not “released” into their “rightful” ministry by “controlling” leadership. In less severe situations, it serves to reinforce a concept of “Christianity” where I have the power and control, and others do not, or at least should not.
But what is the rationale for adding this comma, such that many modern translations now include it (NRSV, NIV, ESV, NASB)?
The larger question is: are the three items listed all functions of the apostles, prophets, etc., or is the first the function of the leaders, which they perform so the laity can carry out the second and third? Some arguments are commonly advanced to support the “democratic” view:
1) There is a change of preposition in Greek from the first phrase to the second — the word translated “for” in “for the equipping” is Greek πρός (pros) and in the second and third phrase it is εἰς (eis). This seems to be putting too much weight on a tiny word like a preposition. Prepositions are notoriously flexible in Greek (as in many languages). In common speech we often alternate our prepositions without huge meaning entailed.
2) Verse seven says, “all have been given grace,” and this is taken as “grace for service.” Therefore, it would seem, the ministry in verse twelve is done by all. However, in verses seven and following, it is important to trace the use of “gift” and “giving” language. Grace is indeed “given” to all according to the “gift” of Christ. Verse eight begins with “therefore” and intends to further explain this “grace” and “gift.” In Christ’s ascension to power, he has given gifts to people. Verse eleven makes clear that these “gifts” are the four types of ministry leadership: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. The grace being described specifically in verse seven is grace that flows to the Church through its ordained leadership. While certainly all believers receive grace directly from God, this is not what is in view in the present passage.
In support of the reading with the comma, I would argue:
1) The word translated “equipping,” (καταρτισμός, katartismos), means “competition.” The english word “equipping” sounds like it needs another word to complement it, as in “equipping for what??” However, the Greek word does not need any complement and the phrase “equipping/completion of the saints” stands on its own.
2) It is likely that the work of “service/ministry” (διακονία, diakonia), simply refers to the ministry of the ministers already listed. This word does not appear any other time in Ephesians, but the related word “servant/ministry” (διάκονος, diakonos) does twice. Once it occurs in 3:7 where Paul is describing himself, incidentally joined with the words “gift,” “grace,” and “give,” significant words in this passage as well (see the second “democratic” view argument above). The other time is in 6:21, to speak of Tychikos, who seems to have some definitive ministry role. This usage is also paralleled in Colossians (1:7, 23, 25; 4:7, 17). Thus, diakonia, probably here refers to the work done by specifically set apart ministers.
3) The phenomenon of stacking up phrases in lists, often using differing prepositions, is a common stylistic feature of this author. We see this in Ephesians 1:3, 5, 6, 20-21; 2:6; and 6:12. But most significant are verses thirteen and fourteen of the present chapter, the verses immediately following the text we have been looking at:
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.
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.
To therefore see
for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
for the work of ministry/service
for the edifying of the body of Christ
as yet another list of items in parallel seems entirely consistent with the stylistic patterns of writing in this letter.
4) As we saw earlier, the author’s point from verse seven onwards is Christ’s gift of ministry leaders as a source of grace for the Body of Christ. Verses 11-14 form one sentence in Greek. If we understood the phrase “for the work of ministry” to mean the ministry of all, then it might seem that the rest of the sentence (12-14) flows out of this ministry of all. But it would be more consistent, since the author’s point seems to be describing the leaders Christ is giving, to not change the focus mid-sentence to something different. Rather verses 11-14, along with 7-10 all focus on Christ’s gift of ministry leaders.
All in all, it seems reasonable to believe that “the work of ministry” in this passage is not the ministry democratically given to all believers, but simply the ministry of the leaders. Does this mean lay people have no ministry? Of course not. But we should be cautious not to read our commitments to certain forms of governance (especially ones that give power and significance to ourselves!) into the text. Unfortunately, the punctuation in most modern translations of the Bible make this extremely difficult in this text.
Beyond the caution of allowing our political persuasions to taint our understanding of Christianity, we stand perhaps to see a central point of this passage: the leadership Christ ordained and established in the Church is a primary source of grace for the Body of Christ. History—never mind history, our own experience—has shown that leaders can often be abusive and hurtful to the people Christ cherishes. Being open to receive grace from other leaders once one has these experiences can be extremely difficult—and reasonably so. It can perhaps be easy to develop a negative view of leadership in general—they are almost like a necessary evil—and certainly never to be trusted.
But what if we were to have a vision that the grace of Christ flows through leaders when they, despite their many shortcomings, are full of love, compassion, humility, and gentleness! Spiritual and leadership abuse is real, the pain is deep, and it is never to be treated lightly. But to retreat into an impenetrable enclave of independence and invulnerability is worse still. This is perhaps all the more reason to cultivate in ourselves and in others the kind of leadership qualities that can be a fountain of grace to many. And wherever we find this fountain, let us do all in our power to celebrate, support, and in time, to trust those leaders who are truly serving and edifying the Body of Christ.