The Academic Definition of the Office of Missionary

The following is an Excerpt from chapter 3 of “The Great Enterprise from a Reformed Perspective: Bringing Modern Missions Back to the Bible” by J. N. Bolt.

One can go to ten different churches and ask a pastor or elder from each church to define the missionary role, and he will end up with ten different answers. At times, even elders from the same congregation will provide differing definitions. Assuming these are biblical churches, this is not the case when the question pertains to the role of the pastor. There may be some varied nuances, but there is widespread agreement within orthodox Christianity that the role of the pastor is to shepherd the flock through the teaching and prescribing of doctrine and to act judiciously in matters of disagreement and discipline. With the evangelist listed alongside the pastor in Ephesians 4:11, there should be a common understanding regarding both roles. The office of evangelist itself, however, is commonly neglected and/or rejected, thus leading to widespread confusion as to who the evangelist is and what he does.

The offices of the church are found in Ephesians 4:11–12, which says, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” The focus of this chapter is the office of evangelist, but the other offices will be considered in order to understand the office of evangelist. Let it also be noted that there are differing views concerning the office of pastor/teacher and whether it is only one office or two. Tere are also those who include the deacon in the list of church offices. However, it is not the purpose herein to address these issues but rather to simply observe the offices listed in Ephesians 4:11 only insofar as they shed light on the office of evangelist.

Before continuing, some context is necessary. God’s visible covenant people have always been ruled by elders. The governmental framework of Presbyterianism, rule by elders, is not a New Testament idea. That God has used elders in the governance of his people throughout history is clear from the biblical record. It is no surprise, then, that this continues in the New Testament church. God has always governed his people through representative elders who act on behalf of the people in the prescribing of God’s ordinances as received from him and the execution of the means of grace, such as the ceremonial law of the Old Testament and the sacraments of the New Testament. Rule by elders was the accepted reality among the early church at the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians.

Therefore, it is my argument that all of the offices listed in Ephesians 4:11 fall into the general eldership category. The four positions mentioned were the four functions of the eldership at that time. In order to shed light on the third one, I will address the first two and then the last one and their roles within the church. First, though, it should be noted that all elders at the time fell into one or more of the four categories. All elders functioned in at least one of those four offices. However, not everyone exercising those gifts necessarily operated as an elder. In other words, all elders were apostles, prophets, evangelists, and/or pastors and teachers; but not everyone who exercised the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and/or pastor and teacher was automatically an elder. Meaning, it was possible for someone to prophesy without being a prophet (viz., John 11:51), do evangelism without being an evangelist, or teach without being a teacher. Paul is not referring to certain people who may, at times, exercise certain gifts. Rather, he is referring to the specific offices or functions of the ruling elders who were to govern God’s people. This is made clear beginning in Ephesians 4:7, where Paul references the grace that was given to each of the saints according to Christ’s gift . The context here is the visible church, the body of Christ, and Paul is talking about grace coming to every member of the body through Christ’s gift . In Ephesians 4:11, Paul outlines the gift of Christ through which grace is administered to his people. The gift of Christ is, namely, the various functions of the eldership. Paul then continues in Ephesians 4:12, saying that all this is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

So, Paul has in mind here something that is for all the saints and that serves to build up the whole of the body of Christ. This necessarily excludes certain people who, at times, exercise particular gifts for the benefit of particular people. While a gifted woman teaching her children and other women in the church is a God-given blessing, it is a blessing given for the building up of particular people, as opposed to the building up of the entire body of Christ. Paul has in mind here the ordained office of elder that has served and continues to serve the building up of the whole of God’s visible people; and in Ephesians 4:11, he mentions the four functioning operations of the eldership at that time. To this we now turn, keeping in mind that the ultimate purpose of all four was the same—the building up of the body of Christ.

The Offices of Apostle, Prophet, and Pastor/Teacher

The elders who served as apostles for the building up of the body of Christ were those men who were commissioned by Christ to set the foundation of the church (viz., 1 Cor 3:10; Eph 2:20; Rev 21:14) and pass down once and for all the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord (viz., 2 Pet 3:2; Jude 1:3). This was done mostly through the writing of the New Testament canon as the apostles remembered the things that Christ spoke to them (viz., John 14:26) and wrote down that which Christ commanded them to write (viz., Rev 1:1–2) and also through verbal preaching and teaching (viz., Acts 2, 19:9–10). This function of the eldership necessarily ceased in the first century, because the apostles were, by definition, commissioned by Christ and given the job of building the foundation of the church. It should be noted, though, that not all churches had elders who were apostles. Proportionally, there were only a few apostles, while there were many churches.

The elders who served as prophets for the building up of the body of Christ were those men who, again, helped lay the foundation of the church (viz., Eph 2:20) through the proclamation, both verbal and written, of that which God had spoken directly to them. Prophecy functioned identically under the old covenant as it did at the time Paul wrote to the Ephesian church. Peter made this clear when he united the Old and New Testaments in Acts 2 by saying that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a fulfillment of the prophesy in Joel 2. Prophets were for the edification and exhortation of the church, speaking that which God revealed to them (viz., 1 Cor 14:6). All apostles served as prophets in that they relayed that which Christ had spoken to them, but not all prophets were apostles. As stated above, not all churches had access to the apostles in the first century and were, thus, left wanting of the will of God as it was progressively revealed. This is why, as Ephesians 2:20 states, the household of God was built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. The apostles had the word of God as spoken to them by Christ himself, and the prophets had the word of God as spoken to them through direct revelation. The word of God as revealed through the apostles and prophets, then, was the foundation upon which the church was built. Like the function of the apostle, the function of the prophet also ceased once the revelation of God had been perfected or accomplished with the completion of the New Testament canon (viz., 1 Cor 13:8–10). The church is no longer dependent upon the partial prophesy of men, for the complete revelation of the will of God pertaining to all matters of faith and practice has been given to the church in the form of the Bible and can be approached objectively. Saints no longer have to go to the prophet to inquire of God’s opinion concerning something. They only have to open and read the pages of Scripture.

The elders who served as pastors and teachers for the building up of the body of Christ were those men appointed within every church (viz., Acts 13:23; Titus 1:5) to shepherd the flock by guarding against false doctrine (viz., 1 Tim 4:6) and holding fast the faithful word (viz., Titus 1:9). This is the one function of the eldership that must be present in every church. These are the men charged to preach the word—namely, in reproof, rebuke, and exhortation with much patience and instruction (viz., 2 Tim 4:2). They apply the word of God to their flock and watch over their spiritual well-being (viz., Heb 13:17). All elders necessarily fall into this category, for being able to teach is listed as a universal prerequisite for an elder (viz., 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24). This is the reason all churches must have the office of pastor/teacher and why the office has remained in the postapostolic age.

The Office of Missionary/Evangelist

We now turn to the third office listed in Ephesians 4:11, the office of missionary/evangelist. I call it the “office of missionary/evangelist” as opposed to just the “office of evangelist” because the missionary office is a subset of the office of evangelist; and our concern is with the office of missionary, which makes it necessary to deal with the office of evangelist in general before we deal with the office of missionary in particular. I call the office of missionary a “subset of the office of evangelist” because all missionaries are necessarily evangelists, but not all evangelists are necessarily missionaries. This distinction will be dealt with shortly, but we shall first deal with the general office of evangelist.

The elders who served as evangelists for the building up of the body of Christ were those men commissioned by Christ (viz., Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8) or the church (viz., Acts 13:3) to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ (viz., Acts 8:4). Like all elders, these were ordained men set apart for the purpose of bestowing grace upon the saints through the building up of the church. They too were required to be able to teach and handle the word of God accurately. Where the function differs is in its focus, which is, namely, on the proclamation of the gospel. All newly organized churches require the presence of an evangelist in order for the gospel to take root (viz., Col 1:6–7), but established churches can survive without an elder functioning as an evangelist. This is why passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:28 mention apostles, prophets, and teachers, while omitting evangelists. However, some established churches must have elders operating as evangelists, because evangelists necessarily come from established churches. The office of evangelist is, therefore, a nonessential office that continues in the postapostolic age. By “nonessential,” I do not mean that evangelists are not needed. I only mean that they are not needed for the functioning of an established church.

There are only two accounts in Scripture that actually refer to an individual as an evangelist. The first is in Acts 21:8, where Paul entered “the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven.” The reference to Philip being one of the seven is a reference to Acts 6, where seven men from among the brethren of the disciples were selected to serve tables. This makes the Philip of Acts 21 the same Philip as in Acts 8, who began proclaiming Christ in the city of Samaria (viz., Acts 8:4–5), preached Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch (viz., Acts 8:35), and continued preaching the gospel in all the cities until he came to Caesarea (viz., Acts 8:40). In fact, all of Acts 8 is a record of Philip’s evangelistic ministry. Philip went to Samaria, a place where the church had not yet spread, and preached the good news of the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ (viz., Acts 8:12). The Lord sent him “to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza” in order to preach to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26). The Spirit of the Lord then snatched Philip away and brought him to Azotus, and he preached the gospel in all the cities until he came to Caesarea (viz., Acts 8:39–40). As one can see, the ministry of Philip the evangelist was focused primarily on the preaching of the gospel. However, it should be noted that some twenty years passed between Philip’s arrival in Caesarea in Acts 8 and when Paul entered Philip’s house in Caesarea in Acts 21. Presumably, Philip remained in Caesarea that entire time. This indicates that the office of evangelist focuses on the proclamation of the gospel but does not work exclusively among unbelievers.

This reality is also clearly seen in the Bible’s second reference to an evangelist. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul writes to Timothy, saying, “But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Doing the work of an evangelist is included in the fulfillment of Timothy’s ministry. Paul also exhorts him not to be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord but to join with Paul in suffering for the gospel (viz., 2 Tim 1:8) and to entrust to faithful men the things that he had heard from Paul (viz., 2 Tim 2:2). Under the umbrella of the work of an evangelist, then, is a passion for the testimony of Christ to the point of suffering on account of the gospel and a handing down to faithful men the teachings of the apostles. This can take place, first, among unbelievers with the initial preaching of the gospel, as seen in Acts 8, and, second, within an established church such as at Ephesus, as those who have responded to the message of the gospel are taught to obey all that Christ has commanded. Therefore, an elder holding the office of evangelist focuses his preaching on the proclamation of the gospel but is also ready to feed the saints with the whole counsel of God’s word.

The Evangelist As a Missionary

With the general function of the office of evangelist defined, we can now turn to the particular subset of the office of missionary. It should be noted that everything that is true and required of an evangelist is also true and required of a missionary. He must meet the qualifications of an elder and be ordained by the church and set apart for the purpose of preaching the gospel for the building up of the body of Christ. The difference between the office of missionary and the general office of evangelist has primarily to do with those among whom the missionary preaches.

While the term “missionary” or “missions” was popularized by the Jesuits in the late 1500s when they sent members abroad, it originates from the Latin word missio, which means “to send.” Variations of this word are found in the Latin Vulgate, referring to the disciples and/or apostles being sent. In Matthew 10:16, Christ said to the disciples, “Behold, I send (missio) you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Mark 6:7 states that Christ “summoned the twelve and began to send (missio) them in pairs, and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” Jesus said to the disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent (missio) Me, I also send (missio) you.” So, the core meaning of missio, or “missions,” is “to send” or “to be sent.” However, there is more to the biblical definition of “missions,” for the emphasis in the text is not simply that sending is taking place. Rather, the emphasis is on to whom the person is being sent and what it is that he is being sent to do. Paraphrasing Christ’s statement regarding him in Acts 9:15, Paul is quoted in Acts 22:21 as saying, “And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Paul states explicitly in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that Christ sent him “to preach the gospel.” As a missionary, therefore, Paul was sent to the Gentiles in order to preach the gospel. The Greek word translated as “Gentiles” is ethnos, and it literally means “nations.” While the Latin missio is not found in Christ’s commissioning of his disciples just prior to his ascension in Matthew 28, Luke 24, or Acts 1, these passages have come to symbolize the missionary calling, as they do contain the commissioning of the disciples to go throughout all the nations preaching the gospel.

With this definition as the foundation, a missionary is an elder who is sent by Christ or his church to preach the gospel among the nations. Later chapters will address the manner in which he is sent, what it means to preach the gospel, and who the nations are, so not much detail will be presented here about role of the missionary. Suffice it to say that the particular function of the missionary is to preach the gospel among the nations. This is where the distinction between the missionary and the evangelist is found. Both are ordained elders with the particular focus of preaching the gospel. The evangelist may preach the gospel among un- believers, within an established church, or a combination of the two. The missionary may also, throughout the duration of his career, preach the gospel initially among unbelievers and then within an established church as God’s elect respond in faith to the initial preaching, but the missionary is sent to do this among the nations. He preaches the gospel among other peoples because Christ has purchased for God, with his blood, men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. The evangelist is to preach the gospel wherever he finds himself, but the missionary is to continually push his preaching to the ends of the earth so that “they who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand” (Rom 15:21; Isa 52:15).

We now have a brief yet biblical understanding of the role of the missionary. He is an ordained elder who is to preach the gospel among the nations. As stated at the beginning of the chapter, however, this understanding is often neglected or rejected outright within the modern church. This has led to a gross misunderstanding of the missionary office, leaving ambitious saints stunned by hardships and the nations wanting of the gospel.

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