Ephesians 4:7-13 and the Duration of Spiritual Gifts
Paul K. Williams
In 1957 in debate with a preacher of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I argued from Ephesians 4:7-13 that Jesus gave spiritual gifts to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers until we all attain to the unity of the faith. I argued that since the New Testament contains the faith (Jude 3), the church came to the unity of the faith when the New Testament was completely written, and therefore the spiritual gifts were no longer given. I paralleled this passage with 1 Corinthians 13:10 and 11. It made a strong argument which the denominational preacher could not answer.
But I no longer make this argument because I don't think that is what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 4. I abandoned the argument with reluctance, but honesty has compelled me to do so. In this article I want to examine my previous argument and show what I believe Ephesians 4:13 teaches.
Of the denominational commentaries in my library, only James MacKnight takes the position that I have outlined. He says:
"13. These supernaturally endowed teachers are to continue in the church, until, being fully instructed by their discourses and writings, we all, who compose the church, come, through one faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to perfect manhood as a church, even to the measure of the stature which when full grown it ought to have; so that the church, thus instructed and enlarged, is able to direct and defend itself without supernatural aids."
"Ver. 13. To a perfect man. The apostle having represented the Christian church under the idea of Christ's body, ver. 4., he here speaks of it as in a state of childhood, whilst its members were few in number, and imperfect in knowledge; and told the Ephesians, that the supernaturally endowed teachers were to continue in the church, till it was so enlarged, and so well instructed in the doctrine of the gospel, as to be able to direct and defend itself without any supernatural aid. This advanced state of the church, the apostle termed `perfect manhood,' and `the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;' at which when the church arrived, the supernatural gifts of the Spirit were to be removed as no longer necessary."
I took this argument from brother Roy Cogdill, and I am guessing that it originated in these comments of MacKnight.
Problems With This Position
1. The first problem is that it is not possible to prove that the gifts of these verses refer exclusively to spiritual gifts.
The words "gift" and "gifts" are found in verses 7 and 8 "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, `When he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, And he gave gifts to men"' (NASB). If you read carefully you did not find the word "spiritual" in front of "gifts." We know from these verses that Christ gave his gift of dying on the cross, or it can mean all of the things which he gives to us as undeserved gifts. We know also that when he went to heaven "he gave gifts to men." What are those gifts?
Verse 11 says, "And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers." The flaw in my reasoning was that when I read that passage I understood it to mean "He gave some gifts to the apostles," etc. But the verse does not say that. It says that Christ made some to be apostles, some to be prophets, etc. The New King James translates: "And he himself gave some to be apostles." The NIV says: "It was he who gave some to be apostles." What Christ gave to us, according to verse 11, are the men and offices described. These men are charged with the duty of equipping the saints for the work of service (v. 12), thus all of us receive grace to do the work God has assigned through the instructions and examples and oversight of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
The work of the apostles and prophets required direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Their work is finished, and inspiration and the signs to prove they were from God are no longer given. Yet the apostles and prophets are still in the church they are part of the foundation (Eph. 2:20) upon which we must build. Just as Jesus, our head, is part of the church, so also are the apostles and prophets, even though they are no longer bodily upon the earth. The gifts of apostles and prophets are gifts which we still enjoy and which cause us to be equipped for the work of service. Through the New Testament which they revealed we are able to be complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
That some evangelists (Acts 8:13) and early elders (Jas. 5:14) possessed spiritual gifts is clear, but neither the qualifications nor the work of these offices required that each one have the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Evangelists and teachers are made by teaching (2 Tim. 2:2), not by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3 and Tit. 1) include nothing which requires a supernatural gift. Therefore when Jesus gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, he was not necessarily equipping them all with spiritual gifts. He gives everything necessary to their work.
2. The second problem is that the work described of these men is work which must continue until the end of time. Verse 12 says, "for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ." Saints constantly need to be equipped and will until Jesus comes again. Our work of service continually goes on in order that the body of Christ should be built up. Paul is not writing about something which would soon be terminated.
This work is not completed simply by putting the written word into the world. That was the main work of the apostles and prophets. If that was all there was to it, there would have been no need, then or now, for evangelists, pastors and teachers. The written word must be preached, taught, exemplified, enforced. This is a work which will never end.
3. The third problem is that in verse 13 the description of the condition of "all" is a description which shall not be attained short of heaven. Read: "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ." This is not the same condition described in 1 Corinthians 13:11 as "when I became a man." In Ephesians Paul is talking about the perfected condition of "all." The work of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, plus the work of the saints (v. 12), is so that we all can attain the unity of the faith and the maturity which belongs to the fulness of Christ. This work is to continue until that perfection is attained.
When will that be? Do you suppose that Paul witnessed it in his lifetime? Have you witnessed it in any congregation, or even in your own life? This is the ideal toward which we must all be working, but it will not be attained until we reach heaven. Paul said, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become prefect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12). And so say we all.
Therefore the gifts Christ is giving to us, and the work of the men and women who are workers in the church are to continue until we reach the perfection which will only be reached in heaven. This is a way of saying that this work will continue until the end of the world.
The subject dealt with in Ephesians 4:7-13 is not the duration of spiritual gifts. In these verses Paul is writing about what Jesus has given us so that we may be equipped for the work of service. These gifts, which are the offices described in verse 11 and the work of the saints described in verse 12 plus all that is necessary for these men and women to do their work, will continue until the perfection of verse 13 is attained in heaven.
When we understand these verses we will praise God for giving us everything needed in the church for being built up unto perfection. We will not seek to add offices or organizations he did not give because we will know that everything we need has been given. We will be encouraged to work hard under the directions of the apostles and prophets as taught to us by evangelists, pastors and teachers until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 1 p. 19-20