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The Priority Of Spirit-Gifting For Church Ministry (Gordon Fee)

Does God ever put gender as a prior requirement for gifting? What does it mean to look to biblical revelation for authority when the texts do not specifically speak in advocacy of a specific issue? We must learn to differentiate between prescriptive and descriptive texts.

The NT is ambiguous in many areas of church structure. Fee states that Spirit-gifting precedes all issues of structure and gender.

Ambiguity of the NT on Structure and Ministry

It is apparent from the NT record that the church did not place the same emphasis on organisational flow charts that modern day church movements do! All the way from strong evident hierarchical RC to the more subtle hierarchy of the Brethren, and those in between – they all claim NT authority. But the NT documents simply show little interest in defining these matters. They are in the how and who, not the what, of ministry.

This is the opposite of the former covenant at Sinai where specific instructions were given for all aspects.

Under the Old Covenant there was no place for women in the priesthood, but in the NT we see no reference to such matters (Joel 2:28-29 stresses this and Peter picked up on it immediately at Pentecost). The closest things to intentional instruction appear in 1 Tim and Titus, but only then it’s to do with the development of a function of leadership (BR note: Fee has pointed out elsewhere that Timothy is to do with appointment of replacement elders (hence the stress on character), while Titus has to do with the establishing of new churches and new, relatively untried leaders).

The concept of an “office” (a church order and positions that need to be filled) is barely admissible in 1 Tim 3, and certainly nowhere else in the entire NT. People prophesied then were later recognised as functioning prophets; similarly, some looked after people and came to be recognised as elders because they were already doing the work. Elder (presbyter) is the broad term that includes overseers (episkope) and deacons (diakonos BR note – on re-reading this, I am not sure I wrote his comments down correctly; I will have to listen to the tape and possibly edit this). But this is not clear intentional revelation from the Holy Spirit. Intentional instruction is distinctly absent from the NT.

Even the rôle of the 12 is ambiguous. They are called the 12, not the 12 apostles. The 12 is a name, a title. The term the 12 apostles only appears in Revelation. Their rôle is especially ambiguous; why did Jesus choose 12? Jesus was the new expression of Israel, so the number had to be 12. But their rôle never appears again as a group after Acts 1. Not even in ch 15, where it is James (not one of the 12) who appears as the president of the critical assembly. How this happened, no one knows. But the point is, the 12 did not sit in Acts on top of an ecclesiastical structure.

So, Paul did not think of apostleship as an ‘office’ in the church with oversight over the whole. His description (1 Cor 15:5) is that of eye-witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Even in Galatians he esteems them as leaders, but not as authorities specifically. His own apostolic authority was with the churches he founded, not with the church universal. He defers to others where he has contact with churches did not found (such as Rom 1:8-15).

So in NT there is no evidence of a group of apostles having authority over the whole church – neither prescriptive nor descriptive evidence.

James writes to Christians in Palestine and indicates they were patterned after the Jewish synagogues. Similarly, the Greco-Roman churches were patterned more on the Greco-Roman “household”. The two were different, but the evidence is not clear just how different they were. If this is true, then the householder would probably lead the church. Every morning the entire household gathered at the niche (labarum) and worshipped the householder’s idols. If he turned to Christ, the household would have turned and worshipped Jesus. So, Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) and Nympha (Col 4:15) would have done this too. But it is descriptively unclear.

What then can we be certain about?

1.. The church did have leadership, and,

2.. the leadership was important.

However, we lack intentional instruction about the structure, the nature of its leadership, both local and beyond, and the nature of its worship.

What degree of Hermeneutical certainty should we impose on texts that are not intentional instruction?

We must define what we mean by “biblical”? How authoritative is this? Do analogies and stories count as prescriptive texts? As in, “be eager to prophesy and don’t forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39), while elevating descriptive texts above such prescriptive texts!!

There has been a hierarchical structure developed from 1 Tim 3 while virtually ignoring the (equally) prescriptive orders on the care of widows in ch 5!

Normative = that which must be done to be obedient.

There are three kinds of doctrinal statements that form the texts;

1.. Theology – what we believe.

2.. Christian ethics – how we ought to live in relation to one another (more so than how live in relation to God); ethics is filling out how we love our neighbours as ourselves..

3.. Christian praxis = what Christians do together as religious people.

There are primary and secondary levels in all three areas; eg. in #1 Christology – fully God, fully man. #2 how do the ethics get defined; but #3 (praxis) is the real problem. Paul calls the church “God’s Israel”, but when it comes to what Christians do as Christians, there is little agreement – even in such a basic area as communion; eg. who can serve it, minister at it, oversee it, wine or juice, wafer or loaf, etc, etc! We agree on the fundamental reality but are divided deeply because there is no prescription in the NT!

The second level is derivative of what has been expressed at the first level. So in say, Christian praxis to do with Communion, different reading of texts that give no explicit instruction lead to our differences. We imply different meanings, because of the lack of explicit orders (the order is only implied there).

So, 1 Tim 2 is in the context of public prayer for the lost; and v9-15 is part of a corrective admonition by Paul, not a prescription for church government. The wording is similar to that for the younger widows in ch 5.

Simply put, the ad hoc nature of the instructions seem to show a wide variety of church practice; the forms of structure are not clear. Similarly the issue of gender is unclear, because the texts do not have an agenda on this question. But rather they address ad hoc situations.

They do not speak to the issue of women’s involvement in leadership, nor (with the exception of 1 Tim 2) women in ministry.

Teaching does not imply an office of teaching; this is circuitous exegetical reasoning. Nor do our churches bear much resemblance to the house churches of the Greco-Roman world. How then can we apply these texts as prescriptive when such little resemblance occurs? (Fee was not saying the development has been wrong, simply that what we have today is very different).

Eph 4:11 1 Peter 5:1 calls some ministers shepherds (pastors). There seems to be little connection between this designation of the chief administrative officer and principal preacher/speaker known today as “pastor”. Just because something is described once or twice, does not of itself indicate it is normative for all churches for all time. The specific issue we are looking at here is giftedness, not gender. The modern push for equal representation is just as wrong because it isn’t based on giftedness either. Laying on of hands is only for those recognised beforehand as gifted.

Verbal Ministry in the Early Church

What is “ministry”? Can we make a legitimate distinction between ministry as an office and as an activity that served the Body?

Gift-based ministry for women

1 Cor 11:4-5 implies women prayed and prophesied in the gathered community. The issue is whether she is “uncovered” at her head. It seems these two words (prayer and prophecy) summarise all speech in church;

a.. prayer – speech to God (including tongues);

b.. prophecy – speech addressed to the rest of the community (teaching, revelation, word of knowledge, message of wisdom, etc).

Prophecy in the NT is plainly Spirit-inspired speech practised by men and women alike.

1 Cor 14:24-31 Paul states twice, all may prophesy (all may, but note it’s not saying all do – he modifies this with a call to order as well); so prophecy in the gathered community included everyone, regardless of gender. The purpose is so that “all may learn and be encouraged (or Gk, be exhorted)”. These verbs are associated in the NT with teaching and proclamation. You learn, are exhorted (or encouraged). It is absolutely clear that women are involved in this. In 14:29-33 Paul refers to prophecy in terms of verbs, but at v29 he designates “prophets”, and the context is those that engage in the activity of prophesying are referred to as prophets. It is plainly not an “office” here.

This is a correctional text; when they gather they are all speaking in tongues (including the women). So when “each has a.. (Gk has idea of etc, etc, in it, it is not a definitive list). This ad hoc listing is representative of the variety of ways the Holy Spirit can speak through people.

Eph 5:18-20 Col 3:16 The worship depicted is double-focused.

1.. Singing involves praise and thanksgiving to God while instructing and admonishing the people.

2.. The singing is Spirit-inspired.

3.. The focus of their teaching and admonishing one another in song, is Christ. Again, it’s implied that it’s both men and women.


a.. We find a general lack of precision in the descriptions of verbal ministry.

b.. In no instance in Paul’s letters, does he mention leaders who are to be in charge! It’s the Spirit in control.

c.. There is no differentiating between men and women.

So Paul is correcting abuses. Worship is like eating, so they never thought for a moment of describing the existing order, since everyone assumes they know what they are doing! They don’t need to describe it, except when something goes astray.

1 Cor 14:34-35 1 Tim 2:11-12 seem to stand in contradiction to the rest of the instructions from Paul. Fee says 14:34-35 is not part of Paul’s letter. It’s a later interpolation. It stands in open tension to everything said by Paul in Corinthians.

Not one convincing argument has emerged to argue against 1 Tim 2 being an ad hoc answer to a specific case in Ephesus at the time. Deception is not gender-specific in other areas (eg. the (Ephesian) false teachers are men). It is also agreed that it is not dealing with women not holding ‘offices’ in the church.

The priority of Spirit-gifting for the verbal ministry is argued strongly, but what about the place of women in positions of authority?

The biblical stress is not on urgency to address the issue itself. It’s either non-existent or ambiguous at best. We cannot muster evidence to prove or disprove women in ministry / authority. The NT doesn’t show concern about the nature and structure of church order and leadership. This is not evidence for no structure. But the word “office” is offensive – it simply is not in the Greek anywhere.

1.. The biblical record is not concerned at describing in detail church order and structure. But this does not mean the NT writers were not interested in the matter. Paul never addresses any of his letters to the leadership of his churches [the nearest is Philippians with the people and episkopoi (including Syntyche and Euodia who are causing a problem – Phil 4:2)]. 2 Tim 4:9 Titus 3:12 show both Timothy and Titus are apostolic delegates, not local leaders, and are going to later move on). Most of Paul’s letters were addressed to his own churches where he had a primary rôle still in leadership. But he uses verbs describing their activities, not nouns describing them as officers in the churches.

2.. In Romans, which he did not found, he still doesn’t address the leaders. The concern over such matters really only appears later (3 John cAD90) and Ignatius (2ndC). We do know what kind of people they should be, but not what they do.

3.. Spirit-gifting needs to be discerned (prescriptively fleshed out in 1 Thess 5:19-22).

Advantages of Spirit-gifting preceding office

a.. This biblical view is less authority-driven and more Spirit-driven. Human nature loves to ask the question, who’s in charge around here? But Spirit-gifting leads to a more creative environment – so the Spirit can use people to minister in love;

b.. Removes the assumption that a male student seeking ministry has the first requirement to proceed – because he is a male! This puts a wrong em-phasis on the wrong syllah-ble!!. There is NO priesthood in the New Covenant, nor is there an inside running lane for anyone. It’s an issue of Spirit-gifting from God, not a sort-out by a group of (usually all-male) leaders.

c.. Ministry is a two-way street. A male gender-driven view allows official leadership and ministry to emerge from less than half the community of faith. This is a denial of the Holy Spirit, who is gender-inclusive, thus potentially setting the whole body free to ministry and blessing to others, “as HE wills”.

Fee says he is not gender-driven here, but Spirit-driven in emphasis. This is liberating for the ministry of the Spirit in the Body of Christ.

Other bits ‘n’ pieces

The NT regards gossip as murder! God really cares about this very, very much. We care about matters of personal piety more so, while God doesn’t. Gossip wounds the health of the corporate whole.

Fee is a Chalcedonian – how it works out – we have a speculative theology.

In 1 Cor 12-14 there is no instruction specifically to the leadership! He doesn’t tell them to get in and control what’s going on, but leaves it to the church (including the Holy Spirit) to work it out.

Question Time

Can we justify the modern type of corporate gathering from Fee’s view of descriptive NT church life?

Fee is not anti-leadership; it’s a gift given by the Spirit (Rom 12), not an extension of the “eldest male child” has priority mentality. Similarly, teaching is not an office, but an act of instruction.

To what degree did the early church’s expectation of the imminence of the 2nd Coming effect their developing church leadership structure.

They lived with expectation, yet preparation. There was an intensity of eschatological expectation, while continuing to conscientiously work things out in an ordered manner. This was present in Pentecostal circles right up to 2 generations ago, but has now virtually disappeared. (BR note: The problem addressed in 2 Thess 3 about those giving up work indicates a distortion of this kind. And Paul addresses it clearly – the 2nd Coming is near but not yet, now get back to work!)

(Notes by a friend who attended a seminar by Gordon Fee).


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