What Should ‘Equipping’ Christians Look Like?

Article
11.11.2022

My first four years in full-time ministry were 48 months of pastoral overload.

I was 29. I had a seminary degree in hand and a heart full of ministerial dreams. It didn’t take long to realize that, even in my 250-member church, I was treading water in the deep end of the pool.

Some weeks, I faced more responsibilities than I could possibly accomplish, more problems than I could ever solve. So when I read this statement by Howard Hendricks, it leapt off the page: “God is not calling you to do the work of ten men. He’s calling you to equip ten men to do the work He’s called them to do.”

Equipping. It’s not just a pragmatic essential for pastoral survival; it’s also a biblical requirement. Ephesians 4:11–12 says, “And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.”

This isn’t new information. Countless books and DMin projects have been written on the topic of equipping. A quick survey reveals four basic approaches to the topic, most of which affirm the general teaching of the New Testament.

  • The Generic Approach: begins by asking what a Christian should be and then constructs a training program to serve as a path toward that goal.[1] This approach is biblically based, but only in the broadest sense.
  • The Business Approach: views ministry through a business-model matrix and seeks to organize believers for involvement.[2]
  • The Psychological Approach: adapts a grid derived from psychology to set the agenda for equipping people to help others.[3]
  • The Pragmatic Approach: aims to simply give everyone a “church job.”[4] It identifies and employs whatever methods seem to result in greater involvement of church members/attenders.

But does the Bible have more to say? Does Scripture provide more than generic direction about how to prepare the people of your church to do “the work of ministry?”

When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, we find that while there’s only one passage that refers to “equipping” (Eph. 4:11–12), there are about 25 passages that highlight the “work of ministry” for which believers are to be equipped.[5]

What do these 25 passages reveal about the contours and content of equipping?

1. Equip the Church with Optimistic Urging.

Paul was confident that believers were, to some degree, already enabled by God to do “the work of ministry.” In Romans 15:14, he tells believers, whom he had just finished admonishing about their less-than-Christian interactions (Rom. 14:1–15:13), that “I myself am convinced about you that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.” They were, as Jay Adams has paraphrased, “competent to counsel” one another. In another place, Paul optimistically affirms that, even before he wrote them, the readers were already encouraging and edifying one another because they had been “taught by God to love” (1 Thess. 4:9, 5:11).

When it comes to believers filling up the responsibility for every-member-ministry, Paul’s mindset is definitely glass-half-full.

And yet, he knows that believers still need to be encouraged and urged to engage in one-another ministry. Paul repeatedly reminds his churches to use their words to build up those around them:

  • “Speaking the truth in love, let us grow . . .”  (Eph. 4:15)
  • “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25)
  • “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18)
  • “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11)
  • “We exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14)
  • “Don’t consider him as an enemy, but warn him” (2 Thess. 3:15)

Even when believers are already “speaking the truth in love,” Paul still urges them to persevere in “the work of ministry” they’re already doing. Why? Because these words of urging are a God-given means by which believers start and continue to “speak the truth in love.”

So pastors, like Paul, encourage your church members to engage in every-member-ministry. Equipping sometimes sounds like simply providing encouragement. “You should do this!” They should, because they can.

2. Equip the Church by Reminding Them of Who They Are.

Throughout the 25 every-member-ministry passages of the New Testament, Paul not only urges believers to open their mouths and “speak the truth in love,” but he also reminds them what makes it possible. All Christians can engage in every-member-ministry by virtue of the fact that they are Christians.

Paul reminds believers they are members of Christ’s body (Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 12:12–26; Eph. 4:16; Col. 3:15). They belong to Christ, and therefore to each other (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12, 27). And, irrespective of their social standing or attachments outside the church, believers inside the church also share the closest of relationships with other believers, that of family (“brothers,” Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 12:1; 14:6, 20, 26, 39; 1 Thess. 4:10, 13; 5:1, 4, 12, 14; 2 Thess. 3:6, 13, 15).

Every-member-ministry is possible among members of the new covenant community because there is a new covenant community. Under the old covenant, two groups carried the verbal responsibility to pass along and thus protect and maintain the faith contained in the old covenant: the priests and heads of families.[6] Ever since the “beginning of the end” at the resurrection (1 Cor. 10:11), the New Testament church, as a “kingdom of priests” (Rev. 1:6; 5:10) and “family of God” (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17), has carried on those similar responsibilities to instruct one another within the new covenant (Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:12).

Additionally, two more groups under the old covenant spoke God’s truth to God’s people, calling them to conform to his expectations. The prophet (regarding conformity to the Mosaic covenant) and the sage (regarding conformity to creation norms) spoke out against deviation from God’s expectations and extended promises of blessing for conformity.[7] Today, at the end of the age, all new covenant believers similarly “speak a wisdom among the mature” and offer words of observation and exhortation that Paul identifies as prophecy (1 Cor. 2:6, 14:3).

Whereas in the old covenant community, the burden of word-ministry was carried by a few, in the new covenant community, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of every member.

So pastors, like Paul, should remind their churches they are already equipped for every-member-ministry. “Speaking the truth in love” grows not from a rare, rich soil unknown to most congregations. Rather, this kind of every-member-ministry springs from the good soil that is Christ. Pastor, say to your people, “You’re made for this. You are already God’s craftmanship, created by him for this good work.”

3. Equip the Church by Teaching Them What They Already Know.

What theological truths must believers know in order to engage in every-member-ministry? When Paul writes in Ephesians 4:15 that believers should “speak the truth in love,” what truth does he have in mind?

The truth that each should speak to his neighbor is nothing less than “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13; 4:21, 25). Similarly, the wisdom which Paul and his readers communicate (“we speak,” 1 Cor 2:7), is the message of Christ crucified, the mystery now revealed, which reveals all that God has freely given us (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:7, 12).

So how much theological truth do believers need to know in order to “speak the truth in love”? In Romans 15:14, Paul affirms the believers in Rome already had everything they needed, including sufficient knowledge, to engage in every-member-ministry (“you yourselves . . . are filled with all knowledge, and able to admonish one another”). So it seems the amount of core gospel knowledge necessary for an individual to become a Christian is the same amount necessary to “speak the truth in love” to another believer (see also: James 5:19–20).

Yet despite possessing enough knowledge of the gospel to speak truth to one another, Paul still thought it necessary to write the Roman church one of the most theologically significant letters ever penned. Why? Paul’s letter to the Romans was a reminder (Rom. 15:15), a significant expansion upon the core gospel knowledge the believers already possessed.

Therefore, while all believers have enough gospel truth to engage in every-member-ministry, they still need additional teaching to further enhance and increase their “speaking the truth in love” to one another. So on one hand, believers need to have theological knowledge in order to engage in every-member-ministry, and this theological knowledge always has room to expand. On the other hand, from the moment of their conversion, believers have a functional grasp of gospel-truth.

So pastors, like Paul, teach men and women the implications of the gospel truths they already know. Say to your people, “You know this! You are already filled with enough gospel knowledge to speak gospel truths into the lives of others.”

4. Equip the Church by Modeling How They Should Live.

Believers are not called merely to “speak the truth.” They must also do so “in love.” This additional requirement should shape our equipping. How can we help the manner in which they engage in every-member-ministry? The 25 every-member-ministry passages of the New Testament teach us what “love” looks like, a love that pastors should model as an example for their church (1 Cor. 11:1–2; 2 Thess. 3:7).

Model discernment. Paul speaks “with all wisdom” (Col. 1:28) and calls on believers to follow his example (Col. 3:16). Unsurprisingly, then, speaking the truth in love should “fit the occasion” (Eph. 4:29), and only a wise assessment of the occasion will determine what that should sound like. Sometimes every-member-ministry would include financial support of a needy brother (1 Thess. 4:10), while at other times this support would enable a lazy believer to sponge off the church’s charity (1 Thess. 4:11–12). Modeling wisdom and discernment in these kinds of scenarios will help believers know how to “speak the truth in love.”

Model proximity. Sometimes careful, circumstance-adapting wisdom only comes from spending time with another believer. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says, “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted.” Those who are “idle” and “fainthearted” should not be spoken to in the same way (1 Thess. 5:14). In order to comply with this command to engage in every-member-ministry, believers must have deep relationships with one another, lest inadvertently the “idle” among them be comforted and the “discouraged” be warned.

The author of Hebrews reminds us to not just “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” but also to not neglect to assemble together (Heb. 10:24–25). When it comes to “speaking the truth in love,” carefulness and closeness go together.

Model regard for others. Every-member-ministry should evidence the same kind of love Paul modeled for them (2 Cor.2:8, 4:4). Without love, as 1 Corinthians 13:1-4 reminds us, even the highest kind of piety is less than worthless. Accordingly, every-member-ministry has an others-minded attitude, which does not despise members of the body, different though they may be (1 Cor. 12:20–24). Instead, there should be mutual care and empathy for each other (1 Cor.12:25-26).

“Speaking the truth in love” ought to blossom from hearts concerned “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7), for what is most beneficial to the church (1 Cor. 14:6), and for what builds up the church (1 Cor. 14:3-4, 26).

So pastors, like Paul, model self-giving love, as well as discernment and proximity, to equip believers to engage in every-member ministry.

Where does that leave you and your church? Where does that leave your training programs and equipping initiatives? What’s the place of offering systematic theology, biblical counseling, or Bible study classes to your church?

The bad news is that we might be over-programming or over-complicating what is actually required to help men and women learn to “speak the truth in love.” If you, like 29-year-old me, are over-loaded and drowning in pastoral responsibilities, then that may not be entirely bad news.

The good news is that God in Christ and through the Spirit has already done the heavy lifting. He is the One who actually equips and enables every-member-ministry (Eph. 4:15; 1 Cor. 12:3). So if I were to re-cast Howard Hendricks’s statement about equipping, I might say this to pastors:

God is not calling you to do the work of ten men. He is calling you to use your words and example to encourage all the members of your congregation to do the work he has already equipped them to do.

* * * * *

[1] E.g., Marvin Andrew McMickle, Caring Pastors, Caring People: Equipping Your Church for Pastoral Care, “Living Church” Series (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011).

[2] E.g., Sue Mallory, The Equipping Church: Serving Together to Transform Lives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[3] E.g., Siang-Yang Tan and Eric T. Scalise, Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry, Revised and updated edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

[4] E.g., Michael J. Christensen and Carl E. Savage, eds., Equipping the Saints: Mobilizing Laity for Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[5] Matt. 18:15; 28:20; Rom. 12:6-8; 15:14-15; 1 Cor. 1:4-7; 2:6-16; 11:4-5; 12:1-13; 14:1-40; 2 Cor. 2:6-8; Eph. 4:15-16; 4:25-29; 5:3-4; 5:18-21; 6:4; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:12-14; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; Tim. 2:3-5; Heb. 3:12-13; 5:12-13; 10:24-25; 1 Pet. 2:9-10; 4:10-11.

[6] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 64-65, 294.

[7] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 273. Dumbrell links prophecy with the covenant and wisdom with creation. He says, “Whereas prophecy reflected upon and responded to salvation history, the wisdom movement directed its attention to what creation itself implied for human conduct. In this sense, God’s providential government of the world intersects with salvation history (i.e., God’s special relationship to Israel)” (273). See also Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993, 55-56), who links wisdom literature with the salvation history of the OT.

By:
Champ Thornton

Champ Thornton (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an acquisitions editor at Crossway.

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