Ephesians 4:1–16 is a manual for church health and growth—an infallible one at that, not penned by so-called experts or gurus, but by the Holy Spirit himself. To the question, Who is to do the work of ministry? we find a surprising answer. The inspired Apostle Paul writes that Christ has given pastors and teachers to the church in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). That is, ministry is not allocated to a select few in the church—elders, paid staff, or ordained leaders, for example—but is a responsibility of all who are called “saints.” Maybe that answer not only surprises, but disappoints. Do I really have to give myself and my resources to “do” ministry, you may be asking. A Western and consumeristic mindset defaults to the assumption that we go to church to get something, not to give something. Beyond that, there are a number of really difficult barriers to surmount when it comes to the prospect of real, steady involvement in the local church. Let me list just a few:
- It takes time, a limited and precious resource.
- People are hard, and it can be easier simply not to deal with them.
- Ministry can be thankless. Maybe we’ve pitched in before and have been overlooked, or even burned. Why should we put ourselves in that situation again?
- We are increasingly introverted. Combine social media addictions and pandemic-era repercussions, and people are simply not as open to being out and about as they used to be. But ministry requires it. Sociability is a muscle that our generation has let atrophy.
- We do not feel qualified. We see the needs in the church, but we doubt our ability to meet them.
Is there anything that can overcome these barriers to rolling up our sleeves and doing ministry? Yes, I believe so, and I think it’s right here in this text. This is not just the church’s inspired manual; it’s inspired motivation. It’s not just how-to; it’s want-to. That is, if we think about what he’s saying carefully, we learn that we actually want to be a part of the church. We have a desire for ministry. Or, put another way, when you belong to a church that functions the way it’s supposed to function, your deepest needs and longings will be met in a way they cannot be met anywhere else. Consider what Paul says is the consequence of a church in which the saints are equipped for ministry:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”Ephesians 4:11–16 (ESV)
I find at least five reasons given here for why the Christian actually longs for active ministry in the local church. Let’s explore.
Because We Want Unity
First, we want to do ministry because we want unity. Paul writes that saints do the work of ministry “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (v. 13). Our world has been desperate as of late to acquire a unity through diversity. The expectation is that everyone’s differences are to be celebrated, and everyone should get along while doing it. It’s been proving a difficult feat to manage, and people are regularly censored who don’t get behind the messaging properly. We see it all the time: while the desire is unity through diversity, what ends up happening is that diversity is championed at the expense of unity. As a result, people may feel triumphantly affirmed, but terrifyingly alone.
Is there a place where we can be diverse and unified at the same time? Is there a place the world can find this thing that has been alluding them? Yes! It’s called the church! Paul has said that there is a diversity of gifts (4:6), but now in verse 13 he says something remarkable about that variety of gifts: they actually work to bring us together! It’s like the beautiful harmony of every member of the orchestra playing his or her part: when you don’t participate in ministry, the church is missing some music. Only Christ is able to take something as seemingly different and dysfunctional as a group of sinners and bring them together as one.
And this will be a witness to a society so desperate for a sort of “We Are the World” harmony (see John 17:21–23). The unity-through-diversity that you crave won’t happen when you’re sitting at home by yourself. It happens when you’re a part of the life of the church.
Because We Want to Know Christ
We also want to do ministry because we want to know Christ. Paul writes in Philippians 3 that this is really the desire of every believer: to know more of Christ and the power he affords through our union with him. When we serve in the local church, not only do we grow closer to one another, we also develop a deeper understanding of who Jesus is: “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). The two go together: we come to know the Son of God as we are united to our brothers and sisters because he is the One uniting us. Think of it like this: as you get closer to a Christian you actually get closer to Jesus, because he is living in them!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point in Life Together. He says, “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”
Because We Want to Grow Up
According to the Apostle, maturity happens when we sit under and are involved in the ministry of the Word. And we all want to grow, deep down (Peter Pan excepting). There’s something so natural about a boy asking his father, “One day, will I be as tall as you?” The same should be true in our spiritual lives. We should want to be as tall as Christ—and when we come together, the promise is that “we all [will] attain … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
If we stick to ourselves, we stay immature and are still children (v. 14). We have no security or stability, and we will be tossed to and fro by all sorts of fads and false teachings. At a recent family vacation to Myrtle Beach, I appreciated in a new way the dangers of the sea. My mom often commented that it was never really relaxing for her to sit on the beach—she was just constantly counting grandkids. Sure enough, on more than one occasion we had to run in to grab one of my kids or their cousins who had stepped out a little too far into the waves.
Don’t you want to be safe, secure, and stable in your faith? I know I do. And that means I have to grow up. Do you want to see some of those frustrating sins recede in your life? You need to mature. The fact that you get inordinately angry at your spouse, lose your temper at people, are anxious all the time, are judgmental and arrogant, it’s because you need to grow up. It is within the church that you will experience real growth.
Because We Want the Truth
We want to be involved in the church’s ministry because we want the truth. A ministry that is based on the Word of God (who never lies) will be a ministry that does what verse 15 says: “speak[s] the truth.” We live in an age that thrives on feelings, not facts. Actually, it has declared that feelings are facts—this is the world of preferred pronouns, after all. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in 1984 expected the citizens of Oceania to adhere to slogans like “War is Peace,” “Slavery is Freedom,” and “Ignorance is strength.” The world can dress it up all it likes, but we know that much of what is touted as being truth is actually lies, and we are suppressed and oppressed when we buy into it because, as Jesus said, only “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The psalmist prays, “Deliver me from lying lips!” (Psalm 120:2). We know the urgency of that prayer, which Eugene Peterson has helpfully captured like this:
Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know what I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who “heal the wounds of this people lightly” (Jer 8:11), from the lips of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who “leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark. 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.
We know the destruction of deceit. Your rescue is in the real ministry of truth: the church (1 Tim. 3:15).
Because We Want to Be Loved
Finally, we want to be involved in Christ’s church because we want to be loved. In fact, we need to be loved. God made us with a capacity for love—both received and given—and when we are not and do not love, we are actually incomplete. Back in the 1940s, studies in the United States and United Kingdom showed the high mortality rate of infants in orphanages had nothing to do with poor health or starvation, but in that they were not loved. We need it. Paul says here that when the church comes together and does what it is supposed to do, there is this blessed result: we are built up in love, receiving the thing that we can’t survive without (v. 16).
That’s what you’re doing when you make a meal. When you talk to a visitor. When you ask someone, “How can I pray for you?” When you help with a move. When you walk with someone through God’s Word. When you give some of your resources to help the church. You are meeting a need greater than the need you actually think you’re meeting. You are meeting the need we all have to be loved. Reformer John Calvin writes, “Let no man be anything for himself, but let us all be whatever we are for others. This is accomplished by love; and where love does not reign, there is no edification of the Church, but a mere scattering.”
Love ought to reign in the church. You will feel hated and despised and mocked and emptied by the world. The church is the place that you come to and are filled up with love—the love of Christ, through the ministry of others. And also where others are filled by Christ’s love through your ministry to them. Your heart craves this. You need to know you are safe, and wanted, and welcomed. You will decay inside if you don’t have that assurance. This is what God gives us in the gospel, and it’s what we experience in the life of the church.
You see, we really can’t live without the church.
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christian’s True Identity and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
 Here I am simply following the ESV’s rendering, which assumes that “the work of ministry” is what the saints are equipped for, and not a second reason why Christ has given the aforementioned officers. Admittedly, it’s a debate. If you would like to get into the grammatical weeds with it, any commentary will do.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 256.
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 21.
 Quoted in S. M. Baugh, Ephesians (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), 347.