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John Wimber on Apostles, Prophets, & the Five-Fold Ministry
With the rapid expansion of NAR, a lot of people have asked questions concerning Wimber's view on modern-day apostles, prophets, and the 5-fold ministry. Here are some thoughts and an overview...
In 1997, Wimber wrote an article on what to make of modern day (A)postles, (P)rophets, and the modern emphasis on the Five-Fold Ministry (based on a reading of Ephesians 4:11-16). Though Wimber acknowledged that the topic was difficult to tackle due to a variety of challenges related to definitions, he felt that “this topic was so important to the continuing health of the Vineyard movement.”
The emphasis on Five-Fold ministry, and modern day Apostolic ministry, has spread rapidly due to the influence of NAR (New Apostolic Reformation) churches and leaders, often byway of what I’d refer to as the “Worship Music Industrial Complex” (see The Rise of Network Christianity). To put it more bluntly, the music that many of our churches are singing has Five-Fold influences that we may not even recognize. Commenting on how NAR theology influences our music,
Those songs become one of the primary ways of connecting with God—rather than prayer or sacraments or other rituals. Because of their market success, these churches have changed the spiritual practices and sometimes even the theology of congregations from many traditions. (Bob Smietana, “How Bethel and Hillsong Took Over Our Worship Sets”).
So the common steps toward folks entering into the Five-Fold world is often singing some catchy worship songs, googling the artists, and then listening to the preachers connected to these worship groups. Then, after hearing a lot of emphasis on the necessity of Five-Fold ministry for revival, missional effectiveness, and miraculous ministry, people are hooked.
And while I am very sympathetic for a reading of Ephesians 4:11-16 that values the ongoing and current ministry of the functions of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers,” I think there are some extremely helpful guidelines and observations that John Wimber articulated.
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John Wimber Initial Observations of the Assumptions of Five-Fold Advocates
In his article, which you can read in John Wimber’s Pastoral Letters (edited by Derek Morphew), Wimber started by addressing four commonly held beliefs among those who advocate for a specific interpretation and application of the Five-Fold Ministry, Apostolic Christianity, and modern day (A)postles and (P)rophets. He notes that these advocates believe in:
Restoring the New Testament Church;
Re-establishing the 5-fold Ministry;
Waiting for a “New Thing”;
Continuing the Ministries & Gifts Until Jesus Returns.
In my opinion, Wimber beautifully navigates each of these topics by providing some biblical reflection, historical context, and pastoral observation. Through his helpful nuance, Wimber points out that:
In relation to the New Testament Church, Wimber notes that the New Testament indicates that Church of the first-century was a mixed bag and while there is much to emulate, the churches of the first century weren’t perfect and we shouldn’t idolize the New Testament Church in a way that ignores those issues and buys into the idea that today’s Church is garbage. Often we hear and read NAR advocates suggest that today’s Church, without the Five-Fold Ministry, is dead. Wimber writes:
That’s why I believe the notion of the “dead” church is incorrect. If it’s the church, it’s alive because it belongs to Christ and is in Christ. Disobedience, encouragement of false doctrine, forgiveness, anger at God and men, all contribute to it being weak and sick. But for us to judge a church as dead because it is in low ebb spiritually seems to me to verge on sin. Jesus reserved for himself the right to judge the church (Revelation 2 and 3).
Regarding the Five-Fold Ministry, Wimber points out that there is a big misunderstanding about the function of the “gifted equippers of Ephesians 4” while also noting that the roles and functions of those leaders have been present throughout history. This last point is a big part of his theological framework in that Wimber, and correspondingly the Vineyard, have always been less interested in titles and more concerned about function. So while there may not be as many (A)postles throughout Church History, we certainly see examples of church leaders functioning in apostolic ways. Are we really going to suggest that John Wesley didn’t function in an apostolic way and have sort of apostolic ministry, given that he travelled and evangelized all over the American Colonies while setting up other church planters and discipleship “methods”? Friends of mine also have suggested Luther, Booth, and many others throughout history.
But the “wisdom of Wimber” is in relation to how this emphasis on “restoring” the “dead” church functions to hurt and destroy existing churches. He writes:
Replacing old wineskins with new ones displaces structures and leaders and thus threatens existing churches and actually closes them to further renewal efforts.
Engaging with the constant “prophetic” declaration of a “new thing” coming, Wimber notes that most of those statements rely on Old Testament statements and seem to ignore their fulfillment in Jesus and, wisely, notes how manipulative and immature many of these statements are. He writes:
It can stir a desire for a Gnostic type of secret knowledge so that the believer can finally enter into some inner circle or be on the ground floor of some new move of God.
Noting the danger of this manipulative “word,” Wimber goes on to offer us a very pastoral and prophetic warning. He writes:
[The promise for a “new thing” being our strategy can] be dangerous because it can lead us away from Jesus, the Incarnate Word and from the bible, the written Word, to a place where subjective impressions and speculation are given more authority than they deserve. When we move from the practice of subjecting all prophetic words to the Word of God and in so doing elevate prophets (little “p”) to Prophets (capital “P”), we move away from a New Testament understanding of gifts to understanding these gifted equippers as offices. We (the church) are urged to weigh and test the prophetic.
Again, we can hear in the background Wimber’s emphasis on function and a more “everyone gets to play” ecclesiology that sees the Church as being far less hierarchal as some suggest. He ends his reflection on “new thing” expectations by noting:
… prophetic gifting is valid. But conceding that does not mean accepting the notion that these ministries become offices. In my mind there is no room within the Ephesians 4:11-13 verses to assume that the gifted equippers must mean offices which confer prerogatives, exclusive powers of grace, or structural authority over large portions (if not all) of the church.
Finally, when it comes to Wimber’s reflection on the continuation of ministries and spiritual gifts until Jesus returns, Wimber says he is “fully in accord with the statement.” Anyone who knows the bulk of Wimber’s ministry knows that he spent his life advocating for the Church to “do the stuff” and he wrote extensively on the subject in Power Evangelism and Power Healing.
Wimber’s Reflections on Five-Fold Ministry
First, Wimber suggests that all ministry should be “proven” at the local church level. This wisely draws attention to the problem with all of the self-appointed (A)postles and (P)rophets who “minister” outside of local churches (and thereby independent of functional accountability and oversight). Wimber also noted how character is best developed and people are equipped into leadership roles within the local church as opposed to simply making up their authority and ministry in private.
Second, ministries should be recognized by local churches. Drawing upon Acts, Wimber notes that apostles were recognized (identified and released) by local churches in order to carry out ministry. It seems an important aspect of one’s character to be able to be submitted to a local church and to be developed and then released. This again undermines self-appointed and independent “apostles & prophets.”
Third, “apostolic ministry” should be confirmed by fruit. In other words, the proof is in the pudding. Just because someone has a website, a business card, or a high profile social media page doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t fruit.
As an aside, John Wimber DID believe there were “apostles,” writing:
But even if someone has an extraordinary fruitful apostolic (little “a”) call and ministry today, that does not mean that he has a so-called Apostolic office that, as I’ve said, confers prerogatives, exclusive powers of grace, or structural authority over large portions of the church. It’s my opinion that the only apostles today are little “a”-apostles, the modern day equivalent of the first century apostolic function.
This issue of “authority” is primarily where Wimber appears to break away from the pack of modern day (A)postles in that, generally speaking, advocates place a high level of authority on the apostles because in their ecclesial framework because for them, it’s a matter of hierarchy (cf. C. Peter Wagner’s Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets, and Theologians or Danny Silk’s Culture of Honor). Wimber saw this as problematic.
Fourth, all Five-Fold ministries should primarily serve toward reaching the lost and establishing new churches. Did you catch that? Now measure that statement alongside much of the Five-Fold world that we see, with it’s emphasis on huge conferences,
Fifth, Wimber states that all ministries are (should be) exercised in humility and with love for the whole Body of Christ. Undergirding this statement is Wimber’s foundational premise that “leadership is serving.” If there is one thing that I’ve learned in my life of being in a movement influenced strongly by Wimber it is that leadership is not about gaining more influence, power, or gain… leadership is about serving Jesus and serving people. He writes,
“Teacher”, “pastor”, “evangelist”, “prophet” and “apostle” are not titles to bear or wear, but a stewardship to exercise in humility and love towards the whole church. Jesus loves the whole church, and so should we. The New Testament emphasizes functioning and serving the church, not claiming an office or calling oneself someone.
Again, this framework runs counter to so much that we see amongst the high profile “apostolic” ministries of today. Many want to claim the title “apostle” but are unwilling to embrace the life that was so attached to biblical apostles (cf. Paul’s ministry description in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). Though I can’t say I agree with all that Art Katz taught, he was a voice in the wilderness of Apostolic Christianity that challenged the profound disconnect amongst many, writing:
We have been guilty as contemporary Christians of offering our personalities, our winsomeness and our fleshly abilities to God, simply because we do not have the inward parts to offer, never having learned to rest or wait before God. We have despised the suffering, reproach and obscurity in which alone the sweet offerings are formed deep within us. We have not esteemed such things as God esteems them, and have preferred to do without them. We need the obedience and vision that will enable us to take our hide and flesh outside the camp, and to exclude it from the holy place, as well as from the pulpit. (Art Katz, Apostolic Foundations)
Wimber’s Last Warning
Those familiar with John Wimber’s ministry life and the history of the Vineyard are likely aware that Wimber and the Vineyard ventured down a trail full of (A)postles and (P)rophets. Back the historical context, you can read Bill Jackson’s The Quest for the Radical Middle, which tells the backstory of how Wimber met Mike Bickle and the “Kansas City Prophets.” This led to Wimber and the Vineyard embracing a lot of what can be described as the Five-Fold Ministry emphasis, though the results weren’t as promised and led to Wimber making some strong clarifications (as in this pastoral letter and via other Vineyard resources).
And it’s important to note that Wimber never rejected the “prophetic” or “supernatural” or “ministry of the Holy Spirit.” That was a huge part of both his ministry and on-going legacy. But he did have some major experiential concerns about the fruit of the type of Five-Fold Ministry he dealt with. A year before he died, he said:
During the period of the prophetic era and on into the new renewal, our people quit starting small groups, they quit prophesying, they quit healing the sick, they quit casting out demons, because they were waiting for the Big Bang, the Big Revival, the Big Thing. They were waiting for the apostles to come into office and for things to get into the right place. I thought, ‘My God! We’ve made an audience out of them. And they were an army!’ We in effect told them, ‘You can’t do anything. You aren’t talented enough. You’re not gifted enough. You’re not holy enough. You’re not prepared enough. Stand back and let somebody who is, do it!’ We did it by, not so much by precept, but by example. In effect, I said, ‘Time out’ and it went against everything I believe in, in terms of freeing the Church to minister. You see, at one time in the Vineyard we kind of had an ‘everybody can play’ attitude. I would say things like, ‘Well, if you know the Lord at all, get up. Let’s minister. If you don’t know the Lord, you soon will because when you realise that you can’t do anything until the Lord moves, you’ll want to know him.’ So that sounded a little reckless but really all I was saying was, ‘everybody can play’. Let’s do it together. Everybody can worship, everybody can pray. Everybody can prophesy. Everybody can heal. Everybody can win the lost. Everybody can feed the poor, and on and on. If anything, people felt included. It wasn’t so bad. My only point in saying all that is . . . I’m not defensive at all about what I’ve done except I sometimes think I need to explain why I’ve undone certain things and I’ve had to pull back on certain things because they were altering us, changing us from who we were and what I felt that we were called to be. (Carol Wimber, The Way It Was)
Where Do We Go From Here?
I think it’s obvious that one reason that many have become influenced by our theological cousins over at Bethel and elsewhere is because in some cases, we’ve been so burned by or concerned by the (A)postles and (P)rophets that we’re hesitant to truly pray, “Come Holy Spirit” and be okay with the “charismatic chaos” that comes from it. But we need to remember that Wimber pointed out that if you actually read the Bible, you’ll see that ministry is messy. So we shouldn’t reject the charismatic stuff just because it’s messy or because it’s sometimes weird or because people bring all of their baggage and craziness. If anything, this is why we need to lean back into the model of Wimber’s ministry and pastoral reflections.
In my opinion, while we embrace the value of the Five-Fold Ministry, we need to really lean into the value of function in our understanding of church leadership. This, in my opinion, is the brilliance of Wimber. I’d suggest that we ditch the definitions provided by most of the Neo-Pentecostal world that’s so keen on leaning on “authority” within the (A)postle and (P)rophet world and embrace a more functional viewpoint on these spiritual gifts given to the Church.
Alan Hirsch’s definitions of “APEST” have been extremely helpful for me because his understanding of Ephesians 4:11-16 are rooted in both missional, discipleship and spiritually formative definitions.
If we stay committed to being a people after God’s presence who value “seeing what the Father is doing” via the work of the Spirit, we will gladly join God’s mission of making disciples, planting new churches, serving the poor, and “doing all of the stuff” of God’s Kingdom.
What do you think? Let me know 👇🏽
About the Author
Luke Geraty is a pastor-theologian in northern California. With a few theology degrees and nearly twenty years of pastoral leadership, Luke loves the Bible, theology, fly fishing, coffee, and books. All opinions are his own and not the views of any other organizations he’s affiliated with. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and subscribe to his YouTube.