Ladd put together this handy chart comparing the ordering of charisms in five separate New Testament lists – three from 1 Corinthians 12, one from Romans and one from Ephesians.
From George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Revised Edition, edited by Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 1993), 579-580.
|1 Cor 12:28||1 Cor 12:29-30||1 Cor 12:8-10||Rom 12:6-8||Eph 4:4|
|3 Discernment of spirits||6|
|5 Word of wisdom-knowledge||1|
The interesting thing, which I hadn’t noticed before, is that apostle is almost always mentioned first, followed by prophet and teacher, with the exception of Ephesians 4 which puts evangelist before teacher. The list in 1 Cor. 12:8-10 is altogether different from the other two lists, and the reason is because it comes in the context of Paul’s discussion of the “extraordinary” gifts which the Corinthians seemed so interested in.
I’m not suggesting Paul was sketching out some sort of hierarchy here, but it does not seem random that his normal ordering was apostle-prophet-teacher.
How does this apply in the post-apostolic church?
Well, I would suggest that, for us, the apostles and prophets continue to exercise authority in the church through the witness of scripture. After all, it was common in the ancient church to refer to the scriptures as the witness of the apostles and prophets. This is an entirely fitting description of the Bible for a Christian, since the New Testament is our record of the apostolic witness – the first-hand accounts of the people who knew Jesus – and the Old Testament is understood as characterized throughout by its prophetic anticipation of the coming of Jesus – even in books which are not explicitly called “prophetic.” Of course, there is scriptural warrant for this, in the fact that both Moses and David are called prophets (Deut. 34:10 and 2 Sam. 23:1-2).
Therefore it would seem that the office of teacher remains a pre-eminent gift for the church, so long as it is remembered that it is less important than the apostles and prophets, that is, the scriptures. The gift of teaching comes under the greater authority of the apostles and prophets, and derives its authority from them. This fits with one of Paul’s main criteria for assessing the relative importance of charisms – do they build up the church (hence his prioritization of prophecy over tongues in1 Cor. 14:1-5). It also lines up nicely with the description of scripture’s role in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Am I suggesting there are no apostles and prophets in the church today? I would definitely say there are no apostles. Though one could go back to the root meaning of the word and argue that apostle simply means “sent one,” therefore allowing that there are similar functions in the contemporary church, the scriptural concept can’t be understood simply on the basis of a breakdown of the Greek word. The Christian apostles are those who knew Jesus in person and were commissioned by the resurrected Christ to be witnesses to his resurrection. Of course this is extended to Paul, as the “one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15:8).
With prophets I am willing to consider a bit more leeway, though I would still maintain that the word should be used sparingly, and also with a clear differentiation between scriptural prophets and contemporary prophets. I do not doubt that there are persons whom God chooses to use as his mouthpiece today, giving them special insight into the times in which we live. However, all such prophecy must be tested against the canonical prophetic witness of scripture, and that is the difference between prophets in the age of the Church and the prophets of scripture. Even in Paul’s day, his message was that prophets needed to be tested and placed under authority (1 Cor. 14:29). Today we have the benefit of the established canon of the apostles and prophets as our standard for such testing.