The short answer is, “Yes.” Before discussing this biblical fact in more detail, let us just emphasize that there is hierarchy in God’s Church. This is more fully explained in our Q&A on “hierarchical government.” God has decreed that His Church be led or “governed” by His true and faithful ministry, as discussed in our Q&A on “ministerial authority.”
With that background, let us answer the question regarding ranks within the ministry.
Especially two Scriptures, i.e. Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28, show that God has ordained ministerial “ranks” within His Church. These passages read as follows:
“And He Himself [Jesus Christ] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints…for the edifying of the body of Christ till we all come to the unity of the faith…” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
“And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:28-30).
Especially those commentaries that advocate democratic government by all Church members feel that these Scriptures describe only ministerial functions, independent of ranks. The truth is that these passages address BOTH. Function and rank are not mutually exclusive. We read that Paul referred to himself as an apostle and a preacher and a teacher (1 Timothy 2:7). He is also described as a prophet and a teacher in Acts 13:1. He even clarified that there were “ranks” and different functions within the office of “apostle,” calling some of the apostles “chiefest apostles” (Authorized Version) or “most eminent apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). These would have included Peter and James, the half-brother of Jesus (compare Galatians 1:18-19). We read that the gospel to the uncircumcision [non-Israelite nations] was entrusted to Paul, while the gospel of the circumcision [Israelite nations] was entrusted to Peter (Galatians 2:7-8).
Note how some commentaries explain the passages in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians:
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states:
“[Ephesians] 4:11 – And he gave some apostles…. That is, he gave them gifts by which they were qualified to be apostles… this was the first and chief office in the church… evangelists… were below the apostles, and yet above pastors and teachers… from the whole it may be observed, that as there have been various officers and offices in the Gospel dispensation, various gifts have been bestowed; and these are the gifts of Christ, which he has received for men, and gives unto them; and hence it appears that the work of the ministry is not an human invention, but the appointment of Christ, for which he fits and qualifies, and therefore to be regarded; and that they only are the ministers of Christ, whom he makes ministers of the New Testament, and not whom men or themselves make and appoint…
“[1 Corinthians] 12:29 – Are all apostles?…. No; some are prophets, as distinct from apostles; and some are teachers, as distinct from them both, and some are neither: are all prophets? no; some are apostles, above them, and some are teachers, inferior to them… are all teachers? no; the far greater part of the members of churches are hearers, or persons that are taught in the word; are neither in the office of teaching, nor have they the qualifications for it.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible points out:
“[Ephesians] 4:2-16 – … And ministers have their various gifts, which are all given them by the Lord Jesus. The officers which Christ gave to his church were of two sorts – extraordinary ones advanced to a higher office in the church: such were apostles, prophets, and evangelists. The apostles were chief… And then there are ordinary ministers, employed in a lower and narrower sphere; as pastors and teachers… We see here that it is Christ’s prerogative to appoint what officers and offices he pleases in his church.”
Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (to 1 Corinthians 11:28) explains:
“First, apostles – In the first rank or order; or as superior in honor and in office. He has given them the highest authority in the church; he has more signally endowed them and qualified them than he has others. Secondarily, prophets – As second in regard to endowments and importance… Thirdly, teachers – As occupying the third station in point of importance and valuable endowments… It is not possible, perhaps, to determine the precise meaning of the word [“helps”], or the nature of the office which they discharged; but the word means, in general, those who in any way aided or rendered assistance in the church, and may refer to the temporal affairs of the church, to the care of the poor…
“Governments… It is not easy to determine what particular office or function is here intended… There is no reason to think that the terms here used referred to permanent and established ranks and orders in the ministry and in the church; or in permanent offices which were to continue to all times as an essential part of its organization… The simple idea, however, is that of ruling, or exercising government… All that is clear is, that there were those who administered government in the church… There can be little doubt that the… governments… refer to offices of rule and authority in the church. Two things, therefore, are plain from this text: 1. That in the primitive church there were rulers distinct from the people or church members, to whom these were bound to yield obedience. 2. That these rulers were appointed of God…”
That ranks and functions are described in these passages is supported by other Scriptures, showing that Peter and Paul gave “orders” to other ministers (compare 1 Peter 5:1-4; 2 Timothy 4:1-5). This does not mean that all of these ranks and functions must be present within the Church of God at all times, but some most certainly will be. For instance, in this present day and age, we do not find that the ranks and functions of “apostle” and “prophet” are occupied (notwithstanding the fact that some incorrectly claim that they are apostles or prophets). This is not to say that in the future, prior to Christ’s return, some won’t be appointed by God to hold these offices. It is very likely that the “two witnesses,” for example, will hold the rank, office and function of apostle and prophet (compare Revelation 11:3-6).
The Church of God, under its late human leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, taught that there are ministerial ranks and functions. We believe that Herbert Armstrong had the spiritual rank, office and function of an apostle, but we don’t believe, as mentioned, that God gave that same rank and office to anyone after Mr. Armstrong’s death. We would like to quote from a member letter which Mr. Armstrong wrote on May 2, 1974, explaining the Church’s understanding regarding ministerial ranks and functions:
“… notice Titus 1:4-5 and 2:15 — Paul wrote to Titus (UNDER PAUL), ‘To Titus, mine own son after the common faith … from God the Father (first in rank) and the Lord Jesus Christ (second in rank) our Savior. For this cause left I (next in rank — to Gentiles — under Christ) thee (under Paul’s authority in the Work) in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders (under Titus who is under Paul, who is under Christ) in every city as I had appointed thee.’ …
“Now notice I Corinthians 12: In this chapter God is showing that in THE WORK of the Church — proclaiming the Gospel to the world, and feeding the flock, there are different ADMINISTRATIONS, different OPERATIONS, in the Church, and for these, God has given various spiritual GIFTS, or empowerments, by His Holy Spirit. ADMINISTRATORS refer to performance of executive duties, MANAGERIAL responsibilities, rather than policy-making… The exact pattern or STRUCTURE may vary according to conditions, need etc., but the PRINCIPLE of the organization MUST BE THAT OF GOD’S GOVERNMENT, from the TOP, God, then Christ, on down, as CHRIST has directed and chosen. OPERATIONS, refers to functioning — a doing or performing of what involves practical application of principle or process…
“The very fact that God has endowed different members in His Church with additional spiritual gifts, added to their own natural talents and abilities, in itself shows emphatically that there is definite ORGANIZATION in His Church, and that the ORGANIZATION must flow from a chain of authority, according to the PRINCIPLE which GOD… has set — that is, AUTHORITY FROM THE TOP DOWN… Because of these various administrations, and operations, God shows in this chapter that He has bestowed VARIOUS spiritual gifts added to the natural talents and abilities of various ones to perform the many DIFFERENT functions required for the ORGANIZED Work of God…
“‘And GOD hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues (languages)’ (I Cor. 12:28). That is the rank in which GOD set them… GOD SAYS, first, secondly, thirdly…
“The parallel instruction on the RANK of authority in the Church is in Ephesians 4, beginning with verse 11: ‘And he (Christ) gave some, …’ The RSV translates it more clearly: ‘And His gifts were that some should be apostles,’ etc. Continue, ‘some prophets, and some evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for THE WORK of the ministry (proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom to all the world), for the edifying of the body of Christ …’ God’s Church today is organized on THAT DIVINE PATTERN…”
In conclusion, we believe that God wants His Church to be organized in the way as described above. We believe in hierarchical government and in organization, including ministerial ranks, offices and functions within the body of Christ, so that “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the TRUTH IN LOVE, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head–Christ–from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).
Lead Writer: Norbert Link