Can Three be Divided by Five? Varieties of Leadership

During my years at Wycliffe College, I listened to many students wrestling with whether they were called to ordination. They were often surprised when I told them that was not the right question to be asking. The place to start was by asking what their gifts were.

Our Anglican system’s three-fold order of deacon, priest, and bishop has been established a very long time, the first reference being from 107 CE. The 1662 Prayer Book claims more, “that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church—Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” It may surprise you therefore to know that there is actually no indication of this structure in the New Testament. Indeed, there is far more variety and fluidity in the kinds of leadership described there. Is it possible that the rapid growth of the early church was somehow connected to its more flexible understanding of leadership?

What then was the New Testament’s understanding of leadership? One of the clearest statements comes in Ephesians chapter 4, where the writer says that Christ’s “gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, to equip God’s people for works of ministry”—what is sometimes called the “five-fold” ministry. 

It’s helpful to remember that the Anglican Church is the heir of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. One of the convictions of the Reformers, as they rethought church for a changing world, was that the only leadership the church required was that of pastors and teachers—a ministry of Word and Sacrament. They believe that the roles of apostle, prophet, and evangelist were necessary only for the establishment of the church in the early years, and were no longer needed.

The more progressive wing of the Reformation, the Anabaptists, saw things differently, however. They argued that, as long as the world did not know the love of God, all five leadership ministries were necessary. After all, pastors and teachers care primarily for those already in the fold. With the rise in our society of those who claim no religious affiliation (the “nones”), maybe it is time to revisit that point-of-view.

My question is this: Is there any way that the threefold ministry can be overlaid with the need for five (or more!) different kinds of ministry?

When I was in Kenya a few years ago I discovered one way an Anglican Church has done this. There, the bishops have created an “order of evangelists,” and the 2002 Kenyan prayer book contains a service for “The Commissioning of Evangelists.” The evangelists wear cassock and surplice, and a distinctive stole to mark them out.

I naïvely ask the bishop, “And what exactly do the evangelists do?” He looked at me with some surprise (implying, I suspect, “Are you not the Professor of Evangelism?”—though he was too polite to say it) and replied, “They plant churches.” Silly me, of course they do. Sometimes, though not invariably—it depends on their gifts—once the new church is planted, the bishop will ordain the evangelist as priest of the new congregation.

In recent years, the Church of England has also experimented, with what they call Ordained Pioneer Ministries. Pioneers are people selected, trained, and ordained specifically for non-traditional ministries. They may or may not be particularly gifted as pastors and teachers. More likely, they will be gifted as apostles, prophets, or evangelists, to take the love of God to those outside the church. Hence the useful generic term, “pioneers.” (You can read more at

Jesus said new wine can’t be put into new wineskins. Is it possible that sometimes the old wineskins can be renewed?

(Some of the material in this post appears in a different form in my book, The Unfolding Gospel.)