8. Displacement theology (Nicolaitanism)
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
---Jesus, Revelation 2:15
While the New Testament everywhere manifests a church polity, operation, or function consistent with a mutual ministry of the members of the body of Christ–indeed, that is why the analogy of the body is used–there are a few passages that are defining, such as Romans 12:3-8, I Corinthians 12 & 14, and Ephesians 4:7-16, in particular vv. 11-13, above.
Here is the essence of displacement theology: it displaces the regular “work of the ministry,” Eph. 4:12, in favor of a regular teaching ministry of one man called a pastor and teacher who endeavors to himself accomplish the perfecting of the saints and the work of the ministry and the edifying of the body of Christ.
However it makes much more sense to understand that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers Christ has given the churches are for the sole purpose of “the perfecting of the saints.” The pastor and teacher perfects the saints who in turn do the work of the ministry with a result that the (entire) body of Christ is edified. I think many in the Bible-believing churches share this understanding of the passage. However the actual practice in these churches is nearly identical with the practice in the other churches. That is, Ephesians 4:12 does not actually inform either group’s practice.
The question is, when does the work of the ministry happen? The first group of churches will say, “It happens on Sunday morning and is done by the pastor-teacher.” The second group of churches will say, “It happens after church, or in various ministries (in the church building), or during the week, and is done by various members of the church.”
Both groups of churches assume a perpetual teaching ministry of one man on Sunday morning. Both groups assume the saints are never actually perfected but rather continually need perfecting, with the second group endeavoring to do the work of the ministry despite not being perfected for it. (We will examine New Testament teaching on perfection in Chapter 18.)
“The work of the ministry” in Ephesians 4:12 is not limited to the assembly on the first day of the week. Far from it. But it begins there and nowhere else. From the assembly on the Lord’s day this work is further carried out from house to house, privately among the brethren. In the Lord’s design for His church He no doubt intends that the great body of the work of the ministry is carried out in homes, that is, outside the full assembly. But the full assembly, that is, the church, that is, when all are assembled, is instrumental to His purpose.
It is ironic how the teaching in Ephesians 4 is used to justify the clergy system, that is, a perpetual ministry of one man in the churches on Sunday morning. That is turning the Word on its head. I have never heard it openly taught how it is that Christ gave His church pastors and teachers. However I have indeed heard many times of a “calling” that supposedly indicates the Lord’s approval of a man to the pastorate, and thus implies His giving the man to the church.
But how can this be? One cannot be called to an office who fails to satisfy its first requirement. The first requirement for a pastor is that he be an elder. While the term elder does not appear in the requirements for overseer in I Timothy 3, the stipulation is found elsewhere. I Timothy 5:17 says, Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Paul said goodbye to the elders, who were the overseers, who were the pastors, in Ephesus, Acts 20. And when it says in I Peter 5:1, “The elders which are among you I exhort,...” and the exhortation that follows is that they should feed the flock, it is the end of the matter. Where are the pastors who are not elders found in the New Testament? They don’t exist. However they have existed in the churches since shortly after the departure of the apostles. This is man’s ordinance, not God’s.
Christ’s giving of men to His church, Eph. 4:11, is to be understood in its plain and literal sense. One of the rules of Bible interpretation is that if the plain sense makes good sense, then that is how a passage is to be interpreted. This makes the Scriptures accessible to almost every saint reading the Bible in faith. But the conventional interpretation of Ephesians 4:11 in the churches is that Christ’s giving a man to the church is manifested in the man’s hearing “a calling” that contradicts Scripture! This is false mysticism. No man can “hear” a calling that contradicts Scripture.
A key to understanding Ephesians 4:11-13 is found in the clause, “for the perfecting of the saints.” This phrase separates the gifted men in the eleventh verse from “the work of the ministry” in the twelfth. It is the saints, i.e., the brethren, who are perfected for the work of the ministry. This, then, is the regular Christian ministry. The regular Christian ministry is found not in verse 11 but in verse 12. Certainly the work of the gifted men is ministry. Certainly it is instrumental. It comes first in the order of things. But the idea of perfection carries an implicit assumption that the work is fulfilled or fully accomplished at some point. The work of the gifted men is thus either foundational, or temporary, or occasional. Once the saints are perfected this work either ceases or it becomes irregular, i.e., in contrast with the regular work of the ministry. Let us look at the five (or, perhaps, only four) men in Ephesians 4:11.
The work of the apostles and prophets is foundational, Eph. 2:20. Their work is preserved in the New Testament canon. They have long since gone to be with the Lord. Their work is finished, and it is permanent.
Evangelists do temporary work in planting churches. Once a church is established and elders appointed, evangelists move on to a new work. This explains Paul’s instructing Titus to ordain elders in every city in Crete, Titus 1:5. Titus had finished his work of evangelism there, and this was to be his final work in Crete. While the fruit of an evangelist’s labor is eternal and permanent, he does not have a permanent function in local churches.
Then there are the pastors and teachers. Their work continues in the churches. Pastors must pastor and teachers must teach. (Some pastors are teachers, but the requirement is simply that they be able to teach, I Tim. 3:2.) The question, however, is whether this work is embodied in the professional pastorate. The answer is, it cannot possibly be, for the professional pastorate is based on an assumption that the saints are never perfected and thus in need of continual, perpetual teaching. But this makes Christ out to be either a liar or a bad designer. He has given the apostles, prophets, etc., for the perfecting of the saints, but it is almost universally assumed that Christ’s design never actually results in the perfecting of the saints. This is not belief, it is unbelief. Either these men are failing in their work, or their work is impossible! (Many apologists for the clergy system hold to the latter view. Thus, “pastor revitalization seminars.”)
An understanding of Christian perfection is required in order to interpret the phrase, “for the perfecting of the saints.” Much has been written on Christian perfection in church history, most of it serving the interests of supporters of Churchianity. However the doctrine is very simple. Christian perfection is simply spiritual maturity in Christ with the consequence that one is equipped to carry out the work of the ministry. This is the plain and unvarnished meaning of Ephesians 4:12, cf. I Thess. 3:10, Phil. 3:15, Col. 1:28; 3:14. Christian perfection is not only a desired outcome in the saints, it is an expected outcome, it is a normal outcome, and it is the design of Christ for His church. Clericalism, by contrast, complicates, confuses, and obscures this simple and straightforward doctrine. (Indeed, is the doctrine of perfection ever taught in the churches? I don’t recall hearing it.)
The church at Philippi is given in the inspired epistles as an example of a normal Christian church. Philippi was doctrinally sound and needed no correction by Paul. The church had a goodly number of mature saints in it so that Paul could write, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect,...” Phil. 3:15. Now, what was necessary in a church like this? It remained for them to rejoice in the Lord and to stand in the faith. “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,” Phil. 3:2-3. No more being children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” but instead standing in the faith as spiritually grown-up Christians should, which requires spiritual vigilance and discernment. (It seems to me that many books on the Christian bestseller lists feature “new” doctrines, i.e., doctrines not actually found in the Word, and that this gives every indication that most churches are not normal like Philippi.)
In a church like Philippi the work of the ministry of Ephesians 4:12 is actually able to be carried out, with a result that the weak and feeble, new converts, and especially the children, are made perfect as well. This is taught in Ephesians 4:13–the perfected saints in 4:12 do the work of the ministry to the end that “we all come in the unity of the faith,...unto a perfect man.” Perfected saints do the work of the ministry so that all (i.e., “all the rest”) are perfected.
Some Christians like to say there is no perfect church. That is not the issue. The issue is whether your church has perfected saints like Philippi. Philippi was not only normal, it was normative, i.e., an example for the churches to imitate. There are no perfect churches but there should be normal churches after the pattern of Philippi. The dispute between Euodias and Syntyche was exceptional rather than characteristic of Philippi, and it only proved that not all in the church had yet grown to perfection which manifests in love for the brethren. “Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness,” Col. 3:14. Love is the bond of spiritual maturity.
Now while it is the perfected saints who carry out the work of the ministry, this does not exclude the other saints from the ministry. Just as adults do adult work, so must children work, and learn to work, as they are able. Children are not, or ought not be, thrown into adulthood without having learned to work. But there is work a ten year old can do, work a sixteen year old can do, and there is adult work. So, again, there is adult work in the church and there is child’s work. All, however, are ministers from the very day of conversion.
We say every saint has a ministry, for the Christian ministry is entered upon conversion to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. At conversion every saint receives a spiritual gift from the Head of the church. This gift is comprised of either speaking or serving capacities, or both. What remains is only to develop the gift. The saints do not begin to minister at conversion except in a limited capacity. However they are indeed entered into the ministry. It has nothing to do with personal merit, or spiritual maturity, or a private calling. When we answer the gospel call we enter the ministry.
The ability to minister to the brethren is first manifested in this testimony–where once I was blind, now I see. You will recall that the man who uttered these words did so the very day of his healing. As new converts we do not know much about Jesus, but we know this: where once I was blind, now I see. This is of course something considerable. It is the most important thing in the world to know, against which all other knowledge pales. It is the most important thing to know in the church as well. The saints are to not forsake assembling for the purpose of encouraging one another. And what is more encouraging than assembling with brethren who, by virtue of their presence testify to a conviction, first announced at their baptism, that Jesus is Lord of all? Where once I was blind, now I see. If we know Jesus we are able to encourage one another from the very day of conversion. Therefore even the newest or youngest converts to the faith are able to minister. Indeed, are they not especially able to minister due to their newfound zeal and love for Christ? A church is always blessed by having added new converts, regardless of age. The basis for ministry is simply conversion to the faith of Jesus Christ. All Christian ministry is developed on this foundation and nothing else. No conversion, no ministry.
Christian perfection certainly does not mean one has “arrived,” spiritually. “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know,” I Cor. 8:2. Paul wrote, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus,” Phil 3:12. While this would seem to discredit the idea of perfection taught in Ephesians 4, the context of the passage shows this is not the case, for Paul three verses later writes, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded.” Phil. 3:15. A perfected saint, then, does not think he has “already attained.” If he does he will soon prove the contrary. A perfected saint is simply equipped for full service in the body of Christ, nothing more and nothing less. Without humility Christian service that glorifies God is impossible.
We are to understand, then, that all the saints are in the ministry from the very day of their conversion. What is needed subsequent to conversion is for the the saints to be perfected by the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. Also necessary is that the spiritual gifts in the saints be developed even as the saints are perfected. We do not wait for perfection in order to exercise the gifts; perfection is attained in part through exercise of the gifts. We do not study without also working, and we do not work without also studying. The two go together. It is “work/study.” At least this is Christ’s design.
Some will say the Christian ministry portrayed here is not inconsistent with the prevailing practices in the churches. This ministry, they say, takes place out of the church, in Sunday school, in “parachurch” Christian ministries, at home, or from house to house. But where is the basis for this in the New Testament? There is every indication, and not a one to the contrary, that the ministry of the saints is to take place first of all in the full assembly on the Lord’s day. Romans 12:3-8 says, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.” If this does not occur in the church, when?
The full assembly on the Lord’s day ought to be the first place for exercise of the manifold speaking gifts, not the last. Certainly the serving gifts mostly find occasion for exercise outside the assembly. But that is not the case for the speaking gifts, i.e., prophecy (not new revelations, but applying the written Word, especially where there is unbelief in the saints), teaching, exhortation, and ruling, above. When else can a man speak subject to the discernment, not only of the elders, but of the entire church? When is a better time for iron to sharpen iron? “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,” i.e., all the saints, like the noble Bereans, are to judge the truth or falsehood of what is taught in the churches. It is the church that is pillar and ground of the truth, and not the pastorate.
This mutual ministry of the saints does not all hang on Romans 12, or on I Corinthians 14, where Paul admonished the Corinthians to do things in order but did not censure the practice of a mutual ministry of the saints in the churches (thus tacitly approving the practice.) The myriad one-another passages in the New Testament frequently find their expression in the full assembly. “And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another,” Rom. 15:14. “...but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching,” Heb. 10:25b. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” Eph. 5:19. Only by a substitution of the traditions of men for the apostolic traditions has fellowship, koinōnia, been corrupted to mean something that only happens “outside of church” or “after church,” or “in the church basement.” In the first churches, “they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers,” Acts. 2:42. Lacking evidence to the contrary, and given every indication in the New Testament, shouldn’t we assume that fellowship finds its full expression in the assemblies? That when the saints speak the truth in love to one another, it is first of all in the church?
According to the tenets of clericalism, the first part of Romans 12:3-8, above, applies not to “the clergy” but to “the laity!” One who does not subjugate himself to the ministry of one man week after week, thinks more highly of himself than he ought! This, again, is to turn the meaning of the passage on its head. The plain teaching of Romans 12:3 is that one man ought not to dominate the Christian ministry in the churches. This conclusion is hard to escape. One man should not think more highly of himself than he ought, the reason being that God has dealt to every man the measure of faith. Every man has received a spiritual gift. “The measure of faith” is the spiritual gift. (“The measure of faith,” v. 3, is equivalent to “the proportion of faith,” v. 6.) One man, then, should not suppress or dominate or monopolize the ministry in the churches. There is surely a place for teaching, including extensive or prolonged teaching, in the churches. (Paul spent months in various churches. However his method was to converse–dialegomai– rather than deliver a monologue-sermon, cf. Acts 20:6ff.) But domination of the ministry by one man in the churches Sunday after Sunday, year after year, is forbidden rather than sanctified in Romans 12. It is disallowed.
Jesus hated the doctrine and the deeds of the Nicolaitanes. “Nicolaitane” means “to conquer the people, or laity.” While in the Biblical terminology all God’s people are the laos, under Nicolaitanism the laos of God became an underclass. Accompanying this corruption in terminology was the ascent of the clergy class, from klēros, meaning “God’s heritage.” But klēros describes the people given in charge to the elders, not the elders themselves. The elders are not the clergy in I Peter 5:3, though they are of course part of the clergy in that all the saints are “God’s heritage.” The churches, by contrast, do not have elders leading the clergy after the pattern of I Peter 5, but they have “clergy” leading the people! In the corrupt traditions of men words have been redefined. Jesus hated the doctrine and the deeds of the Nicolaitanes because, whatever men professed, these effectively denied His Headship of the church. Only eldership is consistent with the Headship of Christ, for it is an entirely different ministry than what the churches call the pastorate.
Another name for Nicolaitanism or clericalism is displacement theology. It has nothing to do with “replacement theology,” a theology based on a flat-out denial of God’s promises to Israel through the prophets. Displacement theology is named based on its effect, the effect being a displacement of the regular Ephesians 4:12 work of the ministry.
When men act as heads of the churches, Jesus Christ is deposed. It sounds outrageous. How could it be? But at the end of the age Jesus stands at the door of His church and knocks. Where prior to the advent of the age He promised to be in the midst of them wherever two or three gathered in His name, at the end of the age He stands at the door knocking, Rev. 3:20. Revelation 3:20 is not a salvation verse, it is a fellowship verse. Christ will have fellowship with His saints who open the door. But the Laodicean church is not the place; it is only individuals to whom He appeals. “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” We are, all of us, in Laodicea, but we are not all of Laodicea. At the time of our Lord’s return the saints will be caught up to meet Him in the air, and at precisely that moment the Laodicean church is spewed out of Christ’s mouth, left behind without a single believer or the ministry of the Holy Spirit. All the church buildings will remain, along with a majority of the people.
Is it Christ’s church, or is it man’s? People say “It is Christ’s;” but who is directing the work of the ministry? Are we subject to men, or to Christ? He is the Head; He issues the orders. That is the way it works in the human body; that is the way it is to work in the body of Christ. The pastorate is not for the devising of orders that are to issue directly from the Head. There is liberty in Christ. Liberty to minister. Against such thing there is no law. It is not anarchy. It is not rebellion. Where there is disobedience, disorder, or false teaching, the elders have full authority–and a responsibility–to rule. “Obey them that have the rule over you.” Otherwise we answer directly to the Head. The Headship of Christ is not an abstract doctrine but is meant to be believed and practiced. It is only consistent with the members of the body responding to orders direct from the Head. This truth ought to inform not only our daily lives but the operation and function of the churches.
It is surely the case that members of the clergy are as much victims of displacement theology as “the laity.” After all, many if not most of them decided as young men to attend seminary on the encouragement of their churches. Not only so, it is impossible to perpetuate displacement theology without seminaries. So this tradition is impressed on these young men at an early age, and their spiritual superiors do nothing but encourage it. Despite the fact that a large proportion of the professional pastorate is made up of unbelievers–this is evident from their identification with denominations which have not been associated with the true gospel in decades or centuries–there are many good Christian men in the ranks as well. I do not question the sincerity of a vast majority of these men, including the unbelievers, in deciding to attend seminary. But the sincerity or faith of any one of these men is not the issue. Neither is the ability of the Bible-believing teachers in question. The issue is that, at their best, these are good men in the wrong office, and the consequences are extremely injurious to the churches. The proof is in church history.