The “Same” Organization That Existed in the Primitive Church

Grant Underwood

Grant Underwood, “The ‘Same’ Organization That Existed in the Primitive Church,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 167–186.

Grant Underwood was a professor of history and research historian at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint history at Brigham Young University when this was published.

For years now, primary graduates throughout the Church have either memorized, or spent time attempting to memorize, the Articles of Faith. If they are like my children, they “pass them off with nervous enthusiasm but often without full comprehension of the words they are repeating. Consider the sixth article of faith: “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” There are terms here that maybe unclear to Latter-day Saints young and old. What, for instance, is a “pastor” or an “evangelist?” Then there is the question of interpretation. How best do we understand the term “same”? In missionary work over the years, much has been claimed, perhaps too much, in the name of this article of faith. A legitimate comparison of any kind is based on an accurate picture of the things being compared. The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore the nature of Church organization in the New Testament and to show how, without distorting history, it can be considered the same as in the Church today.

Primitive Church

To many people, especially younger Latter-day Saints, the word primitive may convey the wrong message. As the word was used in religious discussions in Joseph Smith’s day, it did not mean “crude, backward, or undeveloped.” Rather, it drew directly from its Latin root primus to mean “first” and was related to other English words like “prime,” “primary,” and “primordial.” In short, Joseph Smith was talking about the “prime-itive” or “first” church—the one the Savior organized in the first century A.D. As it turns out, in the early 1800s, just at the time the Lord spoke to Joseph Smith, there was considerable interest in America in the primitive Church. Aware of the spiritual barnacles that over the centuries had attached themselves to existing Christian traditions, many religious souls in and out of different denominations sought to reform their churches in the primitive mold. This quest for the primitive Church, not surprisingly, has been labeled by historians of early American religion as “Christian primitivism” or simply “primitivism.” Many of those who joined the Church in the early years of this dispensation were primitivists who found in the message of the Restoration precisely what they were looking for. [1]

Awareness of this primitivist impulse in nineteenth century America also helps explain the rest of the wording of the sixth article of faith. Originally, the Articles of Faith were not a stand-alone declaration of beliefs. They constituted the closing sentences (not numbered) of the famous “Wentworth letter” written in 1842 by Joseph Smith for a Chicago editor who requested a “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution and faith of the Latter-day Saints.” [2] For our purposes, it is important to observe that these statements were written for a nonmember audience, one familiar with the Bible and exposed to the primitivist sentiment of the day. [3] Such an audience would have recognized the match between the Prophet Joseph Smith’s words and the Apostle Paul’s characterization of Christ’s Church: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). The Prophets use of Paul’s words to illustrate what he meant by “primitive church” would have established a common denominator with Bible believers. It would have reassured them that the Prophet’s view of the ideal church was scriptural.

Beyond a comforting rhetorical connection to the New Testament, what exactly did Joseph Smith mean by these terms? Was he ticking off an organizational flowchart? Some Latter-day Saints seem to think so. Yet the “and so forth” at the end of the article indicates he was being suggestive rather than exhaustive in his list. As will be seen, the terms used in Ephesians 4:11 and the sixth article of faith are generally best understood in terms of function rather than position. That Joseph was using the words here more allusively than exactingly is apparent from the fact that earlier in the same letter he wrote that the Book of Mormon “tells us” that “they had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessing, as was enjoyed on the eastern continent.” [4] Technically speaking, of course, this is not true, for in the Book of Mormon, no ancient American servants of the Lord are designated “pastors” or “evangelists.” [5] The Prophet seems more concerned with affirming the nature of the organization in the primitive Church than with its nomenclature.

It is important, therefore, to return to the New Testament and carefully examine what it has to say about such matters. It is also important to keep our eye on the modern side of the comparison. When Joseph wrote, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church,” the “we” referred to himself and the Saints in 1842. His point of comparison was LDS Church organization in its earliest years. Thus, we must guard against anachronism on either side of this comparison. For a Latter-day Saint at the dawn of the twenty-first century to assume that the present Church organization and accompanying job descriptions are identical to that of the 1840s, let alone the first century A.D., is problematic. Yet by attending more to function than flowchart, we can discern an essential “sameness” between the primitive Church and the kingdom of God in latter days.


Any thorough exploration of New Testament content requires attention to Greek, the language of the earliest manuscripts. As Joseph Smith remarked, “in the original language,” God “opens our minds in a marvelous manner, to understand His word.” [6] We begin, therefore, by considering the Greek word group behind Apostle. Based on the verb apostello (to send forth), an apostle (apostolos) is literally “one who is sent forth,” a messenger, an envoy, a missionary. [7] Of all the terms mentioned in the sixth article of faith, the most obvious parallels between the ancient and modern churches rests with Apostles. Though apostoloi is used less often in the Gospels than mathetai (disciples) or hoi dodeka (the twelve), it is clear enough that these three terms were usually synonymous (e.g., Matthew 10:1–2; Luke 6:13; 22:11–14). That the Twelve Apostles were to be a governing body of set size is illustrated by the account of the call of Matthias (see Acts 1:15–26). That they were given weighty responsibility is clear from the Lord’s declaration to them: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Little wonder, then, that Paul wrote, “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers” (1 Corinthians 12:28) and that the “household of God” was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:19–20). A final indicator of the Apostles’ authoritative position in the primitive Church was the circulation and preservation of their letters in the years after their deaths.

That the ancient Twelve, like their modern counterparts, provided the firm foundation on which the Church rested is widely recognized by Latter-day Saints today. Less familiar are the other uses of apostolos in the New Testament. Here it is necessary to keep in mind the term’s broader meaning as “envoy,” “messenger,” or simply “one sent forth.” It is important to point out to those unfamiliar with the Greek language that though some Bible translations, like the King James Version (KJV), occasionally render apostolos with other words such as “messenger,” the underlying Greek term is neither spelled differently nor set off by any special linguistic markers that would denote a meaning distinct from its use to refer to the Twelve Apostles. In particular, differentiation by capitalization, so important in modern English as a way of according special status, does not exist in Greek.

What, then, are some examples of non-Twelve “apostles”? In 2 Corinthians 8:23 Paul mentions the apostoloi ekklesion—literally, the “apostles of the churches”—which the KJV renders as the “messengers of the churches.” Paul singles out for commendation one such apostolos (KJV, “messenger”), Epaphroditus, whom the Philippians sent as the commissioned representative of their congregation to look after Paul’s needs (Philippians 2:25). A missionary connotation to apostolos is apparent when Paul calls himself an Apostle “of” or “to” the Gentiles (e.g., Romans 11:13, Galatians 2:8), much as Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century spoke of Jacob Hamblin, who was never one of the Twelve, as an “apostle to the Lamanites.” [8] Other individuals designated apostolos that the New Testament does not list with “the twelve” include Jesus (Hebrews 3:1); James, Jesus’ brother (Galatians 1:19); Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:9; often at the beginning of his epistles); Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14); and, possibly, Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). [9]

It seems clear, then, that in addition to using apostoloi to refer to the Twelve apostles, the New Testament also employs the term for a variety of other apostles ranging from missionaries to individuals sent on official Church errands. What unites them all is the notion of proper authorization. This helps explain Paul’s use of pseudapostoloi (false apostles) to describe those who claimed to be the Lord’s legitimate representatives but were not. Similarly, in John’s Revelation, the Ephesians are commended for having “tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (Revelations 2:2). The same idea, by the way, is reflected in Doctrine and Covenants 64:39, where the inhabitants of Zion are promised the ability to discern “liars and hypocrites” and thus “they who are not apostles and prophets shall be known.” The concern in either dispensation seems to be authorized representation.

The broader New Testament use of apostle to designate servants of the Lord other than just the Twelve was perpetuated throughout Christian history. It is not surprising, therefore, that that connotation was part of the vocabulary carried into the Church by the first Latter-day Saints. In the earliest years, men who never became part of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles were sometimes called “apostles.” A September 1832 revelation given to Joseph Smith and “six elders” declares, “as I said unto mine apostles, even so I say unto you, for you are mine apostles” (D&C 84:63). [10] The paragraph in “Articles and Covenants” listing the duties of an elder (D&C 20:38–44) begins with the words “an apostle is an elder, and it is his calling to . . . “ John Whitmer’s elder’s “license” dated 9 June 1830 reads, “Given to John Whitmer signifying and proving that he is an Apostle of Jesus Christ an Elder of this Church of Christ.” [11] This wider usage is well represented in the 2 December 1830 letter from Joseph Smith and John Whitmer to the Colesville Saints, written the day after Orson Pratt was ordained an elder: “According to our prayers, the Lord hath called, chosen, ordained, sanctified and sent unto you another Servant and apostle separated unto his gospel through Jesus Christ our Redeemer . . . even our beloved brother Orson Pratt, the bearer of these lines.” [12] John Taylor reflected this broader meaning of the term available early in this dispensation when in 1837 he wrote to a friend in England: “You ask what is the number of the apostles. There are twelve that are ordained to go to the nations, and there are many others, no definite number.” [13] Thus we see that during the 1830s, apostle could be applied to more than just the Twelve.

With the passage of time, and especially after the Twelve returned from their successful mission to England in 1840–41, however, the Prophet Joseph was able to teach the Twelve (and, to a degree, the Saints) the deeper significance of the holy apostleship. By 1853, Brigham Young could say, in what has since been viewed as a defining statement, “the keys of the eternal Priesthood, which is after the order of the Son of God, are comprehended by being an Apostle. All the Priesthood, all the keys, all the gifts, all the endowments, and everything preparatory to entering into the presence of the Father and of the Son, are in, composed of, circumscribed by, or I might say incorporated within the circumference of, the Apostleship.” [14] Consistent with this developed understanding, the use of the term apostle began to be restricted and eventually came to refer to men who had been ordained to that particular office in the Melchizedek Priesthood and who, as such, were serving in the governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.


Prophetes is a combination of the root phe(mi), which means “to say” or “to speak,” and the prefix pro, which is usually rendered with neutral terms like “forth,” or more loosely, “openly” or “publicly,” though it can also mean “fore,” as in fore-teller. Thus, prophetes is literally one who “speaks forth.” Originally, the term was associated with the oracle personnel of ancient Greece. Oracle prophets were understood to “declare something whose content are not derived from themselves but from the god who reveals his will at the particular [oracle] site.” Similarly, prophetes was sometimes applied to the ancient Greek poet as “the one who declares to men what he has received from the divine Muses.” [15] Later, in the Septuagint, prophetes was used to translate the Hebrew nabi, “a person who serves as a channel of communication between the human and divine worlds.” [16] Despite the focus in the popular mind on the predictive work of prophets, the fundamental meaning of the word has always targeted the notion of being an inspired spokesperson for God, regardless of the content of the message. [17]

Consistent with Old Testament usage, in the New Testament, prophetes is generally used to describe a “proclaimer of the divine, inspired message.” [18] Examples of individuals in the New Testament who are either called prophets or who prophesy include John the Baptist (Luke 7:28), Agabus (Acts 11:27–28 and 21:10–14), Anna (Luke 2:36–38); the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9); Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Saul at Antioch (Acts 13:1); Judas Barsabas, and Silas (Acts 15:32). Indeed, Jesus Christ was regarded by the people (and regarded Himself) as a prophet (see Matthew 21:11; Luke 7:16; Mark 6:2–4).

When Paul writes about propheteia (prophecy), he means the divine gift or charisma of inspired utterance, of Spirit-guided declarations. This is particularly clear in 1 Corinthians 14. The chapter is not a debate about which dazzling and exotic spiritual gift is superior—speaking in tongues or forecasting the future. Rather it is Paul’s impassioned plea for the Saints to seek the blessing of inspired utterance in their services rather than the showy gift of tongues. Understanding of this chapter and other similar New Testament references to the prophecy word group can be greatly enhanced if instead of “predict the future” one mentally inserts “speak under inspiration” every time the verb propheteuo (prophesy) appears. For example: “Desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may [speak under inspiration]” (1 Corinthians 14:1), “He that [speaks under inspiration] speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3), or “For ye may all [speak under inspiration] one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted” (1 Corinthians 14:31). This is reminiscent of Moses’ retort to Joshua: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). Similarly, the sense of prophecy as inspiration more than prediction is clearly reflected in the wording of the fifth article of faith: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority.” [19]

This understanding also animates a November 1831 revelation to four elders and “all those who [are] ordained unto this priesthood” that they should “speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be . . . the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:2–4). In the twenty-first century, it has been common to focus application of this passage on the General Authorities, but originally it was an encouragement for ordinary elders to magnify their calling and be prophetai, speaking under inspiration to the edification of others. This seems to be the thrust of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s comments to an eastern correspondent when “he no more professed to be a prophet, than every man must, who professes to be a preacher of righteousness. . . . If a man professes to be a minister of Jesus, and has not the spirit of prophecy, he must be a false witness, for he is not in possession of that gift which qualifies him for his office.” [20] Such also was the meaning and intent of the “school of the prophets,” a training experience for all “who are called to the ministry in the church, beginning at the high priests, even down to the deacons” (D&C 88:127) to help them be inspired and inspiring preachers of the gospel. “School of the prophets,” in the sense of a ministerial school, had in fact been the common designation in colonial America for what we today call theological seminaries or divinity schools. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all began as “schools of the prophets.” [21]

That all priesthood bearers were expected to prophetically speak under inspiration did not, however, mean that those Spirit-inspired utterances (propheteia) were to be normative for the Church. Two revelations within the Church’s first year clarified that beside Joseph Smith “there is none other appointed unto [the church] to receive commandments and revelations” (D&C 43:3). Oliver Cowdery, and by inference other prophet-elders, was to “be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter” (D&C 28:1). He was even told that he would “have revelations” but was counseled, “Write them not by way of commandment” (D&C 28:8). Thus, while the elders were to diligently strive to enjoy the gift of prophecy in their teaching ministry, none of their propheteia were to be considered binding on the Church.

Semantically, there is a modest divergence between New Testament and Latter-day Saint practice. Our use of the phrase “the prophet” to refer to the senior living Apostle and President of the Church is not known in the New Testament. Still, though “seniority” is not an ecclesiastical concept that figures in the New Testament and though Peter is never called either a prophet or “the” prophet, Peter does appear to have been one of the first Apostles called and later seems to have functioned as the head of the Church after Christ’s ascension. [22] With our focus on functional rather than titular similarities, however, the real “sameness” between the primitive and latter-day churches lies in the actual presence of inspired utterance (propheteia). That the Latter-day Saints gradually narrowed their application of the term prophet is secondary. Authorized governance by Apostles with one acting as leader and Church members who enjoy the gift of inspired utterance in both congregational worship and public ministry, these are the similarities that matter.


The word pastor, as a translation of the Greek poimen, appears only once in the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:11. In every other instance, the KJV renders poimen as “shepherd(s).” Thus, the well-known Christmas verse reads, “There were in the same country [poimenes] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8), and in John 10, Christ declares, “I am the good [poimen] . . . and there shall be one fold and one [poimen] (John 10:14, 16). [23] That both Paul in Ephesians 4:11 and the Prophet Joseph in the sixth article of faith intended pastor in a figurative or functional sense is clear from the fact that no office by that tide is attested in either the New Testament or Latter-day Saint churches. [24] Yet pastors and pastoring, in the sense of “shepherding” (feeding, nourishing, caring for) God’s flock, have abounded in both dispensations. Responding to one of Peter’s replies to His query “Lovest thou me?” the resurrected Lord said “[poimaino] my sheep” (John 21:16). Peter later passed on the same advice to the elders of the church: “[poimaino] the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

Three groups in the New Testament seem to have been specially charged with being pastors—episcopos, presbuteros, and diakonos. Episcopos is a combination of epi, “upon” or “over,” and scopos, “looker” or “watcher.” Thus, an episcopos is literally one who “looks upon,” “watches over,” or “oversees.” [25] For centuries before Christ, the related Greek verbs episkopeo or episkeptomai carried the connotation of protective watch-care. They communicated a sense of “the gracious care of the gods for a territory under their protection” or a sea captain’s vigilance over his cargo. The words also meant “to inspect,” “to investigate,” and “to visit,” all with the connotation of “looking after.” [26] Thus, James declared that “pure religion and undefiled” is to “[episkeptomai] the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). Naturally, Church members in any age would benefit from this kind of caring leadership from their “pastors.”

Influenced by the ecclesiology of their day, King James translators generally used some form of the word “bishop” to translate the nouns episcopos or episcope. Hence, the English words episcopal and episcopacy, which today designate churches that have bishops in their hierarchy. In Acts 20:28, however, the KJV renders episcopoi as “overseers,” a translation choice that points to the broader meaning of the term. First Peter 2:25 calls Christ “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls,” a verse that, as translated in the KJV, sounds odd to modern Saints. Yet the pairing of poimen and episcopos in Greek conveys a powerful sense of the pastoral watch-care exercised by the Savior in our lives. A variant of episcopos, the noun episcope, accounts for the initial appearance of “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3. Actually, the KJV creates the phrase “the office of a bishop” to translate the one Greek word episcope. [27] The same word in Acts 1:20 is rendered “bishoprick.” This is significant because Acts 1 is not discussing a three-man bishopric or even the office of bishop. The passage in question—“his bishoprick let another take”—is a rendering of a line from Psalm 69 that Peter uses to introduce the need to call another to the Twelve to take Judas’s place. When the underlying word episcope is properly understood in its Greek sense, this becomes an entirely appropriate description of the oversight and watch-care over the whole Church rendered by the Twelve.

Another group of pastors with watch-care responsibilities were the preshuteroi, or “elders.” Preshuteros, like “elder” in English, “can be employed both as a designation of age and also as a title of office.” [28] “In most civilizations authority has been vested in those who by reason of age or experience have been thought best qualified to rule. It is not surprising therefore that the leaders in many ancient communities have borne a title derived from a root meaning ‘old age.’” [29] The “elders of Israel” frequently mentioned in the Old Testament would be a prime example. In the primitive church, unnamed governing “elders” along with the Apostles, presided in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22–23), but mostly the term was applied to congregational leaders. As Paul and Barnabas finished their first missionary tour, revisiting their converts and exhorting them to faithfulness, they “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul later wrote to Titus on Crete directing him to “ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5).

None of these references are in the context of ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood; they describe the call of presiding elders for each congregation, pastors whom the Lord put in place to watch over His flock. This helps explain the terminological overlap between elder (presbuteros) and bishop (episcopos) in the New Testament. [30] In Paul’s letter to Titus, after instructing him to ordain elders in every city, he offers the same set of qualifications for their call—blameless, the husband of one wife, etc.—that he gave to Timothy as qualifications for a bishop (compare Titus 1:6 to 1 Timothy 3:2ff). Moreover, in the very next verse (Titus 1:7), Paul refers to an elder as episcopos, which the KJV renders “bishop.” Understanding episcopos in terms of function rather than title, however, makes the passage perfectly intelligible. By the very nature of their call, presiding elders (presbuteroi) are “overseers” (episcopoi), charged with watching over the flock, and this is precisely what Paul is conveying here to Titus. Even the Latter-day Saint most committed to maintaining titular continuity between the former-day and latter-day churches must realize that functionally no distinction is made in the Church today between a branch president and a ward bishop. The branch president shoulders all the same “episcopal” responsibilities that the bishop does, though he is neither ordained or addressed as such.

Understanding these words more in terms of function than title also helps with other passages in the New Testament. In Paul’s famous speech to the Ephesian elders who had gathered at Miletus to bid him farewell (see Acts 20:17), he tells these pastors, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers [episcopoi], to feed [poimaino] the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Linguistically speaking, there is no difference between this use of episcopos and its appearance in 1 Timothy 3, where it is translated “bishop.” Acts 20:28 might just as readily have been rendered, indeed, is so rendered in the American Standard Version, “the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops.” Another example that pulls together all that we have been discussing thus far under the heading of “pastors” is found in 1 Peter 5: “The elders [presbuteroi] which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [presbuteros] . . . . Feed [poimaino] the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight [episkopeo] thereof, not by constraint, but willingly . . . being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd [archipoimen] shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:1–4). In other words, the Apostle Peter here writes as one “church leader” to the others, exhorting them to properly “pastor” the members, “bishoping” them not by constraint but willingly, so that when the “chief Pastor” appears they may receive a fitting reward. This advice and the advice in Timothy and Titus are appropriate for all Church leaders, not just ordained bishops. In recent years, the General Authorities have regularly encouraged local leaders, even home teachers, to love, nurture, and truly “watch over” those they serve. Expressed differently, they have also been trying to teach local leaders to “minister” to the members, not just “administer” Church affairs.

This brings us to yet another pastoral term that is used generously in the New Testament—diakonos, sometimes translated “deacon,” but mostly “minister” or “servant.” [31] The KJV actually uses “deacon” in only two New Testament passages. Immediately after outlining the qualifications for an episcopos in 1 Timothy 3, Paul does the same for diakonos, using the word group several times (1 Timothy 3:8–13). Here, in addition to choosing the ecclesiastical loan word “deacon” to translate diakonos, the KJV also twice renders the verb diakoneo not as “minister unto” or “serve,” as it typically does, but as “use[d] the office of a deacon.” The other New Testament occurrence is when Paul and Timothy greet the Philippian “saints” together with their “bishops and deacons” (Philippian 1:1). In terms of modern Church structure, “bishops and deacons” is an odd pairing, but if translated as “overseers” and “ministers” or “helpers,” a couple of rough modern equivalents might be imagined—presidents and counselors, or priesthood and auxiliary leaders. Or perhaps the terms are describing two sides of the same pastoral coin—taking the oversight of, as well as ministering to, the flock of God. To our ears, an even more unexpected usage is when Paul commends to the Romans, “Phoebe our sister, which is a [diakonos] of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1). Yet when understood as a servant of the Lord rather than an ordained deacon in the Aaronic priesthood, it is easy to envision Phoebe functioning as something like a modern Relief Society president.

That a variety of Church personnel were involved in “deaconing” (diakoneo) is clear in the verse following the Ephesians 4:11 list of the Lord’s gifts to the Church, where Paul says that they were given “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the [diakonia] ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). The apostolos Paul asked rhetorically, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but [diakonoi] ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Earlier, after selecting two candidates to replace Judas in the Quorum of the Twelve, the Eleven sought divine guidance to discover whom the Lord had chosen “that he may take part of this [diakonia] and [apostole]” (Acts 1:25). The KJV renders the two terms respectively as “ministry” and “apostleship,” but linguistic equivalency would allow the awkward though accurate “deaconship and apostleship.” Again, the emphasis on function more than office in the New Testament is apparent. Clearly, the New Testament is not using the diakonos word group primarily to refer to the office or actions of twelve-year-old boys in the Aaronic Priesthood.


“Teachers” is the one word in the Ephesians 4:11 and sixth article of faith list that operates in English like its Greek counterpart didaskalos (whence our word “didactic” is derived) does, as either a title or a function. The most frequent use of didaskalos in the New Testament is as a way of addressing the Savior. The KJV translators chose to consistently render this term as “Master.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, they use the word “teacher.” [32] Sadly, with the change in the English language, the sense of addressing Jesus as “Teacher” has been all but lost today. Instead, “Master” connotes hierarchical authority and conjures up synonyms like “ruler” or “supreme one.” To be sure, Christ is all of that, but he was also the consummate teacher, and that is what is being highlighted by the use of the term didaskalos.

In the remainder of the New Testament, the term didaskalos appears only a handful of times. Aside from Ephesians 4:11, which includes “teachers” in its list, there are several other relevant passages. Luke records that there were “at Antioch certain prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1). Paul tells the Corinthians that “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers” (1 Corinthians 12:28). An active teaching ministry is at the heart of the Teacher’s church in any dispensation. By extending our understanding of “teachers” beyond an office in the Aaronic Priesthood and looking at it as a function filled by a variety of Saints, the similarity between the primitive and modern churches is very strong. Latter-day Saints who have long rallied to the divine invitation “teach ye diligently” (D&C 88:78) understand well why Paul would put teachers in the third position behind only apostles and prophets.


Euangelistes, which the KJV renders as “evangelist[s],” appears only three times in the New Testament. Aside from our base text in Ephesians 4:11, Acts 21:8 calls Philip an “evangelist” and Paul encourages Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). The meaning of this English loan word becomes clear when connected to the rest of its verbal family. Euangelion is the word the KJV translates as “gospel” (literally, the “good news”), and euangelizo means to “bring or announce good news,” or to “declare, show, or bring glad tidings.” [33] In other words, an “evangelist” is one who proclaims the good news (gospel) of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and is, therefore, a missionary or a preacher. The Church in any dispensation could not grow without such proclaimers of the good news. Today, the energy of sixty thousand Latter-day Saint missionaries acting as evangelists worldwide certainly matches the spirit of determined dissemination of the word of God found in the New Testament.

Yet Latter-day Saints also have applied the term “evangelist” in another, specialized manner. In 1835, shortly after the Quorum of the Twelve was first constituted in this dispensation, a revelation indicated that one of their duties was “in all large branches of the church, to ordain evangelical ministers, as they shall be designated unto them by revelation—The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son” (D&C 107:39–40). As Joseph Smith later clarified: “An Evangelist is a Patriarch, even the oldest man of the blood of Joseph or of the seed of Abraham. Wherever the Church of Christ is established in the Earth, there should be a Patriarch for the benefit of the posterity of the Saints, as it was with Jacob in giving his Patriarchal blessings unto his sons.” [34] Some Latter-day Saints find it fitting to call a patriarch an evangelist since the blessings he dispenses are indeed proclamations of “good news” for the lives of individual Saints. Though nothing is said of the office of patriarch or of patriarchal blessings in the New Testament, this limited, specialized sense of the term does not detract from the well-documented similarity between the primitive and modern churches in their profound commitment to preach the gospel (euangelizo) wherever possible.

An Organization Tailored To Our Times

The brief symbol “&c” (and so forth) concludes the sixth article of faith. Historically, the temptation for some has been to throw in the rest of the LDS organizational flowchart at this point. Seventies, high priests, and Aaronic priests were not mentioned, so they can be added. Yet as we have seen, to read Paul or Joseph Smith as focusing on formal office titles is misleading and problematic. Better to look at the “and so forth” as extending what the Prophet was really trying to affirm in this article of faith, that the latter-day Church embraces and implements every ministerial impulse and activity that was present in the primitive Church. Exactly who carries them out and what titles they bear is secondary.

A concluding comparison can be drawn from the Primary. Though the Church has changed the names, arrangement, and curricula of its Primary classes a number of times over the years, it is still the “same” Primary organization in the one way that really matters—function, in its abiding commitment to love and teach the children of the Church. Nomenclature, organizational flowchart, and specific practices will always be tailored to contemporary circumstances. Indeed that is the grand design of continuing revelation. Latter-day Saint interest in replicating the primitive Church, unlike some historic forms of Christian primitivism, never has been strait-jacketed into matching the precise configuration of things in the New Testament. A loving Lord is thus free to constantly adjust the Church’s outer garment so that it best serves its unchanging inner commitment to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

What is crucially the same about the Savior’s work in the latter days is its function. He continues to send forth authorized servants of various kinds (as apostles) who act under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (as prophets) to shepherd His Saints (as pastors), to instruct them in the word of life (as teachers), and to spread the good news of His saving grace to all the world (as evangelists). These functions are the similarities that really count. Indeed, they are the essence of what makes this the “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30).


[1] See Richard T. Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); and Marvin S. Hill, “The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830–44” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968).

[2] Joseph Smith, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 429; hereafter, Papers of Joseph Smith.

[3] That the Prophet wrote this for a nonmember audience is clear from his note that “as Mr. Ba[r]stow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information, all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 4:535–36; hereafter, HC).

[4] Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:432.

[5] The word pastors is found once, but it is in an Isaiah quotation recorded by Nephi (see 1 Nephi 21:1). Moreover, in the Book of Mormon, the term apostles almost always refers to the Old World Twelve (see 1 Nephi 11:35–36; 13:39–41). The common designation for the twelve called by Christ during his ministry in the New World is “disciples.” Where they figure most prominently in the Book of Mormon narrative—3 Nephi—they are always so designated. Later, however, in three passages recorded by Moroni (see Mormon 9:18; Ether 12:41; Moroni 2:2), the term apostles is used, but the meaning is ambiguous and could be construed to refer to either group of twelve men.

[6] HC 2:376. On another occasion, he remarked, “My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of the languages, until I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough. At any rate, so long as I do live, I am determined to make this my object; and with the blessing of God, I shall succeed to my satisfaction” (HC 2:396).

[7] A comprehensive survey of the extensive literature on the meaning of apostolos can be found in Francis H. Agnew, “The Origin of the NT Apostle- Concept: A Review of Research, “Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (March 1986): 75–96. Helpful for the entire apostello word group is Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964–76), 1:398–447; hereafter, TDNT. See also Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed., rev. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 99.

[8] Charles S. Peterson, “Jacob Hamblin, Apostle to the Lamanites, and the Indian Mission,” Journal of Mormon History 2 (1975): 21–34.

[9] The inclusion of Andronicus and Junia hinges on one’s interpretation of en tois apostoloi, usually rendered “among the apostles.” Does this mean they labored alongside the Apostles or were themselves Apostles?

[10] Actually, this portion of the revelation was received the next day in the presence of “eleven high Priests save one.” Kirtland Revelation Book, 24, LDS Church Archives.

[11] License for John Whitmer, 9 June 1830, ms., 1 p., Beineke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Years later, someone took a pencil and crossed out “Apostle of Jesus Christ” with sufficient vigor that it made a small tear through the paper. In early January 1831, Sidney Rigdon wrote to his Ohio associates introducing Whitmer as “a brother greatly beloved, and an Apostle of this church” (E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled [Painesville: by author, 1834], 110).

[12] Joseph Smith and John Whitmer to Dearly Beloved in the Lord, 2 December 1830, in “Newel Knight Autobiography,” Allen Manuscript version, 196, in private possession.

[13] Cited in Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 3 (June 1837): 514.

[14] Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854—56), 1:134–35.

[15] TDNT, 6:791, 93; and Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 730–31.

[16] Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., Harpers Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 826.

[17] Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980). Sometimes “in the interests of speaking to the present situation,” the prophet “undertakes to enlarge upon events yet to come” (J. D. Douglas and N. Hillyer, eds., New Bible Dictionary, 2d ed. [Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1982], 975.)

[18] TDNT, 6:828. See also David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:496, s.v. “Early Christian Prophecy.”

[19] In fact, Joseph Smith made this point explicit: “And how were apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists chosen? by prophesy (revelation) and by laying on of hands:’—by a divine communication, and a divinely appointed ordinance” (Times and Seasons 3 [April 1, 1842]: 744). The fifth article of faith reflects Paul’s words to Timothy: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1 Timothy 4:14).

[20] Times and Seasons 4 (15 May 1843): 200. This echoes the famous question-and-answer series published earlier in the Elders’ Journal: “Question 5th. Do you believe Joseph Smith Jr. to be a prophet? Answer. Yes, and every other man who has the testimony of Jesus. ‘For the testimony of Jesus, is the spirit of prophecy’—Revelation 19:10” (Elders’Journal 1 [July 1838]: 43).

[21] Richard Warch, School of the Prophets: Yale College, 1701–1740 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). In 1758 Caleb Smith called Princeton “this school of the prophets” (A Christian Life: A Biography of Aaron Burr (1715/16–1757), President of Princeton College [New York: Hugh Gaine, 1758], 8).

[22] Interestingly, Joseph Smith called Paul a “prophet” but not Peter: “Peter and John were apostles, yet the Jewish court scourged them as impostors. Paul was both an Apostle and prophet, yet they stoned him and put him into prison” (Times and Seasons 3 [June 15,1842]: 824).

[23] It is of interest that the words translated “flock” or “fold”—poimne and poimnion—share the same root as the word for “shepherd”—poimen. To Greek ears these words sounded like “sheep herd” and “shepherd” do to us, or more literally, like “herd” and “herder” do since the term applied to cattle as well.

[24] For a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century, the Church in Britain did have such a position. See William G. Hartley, “LDS Pastors and Pastorates, 1852–55,” in Mormons in Early Victorian Britain, ed. Richard L. Jensen and Malcolm R. Thorp (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989), 194–210.

[25] Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1974–84), 5:188, 258; Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 299.

[26] TDNT, 2:602.

[27] Office is derived from the Latin officium, which grows out of a combination of opus (a work) and facere (to do).

[28] TDNT, 6:654.

[29] New Bible Dictionary, 313.

[30] See J. B. Lightfoot’s seminal study “The Christian Ministry,” written as an appendix to his Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 6th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1881), 181–269.

[31] In the KJV, diakonos is translated “minister” 20 of 30 times, “servant” 7 of 30 times, and “deacon” 3 of 30 times (J. B. Smith, Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament [Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1955], 84).

[32] Smith, Greek-English Concordance, 87.

[33] Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 317–18; Smith, Greek-English Concordance, 156.

[34] HC, 3:381.