When a Comma Puts Us in a Coma

  Punctuation marks are important. Moreover, correct punctuation is essential. In the wrong place, such simple marks can be devastating.

Take these two sentences for example:

“Let’s eat Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

The comma makes a big difference—especially for Grandpa!

Here is another example from the animal lovers magazine, Tails. The front cover story about Rachel Ray reads:

“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”

I believe what they wanted to say was:

“Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”

Finally, Goodwill posted this sign outside their building:

“Thank you! Your donation just helped someone. Get a job.”

The insertion of the first period makes all the difference. What they meant to communicate was:

“Thank you! Your donation just helped someone get a job.”

One punctuation mark, by either its insertion or exclusion, has the potential to change the meaning of a sentence.

The Discipleship Resurgence

Books and conferences under the banner of “disciple-making” are available now more than ever before. “Discipleship” is a popular new buzz word, a catch phrase that is thrown around with varying meanings. Defining the term is outside the scope of this article, however, I want you to consider something.

In the process of obtaining endorsements for my new discipleship book, Growing Up: How To Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, I talked with pastors who admitted to a minimization of making disciples. “For years,” according to one pastor, “the goal was to get them to church and get them saved.” Another said to me, “Success in ministry was determined by how many parents drug, I mean ‘brought,’ their children to Sunday school.” Discipleship was not the bull’s-eye on their ministerial target. For some, it had no place on the target whatsoever!

Why are we only recently talking about discipleship?

I think I may have an answer.

One comma has paralyzed believers for around three hundred years. The chasm between the clergy and the laity has widened since the completion of the 1611 King James version of the Bible. Before you think that I am being overly critical of the translation, check out my article entitled, “A Discovery that Changes Everything,” where I elaborated on my Bible leaf collection.

If you examine the KJV translation of Ephesians 4:11-13, you will find two commas in verse 12.

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 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 fullness of Christ.

Based on this rendering, what is the job of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? It is three-fold:

  1. to perfect the saints;
  2. to do the work of the ministry;
  3. to edify the body of Christ.

The ministers, pastors, and trained professionals, according to this rendering, are expected to carry out all the ministerial duties.

For those who learned Greek in school, you know that the original documents were devoid of punctuation marks, particularly commas. The insertion of punctuation is based on the judgment of the translator. I would submit to you that this comma is part of the reason the church has been in a sustained discipleship coma for three hundred years.

The manner of thinking reflected in the KJV translators’ choice of punctuation, prominent in many churches today, is what Larry Osborne labeled “the Holy Man Myth.” “The Holy Man Myth,” observed Osborne, “is the idea that pastors and clergy somehow have a more direct line to God. It cripples a church because it overburdens pastors and underutilizes the gifts and anointing of everyone else. It mistakenly equates leadership gifts with superior spirituality.”[1] Left uncorrected, this myth will paralyze the laypeople and rob the congregation of blessings.

I experienced this “Holy Man Myth” first hand during my first pastoral post. When Mr. Jimmy, a friend and elderly church member, was admitted into the hospital for a back procedure, I prayed with him at the hospital before his surgery. Two weeks later, someone stopped me after the Sunday service with these words: “Mr. Jimmy is upset with you because no one visited him since his procedure.” Surprised, I replied, “That’s just not true. Three people visited him over the past two weeks.” The day after the surgery, my associate pastor spent time at the hospital with him. Later that week, a deacon visited him, and the following week, another deacon spent the afternoon with him.

I stopped by his house after church to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding. As I walked in the door, I asked, “Mr. Jimmy, how are you doing?” “Not good,” answered Mr. Jimmy, “Not good, preacher.” Puzzled, I asked, “Why is that?” He proceeded to explain the source of his discouragement: he had not been visited since his surgery. I lovingly corrected him by highlighting that church members had visited him. But he replied, “No, pastor, you didn't visit me.” He only wanted me to visit him because he had the false perception that I was closer to God than any other Christian in our congregation.

Discipleship and Maturity

So how does the Greek text of Ephesians 4:11-13 read? The majority of modern translations remove the comma. Here’s how the New King James Version reads:

 11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...

The job of pastors, mentors, and leaders is to equip believers to carry out their God-given ministry. Their effectiveness is not gauged by their performance of ministerial duties alone, but by their development of other disciples, preachers, pastors, godly fathers, and Christ-honoring students. Harold Hoehner summarizes the meaning of this passage aptly:

“In brief, the point is that the gifted persons listed in verse 11 serve as the foundational gifts that are used for the immediate purpose of preparing all the saints to minister. Thus, every believer must do the work of ministry.”[2]

Ministry is the pathway to maturity, not the other way around.

Pastors, maybe the reason you are not seeing discipleship take place in your church is because you or your staff are executing all the ministry yourself and not empowering your members to participate in ministry.

Although George Martin challenged pastors, his comments are applicable to every believer:

“Perhaps today’s pastors should imagine that they are going to have three more years in their parish (church) as pastor—that there will be no replacement for them when they leave. If they acted as if this were going to happen, they would put the highest priority on selecting, motivating, and training lay leaders that could carry on as much as possible the mission of the parish after they left. The results of three sustained years of such an approach would be significant. Even revolutionary.”[3]

If you knew that the time-clock of your life was to expire three years from today, how would you live? Would you change anything? What steps would you take to leave a lasting legacy, an eternal impact? You would not neglect discipling your children, family, and friends if you only had three years left with them.

Of all the avenues for spreading the greatest message in the world—the redemption of humankind through His sacrifice—Jesus chose to spread it through twelve men and their future followers. Ultimately, through the passing of the centuries, the gospel has been entrusted to us. We are the current link in the chain of discipleship described in 2 Timothy 2:2. Should we not live with the same urgency with which Jesus and the Twelve lived?

Every believer should be able to answer two questions: “Whom am I discipling?” and “Who is discipling me?” Every church should be able to answer two questions: “Do we have a plan for making disciples?” and “Is our plan for disciple-making working?”


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 549.

[2] Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 49.

[3] David Watson, Called and Committed (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1982), 53.


Robby Gallaty is the Senior Pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church and author of the new book, Growing UP: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples. He was radically saved out of a life of drug addiction on November 12, 2002. He is also the author of Unashamed: Taking a Radical Stand for Christ and Creating an Atmosphere to HEAR God Speak. Follow him on Twitter: @Rgallaty.