Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Are There Apostles Today?
More than thirty years ago I accepted Jesus as my Lord, and ever since then I’ve found great joy in reading my Bible. Even to this day when I read the Gospels, I often think how wonderful it would have been to be one of Jesus’ original twelve apostles. What a privilege to be hand chosen and asked by our Lord to enter into his inner circle of training and leadership. Like most Christians, I had difficulty understanding the ministry and calling of an apostle. If you ask the average believer what the word “apostle” means, he will quickly refer to Jesus’ original twelve apostles and possibly even include the Apostle Paul, but most Christians struggle when trying to identify the specific characteristics of an apostolic ministry.
I have found that it is a very common belief in Christianity that there is no longer a need for the ministry of an apostle because, most think, an apostle served a function unique to the conditions of the First Century Church. They reason that this need is no longer present in the modern Church and thus we no longer see the ministry of an apostle.
I was once taught that an apostle is “one who brings new light (new revelation),” to the Church. Because the doctrines for the Administration of Grace  are clearly established in the writings of Paul and other apostles, I agreed that according to that definition, there seemed to be little need for the ministry of an apostle. But as I have continued to study God’s Word, I have come to believe this definition is wrong. It does not fit the full portrait I see God painting in Scripture concerning the ministry of an apostle. We can agree that there have been apostles who did bring “new light,” as was the case for Paul, Peter, and John. But there have also been numerous other apostles who have not brought any “new light,” so we must consider that this is not the determining factor of apostolic ministry. After all, what evidence of any new revelation do we have from any of the other original twelve apostles? And what about the post-ascension apostles mentioned in God’s Word, like Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7), James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:19), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25)? The fact that a few apostles brought new revelation appears to be the exception, not the rule. I believe the “new light” criterion is narrow thinking and ignores the greater function of what an apostolic ministry expresses. It is similar to saying that a person with a prophetic ministry always foretells future events because we see a few who did so. This perspective is myopic and misses the larger purpose of the prophetic ministry.
In Chapter 4 of Ephesians, Paul lists what have been called the five “ascension” or “gift” ministries. The first ministry listed is that of an apostle, followed by the other ministries of prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Paul goes on to tell us that Jesus has given these ministries to the Church to prepare God’s people for works of service and to build up the Body of Christ. He states that these ministries are here “until we all reach unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13b).” Because these functions have not yet been completed, it is logical to conclude that we should still see all five ministries present and functioning in the Church. It is not sound thinking to recognize the value of four of the gift ministries (prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) but fail to acknowledge the Church’s need for apostles. I believe that a large portion of the problem lies with the fact that we do not really know what an apostle is; after all, it is hardly a word we use in our everyday vocabulary.
So let us begin our study of apostolic ministry by defining the word “apostle.” It is easy to get some understanding about the other ministries by looking at the Greek word from which they are translated. For example, an evangelist is “a messenger of the good news,” and a pastor is “one who tends to the flock.” Unfortunately, the Greek word apostolos, from which “apostle” is translated, merely means “a sent one.” The word apostolos was used in common literature to designate “a delegate, a messenger, as one sent forth with orders.”  As you can see, this does not really help explain what an apostle is or does. In fact, by looking to the Greek we generate more questions than answers. For instance, sent by whom, to whom, to do what, and how? In order to understand apostleship, we must go deeper than a word study and look at the whole biblical picture of apostolic ministries. Of all the apostles, Paul provides us the most vivid portrait of the apostolic ministry. Although we recognize that he was a “superstar,” we should still be able to glean from his life traits common to other apostles that will help us determine an apostle’s purpose, role, function, and methods.
I’ve noticed that the apostolic ministry is a clear and specific calling. Paul had no uncertainty about his commission from the Lord.  He was very clear that he was “sent” by Jesus Christ (Acts 26:17). There comes a point in the life of the person called as an apostle that he knows for sure that he is commissioned by the Lord as a “sent one.” As with the ministries of teachers, evangelists, prophets, or pastors, we must keep in mind the difference between having the ministry of an apostle and being apostolic. Every believer can and should be apostolic in the sense that each is, in a general way, sent by the Lord with his Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. This differs from the specific commissioning of an apostle, who receives from the Lord a specific sending, for a specific reason, to a specific area of service.
Understanding that an apostle is a “sent one” immediately raises the question, “Sent for what purpose?” To clearly see the purpose of an apostle, we must look at it in its relation to the other four gift ministries. The evangelist plays the primary role of the herald, who broadcasts the good news of salvation to the unsaved. Once having been “saved” and thus becoming a member of the Body of Christ, a person is next best served by the pastor and the teacher. The pastor concentrates on shepherding him and caring for him by tending to his mental, physical, and spiritual needs. The teacher’s objective is to set forth sound, healthy doctrine to keep the believer firmly established and grounded in the integrity and accuracy of God’s Word so he can stand for a lifetime. The prophet serves as the “eyes and ears” of the Church, identifying the ministries in others and acting as a watchman, giving us spiritual direction by alerting us to danger in the spiritual battle.
When looking at the central functions of the evangelist, pastor, prophet, and teacher, we notice that at times they do appear to be contrary to one another. For instance, pastors, who are principally known for their kind, gentle, patient, and supportive manner, can be contrasted with prophets who are generally bold and outspoken, at times even delivering very hard words of correction and rebuke. Both ministries represent the heart and character of Christ, yet they differ greatly in manner and function. In the evangelist we see a person who is spiritually energized to reach the unsaved, superb in his ability to reason and adept at communicating the simple logic of the Gospel. His  message is principally directed to the unsaved, which is in contrast to the teacher, who primarily serves the community of the saved, communicating the truth of God’s Word, a message that many times the unsaved have trouble understanding (1 Cor. 2:14).
So how does the apostle fit into this mix of ministries? The apostle’s central purpose is to be a spiritual builder. His charge is to build community, which he does by bringing unity and balance to the mix. Paul says: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love…” (Col. 2:2). This is a community agenda. With all of the ministries demonstrating specialized aspects of Christ’s own character, the apostle represents the Lord’s heart to keep them balanced, working together to build spiritual communities.
The record of Acts indicates that evangelists, prophets, and apostles are the most effective ministries in church planting, but all three achieve dramatic results through different means. The evangelist goes to the new area, drawing in the crowd and winning people to Christ. The prophet is capable of producing results with his ability to clearly hear from God, speaking specific prophetic words necessary for advancing the spiritual war against the enemy. The apostle is also effective at planting a new church primarily because of his ability to network. As time goes on, these three ministries need to hand off much responsibility to the pastor and teacher. Any person with desire and a plan can plant a church, but that does not mean he or she is adept at building it. The heart of an apostle beats with the desire to build by developing a community of believers, and in order to do this he must work closely with the other ministries. “Apostles think architecturally as builders, supernaturally gifted at putting people’s lives and gifting’s together so that they form cohesive, vibrant, balanced community.”  They also think governmentally, guiding each person into his proper place for the purpose of unity and growth. When things are out of order, they’ll know it. Apostles are concerned with the design, form, and function of spiritual communities.
Apostolic builders do not like to “build upon another man’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20b—KJV). Rather, like Paul, they prefer to build by laying “a foundation as an expert builder” (1 Cor. 3:10). They don’t seek to steal the flock of another but would rather begin a new work by laying the foundation of new relationships erected on sound doctrine. They build community relationally, that is, they develop networks and form connections between individuals and between church communities, standing in the gaps and bringing them together. Paul was a relational man, and the Lord’s revelation to him of the Church as the Body of Christ was essentially relational (Rom. 12:4-5).
Apostleship is a foundational ministry (Eph. 2:20), and as such they are placed “on the bottom,” servants to the other ministries and the entire community. Apostles go through much learning and growth and are developed over time. When it comes to being an apostle, there are no overnight wonders. Apostleship requires longevity and a proven track record. Because it is a relational ministry, it is necessary for them to earn the respect of others, without which they’ll never be able to function. The true apostle of Christ is not interested in titles, hierarchy, or positional authority. It is not a glamorous ministry nor is it a walk of glory or honor. On the contrary, the apostle must be willing to endure great personal sacrifice and hardship,  walking at the end of the procession.  In many cases, the apostle has taken a personal walk through the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. Apostles must set aside self-ambition in order to commit to the service and promotion of others. The greater the success in ministry, the greater the temptation to think, “I’m God’s chosen instrument.” Apostles must be on guard to not give in to such prideful thoughts. All efforts to self-promote run contrary to the very core of their ministry and, if present, will undermine their every effort to build community.
The predominant way Paul related to those he served was as a father.  As he reminded the Thessalonians: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children.” He did this like any parent would, by “encouraging, comforting and urging…” (1 Thess. 2:11 & 12). Viewing himself like a parent, Paul said, He was “gentle among you, like a mother caring for little children” (1 Thess. 2:7). I can almost hear Paul’s love as he appealed to the Corinthians: “I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts…” (2 Cor. 6:13). In his book Apostles, the Fathering Servants, Bill Scheidler describes the relationship this way:
Apostles provide fatherly care to churches and ministries, much like parents do to their children. When a child is young, the care is rather intense. As he gets older; the parental involvement lessens until it is almost non-existent. At that point, even though the involvement is minimal, your father is still your father; the relationship goes on forever. 
The goal of every parent should be to see their children become independent, growing up to maturity as evidenced by their being fruitful and contributing to the rest of the community. When a church starts out, it needs lots of close supervision, instruction, and guidance, but as it grows, it is able to become autonomous that is, self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Paul modeled this attitude toward those he served, and left us a great apostolic example of a fathering servant.
Apostles move beyond planting and go into the building stages. One of the ways they do this is by bringing focus and purpose to the community of believers. Paul’s writings never stray far from his purpose, which was to encourage the saints’ hearts, uniting them in love with a view toward his ultimate goal that they would have complete experiential understanding concerning the Secret.  In fact, Paul mentions an aspect of the Secret in every one of the Church Epistles.  His entire life focused around the Secret, and all of his various purpose statements reinforced his vision.  Like Paul, apostles must never lose their focus on unity in the one Body; it is their very purpose. 
In order to carry out the mission of building the Church, apostles must also be visionaries. They know that “great vision precedes great achievement.”  Being practical, they recognize the reality of the present situation, but they are visionary in the way their focus is on what could and should be. They see future possibilities as present realities in the same way that a builder “sees” the finished product before he picks up the first tool. He knows what it should look like and he knows how to get there. An apostle is not a head-in-the-clouds idealist who sees things through rose-colored glasses. No, he sees the state of the Church as it really is.
Paul repeatedly corrected and reproved the believers, but he did not let their failures get in the way of his vision for them. He saw those he ministered to in light of what they could and should be in Christ, while at the same time recognizing how mature they really were. The apostle is a builder with vision, walking on to the spiritual building site and picturing the completed project before the first batch of concrete is poured. He generally paints with a broad brush, concerned with the big picture, neither losing sight of the details nor getting bogged down by them. It is his vision that encourages those around him and gives him the strength and endurance to see the project through to completion.
The growth of the spiritual community is not dependent on any one ministry. It requires teamwork, and apostles must have a long suit in developing the team. Paul ministered in teams with Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and many others. Every team has its first string, but winning teams require great depth. The apostle is always working to develop the “bench,” the players on the sidelines. That’s what we call “discipleship.” He is always scouting for new players because he knows that today’s recruits and bench players are tomorrow’s first string. We each have unique abilities, talents and giftings, and the apostle is adept at recognizing the spiritual giftings of others. He realizes that “all players have the place where they add the most value,”  and he strives to help each saint find the place where he can be most effective. Paul practiced the principle of duplication, always striving to leave behind a leadership team in the communities he served. He knew that his effectiveness in building and establishing churches was completely contingent on his ability to build teams. Apostolic ministry supports and enhances the other gift ministries. That’s teamwork!
The apostle is a get-it-done-and-then-some person. Wherever Paul went, he made things happen. Many times the apostle’s team will consist of more talented people than he, but it is the apostle who is the catalyst that sparks them into effective action. “Creative people have more than enough ideas, but not all are good at implementing those creative thoughts. Catalysts don’t have this problem. Not only are they creative in their thinking, they are disciplined in their actions.”  The churches became imitators of Paul and his team (1 Thess. 1:6). In fact, in Thessalonica he was so effective that the church became a “model,”  such a good example to others that “the Lord’s message rang out not only in Macedonia and Achaia- [but] your faith has become known everywhere” (1 Thess. 1:8). Now that’s evangelism! As a catalyst, apostles support the other ministries, helping them open doors and blaze new paths. Winning teams have players who make things happen; they are catalysts.
Apostles are trailblazers, spiritual pioneers who must be able to think this way in order to plant and establish new churches. They are often the first to go into new territories, cutting a path for others to follow. These new territories can be geographical or areas of new knowledge and understanding. In the First Century Church, the revelation concerning the Secret was delivered first to the apostles and the prophets.  Today, however, we have the complete canon of Scripture, and present day apostles should never stray beyond the boundaries of God’s Word, or presume to have authority that in any way supersedes Scripture. Apostles are required to be solidly rooted and grounded in the Word and they, along with the other ministries, are defenders of doctrinal truth.  At times it takes an apostolic ministry to break through into new areas, clearing the path for other ministries to follow. This is just one more way that the apostle serves the other ministries.
We must be careful not to assume that the apostle is the only one who can open a new area or establish a new work for the Lord. I have observed numerous times when churches were started by pastors or teachers and they were not “apostles,” per se. It is the Lord who energizes the ministries, and he can put it on the heart any of his people to act, on occasion, apostolically. There are overlaps in function with all the ministries. I may not be a pastor, yet that is not an excuse for me to not, at times, act pastorally. Conversely, a person is not an apostle just because on occasion he acts apostolically, in the same way that he is not a prophet because he prophesies, or a teacher because he teaches. It is the quality and quantity of planting and building over time that marks the ministry of the apostle.
We’ve looked at the community-building responsibility the Lord has given to apostles. With every responsibility comes the commensurate authority necessary to get the job done, so we need to be clear about the authority of an apostle. Referring to the apostolic vacancy created by Judas’s suicide, Peter says, “May another take his place of leadership” (Acts 1:20b). Apostolic ministry performs a leadership function but, as we have seen, this is not the type of leadership that we generally see modeled around us in the world today.  The apostle knows that leadership is nothing more than the ability to influence others. Paul’s writings reflect that he knew he had no power to make anyone do anything. When Paul commanded the Corinthian Church to expel a brother for an incestuous relationship, it was up to the church to decide whether they would obey him.  An apostle’s ability to accomplish things with others depends on his ability to influence them. The apostle is not the ultimate authority, and he is not to lord or have dominion over others.  I believe John Kelly articulates the concept of apostolic and church authority very well.
When I go to the local church, I am in the pastor’s “house” and I am a visitor, a guest. I am not there to violate anything that is under his care. I would not violate his family, elders, or flock—those are all people under his sphere of authority. I would be there to submit and serve. However, the dynamics change when the pastor is not with his congregation or family. When I’m alone with him or any brother who is committed to our network, he is back in my “house”—my sphere of influence. We have to know when we are going in and coming out of someone’s “house,” and that situation can change rapidly. 
The apostle always accomplishes things relationally, not autocratically. Our ability to change in our submitting, depending on the circumstances, is the very essence of relational authority, and can be exercised only when others acknowledge it. The apostle’s authority is to be used for building up, never for tearing anyone down.  Apostles cannot enforce their authority—they can only speak it. If others don’t recognize their authority, it has no effect. This is why Paul said, “Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!” (1 Cor. 9:2).
In those circles of Christianity where the ministry of an apostle is recognized, the apostle’s authority is generally presented in a very authoritative manner. In his book, The Ministry Anointing of the Apostle, John Eckhardt cites 1 Corinthians 12:28,  which indicates that the apostle is considered first. Using this verse of Scripture as his basis, he makes the following heavy-handed statements…
Apostles have been set in the church by God, FIRST…When God says first, He means FIRST. Many local churches suffer because they have not recognized God’s order. A church out of order will not experience the fullness of the anointing without submission to an apostle the other ministries will not be effective. 
I don’t believe this is a correct understanding of apostolic authority. Looking to Jesus, as the chief apostle,  we see that he never accomplished anything in this hierarchical way. Rather, he left us the example of a servant leader, one willing to wash the feet of all he served. None of the other ministries are required to bow to or relinquish their authority to the apostle. The apostle is present to serve the others, and all the ministries function in relative submission to each other, not on the basis of positional authority, but to the degree that they perceive God at work in each other. Any ministry that submits to the apostle does so only insofar as they believe that what the apostle says lines up with God working in him. Their cooperation varies according to the degree that they sense the benefits of cooperating with the apostle’s vision. We know from Scripture that there have been occasions when apostles were wrong. Paul says: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11). The book of Acts records how Agabus and many others opposed Paul when he set his mind on traveling to Jerusalem.  It is a dangerous place indeed to think that a man will always be right merely because he has the ministry of an apostle.
The Lord works with the apostle, allowing him to set things in order in the Church, which may at times require the need to reprove, correct, or rebuke. His ultimate view on church matters is always from the community perspective, which means he is always seeking to build unity, but the apostle understands that he is never to put relationship (unity) before doctrine. The authority and responsibility to protect doctrine is not his alone, all ministries are charged by God to “guard the good deposit (Secret) that has been entrusted to [them] (2 Tim. 1:14). The true apostle of Christ is not autocratic, dictatorial, or despotic. His ability to accomplish things is dependent on the mutual love and respect generated between himself and those he serves. People pay heed to his words because they love him and recognize that he speaks wisely from a place of love.
The apostle’s commission can be for service to a certain geographical area such as a city, region, nation, or nations.  Paul’s primary area of responsibility and authority was ministering to the Gentiles,  while Peter’s was to the Jews (Gal. 2:8). An apostle is limited by the Lord in responsibility and authority to the field which he is sent. Paul was limited in his ability to minister to Jews, who were the responsibility of Peter and others because the Lord knew that the Jews would not receive Paul. Unfortunately, Paul’s great heart for Israel got him in deep trouble when he attempted to go outside the assigned field of his commission. He was almost killed in Jerusalem, landed in prison for a number of years, and saw the effectiveness of his ministry lessened.
The apostle must also be able to relate the doctrinal truths of God’s Word to their practical application for both the individual and the community at-large, and therefore it is required that he be fully grounded in Scripture. He must be spiritually mature and walk with godly wisdom, knowing the deep truths of the Word and how to apply them practically in daily life. This also underscores the idea that an apostle is not a novice; there are no “overnight wonders” here. The depth of the Word, coupled with the wisdom of experience, takes time to develop.
Apostles utilize the techniques of both teaching and preaching,  thereby establishing new churches. The book of Acts records Paul reminding the Ephesian elders: “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). This is not to say that the apostle is as effective in the long run at teaching as the teacher or at evangelizing as the evangelist but, rather that all apostles must be articulate and thoroughly able to communicate the truths of Scripture.
When Paul’s apostleship was questioned by the Corinthian Church, he reminded them that, “The things that mark an apostle-signs, wonders and miracles- were done among you…” (2 Cor. 12:12). Paul was very clear that it was the Lord who confirmed his ministry by his demonstration of supernatural acts. The Lord confirms not only apostolic ministries but, as we see recorded in the book of Acts, also confirms the words and deeds of all the gift ministries with miraculous signs  when they speak the Word forth. As Peter states: “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11a). God and the Lord Jesus always back up every minister who speaks for them.