“…the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things… gave apostles…” || Eph. 4.10b-11a
There is much confusion aswirl over the subject of apostleship, especially as it relates to the question of whether or not it should be seen as an ongoing ministry in our day. Many would say, “Apostles ceased to be when the last of the 12 died.” Others would say, “Apostles ceased to be when the canon of Scripture was closed. We don’t need apostles today because we don’t need more Scripture written.” Others, especially in Charismatic and semi-Charismatic “missional” circles might say, “Apostles exist today. They are the movers and shakers, the ones gifted to build ministries that have profound impact on the Great Commission and give aid to churches on various levels.” Still others would say, “Apostles have authority to govern regions and to oversee multiple churches and ministries.”
To be sure, confusions abound and opinions often escalate into fiery debates with regard to the issue of apostleship. My aims in this article are to survey two of the primary modern viewpoints (the first of which is not so modern, but is still prevalent today), to consider objections to modern apostleship and distortions to modern apostleship claims, and to offer what I believe to be a view of apostleship that is grounded in Scripture and is therefore indispensable to the life and mission of the Church today.
So, the cat’s out of the bag. I am convinced that apostleship is meant by the ascended Lord to be an ongoing ministry in our day— indeed, an ongoing ministry until “Apostle and High Priest of our confession” returns. What this means may be surprising to some of you, but you will find that none of the ideas I hold forth are either novel or extra-biblical. I am convinced that apostleship is indispensable chiefly because I hold to “Sola Scriptura”, not in spite of my reverence for and conviction in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture.
This raises a host of questions from various angles, and I haven’t the time here to raise and address all of them. Let me focus on what I believe to be the two primary errors when it comes to addressing the issue of apostleship.
The Cessationist View
The Cessationist view, specifically with regard to apostleship (usually including a view that prophets too have ceased to be), is the view that with the death of John the Apostle, or more commonly, with the closing of the Canon of Scripture, there was no longer a need for apostles, as their primary role was to unfold the mystery of the Gospel in an authoritative sense. In their view, the mystery had now been disclosed (which is true according to Rom. 16.25), the Scriptures had been written, and since this was the primary role of the apostles, none were needed for the ongoing mission of the Church. I agree with the first part of that statement, and differ with the last part, as we will see.
I have some sympathies with those who hold to this view, though in the last analysis I find it to be utterly unbiblical. My sympathies lie not in an agreement with the view itself, but with the fact that it is often held by brothers and sisters who are concerned to hold to the supremacy and uniqueness of Biblical revelation. Their fear of present-day apostles (and prophets) often issues from a high view of the Bible, and the assumption is that the apostolic ministry is a foundational revelatory ministry, so if claims of modern apostleship are made, so might there be claims of new revelations which are not in keeping with the testimony of Scripture. I understand that fear, and while I believe it is misguided for many reasons, I commend them for being jealous to guard the truth of the Word. This leads us to some of their objections to present-day apostleship. For brevity’s sake, I’ll give a few short thoughts in response to each one.
Primary Objections Made by Those Who Believe Apostles Have Ceased
I. “We don’t need apostles today because Scripture has already been written.”
I don’t believe the writing of Scripture was ever meant to be definitive of apostleship or exclusive to apostleship. There is much I could say on this point, but here are some reasons why this point is erroneous, if even well-intended.
a. Not all apostles wrote Scripture. In fact, most of the apostles named in the NT didn’t write Scripture. Only a few of the original 12 wrote Scripture, and of the other 10 names associated with apostleship in the NT, only a few were given that authoritative role.
b. Not all the authors of Scripture were apostles (nor were the remainder all prophets). This is glaringly obvious when we survey the whole of the Bible.
I needn’t belabor this point. There is no way to make a case from the Bible that biblical authorship was either definitive or exclusive to the role of apostleship. Simply put, some apostles were chosen and uniquely empowered by God to write some of the books in the Bible, but not all apostles were given this task, and the majority of the men chosen by God as instruments for the penning of Scripture were not themselves apostles. We conclude confidently that the authorship of Scripture was neither definitive nor exclusive to the role of apostleship.
II. “Jesus chose the twelve, and Paul was the only other apostle chosen, since he also had ‘seen the Lord.’ (1 Cor. 9.1) Any claim to apostleship otherwise is a presumptuous thing at best, and at worst, a destructive kind of deception.”
This point, which has cemented into a rather common tradition, is purely based on historical and biblical ignorance. Here are a few reasons it cannot be true:
a. Within the NT text itself, there are at least 10 men besides the 12 directly called ‘apostles’ or named amongst the company of apostles (c.f. Acts 1.26, 14.14; Gal. 1.19; 1 Cor. 4.6, 9; Rom. 16.7; 1 Thess. 1.1, 2.6; Phil. 2.25). Even if you seek to argue that some of these were comrades of the apostles but not really apostles, you cannot make that case for all of them, as many of them are explicitly called apostles in the texts provided. There is no sound hermeneutical approach, no commendable exegesis of these texts which would lead us to conclude that some, if not all of the names mentioned herein were known as apostles in the early church.
b. Ephesians 4.11ff never specifies that the work of the apostles and prophets will only continue in the sense that their Biblical testimony is foundational for the Church. Is it foundational? Without question. Any deviation from the Biblical prophets and apostles should be feared and counted as error. But nowhere does the text teach or even imply in the slightest sense that the ongoing equipping and upbuilding of the church is the work of pastors, evangelists, and teachers only.
It is an acrobatic feat of interpretation (not without some sleight of hand) to pluck apostles and prophets out from this text, or to define them as first-century ministries, while the other ministries are to be ongoing.
I understand why many have concluded this, and I sympathize with the well-meaning intention to maintain a high-view of Scripture, but I think it eventuates in a diminishing of the Bible at the end of the day. It is a twisted exposition of Eph. 4.11 and other Biblical texts regarding apostleship. Often this is done unconsciously or because of theological traditions that go back many centuries. Nonetheless, a poor interpretation of Scripture and the elevation of opinions and extra-biblical traditions is the antithesis of a high-view of the Bible, not the reverse.
It should also be noted that none of the apostles, even the ones who wrote Scripture, were in and of themselves immune to error or short-sightedness. None of the them were Jesus. It is the Scriptures that are infallible, not the men who were used of God to write them. Even within the Scripture itself, we see occasional disagreements amongst the apostles. These do not prove the fallibility of the Bible, but rather the fallibility of all men. Our faith is in God and His Word, not in the apostles as men.
c. Paul speaks about false apostles in his epistles (1 and 2 Cor. especially), and Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for finding false apostles to be false. Why does this speak to ongoing apostleship? Because the ground of their falsehood was not as it is modernly claimed, that, “No other apostles besides the 12 and Paul were meant to be given to the Church.” Rather, the ground of their falsehood was their lack of Christ-likeness, their poor doctrine, their lack of true servanthood, their poor grasp of the Gospel, and on and on.
In other words, they were disqualified from being counted as apostles because they had not been shaped and sent by the Lord in a manner which pleased His heart and was in keeping with His word. The fact that there were false apostles meant that there ought to be true sent ones, and there is no biblical reason to assume that this ought not to be the case today. There are fakers today, and the need for true apostles is of paramount import still.
d. Lastly, regarding 1 Cor. 9.1. It is often said that since Paul had “seen the Lord”, a Christophany was required for one to be called as an apostle. 1 Cor. 15.3-11 may seem to contain an even stronger argument for this idea. The 12 had seen the risen Lord, and Paul encountered Him on the road to Damascus, and later while praying in the temple. Many conclude from this that a visible/audible encounter with Jesus is a qualification for apostleship. Is that what Paul was saying? I don’t believe so.
I do see how this could be a point of confusion, but I believe Paul actually answers his questions within the texts themselves. The point of 1 Cor. 9.1 is to give defense of his character and role to the Corinthian church to undergird his exhortations regarding food sacrificed to idols (ch. 8), and the divine right of an apostle to receive financial support from the churches to which he was rightly related (ch. 9). Thus, he asks several questions. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”
Paul’s point here is not to give a list of qualifications for apostleship, but to defend his apostleship for the sake of building up the Body of believers at Corinth. He is not saying, “All apostles must have visibly seen the risen Christ.” In any case, though the 12 all saw him, and some of the other apostles in the NT may have been present when the 500 witnessed the ascension, we have no record of them seeing Christ in this way for certain. Nor does the Book of Acts or the other Epistles mention a Christophany as a qualification for apostleship.
The primary point of 1 Cor. 15.3-11 is indeed the supremacy of the Gospel and the reality of Christ’s resurrection, for which reason I believe he’s mentioning all of those who saw the Lord in His resurrected state. One more reason I don’t think Paul was putting forth a Christophany as a qualification for apostleship is that Paul was not the last apostle called and sent in the NT, but he does say, “last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me.” Some of the apostles mentioned in the texts above were not only called after Paul, a few of them were even led to the Lord and discipled by Paul. Timothy and Titus being a few examples.
Not only that, but Paul mentions the 500 others who saw them, the vast majority of which probably never became apostles. At least we have no record of them all being sent in the apostolic sense. Was Paul’s main point that apostles must have a Christophany, or that Christ in fact had risen from the dead, and that there were many witnesses to the fact? I believe it is the latter, even though the second half of the text mentioned does touch on Paul’s apostleship.
There is, however, a qualification for true apostleship given in 1 Cor. 9, and it is not the requirement of a Christophany. It is found in vv. 1b-3:
“Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me.”
In other words, true apostles will preach the Gospel, make disciples, and plant and nurture churches. Their seal of approval is seen in the churches which grow out of their planting and watering. God gives the increase, and the fruit of the Spirit vindicates the authenticity of the apostle.
Many may claim to have Christophanic experiences, and they have throughout Church history. Some of them are true, I believe, but many (I would assume most) of them are false. But you cannot fake the establishment and growing in grace of a family of believers, who previously were bound in darkness, sin and idolatry, and who through the faithful preaching of the Gospel are now serving the living God, growing in holiness and humility, treasuring and obeying the Scriptures, and above all the Christ of Scripture.
Much more could be said of the Cessasionist view, but that will have to suffice for now. Let us look to another erroneous and rather widespread view regarding modern-day apostleship.
The “New Apostolic Reformation”/Charismatic “Third Wave” View
I have already written much more than intended, so I’ll be as terse as possible here. You can find out more about this online or through a number of publications, though I must say, these are rather shark-infested waters.
On the one hand, much of what you’ll see from the so-called “N.A.R.” (and spin-offs from it) will be troubling, and in my estimation, it should be troubling to us. On the other hand, many who seek to criticize modern-charismatic emphases on apostleship often do so in venomous, slanderous ways, usually smearing all charismatic believers into the mix with leaders and teachings that the whole lump of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches wouldn’t be in harmony with.
It is a task quite daunting to wrap your mind around this, and in some ways it is impossible to know the whole and unprofitable to spend too much time on it. There are so many variations and streams that fall in this category that we must be careful not to caricature or misrepresent true brothers and sisters in our pilgrimage for truth. This is crucial, for there are many faithful Pentecostal/Charismatic men and women of God all over the world, many of whom have suffered greatly for the faith, and have led many sons to glory. It is an error to lump the Pentecostal/Charismatic church in with the false apostleship we’re speaking of, even though most of those who claim apostleship are found within P/C churches and movements, generally speaking. There are likely a great host of servants in the nations who are continuationists, most of whom will never be known on the popular level, whose ministries are very much in keeping with true apostleship in terms of their character, their suffering, their doctrine, and their fruit. This must be acknowledged as we think about the aberrations.
That said, let me note just a few of the erroneous assumptions that have been espoused, especially over the last 20 years or so under the auspices of C. Peter Wagner and his colleagues. I name him here not to demean him, but to say that since his books and teachings were quite public and influential, the errors which sprung from them need to be addressed rather than ignored. It is an unfortunate thing that many Charismatic leaders have been unwilling to address these things, but I am convinced that many false claims to apostleship have been made as a result of these teachings, and the subject is too precious in Scripture for us to permit these distortions.
I. The Idea of Apostles as CEO’s or Regional Overseers
Within the N.A.R., apostles came to be defined as men (and women) with remarkable organizational gifting, often smacking of a Bill Gates type of leader- one with outstanding abilities to influence and build large ministries. It was even claimed from time to time that men like Steve Jobs had an apostolic calling, but failed to fulfill it because they did not follow the Lord.
Certain leaders were branded “apostolic overseers” of a whole cluster of churches or ministries, especially as they were gifted to execute things administratively. Portions of Paul’s epistles were cherry-picked to affirm this, often devoid of their real meaning and context, and these men were seen as problem-solvers, movers and shakers, and this came to define apostleship within the movement. The NT idea of a gospel-grounded, relationally-oriented, sacrificial servant-apostle was scarcely emphasized, and an unbiblical model emerged. I am sure that there were exceptions to this within the movement, but by and large this seemed to be the flavor of things.
One would be hard-pressed to assume that Paul the apostle, the prototypical “sent one” to the Gentiles, was anywhere nearly as impressive as these figures. 2 Cor. 10 bears this out in no uncertain terms. His strength was in the weakness of his features and skills, in many ways, God’s power being perfected and magnified through his weakness and his sufferings. The fragrance of worldly success is not the “fragrance of Christ,” which is marked by humility and holiness, godly sorrow and joy unspeakable.
II. The Idea of “Apostolic Alignment”
I find no pleasure in digging this one up, in fact it pains me, but I find it necessary to address. The stakes are too high to leave it ambiguous.
It became common within this movement to speak of “apostolic alignment”, the process by which Dr. Wagner and others of his company would “align” other ministries with themselves, appointing them as new apostles, prophets, or influencers of other kinds, through the laying on of hands. It is Biblical for men to be appointed to different roles of leadership by the Church through the laying on of hands, but within the N.A.R. this happened on rather unbiblical and unreal grounds.
One dramatic case of this was seen on the international stage when Todd Bentley of the “Lakeland Revival” was “apostolically aligned” in a ceremony in 2008. Dr. Wagner and many of his colleagues were present at this event and gave sanction to it. It would soon be exposed that Bentley was engaged in an immoral relationship, which itself disqualified him from being a leader in the Body of Christ, not to mention to more grandiose claims that were made in the ceremony about him being a prototype for all future evangelists and revivalists. Despite the claim of real apostolic activity in this “alignment”, there was evidently little to no real accountability or viable relationship involved in the process. There was no context by which his character and doctrine could be assessed. But Paul told Timothy not to lay hands on men too hastily, lest we “share in their sin.”
This display, on a wide public platform, could only be seen as destructive and false, and the usage of “apostolic” language only served to make it all the more tragic. This kind of “Apostolic alignment” is a “Saul before the David,” an Ishmael rather than an Isaac, and as much as the N.A.R. might have cried for it to live, it cannot live as something pleasing unto God. However much the language of “apostolic” is used, it is by its very nature the antitheses of New Testament Apostolicity, which is characterized by a radical jealousy for the Name of God, a deep-seated submission to the Scriptures, a profound love for the Body of Christ, and a fatherly/brotherly kind relatedness to all who are appointed to various roles of leadership within the Church.
Too much goes on without being “in the light” in these kinds of ceremonies. It might be said that it’s more akin to Bill Gates appointing a new regional director at Microsoft than it is to the healthy appointing of a leader in the church. In fact, it may be even less accountable and honest in certain ways. This should not lead us to demonize others, but rather to tremble at the manner in which we are relating to one another, and the way in which we are appointing leaders.
The aftermath of the Lakeland incident was tragic and multi-layered, but it is not uncommon (though often much less public) in such circles.
These examples ought to be enough to compel us to look for light from the Scriptures. Wagner was, after all, correct in concluding that there ought to be (and are) apostles in the Church and in missions today. In fact, he was right about many things. But the errors which came out of this movement are more grave than we can perceive, and a humble and prayerful return to Scripture is our only hope of recovery.
For the last section of this article, I would like to focus on the Meaning, Purpose, and Indispensability of Apostleship.
The Meaning of Apostleship
If we would rightly grasp the meaning apostleship according to the Scriptures, I suggest that our understanding of it must be both de-mystified and sanctified.
This speaks primarily to the cessationist view of apostleship, and its ripple-effects throughout church history.
The apostles of the NT were not super-heroes, nor were they elite saints whose role it was to write the Holy Bible. As noted above, some of them did write some of Scripture, but this was not their role as a whole. We need to be freed from Romish influences which Popify Peter and posterize Paul. These issue from a low view of the Gospel.
These men are our brothers. They were redeemed sinners who were still being sanctified throughout the time that the Book of Acts events transpired on beyond that. The Lord laid His hand upon them, shaped and sent them, but they remained men— trophies of grace, not icons to memorialize. Peter and John as well as Paul and Barnabus charged their would-be worshippers not to exalt them, “for we are only men like you.” Of course, the original twelve had a unique kind of apostleship (Mt. 19 bears this out), and the authority to write Scripture does not continue today. Any claim to apostleship that includes new Scripture being written is patently false. But even among false apostles today, the claim to this authority is few and far between.
We would not claim to worship the apostles, but we have mystified their lives, as if they were saints of a higher class. In fact, they were not. They may have been more Christ-like than us, but the possibilities of grace were not confined to them. The same Gospel which saved them has saved us, and the same Spirit which sanctified them is yet sanctifying us. This is one of the main points of NT apostolic teaching. The apostles meant for us to follow in their train, not to exalt them as ends in themselves. We are to look upon them, and seeing through them, to behold the One who means to conform the whole of the Church to His image.
The Canon of Scripture is superior in perfection and authority to all else that is taught in Church history, but again, it’s authorship is not exclusive to the role of apostleship. The Biblical Gospel is the authoritative Gospel, whether it came through Paul the apostle or Isaiah the prophet, or Luke the Physician.
The apostles of Scripture were not to be seen as the source, but rather to be seen as those who were ever pointing to the Source, serving as an example to the saints in character and doctrine, and a specific example in role to apostolic servants/missionaries in every generation. We must de-mystify them in this sense. We cannot “follow Paul as he follows Christ” if we think that he was built of better dust than we.
No, Paul’s dust was the same as ours and his Christ is the same Christ as ours, so long as we are submitted to the Scriptures and drinking of the same Spirit. The “chief of sinners” was a precious servant of Christ, shaped by the grace of God, and held forth as a pattern for us, not as an ivory-tower monument, untouchable and unreachable. Let us not belittle the grace of God by mystifying who the apostles were.
This speaks more to those who would claim that apostles are for today, but whose view of apostleship is not in keeping with the picture laid forth in the Scriptures. Of course, this applies to the cessationist view as well, as all of our false assumptions regarding apostleship need to be purged and brought back to the foundational ground of Scripture.
I address here the more charismatic views because I believe that the word “apostle” has been cheapened and made too common by their claims. While I’m eager not to explain apostleship as something that has ceased, or something that is so elevated that we could never think of its recovery in our day, I’m equally leery of the cheapening effect that false claims to apostleship have had on the church and its mission.
If one of the roles of true apostles is to appoint elders/pastors who qualify to serve in accordance with 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1, 1 Pet. 5 and Acts 20, then it goes without saying that apostles themselves should bear the same kind of character, doctrine, and spiritual wisdom which is required of elders/pastors on a local level. Elders/pastors are not merely men of elite intellect and morality, as if they’re qualities issue from themselves, but they are humble and godly men who have been shaped over time by the faithful hands of the Potter. Apostles must be the same. Thus Paul exclaimed, “You saw what manner of man I was in your midst.” “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
We must return to understanding apostleship in accordance with the example we see in the New Testament. Therefore, unless we are basically gripped with and grounded by a Biblical vision of apostleship (and we all “see in part” on this), our view must be “made holy” or sanctified, that we might rightly pray for and equip sent ones with the help of the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Purpose of Apostleship
Why did the Lord ascend on high and give the gift of apostles along with the other gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4.11? Let us look to the text itself for the answer:
“…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” || Eph. 4.12-16
Simply put, along with prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, apostles were given by Christ to equip the saints for the work of service, and to build up the Body of Jesus in the nations.
They are sent to proclaim the Gospel where it has been named and where it has not been named (Acts 2, Rom. 15), to make disciples (Mt. 28), to impart spiritual gifts (Rom. 1, 2 Tim. 1), to plant and nurture churches (Acts 20, 2 Cor. 11.28), to appoint elders (Acts 14.23), and to do this in an ongoing manner until the fullness of Christ characterizes the Church and every people group has been penetrated with the light of the Gospel (Mt. 24.14).
Apostleship is synonymous with true missionary work. Missions work that is devoid of the character, doctrine, and ways of NT apostleship is by definition non-missional. Claims to apostleship that are not in keeping with the missionary labors of the NT apostles are by definition sub-apostolic.
Apostles and Missionaries, from a biblical vantage point, are one and the same (a study of the Greek and Latin from which we derive “apostle” and “missionary” reveals this). Many have claimed apostleship cheaply, and others have claimed to be missionaries with little or no apostolic character. We cannot settle for this, saints. We must de-mystify and sanctify the meaning of apostleship/missions with the help of the Scriptures.
I could say much more along these lines, and I aim to do just that in my forthcoming book “Grace and Apostleship: Gleanings from Paul’s Missionary Vision”. But this will have to suffice for now.
The Indispensability of Apostleship
In light of these things it should be seen that apostleship is indispensable to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, which is the establishing and building up of local churches amongst every tribe and tongue.
Rather than spelling this out in great detail here as I aim to in my book, let me point you to the Scriptures for understanding and inspiration about the character of apostleship and its indispensability for the hallowing of God’s Name in the earth, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
We cannot be the church nor fulfill our mission without true apostles. Let us look to the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession”, the One who shed His blood to purchase men from every tribe. Let us “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Is apostolic ministry indispensable? Is it needed today?
“If we’re thinking of an ‘apostle’ in Biblical terms, that is, a ‘sent out one’, with a ministry that’s really establishing God’s work where God’s work is either absent or extremely weak (which is really what the apostles were doing in a general sense) then yes, we do need God to raise up such signal servants, who will draw the attention of both the churched and the unchurched people to the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves. Because they are so taken up with Christ… Christ is being preached. In that sense we need to pray, in our different towns, cities, countries… that God will raise up such clear voices— individuals whose ministry will be trail-blazing for others.” || Conrad Mbewe, Pretoria, South Africa, October 14th, 2010
Let us return to the Scriptures. Let us return to prayer. The Gospel is too precious a message, the destiny of men too ponderous, and the Name of Christ too holy for us to “sit at ease in Zion.”