Are There Apostles in Today's Church?
by Steve Atkerson
Are There Apostles in Today's Church?
Most evangelicals reject outright the idea that there could be apostles today. One reason for this is because the Twelve were personally handpicked by Jesus to represent Him. They also were instructed directly by Jesus. No one alive today meets those qualifications. Another reason that evangelicals do not believe in modern apostles lies in the unique authority vested in such men. Jesus told the Twelve, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Mt 10:40). During the Last Supper, Jesus exclusively promised the Twelve that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). Accordingly, after Jesus’ ascension, the early believers devoted themselves not to what Jesus had said but rather “to the apostles’ teaching” (Ac 2:42). This was because the apostles’ teaching was identical to Jesus’ teaching.
When Paul visited the brothers in Galatia, they welcomed him “as if [he] were Christ Jesus Himself” (Ga 4:14). Indeed, the apostles consciously realized their unique authority as Jesus’ representatives. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul said, “if anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (1Co 14:37). Speaking directly to the Twelve, Jesus said, “if they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (Jn 15:20b). It is no wonder that few have been bold enough to claim the mantle of modern apostleship!
However, further data comes to light when one examines all the New Testament data on the apostles. Paul wrote that our resurrected Lord appeared to “the Twelve” and later to “all the apostles” (1Co 15:3-8). Are “all the apostles” different from “the Twelve”? Matthew 10:2-4 gives a listing (by name) of the “twelve apostles” and yet 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2:6 also refer to Paul, Silas and Timothy as “apostles.” Romans 16:7 may refer to two more apostles, Andronious and Junias. In Acts 14:14, Luke referred to Barnabas as an “apostle.” Finally, James (the Lord’s brother) certainly seems to have been grouped as an apostle in Galatians 1:18-19 and 2:9. In what sense were all these other people “apostles”?
In Scripture there were essentially two types of apostles. Foremost there were those apostles who had physically seen the resurrected Lord Jesus, who had been personally chosen by Jesus to represent Him, and who had been trained directly by Jesus (1Co 15:8-9, Ga 1:11-2:10). This first group consisted of the spiritual heavyweights. They were the norm for doctrine and practice in the early church. It was they who wrote or approved all books now in the New Testament canon of Scripture. Whereas this first type of apostle was prepared and sent out by Jesus in person, the second type of apostle was prepared and sent out by Jesus in Spirit and carried much less authority (Ac 13:1-3; 2Co 8:23; Php 2:25). Not having been trained by Jesus when He was on the earth, the second type of apostle merely studied and repeated what the first type of apostle taught (1Co 4:16-17; 1Ti 3:14-15; 2Ti 2:2; Tit 1:5).
The word apostle in our English Bible is a transliteration of the Greek apostolos. The actual translation would be something like “envoy, ambassador, messenger, sent one.”1 The verb apostello carries the notion of “to send with a particular purpose,” thus, apostolos would mean “one commissioned” or “accredited messenger.”2 When translating the New Testament from Greek into Latin, the translators rendered apostolos with the Latin root missio (the basis for our “missionary”). Did you ever notice that the word missionary is nowhere to be found in an English Bible? Yet virtually every evangelical believes in missionaries. This is because missionary is the dynamic equivalent of apostolos. The justification for the existence of contemporary missionaries lies in the New Testament patterns of and teachings about the existence of apostles.
Thus, while there are not likely to be anymore of the first type of apostle, modern church planters certainly do correspond to the second type of apostle. That is, they have been sent out by the Holy Spirit to evangelize and to plant churches. Church planters are truly apostles in the secondary sense, and they are as much needed today as they were in the first century.
Granted that there is indeed a New Testament pattern to justify the existence of church planters today, how should our modern apostles carry out their ministries? Based on Acts 1-7, 8:12, 15:1-2 (cp. Ga 1:11, 1:18, 2:1, 2:9) and 21:17-18, it appears that most of the Twelve worked out of Jerusalem for at least seventeen years (it was their base of operations). While there, the apostles devoted their time to evangelizing the lost in Jerusalem and to teaching the saved. They also occasionally took short missionary journeys while based out of Jerusalem (Ac 8:14, 25). By the time Paul went there, however, they seem to have left (Ac 21:17-18). Only James was still present. However, looking again to the New Testament, it becomes obvious that near constant movement characterized many of the other apostles. They itinerated, preached the Gospel and organized churches. Rarely did these traveling apostles settle down permanently in one place.
Occasional training stops were made in strategic locations, but then the circuit continued. For instance, Paul spent one and a half years in Corinth (Ac 18:11), two years in Ephesus (Ac 19:8-10), and two years in Rome (Ac 28:31). He managed to resist the temptation of staying any longer. Similarly, Paul told the apostle Timothy to “stay in Ephesus so that [he] might command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1Ti 1:3); but once that job was done Paul wrote for him to “do your best to get here before winter” (2Ti 4:21). Despite what is commonly supposed, Timothy was an apostle to Ephesus, not a pastor there. Another example is Titus, left in Crete to “straighten out what was left unfinished” and to “appoint elders in every town” (Tit 1:5); once this was accomplished Titus was to join Paul at Nicopolis (Tit 3:12).
What objectives did the early apostles have that motivated their travels? One was evangelism. In discussing the rights of apostles, Paul referred to apostles as “those who preach the gospel” (1Co 9:14). Similarly, Timothy was charged to “do the work of an evangelist” (2Ti 4:5). Even a cursory reading of Acts will show this to be an important function for apostles.
Another objective of those sent out by the church was to organize and strengthen the newly converted. This was partially the reason for the one or two year stays. Ephesians 4:11-13 tells us that God gave apostles “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” Paul planned a visit to Ephesus, but in case he was delayed he wrote instructions so that they would “know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household” (1Ti 3:15). Timothy’s job was to “entrust” the truth to “reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2Ti 2:2).
A major difference between an elder and an apostle is that a elder’s sphere of service is concentrated in the local church, whereas an apostle’s field is universal and temporary. Once an apostle has trained and appointed elders, he moves on. From then on, it is up to the elders to teach the church and train future elders, with occasional help from apostles who pass by.
Under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, no words recorded in Scripture are accidental or without importance. All written there is for our profit. Just as we ignore New Testament patterns for ecclesiology to our peril, so also to disregard New Testament apostolic practices is unwise. The existence of mobile, traveling, itinerant church workers is a New Testament pattern. Virtually every church mentioned in the New Testament was started by apostolic teams, and continued on in relationship with these teams for years after their founding. Blood circulates all over the body, bringing in oxygen and taking away impurities. Itinerant church workers are to the new church as the blood is to the body. Their ministry is a part of God’s design for growing, healthy first generation churches. The New Testament pattern is for existing churches to support church planters who will start new congregations in unchurched areas. We still need the ministry of such men today. These modern apostles can also serve existing churches by helping ground them in sound doctrine and practice. In this sense they serve as seminary professors on wheels, training and equipping church leaders in their local settings (1Ti 1:3; 3:14-15; 4:1-6, 13; 2Ti 1:13; 2:1-2, 14; 4:1-5; Tit 1:5; 2:1-15).
Twenty-first century apostles are to be servants of the church, not lords over it. Though they will naturally have the influential authority of an elder over the churches they begin, a modern apostle is really no higher in rank than any elder. Modern apostles are not like the Twelve of old. It must be remembered that the faith was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). No “new” teaching is needed. No essential theology has been withheld from the church. Thus, a church planter’s teaching must be in harmony with the previous revelation from the Twelve. No doubt there will occasionally arise false apostles, and because of this we must be like the Ephesians who “tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Re 2:2).
It is not likely that we shall ever again encounter an apostle in the sense that the Twelve were apostles. However, the church always has had and will continue to have apostles in the sense that Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, and Epaphroditus were apostles. That is, church planters sent out to evangelize, start churches, train and appoint leaders, and then move on to another location.
Apostolic bands were integral to the spread and maturity of the early church. Their existence and ministry is a New Testament pattern. They evangelized, made disciples, taught, organized, and appointed elders. Can you start a church without an apostle present? Yes. Can an existing church function without apostolic input? Yes. Can a church elect its own elders? Yes. Yet all this is much easier if apostolic workers are around to draw upon.
What the church does not need are:
1. So-called apostles who try to lord over (rule) the local church. Apostles are to be servants of the church (Col 1:25, 2Co 13:4). The apostles are to strengthen local leadership, not supplant it. In fact, apostles should be accountable to the leadership of the local church.
2. Apostles who dominate the meetings of the local church, and who try to turn it into a one man show. Apostles are to be like coaches, not players. The church “belongs” to the brothers, not to the apostles.
3. Parasites on the church. Apostles do have the right to support, but ought to be able and willing to work secularly if need be.
4. Apostles who peddle the Word of God, charging for their services.
What the church does need is for you to:
1. Pray for God to raise up modern day apostles of the church who will plant Biblical house churches, Matthew 9:37-38.
2. Pray for those who are already doing evangelistic work, Ephesians 6:19-20, Colossians 4:2-4.
3. Give to support full time apostles (and evangelists), 1 Corinthians 9:14.
4. Be open to the ministry and input of apostles. The influence of itinerant church workers can keep a house church from becoming ingrown. Isolated groups can easily lose sight of God’s desire for the church to evangelize and reach out to the lost.
1 (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Brown, Vol. 1, 126).
2 (New Bible Dictionary, Davis, 57-60).
Want help teaching this topic? To aid you in leading others to the truths of New Testament church life, teaching notes have been prepared for this subject. They will give you ideas on how to lead an interactive (Socratic) group discussion. The idea is to guide people to discover for themselves what the New Testament says about this topic. At the end of the guide there are study questions to pass (or e-mail) out in advance.
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Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.