Are There Apostles Today? (part 2)

Are there apostles today?

As noted in part 1, that depends on what you mean by an apostle. In contrast how some define it today, biblical apostleship does not seem to be a matter of summoning people to accept one’s authority. The Jerusalem church had elders in addition to the founding apostles; the elders may have exercised administrative authority, whereas the apostles’ authority inhered in their mission. Paul had a special apostolic authority in relation to the Corinthian Christians because he had birthed and labored over them (1 Cor 9:2); when he was coming to a church he had not founded, however, he simply offered to share with them from his spiritual gift (Rom 1:11-12). Even the apostle Peter is clear that church leaders as a whole should not “lord it over” others (1 Pet 5:3).

Although some passages about apostleship in the NT do mention signs (e.g., 2 Cor 12:12; Matt 10:8), they emphasize sufferings even more heavily (e.g., 1 Cor 4:9-13; Matt 10:16-39). Apostleship was not an authority to boast in, but a calling of service that involved suffering. An apostle as an agent of Christ was to act in Jesus’s name, as in a sense all of us Christians are to do; that means that Jesus should get all the credit for the works (cf. Rom 15:18-19; Acts 3:12-16; 14:15). Where the agent rather than Jesus takes credit, eventually the agent may be left to work on their own, instead of the Lord doing the work through them. That is, they may have to depend on marketing gimmicks instead of God’s blessing to maintain their hearing. One wonders if this has not sometimes happened.

In Scripture, apostles apparently normally break new ground, rather than simply laying on another’s foundation (Rom 15:20). The Jerusalem apostles initially broke ground for ministry in Jerusalem and then oversaw the work for some time; Paul and his coworkers broke ground in the cities of the northern Mediterranean world. (Some of his coworkers occasionally appear to be apostles as well, as in Rom 16:7; 1 Thess 2:6-7; at least some, such as Timothy, were converted after him, Acts 14:6-8; 16:1-3.) Paul had suffered and done the work, but his rivals wanted to take over his work and boast in it. They were poaching in the sphere of ministry God had given him, and Paul charges them with false apostleship (2 Cor 10:12-16; 11:12-13).

If some today believe that God has called them to be apostles according to the biblical model, they may need to distinguish their ministry from practices that distort biblical apostleship. Otherwise all those who use the term may face a backlash just as happened in antiquity. In Revelation and the Didache, those who claimed to be apostles or prophets were tested. Soon after that, the church began limiting the title to the Twelve (the narrower Lukan usage rather than Paul’s broader usage). Without being harsh toward those who abuse the label “apostles,” those who use the title but stand for a different kind of ministry should clarify that their mission is different. They are called to serve the church, not to divide it.

I discuss this matter further in part 3 (to be continued).

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