The term "apostles" (Gr. apostoloi) is traditionally reserved for the original twelve that Jesus chose for intense discipleship and commission into ministry (Mat. 10:2; Lk. 6:13; Ac. 1:2) as well as the Apostle Paul (e.g., Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). Biblically, however, the term is used more broadly than that:
- On Paul's first missionary journey, Barnabas is included with Paul as an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14);
- Paul refers to "our brothers" (two men whom he was sending to Corinth along with Titus) as apostoloi (NIV, "representatives," 2 Cor. 8:23);
- Epaphroditus is referred to as hymon apostolon (NIV, "your messenger" , Php. 2:25);
- Paul refers to himself and his traveling companions Silvanus and Timothy as "apostles of Christ" (1 Th. 2:6);
- Jesus is called an apostle in Hebrews 3:1.
Based on this expanded understanding of the term "apostle," some church groups are choosing to adopt the term for themselves. While there is no universally-accepted definition of an "apostle," the term as it is used among these churches generally indicates some degree of authority above that of an ordinary pastor. It may be used of a senior pastor in a multi-staff church. C. Peter Wagner, in Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow!, argues that it is someone who exerts authority over a group of churches, using Pastor Chuck Smith of the Calvary Chapel fellowship of churches as an example.
However, while many references to apostles in the New Testament do indicate that those apostles were accorded authority and respect, neither the etymology of the word nor its usage in classical and Jewish parallels indicates authority as a primary component of its meaning. Literally meaning "one sent forth," the term refers to an emissary or ambassador: a messenger more official than an angelos. When we examine those described as apostoloi in the New Testament, especially in the larger circle beyond the Twelve and Paul, it becomes clear that those designated "apostles" were in fact missionaries. Paul, of course, in the New Testament becomes the apostle par excellence, and was largely responsible for the missionary work that evangelized the western world, and several of the others so designated were his traveling companions. This also makes sense of how Paul expresses his apostolic authority: he reasons with the churches that he has established on the basis of his prior relationship with them; he doesn't merely assert authority on the basis of God's having appointed him as an apostle. Additionally, if we assume that an apostle is in fact a missionary, the lack of the latter term's appearance in the New Testament is explained. For reasons that will become evident later, I would argue that an apostle is specifically a missionary who plants churches.
Since there are still church-planting missionaries today, I do believe that there are modern-day apostles, but I do not advocate restoring the term "apostle" to these modern-day counterparts. First, in the present-day context, the wrong people are being termed "apostles"--generally, senior pastors or leaders of denominations or fellowships of churches. Unless these leaders have become leaders by personally going out and planting these churches, they are not doing the work of New Testament apostles. This is not to denigrate them in any way; it is merely to say that their gifts lie in other directions. The term, "apostle," has become so identified with the Twelve and Paul that taking the appellation today seems necessarily to involve assuming an equality of authority with those early apostles; such an assumption is presumptuous at best. Since we have a modern term for those who do the work of a New Testament apostle--"missionary"--there is no reason to go back to the older term, which is really no more than a transliteration of the Greek term. "Missionary" is quite an apt term, deriving from "mission" in the same way that apostolos derives from apostello ("to send out"). There would be a better argument for translating apostolos as "missionary" throughout the New Testament than there would be for calling modern-day missionaries, "apostles." "He appointed twelve--designating them missionaries--that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14). What's wrong with that?