Monday, June 09, 2008

Five-Fold Ministry? Apostles

The four entries in this series are now available as one paper on the Studies page.  I encourage you to head over there to get the full picture.

Many people, especially within some charismatic congregations, view Ephesians 4:11 as teaching that God has established these five offices within the church, and that all five offices should remain functioning throughout the church age. The traditional understanding is that while God established all of these offices, some of them have passed away. A closer examination of the passage yields an answer different than either.


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.
Although translations tend to shy away from the term "apostle" if the referent does not include Paul, the Twelve, or Jesus, the same Greek term--of which our English word "apostle" is merely a transliteration--is used. It does not appear that the term is restricted as a technical term for a fixed group of people in the New Testament.

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?


  1. So if so does Chuck have power over all the churches and if so how then is that not a domination? I can understand the movement thing, but many take this to mean he is right about everything and the ones he sends out are out of a direct line, if so what happens when they mess up real bad and hurt people? Not being attacking, just trying to get a grip.
    Thank you

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    First of all, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    Just so we're clear, I'm not a member of the Calvary Chapel fellowship and never have been, and I have no firsthand knowledge of Chuck Smith's authority over those churches. As the post states, I actually disagree with Wagner's designation of Pastor Chuck as an "apostle." So I'm not in any way trying to support (or, for that matter, to denigrate) any authority that Pastor Chuck may assert or that other people may attribute to him. My post really has nothing to do with that question at all, and I'm not in a position to be able to comment on it.

    With regard to the "movement" vs. "denomination" thing, well, I am a member of a church body (Assemblies of God) that prefers the term "fellowship" to "denomination." Personally, I think the distinction is pointless: to "denominate" something simply means to name it. By that standard, the Assemblies of God have been a denomination ever since they chose the name at their first General Council in 1914.

    The Church as a whole has always struggled with the problems of centralized leadership vs. the problems of decentralized leadership. There are significant problems on both sides, and even splitting the difference by having some kind of shared (e.g., Presbyterian) structure doesn't solve it: at some level, God has chosen to bestow on us flawed human beings the job of managing His Church. Neither all of us doing our own thing nor one person imposing his will on all will accomplish God's will for His people.

    Once again, thanks for dropping by.