What is an Apostle?

I have come up on three very different views of what is an apostle. I guess I would call them:

A. Traditional. When I was young, I was told simply that the term “Apostle” was the term given to the 12 disciples. Essentially, I could take the 12 disciples’ song and replace it with the term Apostles:

“There were 12 (apostles), Jesus called to help Him,
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John.
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus.
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholemew.”

We soon had problems with this when we got to Matthias. Was he an Apostle to replace Judas? Or was Paul? Then we start coming across others in the New Testament who are called Apostles. I have listed them before in a previous blogpost, but here they are again:

  • Jesus Hebrews 3:112apostolos
  • The 12 disciples Luke 6:13
  • Matthias Acts 1:24-26
  • Paul I Corinthians 9:1
  • Barnabbas (and Paul) Acts 14:3-4
  • Andronicus Romans 16:7
  • Junias Romans 16:7
  • Epaphroditus Philippians 2 :25
  • Unnamed brethren II Corinthians 8 :23-24
  • Silas and Timothy (and Paul) II Thesalonians 2:6
  • Apollos (by implication in I Corinthians 4)

Additionally, Paul talks about the “office of apostle.” That seems hardly worth mentioning if it is really a unique occurrence, only tied to the initial twelve (or perhaps 13).

Limiting the term to the Twelve seems inaccurate Biblically.

B.  Ahistorical. I suppose using the term “ahistorical” is a bit loaded, but I struggle to see any other way of looking at it. This view is one promoted by the late C. Peter Wagner, and more generally in the various “apostolic movements” today. According to Wagner, an apostle is:

“An apostle is a Christian leader, gifted, taught, commissioned, and sent by God with the authority to establish the foundational government of the church within an assigned sphere of ministry by hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches and by setting things in order accordingly for the growth and maturity of the church and for the extension of the kingdom of God.”  (quoted from his book “Apostles today: Biblical Governance for Biblical Power,” page 27)

At first blush this definition seems benign enough, unless one starts wondering what it means to be “commissioned and taught by God.” Effectively it removes these individuals from accountability to the church. Mutual accountability and submission appears to be a thoroughly Biblical concept, even for apostles. Additionally, however, as the title suggests, Wagner sees apostles as embedded in the governance of the church.

This is where the ahistorical aspect really creeps in. I remember in Christian college where my Bible professor dealt with the seemingly confusing point that James, the brother of Jesus appeared to be the head of the church of Jerusalem, rather than than the apostles themselves, and held prominence at the Jerusalem Council. Of course, getting into the Epistles even added to the question. None of the apostles exercised ecclesiastical or “apostolic” authority over the churches they wrote to. Paul sought to persuade through words, tended to encourage people to be “led by the Spirit” rather than be led by himself. In fact, the early chapters of I Corinthians appear to attack a formal apostolic authority. Rather, when we get to chapter 4, the humility of apostles (noting here particularly Paul and Apollos) is emphasized, and the call to heed the guidance of Paul is driven by his fatherly role (as churchplanter) with respect to the church of Corinth rather than some divinely ordained submission. Even in the book of Revelation, John does not claim an inherent right to be heard, but rather states that he is simply passing on the spirit’s message to the spirits of the associated churches. In fact, he describes himself as a fellow slave to those of the churches.

Of course, to say Wagner’s view is ahistorical does not mean that it was never expressed historically. Theodore of Mopsuestria in his commentary in I Timothy suggested a similar logic. The 12 apostles ordained a second generation of apostles who then, recognizing their own failings, chose to abolish the term “apostle” and then ordain bishops and presbyters. This theory certainly may be appealing to Theodore (living 350-428) (1) explaining the long disuse of the term apostle, (2) supporting the theory of apostolic succession, and (3) justifying a monarchical church structure as existing from the very beginning. Adoph Harnack however, points out that this nice theory lacks historical support and has considerable evidence against. Actually, from the very beginning, apostles took little interest in governance. See the following quote from Harnack (and feel free to review previous pages to that where he lays the case against Theodore’s theory.

“It is certain that an internal tension prevailed between two forms of organization during the first two generations of the Christian propaganda. These forms were (1) the church as a missionary church, created by a missionary or apostle, whose work it remained; and (2) the church as a local church, complete in itself, forming thus an image and expression of the church in heaven. As the creation of an apostolic missionary, the church was responsible to its founder, dependent upon him, and obliged to maintain the principles which he invariably laid down in the course of his activity as a founder of various churches. As a compact local church, again, it was responsible for itself, with no one over it save the Lord in heaven. Through the person of its earthly founder, it stood in a real relationship to the other churches which he had founded but as a local church it stood by itself, and any connection with other churches was quite a voluntary matter.

That the founders themselves desired the churches to be independent, is perfectly clear in the case of Paul, and we have no reason to believe that other founders of churches took another view (cp. the Roman church). No doubt they still continued to give pedagogic counsels to the churches, and in fact to act as guardians to them. But this was exceptional; it was not the rule. The Spirit moved them to such action, and their apostolic authority justified them in it, while the unfinished state of the communities seemed to demand it.811 And in the primitive decision upon the length of time that an apostle could remain in a community, as in similar cases, the communities secured, ipso facto, a means of self-protection within their own jurisdiction. Probably the perfected organization of the Jerusalem church became, mutatis mutandis, a pattern for all and sundry Christian communities were not “churches of Paul” or “of Peter” (ἐκκλησίαι Παύλου, Πέτρου); each was a “church of God” (ἐκκλησία τοῦ θεοῦ). ”  (Missions and the Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.  by Adolph Harnack. p. 466/7)

This is not to say that apostle as a role or office ceased to be with John. Eusebius said apostles existed into the 2nd century. Origen (185-254 AD) notes that the apostles still existed but went by a different name.  However, this seems to be the last gasp of for a couple of hundred years. There were probably a few reasons for this:

  • The early apostles (the “Twelve”) were placed in such high regard that the term “apostle” was seen as inappropriate to use for others. Even with the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century, the term “apostle” was not used for contemporaries.
  • Legend had it that the first apostles succeeded in the Acts 1:8 call to go to the ends of the earth. So there was question whether the role of apostle was really necessary.
  • As the church structures strengthened, those independent of these structures were potentially unreliable and mercenary. Even in the Didache, more concern seemed to be placed in how to make sure that apostles  and prophets were legitimate than in what they were supposed to do. This is quite a valid concern. Wagner said that apostles (as he defines them) are not chosen by self, not chosen by the church, but chosen by God. But since it takes people to identify God’s choosing, essentially that means that a person chooses himself or herself. And like in the movie “The Apostle,” starring Robert Duvall, such self-ordination may point to weaknesses of character as much as anything else.
  • Relatedly, churches tended to embrace the roles and titles. In the time of Cyprian, bishops were identified as the prophets, apostles, teachers, and high priests of the people.

C. Primitive. The Didache makes it clear that apostles (and prophets) should only visit churches for a short period of time. This was to ensure that they did not overstay and become a burden on the church. But this also evidences that the role of these offices were not centered in the church. Since the term “apostle” in Greek means ambassador or “sent out one,’ the obvious meaning is that they are sent out by God and church to share the good news to those who have not heard, and plant churches.

This seems to be well in line with the statement that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. Wagner interprets this in terms of authority. But the metaphor makes even more sense if one sees it in terms of apostles being churchplanters, rather than leaders.

By the late first century and into the early 2nd century, established churches were led by pastors/bishops and deacons. Additionally, apostles planted/established new churches. They discipled members and established leaders. But then they left. After that, they may maintain a paternal relationship (like Paul with Corinth). However, the churches they founded were God’s churches, not churches of the apostles. They transitioned to being the established churches.

Conclusion. It seems to me that Peter Wagner supported a certain type of governance. That is fine. The problem is that he tried to justify it by grabbing a historical term and misapplying it. There are repercussions:

  • Wagner is forced to separate missionary calling and apostolic callings. There seems little to no justification for this. Of course, part of this may be also tied to his embracing the assumption that missionaries must be cross-cultural. There is little to no Biblical justification for either. But that does not automatically invalidate it (although it certainly casts doubt).
  • I have come across those that argue that the role of “missionary” is not Biblical, or that missionary organizations, as sodality structures, have no divine sanction. But if Wagner is wrong, and apostles are churchplanters, they are essentially missionaries, and missionary bands (like Paul and cohorts, or Barnabas and John Mark) are both sanctioned Biblically.

Wagner’s legacy as a church growth expert has merit. As far as his preference in church governance– he can prefer whatever he wants. But his attempt to support it through linking it to the Biblical term “apostle” is not only ahistorical, it creates problems in the basis of missions.

Note: I don’t recommend missionaries utilizing the term “apostle” any more than I recommend itinerant preachers using the term “prophet.” Too many centuries of use and abuse of these terms have led to too much baggage for the terms to be valuable.


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