Good scholarship of the term “apostolos” shows that the term appears to best fit what we now call missionaries. It should not be thought of as strictly position of the distant past. However, it also should not be viewed as a church office in any period of time, as the term is now used in the “Apostolic Movement” . (Instead of going through that, readers are encouraged to read the article on “apostle” in the ISBE (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). )
It is popular to define missionaries based on culture these days. Perspectives in the World Christian Movement describes missions and missionaries in terms of being cross-cultural. If one uses Ralph Winter’s “E” model for cultures, then missionaries are limited to working in (perhaps) E-2 and (certainly) E-3 situations. (E-0 is ministry within the local church, E-1 is ministry in the local community but outside the local church, E-2 is a similar or neighboring culture… maybe similar culture but different language, E-3 has considerable differences).
Should people be considered missionaries only if serving cross-culturally? Consider Paul and Barnabbas, who we almost without exception consider to be early and successful missionaries. After their call to missions, Paul and Barnabbas started on what we describe as their 1st Missionary journey. Up to the time of the journey, they were serving in the church of Antioch. There they ministered within the church (E-0 evangelism) and presumably the local community (E-1). Upon leaving on their voyage, they first went to Cyprus, and began ministering to Hellenized Jews there. Since Barnabbas was a Hellenized Jew and was originally from Cyprus, this part of the journey would involve E-1 ministry. This then would not be considered missionary work by some. Then they reached out to Gentiles. These would probably be viewed as E-2, but only barely, since they shared the same language and broader culture with Barnabbas. Effectively, they were ministering from one sub-culture to another within the same culture. After this, the two apostles traveled to southern Asia Minor. This is the region that Paul was from. The same situation existed as in Cyprus, but with Paul reaching out to his own sub-culture and then to a different sub-culture within the same local culture. One could certainly argue that the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabbas was less missional than evangelistic outreaches to Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Samaritans described earlier in the book of Acts.
The trouble seems to be in a faulty understanding of what is a missionary.
It seems to me that the problem lies in a culture-centered definition of missions. If one moved to a church-centered understanding of missions, the problem goes away. If missions (and apostleship) describes ministry that is focused outside the church (rather than church member care or church growth ministries), it is understandable why Paul and Barnabbas were missionaries. Paul and Barnabbas ministered within the church of Antioch. Then they were called and sent out (apostolos and missio) from the church to minister to those outside of the church. This also appears to agree with the Didache (perhaps the oldest non-canonical Christian book) that describes apostles as one of four groups of ministers (bishops, deacons, prophets, and apostles). Of the four groups, two were part of the local church (bishops and deacons) while the other two were outside the local church. Of those outside, prophets appear to primarily visit different churches and encourage and strengthen them, while apostles would do their ministry outside the church.
The Didache should not be seen as providing some aberrant understanding of the term apostle that contradicts its use in the Bible. Consider the many people in the New Testament who were called apostles (apostolos).
- -Jesus Hebrews 3:1
- 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
Clearly, others beyond the narrow understanding of apostle were called apostles. Jesus, for example, clearly did not have the formal office of apostle, but did take on the role of missionary, from the Father. This and the fact that the apostles listed in the Bible appeared to have little authority within the church once the church is established suggests more of the role of a missionary/churchplanter than an authoritative officeholder within church. (Note that Timothy was called an apostle in Thessalonians when he was still a traveling missionary. However, Paul does not use that term for him when he is acting as the spiritual leader of a church in I and II Timothy.)