David is a part of the international leadership team for Newfrontiers and is based at Woodside Church, Bedford, UK. He is developing relationships with many churches in Russia and Ukraine, and encouraging church planting in unreached parts of the world. He has written several books including Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission, Demolishing Strongholds and What on Earth is the Church for? and developed several training courses. He is married to Scilla and they have grown-up children.
At the start of the New Year I felt it appropriate to look back over the past few months and bring my first series of blogs to an end. I’ve been trying to answer the question “What is an apostle? And how should this biblical role function in the church today?”
I started with three big cautions and gave an example of apostolic ministry not being handled wisely. I looked at whether there were apostles today and if they had to be as gifted as Paul before having a pragmatic look at whether the church needs apostles and finally spent four1 posts looking at what the role of an apostle actually is.
I have decided to end with one of the signs of an apostle by quoting from C.K. Barrett’s excellent book on apostleship.2 “He was one of the apostolic company that stood forth under the scorn of men and angels, under sentence of death, the scum of the earth, nobodies, unknown, unable to prove that Christ spoke in them and therefore judged to be deceivers, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, burning with shame and humiliation.”3
He adds: “Paul’s theology bears the stamp of the Cross, and so does his apostolic ministry; it bears the imprint of the resurrection too, but just as the crucifixion of Jesus was a public event, known to all men, reported even by the secular historian Tacitus, whereas the resurrection was known to few… so what is generally visible in Paul’s apostleship is the sign of the Cross.”4
The Corinthians did not really understand this; nor, probably, do many today who look solely for large and spectacular platform ministries, without understanding the suffering that accompanies the coming of the kingdom of God. “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21), is not a charter of privilege and authority, but condemnation to the Cross – how else did the Father send the Son?
While I have tried to fill these posts with as much of my knowledge on the subject that I can, I have also tried to keep them short and to the point, sacrificing some depth into the topics in the process. If you are interested in reading more then my book on the apostolic5, of which the teaching here is mostly based on, covers the subject in greater detail that the longer text of the medium allows.
1 Learning, Revelation, Fathering, Final Description
2 C.K. Barrett, The Signs of Apostles (Paternoster Press, 1996)
3 pp. 42-3
4 p. 44
5 Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission: Restoring the Role of the Apostle in Today’s Church
Originally posted on the Catalyst Network.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at the key roles in the job description of apostles today. There are just three more that I want to mention before I sum things up in next week’s post.
The apostles had the responsibility of bringing wisdom to bear on very difficult situations in churches they were caring for. As well as bringing correction, Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians gave advice on some of the difficult issues they were facing concerning marriage1, Christian ‘freedoms’2, suitable attire for women3 and how spiritual gifts were to be both encouraged and yet regulated according to godly order.4 At the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the apostles, together with the elders, had to seek God’s wisdom on major cross-cultural mission issues, concerning how the Gentiles should be accepted as part of the church. This required debate and skillful leadership to apply the Old Testament scriptures to the new covenant situation.
Apostles also involved the churches in the wider mission to unreached regions of the world. When Paul wrote to the church in Rome to prepare for his visit, he was obviously pleased to be coming to them, as he had often intended to do so but had not been able to fulfil his intention earlier. He also saw it as an opportunity for that church to get behind him as a base for his ongoing mission to Spain, and he asked them to send him on his way.5
Having a visit from an apostle, a man who is passionate about reaching the ends of the earth with the gospel should result in that church having its missionary vision enlarged.
Finally apostles are concerned for the poor. The gospel itself is ‘good news to the poor’.6 One of the key evidences of the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon the promised Messiah was that he would bring ‘good news for the poor’. When Paul met with the other apostles in Jerusalem to have his own apostolic ministry confirmed, there was only one condition laid upon him by the other apostles: that he should always remember the poor.7 Paul commented that he was eager to do that very thing, and it became a major aspect of his ministry. Paul understood that the effect of the gospel was that those with means would share their resources with the poor, not just within a local church but between churches, including churches from different races. Apostles today are still to remember the poor. It is still to be central to their ministry. Apostles are to reflect the compassionate heart of God. Serving the poor is an issue not only of compassion but also of justice, and one of the evidences of the Messiah’s kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament is that justice is restored to its proper place.
1 1 Cor. 7
2 1 Cor. 10:23-33
3 1 Cor. 11:2-16
4 1 Cor. 14
5 Rom. 15:24
6 Isa. 61:1
7 Gal. 2:10
As apostles establish churches they become like fathers to those churches and to the leaders of those churches. In this context apostles model servant leadership to those they will later appoint as leaders. When Paul met with the elders of Ephesus a few months after he left that city, he reminded them of his style of ministry as they had observed it when he was living among them. ‘You know,’ say Paul, ‘how I lived the whole time I was with you’1. His pattern was to serve with humility and tears.
As far as we can piece it all together from different references, Paul’s pattern in Ephesus was to work hard in the mornings in his tent-making shop; to teach in the hall of Tyrannus during the heat of the day (according to one manuscript of Acts 19), when most people would be taking their siesta; and to go from house to house in the evenings, teaching much more intimately and even shedding tears in his concern that the revelation of God’s word might come home to them. Such hard work was a demonstration of God’s love to the weak.2
House to house – or extended family to extended family – is still the evangelistic and teaching method of the churches I work with in Pakistan. I remember asking each of the leaders of our churches there how many people they were now ministering to in their churches. They did not reply as we would in a Western context, with numbers of members or Sunday attendance, but gave a number of ‘family’ – extended families, of course! Their evangelistic method is to ‘visit the families’, as is their style of pastoral fellowship and care. Paul may have been visiting extended families (households) or house churches – there was probably considerable overlap between the households and the house churches.
In addition to fathering churches it is important for apostles to provide ongoing care as well. Indeed, Paul records this as one of the greatest pressures upon him. Having set out a whole catalogue of his sufferings, he adds, as if it were one of the greatest strains on him emotionally, ‘Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.’3
Despite such serious concerns as division in the church, incest and the abuse of spiritual gifts, Paul still claimed the church in Corinth and its very existence as proof of his apostleship!4 In Corinth, Paul had to contend with the church beginning to question his apostolic authority. Even the fact that he had been determined not to receive financial support from them, so as to serve them effectively, was turned against him with the challenge that ‘real apostles’ get paid.5 That attitude is still around in the church today.
We might raise the question – isn’t ‘care’ the responsibility of the pastor gift? In the biblical model of leadership, the shepherd heart undergirds all genuine godly leadership. The leaders of Israel were called ‘shepherds’ quite deliberately. God is our ‘Shepherd’. Apostles therefore are to be shepherds. The care of the churches involves much emotional energy, disappointment and frustration, yet also great joy. This duty of care is largely handed over to elders once the church is established. Apostles then continue to care for the churches ‘from a distance’ and never (or at least rarely) independently of the eldership.
1 Acts 20:18
2 Acts 19:1-22
3 2 Cor. 11:28
4 1 Cor. 9:1-2
5 1 Cor. 9:3-18
Apostles don’t just plant churches. Apostles are to bring an understanding of the revelation of Gods purposes on earth. So as to ensure that the churches for which they are responsible understand this revelation and their part in it.
In the first chapter of Ephesians Paul prays for his readers that God may give them ‘the Spirit of wisdom and revelations’1. His passion was revealed in the prayer: “Do you really understand the amazing purposes of God now being fulfilled through Jesus Christ? Do you understand the role of the church of Jesus Christ in God’s great purposes in the earth? Do you understand your place as members of God’s church in God’s overall purposes?”
The first three chapters of Ephesians give a summary of Paul’s understanding of this mighty revelation. The apostolic revelation is about the glory of God in his purposes for Christ, the church and the world. You might say that any Bible teacher could teach this so why is apostolic ministry relevant in this context? It is true that all Bible teaching should reflect these truths, but as Paul goes on to write in Ephesians 4, God gives different gifts. What, if anything, is distinct about the teaching gift of the apostle?
Firstly, apostolic teaching is foundational (even in churches the apostle has not founded), whereas, we might say, the teacher usually builds on an apostle’s teaching – perhaps maintaining and clarifying it.
Secondly, the gift mix of the apostle is typically broader than that of a teacher. For example, apostles are particularly skilled at ensuring both correct doctrine and correct application.
An understanding of God’s revelation must precede any practical outworking of what apostles do. As Barney Coombs put it, commenting on this section of Ephesians, ‘Revelation precedes methods. If people do not see it you automatically end up with systems’2. We do not want to devise new systems or start new organisations; rather, apostles are concerned to see the church of Jesus Christ fully understand the revelation of God.
What Barney Coombs is saying is that in our eagerness to see churches grow; it is not helpful simply to transfer methods that have worked in one part of the world to another part. Though we can learn from the whole body of Christ worldwide and helpfully study what has been successful in different contexts, it is ultimately an understanding of the revelation of God that will enable us to play our part in accomplishing his purposes, rather than attempting to copy methods which may work in one culture but not in another. Methods relate to a particular culture or church context, while revelation transcends and transforms us, as we express the gospel in any cultural or church context.
1 Eph. 1:17
2 Barney Coombs, hand-out at seminar by Barney Coombs attended by David Devenish, Yarm, UK, March 2007
If we believe in the restoration of the apostolic ministry today then we need to draw our pattern for how apostles should function from what we know of the apostles in the New Testament. However we have to acknowledge that the twelve (and Paul) had roles that were unique in both their calling and function, and also in their measure of anointing and wisdom.
In particular there was a unique and unrepeatable nature about Peter and Paul’s respective ‘apostleships’ to Jews and Gentiles. Despite this we find that we have to use them as the main examples on which we base our understanding of apostolic ministry, simply because we know so much about them than we do about the rest of the twelve, or some of the other apostles. So in the next few posts I will focus on Peter and Paul, and follow their ways and methods, while always humbly acknowledging the uniqueness of their role.
Let us first consider the selection of the twelve which was obviously a very serious undertaking. Jesus had spent all night in prayer and then chose from among his many disciples twelve whom he designated to be apostles, that is, those who would be sent with a special commission. In Mark’s account, their responsibilities are described as threefold:
Paul was very conscious of his divine commissioning, as he writes to the churches in Galatia: ‘Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.’1 Apostles are not self-appointed (in fact, self-appointment is the mark of a false prophet) or merely appointed by other people; theirs is a charismatic ministry given by the Holy Spirit, and not a hierarchical appointment: ‘in the church God has appointed first of all apostles…’2
Although not all apostles are part of the twelve, there must nevertheless be an awareness of having been called, authorized, gifted and commissioned.
1 Gal. 1:1 2 1 Cor. 12:28
Pragmatically, there is an evident need for the continuation of many of the functions of the original apostles. This would include church planting, laying good foundations in churches, continuing to oversee those churches, appointing the leaders, giving on going fatherly care to leaders, and handling difficult questions that may arise from those churches. There are really only three ways for churches to carry out these functions:
1. Each church is free to act totally independently and to seek God’s mind for its own government and pastoral wisdom, without any help from outside, unless the church may choose to seek it at any particular time.
2. Churches operate under some sort of structured and formal oversight, as in many denominations today where local church leaders and appointed by and accountable to regional leadership, whether ‘bishops’, ‘superintendents’ or ‘overseers’. It is hard to justify this model from the New Testament, though we recognise that it developed very early in church history.
3. We aim to imitate the New Testament practice of travelling ministries of apostles and prophets, with apostles having their own spheres of responsibility as a result of having planted and laid foundations in the churches they oversee. Such ministries continue the connection with local churches as a result of fatherly relationships and not denominational election or appointment, recognizing that there will need to be new charismatically gifted and friendship based relationship continuing into later generations.
My hope is that both this, and the previous two blog posts, have shown that a strong case can be made for apostolic ministry continuing today, while also recognising the unique role of the original apostles who witnessed the resurrection, and while thoroughly submitting to the truth revealed in the pages of the New Testament and seeing that truth as God’s final revelation.
There is surely more support in the pages of the New Testament for relational oversight of churches than for denominational structures, and it seems to me preferable to use the Ephesians 4 terminology of the fivefold ministries equipping the churches, rather than to resort to Episcopal designations or their equivalents in other denominations.
If, however, you have not yet been convinced of the validity of the apostolic today I would urge you to continue to read this series as I outline the principles for the planting and oversight of churches which I believe are very important for the future of the church and of world mission.
This blog was originally published on the Catalyst Network.
Another basis for my belief in the continuing ministry of apostles is that the term ‘apostle’ is used more flexibly in the New Testament that is sometimes taken into account. Those who justify the continuation of apostles today often see three different ways in which the term is used in the New Testament – three categories of apostle, if you like:
1. Jesus Christ himself is described as ‘the apostle and high priest whom we confess’1. He was Messiah, the One supremely sent to accomplish our redemption from sin and the restoration of everything lost through the fall and its effect on the whole of creation.
2. The twelve – the apostles of the resurrection and foundational to the whole church throughout history, whose names are symbolically on the foundations of the eschatological New Jerusalem.
3. The apostles of the ascended Christ, according to Ephesians 4:11, given (alongside other leadership gifts) to equip the church until it comes to maturity and unity. Terry Virgo helpfully clarifies the distinction from category 2 above: ‘They were not witnesses of His resurrection but gifts of His ascension.’2
Those who are recognised as apostles by particular church networks are sometimes accused of making themselves equivalent to Paul or Peter, but this is not the case. In the similar context of prophets today, Jack Deere says:
It is simply not reasonable to insist that all miraculous spiritual gifts equal those of the apostles in their intensity or strength in order to be perceived as legitimate gifts of the Holy Spirit. No one would insist on this for the non-miraculous gifts like teaching or evangelism. For example, what person in the history of the church since Paul has been as gifted a teacher to the body of Christ? Luther? Calvin? Who today would claim to be Paul’s equal as a teacher? … Therefore, since no one has arisen with the gift of teaching that is equal to the apostle Paul’s, should we conclude that the gift of teaching was withdrawn from the church? … We can admit to varying degrees of intensity and quality in gifts of evangelism, in gifts of teaching, and in other gifts. Why can’t we do that with the gift of healing? Or the gift of miracles? Or the gift of prophecy? 3
To be fair, Jack Deere does not make the connection, but surely we could add ‘or the gift of an apostle?’
It is worth also considering the New Testament’s warning against receiving ‘false apostles’. If it was known and accepted that there was a fixed group of apostles then this warning would hardly have been necessary. This is also the case a little later in church history, as the Didache (dating from the end of the first century or beginning of the second) records ‘Concerning apostles and prophets, act according to the ordinance of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord … But let him not stay more than one day, or if need be a second as well; but if he stays three days he is a false prophet.’ I do not know why the length of stay was taken as measure of an apostle or prophet’s genuineness, and I am not suggesting that in a relational context such guests should only stay for two days! This quotation, however, does indicate that the ministries of apostles and prophets continued after the competition of the New Testament, and that there was an ongoing need to discern between the false and the genuine.
1 Heb. 3:1.2 Newfrontiers Magazine, Issue 04: September-November 2003, p. 8.3 Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Kingsway 1994), p. 67.
One of the key passages to look at when asking the question ‘Are there apostles today?’ is Ephesians 4:11-13:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and because mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (NIV)
This chapter seems to speak to the continuing needs of the church throughout its history, and not just to its initial first-century foundations. The five-fold ministries were given by the ascended Christ as love gifts to the church for a particular purpose, namely that God’s people would be equipped or prepared for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up. This need continues until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
This equipping ministry is surely needed in every generation, and it is not a natural reading of the passage to assume that there is a distinction between gifts that should continue to perform this equipping function and gifts that should not. It seems to me the most natural reading is to assume that the church in each generation needs the gifts of the ascended Christ, just as it needs and is promised the power of the Holy Spirit, similarly given from the ascended Christ. Though the day of Pentecost was the first pouring out of the Holy Spirit, it was not one single event for all time, as the verse ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’ makes clear, but an on-going promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The whole tone of Ephesians 4 seems to suggest something both dynamic and normative for the church at all times. As Markus Barth writes:
In 4:11 it is assumed that the church at all times needs the witness of ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’. The author of this epistle did not anticipate that the inspired and enthusiastic ministry was to be absorbed by, and ‘disappear’ into, offices and officers bare of the Holy Spirit and resentful of any reference to spiritual things. Ephesians 4 does not contain the faintest hint that the charismatic character of all church ministries was restricted to a certain period of church history and was later to die out.1
This post was originally from the Catalyst Network Blog.1 Markus Barth, Ephesians4-6 (Doubleday 1974), p. 437.
It is very important to acknowledge that the recognition of the ministry of an apostle in recent times has not always been handled wisely. In the 1970s, ‘apostolic ministry’ became associated with the so-called ‘shepherding movement’ which, despite much excellent teaching unfortunately led to the development of an unhelpful hierarchical oversight structure which could – and often did - result in a misuse of spiritual authority, and which was not always missional.
When I first encountered the notion of restoring apostolic ministry today, one of the terms often used was ‘apostolic covering’. This was an unhelpful term and, even at the time, some of those teaching on the subject of apostles recognised it was inappropriate. At best it referred to relational accountability to an external ministry trusted by a particular church eldership team; but at worst it could lead to hierarchism or even abuse of authority.
I recall an occasion when I was teaching in Russia and used the term ‘apostolic covering’ without really thinking. After my interpreter had translated it, there was wry laughter all over the meeting. I wondered what I had said, and found out that the interpreter, somewhat mischievously, had translated the term ‘covering’ by the Russia word for ‘roof’, which was the term used to describe the protection given by a mafia leader over businesses in his patch. I made sure I never used the term again.
Godly apostolic authority and oversight should not be hierarchical power-hungry or Mafia-like! Instead it flows out of friendship and relationship and is non-threatening in terms of hierarchy or control.
If the Bible teaches us that apostles are a continuing gift to the church, along with the other ministry gifts of Ephesians 4, then it is important for the church and for world mission that this ministry is restored. (Whether this is what the Bible teaches will be explored in the coming weeks) However I want to sound a few cautionary notes about the use of the term ‘apostle’ first.
Firstly, ‘apostle’ was rarely used in the past to describe Christian leaders unless they were already dead and had been missionaries opening up a new region of gospel expansion! Now, however, it is being used freely as a title for a senior church leader and because it perhaps sounds more ‘contemporary’ or ‘biblical’ than ‘archbishop’, it is being employed as a title in front of a senior leader’s name, as in ‘Apostle so-and-so’. More worryingly, some ungodly power structures in the church attempt to make pretentious claims about themselves and legitimize these by the use of ‘biblical’ terminology and the misuse of genuine apostolic anointing which God is restoring to the church. There is certainly no sense in which the New Testament views an apostle as standing at the top of a hierarchy. Rather, Paul comments. ‘It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.’1
Secondly, as the present-day ministry of the apostle has become more acceptable the use of the term ‘apostle’ has broadened. Thus Peter Wagner writes about ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ apostles, 2 ‘apostles in the work place’, 3 and ‘apostles for social transformation’4 in social structures in the world. A problem with this approach is that it potentially broadens the term ‘apostle’ to describe any effective and successful entrepreneurial gift among Christian leaders. This runs the danger of robbing the word of its true meaning, undermining what the gift was intended for, and therefore limiting its effectiveness in planting churches for world mission.
My final cautionary note relates to the use of the term ‘apostle’ among evangelicals involve in world mission where it is argued that church-planting missionaries are, in terms of their spiritual gifting, ‘apostles with a small a’ (Quite who is proposing Apostles with a capital A, I don’t know!) The small ‘a’ indicates their concern to make it clear that the canon of Scripture is complete, and that any use of the term ‘apostle’ today does not imply authority to add private revelation to the established canon of Scripture – a concern with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is difficult however to equate the world ‘apostle’ with ‘missionary’ as although they are equally valid ministries, they are also very different ones. Even in New Testament times, not all those involved in church planting were called apostles. In Antioch there was a clear distinction between the apostles who laid the foundation of truth and the church planters who evangelised and gathered their converts together into churches.
1 1 Cor. 4:92 C.Peter Wagner, Apostles Today (Regal Books, 2006), pp. 77-83 Wagner, Apostles Today, p. 844 Wagner, Apostles Today, Chapter 9.
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