The role of apostles
The apostles Paul and Peter both considered elders/pastors to be the ones that God had appointed to lead local churches (Acts 14:23, Acts 20:28, 1 Tim 5:17, 1 Pet 5:1f ). But that is not the end of the story, because the apostles operated in a role of genuine authority over and into the churches and their elders. Here is a brief overview of what apostles do, although I devote a whole book to this theme in The World Needs More Apostles available on the Godfirst website.
Apostles plant churches:
Apostle’ means ‘sent one’ and so apostles are gifted to open up new territory to the gospel. Jesus, our great apostle, was always eager to move on to unreached regions (Mk 1:35-38), and Paul was also relentless in moving ahead to new towns and cities. Apostles will start churches, either themselves or via an appointed delegate.
Apostles lay the foundations of churches:
Apostles are wise master builders and foundation layers (1 Cor 3:10). This is not just a role they play at the outset of a church (although they will probably need to be more ‘hands-on’ in that season), but it is also an on-going role. Foundations are key elements that keep a church on course in matters of doctrine, leadership and church life.
Apostles appoint elders:
The appointment of an elder through the public laying on of an apostle’s hands demonstrates the primary role an apostle plays in confirming the rightness and readiness of a man to become an elder, and then in setting him in place.
Apostles envision and equip elders in an on-going manner:
Paul and Peter evidently saw an important part of their role as input into the lives of elders. Some of the epistles are addressed to the elders and the church, and in Acts 20 Paul gathers the elders of the region of Ephesus together to deliver some instruction to them. 1 Peter 5 is of course one of the prime apostolic exhortations to elders.
Apostles regard themselves as fathers:
Paul clearly considered himself to be the father of churches and individuals. This speaks of a loving relationship not void of authority (1 Cor 4:14).
Apostles can also speak into the detail of church life:
As well as teaching the broad apostolic doctrines, Paul also gave input into the detail of church life. He was concerned with marriages, matters of discipline, obedience to civil authorities, and everything else that was believed and practiced in the churches. These areas of detail are obviously ‘elder areas’ but Paul and Peter, as fellow elders (1 Peter 5:1) and apostles, wanted to help shape every aspect of life in the church.
Apostles are known by the members of the church, and not just by the elders:
Just like Jesus divided his ministry between his core of leaders and the crowd, so also did Paul. He lived amongst the people and was known by them (1 Thess 1:5), and he addressed most of his epistles to the church. It is not always possible for an apostle to spend all the time that he would like getting to know the people of the church, but it is essential for the people to feel that they know him. A mutual ‘knowing’ is especially important in a case where the apostle has to bring correction or rebuke to an elder or the church as a whole.
Apostles often interfaced with churches and elders through delegates:
Paul released Titus and Timothy and others to represent him in the churches, and he asked the churches to receive these brothers as they would receive him.
How then can we conclude?
We conclude that apostolic men are a gift to elders and their churches, given to equip and mature the church. Elders should acknowledge and welcome genuine apostolic authority, and should soften themselves to receive the imprint of God through these men. Elders should understand their autonomy within the context of their apostolic covering. They and their churches are caught up with other churches on apostolic mission! Hallelujah!
Attitudes of mutual respect and acknowledgement of gifting and calling, under-girded by genuine affection and friendship, will pave the way for a beautiful and effective partnership between elders and apostles.