So here’s my fifth and final blog on the five ministries of Ephesians 4:11. This one is about apostles.
I can’t remember the first time I recited the creed in church but certainly by the time I was at boarding school at the age of 13, it was something we did as part of our worship every week. Towards the end we said ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’.
As I went through my teen years I began to ask lots of questions about God, faith and the church – including this section of the Creed. I had no problem with the idea that, despite all the different traditions, denominations and flavours, there was in the end just ‘one’ church here on earth. I also could see that the church was supposed to reflect God’s holiness and should be a ‘holy’, set-apart body of people. It was also explained to me that ‘catholic’ didn’t mean ‘Roman’ Catholic but universal, which was helpful. But no-one seemed to be able to credibly explain how the church was ‘apostolic’. I have subsequently learned that one reason for that might be that for over 1800 years there have been a number of different views and opinions across the world-wide church regarding apostles and apostleship. That probably explained my foggy understanding of this subject for quite a while.
It also means that I write with a degree of hesitation, not wanting to suggest that I have the final word on the subject! Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus amongst many in the evangelical/ charismatic/ Pentecostal stream on the subject that encourages me to write with more confidence than could have been done a few years ago.
So, what does it mean for the church to be apostolic? For some from a high church perspective it is about an authorised leadership, where bishops continue in the succession of the apostles through the laying on of hands, as spiritual authority is transferred down the ages. Whilst there is something right here, I would be wary to see every bishop as an apostle today. Rather than beginning with tradition, a better place to start would be in the Scriptures.
Apostles in the Bible
A foundational bible text about apostles is found in Ephesians 2:20 where we learn that the church is
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20)
John Stott rightly says this refers to ‘the foundational truths which God revealed to his apostles and prophets and which are now preserved in the New Testament Scriptures’. That being the case, a truly apostolic church is built on the written Word (the Bible) and the living Word (Jesus Christ).
However new movements in the church over the last 50 to 100 years have shown that this probably doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the word ‘apostolic’ or of passages like Eph 2:20. Eph 2:20 could also mean that the roles of apostle and prophet are important for a church to be well founded. If that is correct then apostles are crucial if new churches are to have truly missional beginnings, missional foundations, missional structures and aim to themselves plant new missional communities.
So, what exactly is an apostle?
Apostles in the New Testament
In the New Testament the word for apostle is apostolos, meaning ‘one who is sent out’. At it’s simplest it means ‘a messenger’, that is, someone sent out to deliver a message. But normally it has a stronger meaning than that, referring to a kind of envoy or ambassador – someone given real authority to bear a message or a commission.
Jesus called lots of people to follow him. Amongst those were ‘the twelve’ who he later called apostles (Lk 6:13) as he gave them authority and sent them out in his name to represent him. But later apostles become a larger group than ‘the 12’ because after Pentecost the group of apostles expanded to include people such as Paul and Barnabas (Ac 14:4) plus others who are less well-known, like Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7 – with most scholars believing Junia to be a woman).
To summarise, an apostle, according to the New Testament is a missionary or church-planter.
I know quite a few people who have planted churches, but I would be wary to call many of them apostles. Why? Whilst the number of apostles increased after Pentecost and clearly was a larger group than the original 12 disciples, probably not everyone who started a new fellowship was labelled an apostle. Something more was needed. Whilst it’s not exactly clear what that was, for me I would be looking for a good track record not just of planting churches but a network of churches. And the kind of person able to do that would need to be highly gifted, probably having a mix of gifts. To be that kind of apostle, some degree of pioneering gifts would be needed to get the work started and settling gifts to get the work established.
So to pioneer and begin, apostles need to hear God send them and be directed by him, so prophecy is helpful. It also helps if they have evangelistic gifts to communicate the gospel and challenge people to faith (including the faith to pray for healings and miracles – 2 Cor 12:12). To get the work settled and established they also need to be able to teach and pastor the flock.
Interestingly these are the ministry gifts that St Paul refers to in Eph 4:11, which means that whilst an apostle might not be as skilled in prophecy as ‘a prophet’, in evangelism as ‘a evangelist’, in pastoring as ‘a pastor’ or in teaching as ‘a teacher’, nevertheless they should be able to exercise some degree of gifting in all these areas. In fact they may find they are particularly strong in one or two. This is not to say that they should do everything. Far from it. They must work and pray for the release of specialist prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to strengthen the people to do the work of mission (Eph 4:12).
This definition of apostles obviously narrows the field of who should or could be designated an apostle. This may be no bad thing, especially as the New Testament is critical of self-appointed apostles (2 Cor 11-12). I suspect those who are true apostles are secure enough in their gifting and calling and sufficiently humble to not need to call themselves (or be called) an apostle. Nevertheless, there are some people who I would be be more than content to call an apostle today. That list might include names such as: Heidi Bakker (Mozambique), Pastor Agu Irukwu (London), Bill Johnson (California), Jackie Pullinger (Hong Kong) or Nicky Gumbel (London). But no doubt it will also include countless others who are unknown names to most, but known, commissioned and hard at work for the great apostle of the faith, Jesus Christ (Heb 3:1).
Finally, we see in the bible that as the early church grew, so a number of apostolic bases were established. These were strong missional centres, out of which church-planters and apostles were sent. Clearly Jerusalem was one such centre, as was Antioch. The Lord has been speaking to me over the last year or two about the similarities between The Belfrey in York and the church in Antioch – and it may well be that we need to become a much more focussed and strategic apostolic centre in the future. I say this cautiously, as this would involve much change, but if the Lord is planning a fresh awakening in the North of England then a number of key apostolic centres will be needed. Will we, at The Belfrey, rise to this challenge?
Please join with me in praying for the raising up of apostles and apostolic centres in the North, for the North. The call is clear. The need is urgent. The time is now.