"We have become as the scum of the world,
the dregs of all things, even until now" (1 Cor. 4:13)
A question that many today are asking is whether or not the office (or perhaps gift) of apostleship is still operative in the body of Christ. We hear many speak of the restoration of the apostolic and others even refer to an apostolic reformation that is coming to the church. People often line up at opposite ends of the spectrum on this question. I hear some deny that apostles are meant for today. They usually speak this way due to their belief that the presence of apostles in our day would threaten the finality and sufficiency of Scripture. They also fear the misuse of the authority that they believe is intrinsic to the office. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are quick to pin the tag “apostle” on virtually anyone who is gifted, articulate, and successful in ministry and church planting. My sense is that both views fail to grasp what the NT says about the office of apostleship. So let’s take a closer look at the biblical evidence.
A. Levels of Apostleship
The NT clearly identifies four levels of apostleship or four ways in which the word “apostle” is used.
1) Jesus - In one sense, Jesus is the one true apostle, the "sent one" from God the Father (Heb. 3:1).
2) The Twelve - The original twelve apostles (the eleven plus Matthias [Acts 1:26]) constitute a unique and closed company. They will have the distinct role of judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28) and their names will be inscribed on the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).
Note the qualifications that were required of the one who took the place of Judas (Acts 1:21-22).
3) Paul and others - Another group of apostles, equal in authority to the twelve, includes Paul (1 Cor. 15:9), Barnabas (Acts 14:4,14), James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19; 1 Cor. 15:7), and perhaps Silas (1 Thess. 2:7), Andronicus (Rom. 16:7) and Junias (Rom. 16:7). 1 Cor. 15:7 may be referring to yet more apostles.
· Although he was not included among the twelve, some would prefer to place Paul at Level 2 (or in a category unto himself), insofar as his authority was certainly equal to theirs (Gal. 1:11-17; 2 Cor. 12:11-12).
· Although men such as Timothy and Apollos were significant in the life of the early church, they are never called apostles. See especially the discussion concerning Timothy in Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and for Today (Crossway Books), pp. 272-75.
· A major point of dispute is whether Junias in Romans 16:7 is called an “apostle”. First of all, is Junias (Rom. 16:7) masculine or feminine? If feminine, then they are husband and wife. Recent examination of extensive Greek literature outside the Bible gives little help. The word Junias turned up only twice as a woman's name and only once as a man's name. If Junias is a woman, do we have reference here to a female apostle? It is possible (though not probable) to translate: "well known by the apostles," rather than "outstanding among the apostles." The point has been made that "since Andronicus and Junias were Christians before Paul was, it may be that their longstanding ministry (reaching back before Paul's) is precisely what Paul might have in mind when he says 'of note among the apostles.' They may well have been known among the apostles before Paul was even converted" (Piper/Grudem, 80). But we can't be certain. Most believe that, if Junias was a female apostle, she should be classified at level 4 below.
4) Messengers and Church Representatives - Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) and the unnamed brethren of 2 Cor. 8:23 (possibly including Titus) fall into this category in which the term "apostle" (35x in Paul, 80x in the NT) is used in a non-technical, broad sense.
No one denies that there may be level 4 apostles today, people who function as church planters, ambassadors and/or representatives of a local church. Few, if any, want to argue that there are level 1 or 2 apostles today. But are there level 3 apostles today?
In his Cato Lectures of 1969, entitled "The Signs of an Apostle", C. K. Barrett argued for "eight persons, or groups of persons, all denoted, with varying degrees of propriety, by the term 'apostle'" (72). However, he appears to me to have unnecessarily made distinctions among those who belong to the same general category.
B. Criteria for Apostleship
What qualifications are essential for Level 3 apostleship?
1) Eye-Ear Witness to the Risen Christ - To be an apostle one must have both seen and heard the risen Christ. This is implied by Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor.. 9:1, and 15:6-9. But simply seeing the risen Christ did not make someone an apostle, for many saw and heard Him (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:6) who were not apostles.
2) A Personal Call and Commission from Jesus - This is evident from the statements of Paul himself (Gal. 1:1; Rom. 1:1,5; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; etc.).
C. Characteristics of Apostleship
There are other features or characteristics of apostolic ministry that must be noted. Whereas the presence of these factors does not make one an apostle, their absence may well call into question the authenticity of one's claim to that office. One would be hard-pressed to find an apostle in the NT whose life was not characterized by these features.
(1) Success in ministry (1 Cor.9:2; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3; [Paul appealed to the reality of their conversion as evidence of the authenticity of his apostolic calling]; but non-apostles also have great evangelistic success; see Philip in Acts 8).
(2) Signs and Wonders (Acts 5:12; Romans 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12; but non-apostles also performed signs and wonders; see Stephen in Acts 6 and Philip in Acts 8).
(3) Extreme suffering (Col. 1:24; 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 11:23-33; etc.; certainly countless others also suffer).
(4) Christ-like life and humility (2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28; but there is no reason why a non-apostolic believer might not live at this same level of maturity).
(5) Special insight into divine mysteries (Eph. 3:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 11:25-32; 2 Cor. 12:1-4,7).
(6) Authority and the power to enforce it (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 4:18-21; 5:5; 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10; 1 Tim. 1:20).
(7) God-orchestrated stigma (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:3-10; 12:1-10). I often wonder if those who quickly accept the title of “Apostle” have bothered to read these texts, especially 1 Cor. 4:9-13.
D. The Writing of Scripture
It is widely assumed that an essential part of apostleship is the authority to write inspired Scripture. There are three problems with this view:
1) Scripture nowhere asserts that all apostles could write Scripture simply because they were apostles.
2) Several of the apostles did not, in fact, write Scripture. Does this disqualify them from being apostles?
3) People other than apostles did, in fact, write Scripture (Mark, Luke, the author of Hebrews, Jude).
There is no explicit or conclusive evidence that apostleship, per se, entailed the authority to write Scripture or required that one do so. Therefore, it is conceivable that God could raise up Level 3 apostles subsequent to the closing of the biblical canon without threatening the latter's finality and sufficiency. The canon is closed, not because God has stopped speaking, nor because there are no more apostles, but because God sovereignly closed it. God simply ceased inspiring and preserving canonical revelation. Basing the finality of the canon on the cessation of apostleship is disastrous. How can the absence of apostles guarantee the closing of the canon when non-apostles wrote Scripture? Such a view would require us to assert, absurdly, that as long as there are non-apostolic Christians the canon is open!
E. Apostles and the Foundation of the Church
Some have argued from Ephesians 2:20 that apostles belonged exclusively to the foundational period of the church and not to its subsequent history when the superstructure is being built. However:
1) This ignores vv. 21-22 where Paul refers to the superstructure as under construction, so to speak, as he speaks/writes (note the consistent use of the present tense in vv. 21-22). In other words, the apostles of v. 20, among whom was Paul, were also contributing to the superstructure, of which the Ephesians were a contemporary part, simultaneous with their laying the foundation on which it was being built.
2) To use an analogy, once a man establishes a company, writes its by-laws, articulates its vision, hires employees, and does all the work essential in laying the foundation for its future work and productivity, he does not necessarily cease to exist or to serve the company in other capacities. As Jack Deere points out, "the founding director of a company or corporation will always be unique in the sense that he or she was the founder, but that does not mean the company would not have future directors or presidents" (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 248).
3) The argument is that once apostles ceased to function foundationally, they ceased to function altogether, as if the only purpose for apostles was to lay the foundation of the church. But nowhere does the NT say this, least of all in Eph. 2:20. This text need say no more than that apostles and prophets laid the foundation once and for all and then ceased to function in that capacity. But nothing suggests that they ceased to function in other capacities, much less that they ceased to exist altogether. Certainly it is true that only apostles and prophets lay the foundation of the church, but it is anything but certain that such is the only thing they do.
The only text that might suggest apostleship was limited to the first century is 1 Cor. 15:8 where Paul says that Jesus appeared to him "last of all". Paul Barnett argues from this that "Paul himself sought to establish the limited extent of the numbers of apostles. His careful words that Christ 'appeared to me last of all' . . . serve to show that while there were apostles before him, there were no apostles after him. According to Paul he is both 'the least' and 'the last' of the apostles" ("Apostle," in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters [IVP 1993], 50).
But this verse may be understood differently. Paul is listing those to whom Jesus appeared in order to prove His bodily resurrection. He appeared to Peter, then the twelve, after that to more than five hundred brethren, then to James, then to other apostles, and last of all, i.e., last among all those mentioned here to whom he appeared following his resurrection, to Paul. Certainly Paul was the last to whom Jesus had appeared to that point in time, but nothing in the text suggests that Jesus could not or would not appear to someone subsequent to Paul. Finally, Paul is not describing Jesus' post-resurrection appearances in order to prove his or anyone else's apostleship, but to prove that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. After all, he mentions His appearing to more than five hundred people, none of whom were apostles.]
F. Apostolic Authority
One reason people balk at the mention of modern apostles is based on their erroneous belief that NT apostleship entailed an absolute authority that required unquestioning obedience. But see Galatians 2:11-21 for a clear counter-example. Whereas no apostle ever made a mistake when writing Scripture, they did not live continuously under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in such a way that all their opinions and/or actions were infallible.
Furthermore, if God should truly call and commission apostles today, we should no more fear their authority than we do that of pastors and elders who likewise have been specifically raised up by the Holy Spirit to lead, direct, and oversee the church of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Acts 20:28; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Peter 5:1-5; Heb. 13:17).
G. Apostles: First in Authority, Last in Privilege
(1) First in authority (1 Cor. 12:28; 14:37; 5:3-5; see also Acts 4:32-37; 8:14ff.; 2 Cor. 10:8)
(2) Last in privilege (1 Cor. 4:9-12; 9:22-23)
Does Scripture teach that apostleship was restricted to the first century church? No. Are there apostles today? I certainly believe that it is the agenda of the Holy Spirit to bring them forth before the coming of the Lord. However, there is considerable debate as to whether those with an "apostolic anointing" today are in the office of an apostle. I am open to the possibility that they are. But if so, they must meet the criteria set forth above and display the characteristics portrayed in the NT.
Ephesians 4:11-16 strongly suggests that apostles are essential "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ". This statement pertains not only to the apostolic but also to the ministries of prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher (or pastor-teacher), all of which I expect to see functioning fully before the coming of the Lord.