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Going Parachurch 3: Apostles

Of the five ministry roles Paul refers to in Ephesians 4:11, present-day Protestant Christianity broadly recognises the pastor, the teacher and the evangelist in some form or other.  The apostle, however, forms another biblical prototype for ministry.

The New Testament root of apostleship is in Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve and the Seventy (or 72; Luke 9-10, Mk 6:6-13, Mt 10).  Importantly, Luke’s usage of ‘apostle’ generally refers to the Twelve, while Paul’s usage is broader.  Paul distinguishes between ‘apostles’ and the Twelve in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and of the ten or so apostles he mentions in his writings, including himself, only Peter is from the Twelve.

Paul himself had a unique apostleship.  While he was never part of Jesus’ inner circle of the Twelve, he had met the risen Jesus and been personally commissioned by him, according to which we find Paul laying claim to a special authority.  However, it seems that Paul’s special authority did not derive simply from his apostleship so much as his unique role, the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Gal 1:16, Rom 11:13, etc.).

There is therefore a third circle of apostles, of whom Barnabas is the best known example.  As Donald Robinson explores, there is no real New Testament evidence to demonstrate that this third group had experienced a special commissioning like Paul, nor even that they had necessarily met the risen Jesus.  These apostles, making up the rest of the missionary circle based around Antioch, were those who brought the gospel to new places.  Their authority flowed not from the church but from the Spirit’s endorsement (Acts 13:2-4), which was to be borne out in the content of their proclamation.  This explains how there were false apostles, people who claimed to speak the true message but did not.  An apostle’s accountability was therefore to their message.  Importantly, however, the New Testament record indicates that these apostles did not seek to work unilaterally but interdependently with local churches and the hubs of Jerusalem and Antioch, even though the churches did not control the apostles.

As far as I can tell, this third group of apostles is on view in Ephesians 4:11.  While the apostleships of the Twelve and of Paul are more obviously limited, this third group provides a ministry pattern for our own time.  In short, apostles are missionaries, the ones who take the message of Christ to new places.  Although apostles might well be involved in church planting, apostles are not primarily church leaders or spiritual gurus, as some suggest.  For example, in the spiritual gifts questionnaire by Natural Church Development, apostles are treated as itinerant spiritual advisors.  While NCD identifies some elements of apostles being unhinged for mission, it conflates these with some kind of church oversight.  There is a similar confusion in other Christian efforts to reclaim apostleship, such as the International Coalition of Apostles, which is effectively aiming to raise up modern-day Pauls rather than modern-day Barnabases.  The Apostle to the Gentiles has already played his part.

The missionary work of apostles is unhinged from local church structures.  Extrapolating from this New Testament pattern, the work of apostles neither starts in a simple extension of the local church, nor finishes in a drive towards some predetermined local church expression. As Martin Garner points out, even the most dynamic local churches naturally develop an establishment.  Mission, however, depends on a constant ‘clean-slate mentality’ in which mission drives culture at every point.  This is an apostle’s mindset.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. The apostle title has come into vogue of late. I’ve always thought the title of pastor as a generic term for a church leader was off the mark for many. The leader of the largest church here in NW Adelaide is described as an apostle.

    Wolfgang Simson has a lot to say about apostles, and I imagine he’s largely on the same page as ICA.

    Alan Hirsch has a lot to say as well:
    APOSTLES extend the gospel. As the “sent ones,” they ensure that the faith is transmitted from one context to another and from one generation to the next. They are always thinking about the future, bridging barriers, establishing the church in new contexts, developing leaders, networking trans-locally.

    My feeling is if we see some way we can spread the gospel or build up the Church or some other good thing, and it is in our power to do it, we don’t need a specifc calling, title or recognition to go and do it. We work with and respect the wisdom of other workers God has put in the area.

  2. Hi Eric
    Thanks for the APEST link — looks interesting. I quite like Hirsch’s definition of apostle — and I think his article at ChristianityToday is helpful. I hope that all the New Testament pizzazz surrounding apostles will help fire us up for world mission! :D I think there are two things we need to be doing: re-engage these different roles, and keep working out the distinction between institution and Body.

    The need for ‘title and recognition’, which you mention, implies ‘office’, which I think tends to be an institutional idea. In that sense, I think you’re right — what we need for mission is not institutional endorsement!

    However, the recognition I’ve been exploring is how to remain hooked into the organic Body. It’s no good for an ‘apostle’ to just fly around like a loose cannon! So I’d say, yes, go ahead and do mission and start new initiatives, but make sure that you are at every point communicating and cooperating with other Christians.

    Speaking of calling, Tamie’s write-up is great. Or it might be helpful to think of missions as a ‘second decision’ (Winter’s term, Tamie refers to it here).

  3. I just read the updated (2009) version of Simson’s manifesto and he is NOT on the same page as ICA – the 2007 version regularly referred agreeably to Wagner, but the now he takes him to task.

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