Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
—1 Corinthians 12:27-31a
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
This is a subject I must write about since it is creating a rift in the Church, especially the American component. I must confess it is an issue I am not settled on completely. I lean one way, but feel some discomfort in that leaning because I understand what is at stake if I am wrong.
What I am speaking of is the office of apostle and the issue of whether it is still operational today.
I have noted many times that I consider myself a charismatic. Any of you who routinely read Cerulean Sanctum are well aware that I am highly critical of today’s charismatic movement for its lack of discernment and chasing after questionable “moves of God.” I associate myself with the very conservative stream that comes out of the Welsh Revival of 1904 rather than that of the Azusa Street Revival or the more recent “Toronto Blessing.” Because of this, I have tended to be skeptical of much of the goings-on in what most people consider the predominant charismatic circles.
That said, part and parcel of charismatic thought in the 21st century is a universal acceptance that the office of apostle is still valid today. The leaders of today’s charismatic movement have made this so bedrock to their theology that everything they are pushing for today falls down if apostleship is taken away. I do not know of any well-known charismatics who would argue that the office of apostle has ceased.
However, I do know plenty of people who have traditionally opposed charismatic beliefs who also oppose any possibility that people today could be called apostles. Looking more closely, most non-charismatic Protestant denominations either side with the belief that apostleship ceased with the deaths of the original apostles or have remained quiet on the issue so as not to draw the ire of either side. I know that virtually no online doctrinal statement from the most popular denominations has any indication of their stance on apostleship.
It is into this contentious issue that I wade.
We all know the original Twelve. Judas Iscariot was “excommunicated” and the remaining apostles cast lots to select his replacement, Matthias. Many would argue that the most famous of the apostles was Paul, who was not even with Jesus during the Lord’s earthly ministry.
But are there any others besides those thirteen?
Acts 14 clearly has references to the apostleship of Barnabas—his apostleship is indisputable by any reading possible of that passage. 1st Thessalonians 1-2 includes Silas in the grouping when Paul ultimately refers to the apostles in 2:6. The same argument can be made in that case for Timothy. And a possible argument from Romans 16:7 exists for Andronicus and Junias. So if you hear that there are no others besides Paul and the original Twelve, remember—at least—that Barnabas was most definitely considered an apostle and was not part of the original Twelve.
Now some would claim that Matthias is not truly an apostle, nor are the ones just mentioned. They make distinctions between uppercase “A” Apostles and lowercase “a” apostles usually based on the idea of Jesus’ personal selection of the former and not the latter.
The problem I have with this view is that once we start making hierarchies of how people were selected, we start tearing at the Trinity. We know Jesus hand-picked the Twelve, and He appeared to Paul personally, then what of Barnabas’ being set apart as an apostle?
Paul adds a hint at the distinction in Galatians 1:1:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.
Here we have Paul affirming his apostleship. Given what we know of the Twelve and of Paul, it could be said that this passage directly addresses the fact of being chosen by Jesus and not by men. Jesus alone commissioned Paul as an apostle. (We know that on the Damascus road, Paul had a revelation of the person of Jesus Christ in which the Lord spoke to him. Acts 9 does not record the exact words of the Lord that constituted a specific apostolic calling on Paul’s life as Paul heard it—only indirectly by the words of the Lord to Ananias—but clearly that calling was proven later—see below.)
This would make an apostle unique in that Jesus would “hand-pick” him. We know, though, that Barnabas is considered an apostle, but we have no account of a supernatural revelation of the person of Jesus to him in the same manner of Paul. The closest we get would be his setting apart with Paul for ministry in Acts 13:2-3:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Interestingly, I could find no account in the Bible that has Paul called “Apostle” until after this event. Was Paul’s formal apostolic commissioning here? If so, then that commissioning was done by the Holy Spirit.
This is where the Trinity issue comes up. If we say that Paul’s commissioning was through the Holy Spirit by Jesus, are we making a distinction between the power of the Holy Spirit to commission an apostle and the power of Jesus to do so? This is where it gets dicey, but that is what the argument against modern day apostles must support. Does this lessen the importance of the Spirit’s commission? If Barnabas did not have a personal revelation of Jesus confirming his apostleship, is he a second-class apostle because his commissioning for the role only came by the Holy Spirit? That kind of hair-splitting and Trinity-splitting bothers me. Isn’t God God, no matter what person He assumes or through which person of the Trinity He speaks?
The problem of Barnabas’ apostolic commission is a large one that I have found is not well explored. Nonetheless, he represents a quandary of sorts. If the definition of an apostle goes beyond merely being part of the original Twelve and having a Damascus road experience, then what defines an apostle?
In 2 Corinthians we find this:
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.
Unfortunately, this signs and wonders requirement is not complete for defining apostleship, because we see this earlier in Acts 6:8:
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
Note that Acts 6 specifically addresses the issue that the apostles were concerned that they were being drawn away from the work of actually being apostles by needs that could be filled by those who were not considered apostles. Stephen filled that non-apostolic role (and later confused it by having a personal revelation of the Lord right before his death! Oh well!)
Some other attributes:
While I claim to have some knowledge of the Bible after twenty-eight years of walking with the Lord, I still find this issue difficult. I believe that apostles are specifically set apart by God for a unique ministry. They are taught by God and answer to Him alone. (But they are also not perfect. Paul’s rebuke of Peter for not dealing with the Judaizers in Galatians 2 makes a case that even an apostle can wind up on the wrong side of an issue, so apostles are not immune to making mistakes.) You could argue that based on the function of the role that an apostleship combines the roles of pastor, teacher, evangelist, and prophet (though the Five-fold Ministry folks would not like that argument, I’m certain.)
Given all this—and you can certainly do more study on this as I will—is the office of apostle valid for today or is it no longer available? Those that would argue that it has ceased to exist would say that it existed only to establish the Church, to get it off the ground in the first century. But what of the early Church is considered passé? Has the Lord changed the function of the Church or is it untouched? Cessationists would argue that the charismata have also passed away, but their arguments have always been remarkably flimsy and are not in keeping with the tenor of the entire New Testament. They would argue that the signs and wonders that accompany apostles have passed away, so apostleship has, too. If you buy into the one, you have to buy the other. Obviously, charismatics aren’t cessationist, so that leaves modern day apostleship open for them.
Where do you stand? I would love to hear arguments here both ways. Please leave a comment on this issue! I will try to come back to it in later weeks because I believe it is an important one that has enormous ramifications for the Church in these Last Days.