Thanks (I think/believe) to a lot of uneducated, fanciful interpretational methods that were produced by proto-Pentecostal movements there is a lot of confusion about the office of apostle among a majority of professing Christians in our day.
And even within the more orthodox strains of the “charismatic” movement I have heard some odd explanations of how we should view the office today.
Little “a” apostles vs Capital “A” Apostles(?)
One thing I’ve heard from an individual who is more orthodox than those within the “New Apostolic Reformation” (a movement full of self-appointed “apostles” and self-proclaimed “prophets”), is that we should have a concept of two different “kinds” of apostles – the more authoritative, ancient Apostles and the less authoritative, modern apostles, if you will.
But does Scripture give warrant or precedent to this idea?
Well, one of the few epistles that mention anything generic about “apostles” in a teaching context is 1 Corinthians:
“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. And I will show you still a more excellent way…” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 (ESV)
NOTE: I encourage the reader to visit the entire context of this passage – and especially to read the following chapter, as Paul has told us it contains instruction on a “more excellent” way of living in the light of God’s mighty work on our behalf.
Though the passage (quoted above) in 1 Corinthians contains mention of “apostles” within the larger context of God’s gifts to His children to build up and strengthen the church – see also Ephesians 4:11-13 – there is no clear instruction given here by Paul on what an apostle actually IS.
What IS an Apostle?
From the accounts in Acts and the authoritative nature of Paul’s instructions and commands in his epistles, one of the obvious things that the apostles were was leaders and/or authority figures in the primitive Church. They led the early followers of Jesus in belief and conduct.
But in the earlier portions of Ephesians we are given something a little closer to actual teaching on what an apostle serves as:
“…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord…” ~ Ephesians 2:19-21 (ESV) … (see also Revelation 21:14)
In Ephesians Paul informs us that the apostles (along with the prophets of the Old Testament) serve as a “foundation” for the Church of God, but in what way do they serve this purpose, especially for Christians today?
I would argue that it is by the writing of Holy Scripture that the apostles and prophets – subservient to Christ as the all important “cornerstone” – serve to build the Church (or Temple, if you will) of God throughout the ages. I would argue this based upon the temporal, “one time” language that is used in reference to the purpose of the apostles in Holy Scripture – you only build the foundation of a building once. Also, as far as I can tell, most references to true “apostles” in Scripture and the ancient church fathers usually put in the qualifier of “the twelve.”
None of these texts so far, however, give us any specific teaching on how to identify an “apostle” – so what is it that makes someone an apostle?
The Criteria of an Apostle
I would suggest to the reader that there is one primary, time honored “criterion” for how we Biblically identify an apostle of Jesus Christ: an apostle is a man commissioned to preach the gospel by Christ Himself.
We see this exemplified in Acts 1:15-22, and the beginning of Galatians where Paul’s writing is undergirded by an explanation and outlining of his call and experience in becoming “the apostle to the Gentiles” by the commission of the risen Christ Himself… there is also a short reference to this by Paul in1 Corinthians 15:8-9. Also, throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts, there is no reference to “apostles” outside the twelve disciples who specifically participated in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
However, even if there are a few generic references to those who hold the office of apostle in the Church throughout the New Testament, this does not demand that the traditional criterion above is faulty – and thus require we assume some form of the office exists today. Why? Because, although 1 Corinthians 15:6-7 does not exactly say when Jesus appeared to the groups specified, this type of evidence for “apostles” outside the twelve and Paul still falls under the category of the office only being given to individuals who interacted directly with the risen Christ (and I think it is significant to note that except for Paul, all of these individuals interacted “physically” – I.e. Not in a vision – with Him in the presence of others who did likewise).
Another traditional criterion of true, orthodox and ancient Christianity is that the apostles had authority and power by the Holy Spirit to write Scripture (as I have said above, I would also argue this tradition from the text itself). What they said and wrote was authoritative as coming from God – just like the prophets of the Old Testament. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
Side NOTE: it can even be argued that every book of the New Testament is of Apostolic origin – the authors of Mark, Luke, Acts, and Hebrews all having clear connections to one of the apostles of Scripture.
That having been said – and no clear Scriptural evidence of any distinctive “levels” or “types” to the office taken into consideration – if one subscribed to the idea that we do have apostles today (or prophets, for that matter), consistently they would have to add that “apostle’s” writings or speeches to the Bible!
The last few paragraphs are a bit of a rabbit trail, but the ideas put forth within them have existed (been debated or discussed) since the days of the primitive Church, and no one among these modern day groups of “charismatics” seems to care that God’s people throughout history have had something to say about topics we discuss today!
As far as I can see from Scripture, anyone who claims to be an “apostle” (or prophet, as far as I’m concerned) today is either a lying charlatan – like those in the New Apostolic Reformation(NAR); or they have not actually thought about what Scripture says about the office – and thus no one should be listening to them anyway, as that person is obviously a simpleton and shouldn’t have authority over anyone.
To drive this point home, I would encourage the reader to examine Paul’s arguments against the “super-apostles” in Corinth that had apparently begun to accuse Paul of “walking according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10-12)… particularly in chapter 11 Paul contrasts his own actions against those of these “super-apostles” using incredibly thick and biting sarcasm.
One of the points Paul makes about himself is his lack of demanding resources from the Corinthians in order to show himself trustworthy to them… I have never heard or seen any indication of a practitioner/leader of the NAR ever discouraging people from giving their money to them – in fact they do the opposite, they have entire doctrines about why and how Christians should be wealthy/prosperous (just look up “great transfer of wealth” in relation to this movement).
For the reader who might be involved in the NAR, I would encourage you to think hard on the following words of Paul before you follow/listen to anyone who claims to be an apostle…
“And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not surprising if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds…” ~ 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 (ESV)