What are we to do with ministers in our day who say they are apostles? Many are simply self professed men seeking to draw disciples after themselves and whose doctrine is highly problematic at best, completely heretical. These men are not merely false apostles, but perhaps even false disciples of Christ.
But what of the people who seem to be, from all outward appearances anyway, “sane” individuals – Christian ministers who have excellent and sound theology but still insist that there are apostles today and.. wait for it.. actually believe they are apostles themselves?
I am thinking of men like C.J. Mahaney (of Sovereign Grace Ministries) in the USA and of Terry Virgo (of New Frontiers Ministries) in the United Kingdom. These are highly respected men who have served the cause of Christ faithfully for decades and have established a huge network of pastors and churches under them who look to them for leadership and guidance, both locally in their home nation and overseas.
What do we do with these men? I have to admit that my initial impulse was to reject completely the idea of apostles being alive today. However, I have enough respect for these men to at least allow them to define what they mean when they use the term. Therefore, I think the first thing we need to do is take a deep breath and allow them to explain themselves.
After hearing their explanation, I have to say that I became a good deal more comfortable. I do not believe they are using the term “apostle” in the same extreme way that others do who make the claim, but are actually seeking to be biblical.
I must say right up front that I am not personally “under” either one of these men or look to either of them as “my apostle.” Though I have met both of these men, I feel fairly sure they would not remember meeting me. On both occasions, as I recall, I had only brief discussions with them. I have no cause or agenda here to seek to promote either their ministries or their idea; I simply wish to try to understand their position biblically. Here are some words from blog posts made by Terry Virgo on the subject:
I believe that when Jesus ascended he gave gifts to his church. Exalted to the right hand of God, he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and poured out not only the Pentecostal blessing described in Acts 2:33 but also gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) to help equip his church and bring it to maturity.
These variously named gifts obviously differ in their function and relevance. It doesn’t say ‘he ascended and gave priests’ or ‘he ascended and gave clergymen’. He gave diverse and distinct gifts. The evangelist differs from the prophet. The apostle differs from the pastor. Otherwise these titles are redundant – a waste of space.
If the inspired Scriptures distinguish between varieties of ministries and clearly imply that we need this diversity of gifting to bring about God’s ultimate intention, why do so many Bible-believing Christians and churches ignore the obvious implications?
For instance, the apostles of the New Testament had a distinct task from the evangelists or pastors, and it wasn’t, as so many of our evangelical brothers suggest, simply to write Scriptures! The apostle Barnabas (Acts 14:14) wrote no Scripture nor did most of the Twelve, while Luke, nowhere described as an apostle, wrote much of the New Testament.
What was the work of an apostle? Surely he was pre-eminently a church founder, giving clear identity to the new communities of believers that began to multiply around the Mediterranean as described in the book of Acts. Perhaps Paul’s most succinct description of himself as an apostle is found in 1 Corinthians 3:10 where he claimed to be ‘a wise master builder’ who had laid the foundation of the Corinthian church…
What is an Apostle?
Clearly the Scriptures imply that there are a number of different categories of apostle. Jesus is the apostle of our confession (Heb. 3:1). The word means ‘sent one’ (Greek – apostolos) and Jesus repeatedly referred to His unique awareness of being sent by the Father. He is the apostle par excellence.
Next come the Twelve, again unique in their calling and role. Jesus, during His earthly ministry, personally called and commissioned them naming them apostles.
Third, we are told that after His ascension Jesus gave the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to His church (Eph. 4:11).
Some have insisted that apostles must have been witnesses to the resurrection and clearly Matthias, in replacing Judas and recovering and completing the Twelve, was.
However, the apostles of the ascended Christ represent a different category since their appointment follows not the resurrection but the ascension! Barnabas, for instance, is called an apostle in Acts 14:14, though there is no reference to his having seen the Lord following His resurrection, nor does his call to apostleship have any reference to a resurrection appearance and occurred several years after the ascension.
There were also ‘apostles (or messengers – Greek apostolos) of the churches’ – see Philippians 2:25 and 2 Corinthians 8:23, but to quote Rengsdorf in his authoritative work ‘Paul and Barnabas are obviously apostles of Christ, not of the Christians at Antioch’ (TDNT).
Our first step is to recognise, therefore, that there were apostles beyond the Twelve commissioned by the ascended Christ. Established teachers such as Campbell Morgan have argued that Paul simply replaced Judas and thereby preserved the Twelve. This, of course, does not bear close scrutiny and raises the question not only of Barnabas but also of James and others…
(James, though not one of the original twelve is called an apostle in Galatians 1:19, where Paul wrote, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”)
Standing on the Reformers’ shoulders
Historically the early Reformers, who wrote their commentaries on the Scriptures, were correctly hostile to the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession with the concept of infallible authority usually associated with that claim.
Subsequently, commentators have usually written their commentaries and made their observations while standing on the shoulders of those writers and have taken that same stance, so that even the wonderful and rightfully respected and honoured John Stott states unequivocally in his most recent book The Living Church, ‘…we must insist that there are no apostles in the church today’ (page 24). He then goes on to argue, ‘If there were, we would have to add their teaching to that of the New Testament’ (page 25). This perspective draws attention to the fact that apostles are seen essentially as Scripture-writers, whereas manifestly several apostles mentioned in the New Testament were not, as indeed several prophets in the Old Testament were not.
Also, there is no Biblical argument that apostles were themselves always infallible. Peter had to be corrected by Paul regarding his inconsistency because in Paul’s view he “stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11) regarding his practice in connection with the place of the law in the New Testament church. Also, the apostle Barnabas ‘was carried away by their hypocrisy’ (Gal. 2:13).
So, in arguing for the role of the apostle today, I am not arguing for more Scripture-writing or that any one should be regarded as an infallible leader who cannot himself be withstood or corrected, as indeed Peter was by Paul…
What about world mission?
In consigning the role of the apostle exclusively to the early church, we are left without one of the key factors in world mission, the vital function that apostles fulfilled.
Some argue today that we don’t have apostles we have ‘missionaries’ but the word ‘missionary’ obscures rather than clarifies, since it does not honour Biblical definitions or categories. A modern missionary may be an agricultural worker, a nurse, a school teacher, a Bible translator, or a literature distributor (all very worthwhile and wonderful ministries). Some missionaries may, in reality, be evangelists or apostles but the term is vague and unhelpful since it has come to indicate any one who works overseas.
Historically some have established ‘mission stations’ rather than churches. We need Biblical definitions and Biblical practices. It is vital that these categories are clarified for the sake of world mission. It is not merely an academic matter…
Obviously, Terry Virgo has more to say on the subject, but I thought this would be a good starting point for us to at least begin to think through the issue and perhaps even analyse our traditions to see if they hold up to biblical scrutiny. Personally, I have to say that I feel a great deal more comfortable knowing even this much about Virgo’s view. The word “apostle” has been used in all sorts of ways, many of them extreme, but I sense no such thing here as Virgo is defining the term.