The 1997 movie, The Apostle, was another of the many films that paint Christian ministry in a negative light. Today, the apostle is an important, but missing, gift in churches needing reinvigoration. Apostles are often misrepresented, though, as supposedly-superior leaders worthy of recruiting devotees beyond their local church. Self-designation becomes especially problematic when people gravitate to the charisma of leaders deemed to speak for God who have built little and assumed much. Given that the term is itself biblical, it is important to understand its significance to then understand its benefits.
1. Apostolic Leaders in the Bible
Apostles represent one category of the five-fold vocational gifts given to equip a church (Ephesians 4:11-12). If we assume that pastoring and teaching are separate functions in this list, they add to the inspirational communication role of the evangelist in aiding the overall proclamation of the Gospel that is typically characteristic of healthy local churches. The prophet, though less common, will forth-tell and not just fore-tell a divine revelation of seasonal inspiration within many a local church. What about apostles, then?
This fifth type of gifted church leader is described with a term also used biblically for Jesus (the foremost apostle of Hebrews 3:1) and for His disciples (the foundational apostles of the Christian Church). The name is literally, ‘sent one,’ and the ministry of the apostle characterises those with a special call in the foundational establishment of new churches, for example Barnabas in Acts 14:14. This priority may explain the primary importance of this gift in Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.
Apostles were, like Paul, called by God and not appointed by congregational selection processes (Romans 1:1, 2 Corinthians 1:1). They raised up leaders, planted churches and travelled to do so, and without much personal gain. Some were lesser-known, such as Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7, but even the better-known apostles were not to seek glory or make demands (1 Thessalonians 2:6).
2. Apostolic Leaders in the Church
Of course, the varied use of the term ‘apostle’ in the early church makes a precise definition difficult. 2 Corinthians 12:12, though, reinforces the special nature of this gift which is typically characterised by “signs, wonders and mighty works.” Though these miracles could also be seen in the ministry of any Christian, there is no doubt that their use in reinforcing the leadership of apostles is important in the establishment of new churches, as evidenced within the New Testament.
New churches (and existing ones) often lack growth today because apostolic leadership of a senior and charismatic leader is either absent or minimalised. Some of the Ephesians 4 ministry gifts, evident in less-experienced people genuinely called to vocational ministry service, may also not be as well-developed as in their more experienced counterparts.
Around the end of the first century, itinerant apostles were disregarded, even labelled as false prophets, if trading on the generosity of local churches. The Didache, a document dated soon after the writing of the New Testament texts bears this out. Though this fact need not negate churches being generous today, in contrast to external leaders making authoritative demands on congregations, the idea of self-designated apostles being mere visiting preachers or mentors is foreign to the early church.
3. Apostolic Leaders Today?
The rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in the twentieth century saw the emergence of many independent congregations established by gifted leaders who functioned as apostles. Their so-called ‘Apostolic Faith’ though was often intended to reveal their desire simply to return to the practices of the apostles in the book of Acts, inclusive of prophecy and speaking in tongues, gifts otherwise less evident in traditional churches at the time.
It was the later Pentecostal and evangelical churches of the 1980s and 90s who began to connect relationally with preferred gifted leaders, irrespective of denominational affiliation. This led to Fuller church growth professor, C. Peter Wager, identifying a ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ associated with a post-denominational era.
So-called apostolic leaders were, in many cases, charismatic leaders of integrity who were pastors of rapidly growing and well-resourced churches. Nevertheless, the formation of an umbrella organisation of such apostolic leaders, over which Wagner was to preside, raised significant questions and contributed to suspicions over some particular inter-church relationships.
In his excellent book, An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit, respected Pentecostal leader and historian, Vinson Synan, opposes what he saw as unchecked authority and a potential for abuse. Despite his friendship with Wagner, Synan was one significant voice opposed to this particular change to church leadership at the time, even though he was supportive of the role of apostles as missionary church leaders.
And Synan perhaps encapsulates the church’s priority today. Being sent by God, with a gift recognised by the wider church, one attested by miracles and a commitment to vocational leadership befitting a true ‘call of God,’ apostles today have a vital role.
Genuine apostleship remains as important in the establishing of new churches as ever, especially when we see decline in many movements and the self- aggrandizement of many leaders. Rather than drawing churches to themselves in a power grab, apostles will focus on developing the fruit of their own ministry in raising up leaders and churches, or on stimulating new growth within existing ones through appropriately-sanctioned channels. Ecumenical cooperation is optimised, too, when fresh inspiration adds to the hard work and strength of existing structures.
When the world looks on in suspicion at Christians less yielded and other-focused than the New Testament urges, it will hardly be compelled to faith through self-styled and self-serving ministry. It remains critical that today’s apostles – often a missing gift in churches – are raised up to honour their call and serve the global church of Jesus with the exemplary humility and focus originally evident in the early church and vital for renewed kingdom expansion.