What is an Apostle?
If you’re going to build a house, who do you call on first? An architect, of course. This doesn’t mean the architect is more important than the builder, plumber, plasterer or painter – not at all; only that the architect also has a distinct role to play. In like manner, apostles are God-given “architects” in the building of His ecclesia.
In my opinion, we live in a day when God is restoring the grace gift of apostle. While there is no doubt that functioning apostles have always been at work, the western church in general has been suspicious and ignorant about the role of an apostle. To some, the grace gift of apostle ended with the New Testament age1; to others, an apostle is merely synonymous with a missionary serving on the other side of the planet. Those with the God-given grace of apostle have often had to squeeze themselves into contemporary church structures or deny the deep God-given impulses within them.
This is now changing on a grand scale as we pursue a Kingdom-shaped church where the God-given grace of apostle is so very much-needed in how this simple church wineskin unfolds. Continue reading as we look to define what an apostle is.
So, what’s an apostle?
I am so aware of the tendency in every new move of God to often overload a new restoration truth and take it to an extreme. For example, when the grace gift of prophet was restored, it was loaded with far too many expectations. We filled the new restored truth role with every responsibility God intended to be found within a collective team of Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts. The result was everyone suddenly called themselves “prophet” because it seemed it was the big “cheese” with all the “clout”2. As we determine to embrace the restoration of the apostle, it ought to be our intention to resist the temptation to overplay the apostles’ role or minimize the other gift roles.
Yet even after labouring to make it emphatically clear that every “member” (body part) is crucial to the “body” (vv. 12-27), Paul then stated: “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles…” (1 Corinthians 12:28). By this, he certainly did not envision the apostle as some “top-of-the-pile” drill-sergeant, barking out orders as “lord-of-the-manor” – or he would have contradicted his entire teaching in this chapter. We know that there is no “hierarchical pile” – the church is essentially a Kingdom family not an organizational enterprise – and only Jesus authorises our “orders”. Yet Paul, after stressing the priesthood of all believers, was attempting to clarify the importance of the apostle in the inception or foundation of Kingdom work.
Ever built a house? Or know someone who did? Then you’ll know that it takes a team to build a house: architects, builders, plumbers, plasterers, painters, and the like. No one is more important than another; leave someone out and you’re in trouble. Apostles are “architects” who help to birth simple churches, seeking to make themselves redundant. Paul used the Greek word (architekton) in the phrase “master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10), from which we get our word “architect,” to describe his function as an apostle. This is an important point to stress: the word apostle is a function (verb), not a position or title or office (noun).
Having said that, we need to put first things first and build the foundation as God intended, deploying the necessary gifts as God designed them.
This statement – “first apostles” – then refers to the priority or sequence of an apostle’s function in spearheading the Great Commission. Rather than some independent, dictating lord-of-all, the apostle facilitates a team of Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts as the servant-of-all; submitting to the gifting of those in the team (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-22; 15:9, 10). The apostle’s involved in the pioneering, birthing and establishing of a work’s foundation, ultimately and intentionally making himself redundant as he releases the work into the trust of parent-leaders, which the Bible calls “elders”. The test of a true apostle is this: is his servant influence in the foundation or is he sitting smugly on the roof-top?
Thus, while the contribution of all believers is of vital import, the statement Paul makes here stresses the need to put first things first in terms of an apostle’s function for Kingdom advance.
I have found it helpful to distinguish between three phrases used often today to attempt to de-mystify and un-clutter what an apostle is. And in so doing, I also hope to assist in helping to value – but not overplay – this vital role in the unfolding of God’s Kingdom.
Let us look at each in turn.
Spiritual fathering – a relationship
All mature believers ought to aspire to be a spiritual father (parent) in the Lord by virtue of relationship and/or stature irrespective of call and grace gifting. Of course, we would only be wise to follow the teachings of Christ and avoid corrupting this precious relationship by turning it into a position or title (Matthew 23:8-10). Thus Billy Graham, for example, would be seen as a father in the Body of Christ. His equipping gift of evangelist has, along with his integrity over many years, given him this platform. But his fatherhood is irrespective of the gift he has. This would also be true of many, many less well-known men and women of God; their fatherhood, gender-neutral of course, stems from their relationship with others and the godly esteem they are held in.
Apostolic – the influence
The word “apostolic” is not a Biblical word but it is a useful umbrella term to describe the influence of an apostle. The church, in fact, should be apostolic … and prophetic … and evangelistic (a word distinct from the term “evangelical,” of course) … and pastoral … and Biblical when equipped by the apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher respectively. Each equipping gift should enrich and influence Christ’s Body in line with the grace given to them. Just as a prophet, for instance, graces the church to be prophetic, an apostle should grace the church to be apostolic. Together the Ephesians 4:11 grace gifts equip God’s people to mature into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13)3.
Thus Billy Graham, for example, may be seen as apostolic to the degree he served the Body of Christ apostolically. In my very humble opinion (as someone observing and trying to understand how this works), his model of ministry did not fully take into account the functioning of a developed apostolic team. While I can only honour what Billy Graham accomplished with his team and with their understanding, I think evangelists working within a well-rounded apostolic team is a better “model,” for a lack of a more adequate term. An evangelist, working with and enriched by an apostle, would thus serve the Body of Christ apostolically; even as the apostle, enriched by the evangelist, would be evangelistically sharpened. Certainly, Billy Graham – in his grace gift – enabled the church to be evangelistic.
So what is the grace gift of apostle?
An apostle – the ascension gift
This tends to be where the water gets a little muddy. However, if we stick close to the two thoughts surrounding the classical use of this Greek word apostolos we do get a clear picture and thereby, in my opinion, an adequate working definition.
The word “apostle” literally means, “one sent forth.” Taken from military terminology, it referred to the admiral of a navy group sent to establish a new city and set up the infrastructure of the new colony. Thus, the first idea is that of a “sent one”. A few associated thoughts are:
- Missional – “being sent out by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:4)
- Pioneering – “Go … nations” (Matthew 28:19)
- Mobile – “regions beyond” (2 Corinthians 10:16)
- Breaking open new ground – “open to us a door” (Colossians 4:3)
Thus, an apostle is one who imparts a selfless, missional DNA – a global vision of the Kingdom come. An apostle enables the church to be apostolic, to be a pioneering, fluid, mobile and sacrificial “going” people. For this reason, the apostle is a “sent one” himself. The embryonic grace gift of apostle blossoms in Holy Spirit commissioning (Acts 13:1-4). An “unsent” apostle is a contradiction in terms.
In my opinion, it’s in this “sending” that the apostle himself remains an accountable team-player, not a self-appointed law-unto-himself. It’s notable that when Paul was “sent” or released from Antioch, while his commissioning was God-initiated – “the Holy Spirit said … being sent out by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:2, 4) – the Kingdom community at Antioch was also involved as the “sending” means: “having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them” (Acts 13:3). So, when Paul returned to Antioch at a later date, he didn’t ride in as some lord-of-the-manor, super-apostle; instead, he returned as a brother to give a report, having been faithful to the apostolic function entrusted to him.
The second idea is to “establish a colony”. A few associated thoughts are:
- Building – “wise master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10)
- Foundation – “foundation” (1 Corinthians 3:10; Ephesians 2:20)
- Leadership release – “appointed elders” (Acts 14:23)
- Government – “authority” (2 Corinthians 13:10)
Thus, an apostle is one who establishes self-governing communities – local families for Kingdom advance. An apostle enables the church to be apostolic by establishing self-governing communities, within the context of God’s Kingdom, which become the “safe place” and “launch pad” for God’s people to advance the Kingdom in every neighbourhood, niche of society and nation on the planet. In doing so, the apostle releases the work into the trust of parent-leaders and then … selflessly moves on.
Thus, in identifying an apostle we should, at the very least, look for these two dimensions. Of course, some people have great entrepreneurial gifts that may lead us to assume they are apostles. And sometimes those with exceptional grace gifts of prophet or teacher are also incorrectly viewed as apostles. And as mentioned, with the restoration of an equipping gift, many try to re-classify themselves in the new restoration terminology. This is unfortunate, but inevitable.
It may help us then, to keep these two dimensions, outlined above, foremost in our mind when attempting to define an apostle. And let us diligently remind ourselves that the person gifted as an apostle is not the king-pin in the church structure nor should it be seen to have some “untouchable” quality to it. He is simply a gift of grace to the church to play his part – along with every other part – for the glory of God. The more we can de-mystify the apostle the better. (Honestly, then people would want to hanker after this selfless, servant-hearted grace gift less!)
1 Some question the validity of apostles today: “Were there not just twelve apostles … full stop?” No. The original twelve apostles did have a unique role as witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, and we refer to them as the pre-Ascension apostles (Revelation 21:14). But there were post-Ascension apostles in the early church (see for example, Acts 14:14; 1 Corinthians 4:6, 9; Galatians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2:6). And in fact, the Bible makes it very clear that the equipping gifts – including “apostles” – were given after Jesus’ ascension (Ephesians 4:7-11) and that the church will not come to the “fullness of Christ” without them (Ephesians 4:11-13). Until then … all the equipping gifts – including the apostle – are not just valid but are absolutely vital.
2 For example, failing to appreciate the New Testament wineskin and how the prophet fits into it (see Acts 11:27-30; 13:1, 21:10-14), we loaded the New Testament prophet with all the strength of the Old Testament prophet – conveniently leaving out some of the responsibilities: for instance, prophesying incorrectly was an immediate career killer, stoning was not a rap on the knuckles – when the two characters are distinctly different. In a nutshell, the Old Testament prophet was God’s “microphone;” he spoke the very words of God which were to be obeyed or else. In contrast, the New Testament prophet discerns and communicates the heart of God which requires us to judge the word given (see 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12; 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). It is beyond the scope of this article to amplify this thought further; suffice to say, the reader can prayerfully consider some of the differences between the Old Testament wineskin of “prophet, priest and king who were supported by the city elders” and the New Testament wineskin of “apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher who serve the community elders and deacons”.
3 The word “apostolic” is thus also sometimes used, and I think correctly so, as a shortened form for the church pursuing this fullness of Christ. (To me, even the Nicene Creed uses the word in this sense). To say “apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral and Biblical” each time is more than a mouthful. However, the inherent danger here of course is that we elevate the apostle over the other Ephesians 4:11 gifts and thus, over other believers too. Thus, it behoves us to use this word thoughtfully and purposefully.
4 How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
5 What is apostolic alignment? <A Few Good Fathers>