What is Apostolic Alignment?
Before we tackle apostolic alignment, let me ask you a question. Own a car? Then you know the importance of getting your wheels aligned if you want to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on your treads. In like manner, to avoid unneeded wear and tear on my soul, I stay aligned with a group of others to whom I’m mutually accountable in Christ.
What is true for individuals is, likewise, true for church communities. While self-governing Kingdom communities ought to certainly “stand on their own,” they ought not to be alone. Investing in God’s “security system” of apostolic alignment, simple churches will not only avoid wear and tear but also enjoy being mutually connected to apostolic vision for Kingdom advance.
Continue reading as we look at what apostolic alignment means and just as importantly, what it does not mean.
So, what is apostolic alignment?
This is, in my mind, one of the most important issues in our day. Failure to understand and embrace it will lead to a weak, unhealthy church; over-emphasising it can foment a slide back into the tragic quagmire of clergy/laity distinctions. The phrase, “apostolic alignment” is a rather loaded term and so let me be emphatic about what we are not talking about.
There “is one (and the emphasis in on one and only one) Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). He is the Head of the church, Shepherd of the sheep, King of the Kingdom and Lord of the Harvest. We, as individuals or as churches, do not need any human or organisational covering in any shape or form. Just as every individual is to be personally led by the Spirit, exercising self-control (Galatians 5:23), so every simple church community should be Spirit-led and self-governing; that is, they ought to “stand on their own”. A spiritual family does not need an outside permission-giving body to exist, nor should it depend on artificial life support systems to survive.
But just as every Spirit-led individual ought to willingly make themselves accountable to others, inviting in the counsel of many, so should a self-governing spiritual community. There are no Lone-Ranger believers in the New Testament, nor are there Lone-Ranger churches.
Thus a self-governing simple church should “stand on their own” but should not exist alone. While they don’t need the permission of others, they are worse off if they don’t draw on the perspective of others. A spiritual family does not need to live under the imposed authority of any person or team but if they fail to invite the God-given authority of others into their communal life they are vulnerable to deception from within and demonic onslaught from outside. And if the spiritual leadership of such a community does not make themselves accountable to consistent input from another, there is an integrity gap if they expect those they lead, consistent with Scripture, to willingly give account to their leadership.
All this goes to the question of what checks-and-balances God established in the growth, health and integrity of multiplying simple church communities? Who is the outside “other” from whom a spiritual community willingly, as the fruit of a consistent mutual relationship, seeks perspective, counsel and, when necessary, correction? Should the bottom fall out of a spiritual family, to whom do they turn? This is where apostolic alignment comes into the equation.
Most people reading this article will probably own a car or have owned a car at some point. Thus, you will know the importance of having the wheels on your vehicle regularly aligned. If you fail to do so, unnecessary wear and tear develops on your tyres and this damage can cost you significantly in the long run. In fact, badly worn tyres can lead to a life-threatening accident. Of course, we don’t leave our car permanently hooked up to the alignment machine or become dependent on the tyre dealership. But regular tuning and a good relationship with the tyre expert will serve you and your car well.
Apostolic alignment in Corinth…
In the first century, the church in Corinth was in bad shape; the wear and tear on their spiritual witness was evident to all and they were in danger of hurtling off the road. Paul’s letters to them brought the much-needed re-alignment to truth. And his words in the fourth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians are highly instructive.
For though you might have ten-thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16)
While Paul was actively against harbouring sectarian, personality-driven attitudes – “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:4) – he refers to apostolic alignment in this fourth chapter. After affirming that the Corinthians could and should benefit from the ministry of all in the Body of Christ – “though you might have ten-thousand instructors” – he reminded the Corinthians that they “did not have many fathers”.
While any mature man or woman of God could have brought corrective counsel to this shaky and shallow church, there was one group or team of apostolic leaders who had to; that is, Paul and his apostolic team1 were responsible in God to bring realignment in truth and love. Yes, any of the other apostolic men and women on the first century scene could have, in a love of the truth, admonished this community; but as a spiritual father to this church Paul could not fudge this responsibility. Why? Who did Paul think he was? Who gave him the right to call them to order in such a firm (yet gentle) way? And why do I refer to an apostolic team’s responsibility in this regard?
Through his broken-hearted letters of appeal (this is an important word as we will see in a moment), Paul humbly referred to “the authority which the Lord had given [him]” (2 Corinthians 13:10). And in this statement he is not merely referring to his unique role in writing Holy Scripture; earlier he referred to this same authority that he and his team stood in for the specific support and health of the Corinthian church aligned to them (2 Corinthians 10:8-17; notice the stress on the plural “we”).
The Greek word used for “authority” here (Greek: exousia) refers to a delegated authority, not inherent to the recipient to whom it is given; that is, the recipient does not own it, he stands in the authority of the one given. And notably, it is the word that Jesus used in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); it is His – Jesus’ – authority and He delegates this authority to others. To who? Well, if we take Jesus’ words seriously and in context, He delegated this authority specifically to the “eleven” apostles who were present (Matthew 28:16).
This does not mean that the Great Commission only involves select believers; without question, it requires every believer and every gift – without the contribution of all, we’re notably weaker. But the grace gift of apostle (and it seems, the other Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts as they work together as an apostolic team) is absolutely vital to the fulfilment of the Great Commission. Jesus did not give these equipping gifts as optional luxuries but as essential ministries to spearhead the fulfilment of His mandate. And we cannot honestly read the New Testament without seeing the importance of the gift of apostle in catalysing new church communities2.
Thus, the word for “authority” is very different from, say, the word translated “power” (Greek: dunamis), which refers to an intrinsic power every believer has by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And of course, this power entrusted to every believer is given for one reason, to do the work of God (Acts 1:8) – every believer and every gift is essential. Yet when it comes to birthing and establishing Kingdom communities, which is the beachhead through which the Kingdom advances3, Jesus delegated His exousia authority to apostles (and the Ephesians 4:11 teams they work with).
In this delegated authority – Christ’s authority not theirs – apostles seek to establish self-governing communities aiming to make themselves redundant. In Paul words, they exist “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Their direct involvement has a sale-by-date; they lay the foundation in Christ and therefore once their initial work is done, their influence is “hidden” – still at work but in supportive, empowering hidden ways (see Ephesians 2:20 c. 1 Corinthians 3:10-17). An “apostle” that builds a platform where they effectively end up sitting on the rooftop, playing lord-of-the-manor, is not in keeping with a true, servant apostle. (In much of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul unmasks this counterfeit apostolic sham).
The next and final transfer of this exousia authority is when apostolic teams appoint elders; in essence, affirming the spiritual parents4 God has raised in the simple church community. In Acts 14, we get an inside peep of an apostolic team doing just this. Referring to the apostolic team that included Paul and Barnabas, Luke records: “when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples … they appointed elders in every church … commending them to the Lord” (vv. 21-23). Having laid a foundation in Christ’s authority, the apostolic team’s brief is to establish a self-governing community; the final chapter in this process is the appointing of the community’s spiritual parents, who now stand in Christ’s delegated authority (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 c. 5:17 and Hebrews 13:7, 17).
At this point, the apostolic team’s role changes significantly; they now respect Christ’s authority in which the spiritual parents of the community stand, continuing to serve as long as the relationship is mutual and as long as their counsel is invited and perspective is sought (which would be to the benefit of the community if the parent-elders are wise). There is no better picture to describe the change of this relational role than the shift from a parent to a grandparent.
Before appointing the parent-elders, the apostolic team serves as the parents to the fledgling community. Once they appoint the community’s new parent leaders; the apostolic team then becomes, so to speak, grandparents to the community.
A good grandparent respects his grown-up son’s boundaries in his attempt to raise his own children. The grandparent will drop everything to assist if called upon but won’t interfere – unless he absolutely has to and even then, does so to strength not usurp his grown-up son’s authority.
Thus, in one sense, we ought to feel the weight and importance of this exousia authority in the fear of the Lord. In another sense, we should highlight the nature of this authority lest we, in giving it weight, start to drift into hierarchical and institutional thinking.
Watch the otherworldly nature of true apostolic authority5 …
Paul described his relationship to the churches as a father and mother not a master or lord; his authority was exercised as a parent’s appeal not in the issuing of papal directives (see 1 Corinthians 3:2; 4:14, 15; 2 Corinthians 12:14; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11). The words he used most in his personal instructions to the churches aligned to his apostolic fatherhood were the Greek words parakaleo, which means “to appeal” – a derivative of the word parakletos, “to come alongside” – and erotao, which refers to “making a request”. Thus the nature of apostolic authority is expressed through a parent’s heart and a servant’s attitude.
Godly leadership can be best defined in comparison with worldly leadership:
|Godly Leadership||Worldly Leadership|
Jesus said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you…” (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus was emphatic; leadership among His people is to be distinctly different from secular leadership. Yes, aspects of secular leadership may be necessary in the corporate world but as the family of God we’re called to otherworldly servant-leadership based on integrity and relationships not titles and positions (see also Matthew 23:8-10).
Thus, and forgive the repetition, by apostolic alignment we are not referring to some revised papal super-structure that employs a system of management as a remote-control to micromanage a church on the other side of the world.
Instead, apostolic alignment refers to a church’s resolve to respect and affirm the relationship it has with an apostolic team; seeking their perspective, not requiring their permission; regularly drawing in their input and counsel to stay enlarged with apostolic vision and wisdom; partnering with them in the advance of the Kingdom and the multiplication of church communities; and giving their voice of encouragement or correction the weight it deserves. The relationship between the apostolic team and the parent-elders is the most important ingredient in the recipe.
So, what of this mention of apostolic teams?
Paul explains that the Corinthians did not have “many fathers” (plural) – he was not claiming a sole or exclusive relationship with them; in fact, there seems to be two implications here. First, he gave space for the Corinthians to invite the counsel of others into their relationship. He was not dominating or bullying them. In fact, his two epistles are powerful examples of a broken-hearted parent appealing to a wayward son, rather than a CEO threatening to terminate an employee’s job contract.
Second, prepare for a thunderbolt statement. After urging the Corinthians: “Therefore I urge you, imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16), in the very next sentence he continues with: “For this reason I have sent Timothy to you…” (1 Corinthians 4:17). In essence, Paul said: “Imitate me, follow him”.
This reference to Timothy indicates that Paul viewed the team that served with him as part of the spiritual “fathers” the church was privileged to have; that is, they were to receive young Timothy in the authority they would receive Paul himself. And this is not an isolated incident either. Paul sent other team members in apostolic authority; for example, to the Philippians, he sent Timothy and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:19-30) and to Crete, he sent Titus (Titus 1:5).
The most outstanding example, in my opinion, is when Paul sent Timothy to the mature church in the city of Ephesus. Remember, he himself had spent over two years there and it had become a significant base of Kingdom influence to the whole region of Asia Minor (Acts 19:10).
When Paul told Timothy to “remain in Ephesus,” he was to continue to unpack the apostolic vision (1 Timothy 1:3). Part of his task was to continue multiplying parent-leaders, presumably in the catalysing of new simple church communities. This is remarkable! Timothy was probably younger than many of the older, mature elders already functioning in Ephesus but Timothy’s mandate included both the support of these parent-leaders (1 Timothy 5:17-20) and the releasing of new ones (1 Timothy 3:1ff).
For this reason, we don’t refer to a church being apostolically aligned to one man but to a team; and by team we mean that the person the church may enjoy the direct relationship with, is himself an accountable part of a team – not one who is a law unto himself, making cavalier unilateral decisions on the run.
The issue is this …
If you and your community begin to stagnate or struggle to resolve internal conflict or start to drift off course, are there apostolic fathers and brothers in your life who have permission – by virtue of your invitation – to speak the truth in love to you? Do you have the resource of apostolic perspective in your life?
If you do, you have invested in the God-given “security system” of apostolic alignment. Cherish and affirm this relationship regularly and generously.
If you don’t, please consider what it may mean to do so.
A final thought…
Of course, authority can and always has been a subject of abuse and controversy. But it is without question a truth of God’s Word and an absolutely crucial ingredient in God’s Kingdom come. (A kingdom without an authority base will always lead to anarchy). And yes, the fallen nature of man will always try to profit from God-given responsibility. But if we avoid the subject because of potential abuse we will never mature into God’s best. The answer to abuse is, of course, not non-use but proper use. And, in my opinion, God is looking for a mature people who will move past their phobias and hang-ups; to put this issue on the table and embrace God’s truth in word and practice.
Furthermore, I’m convinced that things are different today. No, we’re not smarter or more humble than the previous generation who may have abused their fair share of authority. But God has changed the wineskin we’re working from. When we keep decentralising (as opposed to centralising6) through releasing self-governing communities and leaders, valuing the priesthood and brotherhood of all believers, we invest in God’s “security system” against man’s intentions to rob God’s people of freedom and responsibility.
1 While the term “apostolic team” is not a Biblical phrase, it is a useful umbrella term to describe the work of a team of Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts in spearheading the Great Commission. While some may prefer to use the phrase “equipping team” or “servant team,” the nature of their brief is apostolic; that is, facilitated by the apostolic gift, they work in harmony to impart the full counsel of God, laying the foundation of Jesus Christ, in order to seed the corporate Christ – a mature Body of Christ (see Ephesians 2:20; 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:27, 28).
The Greek word for “equipping” (katartismos) is a rich, medical word which refers to the setting of a bone or joint in surgery; that is, bringing the body into alignment. And the metaphor Paul used in this passage is of course the human body. The apostolic team’s aim is to assist every believer, and every church, find their place and play their role in a mature Body of Christ.
2 Paul explained: “Now you are the body of Christ and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that…” (1 Corinthians 12:27, 28). While this is certainly not referring to some hierarchy of importance – that would contradict Paul’s entire message on the value of every part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12ff) – it is referring to sequence, or priority of function, in fulfilling the Kingdom mandate.
3 The planting of churches is not the goal, but a means for the Kingdom objective. God births a redeemed community as a beachhead into society; an incubator for bringing believers to maturity and a launch pad for Kingdom exploits in the world. Through communities that are alive, in love and on mission; God flavours (salt) and illuminates (light) society with His glory.
4 The New Testament is Hebrew thought in Greek language. The main implication of this here is that to the Hebrew mindset, leadership was essentially parenthood, not directorship, and community (church) was family, not a business or organisational enterprise. Thus Biblically, eldership is not a position in a hierarchical institution rather it is a parental role in the context of spiritual family.
5 How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
6 Of course, this is a contrast hardly worth making; the opposite of “decentralisation” is obviously “centralisation”. However, I make this qualification because the word “decentralising” is best understood against its antonym. Centralisation refers to strengthening a central “command and control” centre, reinforcing the growing hierarchical power of a few over a wider range of influence. In sharp contradiction, decentralisation refers to intentionally releasing others into God-given grace and responsibility, ensuring there is no micro-managing “command and control” centre; that is, we are to lift people on our shoulders to fulfil their destiny in God’s Kingdom purposes, rather than keeping them in our shadow to build our own little empires.