Many Renewalists (Pentecostals, Charismatics or Neo-Charismatics) believe they do. But should there be mitigating qualifications?
Paul wrote that God gave “some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11, NET). If the latter three gifts are still going strong, why not the first two?
Who are the apostles? Are there different levels of them with differing authority?
The New Testament indicates that it is important to divide apostleship into various classes or groups. What are they?
Jesus is called the apostle and high priest of our faith (Heb. 3:1), but since his status is beyond anyone’s reach, let’s look only at how the term applies to people in his church.
1.. The twelve apostles
They are the first group, in a class by themselves.
Let’s quote from the Gospel of Luke, which stands in for the parallel passages.
12 And so it happened in those days that he went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called for his disciples and selected from them twelve, whom he also called apostles: 14 Peter, whom he nicknamed Peter, and Andrew his brother and James and John, and Philip and Bartholomew 15 and Matthew and Thomas and James, son of Alphaeus and 16 Judas, son of James, and Simon called the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16, my translation)
I have already written an article about the different lists of names in Matthew, Mark and Luke and Acts and the meaning of their names:
In Luke’s account, this passage appears early in Jesus’s ministry and movement. He had already called Peter, James, and John, three business partners, and probably Peter’s brother Andrew (Luke 5:1-11). Many disciples were already following him (Luke 6:13). From them he selected the twelve.
The twelve apostles correspond to the names of twelve tribes of Israel, just by virtue of the same number and leadership capacity (Num. 1-2, 26; cf. Acts 26:7). They shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). Their names will be written on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).
This special office, filled only by the twelve, can never be replicated. Not even Paul the apostle could be numbered among the twelve because Peter said:
Therefore we must [select] from men who went with us all the time when the Lord Jesus went in and out as our head, beginning with the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, a witness with us of his resurrection—to become one of us” (Acts 1:21-22, my translation).
So what qualifies Judas’s replacement is that he must have known Jesus’s ministry first hand, as an eyewitness from the very beginning, all the way back to John’s baptism of Jesus—very far back indeed! Luke also makes much of his researching those who knew Jesus from the very beginning (Luke 1:2; Acts 1:1).
Paul was never with Jesus from the very beginning. Therefore, even Paul, who fought so diligently to be recognized as an apostle (Gal. 2:6), recognized this distance by calling himself abnormally born (1 Cor. 15:8). He even referenced the twelve, almost automatically, for he had just named Cephas (Peter), so he seemed to have placed the twelve in a special category (1 Cor. 15:5).
2.. Other apostles
The evidence for these other apostles comes mostly comes from Paul’s writings, and his definition of apostles is very broad. In 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote that “God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, leadership, different kinds of tongues” (my translation).
The term apostles here includes the twelve, of course, but the verse also seems to open the door to other kinds, because of how easily Paul shifts to other gifts in his quick list. So some Bible interpreters believe there is another level “below” the twelve. They are the apostles of Christ and then the apostles of the churches.
Apostles of Christ
So some see even a further division here: the apostles of the churches.
Paul: though it may be shocking to some readers, it was argued in the first section that Paul could not be numbered among the twelve, because he never followed Jesus from John’s baptism to his ascension, though this does not mean Paul considered himself inferior to any influential person in Jerusalem, not even Peter, in the least (Gal. 2:6). Paul considered himself an apostle of Christ, called by Christ himself (note his greetings in his letters, like 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1).
James: the Lord’s brother was an apostle of Christ. After spending fifteen days with Peter, Paul wrote: “I saw no other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19, my translation). In other words, James was numbered among the apostles of Christ in Jerusalem.
The brothers of the Lord: Paul seems to put the Lord’s other brothers with the apostles and Cephas / Peter (1 Cor. 9:5). However, in his epistle, Jude says he was James’s brother (1), but he seems to set himself outside of the apostleship, when he reminds his readers of what the apostles of the Lord Jesus foretold (17), but he maybe he was not excluding himself. It is unclear (to me, at least).
Barnabas: he was called an apostle of Christ (Acts 14:4), though the record never says he received his commission from a post-resurrection appearance, unless he was one of the five hundred, a possibility that cannot be excluded, since he was an early and generous disciple (Acts 4:36-37; 14:14; 1 Cor. 9:6). The twelve apostles marked him out from the rest (Acts 4:36).
Silas: he was probably an apostle of Christ, since Paul says “even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority…” (1 Thess. 2:6-7, NIV); “we” would include Silas (1 Thess. 1:1). Since Silas and Judas were sent by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:27), they may have lived in Jerusalem for a long time and may have seen the risen Christ with the more-than-five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6), but this is not unknown to us. But Silas went on missionary journeys with Peter (1 Peter 5:12) and Paul (Acts 15:18). His title was also a prophet (Acts 15:32), and he helped Peter write his epistle, which would give him extra-authority and endorsement from Peter himself.
Apollos: he was possibly an apostle of Christ (1 Cor. 4:6, 9), though he was probably not part of the more-than-five hundred since he had been so far afield in Alexandria (Acts 18:24). Paul refers to himself and Apollos in v. 4 and then says “we apostles” in v. 9. If those verses are interpreted accurately, then Paul considered Apollos to be an apostle. But he could be moved to the so-called “church apostles” (see below), since the categories cannot be so tidily defined.
Timothy: he may possibly be considered an apostle, since he went on mission trips with Paul and may be included in Paul’s statement in 1 Thess. 2:6. But he was more likely part of the so-called church apostles (see below).
The apostles in Rom. 16:7: Paul mentions them without limiting them to the twelve, though they certainly would include the twelve. An example may possibly be Rufus and his mother who may have made it to Rome (Rom. 16:13; cf. Mark 15:21). His father Simon had done such a kindness to Jesus, when Simon had been compelled to carry the cross, that surely Rufus was an early disciple. Surely he was part of the more-than-five hundred to whom Jesus appeared. But since the text is silent about this title belonging to him, we should not make too much of it.
Andronicus and Junia: they were apostles of Christ (Rom. 16:7), because the Greek says they were “noteworthy” or “prominent” among the apostles. This is confirmed by the Greek-speaking church fathers had no problem in saying Andronicus and Junia (a female name frequently attested) and not Junias (a male name never attested), were “prominent among the apostles,” and not merely “well known to the apostles.” (Rom. 16:7). I accept the opinion of these Greek fathers and their natural reading of Rom. 16:7 as decisive, for the fathers were educated native Greek speakers, and that is how they read the dative case with the Greek preposition en in Rom. 16:7 Andronicus and Junia were probably husband and wife.
See Richard Bauckham’s Gospel Women: Studies in the Named Women in the Gospels (Eerdman’s, 2002), pp. 165-88 for an excellent discussion on Junia. He further argues that Junia is a sound-alike name for Joanna (Luke 8:2-3; 24:10). She added to her Hebrew name a Latin one, to relate to the Romans. Chuza had probably already died, and she remarried to Andronicus, probably also an early follower of Jesus who had (unknown) Jewish and this Greek name, since many Jews had biblical names but also adopted Greek names to relate to the large Greek-speaking culture. Ingenious. Plausible. If Bauckham’s evidence and argument is true, then Joanna-Junia followed Christ from the beginning or close to the beginning (Luke 8:2-3), watched him die on the cross (Luke 23:49), and then proclaimed the resurrection to the eleven (24:10). So she deserved the praise “prominent among the apostles.”
Apostles of the churches
Some see a lower level of apostles, the so-called “apostles of the churches.” We can also call them church apostles. Let’s explore this issue.
They are church apostles who were sent by the more prominent apostles, or the churches recognized their authority and calling. This is a nontechnical sense of the word apostle.
Certain brothers, including Titus: they were called apostles, but they were called apostles of the churches (2 Cor. 8:23). Though the Greek reads apostles, the major translations say “messengers” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NET), “representatives” (NIV, NLT), “delegates” (MSG) or simply “are sent” (NCV, CEV).
Epaphroditus: he was an apostle of / to the Philippians (Phil. 2:25). Though the Greek reads apostle, the major translations have “messenger” (KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, NLT, ESV, NET), “sent” (NCV, CEV), “sending” (MSG).
Recall that perhaps Apollos and Timothy could be placed here.
Pricilla and Aquila, a husband and wife team, may be placed here, since they traveled and exercised authority, when they taught Apollos (Acts 18:2, 18-26), but their possible apostleship is far from clear. Paul called them his co-workers, but he distinguished them from apostles (Rom. 16:3, 7). They seemed to host churches (1 Cor. 16:19), more than plant them. More likely they were businesspersons and teachers.
John Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas and helped to plant churches (Acts 12:25). He abandoned them (15:37), but Barnabas believed in him and traveled with him to Cyprus (15:39), Barnabas’s home island (4:36). He associated with Peter and wrote his Gospel based on the lead apostle’s preaching. He made it all the way to Rome. So could John Mark be an apostle-missionary? Perhaps. If so, then the definition is very broad.
Luke functioned as a missionary, when he traveled with Paul, so does this qualify him to be apostolic on some level, or was he just a passive bystander and recorder?
In Luke 11:49 Jesus proclaimed that the wisdom of God decided to send to the ancient Israelites prophets and apostles. So in this context it clearly means “messengers” or emissaries, not the twelve or the other apostles listed above.
In this entire section, it is easy to see why Paul has a broad definition, which is not precise and tidy enough for restrictive interpreters today!
To sum up this long section, in 1 Cor. 12:28, Paul wrote that God has placed in the church first apostles. This context seems to be generic, and not restricted to the twelve. Everyone in this section could be in the 1 Cor. 12:28 class, including John Mark, but those in the “Other apostles?” section come with doubts.
3.. What about seeing the Lord Jesus as a mark of apostleship?
In 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul writes, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (NIV). This indicates that seeing the Lord is a mark of the apostle, though he may be just offering a list of rhetorical questions to establish his authority, without a requirement to see the Lord that everyone must meet to be an apostle.
Please note, however; just because a Renewalist claims to have seen the Lord in a dream or vision does not mean he is an apostle today. Other factors must be considered, as seen in the previous and following points.
4.. What about planting churches as a mark of an apostle?
In the same passage, Paul wrote a polemical question, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!” (1 Cor. 9:2, NIV). In his day, super-apostles had been claiming they had authority, while Paul was supposed to take a back seat to them (1 Cor. 3:10; 2 Cor. 11:5, 13; 12:11). In reply, Paul said that he may not have been an apostle-church planter to other churches (like the one in Rome), but he was surely an apostle to the Corinthians, in whose city he was the first to plant a church (v. 2; cf. Acts 18:1-18a). Therefore, 1 Cor. 9:2 teaches that this requirement of being an apostle is to be a church planter and is necessary for today, at a minimum.
And so in today’s churches, missionaries and church planters might be able to claim to have an apostolic title on some level but see the eighth point for some caution.
5.. What about signs and wonders and miracles?
Signs, wonders, and miracles also mark an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12), and men who were not numbered among the twelve could do them, like the seventy-two (Luke 10:9). Even Philip, who was a deacon and an evangelist, could work them (Acts 8:4-13). Surely other men and women, whose ministries went unrecorded, could also work them (Mark 16:17-18). Maybe some of these believers were part of the more-than-five hundred to whom Jesus had appeared (1 Cor. 15:6). If so, then they could be considered apostles, if they received an additional call from the Lord. But this is speculation from silence, so caution is needed.
For those Renewalists today who claim the title of apostle by virtue of their working signs and wonders and miracles, these manifestations of God’s power are not sufficient to establish their claim. Other factors must play a part, as noted in the previous and following points.
6.. What is the conclusion so far?
According to the NT, the twelve are in a class by themselves, and even Paul referenced them by their number, “the twelve,” almost reflexively and automatically, since he had just named Cephas (Peter), as if Cephas were not part of the twelve (1 Cor. 15:6)! Therefore, no one could ever “graduate” to their level, even in the first century, and not even Paul. There is a God-ordained wall, so to speak, between them and the other apostles.
The second group, the apostles of Christ, are those outside of the twelve, and this evidence comes from one verse in Acts (Barnabas in 14:4) and Paul’s passing references in his writings. He seemed to assume a very broad definition, including himself and many others. So let’s not build up a thick wall between them and the next possible class.
Some interpreters see a third class, the apostles of the churches or church apostles. They were commissioned by the churches or by Paul, for example. They may even be considered traveling church planters or church overseers who superintended Paul’s churches (plural) that he himself had originally planted, to ensure growth, correct doctrine, and appoint elders and deacons. They represent the nontechnical use of apostle: representatives or messengers or delegates. Examples of this kind of apostle are Titus, Epaphroditus, and Timothy.
In 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote that God placed in the church first apostles. This verse seems general and open, not restrictive.
It is possible that a fourth class exists, like John Mark and Priscilla and Aquila and even the apostles that “wisdom” sent to the ancient Israelites, but this class is problematic unless one has a very broad definition of the term “apostle.”
To clarify matter, the next two verses seem to narrow down “apostle” a select group.
7.. Two key verses that restrict apostleship?
Eph. 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (NIV).
And Eph. 3:4b-5 says, “… the mystery of Christ … has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (NIV).
Do those verses put all of the apostles of the first century in such a high and exclusive class that the apostolic ministry and calling no longer exists today because the foundation had been laid in that century? To answer that, we have to first answer: who should form the foundation?
For sure the twelve are included in the foundation (Matt. 19:28; Rev. 21:14). I would place Paul there because of his abundance of revelations, and other NT authors. Or one could place only the twelve and Paul in the foundation. Some interpreters could also include any of the seventy-two because they were with Jesus early on and were sent out by him. Or interpreters could include others who were with Jesus from near the beginning, like Joanna and Susanna. All women who proclaimed the resurrection right after it happened could be there, for they revealed the mystery of Christ as the glorified Lord. In any case, the wall of separation between these earliest disciples who were with Jesus at or near the beginning and later apostles like Barnabas or Silas, assuming they were not part of the earliest disciples, is not clear (to me, at least).
Now what about the many other later apostles being foundational apostles, like Titus, Epaphroditus, Timothy and Apollos? I tentatively exclude them, because seemingly they did not operate on the same authority and receive the same revelations as the twelve and Paul. But if an interpreter wishes to include all of them in the foundation, then the debate will go on and on, without a resolution in sight.
Personally I see no reason to get into an endless debate on an issue that will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I say the door is open today at least to the apostle of the churches like Titus and other missionary-church planters like Barnabas. But today’s apostles cannot be in the foundation because they were born far too late, though their calling can still be apostolic.
I believe 1 Cor. 12:28 opens this door to modern apostles, while Eph. 2:20 closes the door to modern apostles having the same authority as the earliest ones. Today’s apostles are excluded from writing Scriptures and laying new foundation stones that were settled in the first century.
8.. So do modern-day apostles exist?
My own research from the above passages tell me that modern-day apostles are only (but not merely!) missionaries and church planters who oversee many churches—many churches, not just one. Their leadership must rise above the local, one-church pastor.
Yes, it is possible to call them apostles, but only in the broadest meaning of the term, not the narrow meaning of the twelve or foundational apostles. However, in my view we should avoid the title apostle. It is better to use the adjective apostolic, if one must use the term
Further, today’s claimants to apostleship can also fit the nontechnical term of representative or messenger or delegate. Since Paul used the Greek word apostolos for them, the title apostle is technically legitimate, but caution is needed because these representatives (etc.) do not have the authority that the name apostle had back then and now.
Modern missionaries and church planters can be both men and women.
Now what about seeing a vision of the Lord as a requirement of apostle? Many Renewalists claim to have seen him, and I don’t doubt them (in principle), but by itself this is insufficient; other factors need to come into play. On the other hand, if a claimant to apostleship has not seen the Lord, then his credential is missing something. However, this requirement or criterion is not as clear as one would like (see no. 3 for a discussion). So a vision is not dispositive one way or the other, in my opinion.
Many of these people who seem to have an apostolic ministry, particularly the Renewalists, work signs and wonders and miracles. God still wants new territory broken open in the dark corners of the world, and signs and wonders and miracles are the best way to accomplish the spread of the kingdom of God in those contexts. But working signs and wonders and miracles by itself is insufficient, because many people pray and see miracles, but they are not apostles.
What about the church conferring an apostolic ministry? It is extremely important to have this conferral (if it must be conferred). Today, various churches must send out the missionaries and church planters or must endorse their callings. Jesus may call them to be missionaries or church planters in a vision (or not), but their apostolic ministry is conferred (if it must be) by the churches, or else churches may not recognize the self-proclaimed apostle, for his own claim to apostleship comes across as too subjective and self-serving. The danger is great, for the self-proclaimed apostle may become isolated and puffed up and then crash and burn.
But I also note, as a word of warning, that wise and mature church leaders with an apostolic ministry today are not eager to claim the title apostle, at least by my observation.
9.. So, can apostles today write a new set of Scriptures?
No. As noted (no. 7), the foundational apostles shut the door on such claims. Whoever specifically in the first century should be considered foundational is debatable, but this one feature comes out of the above study: they were with Jesus from the beginning or near the beginning or were with those who were with Jesus early on and were specially called, like Paul. Today’s apostles, if we must use the title, are born two thousand years or more too late. Therefore, today’s apostles are not and cannot be foundational apostles. And therefore, the modern apostles are not or cannot be Scripture writers, no matter how many visions they claim.
10.. Are there possible modern-day examples of apostles?
Let’s explore three possible types.
First, they must be leaders of large church movements. Their main church or at least their preaching spawned many other churches. Possible examples:
Martin Luther (Lutherans)
John Calvin (Reformed et al.)
John Wesley (Methodists)
Eudorus Bell, Howard Goss, Daniel Opperman, Archibald Collins, Mack Pinson (a team who formed the Assemblies of God in 1913)
Aimee Semple McPherson (Foursquare)
Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel)
John Wimber (the Vineyard)
Brian Houston (Hillsong? But the movement is young and the churches are few, so we shall see)
The leading men or women of these movements usually performed signs and wonders, though I am not clear about Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel, who started out as Foursquare but seemed to have avoided signs and wonders, nor did Luther’s and Calvin’s ministry emphasize signs and wonders. I don’t recall whether everyone of them saw a vision of the Lord, but this may not be a requirement in the first place (see no. 3, above).
However, to my knowledge, none of these men and women have ever claimed the title of apostle, whether church apostle or not, though many others have enthusiastically conferred this title on the more recent ones in an informal way.
Second, presidents and other executives of denominations, by virtue of their overseeing many churches, but maybe they are just overseers or bishops.
Third, all sorts of missionary-church planters who plant and oversee many churches, whether at home or abroad. Many of them, particularly of the Pentecostal or Charismatic or Neo-Charismatic variety, work signs and wonders and miracles and have seen visions of the Lord.
But as noted, I have not observed any of them eager to claim the title of apostle. Wise and mature.
11.. Word of caution
Paul wrote: “We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us …” (2 Cor. 10:13, NIV). Jesus assigned to Paul his apostleship.
In the ministry of Jesus and the early church, the believers just did not self-appoint to this office. Jesus appointed the twelve and Paul. Paul got the seal of approval from the apostles in Jerusalem and the elders, though he did not need it (Gal. 2:1-10). He brought up their endorsement possibly because others could claim the apostolic mantle by a vision or a word from the Lord. For example, some called themselves “super-apostles,” but Paul debunks them, saying they were masquerading (2 Cor. 11:5, 13; 12:11). Apparently,they were self-appointed.
Also, the later church in Ephesus tested some who claimed to be apostles, and they were proven false (Rev. 2:2). Apparently, they strutted around and claimed authority they did not receive from the Lord. Were they homegrown or new arrivals? Unknown (to me at least). It is interesting that Paul had written to the Ephesian church and laid out church structure: God gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:11).
Therefore it is best to test those who claim an apostolic ministry, just as the Ephesians did. So self-appointment is a bad idea. It is best to allow the Body of Christ to acknowledge his apostolic ministry. This ecclesiastical calling and acknowledgement removes self-serving subjectivity, personal ambition, and self-aggrandizement.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God and his church?
By my observation, the preacher who claims to be an apostle usually is not. No, this does not mean that he should be removed from his ministry or stripped of his title (as if he would allow it!). But I urge caution about following one who gives himself or herself the title. Just for safety and balance in the church, I believe we should avoid the title. We need to attract, not distract, new converts to our churches and keep the long-time church goers. By not throwing around the highest title, we will prevent distractions, which happen when churches squabble over the issue.
Instead, the one eager to call himself apostle should instead consider the terms apostolic office or apostolic ministry or apostolic church planter. Apostolic is an adjective, but apostle is a noun. Big difference. Be free enough not to use the noun and even the adjective.
Self-denial is mature and humble. Choose this way.