Wineskins Archive

November 24, 2013

Rethinking Apostleship in Churches of Christ (Apr 2013)

Filed under: — @ 12:30 am and

By Wes Woodell

Unlike gift lists found in other places (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Romans 12:6-8), in Ephesians 4:11 Paul specifically calls different types of leaders the “gifts” Christ gave to serve the church. Each role was ordained by Jesus, and specific individuals were created, uniquely gifted, and “given” to fill them. The goal driving this organizational scheme was exceedingly lofty – “so that the body of Christ may be built up” – so here’s my question: why does the traditional Church of Christ interpretation of Ephesians 4:11 eliminate one of these roles from the contemporary church equation?

In Ephesians 4:11, the apostle Paul informs believers of various leadership roles present in the church:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up … ~ Ephesians 4:11 (NIV11)

Five roles are listed: 1) apostles, 2) prophets, 3) evangelists, 4) pastors, and 5) teachers.

Unlike gift lists found in other places (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Romans 12:6-8), here Paul specifically calls different types of leaders; the “gifts” Christ gave to serve the church. Each role was ordained by Jesus, and specific individuals were created, uniquely gifted, and “given” to fill them.

The goal driving this five-fold organizational scheme was exceedingly lofty – “so that the body of Christ may be built up” – so here’s my question: why does the traditional Church of Christ interpretation of Ephesians 4:11 eliminate one of these roles from the contemporary church equation?

Of course, I’m referring to the role of apostle. Scripture never states it should be eliminated, so why have we proclaimed it has been?

I’ve asked this question to a lot of people, and have found Church of Christ members generally fall within one of two camps. People either 1) believe ‘apostle’ describes one of the Twelve Apostles and only one of the Twelve Apostles, or 2) they understand scripture to outline specific qualifications for apostleship that no one meets today.

I will briefly examine each of these positions before offering a few additional thoughts at the end of the article.

Those who understand the word ‘apostle’ to refer only to one to the Twelve have probably not looked closely at apostleship in the Bible.

While ‘apostle’ can and does refer to one of the Twelve, there are a number of people called apostles in the Bible who were not one of the Twelve. Most obvious is Paul – less obvious is Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7), and some would argue James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19).

While it is proper to refer to the Twelve as ‘apostles’, one should also understand the Twelve were special.

I find it helpful to distinguish between “big A” Apostles (the Twelve) and “little a” apostles (Paul, Barnabas, etc.). The “big A” Apostles were those who’d been with Jesus throughout his entire ministry and who served as the first witnesses of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). The “big A” Apostles occupied a special place on earth, and, according to Revelation, will occupy a special place in heaven (Revelation 21:14).

The “little a” apostles were also leaders in the early church, but they were not required to have been with Jesus from the beginning of His ministry nor were they as prominent as those among the Twelve (Paul being an exception). They did exist separate the Twelve, however, so this first understanding can be dismissed.

The second understanding is more reasoned than the first, and is more representative of the popular Church of Christ understanding of apostleship. This position states that there are certain requirements for apostleship outlined in scripture that no one meets today. Four passages generally inform this view – 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:7-9; 2 Corinthians 12:12, and 1 Corinthians 13:8-10

The first two scriptures – 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:7-9 – are cited as proofs that a person must have seen Jesus in the flesh in order to qualify to be an apostle (some would also place Acts 1:21-22 in this list even though it’s specific to the Twelve):

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? ~ 1 Corinthians 9:1

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God ~ 1 Corinthians 15:7-9

The third scripture – 2 Corinthians 12:12 – is cited as proof that a person must have the ability to perform the miraculous to be qualified to be an apostle:

12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. ~ 2 Corinthians 12:12

And the fourth scripture – 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 – is cited to prove that miracles have “passed away” since “completeness” has come:

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:8-10

The “completeness” that has come is understood to be the written scriptures. “Since we have the Bible.” it is thought, “we no longer need things like miracles and prophecy” (an observant person might notice that this passage says nothing about miracles, but it is used to make the case anyway).

To summarize this popular traditional argument:
If a) an apostle is one who has seen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:7-9) and can perform miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12), and b) no one present today has seen Jesus or can perform miracles (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), then c) there are no apostles present today.

This is the reasoning one might hear from a professor in a Church of Christ Bible college or from a studious preacher, but is it correct?

The traditional understanding of apostleship is based upon a foundation of assumption. We have assumed that 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:7-9, and 2 Corinthians 12:12 provide a record of qualifications for apostleship, but did Paul intend his words to be used in that way?

Read in context, these passages were written by Paul to defend his credibility as his apostleship and teachings were under attack. In 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul states he’d seen Jesus with his own eyes in order to highlight the fact that those attacking his apostleship hadn’t had the same experience. In 15:7-9 he again states he’d seen the risen Jesus to defend the reality of the resurrection – some in Corinth had been saying that the dead would not be raised (1 Corinthians 15:12). In both cases Paul made statements to defend his personal integrity and the integrity of his testimony.

Could it be our assumption has been incorrect, and that Paul’s statements about seeing the risen Christ were made simply to defend himself and not to provide a line item on a universal list of apostolic qualifications?

The same question can be asked of 2 Corinthians 12:12. Did Paul mean to state the ability to perform miracles was a qualification for apostleship? The truth is the text doesn’t say that – it says that miraculous abilities were a “mark” (i.e. characteristic) of Paul’s apostleship (just as they were probably characteristic of all apostles in the first century along with many early evangelists). A characteristic is not the same thing as a timeless qualification – could it be we’re putting words in Paul’s mouth by making it so?

With regard to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, the same people who say the ability to perform miracles is a requirement for apostleship say this passage teaches that neither prophecy nor miracles have a place in the contemporary world because “completeness” has come. The “completeness” that has come is understood to be the completed, modern Bible that contains the full articulation of the gospel along with all the teachings God wills us to have. It is reasoned that since we have the Bible as a resource, we no longer need things like miracles, prophecy, tongue speaking, etc.

First, one might notice this passage says nothing about miracles – it speaks of prophecy and tongue-speaking, and not miracles in general.

Second, the traditional Church of Christ interpretation of this passage should be tossed. Paul’s reference to “completeness” in 1 Corinthians 13:8; is surely referring to the eschatological end of time when Christ returns – not the Bible. It is Jesus’ return that will truly bring completeness. Until then we have but a shadow of what’s to come.

Overall, the traditional explanation for why apostles can no longer exist is lacking. It’s an argument that pieces together a series of verses to make a universal, timeless list of qualifications for apostleship even though a) the context of the verses used is not considered, b) Paul never states his words should be used in that way, and c) the Bible never states Jesus would stop “giving apostles” to the church.

Could it be the contemporary rejection of apostleship is based on fallacy?

Since we’re good at it, let’s assume for a moment the traditional Church of Christ understanding of apostleship has been incorrect. What might be a correct understanding?

First, it could be that “apostle” is not so much descriptive of an office as it is descriptive of a function.

The other roles listed in Ephesians 4:11 — (prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher) are descriptive of functions within the body – not necessarily an office. In Churches of Christ we tend to emphasize office over function. That’s why it’s traditionally been okay for men occupy the office of elder without necessarily carrying out the biblical function. We need to think more in terms of function than we do of office, particularly as it relates to apostleship.

Second, if “apostle” is descriptive of function within the body, what is that function?

To answer that question, we have only to observe the function of the early apostles.

Apostles were first and foremost called by Jesus to act as His representatives. The Greek word apostolos (ἀπόστολος) literally means messenger or envoy, and, when used in the biblical sense, generally described an ambassador of Christ whose primary function was to proclaim the gospel, make disciples, start new churches, then nurture those churches along. This was the function of the apostle Paul – one who could be the prototypical model for others to follow.

The “little a” apostle Paul traveled from city to city preaching Jesus. As new believers emerged, so did new churches. Paul spent his life praying for, encouraging, rebuking, and correcting the communities under his care as a spiritual father. This included raising up new leaders and appointing elders to help shepherd the flock.

In modern terms, we would refer to Paul as a movement leader. He worked to create a network of churches and served them as a spiritual father. When one got out of line, he got involved and offered correction. When one was doing great work, he let them know it and called on others to look to their good example. When one got off mission, he rebuked them and helped them get back on track. When one allowed immorality to creep in, he threatened discipline and worked to see sin rooted out.

Some may observe that these are things elders are called to do today, and they’d be right, but what happens when elders lead sinfully? Who trains and appoints them? What concrete, biblical example do we have to follow verses what we normally settle for? And what of those congregations that are without elders or any type of real leadership? What do we do with them – simply let them die? Because under our traditional system that what’s happening.

Third, if apostles exist today, how are they recognized?

In Churches of Christ we aren’t used to recognizing leaders, because in our tradition leaders (elders or preachers) have generally been appointed. There’s a position (an office) to be occupied, and individuals are hired or appointed to occupy it – this has been our way.

With regard to apostles, in the Bible they don’t appear to have been appointed by a community so much as they emerged as called by Jesus to lead. For instance, the Jerusalem community didn’t choose Paul to lead them – Jesus did. Paul emerged as a leader for Christ much to the surprise of the community he’d formally persecuted.

If apostles exist today, we should expect the same dynamic to be at work (perhaps that is why we’ve dismissed apostleship – because we don’t believe Jesus speaks anymore). Apostleship wouldn’t be something a church would appoint a person to – it’d be something Jesus would call a person to, and given His M.O. that would probably include the most unlikely of candidates.

The proof of that calling would be found in the function of that person within the body and the corresponding fruit of their life and ministry – maybe the same thing Paul referred to as “the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2).


At the end of the day, this nagging thought won’t go away: the Bible never instructs us to dismiss apostleship as a thing of the past, and our traditional justification for doing so is shaky at best.

Granted that, there is at least a possibility that we’ve blown it on this issue, and that our current ecclesiastical scheme is missing a foundational element.

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