The following post is from Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission by David Devenish, copyright 2011 reproduced with permission from Authentic Media.
Those who are recognized as apostles by particular church networks are sometimes accused of making themselves equivalent to Paul or Peter, but this is not the case. In the similar context of prophets today, Jack Deere says:
It is simply not reasonable to insist that all miraculous spiritual gifts equal those of the apostles in their intensity or strength in order to be perceived as legitimate gifts of the Holy Spirit. No one would insist on this for the non-miraculous gifts like teaching or evangelism. For example, what person in the history of the church since Paul has been as gifted a teacher to the body of Christ? Luther? Calvin? Who today would claim to be Paul’s equal as a teacher? I do not know of anyone who would make such a claim for the past or the present. Therefore, since no one has arisen with the gift of teaching that is equal to the apostle Paul’s, should we conclude that the gift of teaching was withdrawn from the church? Likewise, should we assume that everyone who has a gift of evangelism is going to evangelize like the apostle Paul? Who has planted as many churches or started as many new works with the depth and the authority that the apostle Paul did? We can admit to varying degrees of intensity and quality in gifts of evangelism, in gifts of teaching, and in other gifts. Why can’t we do that with the gift of healing? Or the gift of miracles? Or the gift of prophecy?37
To be fair, Jack Deere does not make the connection, but surely we could add ‘or the gift of an apostle?’.
Another factor to consider is that the New Testament warns against receiving ‘false apostles’. If it was known and accepted that there was a fixed group of apostles, then this warning would hardly have been necessary.
Clearly there were more apostles and prophets than just the twelve and Paul, and so churches needed to be able to distinguish between genuine and false ones. This was also the case a little later in church history, as the Didache (dating from the end of the first century or beginning of the second) records:
‘Concerning apostles and prophets, act thus according to the ordinance of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord . . . But let him not stay more than one day, or if need be a second as well; but if he stay three days he is a false prophet.’38
I do not know why length of stay was taken as a measure of an apostle or prophet’s genuineness, and I am not suggesting that in a relational context such guests should only stay for two days! This quotation, however, does indicate that the ministries of apostles and prophets continued after the completion of the New Testament, and that there was an ongoing need to discern between the false and the genuine.
Needed for the Church Today
Pragmatically, there is an evident need for the continuation of many of the functions of the original apostles. This would include church planting, laying good foundations in churches, continuing to oversee those churches, appointing the leaders, giving ongoing fatherly care to leaders, and handling difficult questions that may arise from those churches. There are really only three ways for churches to carry out these functions:
1. Each church is free to act totally independently and to seek God’s mind for its own government and pastoral wisdom, without any help from outside, unless the church may choose to seek it at any particular time.
When we started the church which I am still a part of, for example, we were so concerned to be ‘independent’ that we would not even join the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, although we adopted their trust deed and constitution because that would prevent us being purely independent. We were at that time very proud of our ‘independence’!
2. Churches operate under some sort of structured and formal oversight, as in many denominations today, where local church leaders are appointed by and accountable to regional leadership, whether ‘bishops’, ‘superintendents’ or ‘overseers’. It is hard to justify this model from the pages of the New Testament, though we recognize that it developed very early in church history. Even the word episkopos, translated ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’, which came to be used of those having wider authority and oversight over other leaders and churches, was used in the New Testament as a synonym for the local leaders or elders of a particular church.
The three main forms of church government current in the institutional church are Episcopalianism (government by bishops), Presbyterianism (government by local elders) and Congregationalism (government by the church meeting). Each of these is only a partial reflection of the New Testament. Commenting on these forms of government without apostolic ministry, Phil Greenslade says,
‘We assert as our starting point what the other three viewpoints deny: that the apostolic role is as valid and vital today as ever before. This is to agree with the German charismatic theologian, Arnold Bittlinger, when he says “the New Testament nowhere suggests that the apostolic ministry was intended only for first-century Christians”.’39
3. We aim to imitate the New Testament practice of travelling ministries of apostles and prophets, with apostles having their own spheres of responsibility as a result of having planted and laid the foundations in the churches they oversee. Such ministries continue the connection with local churches as a result of fatherly relationships and not denominational election or appointment, recognizing that there will need to be new charismatically gifted and friendship-based relationships continuing into later generations.
This is the model that the ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ (to use Peter Wagner’s phrase) is attempting to follow. Though mistakes have been made, including some quite serious ones involving controlling authority, and though those of us involved are still seeking to find our way with the Holy Spirit’s help, it seems to reflect more accurately the New Testament pattern and a present-day outworking of scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.
‘Is the building finished? Is the Bride ready? Is the Body full-grown, are the saints completely equipped? Has the church attained its ordained unity and maturity? Only if the answer to these questions is “yes” can we dispense with apostolic ministry. But as long as the church is still growing up into Christ, who is its head, this ministry is needed. If the church of Jesus Christ is to grow faster than the twentieth century population explosion, which I assume to be God’s intention, then we will need to produce, recognize and use Pauline apostles.’40
In summary, I believe that a strong case can be made for apostolic ministry continuing today, while also recognizing the unique role of the original apostles who witnessed the resurrection, and while thoroughly submitting to the truth revealed in the pages of the New Testament and seeing that truth as God’s final revelation. There is surely more support in the pages of the New Testament for relational oversight of churches than for denominational structures, and it seems to me preferable to use the Ephesians 4 terminology of the fivefold ministries equipping the churches, rather than to resort to Episcopal designations or their equivalents in other denominations.
If, however, my thesis has not yet convinced the reader, please read on. Even if some of my readers cannot share my convictions about the continuing relevance of apostolic ministry gifts, I believe that the principles contained in this book for the planting and oversight of churches are very important for the future of the church and of world mission.
37 Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Kingsway, 1994), p. 67.
38 Quoted in Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978), p. 190.
39 Philip Greenslade, Leadership (Marshalls, 1984), pp. 142–3.
40 Greenslade, Leadership, p. 143.