Did the gift of “apostleship” cease by the end 1st century? The answer is yes… and no. But I need to unpack this to explain.
We know that there were apostles running around the Roman Empire, during the 1st century, when the New Testament was written. Folks like the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James come to mind, right away. But what about today? Are there still apostles? Well, it all comes down to what the New Testament means by the term “apostle.”
“Apostles” versus “apostles”??
The Greek word apostolos is used a number of times within the New Testament. The term generally means “one sent as a messenger.” This more generic sense of “messenger,” “representative,” or “envoy” is found in 2 Corinthians 8:23. But it also has a more specific sense, that of being one of the divinely appointed founders of the Christian church. That latter, more specific sense, most probably refers to those who had seen the Risen Christ, and who were charged by Jesus Himself to authoritatively articulate the message of the Gospel, to that first century world. Think of the original twelve disciples, minus Judas (Acts 1:2, 1:26), as well as Paul, based on his encounter with the Risen Jesus, on the road to Damascus.
A lot of Christians are very leery about acknowledging the presence of “apostles” in 21st century Christianity, and for a very good reason. The “big” apostles, like Paul, Peter, and James were accepted as being authorized to write the books of the New Testament. Only such apostles, or those who lived within that early apostolic circle, were recognized as legitimate writers of Holy Scripture. For example, Mark was not among the group of the named “big” apostles, but he knew Peter, who is the primary source for how we got the Gospel of Mark. Likewise, Luke moved around in that same, original apostolic circle, and thereby wrote the Gospel that bears his name, as well as Acts.
But we do not have writers of Scripture today. Contrary to what folks like the Mormons believe, there is no case to be made that there are to be any extra revealed books of the Bible, aside from what we already have in the Old and New Testaments. So, when you hear about movements like the New Apostolic Reformation, or other movements, commonly associated with some varieties of Pentecostalism, most evangelical Christians today are correct to cast a skeptical eye on such claims of apostleship. In this sense, there are no, capital “A” Apostles running around our churches today.
However, the New Testament does indicate that there were others in New Testament, who were described as apostles, but who lack that special sense of designated authority. For example, the Apostle Paul had several traveling companions or co-workers who were called “apostles,” either explicitly, or perhaps implied. Barnabas is explicitly mentioned as being one (Acts 14:14), and yet we have no indication that he encountered the Risen Jesus. Likewise, there are those like Apollos, Silas, and Timothy who served right alongside Paul in his ministry. Yet we have no reason to believe they ever had a post-Resurrection encounter with Jesus, in the same manner like Paul or Peter did. Then we have the case of a notable woman, Junia, who was considered “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7 NIV), according to Paul. Paul even names two other women Euodia and Syntyche, as co-workers, contending along Paul’s side, “in the cause of the Gospel” (Philippians 4:2-3). So, were all of these people, men and women alike, apostles?
At the very least, you could say that all of these co-workers of Paul, male and female, were what we would call today “church-planters,” which is consistent with the practice continued today, by many churches, to “send out” missionaries to go plant churches, as “messengers” of the Gospel, which is consistent with how the New Testament uses that Greek term, apostolos. In other words, they were little-a “apostles,” as opposed to being big-A “Apostles,” like Paul.
The argument from Scripture, therefore, indicates that we no longer have big-A “Apostles” today in the church. However, this should not be construed to rule out the existence of small-a “apostles.”
Surely, some will be concerned that the line between Apostle and apostle could become blurred, some twenty centuries after the New Testament was written. No one can write Scripture today. No one can supersede folks like the Apostle Paul, and claim the mantle of their authority. But most Christians I know surely acknowledge the presence of many, many gifted church planters today, who have been sent out as messengers, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, just as you read about them in the New Testament.
Simply put, you can not plant churches without church planters. Church planters exercise the gift of being “apostles,” in that they are sent out by Christian communities as messengers of the Gospel.
Therefore, some might feel more comfortable with speaking of such “lower case a” apostles as being “church planters” instead, in order to avoid confusion. In my mind, that is just quibbling with words, but I get the point. A distinction needs to be made. So be it. If refusing to call anyone today an “apostle” causes you grief, then go right ahead and come up with your own word. But the principle should be clear. In addition to the heavyweights, like Paul and Peter, the church of the New Testament had “lower case a” apostles, who were sent out to plant churches, built on the message of the Gospel. We still have those in that second category of “apostles” today.
Insight Into Yet Another, Thorny Issue That Divides the Church?
As a parallel, this distinction might help those who struggle with the whole question of having women preach or teach, in the local church. Many understand the Apostle Paul to say that women should not serve as teachers in the church, particularly where there are men present, according to 1 Timothy 2:12. Paul goes on to explain what he means by this in 1 Timothy 3, in describing the qualification for “overseers,” whom Paul calls “elders” in Acts 20.
But this directive of Paul’s should also be considered along with yet another directive of Paul, whereby men and women are to teach and admonish one another, in the local church, according to Colossians 3:16. In Colossians, Paul is specifically addressing his message to both men and women, and there is nothing that indicates that this message was limited to that particular church, in that particular time (Colossians 3:15-19). That all believers, including men and women, are encouraged to teach one another, is an idea that has universal scope and application.
The first type of “Teaching,” commonly associated with the authority of elders, or overseers, refers to the work of guarding against the infiltration of false doctrine, into the local church. This ties into the concept of “big-A” Apostleship, as the primary task of “big-T” Teachers ; that is, the elders of the church, is to make sure that the doctrine being propagated in the local church is in alignment with what was laid down by those first century “big-A” Apostles, who are responsible for our New Testament. As I have argued elsewhere, I would call this big-T “Teaching.”
The second type of “teaching,” such as is in the leading of Bible studies, giving an exhortation in a corporate worship service, under the supervision of the elders of the church, does not necessarily bear with it the sense of authority, generally attributed to elders. But it does recognize that there are specific gifts of teaching, that the Holy Spirit can give to men and women, that can be used under the oversight function of local church elders.
Some may object to the language of calling women as “teachers,” preferring other language such as calling women as “preachers.” But even the notion of women “preaching” might be too much for some. Others would prefer the terminology of the “passing on of information,” just as the Lord Jesus gave Mary Magdalene information to pass onto the male disciples, after the Resurrection. But despite whatever terminology is preferred, the principle remains the same, that both big-T “Teaching” and little-t “teaching” are part of every growing community of believers today.
Granted, this is a controversial idea for many in our #MeToo era, who bristle at even the thought of discrimination against women, when it comes to the office of elder and/or pastor in a local church. On the other side, many other Christians believe such little-t “teaching” can only be appropriate in an occasional or informal setting, and rarely, if ever, from a pulpit, or even an ongoing, adult Sunday school class, where men and women are both present.
Many evangelical Christians are divided over such issues.1 I would be hopelessly foolish to insist on being dogmatic. At the same time, it grieves me to think how we are quickly dividing the Body of Christ, when there is a modest, moderating alternative to the crisis of how churches should be governed, in evangelical circles.
Here I am suggesting a possible third-way through this impasse. It might be helpful to draw this parallel together, as I have done here, of contrasting big-A “Apostles” and little-a “apostles,” along with big-T “teaching” and little-t “teaching,” to give us a more thoughtful understanding of how we can see the gifts of apostleship and teaching at work today, in the contemporary church.2
1. Southern California pastor John MacArthur set off a firestorm of criticism in October, 2019, at a conference, where he was asked to give a one or two word response to the name “Beth Moore,” a popular women’s Bible study teacher, in the Southern Baptist convention. He recommended that Beth Moore “go home,” which lit up the world of evangelical Twitter on fire. Pastor MacArthur explains his views here, in a sermon delivered shortly after the flair up. MacArthur’s biggest exegetical error in this sermon, starting at the 54:23 mark, is by treating the topic of women praying and prophesying, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, as NOT applicable to the context public, corporate worship, whereas Paul’s teaching later in the same letter, that “women are to remain silent,” in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is clearly applicable to the context of public corporate worship. The problem is that BOTH passages refer to the corporate worship life of the church, whether we like that or not, and we must deal with this tension accordingly. In 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul declares that the orderly praying and prophesying by women IS within the context of public, corporate worship. To go against this is contrary to church practice. “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” The “churches” here, is from the Greek ekklesia, which specifically means the “assembly.” Nevertheless, like the perennial topic that persists and persists, and never goes away, there have been those on the other side of this, like on egalitarian theologian Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who are greatly aggravated by MacArthur’s statements. Equally, on the more rigid complementarian side, bloggers like Grayson Gilbert have come to MacArthur’s defense. A more, measured video response by International House of Prayer leader, Mike Bickle, can be found here. (For a slightly different view, that suggests that a complementarian can affirm women as a “pastor,” and not an “elder,” read Sam Storms here). On the other hand, I appreciate the more thoughtful, irenic dialogue between two different complementarian voices, Kevin DeYoung and John Dickson, regarding the topic of “women preaching.” The practice of those, like Tim Challies, who only allows men to read Scripture publicly in church, seems really over the top to me, and without sufficient grounding in the Bible. But other areas are more dicey, and less certain. My own response to those like Kevin DeYoung, who would not allow for women to lead adult Sunday school classes, on a regular basis, where men and women are present, even operating under the oversight of an all-male eldership, is for those who might be troubled by such practice can simply refrain from attending that particular Sunday school class, and attend a different class, assuming one is available. My main concern is that Christians should not interfere with the consciences with other believers, who hold to “disputable matters” that have brought about unnecessary division within our churches. The last thing we need is for yet another reason for churches to needlessly split, with egalitarian Christians on one side, and complementarian Christians on the other, or even a third-split, with yet moderate complementarians dividing from more extreme complementarians. Enough already!! We need to balance out the concerns of those who fear the increase of worldly feminism into our churches, while acknowledging the giftedness of women, as also taught in Scripture. For those interested in a more in-depth look at the “women in ministry” issue, see my 19-part blog post series, beginning with this post. ↩
2. I greatly appreciate the measured, irenic work of London-based pastor Andrew Wilson on the topic of “Apostles” versus “apostles”(see here and here). Wilson is thoughtfully consistent, principled, without being needlessly rigid, and fully rooted in God’s Word. ↩