Apostolic Authority – A Response from David Devenish
Andrew has written a stimulating and thoughtful article on how, biblically and practically, we work this all out. Despite agreeing with large sections of it, however, there are a few points where I think his view needs adjusting, and he has asked me to write and explain what these are, and why I believe a better approach is possible, and in fact necessary.
In the first place, I am not sure that it is helpful to distinguish between “Capital A” and “small a” apostles. This has become a practice within certain evangelical circles recently. I find it particularly in the “missions world” with which I interact a lot, where apostolic ministry is now fairly broadly accepted but is seen as pioneer church planting into unreached people groups. The distinction is therefore made between “Capital A” apostles who defined Scripture and “small a” apostles who plant churches in the unreached parts of the world. The problem this leads to is that, whilst there is pioneer evangelism and a grappling with contextualisation issues which I applaud, there is in the end very little authority at all. Indeed, it has become a philosophy of ministry for many that the function of the “small a” apostle, from another cultural context, is merely to teach the Bible and then allow the local believers to work out contextualisation because only they understand their own context. In what we have been doing in the largely unreached parts of the world, I have resisted some of this approach (whilst being passionate about the importance of contextualisation) because it is hardly what the apostle Paul did in Corinth (even if he was a “Capital A” apostle!) Paul did not simply state a few principles and then let the Corinthians work out how it applied to them; he was very specific in some of his instructions. I know we should not develop our doctrine on apostolic authority in reaction to what others teach, but it does provide a warning to us.
I am not even sure that we can make the distinction between “Capital A” apostles and “small a” apostles in New Testament times, with the Twelve, Paul and James the brother of Jesus in the former category, and presumably Apollos, Barnabas, Silas and so on in the latter. The problem with this is that not all the “Capital A” apostles were involved in writing what became recognised as the Canon of Scripture, and some scholars think that some of the “small a” apostles were (such as theories that either Barnabas or Apollos wrote Hebrews). Luke and Mark, of course, were not apostles, and wrote the Bible anyway. So the “Capital A” versus “small a” distinction is not as clear as it might seem. Consequently, I think it is better simply to be clear on what modern day apostles do, and do not, have the authority to do. They cannot add to Scripture; they can only apply Scripture as best they understand it, and respect the judgment of others on Scripture even if they don’t agree with it, within the confines of agreed evangelical doctrine. Apostles today function in a particular way, and exercise a certain amount of authority, but they submit that authority to the revelation of Scripture, and expect those receiving the ministry of the apostle to similarly submit to Scripture, including testing what the apostle is saying.
My answers to Andrew’s seven questions are also somewhat different in places. In respect of #1, “Should we expect modern day apostles to be present in spirit when church discipline is conducted in a local church?”, the first point to make is that is not easy to understand what Paul means by this expression. However, I would say it depends on the circumstances and the degree of relationship between the apostle and the church. I do not think it is a mystical concept, but that they should act as though Paul were there, and that because he has the Spirit, and the Spirit of God is present with them, then through their relationship Paul is with them with spiritual authority. Many of the churches that I serve I would not say that, because my relationship is not as strong as it is with some others. I could imagine a few churches, where Scilla and I have lived for extended times, for them to be able to say not only that David Devenish has instructed then to take certain action, but that he is spiritually involved in the decision. However I’m not sure I could say that for many other situations.
I agree with Andrew on #2, that it is not appropriate for modern day apostles to define their gospel, along the lines of Paul’s “my gospel”. We are entrusted with the gospel, but we have no right to define it for others (a point at which we are clearly distinct from Paul himself). With #3, “Should modern apostolic ministry involve going to unreached people groups?”, I find it difficult to prove from Scripture that all apostles went to unreached people groups, though church tradition seems to suggest that most of them did. However, even if some apostles do not feel called to do that themselves, I believe there needs to be an encouragement and motivation from apostles with reference to Romans 1:5: receiving grace and apostleship to bring all nations to the obedience of faith. This is part of the declaration of the whole counsel of God, which is an apostolic responsibility.
#4 is more challenging: “Ought modern apostles and prophets to see themselves as the foundation of a church and live and serve accordingly?” I think there is a sense in which present day apostles and prophets are personally foundations to the churches in many instances, even though what they teach must be in accordance with the original foundation as set out in the New Testament. If not, then we simply join up with many evangelical commentators who say that the foundation is now the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, and therefore that if apostles do still exist, they are just church planting missionaries and overseers of churches. I would say that in the founding of churches there is a personalised element as well, in the New Testament and today. So for example in Acts 2, where they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, it was not just to teaching but to the teaching of people they knew and trusted who were apostles. I think this still applies today. It does not mean that the teaching of those apostles must not be tested by Scripture – of course it must. Nevertheless the family feel of the New Testament church needs to be reproduced in our day, and therefore there are actual people who are foundational to the life of the church. The foundation is the same as that which was originally laid, but it needs laying dynamically in each church in each generation by those with the gifting, calling and relationship to do so. I agree that in many cases today, particularly with church adoptions, it is a question of testing the foundation rather than personally laying it completely – but if we deny the personal involvement of the apostles relationally as part of the foundation, I think we are going too far away from the dynamic intent of the New Testament. The foundation is laid personally, not merely by reading Berkhof or Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
On #5 and #6, I agree with Andrew’s article: yes, modern apostles are accountable directly to God for their work in the gospel and authenticated by suffering (#5); and whether they can command personal favours or not depends on the relationship involved (#6). With #7, though, I find myself disagreeing slightly: “Can a modern apostle speak directly to a local church to correct inaccurate theology, without going through the elders?” Andrew believes that the answer is no, but I am not so sure. One of the possible mistakes of emphasis that we have made in Newfrontiers over the last 30 years has been to have a relationship between apostle (or delegate) and the elders, or sometimes even just between the apostle and the lead elder, rather than between the apostle and the church. Sometimes, I’m sure, that has been because of a correct reaction to the approach of apostles who did not believe in the autonomy of the local church. But I think it is possible – hard to define, but easier to discern – for apostles to have a recognition of the authority of local elders, whilst still being able, out of their relationship, to speak to the church as a whole about doctrinal issues (or anything else) if they think the elders are getting it wrong.
It is extremely helpful to talk these ideas out in public, and because of our commitment to apostolic ministry today, it is also very important for the health of the churches we serve. Working out what it means, in practice, for apostles to serve churches – and what apostolic authority actually looks like – is an important challenge, and one that benefits from theological discussions like these. Hopefully these reflections will prove helpful, as we seek to bring about the obedience of faith among all nations!