Apostolic Authority: How Does It Work? image

Apostolic Authority: How Does It Work?

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I believe in apostles today. I affirm the uniqueness of the Apostles (capital A) who witnessed the risen Jesus – the twelve, Paul, James, and possibly one or two others – and of course affirm that nobody today can write Scripture. But I also affirm that there were apostles (lower case a) who, like Apollos and a number of others, had an apostolic gift and ministry without having seen the risen Jesus for themselves (compare 1 Cor 4:1-13 with Acts 18:24-28). Since I don’t see any exegetical reason to suppose this type of ministry ceased in the first generation, I am led to expect apostles (as opposed to Apostles) continuing today.

The problem is, however, that the vast majority of references to A/apostles and A/apostolic ministry involve Apostles (primarily Paul, Peter, James and John), as opposed to apostles (like Apollos, Barnabas, probably Silas, and possibly Timothy). So, if we are looking for guidance as to how apostles should function today, we face an exegetical challenge. When Paul is speaking about his own ministry, how can we tell whether he is speaking as an Apostle or an apostle? Following on from this, how can we tell whether modern day apostles can, or should, appropriate Paul’s words to refer to their own ministries? For example:

1. Should we expect modern day apostles to be present in spirit when church discipline is conducted in a local church (1 Cor 5:4; cf. 1 Tim 1:20)?
2. Is it appropriate for modern day apostles to define their gospel, along the lines of Paul’s “my gospel” (Rom 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim 2:8), and to charge those who disagree with them not to teach otherwise (1 Tim 1:3 et al)?
3. Should modern apostolic ministry involve going to unreached people groups (Rom 15:8-21)? Is it sub-apostolic if it doesn’t?
4. Ought modern apostles and prophets to see themselves as the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20; cf. Eph 3:4-5), and live and serve accordingly?
5. Are modern apostles responsible for laying foundations in churches, accountable directly to God for their labour, and authenticated in their ministry by vilification and suffering (1 Cor 3:1-4:13; 2 Cor 6:3-10)?
6. Can modern apostles command individuals to do them personal favours (Phm 8)?
7. Can a modern apostle speak directly to a local church to correct inaccurate theology, without going through the elders (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, etc)?

Much of this, and certainly 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7, relates to the question of apostolic authority, which is an important issue for those of us who believe in apostles today. Paul, as an Apostle, clearly had Apostolic authority to define the gospel (#2), establish theological, ecclesiological and kerygmatic foundations (#4) and ensure they were preserved (#7), instruct individual believers (#6) and discipline the church if necessary (#1), with or without the agreement of the local church elders. But what about modern apostles? Do they have apostolic authority in the same sense? And if not, how does it work?

The whole topic has massive practical implications. Were someone to answer positively to all seven of these questions, they would effectively be blurring altogether the line between Apostles and apostles; even if they were to maintain that modern apostles could not write the Bible, they would nonetheless be arguing for almost unchallenged authority for modern apostles, with the apostle’s interpretation of Scripture the defining source of doctrine amongst the churches for which he was responsible. On the other hand, if someone were to answer negatively to all seven, then the case for there being such a thing as a modern apostle in the first place would practically disappear; if an apostle does not do any of the above things, then it is hard to see how they are any different from an itinerant evangelist or church planter. It’s not straightforward.

Despite the implications, however, the issue has not always been thoroughly thought through. (Have compassion on people learning English, by the way: that’s three consecutive words with “ough” in them, pronounced differently each time.) Many books on apostles today have commandeered every reference to an apostolos in the New Testament, without making clear on what basis they believe each text should be applied to contemporary apostles. Other writers, more sceptical of apostolic ministry today, have dismissed all descriptions of New Testament apostleship as being unique to the first century. Meanwhile, many thoughtful practitioners, including Terry Virgo, David Devenish, and others in the Newfrontiers family, have lived out an exemplary middle ground between these two extremes – but an exegetical and hermeneutical explanation of which texts apply directly to apostles today and which texts don’t, and of how we may establish the nature and limits of apostolic authority today, has not yet (to my knowledge) been provided. Hence this post.

I propose the following starting point for the conversation. There are several texts in the New Testament in which it is clear that apostles are in view, and not just Apostles, because they contain references to those who did not witness the risen Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:5-4:13 is a clear example, because it uses the phrase “us apostles” (4:8) of Paul and Apollos. 1 Thessalonians 1-3 refers to Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as “apostles of Christ” (2:6), which indicates that the things Paul says about apostolic ministry in these chapters cannot be limited to eyewitnesses of the resurrection (we have no evidence that Silas/Silvanus witnessed the resurrection, and we know that Timothy was not even converted until many years later). Paul’s extended discourse on the ministry of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 1-7 is almost entirely spoken in the first person plural, including Timothy and possibly Silvanus as well; although it does not use the word “apostles” in these chapters, 3:1-3 strongly implies that Paul is thinking that way. And although it is impossible to be certain, there are good reasons for thinking that Barnabas did not witness the resurrection – his introduction in Acts 4:36 makes it very likely that he was not regarded as an Apostle at this point – but emerged as an apostle after being sent out from Antioch (14:4, 14). This means that 1 Corinthians 9:4-14, as well as the narrative passages about him in Acts (13:4-14:28), can also be considered as applying to apostles, and not just Apostles. Taken together, that is a substantial group of texts (Acts 13:4-14:28; 1 Cor 3:5-4:13; 9:4-14; 2 Cor 1-7; 1 Thess 1-3) that shed massive light on what apostles who had not witnessed the resurrection did, and consequently might be expected to do today.

Now look at it the other way round. There are other passages in which it seems clear, or at least likely, that Paul is speaking, not of apostolic ministry in general, but of his (or, occasionally, others’) unique Apostolic ministry as eyewitness of the resurrected Christ, with the corresponding role of instructing the church in the very foundations of the gospel and Christian doctrine. So, in Galatians, Paul begins with an affirmation that he did not receive the gospel from man but directly from Jesus Christ (1:12), and this becomes the basis for an extended tirade against the Galatians (who are called “foolish” and “bewitched”), false teachers (who are considered accursed and encouraged to castrate themselves), and even the apostle Peter (who is spoken of more courteously, but still said to have been “clearly in the wrong”). Paul’s unique experience of receiving his gospel directly from Jesus gives him licence to correct others in ways that Apollos and Silvanus, we may assume, did not (and this surely also applies to his use of the phrase “my gospel” in Romans and 2 Timothy). Similarly, in other texts, Paul assumes that the Apostles had a unique role in salvation history: to witness to the resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-11), and, along with the prophets, to make plain the mystery of the gospel to the nations (Eph 3:1-6), which in context is probably what is meant by being the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). It is this conviction – that Paul, along with the other Apostles, has been entrusted with the gospel of God by the risen Christ, and that it is to be preached and guarded at all costs – which prompts Paul to define the gospel in such detail in Romans, and to urge its preservation with such vigour in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 1:11; 2:7; 6:13-16, 20-21; 2 Tim 1:8-14; 2:2, 8; Tit 1:1-3). I imagine no readers of this article will dispute that the equivalent of this, in the church today, is the preservation of the gospel and doctrines of the Apostles, in Scripture, not the gospel and doctrines of a modern apostle.

These two groups of texts – the ones that unambiguously refer to apostles in the broader sense, and the ones that unambiguously don’t – actually represent a sizeable amount of the relevant New Testament material on A/apostleship. In the first group, Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Silas and Timothy exercise authority out of their relationship in the gospel; in the second group, Paul exercises authority based on his revelation of the gospel. The difference is significant. In the former case, it grows from a church’s voluntary submission to the apostle, because the apostle has fathered the church by preaching and embodying the gospel to the people. In the latter case, the authority transcends gospel relationship: it is gospel revelation, and as such Paul’s gospel is right, and the Judaizers’ gospel is wrong, whether they “receive his Apostolic input” or not.

From here, I suggest, it is possible to make inferences about the handful of remaining passages in the New Testament which shape our theology of A/apostleship, but remain ambiguous with regard to whether Paul is functioning as an Apostle or an apostle (e.g. Acts 20:17-38; 1 Cor 4:15-21; Rom 15:14-25; 2 Cor 10:1-18; 12:12; Eph 4:11-16). For what it may be worth, I see Paul as speaking as an apostle in Acts 20 and 1 Corinthians 4 (because the passages are grounded in his relationship to the church through gospel ministry), as well as in 2 Corinthians 10 (because of the plural pronouns, authorship and the reference back to “letters of commendation” from chapter 3); I think Romans 15 is Paul speaking with a specific ambition and vocation, which need not be prescriptive for all A/apostles, then or now; and I’m not sure about 2 Corinthians 12:12 or Ephesians 4:11-16. The upshot of all this is that, if asked the seven questions I posed at the beginning, I would answer “yes” to #5 and #6, “sometimes” to #3, and “no” to #1, #2, #4 and #7. Just in case you were curious.

So, in a nutshell: there are apostles today; they are different from Apostles like Paul, James and Peter in a number of ways; they cannot write Scripture; they do function with apostolic authority; but it is an authority grounded in relationship through the gospel – that is, seeing disciples and churches come into being through their proclamation of the gospel – rather than the once-for-all revelation of the gospel which came to Paul and the eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

And that means: even though we’ve got epistles, we still need apostles.

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