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Text Sermons : ~Other Speakers A-F : Discernment Reasearch Articles : The Ministry of the Apostles in the Early Centuries - by Don Clasen

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In Spirit-filled circles today, there is much talk about the need for restoring apostles and prophets in the Church, based on the idea that over the centuries the importance and centrality of these ministries were lost in the wake of Church history.

These proponents point out that the huge and varied denominational system of today does not follow the Biblical pattern for Church structure and function, but represents a formless hodgpodge that can in no way express the kind of higher level unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Some even say, based on Ephesians 2:20, that the entire household of God is "built upon the foundation of [these present-day] apostles and prophets...", who must come forth to "put the Church in Divine order." They claim this unity cannot take place until these offices are restored to the prominence and pre-eminence they once had in the New Testament era. In other words, the role of the apostle is so important that it actually is the linchpin that brings the Church into unity.

As if to put flesh on the bones of this kind of thinking, quite a few ministers in the Charismatic Church today are participating in the quiet formation of large international apostolic networks.

This development, in conjunction with the spread of cell churches, seems to be resulting in the emergence of a huge hierarchical "post-denominational" (non-denominational) Church system, with units as small as a local cell, overseen by a local church, who are in turn overseen by city-wide boards of elders, then regional, national, and international apostles. The net effect of all this could be a radical restructuring of the Church into a vast hierarchical form that will be virtually defenseless against the logic of Rome to "go all the way" and come back into her fold.

What surprises me about this development is that this movement apparently ignores the fact that "apostolic church" denominations structured like this have already emerged out of the Reformation, yet they have had no apparent special blessing of the Spirit on them in a way that would indicate that these issues are all that important to God.

On the other hand, this is not to say I am unconcerned with being as "Biblical" as possible in as many areas as I understand. I am not unsympathetic with some of the concerns behind this whole phenomenon. I agree that the Church world of today is characterized by many positions and titles that are nowhere to be found in the Bible's lexicon.

We have "regional directors", "superintendents", "metropolitans", "rectors" and a whole host of other terms and titles that are unbiblical. Yet I cannot conclude that questions of "church polity" (governmental structure) are really that pivotal. It's true that some offices may be more or less efficient and practical than others, but they are not at the heart of the Church's disunity today.

I say that for several reasons. For one, what a lot of people call the great "disunity factor" hindering the Church is actually more a problem of carnal competition, prejudice, jealousy and the like among groups and a subsequent duplication of efforts than a disunity problem. The present-day ecumenical / unity movement is doing more than enough to purge the Church of such duplication. In fact, it seems to me there's a danger of going too far the other way by being tempted to look to a quick-fix shortcut i.e. a uniform church structure solution to paper over deeper problems.

You see, on the one hand, the Church--the true Church, the mystical Body of Christ--already is united by virtue of its common faith in Jesus Christ. But the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in John 17 refers to a deeper knowledge of God akin to the charge of Paul to the Corinthians--"Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions (Gk. schisma) among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (I Cor 1:10).

Now that's a tall order!, and I know of no quick route to that except the slow process of the Holy Spirit and His anointing "teaching us all things" (I Jn 2:27). And it is made all the more near-impossible because the fact of the matter is, at any given time the Church is always made up of "infants, young men and fathers" in the faith, that is, people at different levels of knowledge and maturity (I Jn 2:13,14). Moreover, the same principle also applies somewhat to different churches and groups.

And for yet another reason, just as our larger society finds it fashionable to bash the Western Christian heritage as being the fount of all evil, so likewise it is wrong for Christians to assume that the denominational system has arisen from nothing but the basest of motives (i.e., "divisiveness").

Denominations often arise because people hold to different convictions, distinctives or emphases, and one of them is the question of different types of church polity (church government). These polities range from the centralized, hierarchical authoritarianism of Roman Catholicism to the extreme democratic practices of the Quakers, Congregationalists and smaller sects. In my opinion, a middle ground primitive form of Presbyterianism is most Biblical, but I stick with the contention that church structure is not at the heart of the disunity problem in the Church today.

Now on the other hand, I too look forward to God bringing us all into a greater "John 17" unity before Christ returns to the earth, but it's a process that can only be pursued the Biblical way of Ephesians 4--"speaking the truth in love", etc. This will entail a greater level of doctrinal unity (but never to the point of violating personal convictions of truth or particular leadings of the Spirit according to cultural vagaries or whatever.)

And this is why in last year's series, I attempted to make the case that a more uniform eschatological vision is going to be necessary because, as the last of the last days unfolds, we cannot afford the luxury of greatly differing opinions on this.

If we do not have the "rhema word" here, and the discernment to recognize what is happening around us and where both Christ and the Devil are headed, how can we say we have any vision at all? And I find this to be especially important because, coming from a Classical Pre-Millennial interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures, the identity of Mystery Babylon becomes all-important.

Does it entail in whole or in part a last days false Christianity? I say yes, and if that's true, how can we ignore the compromise that is happening all around us?
There is a lot of talk in the Church lately about giving birth to a new movement. I believe this new move will be a people who punch a hole in the wall of the ecumenical prison and say, "Enough of this! This is the truth of God, and this is where He is headed. God's not a beggar Who has to put up with the lowest common denominator just to keep everybody happy! The cloud is moving on, and we're going on with or without you!"

What Is An Apostle?
In the "Last Days Leaven" series, I said that if someone were to ask me if I believed in the "restoration of the apostles and prophets" I would say, "Both yes and no." "Yes" in the sense that these ministries could stand some better definition, functionality and status in the Body. But "no" in at least two senses. Firstly, I don't think these functions have been as lost as people think they've been. The titles may have been missing and the skills underdeveloped, but they haven't been absent altogether.

And secondly, what they were like in the early Church is not what I hear people implying they were. The ministries of the apostle and prophet in the early days were, paradoxically, of a higher status than they are today, yet what I hear being proposed is their restoration to a governmental position that ordinary apostles never had. And the upshot of it all is that if this idea persists, it could, when applied to a false Church with a false image of itself and its mission, create a class of very intimidating apostolic and prophetic leaders leading the Body of Christ astray with false revelations and guidance.

Yet in spite of all this, some of the literature and teachings I have looked at in regards to the idea of restoring the function of the apostle in the Church today I find to be fairly sound. They seem to dwell upon the idea of the apostle being a "sent one", a church planter/missionary, a foundation-laying ministry, one who ordains elders and other ministries, who moves in signs and wonders, a father/spiritual advisor to pastors and other leaders, and the like.

The concerns I have with it though are mostly oriented around the whole issue of apostolic authority and the issue of authority in general. And I don't count these problems to be trivial. To me the entire Reformation seems to be at stake, for it seems that there's a central concern in this movement to re-establish the apostle to what they conceive to have been the ultimate governmental position in the Church. If this issue is not understood on a deeper level, this movement could serve to lead the Church even further into the arms of the Vatican, as it repeats the mistakes made in the first few centuries of Christianity.

What Is Spiritual Authority?
What this deals with is a story that is quite tragic, and took the Church centuries to even begin to recover from. In fact, it seems to me that to this day, we little recognize or appreciate the significance of what really happened. The reason why is because it involves one of the most baffling and elusive concepts ever grappled with in Christianity or any religion, and that is the issue of authority.

In fact, the issue of authority is so profound that it's a foundational question even of life itself because it deals with the a priori assumptions we make about truth and reality in general, and what we take to be credible explanations for such. As theologian Dr. Bruce Shelley so well put it, "No more fundamental religious question can be raised than, 'By what authority?' It is antecedent to all other questions about living and thinking." [1]

The somewhat naive and simplistic answer given by the average Christian to this question might be something along the line of, "Well, the Word of God is our authority". But that is a Protestant answer. The Roman Catholic would say it's the living revelation of the Church wherein "the Church" is defined as the heirarchical leadership. This "living revelation" started with the Church's "oral traditions" (eventually preserved as the Scriptures), and continues to today with the ongoing traditions promulgated by the Pope and the teaching magisterium. To the Eastern Orthodox, it would be the Scriptures plus tradition, especially that tradition as set forth in the first seven early Church councils.

To the first century Jew what was authoritative was the Law of Moses (corrupted and superceded of course by the rabbinic traditions). Thus it was that when Jesus came along doing miracles, they concluded He must be doing them by the power of Beelzebub! Their attitude was, "We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is" (Jn 9:29). Yet Jesus set the pattern promised to all believers, that the Lord would work with them, "confirming the word with signs following" (Mk 16:20). And to this the Protestant philosophy of authority agrees, saying that the Holy Spirit has been sent to bear witness of Christ and His Word, and that the Spirit and the Word agree in one.

But what are we to make of human authority? Does God, or even can God, delegate to men some or all of His authority?

Let's start by taking a look at the connotations found in the term. In the New Testament, the Greek word most often translated "authority" is exousia which, according to the Scriptures and extra-Biblical sources conveys the following senses.

First of all, the idea of understanding or knowledge. When someone is seen as having gained a lot of knowledge or expertise on a given subject, they are said to be an authority on it. Moreover, the root of the English word comes from the Latin auctor which means "author", and obviously the most knowledgeable person about something is its author.

Secondly, "authority" conveys the idea of certainty or confidence. Someone who speaks or acts with authority is someone who knows what they're talking about or what they're doing. It was said of Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount that He "taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" who only gave guesses or opinions (Mt 7:29).

Thirdly, "authority" conveys the idea of power, or the ability to see one's will, or another's will, done. This usage is similar to the Greek word dunamis which refers to a demonstration of power such as a miracle. But the emphasis in this use of "authority" is less on physical power than on the ability to resort to it if need be. A policeman, for instance, is physically only one man, but he represents potentially the entire authority or power of the state behind him. This kind of power can be either self-endowed (as in God's case), or something delegated to another.

The fourth aspect is the idea of a conferred priviledge or a right bestowed on another by someone greater. In Rev 22:14 it is said, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right (exousia) to the tree of life..."

So what we are talking about here is someone who either is an authority, who speaks and acts with authority, who has authority, or who is given authority. The first two relate to the qualifications for authority, while the last two to the exercise of it.

I think it is obvious then as to how God fits into all this. He is certainly the Author of all creation with undoubted expertise as to how to run it. "Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is inifinte" wrote the psalmist (Psa 147:5). Secondly, because He is omniscient He can speak and act with certainty and confidence, since He knows infallibly all that is going on at any given time. And thirdly, as for power--well, God is omnipotent. What can we say? And fourthly, as for rights, God has conferred them all onto Himself. It's His creation and He in His sovereignty can do with it as seemeth good to Him at any time.

Because of these realities, there are a number of conclusions we must infer (which the Scriptures bear witness to also.) The first is that it was never God's highest goal to merely rule on the basis of His power. Although He put on just such a fearful display of power at Mt. Sinai when He gave the Law to Israel, it is obvious that He didn't stop there, but went out of His way to establish His authority over us on the basis of His character qualifications and benevolent intentions. This is the entire story of the New Testament, that, far from wanting to rule through fear and obligation, He actually became weak and died on a cross in our place, that we might have faith and trust in the One Who showed love to such an "nth" degree.

Secondly, the reason He did this is because the Old Covenant did not allow Him to have enough personal rulership over the average believer, nor did it provide the level of intimacy He wanted to have with each of us. Thus He was not content to remain so removed from His people, stuck in a physical Temple and only approachable through a mediating priesthood. He wanted to be in us, making of us a living Temple of many living stones with, as John Wesley put it, all of His people being priests and the world as our parish (I Pe 2:5,9).

Thirdly, and I know this runs contrary to about 50 years now of "pop theology", but we must face the fact that God cannot delegate to men any "spiritual authority" at all. This is so because spiritual authority is something only God can have, seeing it is based on attributes such as His omniscience, sinless character, perfect heart and other qualifications that no creature can have. Men can no more claim to possess spiritual authority than they can claim to have gifts of healing in their back pocket, or an infallible word conjured up from their own finite understanding.

Now the Holy Spirit can work miracles through a man or speak or act through him at times, and to that degree he can be said to be moving in "spiritual authority". But he himself will not have that authority; it can only work through him. The various "gifts" of the Spirit by which God operates His spiritual authority through all Christians also takes an operation of the Spirit called "the witness of the Spirit" (Ro 8:16) in those who receive the ministry. But what God can and does delegate to men though is what I would call a certain functional authority or limited ecclesiastical powers that relate to the exercise side of authority.

He does this because the Church has a corporate life, and certain corporate decisions must be made by those who have been chosen to rule or oversee the local congregation. But it's something that He wants kept to a minimum, lest men encroach upon God's prerogatives in His rule over His individual subjects.

This understanding formed the basis of the political philosophy the Founding Fathers of America developed. To their credit, they understood that while human government was necessary they still didn't trust fallen human nature. So to help public officials deal with the temptations of power, they strictly spelled out and limited in the Constitution what powers had been delegated to them.

It's the same in the Kingdom of God. God knows that church government is necessary, but its oversight will be in accord with the spiritual maturity of the people. A truly altruistic church will seek to maximize God's prerogatives by minimizing human ones, because the essence of the Kingdom is a very spiritual and personal relationship with the living God. What the corporate life of the Church expresses is a community of people of like precious faith, all of whom have different ministries, and through some of which operates the ministry gift called "governments" (I Cor 12:28).

What Is The Church?
All this may seem like nit-picking to you, but this question of authority is a very important matter. Getting it wrong has been the source of much confusion and abuse within Christendom throughout the ages. It also begs at least two other questions that we need to answer.

One, was the Protestant Reformation just a protest movement, a reaction or over-reaction to some authoritarian excesses in the medieval Church such that it has now bred so much individualism and "freedom" that it won't let go of it? Or was it really complete in itself, and a genuine attempt to at least get started on the road back to New Testament Christianity?

And number two, just what is "the Church? Is it the visible Body of Christ on the earth, or the invisible Body of Christ in the spirit?

I'll begin my answer with the second question. According to First Corinthians 12:12-27 and other passages, "the Church" in the New Testament is, in its essence, an invisible, mystical "Body" wherein Christ is the head, while the sum total of all those truly "accepted in the Beloved" make up its various members. In keeping with the sometimes-mysterious language of the Bible, it is something "in the Spirit" (meaning the Holy Spirit), or "in the spirit" (that is, of the non-physical, invisible world). In other words, the Church is not essentially an institution, it's the people, a group of people known ultimately only to God. It's a spiritual Temple of living stones (believers) for an habitation of God through the Spirit (I Pe 2:5; Eph 2:21).

This is the great error of the Roman Catholic Church, whose many errors begin with her own self-conception as being "the Mother Church". In her eyes, she is the one "catholic" (universal) church by virtue of one institution, one Pope, one sacramental system, one priesthood who alone are truly ordained to mediate the grace of God, etc., etc. It has been Rome that has initiated and guided (ever so gingerly) the current ecumenical movement, breaking down the theological and philosophical defenses of the Protestant churches in her attempt to fulfill Jesus' command for greater unity.

Now because people do live in flesh-and-blood bodies on a physical earth, the Church does have a visible side, expressed through local Christian communities, local assemblies, denominations and the like. But this is a very secondary, imperfect representation of "the Church". Some groups and denominations consist of almost all believers (Rev 3:7,8), some are lukewarm (Rev 3:16), and some are downright dead with but a few believers at all (Rev 3:1-4). In essence therefore, the Kingdom of God is a very spiritual Kingdom, a very personal walk with a Living Being Who alone knows the hearts and lives of men, Who alone is qualified to judge who is in, who is out, who is faithful, who is fruitful and how much, etc. (I Cor 4:1-6; Rom 14:7-10; Mt 13:8). In this way it is not inferior in the least to the experienced-based spirituality of mystical cults, Eastern religions and the like who often caricature Christianity as a mere cultural or political phenomenon, or a religion obssessed with a certain kind of moralism. Yet whenever the Church has sought to portray itself primarily as an institution, it has all-but invited such caricature.

Now within the language of the apostolic movement there is a fondness for slogans like, "God is building an army", and "this army needs generals". For the most part, there is a lot of emphasis on the "corporate" side of the "work of the Church". (See the "Last Days Leaven" series for more on this.)

And as we've admitted, there is indeed a legitimate and visible side to "the Church". Thus it is that churches pool their resources to send out missionaries, feed the poor, evangelize the lost and the like. None of these things can be done by individuals acting alone.

But once again the question arises, just what is the "work of the Church"? Ideally it should be "the work of God Himself," and the work that God accomplishes through His people is so often such a hard thing to evaluate and identify, for it all takes place in the Spirit (spirit). Most of us have probably caught the tail end of a circumstance wherein we were being used by God in something we said or did without even realizing God was working through us, to communicate or model the knowledge of God to someone.

This, it seems to me, is the most effective and powerful way God accomplishes His work. This is why Paul said he'd rather glory in his limitations than have the support of an entire army behind him (II Cor 12:9,10). There is a limitation to the value of professionalism, beyond which it becomes so efficient and "human" that God.can hardly do a miracle and get the glory. He loves to get things done with a Gideon's army or a David's slingshot rather than a Saul's armor.

Jesus expressed the same sort of thinking in His encounter with Nicodemus. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you don't know where it's coming from or where it's going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn 3:8). This was said to explain the meaning of being "born-again"--that it's a person so under the influence of the Spirit that, although they may seem to a hard-bitten world as flighty as the blowing wind, they are really being led by God. And Nicodemus, a man used to finding his identity in a no-nonsense religion that "gets the job done", no doubt would have sympathized with a modern-day mindset that looks forward to seeing every member of the Body of Christ "mobilized" according to the strategies, ambitions and control of men. [2]

The reason people can't see the already-existing "army of God" is because the Body of Christ is a mystical, invisible entity whose members already operate in the Spirit. Now they may not function very efficiently or effectively in their giftings in this, and that is why God has given to the Body the five-fold ministries, to help equip the army for the very spiritual nature of this battle. But this is an army wherein The General does not usually operate according to a chain-of-command, because He's omnipresent and in each of His troops.

This brings us to the question of the Reformation. Was it just a reaction? A protest against excesses? Or was it complete in its germ, and the beginning of a long process of the restoration of the New Testament Church? For one of the great distinctives that the Reformation sought to establish was the priesthood of all believers, the idea that, although we may have different roles and functions in the Body, we are all brethren (Mt 23:8) and priests (I Pe 2:9; Rev 1:6), and the world is our flock. It was the affirmation of the idea that the Church exists and operates in the spirit, and that human government, though somewhat necessary, was a lower level concern in the work of God, and not the ultimate one.

Moreover the Reformation declared that since God alone has spiritual authority over his people, that that authority is only perfectly represented by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit Who is in the midst of His people. It declared that, even though for instance education is good and useful, that still, God could work through nearly illiterate people, sometimes more effectively than through those who should know more, all according to where the heart of a believer was at. It declared that the Roman Catholic system not only overplayed the role of human authority, it totally misunderstood its place and did not comprehend how the work of God went forward.

Taking The Historical Route
As I said at the beginning, although I believe that much of what is being said about re-establishing the role of apostles and prophets in the Church is good and legitimate, still, there are a number of grave problems with the current trend. The main one seems to be the assumption that what needs to be restored is the apostle as a governmental office in the Church, and the highest one at that. But the apostleship is not an office, it's a ministry.

In the Kingdom of God, everyone has a ministry and those ministries operate by means of various divine gifts divided to His people as God endows and wills. These "gifts" include various "manifestations of the Spirit" (I Cor 12:7-10), and what have been called the "ascension gifts" of Christ given to the Body --what are called the five-fold ministry of Eph 4:11. But the thing to note is that these are ministries, not offices. In I Cor 12:5 it says, "And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord (i.e., Christ)". That word translated "administrations" is diakonion, where we get "deacon" or "minister" from. In other words, there are different ministries given by Christ Himself as gifts to His Body. A ministry describes a function in the Body; an office describes a position or title.

Now each of these things have their place, but we should not assume that a ministry is inferior in importance to an office. The problem is that over the course of the centuries since the early Church, the two categories often became intertwined and thereby confused. And while good hearted men have debated forever it seems, over what is "biblical" or "New Testament" in the area of proper Church structure and authority patterns, it seems to me that a look at the earliest centuries, especially those right after the "Apostolic" era when the New Testament was being written, will give us some clues as to what went wrong and why.

Some twenty years ago, when I felt a personal need to come to grips with a series of questions on authority that were being raised by the Shepherding controversy, I did a study and ran across a turn-of-the-century book that has proven to be one of the most informative and helpful things I've ever read. It's called, "The Church and the Ministry In The Early Centuries" [3] by a Thomas M. Lindsay, a Free Church of Scotland scholar on Church history. It was actually a series he gave called the Cunningham Lectures wherein he presented 2 or 3 years of research into early sub-Apostolic literature to determine what happened to the ministry in its evolution into the hierarchical Roman system.

Perhaps "devolution" would be a better term to use, for Lindsay traced a marked deterioration in the Christian ministry as the centuries proceeded from the earliest days. And it seems to me that what he was describing in essence was a mix-up over the two different kinds of authority--spiritual vs. functional--that we talked about above, and how this corrupted the ministry's conception of its own mission.

To help you understand what happened, it is important to give you some of the historical context of what was going on. As we said earlier, there is no more important issue to establish in religion than, "By what authority?", and as long as the Twelve Apostles (and Paul) were alive, the Church could always turn to these men who had personally been trained by Jesus Himself for the answers to any questions.

But as they began to die off, a real crisis of authority quickly arose in the Church. This development was precipitated by the rise of the Gnostic heresies which were taking the Gospel and reinterpreting everything in terms of Eastern mystical thought forms. This proved to be a great problem because it was so close to the original, and yet so twisted. This coupled with the pressure of periodic persecutions was creating no small crisis of authority in the churches.

The solution they seemed to come up with was the rule of thumb that the bishops (the senior pastors) of the churches, especially those of the larger cities of the empire, were the ones who had inherited the authority of the Apostles by succession from generation to generation. This theory of "apostolic succession" evolved with time into the idea of a "bishop of bishops" or a Pope out of Rome (the seat of the Empire) who claimed to inherit the ability, like his apostolic predecessors, to promulgate new revelation on almost every matter as long as he was speaking ex cathedra ("out of the office or chair" of the papacy). As the centuries unfolded, this theory of authority began to reap the ugly consequences of its wrong assumptions, as the Church, following the pattern set by the Pharisees and rabbis of Jesus' day who had so encrusted the Law of Moses with stifling traditions, weighed down the Church with every wrong idea and practice imaginable.

Eventually the Reformation proposed the suggestion that the early Church had missed what God was doing. That is, because the theory of apostolic succession arose and took root before the canonization process of the New Testament was completed, the Church failed to see that the authority of the Apostles had stopped with, and been deposited by God into, a completed New Testament.

This Protestant "philosophy of authority" also felt it necessary to distinguish between different classes of apostles. In a special category were the Twelve Apostles trained by Jesus who were the indisputable leaders of the early Church. Although they were at first the sole form of "government" over the Jerusalem church, in time the system of seven elders emerged (Acts 6), copied no doubt from the synagogue system of their day. But the real call of these Twelve was doctrinal, to be the standard for the truth of the Gospel. And to ensure the survival of this standard, unbeknowst to them, they were also called, along with Paul and other men associated with them [4] , to write the New Testament.

Beyond them were the "ordinary" apostles. What this means is that as the years began to pass and the Gospel spread, the ministry of the apostle came to settle down into what was essentially a missionary. Paul, although he helped write a large proportion of the New Testament, also fulfilled this kind of a calling and the patterns he set in this area became something of a standard. Yet the apostolic ministry was never essentially a governmental position, except for that short period of time when a missionary was founding a church and before he had ordained elders to rule over it.

The Two Classes of Ministry
Lindsay in his lectures states that what eventually became "the clergy" of the Church had always been divided into two categories--what he called the "Prophetic Ministry" (or the "Spiritual Ministry"), and what he called the "Local Office Bearers". He said the Prophetic Ministry consisted of three gifts that were often linked together. They were the apostle, the prophet, and the teacher.

These people were regarded to be the most important and "prestigious" ministries in the Body because they all were involved in the speaking forth of the Word "as the oracles of God" (I Pe 4:11). This Scripture goes on to present a second broad category of ministry in contrast--the office holders who were to " of the ability which God giveth".

Paul bears witness to the importance of the Spiritual Ministry in I Cor 12:28 when he wrote, "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers..." What this means (and what the sub-apostolic literature confirms) is that within this collection of preeminent ministries, the ministry of the apostle was regarded as the most preeminent of them all. This was so because he had to be either a prophet or a teacher (or both), as well as a skillful evangelist, pastor, apologist, administrator and about everything else it took to found a church. For the essential work of an apostle beyond the circle, calling and times of the Twelve was to be a missionary, a church planter.

In addition, he had to be, of course, very mature in the faith, to the point of being a spiritual father (I Jn 2:13,14). Plus, as the ministry began to evolve with the passage of time, he had to make a big sacrifice by dedicating himself to a lifetime of service away from fellow Christians. [5]

Right below the apostle in status was the prophet who spoke by direct Divine inspiration. The operation of the Spirit that worked through him was considered by Paul to be the gift most to be coveted (I Cor 14:5). Contrary to the fear and reluctance people have to referring to some as "prophets" today, in the early Church they were actually quite common, even though their reputation and demand would vary a lot one from the other. The next most important was that of the teacher who taught the people the meaning of the Gospel, the all-important doctrine of Christ., and how to live out the Kingdom of God.

Now this does not mean there were not offices in the Church, there were. In the early Church, the elders and deacons were what Lindsay termed the "local office bearers". The term "elder" (Gk. presbuteros) was a title, but they were also called "bishops" (episcopos) meaning "overseers", or shepherds or pastors (poimen), describing their function. [6] These men operated on the basis of certain powers delegated to them by the Lord for the purpose of administrating and ruling over the corporate life of the local churches. These elders along with the deacons who were elected by the people became known as the "local office holders".

This is not to say that these men were just mere administrators, for they were somewhat in the spiritual ministry themselves, being shepherd-teachers. First Timothy 5:17 says that some of them who ruled well were worthy of "double honor" (i.e., pay), "especially they who labour in the word and doctrine." Furthermore, their ranks were always being fed by those in the Spiritual Ministry who were often called upon to serve as elders too. In time this proved to be very problematic for the Church, for eventually a man came to be looked upon as moving in spiritual authority by virtue of his holding an office. This created a new mediating priesthood, a professional clerical class that corrupted the Church's proper functioning.

In the first century, the common pattern was for these elders to rule as equals and as a group. But by the dawn of the second century, the common pattern was for one elder to emerge as the preeminent one over the others. In our day, in this most common form of structure, this person would be called "the pastor" while the others would be called elders. But in the second century they were called "bishops".

Again in our day, in what's known as the "episcopal" system, a denominational leader would be called a "bishop" who oversees a region of pastors. In the early Church, local bishops would naturally yet informally turn to more prominent or mature bishops for guidance, similar to the fatherly role an apostle would play to the churches he established. But in time this became formalized until an episcopal system emerged, and eventually a "bishop of bishops" or a "Pope".

But in the years between this and the Apostolic first century, what happened was that over a period of time, people who were especially gifted in the far more important spiritual ministries of Eph 4:11 were naturally often elected to also be elders, until in time, the different types of authority involved became blurred and confused. This meant that there was a tendency to regard ministers as operating in spiuritual authority by virtue of the office they held. This led to a mediating priesthood and the centralized Roman system.

Bringing It All Home
Now the points I would like to raise in regard to all this are as follows.

Although I appreciate all the words of caution and assurances against abuse that I hear of in circles where restoring the apostles is advocated, I cannot help but be suspicious of either the motives or the apparent naivete or ignorance of church history being expressed by this movement. For the fact of the matter is, if we exclude the primitive and temporary Apostolic Council government in Jerusalem and the special calling of the Twelve and Paul to replace their doctrinal oversight of the first generation with the New Testament for all subsequent generations, then the role of the "ordinary" apostle in the early Church (and by implication today) was that of a man trying to work his way out of a job.

That is, as a missionary going about planting churches, he would seek to raise up elders as quickly as possible so that he could move on to found another church. His goal was to get them to a point of enough maturity that they could stand up on their own two feet and not need him anymore, because they've got the Lord.

In contrast, it seems that this movement is seeking to work certain people into a job. According to both the Bible (I Cor 11:3) and the Reformation, the head of every man is Christ, not an apostle. Is this progress? Or is this regression, back into a time in the history of local churches when they were spiritual infants?

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of churches in the earth today were not founded by apostles. Maybe the pastor himself founded the church. Or maybe it was founded with or without an apostle, but that was several generations ago now. Or maybe they were founded by a denomination of some sort that has its own system of clergy training and oversight.

Are we to believe that all these churches are so immature that they need a formal spiritual father over them specifically called an apostle? I'm all for being "Biblical", but the sight of churches seeking for apostles to rule over them, or certain leaders proclaiming themselves to be apostles makes me wonder if what's happening here is the erection of a straw man argument as a pretext for seeking a title, or control, or both.

I am doubly concerned about this when I hear about certain apostles being over other apostles. One can make a case for Paul and others being "over" certain churches, especially at a time when the Holy Spirit was completing the New Testament. But there is no Biblical precedent for some apostles being over others. [7] Perhaps in a sense of influence, but not in the sense of a formal structure. What this basically is otherwise, is a replication of the Roman system, except with the idea of apostles instead of bishops.

On the other hand, I would like to make it clear here that I would not want to stand in the way of true visionaries coming forth to lead the Body of Christ into its end-time inheritance. It stands to reason to me that these visionaries are going to be found among the ranks of the apostles, prophets, teachers and the like, not mere local elders. (Unless in the sense that such men also serve somewhere as local elders too.)

But what has always bothered me about the issue of apostolic restoration is that the Church today already has apostles. These are the ordinary missionaries out on the field, and too often they are looked upon as they who "couldn't make it at home" or wherever. The early Church sent out its best, but in our day, the most "prestigious" positions are found in the "home nations".

To me, this sub-standard situation may be more an indication of our real spiritual need than any presumed structural solution could address. Are those who are clamouring for the fame of being an apostle willing to "step down to service" in more than a rhetorical way by becoming real church planters in a real foreign field, and not just the ironic purveyors of another denominational schism in Christianized lands? Are they willing to become those unappreciated nobodies, the despised, weak, foolish, defamed "offscouring of all things" that Paul described (I Cor 4:9-13)?

Why is it that the foreign missionaries and Third World leaders who "bear in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Gal 6:17) are so often never taken seriously to be most honored in the Church?

I'll tell you what I believe the answer is. It's two fold. One, those who are most preeminent in the eyes of the Church may not be the same as those in the eyes of God. And two, the current "apostolic movement" is so soaked in dominion eschatology of one version or another that it is as blind to the true scenario of the last days and the true nature of apostolic glory as the young Apostles were (Lu 22:24; Mt 20:20 ff).

In my opinion, if God really wants a restoration of the apostolic ministry to a strictly Biblical pattern, there would have to be a resolution of the kinds of questions raised above, and the coming forth of an apostolic class that will have to be careful with its motives and purposes.

There would have to be a dovetailing of these sorts of considerations in a way compatible with true spiritual maturity and Reformation philosophy. Tactically, the success or failure of it would hinge on whether it's approached as a ministry or an office. And doctrinally, if the apostles and prophets use their influence to prophesy and direct the churches further into this ecumenical quagmire, I do not see how they can avoid disaster. If they turn out to be such, they will be showing that they are after power and control, a title and an office, that they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I hope this article has provided at the least some food for thought, and has shed more light than heat on a most complex and difficult subject.

Promoting Revival to this Generation.
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