by Robert Brow
The apostolic function is the most neglected and yet most necessary gift for the worldwide church. The higher churches maintain that apostles were replaced by diocesan bishops in the apostolic succession. Evangelical Protestants say that apostles died out with the New Testament era. Most Christians learn about the twelve apostles in Sunday School, but have never heard of apostles today.
We can begin by listing certain agreed propositions. Obviously the function of the twelve disciples of Jesus, often called the twelve apostles, can never be repeated. They were chosen to be for three years eyewitnesses of everything that the Messiah did until his death and resurrection. Eleven of these men continued to be available for several years after so that anyone might question them concerning the facts. For this purpose a twelfth apostle was chosen to replace Judas. These twelve men could give eyewitness evidence concerning the real humanity and sinlessness, the real crucifixion, and the visible resurrection of the Messiah so that these facts could not be controverted by any amount of cross-examination in any court of law. I suspect that the number of honest doubters who went and did this questioning for themselves was considerable. It was, after all, the Romans who gave us the principles of eyewitness evidence, and even before Romulus and Remus Moses had taught the Jews the modern principles of legal proof.
The second agreed proposition is that Paul was an apostle, but in no sense could he qualify as one of the original twelve eyewitnesses. When the dispirited disciples wanted a successor for Judas the choice had to be "one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21f.). It is true that Paul saw the Lord on the Damascus road, but this evidence was irrelevant compared with the basic historical facts that the twelve eyewitnesses could give about Jesus' life and death and resurrection. What happened to Paul on the Damascus road has happened to many converted persecutors of the church; and it still happens, because Jesus Christ is alive and knowable face to face today.
Our third proposition is that the Greek word apostolos originally meant a naval expedition; later it referred to the commander of a naval force; and by New Testament times it could be used for any responsible person sent to do a particular task for the sender. Every day hundreds of apostles traveled across the Greek and Roman world. Ambassadors went to establish an outpost at a foreign court, businessmen were sent to open new branches, and Christian apostles fanned out to win and organize churches for their Lord. The word apostle was therefore not confined to the twelve, who were in a special sense the eyewitness apostles, but was applied also to men like Paul, Barnabas, Andronicus, and Junias, and even to false apostles who tried to perform the same function.
The fourth proposition is that Paul twice lists apostles among the other gifts of the Spirit, and both times places this at the top of the list. "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11f.). "God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" (I Cor. 12:28).
Finally we have the fact that Paul's function, quite apart from the question of his office, was to be the leader of a team (commander of an expedition, in the classical Greek sense) responsible for planting churches and discipling them for Jesus Christ. This function of planting and discipling churches is the function that is deficient and desperately needed in our twentieth century.
Now if these propositions are generally agreed upon, why is there such divergent teaching on the apostolic function among our theologians? One reason was the emergence of the big city bishops in the second and third centuries, as we saw in Chapters II and III. To maintain control over the ordinations in their area it was easy to suggest that bishops were successors to the twelve apostles, so that no man could become a priest without a valid ordination by a bishop in the true apostolic line. If, however, we adopt the distinction between local churches and the bloodstream, the connecting of apostles with a continuing line of bishops is not necessary. The essence of the catholic tradition can be maintained by recognizing apostles with their mission teams or orders in the bloodstream, and at the same time having the local parish churches organized under bishops. This in fact is what does happen in the Roman Catholic Church in many areas, though the apostolic nature of the orders is not recognized. As Roland Allen saw clearly in China, the Anglican system must be adapted to permit the ordination of elders in newly founded churches without a long theological training. What he did not stress was that the church-planting missionary should be an apostle who hands over these new churches to the church organization in the area, and then moves on to plant other churches without retaining responsibility for or authority over them. It would be a major theological breakthrough for our theology of church and mission to allow for apostles and mission teams on the one hand, and local churches organized under bishops, presbyteries, conferences, or something similar on the other hand.
We now come to the problem from the Protestant or Evangelical side. Here the issue is the canon of the New Testament. Whereas the "Catholics" continue the function of apostles wrongly, the great Reformation theologians ended it with the New Testament. They held that the church is apostolic in the sense that it is ruled by the New Testament writings. If apostles are continued beyond the apostolic era, then how can we close the canon? Will not modern apostles begin to add new parts of Scripture in the twentieth century? By this reasoning it is taken as axiomatic that apostles and prophets died out by the end of the first century, and that their Word of God is the New Testament, to which nothing can be added. The result is that Protestant churches have been very seriously impoverished, except on the mission field overseas, by the lack of apostolic bloodstream ministry.
The question of the New Testament canon needs a separate treatment, but it seems quite unnecessary to terminate the necessary function of apostles in order to establish it. In any case the apostolic nature of Paul's epistles, of the epistle to the Hebrews, of James, of Jude, or even of the Gospel of Mark, is impossible to prove if we have to connect these writings with the original twelve apostles. It is far simpler to agree that the New Testament canon was planned and terminated in the same way as the Old Testament canon by the predestination of God. It is a miracle of history that all Jews and all Christians agree about all the books of the Hebrew Old Testament. Similarly it is an even greater sign of the hand of God that all Christians, whether Roman, Greek Orthodox, Syriac, or Protestant, agree about the New Testament canon. It is this unanimity that is conclusive, not the supposed evidence that our New Testament books were written by the twelve apostles or under apostolic authority.
Once the problem of the canon can be removed from the discussion of apostles, it might be possible to recover a real apostolate in twentieth-century Protestant churches. First, the existing denominational missionary societies need to be freed from hierarchical control for a more mobile bloodstream ministry both at home and abroad. Then it is necessary to search for men with apostolic church-planting gifts, and make it possible for them to exercise this ministry. As men begin to move in this way, interdenominational and inter-mission teams will probably form, and local churches will learn to take from them what they need. When these teams begin to plant new churches, the existing denominational groupings will need to learn how to recognize their elders and ministers, and link the churches in fellowship with others. If we remember that apostles and bloodstream teams have no ecclesiastical authority once self-governing churches are established, it seems unnecessary for local denominational groupings to be jealous of the labors of apostolic teams.
Evidently the problem is not to invent new ways to make the church relevant to the twentieth century, but to recapture the vibrant life and mobility of the early Christians. How, for example, do we produce a Paul? Let us assume that our theology of the church has progressed to the point where we do not have to expel a John Wesley from our church because his apostolic gift has no place in our tradition. Let us also assume that our understanding of the apostolate is so enlightened that we can now accept a new congregation, or ministry from an apostle of another denomination and still remain ourselves. Then how do we recognize the apostolic gift? Our textbook is already written. God has carefully set the pattern in the New Testament.
At his conversion on the Damascus road, Paul immediately received his inward call to the apostolate. "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles - to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me" (Acts 26:16-18). The inward call was not recognized outwardly for at least fourteen years until Paul went out on his first missionary journey. He began by acting as an evangelist wherever he had an opportunity to preach. Then he spent many years in Tarsus and the surrounding province of Cilicia. When the church in Antioch began to grow at a rapid rate, Barnabas went to Tarsus to call Paul to help in teaching tile converts. The future apostle was sent to Jerusalem on a famine-relief mission, and he presumably heard of the work of other apostles and gained a wider picture of God's plan for the worldwide church.
These fourteen years of preparation gave Paul his theological training and practical experience in the exercise of various spiritual gifts. We must recognize that, whereas most of us are one-talent men, there are others in the church with two or more spiritual gifts. Usually to qualify as an apostolic leader of a mission team, a man will need to have developed evangelistic, teaching, and administrative gifts. Paul obviously had these, and he also spoke in tongues and had a gift of healing. He was at least a five-talent man. Inevitably as he began moving in the Mediterranean world his gifts and leadership were recognized, younger men joined him, churches backed them, and the team enriched the Christian bloodstream in the Roman world.
Paul's labors are singled out in the book of Acts and in the epistles, but other apostles led other teams, and their combined efforts exploded a vast Christian population east as well as west of Jerusalem in the first three centuries. If the true church of Jesus Christ is to grow faster than the twentieth-century population explosion, which I assume to be God's intention, we will need to produce, recognize, and use Pauline apostles. If theology or ecclesiology makes that impossible in our little circle, God will still work, but not through our cancerous stupidity. I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail. Those hellish gates are built by tradition as well as worldly wickedness.