A number of years ago I was at a retreat for pastors, and one of my mentors started using the language of “Apostolic ministry” and “Prophetic ministry” and “5-Fold ministry”.  He was making a compelling argument that in terms of ministry, that much of the Church is missing it.  That many of our churches are not living into the fullness of ministry made available to us through the grace of Jesus Christ.   

The text is Eph. 4: 1-13.  At the end of this section Paul writes:

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Eph. 4: 11-13

My friend gave the argument that if the churches’ mission was to drive from New York to Chicago, then we are driving in reverse; or at the very least, we have five gears and we are only utilizing two gears.  Jesus has equipped his church with a powerful engine but most of us are only utilizing the “shepherding and the teaching” leaders and ministries, we have three more gears that we can use.

I thought to myself, “If this is true, this would have significant ramifications for the ministry of the Church. If this is true than we are neglecting both leaders and aspects of ministry that Christ intended to be utilized in his church. If we are meant to equip his people, then we are not utilizing all the tools.  If we are striving for unity, maturity and fullness in Christ, then we should certainly be using the full array of his leaders and ministries.  This was a paradigm shift for sure.”

Yet, at the same time I had some significant hang-ups with this understanding of Ephesians 4. Perhaps my biggest struggle with was my understanding of Apostles and what is known as the “Apostolic Age”.  I had assumed that there were only thirteen apostles, Jesus’ original twelve (this includes the addition of Matthias to replace Judas) plus Paul. 

I assumed that this number was set because the qualifications to be an Apostle was that they had a personal experience of Christ Jesus, and that he had personally commissioned them as apostles.  As these thirteen “sent ones” proclaimed the good news of the Messiah, Christ’s church and His Kingdom spread.  As each of the thirteen were either martyred or died, the “Apostolic Age” ended.   

How many apostles?  Answer: Original 12 – Judas + Matthias + Paul = 13

From this perspective, we shouldn’t expect apostles or apostolic ministries to continue in his church today. The other four leaders and ministries from Ephesians 4 could persist, but not the Apostles and the ministries they represent. 

However, in examining the scriptures regarding apostles and the continuation of apostolic ministry, I have come to a vastly different conclusion.  I believe that the early church understood apostles in two ways; one as being specific to the original twelve and Paul, and then also in a broader sense, with others as Apostles.  And therefore “Apostolic ministry” is not only valid for today, but absolutely crucial.

I have experienced this profound shift in ministry philosophy for three main reasons. 

1) The Number of Apostles Recorded In Scripture:

The reality is that there are several more people named as apostles then the 13 noted above.  I would say you have some additional folks that are DIRECTLY stated as apostles and some INDIRECTLY stated as apostles.  First those clearly stated as apostles:

James – (Not the James of the original twelve, but the brother of Jesus). ‘I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.’ Gal. 1:19

Barnabas‘But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd …’ Acts 14: 14

Epaphroditus‘But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger/apostle (apostolos), whom you sent to take care of my needs.’ Phil. 2: 25.

2 Unnamed Brothers –. ‘as for our brothers, they are representatives/apostles (apostolos) of the churches and an honor to Christ. 2 Cor. 8: 23b

Andronicus and Junia: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16: 7

Let’s count.  If we add these seven folks to the original apostles (plus Paul), that gives us twenty.  But I believe scripture adds more, you could say INDIRECTLY. 

Apollos: ‘Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos … (vs. 6) … For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession’ 1 Cor. 4: 9

Silas and Timothy: ‘We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority.’ 1 Thess. 2: 6

Let’s count.  So if we accept these INDIRECT references, which I think the text warrants in every instance, then we must add three more. 

How many apostles? Answer: 13 original + 7 direct + 3 indirect = 23.

So, it seems clear that scripture understood apostles both in a specific sense of the original twelve, but also in a wider sense that others were identified as apostles by the early church.  Barnabas is a particularly interesting circumstance in that he is identified as being a “teacher or a prophet” in Acts 13 (like Paul), but then identified as an Apostle (as seen above) only after he is “sent out” with Paul.

2) The Test of being an Apostle:

As part of an “Apostolic Age” paradigm, I mentioned that I believed the “test” of an apostle was that they had a personal experience of Christ Jesus.  I believe this understanding comes from when Paul is making a defense of his authority:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?  Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

1 Cor. 9: 1-2.

But notice, that Paul doesn’t actually say this.  He is arguing for his authority to speak into the Corinthian’s lives, his experience of Jesus is not proof that he is an apostle but another reason they should listen to him. 

In fact, Paul gives another “test” for true apostleship. 

The things that mark an apostle –signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. 2 Cor. 12: 12

There are a few different places that the early church had to test individuals who were claiming to be apostles.   In the church of Corinth, you had people claiming to be what Paul called “Super-Apostles.” In the earlier letter to the Corinthians, he said he would test these arrogant folks with both a “message test” and a “power test”:

But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 1 Cor. 4: 19-20

And then in the church in Ephesus, we are told in Revelation about those claiming to be apostles: 

I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. Rev. 2: 2b

It seems that this true test, as identified in scripture, is yet another argument for both a specific understanding of the apostles and the broader sense of apostles.  If the early church understood only the twelve plus Paul as apostles, there would be no need of a test.  They would simply say, “Guys, you can’t claim to be apostles, there are only thirteen and you are not one of them.” 

3) The Purpose of the 5-Fold Ministry:

I think the final argument is the Ephesians 4 passage itself.  We have noticed that the purpose of the 5 leaders and ministries is to “build up” the church, to bring “unity in the faith” and “knowledge” of Christ; the purpose was to bring “maturity”, that the church would attain the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

That is quite a lofty goal and purpose.  Would anyone argue that we have arrived at that place yet?  Would anyone want to argue that at the end of the so-called “Apostolic Age” (believed to end around 100 A.D.) that the church had arrived?  I don’t think so!

Again, this has huge ramifications.  If we have neglected at least two (possibly three) of the five ministries that Christ wants to use in growing his church and kingdom, we are on the highway, driving the car in second gear.  We better start rethinking the fullness of ministry that Christ has granted us.  We better start praying and pressing in for all that Christ has for us. 

In the next article, I will look at another perspective that has been a barrier for many to a 5-Fold ministry viewpoint.  Specifically Prophetic ministry and did that cease with the Apostolic Age (or when scripture was canonized).  And then in a final article, I will give a picture of how our church is starting to live into this ministry shift. 

 

Endnotes:

1. Even though Paul uses the exact same Greek word used to designate others as “apostles,” translations use the word “messenger.” I think this represents a biased towards the “Apostolic Age” perspective.

2. Again, the Greek word “apostolos” is used, but translated something different.  If you read the verses in context, I think it favors a more straightforward translation. 

3. A highly debated text, but the most straightforward reading of the text favors these two as apostles in the broader sense of the word. 

4. In the opening verse of 1 Thessalonians, it is stated that Paul, Silas and Timothy, are the authors of the letter.  So when Paul (as the primary author) uses the pronoun ‘we’, we can assume he is referring to these three.  All three had ministered with Paul in Thessalonica.