If you want to skip the rest of this article, just read the following three lines:
Jesus was an apostle.
Jesus sent apostles.
We need apostles today.
Now, if you want to keep going …. I would love to have you read further…
A couple years ago I was sitting with a friend, talking about a project we were working on together to send out teams around the U.S. to make disciples and start new churches. I referred to these teams as “apostolic teams”. He said, “Uh, let’s not call it that. The churches will all freak out.”
Why does, “apostle” – a frequently used word in the New Testament — freak us out? What happened to our understanding of “apostles”?
I love Christians. We’re funny. I guess it’s human nature to read the Bible through the lens of our experiences (rather than the other way around.) But still, there are times when we’ve got to do some self-assessment.
A few months ago I was driving through the wilderness of Arizona. It was sweltering hot. Our four kids were packed in the back seats. Our GPS quit working and we didn’t have a map. I had no idea places this remote existed in the continental U.S. Both the air conditioner and my “man-pride meter” were set on high as I resisted the innate survival instinct that was telling me to stop somewhere to ask for directions. Man pride, as history attests, is often stronger than the survival instinct. (There was nothing around anyway, so where would I stop?).
Finally we came upon a gas station in the middle of nowhere… “Did I stop? No. I just rolled by….dun, dun, dun du, du, dun, dun.” Yep. Kept on going. Finally, a mile down the road, visions of vultures haunted me. I imagined them hovering over me, swooping down to take pecks at my dehydrated, shriveling body as I crawled on the side of the road, seeking help for Jen and the kids after getting lost and running out of gas.
I turned around and went back to the gas station to ask for directions. I decided I needed to do some self-assessment about where we were and where we were going.
We need to do some self-assessment in regards to apostolic ministry in the body of Christ in the U.S.
A few years ago, as I was reading the gospels and the book of Acts, I noticed something: traveling apostolic teams were a primary method of both Jesus’ ministry and of the early church throughout the book of Acts. Actually, most of the rest of the New Testament after the books of Acts are letters written to churches that were birthed as a result of traveling apostolic teams.
HOLD ON!??! You might have missed that. No apostolic traveling teams = No New Testament (at least after the gospels). If there weren’t apostolic teams who traveled and birthed churches, that little green Gideon New Testament you hold so dear would only be about 2 centimeters thick. That probably would have saved the Gideons a lot of money in printing costs (and saved a few elderly gentlemen some strained backs from carrying all those boxes of Bibles around), but it wouldn’t have been good for the future of Christianity.
Most of the letters were written to churches that were birthed because apostolic teams traveled and because apostles were ready to send encouragement, correction, and advice to these churches. Today, we need the apostolic.
What happened that would cause us to take an essential ministry Jesus gave to the body of Christ and deny it, bury it, ignore it, and even disdain it?
He gave some to be apostles… (Ephesians 4:11)
It seems we have a really, really, really screwed up understanding of “apostles.” If we’re so afraid of the term that we don’t use it, then the apostolic function apostles were created for probably isn’t being implemented very well either. In the case of my friend who refused to use the word in public, the word had become associated with “control, spiritual abuse, arrogance, and greed.” Surely this doesn’t come close to the example of apostles the Bible sets for us. However, it does come very close to the description of “false apostles” Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15. We’ll look at that briefly at the end of this article.
So, what do apostles do? What are characteristics of apostolic people? If apostles (or prophets, teachers, evangelists and shepherds, for that matter) are given to build up the body of Christ, it stands to reason the body of Christ doesn’t function like it’s supposed to if we suppress the gifts and offices he gives to serve it.
Here are some characteristics of the apostolic I see modeled from the Apostle Paul in the scriptures. This list isn’t comprehensive – just some things I see as I reflect on Paul this morning and our need for a restoration of the Apostolic in North America. Some of these functions may overlap with other ministries (prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers), but I see these as important ministries of the apostolic.
1. Apostles are sent to travel to new areas where people aren’t following Jesus yet. (Apostle simply and literally means, “Sent one.”) We think this is fine if we send people overseas. But what about North America? What about college campuses? What about ethnic minorities and refugee people groups in the urban core? What about Native America reservations. We need apostles! God send apostles! I’ll go ahead and say this, at the risk of being critical. I know too many apostolic people who have been afraid to plant churches among unreached people groups in the U.S. because of fear or the risk of removal of funding from existing churches in the area. I know an associate pastor who started feeling an urge to plant churches among the lost in his city – a city that was 70% unchurched. His boss told him, “You can’t do it unless you move at least 50 miles away. “Lord help us. Help us to become apostolic in the West again.” (By the way, that boss later repented of his pride and control and sent out that associate pastor with the church’s blessings to go plant new churches for the lost in their city.)
Today, there are sociological classifications regarding the social distance between people. Social distance can be gauged by both geographic distance and cultural distance. If people are geographically distant from a church (they have no church functioning in their people group), we send missionaries to them. If people in North America are culturally distant from current expressions of church, we need to send people to go to these culturally distant people in North America– and start new churches. If there’s an enclave of 200 Somali refugees in government housing 5 miles from my house, let’s send apostolic teams to them! Sure, many people can culturally assimilate into our churches, but let’s stop thinking so small. If there’s a Native American reservation 10 miles away, it’s not going to help the spread of the gospel very much by trying to get them into white Euro-American churches (it hasn’t worked for 450 years anyway). We need apostolic movements that start culturally indigenous churches for pagan (I mean that in a nice way; I like pagans.) people who aren’t part of our church culture.
I invite you to do an experiment. If you’ve been a Christian for a long time, Google “live music” in your city. Then find a local place on a Friday night that’s playing some wacked-out different style of music or spoken word that you’ve never liked. Go sit in. How did you feel? Ok, ignore all your fears of demons issues for a second. The point of the exercise is that pagans feel just as awkward walking into a sanitary church, sitting in a chair, and hearing our latest version of a David Crowder song. It doesn’t matter how cool we think our church is; most pagans feel like they’re stepping into a foreign country.
2. Apostles tend to get sent out when people pray a lot. (Another way to say this is “prayer births apostolic movements.”) The first prayer meeting after Jesus’ resurrection produced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and what most church historians consider the birth of the church (Acts 2). A prayer meeting in Acts 13 produced the first great church planting movement in history as Paul and Barnabus were sent out as apostles from Antioch. “While these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabus and Saul for the special work I have for them.” (Acts 13:2) It’s happened throughout history, too. Most great missions movements were birthed out of a prayer movements – and the corresponding willingness to obey the Holy Spirit to get up and go to the lost.
“Lord, we pray for you to send laborers into your harvest fields!”
3. Apostles plant new churches and lay foundations for them to build on. I touched on this in #1. I like to tell some of my parachurch friends (who are often discouraged – or forbidden – to start churches) “church” is not a four-letter word! It’s actually really good and Biblically normal to make disciples who result in new churches. “But don’t you believe in the local church?” I get asked. To which I reply, “Yes! I believe in local churches so much that I believe we should start lots of churches through disciple-making so everyone can have one in our city.”
I believe church is a really, really good thing. I love church. I love the body of Christ. I want to see Jesus’ body grow to fill entire cities, more than entire buildings. Until our entire city is reached for Christ, we shouldn’t have much reason to squabble anyway. Paul said, “According to the grace of God given me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful.” (1 Cor. 3:10)
4. Apostles’ build up and minister in existing churches – usually that they helped start or already have a relational connection with.
Apostles thrive off of birthing new movements for the gospel among unreached peoples – and building up young churches that were birthed out of the harvest.
Picture Corinth in the first century, a city with a young church to which Paul wrote a great deal. It was a freaky pagan city. Drugs, temple prostitution, demon worship and idolatry; imagine the red light district of Amsterdam on steroids. You name the sin, it was there. Not exactly your primary market for starting a seeker-sensitive mega-church. Now picture a young Jesus movement in that city. A new church in the city probably with several thousand new believers. Take the weirdest Charismatic church you can imagine and multiply it by a hundred. There’s the church in Corinth. Paul wrote to the Corinthians more than anyone.
The funny thing Corinth shows is this: you don’t have a lot of movement without a lot of mess. If you’ve got apostolic authority in place, it allows messy movements to grow into established, multiplying churches. Today, we’ve become supposed experts at starting ministries and growing churches – meanwhile the percentage of Christians in America continues to decline. We look at these Pauline letters and try to fit them into our paradigm for neat and orderly, cookie-cutter churches. We’ve forgotten how to reach pagans because we’ve become focused on preserving our Christian civilization. Letters like Paul sent to the Corinthians are necessary when apostles birth churches among pagans.
5. Apostles makes disciples, not just converts. The many names Paul mentions and the language of love he expresses to the people he’s influenced show that Paul had a rich relational life, full of people in whom he had invested deeply. Paul said, “The things you learned from me, teach these things to faithful men, who will be able to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2) Paul pointed out four generations of disciple making. “Timothy, I invested in your life. Now invest in other people who will also invest in other people to make them into mature disciples of Jesus.” This shows Paul’s concern for Timothy’s development and fruitfulness as a leader. He also calls Timothy “my true son in the faith.”
Which brings me to the next characteristic I see in apostles:
6. Apostles lead like good dads do.
When a dad has a five year old, he gives him a lot of care, discipline, and boundaries. When a child is 20, the way a dad interacts with a child has changed. The glory of dad’s is to see their kids surpass them. Apostolic functions to raise up spiritual children and churches to be self-sustaining and self-governed. We haven’t seen too much of this in North America yet, but we will.
7. Apostolic calling can develop out of people gifted to serve in other areas of ministry (evangelists, shepherds, teachers, prophets, etc.)
“Among the prophets and teachers at Antioch…. The Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate Paul and Barnabus….’” Evidently, Paul, “the apostle” grew into his role as an apostle after getting sent out.
This is quite interesting, actually. Maybe we will see the development of more apostles and movements in North America when churches pray and send more people out.
8. Apostles send teams to build up churches they’ve planted, or visit those churches themselves.
A quick glance through Paul’s letters show him often sending people where they were needed most, or requesting people to travel to a different city … “That’s the very reason I am sending Timothy…” (I Cor. 4:17)
Apostles not only go – they send others to go.
9. Apostles identify and appoint elders in new churches or send apostolic teams to do so.
Paul told Titus, “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” (Titus 1:5)
Apostolic people always push authority to a local level by identifying and establishing local elders. Paul was not wimpy about wielding authority. But he also fought long and hard against a characteristic he saw that would hurt young churches – they tended to rally around hierarchical authority structures where they talked about who their “spiritual authority” was – “You say, “I follow Peter, I follow….’”. Paul knew the temptation of the human nature to start structuring their experience of church around hierarchy, human leadership, human personalities, and getting attention off of Christ. Paul even says, “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you except… “ He saw that people made baptism an issue to divide over. Paul modeled leadership and spiritual authority, but in a manner where the primary metaphor for his leadership was being a spiritual father (“even if you had ten thousand instructors to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father…” I Cor. 4:15). Paul pushed authority down to a level where local elders in every place had responsibility to keep people focused on following Jesus, the true shepherd of the sheep. Like in Paul’s day, today in North America, it seems we have plenty of instructors, and we really need apostolic, spiritual fathers.
10. Asks for financial and prayer support to expand the gospel to new areas.
Paul often wrote letters asking for support or items he needed to fund his ministry and expand the gospel in new areas. People sometimes say, “But Paul was a tentmaker.” Paul was skilled as a tentmaker. But we see him taking time off to devote to tent making one time in the entire New Testament – and this was only for a short time. On many other occasions, he requested money to fund his apostolic travels and ministry. He bragged that he could serve new areas and plant new churches “for free.” God uses both, but the characteristic of asking for finances from churches to expand the gospel to new areas is a common function of apostles in the New Testament. Heck – even Jesus, our Great Apostle, had a team of financial supporters (see Luke 8:1)
11. Establishes rich networks of relationships– this is one of the primary “building blocks” of the apostolic example of the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s letters mention a multiplicity of friends and co-laborers in different cities. He asks for money when he needs it. He asks his friend Philemon boldly to set a slave free (Onesimus) who Paul had led to Christ. Then he asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. Paul wielded apostolic influence through this network of relationships.
12. Creatively adapts the scriptures to apply to current conflicts and challenges in churches.
The letters of the apostle Paul tackle some tough problems. It seems Paul’s life was marked for conflict from his earliest conversion. In Antioch, he and Barnabus are laying foundations in the first church that is massively Gentile (Cornelius preceded this in Acts 10, but Antioch is the first place we hear of massive movements, a new church and miracles among Gentiles). The church in Antioch sparks a controversy because they weren’t worshiping like the church in Jerusalem, practicing circumcision, or following the laws of Moses.
Whenever apostolic movements are birthed, it creates lots of mess where we need wisdom for how to apply the scriptures. Paul in many instances took Old Testament scriptures (Paul hadn’t written most of what would become the New Testament yet, haha), and applied the principles to current situations. Take a look through Paul’s letters and find how many times he writes, “As the scriptures say…”
For example, when a Corinthian Christian is sleeping with his step mom and won’t respond to correction, Paul says, basically, “Kick him out of the group.” Then he refers to the Passover celebration, the new bread of purity Jesus gave us through his sacrifice and points to a scripture from Deuteronomy about removing evil people and applies it to their current church situation. (I Cor. 5)
13. Carries a spiritual burden for the churches and regularly prays for them. Apostles carry a love for churches; similar to the way a father or mother carries a burden to see their kids grow up and fulfill their potential.
14. Demonstrates leadership that looks Christ-like in planting, serving, and leading churches.
Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”
Paul told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: “I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with tears…I have never coveted anyone’s money or fine clothing…You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’”
Paul says his authority is “To build up, not to Lord over.”
This characteristic of apostolic influence can’t be stressed enough. Paul seemed to be pretty choleric and demanding at times. (Barnabus – the big “nice guy encourager” of the New Testament leadership hall of fame even split with Paul over an issue about Mark, Barnabus’ relative. They reconciled the issue some years later). However, Paul also shows a self-sacrificing humility and devotion to churches like Jesus does.
15. Sometimes must wrestle with churches over issues of authority and influence with “false apostles”.
This is an especially tough one. Apostles must act with great authority and great humility at the same time. Apostles must set foundations that help people and churches grow and reproduce long after apostles are gone – and people are no longer dependent on them.
In acts 20:18-32, Paul meets with the Ephesian elders for the last time, prior to his trip to Rome where his life would end. He warns them that others will come in to draw a following after themselves (v. 30). I think this is one characteristic that distinguishes true and false apostles: There are people who draw a following after themselves. There are people who draw a following after Jesus. How do we know the difference? Honestly I’m not sure there’s any one quick answer. There’s no substitute for seeing the fruit of the Holy Spirit and character in someone’s life, and seeing the fruit of the kinds of disciples that their life produces.
Paul wrestled with this of issue of authority big-time in Corinth. Here was this young church. Paul raised money to go to Corinth and bring the gospel there so he didn’t have to take money from the young churches he planted. Signs, wonders, and miracles had taken place after Paul traveled there. Paul had endured brutal suffering in order to be able to travel to places like Corinth. Shipwreck; snake bites; getting whipped and stoned; being made fun of; being abandoned by people he trusted at times — he’d seen it all. Then, Paul takes the time to write lengthy letters to these Corinthians and arrange for the letters to be sent by the primitive mail system of the day. He didn’t get any extra pay for doing it. He must have really loved the Corinthian church. Paul knew the birth and building up of new churches among the Gentiles was what Jesus called him to do.
In II Corinthians 11, we see more of the struggle Paul faced with young churches. There were evidently groups of people – full-time “ministers”, it would seem – who would travel around the Mediterranean world, ministering in these young churches. They were great speakers. They would collect money. They would wow these young Christ- followers. Paul sarcastically referred to them as “super apostles.” (2 Cor. 11:5) The funny thing is, the Corinthians actually seemed to discredit Paul because he didn’t “perform” like these super-apostles. Even in the early church, Paul faced the problem of young Christians being wowed by eloquent speakers who didn’t truly have their best interests in mind. Though they awed people with their speeches, they really weren’t helping the churches.
Paul spends almost three chapters (or what would later be divided into chapters) walking this line between defending his authority, yet declaring that it’s his weaknesses that show God’s strength. He asserts his lifestyle, his example, his burden for the churches, and his willingness to suffer for them. He appeals to these young churches to stop listening to these “false apostles” who have disguised themselves as “apostles of Christ.”
16. Apostles lay down their life for the church.
A quick look at the Apostle Paul, Peter, and stories from history of the other apostles, demonstrate that apostles are willing to lay down their life like Jesus did. I don’t believe this means every apostle will be called as a martyr, but I do believe they model sacrificial leadership in laying down their life for their spiritual sons and daughters and trust the Holy Spirit to work far beyond what they can immediately control. Paul insisted on going to Rome. Jesus laid down his life on a cross. Apostles realize their ministry must go beyond being dependent on their immediate life and leadership. I guess that’s not just something apostolic, that’s a principle for every Christian, regardless of gifting.
Jesus was an Apostle!
Apostle is a Good Word!
I’m certain there are other characteristics of apostles we could lay out. We could probably narrow some of these down as well. But the main point of this article, as I alluded to in the beginning, is that we desperately need a restoration of the Apostolic in North America. We desperately need a spiritual awakening and movements of spirit-empowered, indigenous, culturally-distinct churches across our land. “Apostle” is not a bad word. Every office in scripture (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher) was given by Jesus. Jesus gives good things!
Anything that comes from Jesus is gonna look like Jesus. Thus, the true definition of an apostle is someone who looks like Jesus did as He fulfilled His mission in the earth. Whether someone is an apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, or teacher, we find our fullest expression in modeling leadership like Jesus did.
Jesus was an apostle.
Jesus was a prophet.
Jesus was an evangelist.
Jesus was a shepherd.
Jesus was a teacher.
Jesus is the head of the church – and he sends out individuals in His church to serve in each of these functions today. Let’s nurture all of them!
P.S. A note about my use of the word “church”: Church is Jesus’ idea. Church is His body; His people; His ekklesia in the earth. Our concepts and views of the church will either help or hinder the functions of the other offices in scripture (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher.)
When I use the word church, I’m defining it as “a group of people who follow Jesus together.” Although the churches that the Apostle Paul started were each culturally distinct and had their own individual problems and challenges, there was every indication that most of these churches were led by local, lay people, who were appointed as elders once a young church had matured to the point that good elders could be selected. The growth of a church to the point of selecting local elders happens through apostolic functions. Although there was apostolic authority functioning through Paul’s growing network (including Timothy, Titus, and many others), I cannot find a single example in scripture of one senior pastor being appointed to lead a local church. Thus, without making a valuation statement on the typical structure of North American churches, (God uses a diversity of culturally-distinct structures all through history), I do want to be clear that I believe any massive restoration of apostolic functions in North America will almost inevitably occur simultaneously with the development of very different church structures and models than we’re currently most familiar with.
God uses all forms and models for church that His people have used in different cultures and different periods throughout history. The issue here is not “Which model is right?” I believe one of the biggest issues regarding apostolic movements in North America right now is, “Will we allow new churches to develop from disciple-making movements among pagans that look culturally and structurally distinct than what we currently are familiar with?”