Many today (especially in Charismatic and non-denomination circles) claim for themselves the title and ministry of apostle. Most I have met do not claim equivalency with the twelve disciples of the Lamb. Yet they seem to invariably claim for themselves rights, privileges, primacy of place, and “positional governmental authority in the church” to which others must yield. The phenomenon is sometimes couched in language of “spiritual covering.” What they espouse and claim for themselves as apostles has no biblical legitimacy.
Paul Describes His Apostolic Ministry
Some may find any use of the term apostle to be unfamiliar, novel, or even disturbing. It is simply the Greek version for the Latin from which we get the term missionary, or one who is sent. We are familiar with the Latin term and it bothers no one. But because of association of apostle with the original twelve disciples of Christ and Paul, some think use of the term to be inappropriate. This is not the place to defend the modern-day existence of apostolic ministry other than to say that there were apostles other than the twelve and Paul. I do not subscribe to the Cessationist point of view that apostles and prophets “passed away” at some time in the Church’s past. The issue at hand is not debating their existence, but rather how the terms are defined and expressed today.
Paul’s self-descriptive terms for his apostolic ministry are far different from what commonly passes today as apostolic. He describes himself as chief of sinners, the off-scouring of the earth (literally: the dust that is left over after a house has been cleaned, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the garbage), a spiritual miscarriage (KJV: born out of due time), the least of all the saints, and the most common term for himself, a slave.
These metaphors relate to Paul’s ego: his estimation of himself in service and ministry expression. There is not a whiff in any of Paul’s language of a claim, demand, or right to any special privilege, status, or honor. Even when defending his calling against the Corinthians and Galatians, his boast is in what Christ has done in him. They can receive him, or not receive him as an apostle. “I may not be an apostle to others, but I am to you,” he tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:2). This is fundamentally a relational, not positional definition of his apostleship. There is nothing of a coercive demand. We know that at the end of his life, his churches have rejected him as he rots in jail with just a couple of faithful friends to help him. Hardly the chief executive of a ministry pyramid.
In this he is like our Lord who took on the form of a slave (KJV servant is much too weak). Too many who claim for themselves the title (sic) or ministry of apostle today seem to think it makes them generals in the body of Christ and entitles them to privileges of rank. It is a mixing of very weak typological and apocalyptic metaphors from the OT and the Revelation to refer to the church as an army under generals. The New Testament epistles never refer to the church as an army. The church is a family, not an army. A family has no need of generals.
In the New Testament period, being a slave was an act of dishonor, not honor. Slavery was a form of social death. The enslaved person lost all the social status they previously held or to which they could aspire. They were deprived of the freedom of decision, and forced to have solidarity of view with, and social utility unto the slave owner.
THIS, my friends, is Paul’s description of himself and his apostolic ministry. There is nothing honorable about it. Truly, Paul was not his own. God owns him. He is God’s property. He exists for God’s purposes as a slave, as do you and I.
Apostles: Slaves of Christ
Because the ministry of apostle is the most evident in the New Testament, let’s look at their time period regarding what an apostle was and how these metaphorical tensions apply to any of the Ephesian 4 ministries both then and now.
An apostle in the ancient world was simply someone sent to conduct business on someone else’s behalf, the sender usually being someone within the upper-class elite, the military, or the government. The word originally had no association whatsoever with anything religious or spiritual. It also had no association whatsoever with any aspect of authority, governing or a position in a hierarchy, and by reason of so-being an apostle entitled to privileges. That idea would have been incomprehensible to Paul or anyone who heard him.
Apostle simply meant someone selected to “go” in submission to another, to fulfill an assigned task. Period. That’s it. That’s all. No other baggage should be attached to the term. It is in this sense that Paul appropriately transfers the term into a kingdom application that is as good today as it ever was. What we have done to the term, the inferences and assumptions we have loaded it up with based on our world view and ecclesiology, is another story!
Travel in the ancient world was dangerous and something that individuals did not choose lightly, especially if carrying valuables or something important. The risk of attack, murder, theft, etc., at the hands of brigands was very real. The person sent—the apostle—usually did not have a choice in the matter of his job assignment. The apostle was selected and commissioned for what could likely be a distasteful and perhaps harmful assignment. (This matches perfectly with the Apostle of our profession as well as Paul’s description of his own calling and ministry.).
The one selected to go would often be the most expendable, the least valuable slave–the one a master could most afford to lose. The point is, you did not put your premium asset at undue risk if you could avoid it. This also fits Paul’s self-description perfectly. From our Father’s perspective, in Paul, He sent a precious, highly valued, treasured, finest-of-the-fine, “kingdom asset.” From Paul’s self-estimation, and the world’s perspective, it is the other metaphor.
Apostle was not a title for a high-status leadership position. In their day, when you said “apostle” no one would think of a manager, owner, chief executive, or someone sitting at the top of a religious pyramid hierarchy. They would think of dishwashers and busboys, or worse. In their world, the feet were considered the most defiled, unclean member of the body. In our world, we would normally associate most uncleanness with bathroom functions and the associated organs! Not so in theirs. To wash feet was not just a “nice humble thing” to do. It was to abase one’s self to the lowest of the low, the basest of the base, the most demeaning expression of service available in their world. In the upper room we see Jesus’s apostleship (ministry) being modeled. How that gets turned into rank and privilege by creative religious minds, is quite a maneuver.
Apostle was not a claim to high status or authority, but a claim to low status and expendability. When you attached the words “of Christ” [to the term apostle] this communicated whose business and authority the apostle was operating under, and doubles down on the slave metaphor. A slave doesn’t do the choice assignments, the easy ones of privilege. A slave does the hard assignments, the nasty ones that no one else wants to do.
Contrary to the seeming norm in many places these days, being an apostle (and by extension any of the Ephesian 4 ministries) is to become expendable, low status, and exposed to ridicule and insecurity in this life—a complete match for the example in Christ and Paul:
- For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ . . . (1 Corinthians 4:9,10).
Paul’s apostleship looks like this:
- I will then, spend, and be spent by you, though I am loved the less for it. (2 Cor. 12:15)
That is not the language of privilege and demand. That is biblically accurate language of what it means to be an apostle (not to mention the well-known Pauline references to his sufferings and his scars, love, patience, and wonder-working as the testifying witnesses of his apostolic ministry).
Many who proclaim themselves as apostles and prophets (as well as the other Eph. 4 gifts) demand they be treated with honor, as an alleged way of teaching people to learn respect in a culture of honor. This self-acclaimed honor usually accrues in perks, favors, privileges, mandatory use of honorific titles and such to the one demanding the honor. In extreme cases it crosses the line into cultic veneration from unquestioning subordinates. This is contrary to both the spirit and letter of the New Testament, as well as the Spirit of Christ. There is no place for it in the church.
You will never find a legitimate apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher making a statement like this anywhere in the scripture:
- “You must honor me because I am . . . (fill in with a qualifier of choice: calling, education, anointing, wonder-working, teaching gift, etc.)”
If you are relating to someone who is demanding honor from you, you immediately need to have a frank conversation or make a change in your associations. If you want to freely give honor to someone due to the individual’s Christ-likeness and slave-like service to yourself, the Body, and the world, it is yours to give and theirs to receive!
I have had the pleasure of knowing a few that I would consider meeting the qualification to be called a modern-day apostle–very few. I have met scores of others who think it is a position in a church hierarchy that they can achieve by faithfully fulfilling “lower callings” or simply by leading a large and “successful” modern ministry. The latter has nothing biblically apostolic about it.
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