A critique of the modern apostolic movement

Why should there be apostles today, according to some?

The idea is that there are five offices in the church that have to be filled in order for it to prosper. This comes from Ephesians 4:11-14

Ephesians 4:11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 

So the list of “offices” in Ephesians 4 is: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers.

When trying to understand this text, it is important to remember a few principles. 

  1. There are two types of passages in the Bible: Descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive passages simply tell you how it is (or was) in a specific situation. Prescriptive passages tell you how it should be in a specific situation. 
  2. There are many sorts of lists. Some lists are complete in the sense that nothing may be added or subtracted from them. These lists are meant to be standards. Other lists are meant to be examples. They are not meant to be complete and can be added to or subtracted from. 

We contend that Ephesians 4:11 is not a prescriptive text but a descriptive text. It  simply provides a list of examples in order to illustrate the point: That Christ himself equips the Church in order that she may grow to maturity.  It is definitely not a complete prescriptive list of offices that have to be filled. The reasons are:

  1. The list is not a complete lists of church offices. Paul does not mention elders (overseers) or deacons in any of these texts. Yet he instructs Timothy to appoint both. 
  2. The list changes every time Paul makes these sort of lists. 

Romans 12:4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

In Romans 12 the list is prophets, servants, teachers, exhorters, the generous, and the merciful. 

1 Corinthians 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. 

In 1 Corinthians the list is apostles, prophets, healers, helpers, administrators, and people who miraculously speak in foreign languages they have not learnt before. 

Note that in each of these three texts, Paul refers to believers as members of the same body, each with unique gifts. The point Paul wants to make in these three texts is the same.

Ephesians 4:15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

  1. In fact, these are not offices at all, but gifts. 

Ephesians 4:8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

Romans 12:6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…

1 Corinthians 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 

The only two positions Paul tells Timothy and Titus to fill are those of elders (or overseers) and deacons. In fact, some of the “offices” of Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are held by the elders / overseers and deacons.

What are apostles?

The meaning of the word “apostle” 

According to Strong’s concordance:

Definition: a messenger, one sent on a mission, an apostle

Usage: a messenger, envoy, delegate, one commissioned by another to represent him in some way, especially a man sent out by Jesus Christ Himself to preach the Gospel; an apostle.

It is important to note that the word “Apostolos” was commonly used in the Greek language of the time to mean “messenger”. We should, therefore, expect the word to be used in this generic sense in the Bible also. 

2 Corinthians 8:23 As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ. 

The word translated here as “messengers” is “apostoloi” or “emissaries”. When the word is used in its generic meaning it should not be interpreted that the people it refers to have the specific calling of “Apostle”.  

So what is an “apostle of Christ?”

The original apostles were Jesus’ twelve disciples

Mark 3:14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. . 

The apostles were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ

After Jesus ascended into heaven, it was decided that an apostle should be appointed to take the place of Judas. Luke explicitly states that the new apostle’s main qualification was that he had to be an eye witness of the resurrection and that his main work was to be to bear witness to the resurrection. 

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 

This is exactly how the church in Jerusalem started:

Acts 4:33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 

Both John and Peter mentioned that their apostolic authority was derived from the fact that they were eyewitnesses.

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 

1 Peter 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed…

Paul continuously had to defend his apostleship, because he was not one of the original twelve. His defence was that he was an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ, who appeared to him, not in a vision or a dream, but in physical form. 

1 Corinthians 9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

Paul was also painfully aware of the fact that he was not one of the original twelve. That is why he called himself “the least of the apostles” and, because he knew that he only saw the resurrected Jesus long after the other apostles, he was also the “untimely born”.

1 Corinthians 15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 

Apostles were specifically and individually appointed by Christ himself, in person, not by men. 

Galatians 1:1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead

The apostles had complete, supernaturally inspired knowledge of the gospel. 

Galatians 1:11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 

Ephesians 3:4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The apostolic witness is the foundation of the Church. The Church (not local congregations) was therefore founded by the apostles. 

Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The rock that Jesus would build his church on was not Peter the apostle, but Peter’s apostolic witness to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. 

Ephesians 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Revelation 21:14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

We know from the context that the New Jerusalem is a metaphor for the Church of Christ. 

Revelation 21:9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 

The apostles did plant churches on the basis of their apostolic witness. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses this fact to impress on the Corinthians that he is indeed an apostle. This is, however, not proof of his apostleship. The proof is the fact that he saw Christ. 

1 Corinthians 9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

Apostles performed miracles as proof of their apostolic calling.

Matthew 10:1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.

Acts 2:43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 

Acts 5:12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. 

Acts 8:6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 

2 Corinthians 12:12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 

“The signs of a true apostle”: Miracles authenticated the apostle’s claim to apostleship. 

How many apostles were there?

There are three possibilities

  1. There were always only twelve apostles. 
  2. There were twelve apostles plus Paul and maybe Barnabas and James the brother of Jesus 
  3. There have always been may apostles, there are even many today.

There were always only twelve apostles.

This means that there were always only twelve apostolic posts to be filled. 

Revelation 21: 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

According to this view, Paul took over the apostolic post of James the Greater after he was martyred by Herod in Jerusalem, and replaced him just as Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot. It is clear from the book of Galatians that the chronology of the book of Acts regarding Paul’s conversion and subsequent start of his ministry is not very clear. Paul left Damascus but only arrived in Jerusalem three years later after spending some time in Arabia. (On reading Acts one gets the impression that he immediately went to Jerusalem after fleeing Damascus.)  Paul therefore only started his ministry as apostle, according to this view, after James had been martyred. 

Acts 12:1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. 

Paul was the last person Jesus appeared to physically. So it can be reasoned that Paul was the last person to be appointed as an apostle. Remember that Paul regarded his own apostleship as something highly irregular and out of the normal order! If Paul’s apostleship was so irregular, there should not be any more. 

1 Corinthians 15:8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 

There were twelve apostles plus Paul and maybe also Barnabas and James the brother of Jesus 

According to this view, the twelve were a unique group, and Paul was not part of them. This opens the door for other witnesses of the resurrected Christ to be apostles of Christ. Paul says specifically in 1 Corinthians 15 that over 500 people were witnesses to the resurrection. So potentially there could be a quite a few other apostles besides the twelve. 

Barnabas

Some believe Barnabas to have been an apostle on the grounds of this verse:

Acts 14:14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments

However, there is no other mention in the Bible of Barnabas being an apostle. It is possible, though, because Barnabas was one of the first Christians in Jerusalem after the ascension, and he may have been one of the 500 who saw Jesus after his resurrection. Most commentators believe that Barnabas was not an apostle appointed by Christ but was an apostle only in the generic sense of the word, as explained above. 

James, the brother of the Lord. 

Galatians 1:19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother

Many commentators (especially those who believe in the false doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary) identify James the brother of the Lord with James the Lesser, one of the 12 disciples. We know that Jesus’ family did not believe in him till after his crucifiction. It is possible that Jesus appeared to his half-brother after his resurrection and called him as an apostle. 

Timothy

Paul definitely did not regard Timothy as a fellow apostle, but only as a fellow servant of Christ. 

Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Paul identifies Timothy in his letter to the Philippians as his fellow servant in Christ, but in his second letter to the Corinthians he makes a distinction between himself, an apostle of Christ, and Timothy, who is his brother in Christ. 

2 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:

If Paul regarded Timothy as an apostle, he would have identified them both as such, as he identified them both as servants of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.  He makes the same distinction in his letter to the Colossians.

Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Paul planted the church in Thessalonica together with Timothy, Silas and maybe others. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he says this:

1 Thessalonians 2:6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.

Does this mean Paul regarded Timothy as an apostle after all? The answer is simply that Paul was the leader of the team, and as an apostle he and his whole team were entitled to the privileges of apostles, even if the rest of his team were not. If a head of state travels abroad, he and his whole entourage are entitled to be treated according to protocol. It is the same principle. 

Silas / Silvanus

Since the claim that Silas was an apostle is based on the same text of that for Timothy, the same argument applies. 

Titus

Some people believe Titus was an apostle since Paul called him his partner and fellow worker. 

2 Corinthians 8:23 As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.

But there is no mention in the Bible that Titus was an apostle. It is pure speculation. 

Andronicus and Junia

Many translations translate Romans 16:7 as follows (this is the NIV)

Romans 16:7 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.

Footnote: *16:7 Or are esteemed by

The original Greek may be translated in more than one way. Note the footnote to the NIV.  I believe the ESV is the correct translation:

Romans 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

There have always been many apostles; there are many today.

This position has to be rejected on Biblical grounds, simply because 

  1. There are no eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ alive today. 
  2. There is nobody with supernaturally inspired complete knowledge of the gospel today. 
  3. Even though God still does miracles and many people claim to do miracles today, there is nobody with the apostolic gift of miracles today. I would challenge any modern “apostle” to raise somebody from the dead to prove his apostleship.
  4. The Church has already been founded and its foundation has been laid. One cannot lay another foundation on the roof of a building. 
  5. There is absolutely no command in the New Testament whatsoever to appoint, recognize, anoint or commission new apostles. The church is only commanded to appoint elders or overseers and deacons. 
  6. There were no apostles in the early church after the apostolic era. There were only bishops and deacons. 

One could, of course, call all missionaries or other people who are sent out by their congregations “apostles”, according to the generic meaning of the word “apostoloi.” But that would just be calling missionaries or emissaries by another name. It would not make them “apostles of Christ”. 

In this regard it would be very helpful to see what the early church taught on the subject. 

Clement of Rome was the ruling elder in Rome at the end of the first century. He wrote in AD 90:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops [elders] and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.

Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians is, apart from the Didache, the oldest surviving Christian document outside of the New Testament. He knew the apostle Peter personally. He says nothing of the apostles appointing, recognising or anointing other apostles. They appointed elders and deacons. (Note that both the New Testament and Clement use the words “elders” (“presbuteroi”) and “overseers” or “bishops” (“episkopoi”) interchangeably as synonyms.) 

Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John and appointed ruling elder of Antioch by the apostle Peter. He writes in his epistle to the Antiochians: 

Let no one addicted to idleness eat,(41) lest he become a wanderer about, and a whoremonger. Let drunkenness, anger, envy, reviling, clamour, and blasphemy “be not so much as named among you.”(42) Let not the widows live a life of pleasure, lest they wax wanton against the word.(43) Be subject to Caesar in everything in which subjection implies no [spiritual] danger. Provoke not those that rule over you to wrath, that you may give no occasion against yourselves to those that seek for it. But as to the practice of magic, or the impure love of boys, or murder, it is superfluous to write to you, since such vices are forbidden to be committed even by the Gentiles. I do not issue commands on these points as if I were an apostle; but, as your fellow-servant, I put you in mind of them.

Note that Ignatius, who studied under the apostle John and was appointed by Peter, denies that he is an apostle himself. 

These are only two examples. The fact is that the Church has always regarded the apostles of Christ to be a unique, fixed group of people and that the era of the apostles has ended. There were and will be no more apostles. 

So, if there are no apostles today, who is supposed to do all that work?

Apostolic movements today regard apostles as people sent out by congregations to work in “apostolic fields”. Which would typically be a geographical area with some congregations in it.  These apostles take responsibility for a group of churches and shepherd them to maturity. As part of their ministry, they appoint elders, teach, administer church discipline, and are responsible for guarding the faith. 

They mainly model this on the example of Paul and his associates: Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, Titus and others. But we have seen that nobody today qualifies to be an apostle of Christ.

The answer is that all these functions are, according to the Bible handled by the elders (“presbyteroi” = “elder”  or “episcopoi” = “overseer” or “bishop”) That is why there is absolutely no command ever, anywhere, in the Bible to appoint, recognize or annoint more apostles, only elders and deacons. 

Elders are to be the pastors. 

Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 

Peter 5:1So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

Elders are to be teachers 

1 Timothy 2:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. 

Titus 1:9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Elders are in charge of church discipline 

1 Titus 1:9 He (the elder) must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.

Elders are in charge of keeping the doctrine pure

Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert...

Elders rule

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 

Elders form councils that have doctrinal and moral authority over local congregations.

Acts 15: 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

These councils of elders send people to local congregations who act on the authority of the councils: In the text above, Judas and Silas (Silvanus) are sent to the congregations of Antioch, Syria and Cicilia with instructions on doctrine and morality. 

While the apostolic movement would not deny the role of elders in the local congregation, they insist that the supra-congregational or inter-congregational functions of elders are to be performed by “apostles”. 

In the early post-apostolic era multiple local church councils were held that were modelled on the council of Jerusalem in AD 50.  Wikipedia lists some of the councils that we know of:

  • the Council of Rome of 155
  • the Council of Rome of 193
  • the Council of Ephesus of 193
  • the Council of Carthage of 251
  • the Council of Iconium of 258[13]
  • the Council of Antioch of 264
  • the Councils of Arabia of 246–247
  • the Synod of Elvira of 306
  • the Council of Carthage of 311
  • the Synod of Neo-Caesarea of c. 314
  • the Synod of Ancyra of 314
  • the Synod of Arles of 314

These councils consisted of elders (then called bishops) from the local congregations and they had doctrinal and moral authority over the participating churches. 

There were seven ecumenical councils in the ancient world, that involved all of the churches worldwide. The ecumenical councils were Nicea 1 (325 AD) , Constantinople 1 (381 AD), Ephesus (431 AD), Chalcedon (451 AD), Constantinople 2 (553 AD), Constantinople 3 (680 AD) and Nicea 2 (787 AD).

There are two forms of church government that are derived from this model of church councils: The first is the Episcopalian church polity, where bishops are appointed from the top down (starting with the Pope or Archbishop, relying on an unbroken succession of bishops all the way back to the apostles) and the Presbyterian church polity where local churches send locally elected elders to represent them at the church councils.

The modern apostolic movement may have developed to fix the problems of Congregationalism, a type of church governance that originated in the 17 century where each congregation is completely autonomous and is under no supra-congregational authority like church councils. According to Wikipedia: 

Congregationalist polity, or congregational polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of ecclesiastical polity in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or “autonomous”. Its first articulation in writing is the Cambridge Platform of 1648 in New England. Among those major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism are those Congregational churches known by the Congregationalist name that descended from the Independent Reformed wing of the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century, Quakerism, the Baptist churches, and most of the groups brought about by the Anabaptist movement in Germany that migrated to the US in the late 18th century, as well as the Congregational Methodist Church. More recent generations have witnessed also a growing number of non-denominational churches, which are most often congregationalist in their governance.

The modern apostolic movement developed in the charismatic movement, which grew out of the Anabaptist movement of the seventeenth century.  The modern “apostles” provide some coherence between and authority over otherwise autonomous congregations and therefore fulfil an important need in Congregational churches to counter isolation. 

Which brings us to the question of authority in the church. 

The Church has only one head, namely Christ. 

Ephesians 1:22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Christ appointed his apostles and gave them the authority to found and rule the Church. 

We have already seen that the apostles had authority over local churches. This is amply demonstrated by Paul and the other apostles’ interaction with churches in the Bible. 

The apostolic authority today is in the Bible

I have shown before that the important thing in founding the church was not so much the person of the apostles but their witness. We have their complete witness with us in the New Testament today. 

Luke 1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

John 19:35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.

John 20:30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe 20:31 Or may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

1 John 1:3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make our1:4 Some manuscripts your joy complete.

The most important objective criterion for including a text in the New Testament canon was that it had to have been written either by an apostle (like Paul), or under the direct supervision of an apostle (like Luke, who wrote under the direct supervision of Paul).

2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Note the principle of the Sufficiency of Scripture in this text: The Scripture is sufficient to make the believers “complete and equipped for every good work”. Since the New Testament contains the complete apostolic witness and Scripture is sufficient, the apostolic authority today is fully contained in the Bible. 

I highlighted the sentence, but let me repeat it also so that the importance of the principle may sink in: Since the New Testament contains the complete apostolic witness and Scripture is sufficient, the apostolic authority today is fully contained in the Bible. 

The authority of the Bible is absolute

Please read 2 Timothy 3:16 quoted above again and note the following: 

  1. All Scripture is breathed by God: The Greek word used is “graphae” which means written words on paper. The written word is, therefore, the point of inspiration. 
  2. All Scripture is breathed by God: The words on paper are therefore God’s own words! 

The Bible does not only have authority because of the apostolic witness contained in it but because it is the very words of God himself. It is God speaking to us directly. 

If you want to hear God speak, then read the Bible. If you want to hear God speak to you audibly, then read the Bible out loud! 

The Bible has the complete authority of God because it is God speaking!

The authority to interpret the Bible and therefore apply it, lies with every true believer

The Bible cannot reliably be interpreted and believed by somebody who does not have the Spirit of God. But all those and only those who have the Spirit can reliably interpret the Bible and believe it. 

1 Corinthians 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

All true believers have been anointed with the Spirit and can therefore understand and apply the Bible. 

1 Corinthians 12:13 For we were all baptized with one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

This proves the principle of the equality of all believers. There are no super Christians or super-anointed Christians! Jesus taught the equality of all believers explicitly!

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

For you are all brothers! I wish that people who believe that there are super Christians or more-anointed Christians than themselves and allow them to rule their lives would read this passage! 

John teaches exactly the same principle: 

1 John 2:26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

Each true believer has the anointing of the Spirit, therefore nobody has the authority to tell a true believer what to believe. Please read the whole chapter: John also writes to those who are children in the faith – new believers. If somebody is truly saved, he has been baptised with the Spirit and will be taught by the Spirit. 

Does the principle of the equality of all believers negate the need for church governance or teacher? Absolutely not! These passages are not about abolishing governance or teaching, they are about authority. Large portions of the New Testament is devoted to the governance of the church! The point is, that any hierarchical system where some people have authority over others based on their office is unbiblical. What happens if the hierarchy becomes filled with unsaved individuals? Since the hierarchy cannot be disciplined by the “ordinary” believers, such a church will quickly become a false church. This is amply demonstrated by the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why Paul tells Timothy:

1 Timothy 3:15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 

Even if Paul is delayed, the congregation will know what to do for they are the household of God and custodians of the truth! The word Paul uses for “church” here is “ekklesia”. According to the NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, the definition of ekklesia is:

  1. a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly
    1. an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating
    2. the assembly of the Israelites
    3. any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously
    4. in a Christian sense
      1. an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting
      2. a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake
      3. those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body
      4. the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth
      5. the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven

So the gathering of believers, that is the congregation, is the pillar (upholder) and foundation (sustainer) of the truth! This means, that in practical terms, the local Spirit-filled congregation is the final earthly authority in the church!

Elders rule the church

We have already established this fact without any doubt. We also have established the following principles: 

  1. The elders’ authority is derived directly from Christ, as He is the Head of the Church.
  2. Elders are under the absolute authority of Scripture. The moment they deviate from Scripture they have no authority.
  3. Elders rule the congregation as servants of the congregation, not as masters. The final earthly authority in the church is the congregation. That is why Christ says in the text quoted above: The greatest among you will be your servant.
  4. Because they are servants of the congregation, they also represent the congregation. This precludes elders (in the post-apostolic era) to be appointed by outside authorities. For this reason, the Roman/ Episcopal church polity is not Biblical. 
  5. Elders have different spiritual gifts: Some are pastors, some are teachers, others are evangelists or administrators. For this reason, they do not do the same jobs or perform the same functions in the congregation. 
  6. But even if they perform different functions, they have the same office: Elder. All elders are therefore equal. No elder has authority over another. This is the reason for church councils.
  7. Elders rule the congregation alongside all the other members: That is why the whole congregation was present at the council of Jerusalem. 
  8. Since there is only one universal Church of Christ, and we have the example of the council of Jerusalem, elders of different congregations come together to form councils that have moral and doctrinal authority over the congregations. But note: This authority is derived from the congregations themselves, who are the pillars and foundations of truth! 

We have already seen that the major flaw of Congregationalism is that it denies the unity of the Church in practice, and leads to the isolation of congregations. As I said before, I believe this is a possible reason for the modern apostolic movement. It fills a definite void in Congregational church polity – but in a wrong way

The dangers of false apostles. 

Revelation 2:2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.

Not everybody who calls himself an “apostle” today is necessarily a false apostle. It may be that such a person operates legitimately as an elder of the church and calls himself “apostle” by mistake. But anybody who tries to exercise illegitimate authority based on some imagined “anointing” over other people should be called out as a false apostle. 

In my experience, anybody who says “Do not touch the anointed of the Lord” in regards to his own authority is a false apostle or prophet and should be disciplined.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was a scathing rebuke: They were fighting among each other, there was immorality, they abused the gifts of the Spirit to “build themselves up” instead of building up the congregation, and they had a general lack of love. There was a huge backlash to his letter in the congregation from people who called themselves “apostles.” Because of this their relationship with Paul was muddied. Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians in order to restore their relationship. 

2 Corinthians 2:17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

2 Corinthians 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 

2 Corinthians 10:10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”

2 Corinthians 10:12 We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. 15 Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, 16 so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. 17 But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”10:17 Jer. 9:24 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.

2 Corinthians 11:4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

2 Corinthians 11:5 I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”11:5 Or to the most eminent apostles 6I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.

2 Corinthians 11:12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

2 Corinthians 11:21 Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 

From the above quotations from 2 Corinthians we can draw the following profile of false apostles. 

  • Their ministry is for profit. (2:17)
  • They take advantage of the congregations.
  • They are self-appointed (3:1)
  • They ask for letters of recommendation from the congregations because they have no other proof of their qualifications. (3:1)
  • They boast about the work of others. (10:13-15)
  • They present false or inappropriate qualifications. (11:22-23)
  • They claim to have equal authority to the real apostles. (11:12)
  • They malign the true apostles (2:10)
  • They present a false gospel and a false Jesus. (11:4)
  • They are children of Satan and destined for hell (11:14-15) 

Why would somebody want to be a false apostle? 

The answer is simply power, money and recognition. The true apostles had authority over everybody else in the church. If someone could convince a congregation that he had apostolic authority over a congregation it would put him in a position of power over that congregation, and enable him to make money off the congregation. And Paul says they boast, in order to get recognition.

On a side note: From the explanation of Paul’s intent in writing 2 Corinthians, it is clear that one cannot formulate a theology of “apostolic fields of labour” from 2 Corinthians 10. It is not what the text is about. Paul simply states that where the false apostles boast of work that others have done, they (Paul and his associates) do not do that. They only boast in the work that they have done under God’s command. The text is about false apostles, not the establishment of bishoprics. 

Final assessment

  1. Congregationalism is a broken system because it denies the practical unity of Christ’s universal Church.
  2. The modern apostolic movement tries to fix this by appointing officials that walk, talk and act like Roman or Episcopalian bishops but are called “apostles”. The only difference between these “apostles” and Roman or Episcopalian bishops are that bishops are appointed hierarchically according to the “apostolic succession”, while the “apostles” of the apostolic movement are appointed by other leaders – thus “apostles” and “prophets”.  These leaders form in practice a hierarchy much like that of Rome.
  3. The idea that there are apostles of Christ today is utterly unbiblical. 
  4. The modern apostolic movement carries a massive risk for the abuse of power and the introduction of false doctrine
  5. Presbyterian church governance is Biblical and much more resistant to the abuse of power and the introduction of false doctrine than any other form of church governance.