In his latest book, An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostal-Charismatic leader/historian, Dr. Vinson Synan, tells of his involvement in the 1990s with certain pastors and Christian leaders who were talking about restoring the office of the apostle and apostolic church order. It was during this time that he received an invitation to join the newly formed Int’l Coalition of Apostles, founded by C. Peter Wagner. New apostles could join this association and maintain their membership by paying a monthly fee of $69.00 per month. Having deep concerns about the direction of the movement, Synan wrote a letter declining the invitation and wryly added, “Besides, at $69.00 per month I cannot afford to be an apostle.”
In this book, Synan also expresses concern for what he calls "outlandish" claims that have been made, such as the one that apostolic government is now in the Church for the first time in 1800 years. Not wanting to condemn the movement outright because he considers many of the leaders to be good and sincere people, he, nonetheless, was so concerned that he convinced his own denomination, the Int'l Pentecostal Holiness Church, not to adopt the contemporary model of apostolic church order.
I agree with Synan that there are good and sincere people in the contemporary apostolic movement. That, however, is not the issue for there are good and sincere people to be found in all denominations and religious persuasions. Our concern must be for truth and we are commanded in Scripture to test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world (I Jn. 4:1). We must be at least as diligent, in this regard, as the believers in Ephesus who were commended by Jesus because, You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.
My concern is that the teachings that are central to this movement cannot be collaborated with Scripture. Delineated below are 5 reasons that I have not aligned myself with the contemporary apostolic movement. The 5 reasons are 5 misconceptions about apostles and apostolic ministry that are promoted in the movement today. In the final paragraph I offer my view of what it means to be “apostolic.”
God is Restoring Apostolic Government to the Church
No such order or government is either delineated or prescribed in the New Testament. The New Testament writers, in fact, show very little concern for church offices and organizational structure. This is why New Testament specialist, Dr. Gordon Fee, says that the New Testament is full of surprises, “but none is so surprising as its generally relaxed attitude toward church structures and leadership.” He and others point out that, excepting Phil. 1:1, Paul never addresses himself to a leader or group of leaders in any of his letters to the churches (Fee, 120). Even in Corinth where there are so many problems, Paul appeals to the entire congregation rather than to a specific leader.
John Wesley, who as an Anglican minister initially held to the episcopal form of church government, found his views refined in the fires of the 18th century Methodist revival, which he spearheaded. Through his diligent study of the New Testament and after observing the Holy Spirit raise up powerful ministries from the ranks of the common people outside the Anglican Church hierarchy, he declared that ”neither Christ nor his apostles prescribed any form of church government” (Wesleyan Theological Journal, 116). In his classic work, The Primitive Church, Professor Burnett Streeter asserts,
Whatever else is disputable, there is, I submit, one result from which there is no escape. In the Primitive Church there was no single system of church order laid down by the Apostles. During the first hundred years of Christianity, the Church was an organism alive and growing–changing its organization to meet changing needs. Uniformity was a later development (Streeter, 267-68).
Streeter is correct as is borne out by the fact that the New Testament itself bears witness to a variety of church forms and order. The order of the church in Jerusalem is different from the order of the church in Antioch. The order of the church in Corinth is different from either Jerusalem or Antioch, and the order of the churches of the Pastoral Epistles are different still. Commenting on the diverse forms of order and ministry in the New Testament, Michael Harper says it only makes sense, “If you view them as the ad hoc promptings of the Holy Spirit amidst the most taxing circumstances.” David Scholer, late professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote,
The patterns of authority in the early church are varied and fluid. There are no fixed patterns, terms or offices. No single church structure and/or pattern of authority or office is validated by the New Testament. The patterns of authority in the early church are determined and described primarily by the functions they served within the church (Scholer, 28).
Why does the New Testament reflect such diversity in outward form and order? The answer seems clear. The New Testament writers are obviously more concerned with the inward life of the Church than with the outward form through which that life is expressed. After all, Jesus came to bring us life, not a particular ecclesiastical system (John 10:10). We might also recall the words of the angel to the New Testament apostles when, in Acts 5:20, he freed them from jail and instructed them to, Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.
If life rather than order was the emphasis of the New Testament Church, should it not be the emphasis of the Church today? Should not the churches today, therefore, be seeking a revival of New Testament life rather than an elusive apostolic order that cannot be found in Scripture? And if, in the first century, this life of the Spirit was expressed through a variety of outward forms, should we not expect it to be expressed through a variety of forms today?
The insistence on a particular church order may, in fact, be the major hindrance to the life of God being expressed through genuine revival in the Church today. Professor James L. Ash, Jr. says that virtually all historians of early Christianity agree that the institutionalization of early Christianity (the implementation of a rigid order) was accompanied by the loss of Spiritual gifts and power.
Both the New Testament and church history indicate that the key for the church in the 21st century will not be found in an outward order or form, but in an inner attitude of faith in Christ and an openness to the wind of the Spirit that blows, not where He must, but where He wills. Commenting on the fact that early Christianity was not tied to a particular outward form for its expression, Professor Streeter says:
It is permissible to hint that the first Christians achieved what they did because the spirit with which they were inspired was one favorable to experiment. In this–and perhaps in some other respects–it may be that the line of advance for the Church of today is not to imitate the forms, but to recapture the Spirit of the Primitive Church (Streeter, 267-68).
Apostles are to Govern the Church.
The modern conception of an apostle is usually that he is a big church boss, but that was not the conception Jesus left. An apostle was not to be a big boss; he was to be like his Lord--a servant of all.
Interestingly, the word “office,” with its inherent connotations of permanence and authority, is never used in the Greek New Testament. Although 1 Tim. 3:1 has the English word "office," it is not in the Greek and has been added by the translators. In the New Testament, the apostle’s authority was not derived from an “office,” but was directly related to his/her commission. For example, in his letters to the churches he founded, Paul speaks with authority, albeit an authority that appeals rather than commands. But when he visits the church in Jerusalem and when he writes to churches he has not founded or visited, such as his letter to the church at Rome, there are no such expressions of authority. This shows that Paul’s authority was relational and functional rather than official, and related to his commission. He even admitted, in 1 Cor. 9:2, that there were those to whom he was not an apostle. If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you.
In his book mentioned above, Vinson Synan tells how, from the beginning, his greatest concern was the authority that the modern apostles claim for themselves. He writes,
From the outset, I was concerned about any movement that claims to restore apostolic offices that exercise ultimate and unchecked authority in churches. The potential for abuse is enormous. Throughout church history, attempts to restore apostle as an office in the church have often ended up in heresy and caused incredible pain (Synan, 184).
Synan is absolutely right. The emphasis in the New Testament is not about authority–even for apostles–but service. This is why the Catholic reformer and expert in New Testament Greek, Hans Kung, says,
In the New Testament, not only is the word “hierarchy” consistently and deliberately avoided, but so too are all secular words for ‘office’ in connection with church functions, as they express a relationship of power. Instead of this, an all-encompassing term, diakonia, service (really ‘serving at table’), is used, which can nowhere evoke associations with any authority, control or position of dignity and power. (Kung, 321-22).
The idea that an apostle has some sort of inherent, boundless authority does not come from the New Testament. Henry Nouwen got it right when, in his little book, In the Name of Jesus, he wrote, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.” Those who are preoccupied with governing, rather than serving, are not apostles of Christ.
“Apostle” is a Title to be Worn in Front of One’s Name
At no place in the New Testament is “apostle” placed in front of someone’s name as a title. Although Paul, at times, identified himself as an apostle in the introductory part of his letters, in normal conversation he was never known as “Apostle Paul.” Paul refers to himself numerous times in his letters and always by his name, “Paul.” When he refers to other apostles, such as Peter, James or John, he does so by merely mentioning their name, and never with any title in front. Paul’s favorite word for describing himself and his ministry is diakonos, a word that referred to a servant and had no associations of authority, dignity, or honor.
In Acts, Luke mentions Paul by name more than 120 times and not once does he say “Apostle Paul,” but merely “Paul.” In 2 Peter 3:14, Peter refers to our beloved brother Paul. In Rev. 1:9, John the apostle, in his letter to the churches, refers to himself as your brother and companion in tribulation.
This obvious avoidance of titles is understandable in light of the words of Jesus in Matt. 23:6-12 where He warned his disciples about adopting titles that would set themselves apart from other believers.
But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called “teacher,” for you have one Teacher, the Christ.
A title may be appropriate if it serves some practical purpose such as helping those in an organization understand a leader’s role and responsibility within that organization; but the handing out and the adopting of honorific titles that serve no purpose except to give status and prestige flies in the face of the spirit of the New Testament and the words of Jesus Himself.
A Second Apostolic Age Began in 2001
This claim is made on a prominent apostolic website. The Bible, however, says nothing about a Second Apostolic Age or, for that matter, a First Apostolic Age. As I point out in the “Conclusion” below, the word “apostolic” is not even found in the Bible. Although the New Testament speaks of the “age to come,” this new era is inaugurated by the coming of Christ, not by an elite company of apostles.
This sort of grandiose pronouncement is disturbingly similar to claims of past individuals and movements and is indicative of an unhealthy elitism. Throughout church history, there have been individuals who declared the dawning of new eras and dispensations, but none proved to be true. I am reminded, in particular, of a 16th century apostolic movement in Europe that had many similarities with the modern movement, including the claim that it represented the dawning of a new age.
During the Reformation, particularly the period of 1517-1537, individuals began to arise proclaiming themselves to be special end-time apostles and prophets endowed by God with miraculous power to usher in His kingdom upon the earth. Dissatisfied with the supposed limited reforms of major reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, they launched forth with misguided zeal to bring about the restoration of their vision of New Testament Apostolic Christianity.
One of the most prominent of these “apostles” was Melchoir Hoffman, a powerful preacher and teacher who gained a large following. His status was further enhanced when a prophetess announced a vision she had seen in which many swan were swimming in a lake, with one large, beautiful white swan that stood out from all the rest. She said it was revealed to her that the large, beautiful swan represented Hoffman and that he was the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5 where God said, Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
Emboldened by such prophecies, Hoffman began ordaining others to the apostolic office, including Obe Philips, and commissioned them to ordain others as well to the apostolic office. Later, after this movement disintegrated with much agony, suffering, and death, Philips wrote a very moving account in which he clearly delineated how pride and arrogance opened himself and others to be deceived by the sensational prophecies that came forth predicting great success and world-wide dominion for them and their movement.
In the meantime, Hoffman moved to the city of Strassburg based on prophecies that said he would be imprisoned for preaching in that city. The prophecies also said that after six months he would be released and would depart Srassburg with 144,000 true apostles endowed with such miraculous power that no one would be able to resist them, and that their ministry would spread over the whole earth and usher in a new age of the kingdom.
The first part of the prophecy was fulfilled when Hoffman was arrested and imprisoned for preaching in Strassburg. However, the second part of the prophecies never came to pass and he died in prison a very disillusioned man. In his account of these events, Philips said, “Everything that he so boldly professed from the prophets and prophetesses, he, in the end, found it all falsehood and deception” (Philips, 221).
In spite of Hoffman’s experience, another group of apostles set off another tangent--seeking to set up the New Jerusalem in the city of Munster (Germany). Spurred on by dreams, visions, and prophecies, these apostles led a group of armed men and took the Catholic city of Munster by force. They renamed it the New Jerusalem and declared that from here the kingdom of God would spread over the whole earth.
Their time in the New Jerusalem, however, was short lived for the Catholics quickly regrouped, overpowered the apostles and their followers, and regained control of the city. They wasted no time executing the apostles (of which two claimed to be Enoch and Elijah) and slaughtering the people who had followed them. Philips tells of walking in the midst of these friends and acquaintances, whose bodies lay scattered and dismembered on the hillside. He wrote, “See, dear friends, how we have here the beginning and end of both Elijah and Enoch with their commissions, visions, prophecies, dreams, and revelations.”
In his very moving account of this 16th century apostolic movement, Philips bares his heart and tells how he and others were so distressed and disillusioned at the annihilation of their utopian dreams, and at the suffering and deaths of their companions. He obviously took personal responsibility for the disaster, and wrote,
And when I still think of the resigned suffering which occurred among the brethren my soul is troubled and terrified before it. At the time I took leave of these brethren I had warned Menno and Dietrich and declared my [apostolic] commission unlawful and that I was therein deceived. I wanted to free my soul in confession of this before God, acknowledging my guilt and deception. I thank the blessed, gracious, and merciful God with all His mercy, who opened my eyes, humbled my soul, transformed my heart, captured my spirit and my downcast mind and soul, and who gave me to know my sins. I shall be silent about all the false commissions, prophecies, visions, dreams, revelations, and unspeakable spiritual pride which immediately from the first hour stole in among the brethren (Philips, 224).
It has been said that “one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history,” because we keep repeating the same mistakes. This 16th century prophetic movement highlights the need to "test the spirits" and to judge prophetic utterances according to the Scriptures. For the most part, these were sincere, seeking people who suffered much pain, grief and even death because they neglected this Biblical admonition. It also highlights the need to nurture the attitude of a diakonos (servant) and to avoid the temptation to think too highly of ourselves when God chooses to bless us and use us. May we learn from their example and not repeat their mistakes.
Apostles (along with prophets) are the Foundation of the Church
This may be the most serious misconception and is based on a faulty reading of Eph. 2:20 where Paul tells the Ephesian believers that they are being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets . . .. In the Greek, “apostles and prophets” is in the genitive case, the case which shows possession. It is like saying “the car of John Doe.” Although the car and John Doe are related, it does not follow that the car is John Doe or that John Doe is the car.
In the same way, it does not follow that the foundation is identical with the apostles and prophets or that the apostles and prophets are identical with the foundation. Paul is actually referring to the foundation which is laid by the apostles and prophets as is borne out in his 1st letter to the Corinthian Church; a church that he, as an apostle, had founded. In my article, “The Church’s One Foundation,” I show why Paul, in this passage, is most likely referring to the Old and New Testaments and their testimony of Jesus Christ (http://www.eddiehyatt.com/article12.html).
In 1 Cor. 3:10-11, Paul refers to his founding of the church at Corinth and says, I have laid the foundation and another builds on it. What foundation did Paul lay for the church in Corinth? It was certainly not himself, for he says in vs. 11, For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ. The foundation of Paul the apostle in Corinth was Jesus Christ.
This coincides with Jesus’ response to Peter’s revelation of Him as the Christ, the Son of the Living God in Matt. 16:13-18. The Greek word for Peter is petros and, with a play on words, Matthew has Jesus saying to Peter, You are petros (a small rock or pebble), and on this petra (a large massive stone) I will build my Church. The foundation on which Jesus said he would build His Church was not a little rock like Peter, but the massive foundation stone which is the revelation of who He is, i.e., Himself.
There is an old hymn entitled “The Church’s One Foundation” The first stanza begins, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord . . ..” Those who would claim a foundation for the Church other than Jesus Christ are in serious error.
Finding the True Meaning of “Apostolic”
The word “apostolic,” meaning “of” or “like” the apostles, is not found in the Bible. No one in the New Testament described their ministry as “apostolic.” None of the apostles set themselves up as examples and encouraged the people to be like them. In fact, it was the very opposite. When Peter and John ministered healing to the cripple man in Acts 3 and a crowd gathered looking upon Peter and John in amazement and awe, Peter answered, Why look so intently at us as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? He then proceeded to point the people’s attention away from themselves to Christ. This is typical of the New Testament, which is Christ-centered from beginning to end.
The disciples of the Lord were first called Christians by unbelievers in Antioch (Acts 11:26) because their lives and their message were so centered on Christ. “Christian,” meaning “of” or “like” Christ seemed an appropriate designation for those earliest followers of Jesus. Yes, Paul in I Corinthians 11:1, said Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ; but we must remember that Paul did not have New Testaments, books, or DVDs to leave with people in the places where he preached. He could only leave them a memory of how he had conducted himself in their midst. The example he left for them was that he was a follower, or imitator, of Christ. To the Colossians, who had lost their focus on Christ and were being led astray by the pursuit of esoteric experiences and knowledge, Paul calls them back to a focus on Christ, reminding them that they are complete in Christ and that in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3, 9-10). This centrality of Christ was also highlighted in the vision John saw of Jesus standing in the midst of seven golden lampstands, which represented the churches, declaring, I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of death and hell. (Revelation 1:17-18).
I am convinced that what the Church needs in the 21st century is not an “Apostolic Reformation” but a “Jesus Revolution.” We must cease drawing attention to ourselves and return to the Christocentric mission and message of the New Testament Church. This is what C. S. Lewis was referring to when he said,
The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, to make them little christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time” (Lewis, 167).
As we commit ourselves anew to the mission and message of the New Testament that is centered in Jesus Christ, we will find His Holy Spirit empowering us in ways we never dreamed; for the Holy Spirit is here to lift up Jesus (John 16:13). We will find that church is not defined by a particular structure or order, but by the words of Jesus Himself who, in Matthew 18:20, said, For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them. This gathering might be in a cathedral, but it might be in a home, a coffee shop, or an open field. What determines its validity as a church is not the kind of order they practice or the kind of building in which they meet, but the fact that they have been led together by the Holy Spirit to worship and honor the name of Christ. As the Church in the 21st century lives out this reality, only then will she be like those apostles of old and only then will she truly be “apostolic.”
Fee, Gordon D. Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.
Harper, Michael. Let My People Grow: Ministry and Leadership in the Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977.
Kung, Hans. Christianity: Essence, History, and Future. New York: Continuum, 1996.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Glasgow, England: Fount Paperbacks, 1977.
Philips, Obe. “A Confession,” Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, George H. Williams, Ed. (London: SCM Press, 1957), 206-225.
Scholer, David. “Patterns of Authority in the Early Church.” Vol. 1. Servant Leadership: Authority and Governance in the Evangelical Covenant Church. n.p.: Covenant Publ., 1993.
Streeter, B. H. The Primitive Church. New York: MacMillan, 1929.
Synan, Vinson. An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids, Chosen, 2010.
Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring-Fall, 1988.