Charting a Course for the Church
Part III: Striving to be Apostolic

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Jesus Himself sent the apostles of the first century A.D. to be the foundation of His church. This might seem to be an important historical fact that, nevertheless, has no importance for Christians today. However, the opposite is true. The foundation of a building, by its shape and the weight-load it is designed to carry, determines the building that may be built upon it. In the same manner, the apostolic foundation of the Christian church determines the nature of the church in all times afterwards, including today. Therefore, even though the twelve apostles Jesus chose to found His church upon are gone, and there are no other apostles they can approve or church fathers who knew them personally, the church has a responsibility to continue to be "apostolic."

Surely the most basic part of being "apostolic" is guarding the unique place of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Paul warned the Corinthians of false apostles - who claim to be on the same level with the true apostles in order to deceive Christians into receiving false teachings - who, while they claim to be apostles of Christ, are in reality servants of Satan (II Corinthians 11:12-15). In His letter to the church in Ephesus Jesus says approvingly, "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false . . ." (Revelation 2:2).

Clearly, to fail to give the proper place in our faith to those appointed apostles in the first century by the risen Christ is to invite others to step in and take us in a different direction. Historically, Protestants have objected to the Roman Catholic teaching of "apostolic succession" for this reason. Protestants have therefore refused any concept of "apostolic succession" that states or implies that the authority of the first century apostles, especially "the twelve," has been passed down to individuals in successive generations. It is not necessary to believe in this kind of apostolic succession to believe that the church in every generation is responsible to continue the work the apostles began.

Further, it is important to protect the revelation given through the apostles appointed by the risen Christ from those who would claim equal authority for "new revelation." Many teachers of false doctrine would like to convince their listeners that "new revelation from God" justifies belief in teachings not contained in the traditional Scriptures - and thus lead the unwary astray.

Especially since the time of the Protestant reformation, there have been those (such as the Anabaptists) who ignored the role of the apostles, believing that the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit was all that was required to understand God's Word. In doing so they effectively divorced themselves from the Body of Christ established by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and introduced chaos and division where there should have been uniformity, discipline, and unity - unity with Christians of the past as well as with those in the present.

In our own time the promotion of the "restoration of the five-fold ministry" of Ephesians 4:11 often includes the concept that apostles will be established as they were in the first century. Many who promote this concept, and some who do not, can be characterized as "latter-day apostles," and some can be described as "Gnostic apostles." The "latter-day apostles" claim to have been uniquely raised up by God to prepare the world for the return of Christ. They claim that the church has been corrupt for many hundreds of years, but that in this crucial time God is again raising up apostles to prepare for Jesus' return. This is often, but not always, intertwined with "latter-rain," "Manifest Sons of God" theology in which Jesus is thought (contrary to the teachings of Scripture) to return spiritually to inhabit the church after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and before Jesus returns bodily. In this case, contemporary apostles are seen as part of the work of the Christian community in preparing the world for the bodily return of Christ. Therefore, this kind of teaching is not only an attack upon the uniqueness of the apostles of Christ upon whom Christianity is founded, it denies the importance and sufficiency of Pentecost as well. It is, therefore, an attack upon the entire foundation of the Christian church. The "Gnostic apostles" claim that a special knowledge of true Christianity is being made known to some kind of spiritual "elite" or "in-group" in our time. Often they claim that teachings that were known in the first century have been forgotten, and today's apostles (usually "latter-day") are restoring these offices to prepare the church for an unprecedented time of effective ministry.

Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome:

"I encourage you, therefore, brethren, to watch carefully for those who create dissensions and obstacles that would take you away from the instruction that you received, and to separate yourselves from such people. For they do not serve Christ our Lord but their own carnal appetites, deceiving the unsuspecting with disarming talk and flattery." Romans 16:17-18 (Translated by the author.)

It is important to note that those who began the Christian church in Rome in the first century A.D. were almost certainly not "apostles of Jesus Christ." Neither Paul, nor anyone from "the twelve," nor any other individual who could truly be considered an "apostle of Christ" (in the formal sense) took part in the initial Christian ministry in Rome. Those who began the church may have been "apostles of churches," commissioned "apostles" by Christian congregations to carry out evangelistic and missionary work on behalf of that church. But that is different from the foundational work of "the twelve" and the other "apostles of Jesus Christ" (such as the apostle Paul - see part II of this series: "Understanding the Apostolic Foundation.").

The apostle Paul's strong approval of the ministry in Rome, in distinction from the ministry of those who might lead the Roman Christians astray, indicates to us that a church does not have to have apostles to be "apostolic." "Apostolicity" consists of conformity with the unique foundational work of the apostles of Christ. In understanding how this is important to Christians today, it is helpful to consider separately the apostolic testimony, the apostolic teaching, the apostolic example, and the apostolic charge.

The Apostolic Testimony The apostle Paul speaks of some five-hundred people who were witnesses to the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15:1ff.). However, of that number only "the twelve" were "apostles of Christ" charged with personal witness to Jesus' life and ministry. It is because of the twelve that Christianity is not a "leap of faith" but a reasoned and justifiable acceptance of the eyewitness testimony of those who knew Jesus. If this witness is wrong, then, as Paul states clearly in I Corinthians 15, the Christian faith falls apart. Other eyewitnesses confirmed what the twelve said and taught. And approval by "the twelve" of the ministries of other apostles and Christian leaders, such as Paul, is the basis for our acceptance of their ministries. No one who follows the twelve - even in our time -- can lay claim to their unique role in this regard.

The Apostolic Teaching As those who uniquely knew Christ, the apostles were the ones most qualified to transmit His teachings. In this they were aided by the Holy Spirit in a manner that those who follow cannot and should not claim. All those who claim "the guidance of the Holy Spirit" should carefully consider that the Holy Spirit worked through these individuals to create the teachings that define the Christian faith. This is not to diminish in any way the present and essential work of the Holy Spirit in enabling Christians to understand apostolic teachings. But we also must realize that the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament are the product of the ministry of the apostles (having been authored either by them or by those whose ministries were approved by them) and, as such, have unique authority (I Thessalonians 2:13).

The Apostolic Example The teaching ministry of the apostles was supplemented by their example (Philippians 3:17). This is why it was so important for Paul to challenge Peter's behavior regarding the Gentiles as recorded in Paul's letter to the Galatians. The writings of the New Testament flowed from the ministry of the apostles. As such we are given much information about their lives and the churches in which they ministered. Teaching by example is helpful in applying truth, but it is also less precise than direct teaching. Therefore, the apostolic example must be understood within the context of their teachings. Also, we must imitate them without believing that we can somehow take on their unique role as apostles of Christ.

The Apostolic Charge The church is not only to be apostolic in the sense that it is consistent with apostolic teaching, but also in the sense in which it inherits Christian ministry. In this sense, to be "apostolic" is to be deeply aware of a sense of mission, that the church has been sent into the world to proclaim the Gospel and establish the church among all peoples. However, it is a grave error to have a sense of mission, but ignore apostolic testimony, teaching, and example.

If we ignore the apostolic testimony, there is no firm, historical or logical basis for the Christian faith (I Corinthians 15:1ff.). If we ignore the apostolic teaching, Christianity is subject to everyone's individual interpretation of the ministry of Jesus Christ; bringing chaos to the church, and preventing growth in unity, maturity, and true holiness (Ephesians 4:14-15) - especially in a world where a very real presence of evil seeks to lead us away from God (Ephesians 6:11-12). If we ignore the apostolic example, we make Christianity an intellectual exercise that has no relation to the real world (James 1:22-25). If we ignore the apostolic charge, we forget that the church the apostles established in the Name of Jesus Christ is charged with carrying out the same mission they began, which is to make grace available to all people (II Timothy 1:7-11).

To be truly apostolic is to recognize that the church established at Pentecost on the foundation of Christ and His apostles is the agent by which God offers redemption to all through His Christ.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 6, June 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.