An increasingly popular trend is for some within the church today to call themselves “apostles.” Pentecostals and Charismatics have used the designation for years because they want to be apostolic. Recently, however, some church planters have also used the title. They use the label because they see themselves as “those sent out” on mission. However, their use of the title for themselves is confusing and inapplicable because all Christians are “sent out” on mission.
No apostles are extant today in the way the term is overwhelmingly used in Scripture, viz., as “apostles of Jesus Christ.” I make this point for two reasons. First, after a while, it becomes historically impossible to be an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” Second, the “apostles of Jesus Christ” carried a unique and normative authority. The apostles were called and commissioned as Christ’s plenipotentiary representatives, who preached the Gospel in ways fundamental to its spread, prescribed normative teaching, and issued commands on God’s behalf. Their authority in the church seems indisputable.
To Be an Apostle of Jesus Christ Today is Impossible
After a while, it became historically impossible to meet the criteria to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. When the apostles sought to fill the vacancy created when Judas, one of the 12 apostles, died (Acts 1:12–26), the criteria Peter put forth for the replacement were (1) he had to have accompanied the Lord Jesus during the entirety of His earthly ministry (cf. Acts 1:2; 10:39–42), and (2) he had to be a witness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21–22). They prayed to God and selected Matthias, who was added to the 11 (Acts 1:23–26).
No other biblical evidence shows that any other apostles were replaced when they died. For example, when James the brother of John was killed (Acts 12:1–2), his vacancy was never filled. Apostles did foundational work in the church, and foundations are laid once, not repeatedly.
The Apostle Paul was a special case. He did not meet the first criterion but was converted and commissioned by the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1–19). In Galatians, he emphasized his parity with the Apostle Peter (Galatians 2:7–8), and James, Cephas and John recognized that Paul had apostolic status (Galatians 2:9).
The Apostles’ Authority in Patristic Writings
That the apostles of Jesus Christ carried a unique and normative authority is evident in patristic writings. For example, in the second century, an early church Father named Serapion, bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 190), made a statement that is fairly representative of the early church’s attitude toward apostles in general: “We receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ.” That is, the “apostles of Jesus Christ” were received by the second-century church as though they were Christ Himself. The church saw the apostles as Christ’s plenipotentiary ministers who possessed authority over the churches, and who were personally commissioned and sent by Jesus to make God’s will known. Other texts that show the unique and normative authority of the apostles of Jesus Christ can be found in the earlier Apostolic Fathers: for example, 1 Clement 44:1–2; 2 Clement 14.2; Ignatius’ Romans 4:3 (cf. also Trallians 2:2; 7:1; Magnesians 13:1; Smyrnaens 8:1); and Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 6.3.
The Apostles’ Authority in the New Testament
The unique and normative authority of the “apostles of Jesus Christ” is also found in the New Testament. Their authority is seen in Jesus’ statements to them like, “The one who receives you receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives the One who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Moreover, apostolic authority is manifest in certain Pauline texts that clearly indicate that his unique status and high authority were connected with his divine commission and having seen the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 9:1–3, Paul excluded the apostles from the judgments of pneumatics who examined the revelations of others, and he placed the apostles’ gift above that of the prophets. In 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, he claimed that his words were equated with the Lord’s command.
In 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul described his authority in terms approximate to that of the Old Testament prophets. When false teachers in the Corinthian church tried to attain for themselves the apostolic status that Paul believed was reserved only for a certain few, he rebuked them, calling them “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13; cf. 12:11–12).
In Galatians 1:1 and 1:11–2:10, Paul contended that he was called and commissioned directly by Christ. He described his call with prophetic language, which indicates that he had authority on par with the Old Testament prophets. Paul stressed his parity with the Apostle Peter, who clearly was seen by the letter’s recipients as authoritative. James, Cephas and John also recognized Paul’s apostolic status.
Paul wrote to Philemon to ask him to forgive and receive back the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ. In verses 8–9, Paul’s ability to command Philemon to take the proper action strongly indicates that his apostolic status enabled him to enforce such obedience, but instead he appealed to him out of love.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul might have had in mind a forgery written in his name. The reference to a “letter as from us” shows that works falsely written under an apostle’s name were frowned upon, but also the authority that an apostle’s name carried.
Next to Jesus Himself, the apostles were the primary authority in the early church because they were Christ’s authoritative representatives through whom He laid the foundations of the early church. They were conduits of divine revelation who spread God’s Gospel. Their authority approximates that of the Old Testament prophets.
No one today meets the qualifications to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. No one now carries the authority they possessed. The title “apostle of Jesus Christ” was reserved for Christ’s authoritative representatives, who got the church “off the ground,” so to speak. That authority today is found in God’s Word, i.e., in the writings of the apostles and the prophets, the Lord’s authoritative spokesmen.
This designation primarily describes Christ’s 12 apostles and the Apostle Paul. On the distinction between “apostles of Jesus Christ” and “apostles (= messengers) of the churches” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:23; Phil 2:25), see E. Earle Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society, Repr. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 66, 89–91.
E.g., Matthew 10:40 (cf. John 13:20); John 20:21; Galatians 4:14.
They recognized “the grace” that God had given to Paul. This is surely a reference to Paul’s apostleship.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12 (emphasis mine). Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.
E. Earle Ellis, “Pseudonymity and Canoncity of New Testament Documents,” in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Ralph P. Martin (ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 219.
For example, Paul equates his words with a command of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:37–38) and uses Old Testament prophetic language and imagery to describe his apostolic authority and calling (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10 with Jeremiah 1:9–10; and Galatians 1:15–16 with Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1, 5, 6).