[by David Wells] In the first section of this teaching on the ministry of the Apostle, I taught on the need for church structure to return to the pattern described in the New Testament, including the restoration and full functioning of the apostolic ministry.
I examined the purposes, foundational nature and vital necessity of apostolic ministry in church life, as well as the different realms of apostleship and the qualifications of apostles.
In this section, we will explore the role and function of apostles more fully, as well as address questions concerning the nature of apostolic authority, with an understanding of the interdependent cooperation between apostles and churches.
Function of an Apostle
An apostle is one who takes the gospel to unreached areas:
“And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation”. (Romans 15:20)
A true apostle is a traveler not a settler. In Scripture, we see that apostles traveled and planted churches. A sense of timing is important, and we need to remember that planting is a seasonal thing.
1. Apostles oversee and strengthen churches
In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 Paul says:
“According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it.
But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
There has to be a careful nourishing and sustaining of that which was planted. Paul stayed at Antioch for one year, at Corinth for eighteen months, and at Ephesus for three years. Paul again refers to this in 2 Corinthians 11:28. “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.”
An apostle ought to relate to the elders and the congregation as well as to the senior pastor. Having personal relationships with the leaders and the body creates an atmosphere of love and trust that is necessary for problem solving later on. The stronger the relationship, the easier it is for truth to be spoken and received. It does take time to forge these relationships but in the long run it pays big dividends. The apostle’s relationship to the pastor ought to be the strongest of all. In a real sense, the apostle ought to be the pastor’s pastor.
An apostolic relationship should not be a matter of secrecy but rather be known in the church and the community. It may seem strange at first to say your church relates to an apostle but why not call it what it is before God? Acts 15:36 says:
“And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”
An apostle meets with the pastor and elders for mutual sharing, praying, problem solving and strategizing.
Instructing, exhorting and encouraging the local leaders will always be a major thrust of an apostolic visit. As the leadership goes, so goes the church.
Normally an apostle ought to visit at least once a year. Working with a brand new congregation or with one that has gone through a major split or trauma may require several visits during the first couple of years. The length of any particular visit would be determined by the need in the church, the sovereign timing of the Holy Spirit, and the schedule of the apostle.
Sometimes there are delays in visiting a congregation (Romans 1:11-13; 1 Corinthians 16:5-9).
2. Apostles train up leaders and establish elders
In Scripture, the apostles were responsible to raise up and set the original elders in place. There are several examples in Scripture of the apostles doing this (Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5). This involved ordaining people as elders and deacons. When elders were ordained the apostle’s direct authority diminished in that church.
3. Apostles supervise and coordinate ministries
They fill the role of ministry manager, administrating ministry teams going out and coordinating ministry to various places. If the apostles could not personally visit the churches, they sent representatives. In other words, more than one apostle can relate to a local church at the same time.
Nowhere did Paul exercise any exclusive claim over even the churches he personally founded. Usually, however, there is a primary apostle and other “uncle” apostles. In 1 Corinthians 4:17, we see that Paul sent Timothy:
“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.”
As well, Paul sent Titus to Crete to put things in order (Titus 1:5).
4. Apostles need certain areas of spiritual gifting to handle these responsibilities
A grace for structure and administration is required to handle the needs of a growing assembly and apostolic network. Pastoral ability helps lead and protect sheep. The gift of teaching is vital for teaching proper doctrine and truth. Skills related to oversight, delegation, and proper accountability are needed as well.
5. Apostles are problem solvers
An apostle is responsible for solving problems and dealing with false doctrines and sins in churches for which he has apostolic oversight.
Apostles spend a lot of their time as problem solvers. A classic example of this is Paul using his apostolic authority to deal with all the many problems at Corinth, the churches at Galatia, etc. This may involve a doctrinal matter, a relational difficulty between the leaders and the people, a moral failure in the leadership, problems over facilities, expansion, etc. A godly mediator, who has the trust of all parties involved and who is immediately available, can spell the difference between the church dying or surviving!
6. Apostles impart vision
Another area of function for an apostle involves imparting vision. As wise master builders, apostles should be able to impart and clarify vision for a local church. They should be able to confirm what has been done so far, what the next steps are and what is yet to come.
7. Apostles promote unity in the Body of Christ
Paul taught extensively on unity and dealt with unity problems in the various churches.
I believe that the rising apostolic wave will be crucial to bringing unity to the body of Christ. Apostles, along with other ministry gifts, were given by Christ to edify the church and bring it to the “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
George Hatwin said:
“There shall never be any unity of the faith until the ministry of the true apostle is recognized and obeyed as strictly in the last days as it was obeyed in the days of the apostle Paul.” He went on to say, “Any attempts to pray, organize, reconcile, or repent will be inadequate to produce church unity unless the apostles emerge, for apostolic ministry is the very essence of unity.”
8. Apostles function as spiritual fathers
Fathering is essential to success at every level of society. Fatherlessness is the most destructive trend of our generation. Fathers bring strength and stability. Spiritual fatherlessness is a weakness to the body of Christ today. Young men and women are looking desperately for spiritual fathers and mentors.
Apostles are the spiritual fathers in the body of Christ. Some pastors can fill this role also, but this is a function of the apostle. Spiritual fathers care for their family in the same way natural fathers do. Paul writes:
6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own [g]lives, because you had become very dear to us.
9 For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; 11 just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, 12 so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 6-12 NASV)
Fathering involves love, training, discipline, provision, reproduction, blessing, and impartation.
The apostle has the pastoral care for all the churches he oversees. He carries his pastors and churches upon his heart (2 Corinthians 11:28; Philippians 1:8). When the apostle is absent from the churches he still needs to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the churches. This is now easier with increased means of communication. He needs to stay in contact with the pastor and the congregation.
The apostle needs to regularly pray for the pastor, elders and congregation and do spiritual warfare on their behalf according to specific problems and needs. He needs to call each pastor periodically to offer council, encouragement and prayer.
1. How much authority do apostles have? How much should they use?
The source of authority is servanthood. Authority only comes by being under authority. Paul and Barnabas didn’t leave Antioch until they were sent by the local elders. They understood submission to a local church. They submitted to one another.
Authority among the apostles was fluid, relational, and subject to change. Peter started out as the most prominent authority figure among the apostles but there was some change regarding that. Paul did not shrink from rebuking Peter for his religious prejudice. It seemed that Paul rose to overshadow Peter in authority and prominence. Barnabas and Paul changed places as team leaders. James ended up replacing Peter as the leading apostle and authority in Jerusalem.
2. Principles of Interdependent Cooperation
It is not the role of the apostle to lord it over the people. In 2 Corinthians 1:23-24 Paul says:
“But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm.”
The apostles were not into controlling the lives of those who submitted to them. Wherever people and leaders exist there must be cooperation rather than domination. In Revelation 2: 6 and 15 the word “Nicolaitans” means “to conquer the people”.
True apostles would never commit that sin. Yet at the same time, the people were not to become recklessly independent of apostolic authority either. There is to be interdependence between the people, local leadership, and apostolic leadership. None of the three is complete without the other. This kind of relationship produces strength, balance, and growth.
3. There was voluntary submission to leaders and apostles
When apostles, elders and sheep are in proper relationship with each other there is genuine respect and humility. Apostles like Paul regularly exercised leadership and influence over believers and churches in their roles as leaders and spiritual fathers. For example, the decrees decided upon by the elders and apostles at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) were given to the various local churches and they obeyed them. This was not excessive control!
The people prospered as they obeyed. Relational submission is voluntary.
A leader cannot lead unless people willingly follow. An apostle cannot demand a response just because he is an apostle. Apostles are servants who minister to those who will freely receive their authority. Receiving the authority of the apostle is a result of relationship and trust.
Each church had local autonomy, governed by elders. The apostles had a translocal authority. There was a wonderful balance between the two. The leaders of various churches all cooperated with each other and with the valid translocal authorities. In all of this cooperation, the apostle’s translocal authority never overrode local authority. The apostle has to be received by the local church or he can do nothing about it.
4. There was mutual accountability
This existed between the apostles themselves. There was also an accountability structure that existed between the elders of the local church and the apostles and spiritual fathers that they related to. An apostle ought to make some kind of commitment to a local church in order to give content to the relationship. This might include the kinds of services he would render and the frequency of his visits.
Such a commitment could be reviewed and renegotiated from time to time to make sure the relationship is bearing fruit.
5. Financial responsibility
Just as the apostle needs to make a commitment to the local church so the local church needs to make a commitment to the apostle. Besides commitment in relationship, this would also include financial support of some kind. If we believe in apostles, then we have to financially support them or they will never exist (1 Corinthians 9).
Various churches supported Paul in his ministry. Financial support could include giving the apostle a regular amount of money monthly, as well as travel and housing arrangements when the apostle visits, with continued prayer support for financial provision. There are different ways of financially supporting apostles. The main thing is that the apostle gets enough support to be able to fully carry on his ministry.
As God moves His church forward into His purposes and destiny, we need to respond to being conformed to the pattern we see described in the New Testament, which includes the development and recognition of the ministry and office of the apostle. The church needs apostles who fulfill scriptural qualifications to found and oversee local churches, equipping and building up the leaders and elders and members of each local church.
We need to be apostolic people who support and participate in apostolic ministry, working with apostles to reach the lost through dynamic outreach, church planting and nurturing.
Our churches need to be apostolic churches that recognize and relate to modern-day apostles, and are active in varying forms of apostolic ministry.
Based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada Dave Wells serves as a team leader of LifeLinks International, giving apostolic input to a number of churches around the world. He has ministered in such countries as Guatemala, Ireland, England, Austria, Holland, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Marshall Islands, Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, India and Spain.
More in this series on the Ministry of Apostles: