The next post in the ROOTED series will mention the role of apostles in stewarding the mystery of Christ. I don’t want distract us from Jesus by bogging that post down with a lengthy defense and description of New Testament apostleship. But some clarity on apostleship (and on the other callings described in Ephesians 4) will help us a lot, I think. So, before returning to the ROOTED series, here is a reprint of a brief treatment of the APEST gifts (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers) as they are described in the New Testament.
Others have done a great job discussing how these folks can and should function now, but that is not my goal in the discussion below. Here, I am aiming to help the reader get a grip on what the Scriptures say about these people. Other things might also be true of them. But here we will just stick to what clarity we can get from the Text.
Feel free to add, subtract, detract and question. Dialog is healthy.
Ramblings on APEST in the New Testament
To start with…
I will be working with the assumption that these 4-5 categories refer to callings, not to spiritual gifts. These people are referred to as gifts to the church, but nowhere in the Text do we have any reference to a gift of apostleship, or apostolic gifting, or an adjectivization of the noun apostle. The same holds true for the evangelist and the shepherd. Prophecy and teaching are listed among the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, but as apostleship, evangelism and shepherding are not, it’s cleaner and likely more accurate to understand these roles as callings, distinct from (but not divorced from) giftedness. For example, an apostle might have a strong teaching gift, and a shepherd might have the gift of prophecy. These gifts will surely inform how each will fulfill his or her calling, but they are not themselves the calling.
Calling must also be understood as distinct from office. There are two offices described in the Scriptures: elders and deacons. As these are not within the scope of this treatment, suffice it to say that the Scriptures nowhere speak of the office of apostleship or prophecy, etc.
Below are some cursory descriptions of each of these people as supplied by the New Testament.
Obviously, apostles are “sent ones”. The word in the First Century had its own undertones, most obviously referring to emissaries sent by a king, a lord, or another person who held authority.
That apostles continued to be called after the original 12 is obvious. See the quote below from B Mark Anderson:
James, the half brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church – Galatians 1:19
Barnabas – Acts 14:14
Paul – Acts 14:14 and many other references
Apollos – Corinthians 4:6-9
Timothy and Silvanus – I Thessalonians 1:1 and 2:6
Epaphroditus – Philippians 2:25. While the King James Version translates the word as “messenger”, the Greek word (apostolon) is actually “apostle”.
Two unnamed apostles – Second Corinthians 8:23.
A brother of fame among the churches, and a brother tested – “As for our brethren, they are messengers of the churches, a glory to Christ.” Again, the Greek word is “apostoloi” but is translated here as “messengers”.
These nine now make a total of 22 (13 + 9 = 22).
Andronicus and Junia – Romans 16:7 “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Were these genuine apostles or were they, as some (Charles Ryrie and others) translate, “well-known to the apostles”? If we count Andronicus and Junia, the total jumps to 24.
In addition to this, when John was the last surviving member of the original 12, the churches are told to test those who claim to be apostles. If he’s the last, that would be a really easy test – anyone not John is not an apostle 😉 .
Most cases that there are no apostles anymore are actually reactions to abuses of the term. Two primary examples of such abuses are the Roman Catholic notion of apostolic succession and the more recent emergence in some charismatic circles of folks calling themselves apostles and using the term to exert control over multiple churches or networks of churches. Neither of these ideas can be defended from the Scriptures, but neither can the notion that there are no more apostles after the 12 originals plus Paul. The passages noted above make that very clear.
When we track how Paul describes what drives him, we can see several functions attached to his calling as an apostle:
- Pioneer. He is indebted to Jew and Greek and Barbarian. He has to get the message to where it has not been.
- Spiritual/Relational architect. How the relational structure is shaped is important to him. He builds carefully, like a wise and skilled master architect.
- Guardian of the gospel. It matters deeply to him that the message is transmitted whole and in one piece, both across cultures and across generations. He uses the word â€œentrustedâ€ to describe this responsibility, both in reference to himself and to Timothy.
- Connective tissue across geography. He connects the churches (which are city churches). They are not held together in their identity as the one holy catholic church by statements of dogma or hierarchical leadership structures, but by the movements of the apostles. Paul even abandons his push to Spain (his Pioneer driver) to mobilize the Gentile churches to care for the famine-stricken Judean churches, leveraging a crisis to knit the Church together relationally.
It is also worth note that some apostles are described as “apostles of Jesus Christ”, and others are called “apostles of the churches”. The apostles of the churches, in these instances, are commissioned by a local church to execute the intentions of that church in another place. For example, they were sent by Gentile churches to carry money and love to the church at Jerusalem. Those described as apostles of Jesus Christ are not sent as the agents of a local church (though a local church may respond to the Spirit and send them out). These are separated to the Holy Spirit for the work he has for them. They are directly accountable to Jesus for how they execute their calling, and they are safe in that because they are the kind of men and women who would never use their freedom to prey upon the church, go rogue or abandon mutual submission. This is the kind of character Paul describes as indicative of true apostles in his defense of his own apostleship in the letters to Corinth.
Apostles are last of all, least of all. The New Testament does not describe apostleship as some sort of super-eldership or in terms of regional authority. I’m not saying folks don’t get called to regions. Nor am I saying that apostles don’t have authority. I am saying that contemporary presentations of apostleship as some sort of uber-bishoprick are not supported by the Scriptures. Apostles are last of all and least of all.
It might be helpful to draw a distinction between the verb “to prophesy”, the noun “prophecy” and the person of “the prophet”. In 1Corinthians all believers are encouraged to prophesy (speak forth what the Lord is giving them to edify the church). Some believers have the spiritual gift of prophecy. And some folks are called prophets.
To avoid some errors that have occurred in different eras of Church history, it is in some places common to underestimate the function of the prophet – to define it as merely “speaking forth truth” or, slightly better, “speaking forth God’s Word, as we have it in the Scriptures.” It could be argued that simply reading the Bible out loud would be the same as prophecy in that case, but the way Paul speaks of prophecy and prophets suggests that it is something more than that.
The prophet Agabus gives us an excellent example (Acts 11 and 21). In the accounts we have of him, he foretells the future, hears the words of God, speaks the present situationally relevant words of the Holy Spirit, and calls his audience to hear the Holy Spirit. It is this function of hearing, saying, and calling the community to hear the words of God that seems definitive of prophets – both in the Old and New Testaments. Hear-say-call.
The word means “good-news”. But the term itself in 1st Century Rome may well have been borrowed from the Roman political machine, baptizing a commonly known function – that of a herald who announces the good news of an Imperial victory or decree – and applying it to King Jesus. We can’t say that for sure, though.
In reality, we can’t say much for sure on this one. The three occurrences of this word don’t do a lot to fill out our understanding of this term. Timothy is told to “do the work of an evangelist”, which tells us a few things. First, the work of an evangelist is a set of intentional actions that Paul’s co-workers would have understood as “the work of an evangelist”. The term suggested an understood person with an understood function (as opposed to a command to “evangelize” or to “do evangelism”). Second, the work of an evangelist was distinct enough from the work of an apostle that Timothy, functioning as an apostle in Ephesus, would have needed the instruction to do it. And finally, it is noteworthy that in an environment with an established church and emerging leadership, an apostle is encouraged to do the work of an evangelist, alongside the extant church.
Phillip is the only person called an “evangelist”. His work in Samaria is a good example of this work, and it’s noteworthy that it is attended by miracles (something often misattributed only to apostles). It is well after the event in Samaria that he is called “the evangelist”, so it appears he remains an evangelist – that is, it is not an ability or grace that descends upon people, but is rather a calling that remains.
Shepherd and Teacher
I am grouping these together here because it’s unclear if Ephesians 4 refers to shepherds and teachers (distinct), or to shepherd-teachers. Very little is said about these people in comparison with prophets and apostles. There is the obvious warning in James that not many should be teachers, conspicuous for its grammar – rather than “not many should teach,” it is “not many should BE teachers” – suggesting a distinct and observable function. Other occurrences are discussed in the section below.
What is probably most needful here is say what these terms might NOT mean. That is, it would be easy to say, “Well, we know what these people are. They’re the people who stand in front on Sundays and talk, and who do counseling during the week.” While some teachers and/or shepherds might be found in those settings now, those settings did not exist in the New Testament milieu. While a discussion of first century forms and local church ministry is beyond the scope of this little essay, it should be said that whatever shepherds and teachers did do, we must not read present prevailing practice back onto the Epistles.
Teams, combos, architecture and some implications
The teams described in Acts and the Epistles seem to include at least one apostle, plus other gifts. There does not seem to be a described or prescribed effort to have all 4 or 5 of these gifts on a team. While that might be a great idea and a commonly fruitful strategy, and while I really like having all 5 callings on any team I’m on, that is not a priority we read from the Text. To be clear, it might be a priority, but we don’t find that priority prescribed or described in the Scriptures.
Explicit grouping of such people is observable in Acts. Prophets and teachers in Antioch gather to minister to the Lord. Luke doesn’t bother to tell us if they are elders. To Luke, it doesn’t matter if this is a leadership meeting. It’s prophets and teachers in a city, gathering before the Lord. In my view, it is likely Paul was one of the teachers (as opposed to prophets), as he often refers to himself as a “teacher of the Gentiles”, but never as a prophet.
Phillip the evangelist has two daughters who are prophets. That’s an interestingly intentional description of Phillip’s family. And it’s to this unusual family that Agabus the prophet seems to travel.
The most important grouping of these terms, I think, is in Paul’s architectural ecclesiology. Paul says that the church is built upon the apostles and prophets, with Jesus being the chief cornerstone. This is a big deal. At least, we must come to understand what it means that the foundation of the church (and churches?) is comprised of apostles and prophets. The fact that the order is not prophets and apostles is suggestive that post-Reformation interpretations of this passage – that the prophets are the OT and the apostles are the NT – must be fabricated; it cannot be read off the page. This is strengthened by Pau’s statement that “God has set in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then [a list of special capabilities]”. Again, the order: 1.Apostles, 2. Prophets, and (here) 3. Teachers. There is something in this related to the spiritual, social or phenomenological architecture of the church in Paul’s mind.
As far as obvious implications go, I’d offer one admonition, one warning, and one encouragement.
The admonition. If it’s true that apostles and prophets are literally foundational to the church, we have got to prioritize clarity on who they are and what they do, finding them, training them, activating them and setting them loose. This needs to become an explicit goal.
The warning. This isn’t social science. The Scriptures offer descriptions of called individuals working in community. Reducing these callings to sociological synonyms, quantifiable predilections or other American categories might well do significant violence to them. We are well served to be rigorously Biblical – striving to say what the Scriptures say, and neither more nor less. Extrapolation will likely not help us here.
The encouragement to folks looking to send APEST teams. What is most observable is that apostolic mission is accomplished by apostles, plus lots of others. But always by apostles. So my encouragement is to mobilize apostles. Green apostles to seasoned apostles. And mobilize other personnel to seasoned apostles. Apostles don’t replace God. They are last of all and least of all. But they are the catalysts and activators, the architects and arrowheads. Or to use a different analogy, axles don’t replace the engine (God), but they are the center of the wheels (APEST teams) that the car needs to meet the road and make progress. More important than perfectly balanced teams is the mobilization of apostles. In Acts 13, the Spirit didn’t ask for an APEST team. He took two people and made apostles of them. From there, the teams grew.