A friend once told me about a sermon he had heard on the radio in Detroit. Some preacher huffed and puffed as he yelled out, “When I came to this town, there was not even one apostle here. Now the place is crawling with them!”
Probably, no one place needs to be “crawling with apostles;” not even Detroit!
In a few blogs awhile back, I wrote about the word “apostolic.” I said that apostolicity is a quality that the Nicene Creed claims is a requirement of the true Church. To be apostolic, the Church must teach what the apostles taught, and maintain living links with the apostles by doing what they did.
This means that an apostle is an essential part of the church’s foundation.
The question is: what exactly is an apostle? What was (or is!) the nature of their authority? Was their authority passed down to others, and if so, how?
Questions like these lead us to some of the most controversial subjects in the Christian church, since all Christians claim to be spiritual descendants of the apostles. In a sense then, we all claim to be “apostolic.” However, who gets to decide whether a church is, or is not, apostolic?
Nearly every believer will affirm that the first apostles, the men Jesus selected while he was here in the flesh, were unique. They are the foundation of the Christian church. No one since them has had quite the same sort of authority that they had. So while some Christians believe that there have been (or perhaps still are) other “apostles,” no few Christians have ever tried to add a new person to the unique position held by the original twelve apostles.
Given that important criterion, most Christians would cautiously use the word “apostle” to refer to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of gifts and callings.
The original apostles felt they had the authority to choose Matthias to be an apostle, and appointed him as such to fill the place of Judas. Paul (who was not one of the twelve) also claimed to be an apostle. Others were also called apostles in the New Testament.
But, to return to our original question: what is an apostle exactly?
In the New Testament, the central quality of an apostle seems to be that of raising up new communities of believers in new cultural contexts.
Foreign missionaries, who sometimes establish churches within new cultures, often demonstrate apostolic gifts and callings.
In this light, we may apply the title “apostle” to such historical figures as St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Columba of Scotland, and certainly to the incomparable Francis Asbury of the United States. These men of God established new communities of faith.
We may say then that an apostle is the "first wave" of the Church into new territory. He or she helps the first believers in a given culture "set up shop." This goes beyond the work of evangelism, since an evangelist may win converts to the faith without forming them into functioning, covenant communities.
An apostle sees “the big picture.” He builds local churches into institutions that will remain effective and faithful long after he is dead.
Most of Ireland became Christian because of the work of St. Patrick, (389-461 AD). His story is one of extraordinary courage and dependence upon the power of God. He escaped from slavery and then willingly returned to the people who had kidnapped him because he was moved to tell them the good news of Jesus. He shared the gospel through his word and miraculous demonstrations of power and grace.
St. Columba, (521-597AD), likewise established a Christian community on the island of Iona from where he carried out the aggressive evangelization of Scotland.
Today, the English church remembers Augustine of Canterbury who was the first Roman missionary to Britain. There had been believers in Great Britain for centuries, evangelized by the robust Celtic Christians. However, Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo) organized and formed the church that has endured through the centuries and which lay the foundation for all of English-speaking Christianity.
In the eighth century, two brothers -- Cyril and Methodus -- gave their lives to evangelize the Slavic peoples. To this day, the Russian alphabet is called Cyrillic because St. Cyril created it to translate the Bible into the Slavic languages.
Closer to home, Francis Asbury, (1745-1816), was the first Methodist bishop to the United States. When he realized the enormity of his task, he took a vow of celibacy. He would fully dedicate his 85 years to planting churches in every village and town in the growing American Republic. His story is an extraordinary saga of Christian apostleship to our nation. Every Methodist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, and Charismatic church in our country owes its existence to the ministry of this man. From its early meaning of “messenger” the word “apostle” has evolved to mean something much more to Christians.
So it is not such a good idea to call oneself an apostle!
Most times, using the title in one’s life time invites appropriate rejection and ridicule.
Fortunately though, one does not need the title of “apostle” in order to discharge the function of one. As the Church continues its march into the various cultures of the world and establishes communities of faith in them, it will need the continuing ministry of “apostles,” whatever we call them.
In some cases, a place may even need more than one apostle: like Detroit, for instance!