The meaning of the person as an apostle strikes either a new understanding of church leadership or something that died off nearly 2000 years ago. On one hand, some charismatic churches embrace the notion of the apostle as a much needed restoration within the Body of Christ. How this is defined and worked out in these churches is for another discussion. On the other hand, other churches (often those that hold to the cessation of certain spiritual gifts) scoff at the idea that apostles could come back to play a particular and needed role in the church. Both of these views express extremes in the Body of Christ yet I believe a middle path can be found between the two perspectives.
The apostle is defined often as one sent forth (with certain orders), a messenger or a delegate. If you consider the life of Paul, he was sent forth with the Gospel as a representative of Jesus Christ. Now for those who think the apostolic lifestyle is full of signs, wonders and massive conversions, please think again and reread 2 Cor. 11.23-28. Paul along with other apostles knew suffering which few ‘apostles’ here in America would know. The pattern that Paul roughly followed was this: bring the message of Jesus Christ (Jews first then Gentiles), gather together disciples, teach them for a period of time, i.e., lay a foundation, leave. How many bearing the ‘apostle’ title would dare do such a thing? Sadly, many have missed the main point that Christ is the head of the church and not some apostle.
Some of those that have missed the point seek to establish a new hierarchy with apostles at top then trickling down with prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, of course with the apostle having the greatest authority. I find it exceedingly ironic that those coming from a Free Church background would embrace such an idea. This again sets up an authority structure that the Free Church sought to abandon as seen in Roman Catholicism. This also flies in the face of Paul’s example. He gave the disciples in the churches the freedom to discover how to meet, how to organize and who, if anyone, would be a leader. Eph 2.20 speaks of apostles and prophets as foundational in the church. If foundational, they would occupy the lowest place in the church by providing support for building up and being of service to all in Christ. Such a person is difficult to find these days…
While speaking of someone as an apostle these days might seem pretentious, misguided or downright silly, the need for apostolic people is a great need in the church today. This is a call that takes the great commission in Matt. 28 as applicable to all disciples. (Others may argue that this only applies to apostles.) Whether the application of ‘Going into all the world…’ is for all disciples or only for those called as apostles is open for debate. The greater need is for all disciples to love God and love neighbor. This fleshing out before others the love of God by loving neighbors could provide an apostolic flavor that many churches lack though they seek to attract people through branding and spectacle.
My gut tells me the era of self-preservation in the church is coming to an end. The end may result in some kicking and screaming, but the embrace of the cross will lead to the emergence of new life in some unexpected places. These places that emerge to express the new creation in Christ may look radically different than what we expect. Where would Jesus, Peter, John, Paul and Timothy hang out today? Who would they try to reach? What would those discipleship communities look like? If we are honest, I think the answers might surprise us.