We all know about the apostles named Peter, Paul, and John, but have you ever heard of Andronicus or Junia? Some are surprised to discover that the New Testament identifies more apostles than the twelve men who followed Jesus around Galilee. That fact raises some interesting, and even controversial, questions. What exactly is an apostle, what does the gift of apostleship look like, and how should we understand an apostle's role today?
Various theological streams and ecclesiastical traditions hold opposing views on apostleship. Some believe the gift was limited to the twelve disciples closest to Christ. Others contend that apostleship flourished during the foundational era of the church but is no longer active today. On the other end are those who believe modern apostles exist and possess the same authority as the Apostles who penned the New Testament.
Somewhere in the middle are those who affirm the gift's activity today but in a more generic capacity. The word literally means "sent one," a designation that may be applied to many believers. But the middle-ground viewpoint acknowledges there is a difference between being gifted as an apostle (little "a") and possessing the authority of an Apostle (capital "A").
Terry King, pastor of Bridge of Life Church in Hagerstown, Maryland, says there are men and women currently doing apostolic ministry all over the world. As the executive director of Leadership Development Resources, a role that has King working with church leaders in over 20 nations, he has seen the evidence. "But," he adds, "very few of them recognize it as apostolic ministry, and they don't call it that."
The aversion to using any form of the word "apostle" is a holdover from the Reformation. "For hundreds of years Protestant churches have tried hard to not be Roman Catholic in terms of hierarchy and structure," says King. "But we still need leadership and structures. So the apostolic gift is still workingwe just find new titles for it."
William Beasley, the network leader for the Midwest region of Anglican Mission in the Americas, concurs with this assessment. "The apostolic gift has many manifestations," he says. "In the East African church you find people serving as bishops who have highly apostolic gifts." But like many Protestant traditions, they do not assign the word "apostle" to those exhibiting the gift. "The East African church is an incredible combination of a highly structured order of authority, but it is still growing spontaneously through the presence of apostles."
The apostolic African leaders typify the primary function of the giftthe extension of God's kingdom. Beasley sees this exemplified by Paul in the New Testament. "Initiating new works to bring people to Jesus is apostolic. You see evidence of that in Paul's desire to go to places where no one has yet preached the Gospel. He didn't want to build on someone else's foundation."
Dave Ferguson, senior pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, adds, "People with the apostolic gift see over the horizon. They're able to look at the spiritual landscape and see where God is working." Ferguson recognizes this drive to extend God's kingdom and initiate new things within himself, but he avoided the term "apostolic" for years. Instead, he described himself as a "spiritual entrepreneur"a term with less theological baggage and more cultural panache. "I once assumed there were only twelve apostles. Later I discovered there were at least seven other apostles mentioned in the New Testament. And Paul lists apostleship among the leadership functions given to the church in Ephesians 4:11."
Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.