Rev Dr Phil Marshall wrote as the Evangelism Consultant for the Uniting Church in NSW. He served as a Minister in local congregations in South Australia and Queensland, Australia
The leadership gifts of Ephesians 4:11-12 are
critical to churches that are discipling people
in the post-modern Western world
We are in a time where we are witnessing the rise and rise of the apostle in the church around the world. As with the recovery of other spiritual gifts, the Pentecostal churches are leading the way, but in time, the affirmation of the gift of apostle will happen across much of the church. This gift will play a critical role in the missionary expansion of the church into the 21st century. It is important to take a fresh look at the apostolic gift in the New Testament so that the gift can be more readily discerned and affirmed.
Much interest has been shown in spiritual gifts in recent decades and particularly the leadership gifts listed in Ephesians:
“It was he (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV).
Out of the five gifts listed by Paul in his letter, the gift of the apostle has been the most neglected particularly by mainline denominations.
Historically, little interest has been shown in the gift of apostle, as classical evangelicalism has associated it with the twelve apostles and Paul, limiting it to the first century. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to link itself to the ministry of the early apostles, through an unbroken succession of ordinations called ‘apostolic succession’ but this theory is rarely of interest to those outside the Roman Church. Pentecostal churches that have been willing to affirm the gift and acknowledge individuals as apostles, thereby starting a process, which in time will help many churches from different traditions, recover this gift. I suspect that in the 21st century we will see more and more evidence of the apostolic gift, and be increasingly willing to acknowledge this gift in individuals. This will happen in the same way that we have seen the restoration of the healing ministry this century. It was initially recovered by Pentecostals, then embraced by the charismatic movement and is now accepted as a normal part of most mainline denominations.
Diverse Definitions of the Gift of Apostle
Although we are seeing greater acceptance of the gift today, New Testament scholars have debated apostleship for the last hundred years. Lightfoot began the modern discussion when he included in his commentary on Galatians a section on “The Name and Office of an Apostle” (Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians, Melbourne, Australia: Collin Dove, 1989. p. 152). He argued that more people in the New Testament than the twelve apostles and Paul were called apostles, and that in post apostolic writings the title of apostle was used quite widely with the commission of apostle being life-long and for the sake of the Gospel.
There have been diverse opinions about the definition of this gift in recent years. In the 1980s spiritual gifts were studied in great depth. During this time the gift of apostle was variously defined as general leadership, the same as the missionary gift, or as a teacher who was able to pass on the apostolic tradition of the church (Robert Hillman, 27 Spiritual Gifts, Melbourne, Australia: JBCE, 1986. pp. 22-23). There are hints of the importance of the gift but it remains on the whole undeveloped.
The Marks of an Apostle
The meaning of the Greek word apostolos literally means ‘a person sent’ (Giles, p. 153). The concept of the apostle acting in an authoritative way for the Lord was basic to the use of the term. The study of a single word is not sufficient in itself because it can not fully explain the nature and function of an apostle.
Paul, the most influential apostle, had to argue fiercely for his own claim to be an apostle when disputing with opponents in Galatia and Corinth. The marks of Paul’s apostleship were:
1. Intimacy with the Risen Lord.
To have seen the risen Lord was foundational to Paul’s claim to be an apostle (Giles, p. 162). It is not an essential mark because in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 it is implied that anyone can be empowered for the work of apostle. The important factors for Paul was intimacy with Christ, being gripped by the calling of Christ and having the conviction that he was sent with an authority from the risen Lord.
2. Leadership in Church Planting.
To have brought a church into existence is another mark. Paul appeals to the fact that the Corinthians were the result of his work in the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1). In defense of his apostleship Paul claims that the church which he founded was “the seal of my apostleship” (1 Corinthians 9:2). Here the planting of new churches is confirmation of the apostolic gift.
3. True to the Gospel of the Early Apostles.
To be a church planter is not sufficient in itself. Paul argues that a genuine apostle must proclaim the one true gospel. In 2 Corinthians, chapters 11 and 12, Paul condemns those who call themselves apostles but preach another gospel. A mark of an apostle is that their theology and message centre upon the proclamation of the early apostolic period as recorded in the New Testament (George Hunter, Church for the Unchurched, Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1996. p. 152).
4. Suffering for Christ is more Important than Signs and Wonders for Christ.
Paul only speaks once of the signs of a true apostle by writing, “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Corinthians 12:12 NIV). The context is that Paul has to contend with the Corinthians who thought an apostle should be a more impressive figure than he was. The Corinthians seemed to have argued that a ‘super-apostle’ should be able to boast of visions and miracles. Paul puts his case in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33 that he has known visions and miracles but prefers to boast of his sufferings in the service of Christ (Giles, p. 163). The marks of an apostle include signs, wonders and miracles but even more important is enduring suffering for Christ.
The case Paul makes for his own apostleship can become a sound foundation for how we build apostolic ministries today. I am not advocating a rigid checklist, but marks that distinguish the gift of apostle. These marks will then help the leadership in the local church recognise the gift and encourage the ministry.
The Character of an Apostle
The gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit can never be separated in a person’s life. The manifestation of the gift of apostle and the character of the apostle are inseparable. Cannistraci offers a general definition of an apostle that includes a person’s character:
An apostle is one who is called and sent by Christ to have spiritual authority, character, gifts and abilities to successfully reach and establish people in the kingdom truth and order, especially founding and overseeing local churches. (David Cannistraci, The Gift of Apostle, Ventura California: Regal Books, 1996. p. 29).
Not enough can be said about the importance of character and the fruit of the Spirit. There have been a number of examples of high profile Christian leaders with influential ministries ‘falling from grace’ because of moral failure or fraud. An apostle never acts alone because the gift is exercised within the context of the body of Christ. The character and relationships of an apostle are just as important as the effectiveness of their ministry.
Cannistraci rightly argues that apostleship begins in a person’s heart and character, and then culminates in action and the work of the kingdom of God (p. 96). Christian character remains an essential element to the exercise of any ministry and there needs to be tangible evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) before there can be an affirmation of the gift of apostle.
The leadership gifts of Ephesians 4:11-12 are critical to churches that are discipling people in the post-modern Western world and it is exciting to see the restoration of the gift of the apostle. This has already happening in some Pentecostal churches but this restoration will have a widening influence in a variety of churches across the world. The apostolic gift will find a variety of expressions but its enduring marks will be:
1. Intimacy with Christ.
2. Leadership in Church Planting.
3. True to the Gospel of the Early Apostles.
4. Suffering for Christ.
All these characteristics are undermined and therefore become irrelevant if they are not confirmed by the fruit of the Spirit in the character of the apostle. Those denominations that embrace the restoration of the apostolic gift will see an increase in new Christians and new churches.
© Renewal Journal #13: Ministry
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