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Part 3 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today

by Josh Blake

We defined the term apostle in the last post, along with the frequency of use in the New Testament, especially in relation to the movement of Christianity during the life of Jesus and after his ascension. The ambiguity of the term apostle in the Western context requires us to explore more. Explaining the current major theological positions will prepare us to look at the Word in our next post. One of these positions will usually resonate with you, which allows us to understand which perspective is personally most comfortable and therefore our default. Our goal is to recognize our assumptions so we can challenge them with the Word.

As Skye Jethani writes, “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 Others contend that apostleship flourished during the foundational era of the church but is no longer active today.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.” [1] The different viewpoints on apostleship are Cessation, Continuation, and Succession. These are not to be confused with the more broad categories related to the gifts of the Spirit.`


Historically, there are some – most commonly called Cessationists -­‐ who have stated that the role of apostle no longer exists. In this view, an apostle had to be someone who had personally been with Jesus and witnessed the resurrected King. John Macarthur argues that the role of apostle was for a unique period in history, bound to a specific set of men, and is no longer needed or active today. Apostles were chosen by God, appointed by Jesus, witnessed the Risen Christ, were given unique ministry duties, laid the foundation of the Church, and thus limited to The Twelve. [2] Ultimately, the Apostles’ role in history was establishing apostolic doctrine – the New Testament – as they were given authority to speak and write Scripture. According to Grudem, once this was accomplished the role ceased because it was no longer needed. [3] Macarthur also explains that others were called apostles in the New Testament, but this was more due to their close association with The Twelve for the specific period of history in which Jesus intended the office.[4] Grudem and Macarthur look to Acts 1:21-­‐22, where The Twelve, now eleven, chose a replacement for Judas, as evidence of this. [5]

Another point made from the Cessationist perspective is that apostles’ doctrine laid the foundation of the church. Ephesians 2, showing that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, supports the foundation laying focus. Upon the writing of the New Testament and the death of the last of The Twelve, the role of the apostle ceased. Macarthur states, “We don’t need more apostles coming along laying another foundation for a different institution. Jesus said, ‘I will build My church, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ He set out to build His church, He was the cornerstone and the apostles were the foundation. And they laid that foundation of apostolic doctrine and God through the Holy Spirit made sure it was laid well and we have it in hand right here on the pages of Scripture.” [6]


Another view on the gift of apostleship is the Continuation perspective. This title can be ambiguous because the views within are quite varied. It is helpful to think of continuationism as more of a spectrum of those who do not believe the apostolic role has ceased. Some, such as Peter Wagner and the New Apostolic Reformation, hold that the gift of apostleship exists today and primarily focuses on the authority bestowed by God to individuals with the gift. Others, such as Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch, argue for the existence of the gift today but strongly disagree with the hierarchical lens through which Wagner views the gift. Cole argues for a focus on serving the body of Christ and one another. [7] For the sake of clarity in this post, it is helpful to create clarifications called “Continuation of Authority” and “Continuation of Service.”

Continuation of Authority

Peter Wagner states, “The gift of apostleship is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to assume and exercise general leadership over a number of churches with an extraordinary authority in spiritual matters that is spontaneously recognized and appreciated by those churches.”[8] Wagner states that it is vital to view the gift of apostleship through the lens of authority. [9] He claims that God has given apostles a unique authority to oversee multiple churches in a region. It’s clear that this is a hierarchical view and understanding of the gift. [10] Wagner argues that there is a separate and distinct gift of missionary and that one can be an apostle but not necessarily a missionary. [11]

This perspective makes a distinction between the gift and office of apostle but, nonetheless, holds firmly to the ongoing existence of apostles today. Bishop Carlis Moody of the Church of God in Christ says, “Yes, there are Apostles in the church today! They manifest extraordinary spiritual leadership, and are anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit to confront the powers of Satan, by confirming the gospel by signs and miracles and establishing churches according to the New Testament pattern and doctrine of the Apostles.” [12] Wagner argues that the apostle can be identified in today’s church primarily by character, fruit, and personality. As the definition above suggests, the apostle’s authority is derived spontaneously and recognized by other churches and they are given the permission to “assume and exercise” leadership over said churches. Again, this view holds to a hierarchical understanding of the apostle being almost kingly in nature and quotes 1 Corinthians 12:28 in which apostles are called “first” among the gifts. The Continuation of Authority view holds that this has a direct impact on the completion of the Great Commission. Once the apostles have been released from the historical sidelines and publicly recognized, then the church can operate at full throttle. [13] There is more emphasis placed on the gift itself than on serving and equipping the Body, hence the distinction given for the view of Continuation of Service.

Continuation of Service

Taking a more focused view of the gift, Neil Cole defines the role simply as a “sent one.” [14] Similarly, Bill Scheidler states, “An apostle is a ministry with the spirit of Christ who is rightly related to heavenly and earthly authority. An apostle is called by God and sent by the local church to function in the present apostolic ministry of Jesus. An apostle is not over the church, but sent by a local church and accountable to that local church leadership team for the work that he or she is sent to do.” [15] According to Cole and Hirsch, an apostle is sent with a specific mission and message. [16]  The role exists primarily as a foundation-­‐laying role for the advancement of the church into previously unreached areas. One difference between this view and the Cessationist view is what foundation is laid. Where cessationists argue that apostolic doctrine -­‐ the New Testament – is the foundation that has already been laid, Cole and others argue for the ongoing need to lay foundation, with Jesus as the Cornerstone, in places where the church is not yet established. [17] This view states that because Matthew 24:14 has not been accomplished, the role of the apostle is still needed to see the church grow into full maturity. [18]

Andrew Wilson argues that the case of Apollos in 1 Corinthians presents a challenge to the commonly held view that Paul did not view Apollos as an apostle. Specifically, Wilson shows that given the context of Paul’s writing, he does indeed view Apollos as an apostle. This presents challenges to the traditional view of apostles either being “Apostles of Jesus Christ” or “Apostles of the church” in that Apollos does not readily meet the criteria for either The Twelve or the apostles of the church. [19] Further, Schnakenberg argues that Paul did not have a clear definition for all apostles and that there were indeed other apostles traversing the Roman Empire during Paul’s ministry. [20] According to Cole, the gift of apostleship is present primarily in those who have a burden to go to new people and new places. These people are living their lives on the go – or on a mission – and it is not primarily a localized gift. In fact, Cole argues that if the apostle stays local, they are either not an apostle or a false one. [21] The apostle exists primarily for Kingdom expansion through Gospel proclamation and church planting. Their service to the body of Christ is vital, and without fully functioning apostles, the body will not operate in a healthy manner. [22]


A view most commonly held by Roman Catholics is that of apostolic succession. In this view, Jesus gave special authority to the apostles to define doctrine and forgive sins. This authority was passed down from the apostles to their successors. [23] Those holding to an episcopal form of church government argue that apostolic authority is vested in bishops today through succession. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the bishop of Rome, more commonly called The Pope, has been given supreme authority over the church in these matters. [24]

The bishop’s authority is publicly recognized through an ordination ceremony in which the authority still being passed down from the apostles is bestowed upon the bishop. [25] In this view there is more emphasis placed on the office than on the gift itself, or on the person who might hold it. According to Erickson, “In the New Testament, authority was given only to those who were spiritually qualified and sound in doctrine.” [26]

  1. Neil Cole, Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014), 50, 139.

  2. Jethani, Skye. "Apostles Today?" CT Pastors. Accessed July 24, 2017.

  3. John Macarthur, "Marks of a True Apostle: Chosen by God." Grace to You. November 25, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2017.

  4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic theology: an introduction to Biblical doctrine, (Leicester: Inter-­‐Varsity, 2007), 906.

  5. Macarthur, "Marks of a True Apostle: Appointed by Jesus." Grace to You. December 03, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2017.

  6. Grudem, 907.

  7. John Macarthur. "Six Arguments Against Modern-­‐Day Apostleship." Grace to You. March 29, 1998. Accessed July 24, 2017.­‐library/47-­‐87/six-­‐arguments-­‐against-­‐modernday-­‐ apostleship.

  8. Cole, 34-­‐35.

  9. Peter C. Wagner, Churchquake!: The Explosive Dynamics of the New Apostolic Revolution, (Ventura, CA.: Regal Books, 1999), 105.

  10. 18 Ibid., 105.

  11. Neil Cole, Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014), 36.

  12. Peter C. Wagner, Churchquake!: The Explosive Dynamics of the New Apostolic Revolution, (Ventura, CA.: Regal Books, 1999), 106.

  13. Ibid., 109.

  14. Ibid., 112.

  15. Cole, 139.

  16. Bill Scheidler and Dick Iverson, Apostles, the fathering servant: a fresh biblical perspective on their role today, (Portland, Or.: City Bible, 2001), 17.

  17. Cole, 19.

  18. Ibid., 20.

  19. Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen, and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st century Church, (San Francisco: Jossey-­‐Bass, 2012), Loc 3209.

  20. Andrew Wilson, "Apostle Apollos," (Journal of the Evangelical Theology Society 56 (2013)), 333.

  21. Rudolf Schnackenburg, "Apostles before and during Paul's Time," (Apostolic History and the Gospel (1970)), 301.

  22. Cole, 155.

  23. Hirsch, Mike Breen, and Tim Catchim, Loc 3120.

  24. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 967.

  25. Ibid., 992-­‐993.

  26. Ibid., 994.

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