Updated: Nov 9
Article by Trey Meek
There are some Christian groups today who assign the title “apostle” to some of their leaders. In contrast, there are many others who argue that the office of apostle was unique to the first century church. Often times, this argument is linked to the discussion of the more miraculous spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophesy; those who say that these revelatory gifts were only active in the first century support this claim by tying these spiritual expressions to the era of the apostles. If, however, the office of apostle continues, Christian should presumably continue to expect divine words given through tongues and prophesy today. So this question of whether or not the office of apostle continues in the church today is an important one.
As is shown below, the Scriptural answer to this question is no–the apostolic office is not active in the Church today; such an office ceased in the first century.
What is an apostle anyway?
The following is a rough Scriptural definition of an apostle:
apostle-an eyewitness of Jesus’s saving work who was then set apart for a special ministerial office in order to testify for the establishment of God’s New Testament Church.
There is great emphasis upon the ability of an apostle to bear eyewitness testimony; this apostolic qualification is especially clear in Acts 1. Since Judas was no longer one of the twelve, there was a vacant spot in this select group. For this reason, it was necessary that one be chosen to “take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside” (v. 25). Thus, through the prayerful action of those 120 early Christ-followers gathered in the upper room, we are told that a man named Matthias was appointed and “numbered with the eleven apostles” (v. 26). You might wonder–how did the church choose this man? What were the criteria for such a choice? The choice was not made in a haphazard manner. Acts 1:21-22 tells us how they narrowed down the candidates for such an important role in the early church:
21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22, ESV
It is clear form these verses that the apostolic ministry was a ministry of testifying or bearing witness to the reality of the resurrection. But to be considered one of the twelve apostles, the criteria was even more narrow; Not only was eyewitness testimony of the resurrection necessary, but the one to be chosen had to be able to testify the entire scope of Jesus’s early ministry “beginning with the baptism of John until the day he [Jesus] was taken up” (v. 22). Christianity is based upon what Jesus Christ did in history, and the twelve apostles were to bear historical testimony to Christ’s saving ministry on earth.
Since the Christian faith hinges upon history, the apostolic office was crucial in the first century; they were set apart to spread their authoritative eyewitness testimony. For this reason, Paul tells us that the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Similarly, John tells us that when all is made right in the end, the wall of the glorious New Jerusalem will have “twelve foundations” and upon them will be “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb” (Rev. 21:14). These passages make it clear that the apostolic ministry, rooted in eyewitness testimony, is the foundation of our faith.
At this point, it should be obvious why the apostolic office is limited to the first century and is not active in the church today. If you have ever built a house, you know that you don’t keep building foundations; rather, you proceed to build upon the foundation. So we should note carefully that the ministry of an Apostle is a foundational ministry for that foundational period of the Church. Nobody today is an eyewitness “to his [Jesus’s] resurrection” (Acts 1:22). Therefore, nobody today legitimately holds the office of apostle. Christians do not reveal new foundations for the faith; rather, we are called to proclaim and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
But what about Paul–was he not an apostle too?
Now someone might object to what I have said above by pointing out that Paul was also an apostle not one of the “twelve” apostles; furthermore, he was not an eyewitness of Jesus’s entire ministry “from the baptism of John” and on (Acts 1:21). Doesn’t this mean that more “apostles” came after the “twelve” and that perhaps there could still be apostles today?
It is true that there were other apostles beyond the twelve, but it is still clear that the office of apostle is not active in the church after the first century. Notice the bolded and italicized portions of 1 Corinthians 15 below, as this passage sheds much light on the way the early church viewed the apostolic office:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Corinthians 15:3-9, ESV
On the one hand, this passage makes it clear that there are more “apostles” than the twelve. Notice the distinction drawn between “the twelve” (v. 5) and “all the apostles” (v. 7). Sure, the twelve were themselves apostles, but the latter group of “all the apostles” encompasses a greater number of individuals. So yes, even though Paul was not one of the twelve, he–along with others (v. 7)–was “called an apostle” (v. 9).
On the other hand, this does not mean that the office of apostle would be an ongoing office in the Church throughout the ages because it is still inextricably linked to eyewitness testimony. We are told that the risen Jesus “appeared to James, then to all of the apostles” (v. 7). Here we are told that all apostles–even those beyond the foundational twelve–were able to bear eyewitness testimony to Jesus’s resurrection. So this indicates that the “twelve” constitute an inner circle of Apostles–with a special calling to bear testimony to the entire scope of Jesus’s earthly ministry from his baptism in the Jordan to his ascension into heaven; other apostles, like Paul, may not have had possessed such a broad scope of first-hand testimony, but were eyewitness to the risen Jesus. This, of course, ties this apostolic ministry to the first century.
To take this argument further, we should note that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is an early oral confession of faith that predates Paul’s writing. Paul is in effect quoting a well known oral tradition, “delivering” to them what he had also “received” (v. 3). Thus, this was not a one time saying that seems to indicate that all apostles at that particular moment were eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Rather, this is an established widespread oral formula that lays down the ongoing expectation through all Christianity that the office of “apostle” involves eyewitness testimony. When people bore the title of apostle in the early church, it would be understood that Jesus “appeared . . . to all the apostles” (v. 7). No modern day church leader who claims such a title has such an eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus; thus, to use such a title in the church today is illegitimate.
One last point . . .
It is a curious phenomenon that there is such confusion on the continuation of the office of apostle in the church today. There is no widespread confusion about the continuation of the office of pastor or deacon–why is that? By examining the texts above, we can discern the important eyewitness function that all apostles played in the first century; but consider how we arrived at these facts–through intentional study of what seemed to be obscure statements in the Scripture. These truths were there in the Bible, but they were not very plain and obvious. And here, we find another reason to believe that the office of apostle was limited to the first century: when it comes to the offices of pastor and deacon, we have plain and clear requirements laid out. Paul tells us plainly that a pastor or “overseer must be . . . ” and lists several criterion (1 Tim 3:2-7). Paul then tells us plainly that “deacons likewise must be . . .” and lists several criterion (1 Tim 3:8-13). Why, then, if the office of Apostle is to continue in the church today, do we not find anywhere a clear delineation of similar criterion? The answer is because the office of apostle was only for that foundational period of the church as eyewitness testimony of both a historical and revelatory nature was given regarding the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Trey Meek is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Rogersville, TN. He and his wife, Amanda, are the proud parents of 3 children. Pastor Meek also holds a D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and you can find his other written works at pastorscommonplace.wordpress.com