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For whatever reason, I have always been disinclined to consider anyone living today as an “apostle” in the biblical sense. I suppose my main concern lies in the Catholic idea that every pope has apostolic authority, equal to Jesus’ twelve disciples (minus Judas, plus Matthias), Paul, and Barnabas (see Acts 14:14). Instead, as a traditional Protestant (unless, of course, I have always misunderstood what it would mean to be a “traditional Protestant”), I have always understood the things in the Bible relating to the apostles–especially the “apostles’ teaching” of Acts 2:42–as being specifically related to the apostles who lived in the first century. In other words, I have believed that no one has been an apostle since those fourteen apostles died out.

I am currently rethinking that understanding based on Ephesians 4:11-16, where Paul lists four offices that Jesus gave to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry…”: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. Of course, few have any problem considering evangelists and pastor-teachers as legitimate offices in the church today, but what about the prophets and the apostles?

Most Protestants (especially the Puritans and their descendants) would say that anyone who proclaims the word of the Lord–that is, anyone who preaches the Scriptures–should be considered a modern prophet. This doesn’t mean that preachers are getting new revelations from God (as did Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc…), but that the office of the prophet is now taken up by proclaiming the message of God’s word given to his Church in the Bible. Christians of a more Charismatic bent might argue for an understanding of prophecy that includes personal revelations from God (i.e., revelations for individuals or for a single church, but not for the entire Church of Jesus Christ), but I don’t think that such an understanding of “prophecy” is necessary for thinking that God still gives his church “prophets.”

So what about apostles? My recent thinking has followed an analogous path to my understanding of prophets and prophecy: although there are not any apostles with the same level of authority that Paul or Barnabas or the Twelve had, we might still consider those who stand in the tradition of the earliest apostles to be modern apostles. So, we can possibly consider missionaries and church planters–those whom God gives the spiritual authority to begin a church–as apostles, even if we deny that they have authority over the entire Church in the way that the earliest apostles had that kind of authority.

Modern prophets, then, do not stand upon their own authority to proclaim new messages from God, but rather, they stand upon the authority of the original prophets and proclaim the (old) messages that God gave those prophets. Similarly, modern apostles would not be sent out (“apostle” means “someone sent forth/out”) to lay the foundation for a radically new work of God, but would stand in the authority of the first apostles and continue their work.

This, I think, gives us (or at least me) a good understanding of the offices of the church in a way that draws a clear distinction between modern apostles and the original apostles, but that also makes what Scripture teaches about apostleship relevant to Christians living today.

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