Some Christian denominations are headed by people calling themselves Apostles. I don’t mean small ‘a’ apostles, that is, people who are merely ‘sent ones’ or ‘ambassadors’ of the gospel, which is what the word ‘apostle’ literally means (more or less). We’d be more accustomed to calling such people ‘missionaries’. I mean capital ‘A’ Apostles, who view themselves to be modern-day equivalents of Peter or Paul. I don’t think they are, and here are some brief reasons why not.
Firstly, at the end of Ch1 of the Book of Acts, we read about the election of a new Apostle, which provides some descriptive evidence for the things that were important about that office. It says:
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
Of course, this describes only what was important in those days, and so it is not necessarily prescriptive of what qualifies one to be an Apostle for all time, yet nevertheless, in the absence of other clear qualifications, it is at least true that the Twelve were appointed as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Throughout the NT, we see that the Apostles are described as doing miracles that mimic those of Jesus himself, and their message is the gospel (i.e. if your message doesn’t match theirs, it isn’t the Christian gospel). Paul is quick to emphasise that his teaching was approved by the other Apostles, i.e. his message (not learned from any man, he says) matched theirs well:
…those men [the Jerusalem church leaders] added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. (Gal. 2:6-7)
‘Abnormally Born’ Implies a Normal Birth
Secondly, Paul describes his election as Apostle as something not just unusual, but out of time and out of step with the ordained pattern.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1Cor. 15:7-9)
If Apostleship was an ordinary church office, there would be no need for the regular apologies made for Paul’s Apostleship. Certainly there would be no need for the kind of language that he uses here in 1Corinthians. If one’s birth can be described as ‘abnormal’, then it implies that there is a normal Apostle, and ‘normal’ seems to be an ordinary eyewitness of the resurrection. In any event, Paul was a witness of the resurrected Christ, so the suggestion is that his abnormality has more to do with the fact that he was appointed at the wrong time (after the possibility for eyewitness discipleship had expired) and outside of the ranks of the Twelve.
Aim For The Best: Second Place
In 1Corinthians, Paul lists Spiritual gifts in order of importance, and he tells the church to aim for the greater:
1Cor. 12:28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues… 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
After a chapter-long digression into matters of character that surpass matters of giftedness (i.e. love is better than impressive ability), Paul returns to Spiritual gifts, saying:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. (1Cor. 14:1)
In the cited bit of Ch12, Paul shows the gifts that God has ordained, listing Apostleship first, and prophecy second. At the beginning of Ch14, Paul reminds the church again to desire the greatest gifts, but specifies the second gift, prophecy, not the first, Apostleship. Why is Apostleship best for the church, yet we’re supposed to desire second best? Because Apostleship belonged to a small group of eyewitnesses of the resurrection, who were commissioned to speak on behalf of Christ himself, but it does not belong to the church of every age. Prophecy is the best of the gifts that are offered to the whole church. Apostleship never was.
So, Christ appointed Apostles to speak for him after his departure, and they have done that speaking. There is no indication anywhere that Apostleship itself was passed on; that primary office in the Church died with the last of the Twelve. Yet Apostles remain ‘first of all’ for the church, because they continue to bear witness in scripture, by their word in letter.
He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2Thes 2:14-15)