The meaning of the term 'apostle' can be confidently recited by many fourth grade Sunday school students. Regrettably the same simplicity of response would probably be elicited from many of their church elders. I believe that this is not merely a problem of intellectual curiosity; it is a key factor in the lack of missionary zeal that we see within the churches of today. The aim of this essay is to attempt to produce an even simpler but more radical definition of the term 'apostle' that I think would alter some of our perceptions if fully embraced.
For most people the term 'apostle' refers to one of the original twelve disciples. The more advanced student will note that Judas was dropped and Matthias added and that Paul was also tacked on at the end. Many teachers will teach that the verses at the end of Acts 1 are a definition of what it means to be an apostle. This is however an overly narrow view of apostleship that scripture does not support. In Php 2:25 Epaphroditus is described as an apostle but the conclusion was so distasteful that the KJV rendered the word 'messenger'. In 2Co 8:23 Titus and one other are also described as apostles although again the translation was re-rendered for 'clarity'.
It is quite possible that this paper is already causing you concern. The reason is probably that a number of groups have sprung up that claim that even today we have apostles and that those apostles have the same authority as Peter and Paul and that therefore they can re-write scripture as they choose. Well I do believe that all believers today are, or should be, apostles but I most certainly don't think we have the same authority as Peter and Paul.
To understand the distinction we need to dig in to what the term apostle really means. It means 'sent'. For something to be 'sent' there are really three factors that need to be considered: the sender, the sent and the purpose of the sending. If any one of these three factors changes then we are really discussing a different sending event. Based upon this analysis we should note that the Greek word 'apostolos' means 'one sent forth with a message or orders'.
The two most momentous sending events in history are discussed in John 17:18
As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
The most important is clearly the Son being sent into His creation; however the other is a respectable second. Whilst upon the earth the Lord trained up a team of men that were to take His Word to mankind and to be witnesses to the fact that He has risen from the dead. God the Son sent the 11 'apostles' out into the world with that message. The purpose was that others (John 17:20 - us) should believe the word and so that other others (John 17:21 the world) should therefore believe that God the Father sent His Son to the earth.
Given that the sending recorded here shows that the sender is Jesus and that the reason is to testify to His resurrection it is not difficult to see that incredible status implicitly conferred upon the 'sent'. In fact it is this status that leads many from Sunday school onwards to define an apostle or a sent one to be one of that original 11 give or take one or two. However this simplification ignores the fact that Jesus specifically prayed for the second link in the chain too:
Joh 17:20Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word
The original apostles were the basis of the church in a sense then one might say that the Lord Jesus had sent them to found the church. The plan was then for the church to send others as a witness to the world. We find that both Epaphroditus and Titus are described as messengers (or apostles) of their churches. Epaphroditus was a messenger from a church to Paul to minister to him. Titus was from Paul to a church and was sent to encourage.
Despite my opening claims the foregoing has probably appeared somewhat academic. So I have shown that technically anyone that is sent can be covered by the Biblical term apostle. The greatest sending of sinful man was the sending of the eleven and then other 'sendings' were said to occur as the church transacted its business within itself and with the world. But what practical use does this definition give us?
Simply put it means that every missionary (or apostle) today should have a sending church and a specific purpose. We often hear of 'missionaries not getting the support they need.' I would argue that, by definition, if a missionary is not being 'supported' then they are not actually missionaries. This sounds harsh but I believe we need to see the complete inversion that has happened. The biblical pattern was that a church would have a burden to do something and then the church would pick someone to go do it. There was no question of support. The missionary was doing something for their church; the church was behind it.
The pattern we have today is often the opposite. Someone has a 'burden' to live in a particular country and asks the church to support them. It is interesting how our definition of mission is tied in to socio-economics. I live in Florida. If someone moves 1500 miles north and comes back every six months we call them a snowbird. If someone moves south 1500 miles and comes back every six months we call them a missionary. The fact is that if the Lord calls someone to move their house then that is the individual's responsibility. A close church may help its members move and may support them with prayer or gifts once moved - but moving is moving. I live 3500 miles from where I was born - I moved. We cannot expect a church to be fascinated by the location of everyone that ever moved out of it.
I suggest that a true Biblical energized mission would result if the churches 'sent ones' only went if and when the church had the burden to send them. The counter argument is: 'But then no-one would be sent!' This may well be true; but if that is the state of our churches then we shouldn't be sending people. If we have energetic Godly people capable of doing the Lord's work then let them work where they are until the church grows a burden for other places; or until the people are moved on.
The brutal truth is that many missionaries are really people that have been called to move but who wish to have a standard of living higher than the norm of the place to which the Lord has called them. I can understand this and I think it is generally reasonable that Christians in rich countries should provide for those in poor ones. This does not however constitute a sending simply a wealth distribution.
Another issue that I think should be addressed is that of church governance. I came from a denomination that was quite strictly conservative and often the 'missionaries' where people that wanted to enjoy some of the benefits of the denomination but also wanted some flexibility to set their own rules. I totally believe that any church formed has the right and even obligation to set its' own rules. However those that are sent are by implication still a part of the sending body and should thus be answerable to the elders of the sending church; not the target organization.
In closing I would note that I started with a bold claim and hopefully showed that a full and literal understanding of sending can radically alter our perception of a missionary. I have argued that we should not see the sent ones as autonomous entities to be accommodated; rather they are an integral part and parcel of the church to which they belong. This has been clearly distinguished from the case of people moving where they aim to become part of the fellowship where they move to. I think the litmus test is actually the issue of church governance. If the people traveling intend to become members of the local body where they arrive then they are moving. If they intend to remain part of the sending church and to be 'relocated' as the sending church so desires then they are sent.