Jack," the young pastor asked, "do you think you're an apostle?"
He was cautious. His inquiry was neither a charge or a criticism, but as part of a study group of 40 pastors with me, he explained that he simply wondered how I saw myself in terms of Ephesians 4:11.
"What do you think?" I countered.
"Well," he paused, "I think you are?"
How did I respond to his opinion?
I said, "So now what do we do about that?"
I wasn't affirming his suggestion, but I wanted to find out why he felt it important to know the answer.
The question, for my part, wasn't--and still isn't--whether I am or anyone else is an apostle, a question and subject that seems to preoccupy a lot of people today. The issue is, "What is the point of having apostles?" Not, "Who are they?"
Few today question the contemporary place of the apostolic office, and properly so. It has never been absent from the church. But the term has been sparsely used until recently, and some even want to declare it "off limits" since a measure of ignorance and arrogance still surround the subject with problems.
Problems center on the questions: "Who are today's apostles? What authority do they have?" These are prompted all the more where "who" is answered by an individual's own claim or a group's designation.
Sadly common is that questions of apostolic scope of authority too often supercede any serious concerns about the requirements of soul and spirit, or one's history of ethical behavior, (for example, concerning marriage, family, ethics, finances, biblical soundness, and so on).
There are clear New Testament qualifications establishing priorities of apostolic leadership. They need review and application today, especially in the charismatic movement.
They have too often been unapplied or foggy where quests for apostolic position and power supplant a commitment to apostolic priorities and purposes.
As strongly as I agree with the propositions that both (1) the edifying gifts of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 12) and (2) the ministry gifts of the Lord Jesus (see Eph. 4) are timeless and to be functional throughout the whole church age, I disagree with the notion that the latter are simply there for the claiming.
Of particular problem is the way our valid assertions of the present legitimacy of the apostolic office have become distorted by unworthy practices. Consider two:
First, how arbitrary territorial claims have often been staked among groups or in regions. An example of such imposition is when presumptuously announced dictums have been made, such as, "Joe What's-his-name is the apostle of Denver" or "Ed What's-his-face is the apostle of St. Louis." This practice alienates sectors of the church, plays to pride among those who are in that apostle's "network" and ignites frustration among those who aren't.
The frustration of the latter isn't because they feel invalidated, but because of what has been arrogated. Faithful, proven leaders serving a city or region, who observe a "come-lately" blithely declared the area's God-appointed top gun not only reject such arrogance, but whatever the "apostle" might have had to offer is neutralized.
So, even conceding that the announced "city apostle" may be God's ordained primary instrument for advancing the whole Church's mission in an area, let me argue against the need to make the designation.
The reasons are: (1) It isn't necessary to declare an apostle's office to authenticate or expedite his assignment; and (2) It isn't biblical to arrogantly commandeer turf when the region's leaders have neither been consulted or included in the decision.
Second, some approaches to contemporary "apostle-ing" manifestly revert to oppressive hierarchical structures. Young or discouraged pastors who feel the need to attach to apparent success, as opposed to relating to proven character and servant-hearted authority, submit to a system that does more to provide them with identity than it does to serve them with resources and nurture.
Given time, the evidence is that leaders submitted to such government will ultimately find themselves exploited, not edified, and inevitably disillusioned and distrusting of spiritual authority--something that can cripple their own leadership for a lifetime.
These problems are most lamentable because they recur in cycles to successive generations who live unschooled concerning previous, similar distortions. History repeats itself wherever sincere souls are unaware of its errors.
I've watched the craze for apostles and prophets rise and fall three times during the 48 years I've been in the ministry: first, in an aberrant sector of the Latter Rain movement (1950s); second, in the Shepherding movement (1970s); and third, amid the New Apostolic Reformation since the mid 1990s.
I hasten to add that by no means has all of either the Latter Rain or the New Apostolic Reformation movements been confused or distorted. But in successive efforts at "renewal" of the New Testament apostolic office, an exaggeration of authority has repeatedly done damage to otherwise valid awakenings. And today, one cannot help but be embarrassed by the fact that within the global charismatic sector of the church, the above problems proliferate.
Saddest is that confusion and distortion would never occur if leaders simply bothered to consult the Bible. But carnal quests for recognition, position and control remove prioritizing primary values which require a biblical leader to be earmarked less by success, anointing and authority, than by faithfulness, character and a servant spirit.
People often ask, "Then, what are the signs of an apostle?" Of course, 2 Corinthians 12:12 provides a starting place: setting forth "perseverance" (constancy under trial over an extended period of ministry); and "signs, wonders and mighty deeds" (seen in some remarkable evidence of God-approved, anointed and graced ministry).
But that isn't the end, as these cannot be substituted for the foundational basics laid in 1 Timothy 3:1-13. "Bishops and deacons" were the grass-roots leaders in the New Testament church, irrespective of how the terms are applied today, and comparative Bible references reveal "bishops" were the same thing we call pastors today.
And it is that--"pastors"--that touches the heart of what is to primarily mark a person recognized as an apostle. That heart can be summarized in two words: servant and shepherd.
Jesus Himself confined granting the exercise of authority only to the degree a person eschews it, and only if he applies it with a servant-heart: "Whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all" (Mark 10:44, NKJV).
This is only seen in a leader's dedication to the well-being of those he leads, not when he is protectively concerned about his own scope of leadership, rule or the power given him.
I decry the absence of this "heart," especially when it capitalizes on the organizing of biblically weak leaders who seem to blindly submit themselves to stronger leaders who prove to be preoccupied with the accoutrements of office, and who issue or exercise power in a way that betrays a quest for control, not a devotion to people.
Further, a leader ought not be honored with or given the task unless he has demonstrated a willingness to "lay down his life for the sheep." That's what qualifies a "good" shepherd: its essence is self-sacrifice, not self-seeking; its style is to nurture the well-being of those he leads, not to protect himself or advance his private interests.
Yes, an apostolic leader will inevitably have an agenda--a vision, an objective and a plan for pursuing it. But the dominant value manifest in his ministry will be the spirit of Jesus' ministry, "the Apostle and High Priest of our confession."
His ministry was defined by love as well as authority, by purity as well as power, by character as well as anointing, and by self-sacrifice as well as by obvious accomplishment.
'SO NOW WHAT ... ?'
Those were the words I spoke to the pastor who suggested I was an apostle--not to comment on his indicated belief about me, but to move the conversation to address the real point of apostleship. Because in the last analysis, an apostle can be one without being called that, and, just as surely, one can be called that and be a contradiction to the biblical requirements of the office.
So, I have no particular opposition to people who feel it is important to use the title, but I confess--I don't believe the title is that important. What is important is that each apostle Jesus raises up (even if he doesn't think he is one) function in the spirit that Jesus demonstrated by His apostleship.
That's "the right stuff." And where that happens, His church will have stronger foundations (see Eph. 2:20--built upon Him, of course). And upon them, He will "build His church," as she is readied to advance with that fuller release available when anointed, apostolic leadership paves and points the way.
Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California; chancellor of The King's College and Seminary and the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.