As a movement, SGM has historical roots in “apostolic ministry” – an authoritative body consisting of “uniquely gifted men” who plant churches, provide authoritative oversight over local churches and frame the doctrinal boundaries of those churches. In more recent years, the emphasis has been to move away from a formal apostolicity and speak more of SGM as an association of local churches with SGM exercising no formal authority over local churches.
This backdrop may come as a surprise to those from the Reformed camp who know of SGM from a distance as observers, especially if they have come to interact with SGM in the past 6-8 years. However, the facts are irrefutable – SGM has roots in the idea of apostles who function authoritatively over local churches, without accountability to those local churches.
More recently, there are indications that the new board with Phil Sasser, John Loftness and CJ Mahaney are advocating for a return to apostles. In my humble opinion, they are doing this in great part because SGM has lost relevance and influence over local churches. Over the years, they have failed to add significant value by way of leadership and arguably in some regions, have mismanaged the association of local churches. I won’t detail the mismanagement here but only to say – it was linked to poor processes in defining polity, patterns of disingenuous leadership and a lack of communication.
SGM’s response to this? Bring back apostolic ministry.
As a response to this recent development, I’d like to address the topic of apostles but with a caveat that there is no way that a simple blog post can cover all elements of whether apostolic ministry is doctrinally sound or wise. Instead, this blog post serves as a hopefully helpful commentary on the topic of modern day apostles, especially as it relates to SGM.
To the point of apostles in SGM, let me say right from the outset – in my opinion, SGM has to “clear” two hurdles. First, doctrinally – are apostles a valid, continuing office for the church today. In other words – is the office of the apostle for the present day?
Second, simply put – why SGM? Even if apostles are a valid, continuing office for today, why should these men be regarded as apostles or be invested with such authority? I ask this respectfully – where does their authority come from?
Are Apostles for Today?
In answering whether apostles are a current, continuing office of the church, I would suggest that it begins with deciphering how the early church understood apostles. Here’s why that’s important – a wrong, misapplied hermenuetic on this topic will lead to the wrong conclusions. Instead, we need to begin by unpacking how NT describes or defines apostles and move toward our conclusions from that point.
Let’s begin by looking at what is meant by the word “apostles” (apostolos) – literally denoting “someone who is sent”. So, in some sense, the word carries a generalized meaning. However, while it may be used in a general way to denote a “messenger” or “sent one”, it is overwhelmingly used in the NT in a very specific way to denote a special office of the church (73/80 times). This is what theologians will sometimes refer to as a “technical” definition of apostles.
Of the remaining non-technical instances, one specifically refers to Jesus Christ – in Hebrews 3:1 where he is referred to as the “apostle and high priest of our confession”. Exploring this further, the general/non-technical use of the phrase as a “messenger” or “sent one” is used definitively only 3-4 times. An example of this is in Philippians 2:25 where Epaphroditus is referenced as a “messenger” (ESV).
I’m highlighting this to emphasize that when the NT speaks of apostles, it is primarily referring to a special authoritative office and secondarily on a few occasions, a general messenger. Hence, the idea of “lowercase a”, “semi-technical” apostles promoted by SGM is in my humble opinion, ill-founded. In other words, if you are seeking to stake a biblically consistent position around the validity of modern day apostles, you need to either point to apostles in the lineage of the original Twelve or a variant of a general messenger/delegate like Epaphroditus. What you shouldn’t do is invent a new type of apostle that is not biblically supported
With regard to the NT apostles, it is generally recognized that apostles have two qualifying characteristics – First, apostles have received a direct commission from Jesus Christ. In other words, the basis for their unique authority comes directly from Jesus. Second, apostles are eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. Paul refers to this as validation of his unique calling (1 Cor 9:1). It must be said that this is a necessary but insufficient attribute since not all who witnessed the risen Christ are deemed apostles.
It is important to note that as a class, these apostles also functioned in a unique, authoritative, foundation laying way. Together with local church elders, they made critical decisions that shaped the foundational understanding of the practice of law and grace in the life of the early church. This was vitally important as the church moved from a marginal Jewish sect to a global faith. Primarily, through the work of Paul, Peter and James, they wrote scripture that set the basis for the doctrine and practice of church life.
As such, the Twelve, together with Paul are recognized explicitly as apostles, having directly received their commission from Jesus Christ. (Luke 6:13-16, Galatians 1:1). The uniqueness of this direct commission is noted even in the appointment of Matthias (Acts 1:21-26). James and Barnabas are not explicitly stated as apostles although a strong case can be made for them (Acts 14:14 for Barnabas). James in particular, was noted as an eyewitness of the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:7) and also recognized publicly as being of similar authority to the Twelve in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15).
Further, we need to ask ourselves the following question – “how were they perceived in the life of the early church – were they perceived as unique or simply as one of a multitude, continuing line of apostles?” I believe a reading of the NT will indicate that they were recognized as functioning in a historically unique role. One example of their unique role – their words were represented to their contemporaries, as scripture or commands from God Himself (2 Peter 3:2, 2 Peter 3:16, 1 Cor 14:37).
Building on this point, it must be noted that the NT offers no indication regarding the succession of apostles. Nor did Paul or any other NT writer provide qualifications for apostles similar to qualifications for supposedly “lesser” offices of elders and deacons. Here’s my point – if this significantly authoritative and vitally important role was meant to extend beyond the early church, how would an all-loving, all-wise God omit such critical information on how to qualify and select future apostles?
For all the aforementioned reasons, to my mind, there is no question that these men were unique in their role and office. Together with Jesus Christ, the Chief Apostle, they were foundational in history and life of the church.
“So then you are no longer )strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,” (Ephesians 2:19-20)
A natural question arises – if in fact apostles are foundational to the church of Jesus Christ, what becomes of apostolic authority today and how is that authority expressed? The answer as most evangelicals will offer is that apostolic authority is expressed in their writings in the NT. As Christians, our confidence and arguably the confidence in the building of the church, rests not in the “unique giftings” of present day apostles but in Holy Scripture.
Let me finish this post by saying that I know there are many of you, especially long time SGM members who will disagree with me. I respect you and your point of view – I really do. However, I humbly submit to you that the understanding that apostles were a unique class and that the office no longer continues in the present day, is orthodox, evangelical belief. In seeking to find a new form of church government, I would strongly suggest that SGM can ill-afford to experiment by creating its own theological construct for apostolic ministry.