It’s been over forty years since I began my pilgrimage, over four decades of following, shakily, in the footsteps of Jesus (because, in essence, that is what a Christian is: a follower of Christ). Having had the opportunity to be a part of a variety of expressions of that faith by joining, serving, visiting – or otherwise experiencing – the wide range of Christian churches, I have observed many things. And one of those things is how readily we fall into a form of orthodoxy that limits our ability to see a bigger picture. We are all enclosed by our form of religion, bound by the statements of faith of our denomination, stuck in a box of our own choosing.
I need to make clear right up front that I believe the Bible to be the Word of God. While there is room for interpretation, and application, there is not room for creating, out of whole cloth, ideas, practices, systems, and beliefs that cannot be substantiated by scripture.
One of the boxes of created orthodoxy is the idea of leadership in the church. I have seen the following terms used to denote the person in charge:
- Grand Poobah
Okay, I made that last one up, but while the rest can be somewhat supported by New Testament example, most seem to dance around who is really leading the local church, and, by extension, who is leading the global church.
Let’s get a bit crazy here and see what the Bible tells us the leadership of the church consists of:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…” Ephesians 4:11
These five gifts, established post-resurrection, had a distinct purpose, and we are not left to guess what that might be:
“… for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Ephesians 4:12-16
Oh that any organization of any sort had such a clear directive, a concise vision, complete with the tools to achieve the stated goal:
- Building up
The whole purpose of a believer is to know Him, and the whole purpose of the church is to nurture that faith so that all can grow to maturity. Simple, right?
But then man steps in and builds a whole ’nother church, structured in ways that mirror society, business, or tradition. Power is centralized, there is a hierarchy of authority, new titles, positions, offices, and functions are established. And the simple, clear vision is clouded, while the church becomes a club of sorts, catering to the needs and interests and desires of those that belong. Don’t like the way things are where you are fellowshipping? Go shopping, find a church that fits you and enjoy it with a nice latte from the coffee shop in the foyer.
Sorry, didn’t mean to inject judgement, cynicism, or sarcasm into this discussion. Or did I?
I started writing this after a conversation I had yesterday, with a man I worked for many years ago. John Kelly had been given a clear vision of his purpose in the church:
“Go wash the feet of the young men and women who would be the end time warriors of My Spirit.”
While I have not seen John in the flesh since 1995, I have kept up with him because he made a significant impact on my life. I had been recruited in 1988 to be on his staff as he led his apostolic ministry in the business of establishing and strengthening local churches. And, after all these years, he has not deviated from that call to serve the emerging leadership of the Christian church around the world.
To the uninitiated his call may seem spooky and weird, and to the initiated claiming apostolic ministry may seem like blasphemy. After all, there were twelve apostles, right? Who is he (and many others) to claim the role, the calling, the gift of Apostle?
And that’s really my point. Jesus established a five-fold ministry, as mentioned above, to take His church to the point of maturity and unity. I don’t know where you live or what you have experienced, but I sure don’t think that has happened yet – we, the church, are a long way from perfection. From the looks of things, with our stacks of orthodox boxes, we ain’t even close.
It turns out that apostle is like prophet is like evangelist is like pastor is like teacher. All the roles have differentiated assignments, none of the roles are independent of one another. The church cannot reach its perfection outside of the full application of what Jesus gave it to do the job.
An apostle is not a man in a white robe and shiny hat, a pastor is not a guy with a collar, a prophet is not a robed kook screaming from the mountaintop. All of these are merely called men and women, gifted by the Lord to do a job. Their assignment, should they choose to accept it, is to build the church and lead it to maturity.
To disabuse the notion that the title of apostle was reserved for just a dozen men nearly 2,000 years ago, let’s have a look. The original twelve were reduced to eleven (Judas killed himself). Another was added to take his place. Then along comes Paul, “called be an apostle,” so we have thirteen. Add in James, Barnabas, Timothy, and a host of others, including Andronicus and Junia (a woman apostle – talk about upsetting your orthodoxy!) and the New Testament closes with twenty-five apostles.
The discouraging thing to me is that I know people who are operating in apostolic ministry but either don’t know it or can’t express it. Claiming apostleship would be heresy in their particular box o’ orthodoxy, so they claim some other title instead. It is okay to be a missionary, or evangelist, or church strategist. You can labor in the field, planting and harvesting, establishing and strengthening, building and serving. Just don’t be getting any ideas that rock the religious boat, or, to stay true to my original idea, break you out of the box of orthodoxy.
In talking with my old friend and boss Apostle John Kelly I had the full realization of just how far we have strayed from the original intent. I’ve participated in churches that elected their leaders, I have visited churches that felt that social justice was the purpose of the church, I have been in churches that were little more than social clubs, complete with cliques and activities and programs to keep everybody happy, and I have even been ordained as a Pastor in a church that would pick and choose which New Testament leadership positions were relevant today.
But I’ve got news for you.
The original intent, expressed by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, has not changed. It will not change, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” There will be Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers until the End, capital E.
I titled this missive Apostles & Prophets. It was not my intent to provide a thorough theological examination of those two gifts, but rather to draw your attention to the reality of what Jesus intended when He started His church. Just like the Apostle is not some exalted figure in a flowing robe, neither is a Prophet a wild man, eating locusts and honey while shouting from the desert. A prophet is not a fortune teller, but a proclaimer of truth to the church. An evangelist preaches the gospel to those who haven’t heard it, the Pastor shepherds the flock of believers, the Teacher provides correct instruction and understanding of the scriptures. All the roles, the five-fold ministry gifts, were established to serve the church in their own very specific way. The church cannot exist, cannot grow, cannot achieve her purpose without the very tools that were provided for at the beginning.
It was an enjoyable time recalling old times, catching up, exchanging wisdom (mostly one-sided, from him to me) and talking about the now and the future. It was especially refreshing, and encouraging, to recall how a man set his hand to the plow and is still out there, at 78 years old, doing what God sent him to do. It reaffirms my belief that maybe I’m still here for a reason, that at 64 years I may have some years left on this pilgrimage.
Apostle or Prophet? Not me. But as a humble follower of Christ I know, and you need to know as well, that we aren’t making it to the destination without those who are called and gifted to be the very things we can’t admit exist. We need to be ready to bust out of the box, to upend orthodoxy and the traditions of men, and to allow the Lord to build His church, His way.