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In the ancient Greco-Roman world an apostolos was, in an official or legal sense, an authorized envoy of a another, empowered to represent his or her interests in a matter and to perform necessary binding legal acts. The apostolos had the authority and duty to act on the behalf of the individual or authority who sent him. This relationship was similar to the concept of agency in our world where an agent is the designated representative of a principal, authorized and commissioned to carryout specific tasks that bind the principal. Such apostles were credentialed with official documents setting forth their various rights and powers for carrying out their commission.

Saul received such a commission in Acts 9:1-2. He "went to the high priest, and asked for letters..." (Acts 22:5; 26:10; 9:14, 21) to empower him to arrest and extradite the followers of Jesus of Nazareth to Jerusalem for trial. In this matter Saul was an apostolos of the high priest.

One has to distinguish between an apostle and an Apostle. The former was in essence an agent as discussed above. In ancient Christianity the chief leaders of the ancient church occupied the ecclesial office of Apostle. Matthew's gospel tells of the apostolic commission given to The Twelve:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20.)

 As the early church grew a few others, such as Paul and Barnabas, were set apart as Apostles. In Acts 13:1-3 Barnabus and Saul became Apostles of Jesus Christ when they received a divine commission and then were formally "set apart" (ordained). Notice, they received their apostleship just before leaving on their First Apostolic Tour (some writers refer to this as the First Missionary Journey).

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:1-3 NASB.)

Form this time forward Barnabas and Paul were referred to as Apostles (Acts 14:4, 14). How did Paul understand this event? The earliest of his epistles was Galatians. He wrote to the Galatian churches that he was "an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead)..." (Galatians 1:1). The next two of his preserved epistles were addressed to the church at Corinth. He wrote: "Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God," (I Corinthians 1:1) and "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God" (II Corinthians 1:1). He claimed to be an apostle (I Corinthians 1:9) of Jesus Christ "by the will of God" (Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1).To the evangelist Timothy he wrote: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope,..." (I Timothy 1:1) and "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus,..." (II Timothy 1:1).

Concerning his ministry he said, "I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (I Timothy 2:7) and "I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher" (II Timothy 1:11). He clearly identified himself with the apostolic group. He wrote "I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men" (I Corinthians 4:9). "Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (I Corinthians 9:5). 

The Apostle Paul The New Testament, which distinguishes between apostles and elders (Acts 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22-23, 16:4), identifies a number of key leaders of the early church, e.g., the Twelve, Barnabas, Paul, James the Lord's brother, and others, as apostles. The apostles were appointed for the Church. As an apostle, Judas Iscariot was an overseer. See Marginal note in NASB for “office” which, translated literally, is “position as overseer.” The apostolic office was one of ministry and administrative oversight (Acts 1:25).

The Greek word apostolos came to articulate the status and function of the Apostolic office in the early church. They were appointed by Jesus Christ to act on his behalf in the work of the ministry. Based upon their reading of Ephesians, some Christian fellowships regard the term Apostle as a clerical title, office, or rank. For them the word Apostle is the appropriate designation for the highest position in Christian ministry. Others see this as a faulty exegesis. They argue that there have been no Apostles since the close of the Apostolic Age. In their view the defining elements of an Apostle included his witness by his personal presence and perception of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Hence they would say that John Mark, the author of the second gospel, was not an Apostle.

At first the sole ministerial office was that of Apostle. Later, the Apostles created other clerical offices based on the synagogue model and the church governed itself through appointed elders. By C.E. 50, a detailed system of ministerial responsibility was in place, which the apostle Paul cited as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers [that is, “pastor-teachers” or “shepherd-teachers”] (Ephesians 4:11). An evangelist, such as Timothy or Titus, would occasionally preside over a local congregation, implying that their ministerial function, such as an evangelist, and being given an assignment as an overseer were not necessarily the same thing nor were they mutually exclusive. Paul saw ministerial office as divinely sanctioned spiritual gifts, consisting of distinct ministries, which he described to the church at Corinth ca. C.E. 56. He explained that "God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues" (I Corinthians 12:28).

Except for the Apostles themselves the basic organization of the first-century Judeo-Christian synagogue called for a "ruler" or "chief ruler" to be the presiding officer for the group. The office was that of an "overseer." This overseer served as the chief executive officer of the local synagogue. A second layer of officiality, which functioned as a general council or board, consisted of "elders," or rulers (Mark 5:22; Acts 13:15). All of these officers were men.

The typical Judeo-Christian synagogue, had a bishop, or literally an "overseer," in authority over the local congregation. This overseer, who was the local pastor of the congregation supported by ordained elders. The bishop and the elders, at times referred to as the presbytery, were in charge of the affairs of a local church congregation. The leading elder was the presiding overseer or bishop. This ministry exclusively consisted of men (I Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9).

In a vague reference, Paul wrote in his epistle to the Church of God at Rome "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me" (Romans 16:7). Fastening on this scripture some argue that there were women apostles in the ancient church and this shows that women should hold ordained office.

Words in biblical Greek, however, had multiple meanings when the NT was authored just as English words have today. One must distinguish between the use of the word apostolos in the sense of "Apostle" as a title or designation of the Twelve and a few others in the early church and "apostle" as a representative or messenger (II Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). It would be appropriate to say that there were twelve or more Apostles (in the sense of ordained ministerial office) identified in the New Testament and that they were only men while there were men and women apostles (in the sense of believers preaching the word of God) in the early Church as well.

A true Christian, whether a woman or man, is an emissary of Jesus Christ through living the converted life. Contact with one of God's saints (holy ones) may be the only witness some people will have in this life of encountering the work of the Holy Spirit. In that sense, even today, use of the word "apostle" to describe the female or male members of the body of Christ is valid. There appears to be no evidence that there have been any Apostles, however, since the close and sealing of the New Testament by the Apostle John in the late in the first century.

One may distinguish between an "Apostle" and an "apostle" wherein the former refers to a special ministerial office in the early Church of God, or "function" if you prefer, as personal witnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and commissioned by him to preach the "good news" of the Kingdom of God, whereas the latter designation would be better understood by the word "emissary." Some, however, argue that apostolos is neither a title nor a designation limited to a few leaders in the ancient church but rather is a function of ministry throughout the history of the church.


Page last edited: 02/07/09 06:07 PM


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