Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists (pt. 1): The Church’s Three Foundational Offices


churchThe apostleship was the Divine expedient to meet the emergencies of the Church at its first establishment and outset in the world, and not the method appointed for its ordinary administration; and the peculiarities distinctive of the office, to which I have now referred, could not, from their very nature, be repeated in the case of their successors, or be transmitted as a permanent feature in the Christian Church.
— James Bannerman, The Church of Christ 223 —

In his discussion of the Church and its founding, James Bannerman notes the way in which Apostles played a peculiar (and unrepeatable) role. In his second volume ofThe Church of Christ, he shows from the corpus of the New Testament how we should understand these “pillars,” whom God used to found the church (Galatians 2:9; Ephesians 2:20).

In what follows, I’ll trace his argument to help us better understand the uniqueness of these men. My hope is that by understanding their place in God’s new covenant temple, we will better understand our need for their message and the discontinuity of signs, wonders, and mighty works which accompanied their ministry. I believe local churches have risen and fell with commitment to the apostles’ gospel, not the continuation of their miraculous gifts. But in our charismatic age, this distinction is often missed.

We need to recover an understanding of God’s designs for the early church, and how though dead, the words of the Apostles still speak. In the next post, I will consider the Prophets and Evangelists—two offices that complement the Apostles. But for today, we will look at the unique role of the Apostles.

Four Marks of An Apostle

In his section on the Apostles, James Bannerman notes 4 peculiarities which mark off the first generation of Apostles from the Prophets and Evangelists.

1. The Apostles Were Christ’s Witnesses

“One peculiarity—perhaps the primary one—of the apostolic office, distinguishing it from other offices in the Christian Church, was, that the Apostles were separated to be the witnesses of our Lord’s ministry, and more particularly of His resurrection from the dead” (217–18). As Luke 24:46–48 states, the Apostles were commissioned to be the inspired witnesses of Christ. More specifically, Acts 1:21 states how the apostles were witnesses of his resurrection (cf. Acts 2:32; 3:15; 4:20; 5:32; 10:39–41). This testimony, 1 John 1:1–4 confirms, when the inspired Apostle recounts how they saw, heard, and touched Jesus.

While future generations could bear witness to Christ, none but the first Apostles could say they saw and touched him. Even Paul, an untimely born apostle (1 Corinthians 15:8) had a visible experience with Christ. Acts 9 recounts this event; Acts 22 and 26 repeat the importance of it. Acts 22:14–15 record Ananias’s words to Paul: “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.'”

In truth, this “chief peculiarity” distinguishes these men from any future generation of witnesses, and forms the first reason why we should see the founding generation of the church—the Apostles with the Prophets—as different from later generations.

2. The Apostles Received Christ’s Direct Commission

Whereas every generation of pastor-teachers must discern a call to ministry through indirect means, the apostles were personally chosen and sent out by Jesus. Bannerman notes,

The twelve were immediately sent forth to their work by Christ, without the intervention of man. Their commission was direct and peculiar, being independent of any earthly authority and resting immediately on the call of Christ. “As my Father hath sent me, even so I send you” [John 20:21], were the words of our Lord addressed to them,—forming the sole and all-sufficient authority by which they ministered as His Apostles. (219–220)

Just as Jesus was sent by the Father and became an “apostle” in his own right (Hebrews 3:1), so the Son of God sent out his apostles: “So nearly resembling the very mission of the Son by the Father was the delegation they [the apostles] received from Christ, that He appropriates to it the same name, and tells them, moreover, in reference to their extraordinary vocation: ‘He that receives you, receives me; and he that receives me, receives Him that sent me’ [Matthew 10:40; John 13:20]” (220). For this reason, “the Apostles stood alone and without succession in the Christian Church” (221).

3. The Apostles Received Christ’s Supernatural Endowment

Christ not only commissions his apostles, he also endows them with “supernatural power which they possessed to qualify them for their extraordinary mission” (221). Strikingly, tongues did not begin until the Spirit was poured out and generally abated as the New Testament apostles looked forward to the next generation. For instance, the Pastoral Epistles contain no positive instruction to enshrine tongues or any other sign gifts in the teaching ministry of the church.

Likewise, 1 Corinthians, one of Paul’s earliest letters, is the only epistle which addresses the subject because of the excesses in Corinth. No other letter commands tongues or other miraculous gifts. To be sure, signs and wonder and mighty works were present in the church, but these Bannerman argues were given to the Apostles because of their unique calling to publish the gospel.

It was required of the Apostles that they should publish the Gospel to every creature, so that men of other languages and nations might be brought into the Church of God; and for this purpose the day of Pentecost beheld them possessed with the extraordinary gift of tongues, so that each of the strangers outs of divers countries ‘heard them speak in his own language the wonderful works of God.’ The power of inspiration, or miracles, and of tongues are spoken of by Paul as ‘the signs of an apostle’ (2 Corinthians 2:12). (221)

Bannerman recognizes that others also received this gift, but he argues they did not receive it “in the same degree with the Apostles.” Rather, the miraculous revelation of the gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6–7; Ephesians 3:1–11) was conferred to the Apostles on the basis of God’s gracious gift, accompanied by signs and wonders, and not by academic study alone—as it would be commanded of future generations (see 2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 1:9).

4. The Apostles’ Responsibility Extended Beyond Any Local Church 

If the Apostles received the spontaneous ability to speak the gospel in languages known and unknown, they were also given the responsibility of serving the universal church. Unlike future generations of pastors and teachers recognized by and called to serve in local churches, the Apostles (along with the Prophets) had the responsibility of serving the larger church. For this reason, we find Paul refusing the role of baptism (1 Corinthians 1:14–17). As an apostle he was commissioned to preach the gospel (and plant churches), not to establish a lengthy ministry in any one church—a feature which baptism reflects and requires.

Rather, Bannerman suggests the Apostles’ delegated authority was boundless,

We see the proof of this authority in the manner in which, both personally and by writing, they assumed the direction and regulated the affairs of the universal Christian Church in all its departments. We see a distinct intimation of it in the power committed to them by our Lord, when, in the terms of their call to the apostleship, they received warrant to bind and to loose on earth and in heaven. (222)

While this authority to bind and loose would eventually reside in the local church, it is noteworthy that Paul could speak of his authority to cast judgment upon a brother when he was not even present in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:3–5). If the keys of the kingdom and the right to discipline an erring member were given to the local church, as Matthew 18:15–20 teaches, how could Paul condemn an erring member? The answer must rest in his apostolic office.

Likewise, the Apostles’ designated authority is found in their writings and the way they understood their commission from Christ:

Not less distinct is the evidence of a supreme authority exercised by them, when we see them in their writings, and by their personal interference and control, laying down the whole platform of the New Testament Church,—appointing its office bearers and its form of government, enunciating its maxims of worship, and prescribing the exercises of its discipline, inflicting and removing censures in the case of its members, and authoritatively overruling the procedure in ecclesiastical matters, both of individuals and of Churches. Such a supreme jurisdiction and universal ministry were competent only to apostles, . . . and separate it broadly from other offices in the Christian Church. (222–23)

Indeed, when we take in all that Scripture says about the Apostles, it becomes evident that no one in church history comes close to their authority. Indeed, no is supposed to come close to their authority. Jesus Christ chose his twelve apostles to bear witness to him and to be the Church’s only foundation. He gave them his Spirit to bring to mind who he was and what he did. As John 14:26 says, the Spirit whom Jesus was sending “he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” This promise was for the apostles only; it was not a ubiquitous promise. Accordingly, their authority is unlike anyone else’s in church history.

The Uniqueness of the Apostolic Office

Though dead, the Apostles still speak. And churches that reject their teaching, effectively reject Christ, because Christ speaks by them. Similarly, every true church must build on their foundation. When we come to grips with who the Apostles were and what they did, it significantly impacts the way we think about the miraculous gifts.

Could it be that much of continuation of sign gifts occurs today because there is no perceived division between the offices of Apostle and Pastor? Could it be that the rise of sign gifts in the last century has come, in part, because a robust understanding of the church offices has been lost? In other words, if there is not a distinct break in the offices, accompanied by the awareness of what God intended his Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists to do, why would there be a distinct break in the sign gifts?

It is telling that many Pentecostal churches call their leaders apostles, while others affirm an ongoing four- or five-fold ministry from Ephesians 4:11—where each office continues today. Yet, once we observe the distinct shift between Apostles and shepherd-teachers, on the basis of the four marks observed above, we are in a much better place to see the Apostles’ foundational role as distinct from the ongoing teaching gifts in the church.

This is an argument that seems missing today. Instead of seeing or stressing a clear distinction between the foundational Apostles and Prophets and every other generation of living stones in Christ’s temple, there is a ubiquity assumed of all believers. Accordingly, churches are tempted to add—in practice, if not in doctrine—“revelations” from modern day apostles and prophets. Yet, on the testimony of the New Testament such revelations are not needed, because of the enduring message of the Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists.

Indeed, as Ephesians 4:11 indicates, th Apostles are not alone, and thus next time I will pick back up James Bannerman and his reflections on the Prophets and Evangelists—the other two founding offices in the universal church.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds