We often call ourselves a ‘family of churches’ and although that’s not a Bible phrase it’s one we feel comfortable with. God Himself lives as Trinity, in loving relationship, so we love emphasising that magnificent value of expressing mutual love, affection, and desire for one another’s blessing. If ‘family of churches’ is not a Bible phrase, how were churches related in the Bible?
‘Denomination’ was an unknown concept. The word simply means ‘a name’. A coin denomination may be 50 pence or 1 cent, but when we think of church denominations, we tend to think of the structures associated with them, which tend to be impersonal, maybe associated with headquarters, rules and regulations, more of an institution than something vibrant and exciting. Very different from how Paul, for instance, related to his ‘sphere’ of churches.
But what is ‘an apostolic sphere’ of churches? First of all it’s centred in the gift ‘apostle’. The word ‘sphere’ defines relationships around that gift. But first, what do we mean by ‘apostle’? The word ‘apostle’ is based on a Greek word ‘apostolos’ – ‘to send’. There is a different word for ‘send’ – ‘pempo’ – but ‘apostolos’ holds with it a sense of commissioning, almost ambassadorial; representing someone and sent with authority. In the Bible we have a number of categories of apostle.
1. Jesus. Hebrews 3:1, ‘Consider Jesus, the “apostle” of our confession.’ He is the ultimate ‘sent one’. John’s gospel records some 40+ times where Jesus refers to his having been sent. He came with a commission and celebrated, ‘I have accomplished the work You gave me to do’ (John 17:4).
Note the contrast between Moses before he was sent and after he was sent. Huge difference! His brothers were in slavery and, motivated by his own compassion and initiative he tried to help out. It all went disastrously wrong and he fled. Later we see him having been apprehended and sent by God. He is a type of apostolic ministry in the Old Testament. Jesus is modelled somewhat on Moses. Moses, we are told, was faithful over God’s house as a servant. Jesus is faithful over God’s house as a son. Jesus, the sublime sent one.
2. The Twelve whom Jesus gathered around him, and called apostles. He commissioned them. They were unique, foundational to the city of God (Rev. 21:14). Twelve obviously reflecting the Old Testament twelve sons of Israel.
3. Apostles of the ascended Christ. Ephesians 4:11 says, ‘He ascended on high and he gave gifts to men. He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers’. Here, they are a different category of apostle.
Some argue that there were only twelve and their ministry ended with the completion of New Testament canon. In contrast, others increasingly use the word ‘apostle’ very freely to describe any prominent leader, without any attempt to bring Biblical definition to their use of the term.
Ephesians 4 refers to those who are apostles of the ascended Christ, such as the apostle Paul. He was not one of the Twelve. He was apprehended after Jesus had ascended into heaven and was partnered with Barnabas; having been commissioned, both are called apostles (see Acts 14:14), as was James, the brother of the Lord. So there is another category, apostles of the ascended Christ, though, arguably, Paul was a very special one.
[To be continued]