The identity of any community is shaped in no small part by key words and their definitions. In Christian communities, one of those key words appears in today’s passage. The word is “apostle.” For unity’s sake, we should work together on a common definition of this word.
Half my friends come from the charismatic tributaries of Christianity; the other half do not, and these two rivers do not communicate well. However, they do have a joint strategy for unity: maintaining distance. Unfortunately, the strategy presents a fractured picture of Jesus to the world.
Both camps confess the scriptures are inspired and authoritative, but charismatics tend to look to the Holy Spirit as a person with an active voice. This frightens non-Charismatics. They tend to see the Holy Spirit as the author and interpreter of scripture. The perceived mission of the Holy Spirit is like the continental divide within Christendom—the headwaters of two great rivers, flowing in opposite directions.
My Bible-only (or Bible-mostly) friends look to this passage as one that adds clarity to their understanding of the word “apostle.” Scripture informs them that apostles 1) suffered mistreatment 2) delivered the gospel amidst persecution 3) always leveraged character above (and as evidence of) title 4) lived and worked among the believers in order to model life 5) lived to see their charges walk in a manner worthy of God’s kingdom glory 6) were orientated to the flock as “mothers” and as “fathers,” tenderly and affectionately encouraging, exhorting, and imploring with the words of God until those words and their definitions were embedded in their hearts. This is not an exhaustive list of apostolic attributes, but it contributes to the past tense understanding of God’s Bible-only (or mostly) children.
The charismatic, kingdom now, side of our family has looked at the Greek definition of “apostle” and seen that it means “one who is sent away—an emissary.” An apostle, in this camp, can be any individual with proven gifts and specific callings who has been recognized and commissioned by a particular apostolic network.
The division created by the apostolic is not only between charismatics and non-charismatics. The apostolic, as it is known, can also cause division within independent charismatic assemblies—who, unfortunately, did not do the commissioning. The independent local assembly may be confused that some upstream-network commissions individual with titles who, biblically speaking, trump local elders in terms of authority. Unless the local assembly is collectively operating under the auspices of the commissioning network, tension is inevitable. Blessed is the leader who successfully manages this tension.
Our passage is using the word “apostle” as one commissioned within the original apostolic network. Apostles from this stream had authority, which was recognized by local assemblies. This authority was legitimized as they lived and worked along side others. “Apostle,” in its resurrected meaning, refers instead to missional apostles with unique tasks that do not necessarily carry governmental authority.
If you come across a contemporary apostle, don’t run away—just look to see if they’re “fatherly” or “motherly.” Determine if their lives are intertwined at an eye-to-eye level in the local community. If they are, perhaps they are apostles of the I Thessalonians 2, capital “a” variety. If the person simply lives out their specific calling and has been honored with the small “a” apostle designation, then honor is due them. They have proven themselves worthy of that title in the upstream-network where it was bestowed.
However, I could imagine, if an Apostle of the capital “a” variety were present they might suggest we go light on titles – especially one’s which have acquired extra-biblical definitions. Given how far we have been carried downstream, I believe they would suggest we work hard at understanding each other, because, in spite of our differences, we came from the same source and our streams will eventually flow into a vast common sea.
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:9)
Father, one day all the tributaries and streams will flow into a common ocean. There, we will know as we have been known. Until then may we be known to each other and to the world by our love. Call us anything you want, but please call up the legitimate fathers and the mothers who know how to raise children in the spirit and the word. Amen.