Three Essential Components of the Apostolic Church
This essay is based on a paper I presented to the theology track of the first-ever pan-European Evangelical Alliance conference held in Budapest, Hungary, in May 2002. The theme of the conference was “Shaping Europe’s Future Together.” Thirty-five nations were represented at the conference and a dozen or more countries were represented in the theology track.
I was asked by German theologian/missiologist, Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher, the host of the theology track, to tailor my paper to the conference theme. I also was asked to give applications out of my foreign mission experience, especially in Latin America.
Following the conference, the papers of the presenters were put in book form and published in Europe. This paper is an edited (and shorter) version of the original paper. What has been omitted is the section of the paper that dealt with my missional experience.
Since May 2002, I have shared the ideas contained in this essay with gatherings of pastors in the United States and abroad. The response has been positive. I hope this is an indication that more and more churchmen are ready to lead their flocks into a future far more apostolic than any of us could have imagined possible a mere decade ago.
The Gate Crashing Church
Three Essential Components of the Apostolic Church
Shaping Europe’s Future Together is the theme that called this essay into existence. The theme is a noble one because it calls the Church into action as the builder and shaper of civilization. The theme presupposes that its call can be accomplished, and it brims with optimism. This optimism is biblically based because the shape of the future was forcefully indicated in words Jesus uttered nearly two thousand years ago. Those words are: “‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’” (Matt. 16:18, ESV). With these famous words, the Lord Jesus promised to build his Church. With these same words, he also promised the Church would demolish the gates of hell. Christ’s words thus indicate a hell conquered and plundered. A built Church and a conquered hell—these things are the shape of the future the Lord is fashioning—not only in Europe but all over the world.
Christ’s promise is stunning, especially to a Western Church that has lost more cultural ground than it has gained over the past century. It is also stunning to Western evangelicals who are dominated by a fortress mentality. This mentality sees hell on the march and the Church entrenched behind Zion’s walls, fending off attackers. But Christ’s words reveal the Church as the aggressor. It is hell that is stationary, dug in behind closed gates and doomed to defeat and plundering. Christ’s words predict the demolition of the gates of hell through the work of the Church. The clear inference is that the spoils of hell—people in bondage—will be liberated and transferred to the use of Christ and his kingdom.
Christ’s words clearly spell out the division of labor. He builds the Church; the Church conquers the gates of hell. (We sometimes get that backward, don’t we? We want to build the Church and let Christ conquer the gates. But it doesn’t work that way.) Christ’s words also spell out the order of things. First, Jesus builds the Church; second, the Church conquers the gates of hell. We infer therefore that the Church that man builds surrenders to hell, but the Church that Christ builds conquers hell.
The Church that Christ builds is an apostolic Church. An apostolic Church sends apostles and evangelists out into the world to conquer strongholds by means of the Gospel. It builds its own community under bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and thereby develops a superior social structure. It produces a witnessing community that lives by and declares truth. It prays for victory, then takes territory by means of redemptive and productive action. The community of faith eventually displaces the enemy and diminishes the influence of evil. The apostolic Church overcomes evil with good.
So when Christ said he would build his Church, it was an apostolic Church he had in mind. The apostolic Church is a prevailing Church. The apostolic Church offers hope to men for time and eternity. Furthermore, only an apostolic Church can and will lead to the building of a Christian civilization the world over. Only an apostolic Church can free men from sin’s prison and equip them to unlock the riches of the earth for the benefit of mankind.
Is the dream of shaping Europe’s future—or that of Africa, the Americas, or Asia, for that matter—something that can be accomplished? History’s witness indicates it is. Indeed, history offers ample evidence of the success of apostolic Christianity. The Roman Empire eventually was captured—without a single armed revolutionary—by the persistent preaching and witness of an apostolic Church. The Christianization of the Roman Empire’s people and institutions laid the foundations of a continuing Western Civilization. Western Civilization led directly to the creation of the modern world. The United States of America is a beneficiary of the long historical Christianizing process; it owes its strength to its Christian foundations. The stunning growth of the Church in present-day Africa, Latin America, and Asia offers a clear signal that a better world is under development. The reformation of Europe is also coming into view for those who have eyes to see it. The foundations are being laid the world over. And the foundations are Christian. Christ is building his Church; the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Now let us turn to my thesis.
The Three Essentials of an Apostolic Church
The thesis of this essay is that the Church needs three essential elements to be apostolic. Those elements are truth, power, and structure. The full and harmonious combination of all of these elements is necessary for the effective deployment of the Church on behalf of the evangelization of nations, the conquering of hell, and the development of Christian civilization the world over.
The biblical text that informs my deliberate choice of three elements is Ecclesiastes 4:12. Contained in this verse is a phrase that reads, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” A threefold cord of truth, power, and structure is therefore a powerful cord, one that is not easily broken.
The use of the threefold cord model is in keeping with the Trinitarian stamp the Holy Trinity has placed on creation. For instance, the laws of physics constitute a threefold cord more powerful than a twofold or a fourfold cord. Relationally, strong leadership teams in church and business often consist of three persons. The basic family unit consists of three roles: father, mother, and child. Ideally, three generations—grandparents, parents, and children—combine to strengthen the lives of each generation and to form a strong intergenerational familial bond. Time is measured in terms of three increments: the present, past, and future. (This reminds us of the Lord God, the Almighty, “who is, and was, and is to come” (Rev. 1:8). The Nicene Creed states that the Church is “Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”—these three elements define the essential essence of the Church. The major historic churches believe that the Church has three officers: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The Anglican “stool,” it is often asserted, has three legs: Scripture, tradition, and reason. The three most famous ‘solas’ of the Reformation are Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Sola Scriptura. The present day Convergence Movement calls for the convergence of three components in worship—liturgical and sacramental worship order, evangelical preaching, and the active charismatic presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the apostolic essence of the Church requires apostolic message, apostolic mission, and apostolic method. The threefold cord model of truth, power, and structure thus fits within a framework that suggests the strength that derives from the binding together of three elements.
When any one of the three components of truth, power, and structure is absent, the Church cannot be fully apostolic. (Some wings of the Church are strong in one of the three components, some are strong in two, but rarely does one find all three components cooperating in harmonious working order.) However, despite noticeable failures of the Church to effectively combine truth, power, and structure, I am optimistic about our future. That is because I do believe the Lord Jesus is working in the Church to braid these three components into a workable reality. This reality is necessary if the Church is to shape the future of the world for good.
The chart below illustrates the three components:
Now let us look at each of these components separately.
Christ and the Holy Bible
The first necessary component of an apostolic Church is apostolic truth. Apostolic truth is absolutely foundational to the Church. Apostolic truth is biblical truth, that is, truth that is revealed in the entirety of the Holy Bible. It is the truth the apostles of the Lamb stewarded and passed on to us. It is the truth encapsulated in the creeds. It is the evangelical truth masterfully expounded by the magisterial Reformers and their successors. And foundationally, apostolic truth is Christ-centered truth. There is no Church without Jesus at its head, no Christianity without Christ. Jesus Christ is God incarnate. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the author and finisher of the faith. He is the foundation of the Church, and also her chief cornerstone. He is the kinsman-redeemer of the elect and the Lord of heaven and earth. And he is much, much more. Because Jesus Christ is so essentially central and foundational to the Church, I wish to focus this portion of the essay on Christological truth. Christ and biblical truth are conceptually inseparable. The emphasis Jesus himself placed on the sacred Scriptures is demonstrated in his encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the day of his resurrection. St. Luke tells us that the Lord, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets…interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Luke also records the reaction of the two disciples when he quotes them as saying, “‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32). A little later, the Lord appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Clearly, Jesus attested to the veracity of the Scriptures. As the New Testament era dawned, divinely inspired authors made essential and important additions to the pages of Holy Writ. All those pages testify of Christ and reveal his will to mankind. Christ and the Holy Bible are thus inseparable. History illustrates with painful clarity that whenever the Church loses her passion for the written Word of God, her light dims. A Church that closes her heart to the Holy Bible asks Jesus to leave. Devotion to Christ and to sacred Scripture are companion duties.
Apostolic truth must center on Christ Jesus. Apostolic truth is therefore Christological truth. Apostolic truth must reveal Christ’s will and advance his purposes. It must be true to his mission. It must offer insight into the right ordering of his Church. It must be faithful to who and what Christ is. St. Paul wrote: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). A little later he added, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The Great Commission authorized the apostles to make disciples based on the things Jesus himself had taught them (cf. Matt. 28:18–20). The Scriptures reveal Christ. Apostolic truth must necessarily do so as well, or it isn’t apostolic truth.
Let us now examine several important components of Christ-centered apostolic truth.
Christ the Priest and King
Christ is both Priest and King (cf. Zech. 6:9–13). These offices work in concert. In general terms, we may safely say that our redemption and salvation, and ongoing assistance in our sanctification, derive from Christ’s priestly office. This office is also central and foundational to our worship. On the other hand, Christ’s lordship has to do with his governance of all things, and especially of the Church. His lordship also places the state in a diaconal (service) role to God on behalf of civil justice (cf. Rom. 13:1–7). The lordship of Christ also has to do with the mobilization of the Church in evangelism. Moreover, it gives warrant to Christian dominion-taking by means of Christ-ordered vocation, avocation, and citizenship. Apostolic truth will call us to Christ both as Priest and King.
Three Areas of Special Interest to Christ and the Church
There are three specific areas under the lordship of Christ that are essential to our understanding of the apostolic Gospel. The areas are creation, redemption, and government.
1. Creation. Christ is the Creator of all things (cf. John 1:3; Col. 1:15–16). As Creator, Christ is therefore certainly concerned with creation. The dominion mandate (given first to Adam and by extension to all mankind) is thus very important to Christ the Creator. Essentially, the dominion mandate (Gen. 1:28) is a developmental mandate. Simply put, it calls Christians to the business of developing the earth, creating and implementing technology in just ways, beautifying and better ordering the earth and its peoples, and generally transforming wilderness into garden. Adam was given a garden and a charge to develop the earth, but his sin turned the earth into a wasteland and many of his descendants into destroyers. By his obedience unto death, Christ was given title deed to the earth upon his ascension (cf. Ps. 2:8). Therefore, he is now working through his people to restore the earth. Adam’s sin led directly to the human digression from garden to desert; Christ’s obedience leads to the human progression from desert to garden. A non-apostolic Gospel ignores the responsibilities Christians have in the development of the earth and the building of Christian civilization. The apostolic Gospel, however, summons Christians to the dual duties of discipleship and development. “[A]ll things were created through him and for him,” wrote the apostle Paul (Col. 1:16). The creation exists for Jesus. The Church must work to make creation serve him. So again, creation is of special interest to the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Redemption. The second area of interest I want to address is redemption. Christ is the Redeemer. As the Redeemer, Christ is concerned with the redemption of men, saving them from sin and delivering them from the dominion of Satan (Col. 1:13). The apostolic Gospel, therefore, aims at the salvation of people. An apostolic Church experiences growth by conversion. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The redemption of men is of special interest to the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
3. Government. A third area that is of interest to Christ is government. Under Christ’s government are the Church, as well as all thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities (cf. Col. 1:16–17). As King of kings, Jesus Christ is the Ruler of Nations. Officers of state are to be God’s deacons. In short, Christ is concerned with all types of government. He is concerned with the individual’s self-government, with family government, with Church government, and with civil government. Apostolic truth has much to say regarding the issue of government.
My own country, the United States of America, would not have been possible had not English Puritans and Scots Presbyterians—Calvinists both—developed a biblically based theology of civil government and then worked to implement it. Today’s American secular history books ignore this truth, but it can be easily proven that the single greatest contributing factor in the establishment of the United States of America (as a politically organized nation dedicated to liberties based on Christian principles) was the Calvinism of its founders, especially the Puritans and the Ulster Scots (or “Scotch-Irish” as they are so often called.)
To list but one example of the role Calvinistic thought played in the establishment of the United States, one may go to a sermon preached on May 17, 1776, by the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, then president of Princeton University in New Jersey. The sermon was later published under the title “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” This sermon enjoyed wide circulation in the Colonies and in Great Britain. Writes historian Arthur Herman of this sermon, “What was at stake was not just taxes or the rights of Englishmen, but the principle of a Christian commonwealth dedicated to God [emphasis mine]. In fact, the political and religious principles were inseparable.” Herman quotes Witherspoon, “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty [kept] entire.” Calvinistic theology and Calvinistic preachers played a decisive role in the War of Independence. So, although some Christians assert that Jesus is not interested in politics, the Bible reveals otherwise. Jesus is most certainly interested in the just conduct of civil government, and also in the politics that affect it.
So we see that Jesus, as both King and High Priest, is directly involved with creation, redemption, and government. A complete Gospel—an apostolic Gospel—comprehensively addresses each of these areas. A Church informed by the apostolic Gospel will work to comprehensively implement the implications of the Gospel across the full spectrum of human endeavor. The world will be a better place as a result.
The Essential Connection between Eschatology and Ecclesiology
Let us take a few minutes to examine the relationship between eschatology (the study of last things) and ecclesiology (the study of the Church). There is an essential connection between these two fields of theology because each is essentially a Christological issue. The lordship of Christ points emphatically to a victorious eschatology. In turn, a victorious eschatology summons the Church to marshal for victory in time and history. Eschatology defines the vision of the Church and ecclesiology defines how the Church mobilizes to fulfill the vision. Thus, the two fields are inseparably joined.
However, an eschatology of defeat, such as that offered by the theological system called Dispensationalism, takes a dim view of Christ’s lordship and at the same time poorly equips the Church to be a relevant and leading factor in the development of the nations. Much of the confusion and irrelevancy currently on display in the American evangelical expression of the Church owes to the widespread popularity of the eschatological teachings of Dispensationalism. Beyond the United States, I have for more than two decades observed the widespread damage done by Dispensationalism in a number of developing nations in Africa and Latin America. Dispensationalist eschatology offers a dark, defeated, and fatalistic worldview. It produces a faith marked more by fear and paralysis than by confidence and purpose. It destroys evangelical optimism and retards Christian development. “We lost a whole generation to this theology,” one Brazilian Assemblies of God pastor told me some years ago. The Assemblies of God is the largest evangelical denomination in Brazil. (In most cases, American missionaries planted the dispensational system in Latin America and Africa, but some European missionaries must also share responsibility.) I have no wish to offend my dispensationalist brethren—they are brethren—but in my view, Dispensationalism offers a bus ride to a city called “Nowhere.” Dispensationalism offers less than a complete Gospel, is a relatively new theological system, and has little in common with the mainstream of historic Christian thought. But my main point here is that our eschatology shapes our worldview. And our worldview has very much to do with how we mobilize or do not mobilize the Church. Again, eschatology and ecclesiology are inseparably joined.
The answer to bad eschatology is biblical Christology. It is here that the Revelation provides remarkable help. In the Revelation, we see Christ displayed as the Lamb of God more than two dozen times. This is the primary symbolic representation of Christ in this great book. The Lamb of God is, among many other things, the Lord of lords and King of kings (Rev. 17:14; 19:16). Revelation 17:14 states, “They [the enemies of the Lamb] will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him [believers] are called and chosen and faithful.” Clearly, the Lamb/Redeemer is the conquering King. The Church that serves the Lamb is called to follow him into the conflict that leads to victory. The call to the Church is not escape, but combat. The predicted end of Christian combat—an eschatological and ecclesiological issue—is victory in time as well as eternity. Christ’s mission, namely, the defeat of his enemies on the historic battlefield, points us to the Church’s mission, namely, following him into battle on the selfsame battlefield. Christ-centered eschatology summons us to Christ, summons us to the battle for planet earth, and summons us to the victory promised if we but follow him into battle. Eschatology is therefore essential to ecclesiology. The Church that knows the aim of the Gospel will be able to mobilize for it. Not so the Church that doesn’t. Eschatology is therefore essential for the proper mobilization of the Church.
We may sum up this brief treatment of apostolic truth in this way. Apostolic truth is biblical truth. It is Christ-centered truth. It reveals both Christ’s Priesthood and his Kingship. It has to do with creation and development; it has to do with the redemption and salvation of men; and it has to do with Christ’s lordship over men, families, Church, state, and the earth. Apostolic truth requires us to see the Lamb as King of kings, and to embrace a victorious worldview equal to the crown rights of King Jesus. It also requires us to give ourselves to the victorious outworking of what we believe.
The power of the Holy Spirit
If apostolic truth is foundational to the faith, so also is apostolic power. This power has one source and one source only—the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is essential to the application and extension of the faith. For the Church to be apostolic, she must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, truth becomes something like a recipe in a cookbook that is never used to prepare a meal. It is the meal, not the recipe, that hungry men need. There can be no meal, no translation of truth into a life-transforming commodity, without the Holy Spirit. Plainly, apostolic Christianity is impossible without the work of the Holy Spirit.
A treatise need not be offered on the Holy Spirit in this paper, but three works of the Holy Spirit do need to be addressed in brief. First, the Holy Spirit gives new life to sinners. Second, the Holy Spirit empowers and assists the Church in the fulfillment of her many duties. Third, the Holy Spirit is also the necessary divine partner for the sanctification of a believer, including the very necessary work of guiding the believer into truth (John 16:13). Without the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, we would not be able to understand the Bible, our human proclivity to sin would overpower us, and we would lack the grace to live life as we should. In short, the Holy Spirit is needed to save, empower, and sanctify the Christian.
I would suggest that regeneration and empowerment are generally accomplished in two different operations of the Holy Spirit. Regarding the first necessary work in the life of a person, regeneration, I would argue that an example of the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit was modeled for us on the evening of Christ’s resurrection. It was then that Jesus breathed on his disciples with these words: “‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Some argue that this was a typological event indicative of what would happen later on the day of Pentecost. I see it otherwise. I believe what happened here was a New Testament counterpart of what happened with Adam, the first human, when God breathed into him to constitute him a living creature (Gen. 2:7). When the risen Christ breathed on the disciples, they were given life for the new epoch that dawned with Christ’s resurrection. God gives men his breath—his life—by the agency of the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, something else happened—the apostles were empowered to fulfill the commission they previously had been given. The Holy Spirit not only gives new life to the convert, he empowers the convert to effectively live and proclaim the message of salvation. So regeneration and empowerment are both accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The early Church modeled life in the Holy Spirit. It was marked by both conversions and remarkable displays of power. It was also charismatically gifted. In short, the Holy Spirit’s activity marked the early Church. Life made possible and empowered by the Holy Spirit must mark us as well, if we wish to be apostolic in essence, demonstration, and effectiveness.
The Holy Spirit is intimately and profoundly connected to the risen Christ and his administration of his kingdom. A dramatic picture of this intimacy is given to us in the Revelation, where the apostle John describes his first view of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Note John’s words: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). There is much we could say regarding this text, but here let us note that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Lamb and represents the Lamb in the earth. One conclusion I draw from this picture is that the Holy Spirit connects Christ to the Christian and the Christian to Christ. The Lord Jesus is no horn-less, eye-less lamb. Rather, he is omnipotent and omniscient God. He is God incarnate. He is raised to the right hand of the throne of God. He is directly connected to us by the Holy Spirit. A Church without the Holy Spirit is a Church without the real Jesus. But where the Spirit of the Lord is, the Lord himself is present in manifest power and glory.
Let me offer a historical side note here. Many U.S. citizens in my generation were raised in traditional Protestant or Roman Catholic churches that were marked more by the absence of the Holy Spirit than by his presence. Many in my generation also suffered at the hands of saved clergymen who, though sincere and honest, were not empowered to preach, teach, or lead. It was worse for the many in my generation whose clergymen were not regenerated in the first place. Much of the backsliding and secularization that developed in my generation had its roots in the emptiness of a powerless Church.
The Holy Spirit is essential to an apostolic Church. His wind can and should be felt, his glory known, his power touched.
A Church Organized both for Mission and Pastoral Care
The third component of an apostolic Church is apostolic structure. The Lord Jesus not only gave his Church truth and the Holy Spirit, he also gave it a fundamental (and highly workable) structure. For the apostolic Church, biblical truth is foundational and the Holy Spirit is vital, but organization is also essential. The Church needs a wineskin. Structure is an essential element of the apostolic Church.
What is the apostolic structure? Ideally, it is a combination of apostolic and presbyterian offices, each accompanied by diaconal assistance. Each office focuses on a particular duty. In general, the apostolic office should be dedicated to mission and the presbyterian office to pastoral care. The structural ideal might well be termed Apostolic and Presbyterian. To use more contemporary language, we could term the ideal structure Missionary and Pastoral. The apostolic (missionary) and the presbyterian (pastoral) components are each necessary to the apostolic Church. To have one without the other is to have less than an apostolic structure.
To meet the challenges and demands of the twenty-first century, the Church will need to recover and mobilize these primary components of the apostolic Church. For mission in the secularized West, the apostolic is absolutely essential. (It is also essential for mission in yet-to-be evangelized areas of the world.) The pastoral structure of the traditional Protestant church is not sufficient in and of itself to meet the demands of mission in today’s world. At the same time, there can be no long-term rooting of Christianity (in either the West or the rest of the world) without the essential ongoing care of the pastoral office and the congregational structure that develops around it.
Again, the ideal apostolic structure requires both the apostolic and the pastoral.
Brief Outlines of the Apostolic and Presbyterian Offices
1. The Apostolic. When I speak of an “apostolic office,” I have in mind a leading and innovative minister of the Lord who is equipped by God to engage in itinerant ministry on behalf of the kingdom of Christ. The itinerant apostolic ministry has as its aim the conversion of sinners, the organizing of converts into churches, the establishment of basic doctrinal and polity standards, the equipping and ordination of church officers, and the general oversight of the churches founded or maintained under its charge. An apostolic minister also should take a primary role in leading the kingdom of Christ into conflicts with opposing secular powers. He should labor to unify disparate sectors of the Church so that they can form a unified front against the world and achieve an internal harmony that results in Christian productivity. He also should be bent on establishing the Church in such a way that it can develop a Christianized world. In short, the apostolic man is a man of mission. He is often a man of war, whose primary focus is the conquering of new territory. But he is also a man of the Church who cares deeply for its doctrinal stability, sanctity of conduct, and success in righteously impacting the world around it. An apostolic man usually has considerable fruit in terms of conversions, and can point to churches he has helped organize or better order. He has men on his team (like Timothy and Titus) whom he can deploy on behalf of Christ’s cause. Jesus, of course, will ever be the great Apostle of our Faith, the one who models (in terms of the ultimate ideal) what an apostle should be. St. Paul also serves as an apostolic model.
I should emphasize here that the apostles of the Lamb, that is, the eleven plus Paul, were unique. (If you count Matthias, then add Paul to the twelve.) That being said, I also believe a necessary ongoing component of the New Testament economy is apostolic ministry (cf. Eph. 4:11). However, apostles from the post-apostolic period down to the present day cannot equal in rank or authority the apostles of the Lamb. In other words, today’s apostolic minister cannot claim to write infallibly and his rank does not approach that of the foundational ministers (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14) of the Church. That being said, present-day apostolic ministry is necessary.
The apostolic component of the Church is woven into the very fabric of the New Testament. However, this essential structural component of the Church often goes unnoticed—or is dismissed as something no longer relevant—in large segments of the modern Church. Often, the apostolic component is just plain misunderstood. But the apostolic component is sorely needed, especially as we prepare to re-conquer the fallen West and take on the evangelization of several billion people who have yet to hear the name of Jesus.
In calling for modern-day apostles—missionary churchmen with proven character, sound doctrine, a clearly defined mission, and proven ability—I would be unwise if I failed to note that there are many false apostles roaming today’s world. (The Pentecostals and Charismatics seem to have more questionable “apostles” per capita than all the rest of the Church combined. But to be fair, they also have more Whitefield and Wesley types than any other sector of the Church.) But there are false shepherds, too. There are also false churchmen, false teachers, and false prophets. The early Church had its share of charlatans, and we have ours. But the false minister doesn’t disqualify the authentic minister. If anything, the emergence of false ministers (of whatever category) necessitates the emergence of the true minister. In head-to-head competition, the authentic will triumph over the false. I would encourage the reader not to dismiss the need for true apostles just because all he has seen are false ones.
2. The Presbyterian. Presbyterian duties are those that apply to pastoral care. I have in mind the pastoral overseer who cares for Christ’s flock in a specific congregation (cf. 1 Peter 5:1–11; Acts 20:17–36). The pastoral component of the Church is essential to its maintenance and health. The presbyterian (pastoral) component has by and large safeguarded and maintained the Church for most of its two thousand-year history. It is therefore a most necessary component of the apostolic Church. Indeed, pastoring is essential work because the care of Christ’s flock cannot be managed without pastors. Western and Western-based churches generally understand the pastoral office and have worked hard to maintain and preserve it. Even so, pastors are often unsung heroes.
The success of an apostolic structure requires both the apostolic and pastoral offices to function in concert, with each doing its part to advance Christ’s purposes. One focuses on mission, the other on pastoral care. Both are necessary. One of the challenges of our day is to find workable ways for the two offices to function together effectively.
The Episcopal form for Apostolic & Presbyterian Integration
A number of ecclesiastical jurisdictions around the world employ an episcopal system of church governance. The jurisdictions that do so believe their system is apostolic because it embraces the structure the apostles left with us. The most ancient of these jurisdictions are the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. Let us briefly outline the episcopal structure and the way it reaches for integration between the apostolic and the presbyterian offices.
The above-mentioned jurisdictions reach for the integration of apostolic and presbyterian offices by distinguishing between the bishop and the priest. In this construct, parishes under presbyter/priests are organized into dioceses under the authority of a bishop. The episcopal organization of such churches at times lends itself to both creative outreach and effective pastoral care. It also makes practicable the organization of diocesan services such as counseling centers, relief organizations, educational institutions, missionary departments, and the like. The diocese (or district) can and often does offer highly efficient economies of scale to numerous church-based institutions and organizations.
I am aware that many Protestant scholars make a strong biblical case when they state that bishop and presbyter are two words for what is essentially the same office. Because of this, many Protestant churches resist episcopacy. However, when the New Testament was written, there was an apostolic dimension that existed beyond the presbyter and the local congregation. The presbyters and their congregations could look to an outside source—an apostle or apostolic council—for direction and care. But when the apostles passed from the scene, so also did the apostolic dimension. Over time, therefore, the church filled the apostolic void with the bishop’s office. ( The emergence of the bishop greatly assisted the ongoing development of the Church and defined its government for the next millennium and a half. Since the Reformation, episcopacy no longer makes a near-universal claim on ecclesiastical governance, but it still plays a dominant role among Christians worldwide.
In practical terms, the emergence of the bishop as a lead among equals greatly assisted the development of the Church. John Calvin notes, “All those to whom the office of teaching was enjoined they called ‘presbyters.’ In each city these chose one of their number to whom they specially gave the title ‘bishop’ in order that dissensions might not arise (as commonly happens from equality of rank.” Calvin adds a few sentences later, “And the ancients themselves admit that this was introduced by human agreement to meet the need of the times.” Calvin also makes clear that the early bishopric was collegial, as opposed to monarchial.
It has been my experience that in a system in which all presbyters are equal, and in which there is no individual overseeing authority to which the presbyters may look, denominational paralysis and gridlock set in sooner or later. A worse case is the system in which a disconnected independence leaves churches and pastors without leadership or personal care.
One more thing needs to be said about episcopacy as it has come to be defined in the modern West. In essence, the episcopacy has primarily become a pastoral office. That being the case, it is often so that the episcopal system lacks the truly apostolic (or missionary) dimension needed for the successful advancement of the Gospel. The exception to this may be found in episcopal jurisdictions that recognize and deploy the bishop missionary. In cases where the bishop missionary’s gifting is equal to his office, great missional good can be accomplished.
I do not wish to say there aren’t some dangers to be avoided with episcopacy. No system is perfect. But episcopacy does make an attempt to make room for the apostolic dimension, at least theoretically, and to integrate it with presbyterian dimensions in a cohesive manner.
The Pentecostal Form of the Apostolic
In Africa and Latin America, many segments of the modern-day Pentecostal movement employ a form of government that seeks to integrate the apostolic and the presbyterian. On these continents, one may find many Pentecostal denominations led by a man of apostolic rank. Such men have won many converts, organized those converts in multiple local churches, and placed over these churches pastors who are accountable to the apostolic founder. The Church of the Lord Jesus is experiencing dynamic and explosive growth in these regions, and apostolic ministry is one of the reasons for this. What is happening among the Pentecostals on these continents is not unlike what happened in eighteenth century England during the Great Awakening. One cannot explain the Great Awakening without taking special note of its catalytic apostolic leaders, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales, and George Whitefield and John Wesley in England. By the same token, one cannot explain the revivals in Africa and Latin America without taking note of modern-day counterparts to Whitefield and Wesley. On the human side of the revival equation—God’s sovereignty being the divine side—apostolic mobilization offers a key insight into one of the primary reasons for the remarkable growth of the Church in Latin America and Africa.
But while I note the success of the apostolic model in the developing world, I have come to believe that its functional absence in the United States is one reason the U.S. Church is in stagnation or outright numerical decline. There are pockets of activity deemed apostolic in the United States, but, in my view, nothing of a potentially nation-shaping nature or capacity is in evidence.
Orders and Parachurch Ministries
The vacuum caused by the absence of a dominant apostolic (or missionary) dimension in the United States has led directly to the emergence of the parachurch as a dominant mission institution. Let us now look briefly at the parachurch.
A parachurch organization often comes into being to accomplish mission-related tasks that the local church or organized denominations have ignored. Much good has come about because of parachurch ingenuity and activity. But before I discuss the evangelical parachurch organization in any detail, I want to say a few words about its historic precursor, the orders of the Roman Catholic Church.
In my view, the Roman Catholic world enjoys an organizational advantage over much of Protestantism. The organizational advantage is this: Roman Catholicism recognizes and empowers both parishes (organized in a diocesan construct) and orders. The parishes focus primarily on pastoral care and the orders focus primarily on missions of various types. Examples of orders are the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans (to use their popular names, not their official ones). Orders are led and largely staffed by ordained priests. The priests are not only subject to their immediate superiors, but also to ecclesiastical authorities in the greater Church. (The form of this accountability varies from order to order.) The Roman Catholic structure thus provides room for dioceses (with their parishes and pastoral care) and orders. Roman Catholic orders are largely responsible for the mission programs of this church, as is noted by C. Peter Wagner in his 1983 book, On the Crest of the Wave. He writes, “Today, 75 percent of Roman Catholic missionary work is done by the orders and only 25 percent by the local clergy.” In the United States, many of our finest universities were founded by Roman Catholic orders. There are also numerous hospitals, social organizations, and day schools that were founded and are presently overseen by members of Roman Catholic orders.
The Roman Catholic mission structure—the order—owes a great deal to the Benedictine Rule, framed by St. Benedict of Nursia (born c. 480, died c. 547). St. Benedict is considered the founder of Western monasticism. His rule became the norm for the monks who led in the evangelization and civilization of many European countries. How successful were the monks who followed his Rule? In 1964, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St. Benedict the patron saint of all Europe. So we see that the Roman Catholic Church has had a functioning mission structure for about fifteen hundred years.
Protestantism, some five hundred years old at this writing, was slow to catch on to the importance of the order. For the first three hundred years of Protestantism, the Protestant church was dominated by a pastoral structure. As a result, foreign mission suffered. Commenting on this fact, Wagner writes, “The great Protestant missionary movement began only when the heirs of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli stumbled onto the importance of the missionary society.” Wagner adds, “The real turning point [in missions] came in the years 1795–1815 when scores of what were called ‘voluntary associations’ were formed. One of the models for these was the Baptist Missionary Society, which came into being in 1792 through the vision of William Carey, now known as the father of modern missions.” My main point here is that the Protestant structure was, from its foundations, pastorally driven. By and large, it still is.
The major evangelical counterpart of the order is the parachurch ministry. In my country, as already stated, the parachurch ministry came into being largely because of the absence of genuine apostolic leadership in evangelical churches. The Church, in its pastor-dominated structure, left a lot of fields untended and a lot of mission sectors uninfluenced by the Gospel. Consequently, evangelical Christians analyzed the problems and created parachurch solutions for them. That was good. The Gospel began to touch many different sectors of society with redemptive power.
However, the parachurch system is less than ideal because many evangelical church officers and people view it as an outside-the-church entity even though its workers are believers. Indeed, the very name “parachurch” conveys an outside-the-church connotation. And while innovative lay leadership is often the strength of the parachurch, it often further reinforces the idea that parachurch work is not the province of the Church. So whereas the Roman Catholic school, hospital, social work, counseling center, or what have you is owned by Roman Catholics as truly expressive of their church, the evangelical parachurch organization seldom enjoys similar prestige among evangelical churches.
This leads to difficulties aplenty, including fund raising and church discipline. For example, the parachurch will die if it waits on the local church for significant financial support. That is because local churches typically give a pittance to parachurch organizations. So the parachurch is compelled to seek funds beyond the borders of the local church. Often this leads to questionable fund-raising methods. As to church discipline, the questions arise: Who has the authority to discipline a parachurch worker who mishandles himself morally or doctrinally? Is a layman-dominated board of directors qualified to handle what is essentially a pastoral or missional issue? What happens when there is a crisis with the top leadership? Only rarely is a leadership crisis within a parachurch organization properly handled by a qualified ecclesiastical authority. Another problem is that parachurch organizations often deploy their people on mission fields without providing them basic and much-needed pastoral services, such as baptism for their children, Holy Communion, pastoral counseling, training in the faith, ordination to office, and more. Many such parachurch workers end up feeling like abandoned orphans. I could address other issues, but let me conclude this point by simply saying that, unlike their evangelical counterparts in the parachurch world, Roman Catholic orders have both ecclesiastical standing and ecclesiastical leadership.
But as suggested above, it was the failure of the parish and pastor-driven evangelical church to properly mobilize for mission that created the need for the parachurch in the first place. (In fact, one might say that the local church is a paramission organization.) We might also say that, in general, the local church has a very weak involvement in mission.
What parachurch workers really need is an apostolic and presbyterian structure that brings them into proper relationship with the Church. This would provide safeguards as well as empowerment to fulfill their respective missions. Perhaps the model for this is already at work in many Latin American and African nations. Parachurch organizations make a minimal impact in these parts of the world because there simply isn’t much need for them. But parachurch-type workers get a lot of work done, and in most cases under effective ecclesiastical oversight that is usually of an apostolic nature.
I believe the parachurch organization is a temporary necessity until we can better organize along apostolic lines. An apostolic construct will provide many parachurch workers better theological training, better pastoral care, better ecclesiastical accountability, better funding support, and far greater mobilization than they find in the current parachurch structure. Nevertheless, I will continue to champion (and cooperate with) effective parachurch organizations until we have something better.
The Need for Diaconal Ministry
I have focused on the apostolic and presbyterian components of the Church, but let me say a few words about diaconal ministry.
In my view, the diaconate is vitally important to the Church. Both apostolic and pastoral components need the practical assistance the diaconate provides. A Church without deacons is like an army without sergeants. That is to say, a Church without deacons is one that will not be effective. One of the most essential needs in today’s Church is the need for Holy Spirit-empowered deacons.
Let me conclude this section on structure with several final comments. First, a Church structured for both mission and pastoral care is a Church that will prevail against the gates of hell. Second, only a Church properly structured and deployed for both mission and pastoral care will be able to shape the building of a Christian civilization.
The three components of an apostolic Church are: (1) apostolic truth, (2) apostolic power, the vital working and presence of the Holy Spirit, and (3) a viable apostolic structure that can tend both to mission and pastoral care. There can be no effective realization of either missionary or pastoral ministry without the functioning of the diaconate. Below is a more complete graph of our model:
Each component of the suggested model is necessary in the apostolic Church. With each component working in cooperative union, the Church can ably take new territory and safeguard territory already taken. In other words, she can shape the future. May God grace us to cooperate with the Lord Jesus as he braids a cord of apostolic truth, power, and structure. A threefold cord is not easily broken. Let us not make it difficult for the Lord to braid it in the first place. There are gates to crash. There is a future to shape.