It is wonderful to see the resurgence of the biblical form of church government. We are living in an exciting time when young men are counting the cost of following Christ in order to preach the gospel to the outcasts and subculture in society. Along with this work, many have and are continuing to investigate and examine the Scriptures to discover that the leadership within the early New Testament church was much different than what we see in many mainline denominations. The biblical pattern of plurality of elders/bishops is the form being promoted by the large number of church plants. The health of local churches and church plants are enhanced by adherence to this NT truth.
Still, we are a product of our times. Sales and promotional techniques which use new and catchy phrases or words to arrest the attention of our generation are commonplace, even among the evangelical world. By all means, let us present and preach the biblical truths of God’s Word. Man is fallen and needs a redeemer, and only through Jesus Christ is there redemption and forgiveness of sin.
And yet, while we see the revival of biblical forms of church government and the NT language used to describe them, we still adopt some of the catchy phrases to describe the founding/planting of new churches. For several generations before ours, the term missionary has been used for a minister called to begin new works of forming or establishing churches. Most of us older men cut our teeth in a generation which used this term very frequently when discussing missions or church planting.
In the present generation, the term church planter is the catch phrase denoting a call to establish and begin new churches. It has a fresher sound than missionary and certainly connects to the entrepreneurial spirit of a man called to establish a work from the ground up. After all, the word planter conveys a hands on, down in the dirt, pouring the foundation and working on new turf.
These terms are both great. They capture the purpose of the work (missional) and the dynamics of the work. (church planter) However, this brings in a couple of biblical questions: What is the term used in the New Testament for the man establishing and building new churches? If there is one, why do we avoid it?
In the NT, the undeniable term used for missionary or church planter is apostle. It simply means a messenger or one that is sent. Isn’t this what church planters are? Men with a message who are sent out? Of course! Church planters and missionaries are men who have the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ and who are sent out to take it to new people for the purpose of establishing foundational works.
The term apostle is part of the holy grail of biblical descriptions, and rightly so. We all know of the high and unique place in the scriptural narrative how the term apostle is applied to the innermost disciples of our Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry. However, upon study of the NT we find there were many apostles named who were not part of the earthly ministry of Jesus, but who were part of establishing churches. In fact, the scriptures reveal two classifications of apostles: the twelve apostles of the Lamb and post ascension apostles.
The Twelve Apostles of the Lamb
These are the special and unique apostles whom the Lord called during his earthly ministry who were his inner circle of discipleship and training. They walked with the Lord before the crucifixion and saw his earthly ministry from up close. They traveled and ate with Him. They personally received intimate instructions from Him when they were alone. They are the final authority, through their writings (the New Testament), for following generations concerning Christianity. Because of the fall of Judas, and the special revelations given to him concerning the gospel of grace, Paul is included in this unique category as “one born out of due time.” (I Cor. 15:8, Paul uses this expression while arguing for his apostolic authority.) These apostles were responsible for the foundational truths of the gospel message and the establishment of the church. (Eph .2:20-22) They stood in a non replaceable and non transferable ministry which only existed during the birth pains of the NT church. Their names are forever recorded in the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem. (Rev. 21:14)
Most of the time when we hear someone speak of apostles, we think of the twelve. Their lives, ministry and sacrifice is the reason we are believers. Most of them paid the ultimate price of martyrdom for the gospel. Their honor and position among the historic flow of church history is set and steadfast. However, there is a second category of apostle we need to understand.
Post Ascension Apostles
These are men called by the Lord after His ascension. They are sent out to continue the work of establishing churches using the accepted and ordained pattern of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. They did not replace or receive transferable authority from the original twelve. Their authority and correctness was and is subject to the teachings and writings of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Paul listed the ministry of apostles in his teaching to the Ephesians. (Eph. 4:8-11) Let me emphasize, post ascension apostles are not receiving extra biblical revelations. They simply continue the work of establishing churches using the pattern laid down by the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Here is a list of some post ascension apostles named in the New Testament.
* Mathias (Acts 1:26)
* Barnabas (Acts 14:4)
* Timothy (I Thes. 1:1; 2:6)
* Silas/Silvanus (I Thes. 1:1; 2:6)
* James, the Lord’s brother (I Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19)
* Apollos (I Cor. 4:6,9)
* Ephaphroditus (Phil. 2:25, apostolos translated “messenger.”)
* Titus (II Cor. 8:23, apostolos translated “messenger.”)
The men above, continued the establishing work of the church, building upon and using the pattern defined by the twelve apostles of the Lamb. They planted churches, established biblical order, trained young ministers and brought sound doctrine to new works! Today, we call them church planters. The previous generations called them missionaries. The Scriptures call them apostles.
Why do we avoid the biblical term concerning church planting while we freely use the biblical terms for other areas? I think it is because of the concern that others will think we are claiming to be one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Or from the honest desire to not be associated with the religious quacks who appoint themselves with a claim to apostolic or prophetic authority. Teaching can certainly clear up many issues in this area, especially when we understand the two classifications of biblical apostles. The terms missionary and church planter do not carry the baggage or suspicion that apostle does.
I certainly have no problem if someone wants to use the term missionary or church planter. However, when I meet a fellow minister and brother who is placing his life, livelihood, family and heart into the harsh work of starting a church, I know I am talking with a man in the ministry of an apostle. And though the terms are just labels, the respect toward those willing to sacrifice so much is warranted.
Because of His Grace,