The word “apostolic” is not found in the Bible. Neither Jesus, or Paul or any New Testament writer ever used the word. No one’s ministry in the New Testament is described as being “apostolic.” The adjective “apostolic” is, therefore, a part of the Church’s history, not its origins.
Early Uses of “Apostolic”
“Apostolic” was first used in the 2nd century to refer to leaders in the Church, such as Polycarp of Philippi and Clement of Rome, who had been directly associated with the original apostles. They were “apostolic” in the sense of having a direct connection with those first apostles of the Lord. In the same century the church father, Irenaeus, began using the word to refer to certain churches, such as those at Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus, that had been founded by Paul or one of the Twelve. According to Irenaeus, these were “apostolic” churches and deserving of special honor because of their unique origins.
“Apostolic” thus took on the meaning of that which is “connected to” or “pertains to” the apostles of the New Testament. Out of this desire to be connected to the apostles there developed the idea of an “official” connection through a succession of bishops who, it was claimed, could trace their authority back to the original apostles. This idea of an official apostolic succession is the position today of the older churches such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican.
Later Uses of “Apostolic”
In the 3rd and 4th centuries “apostolic” began to be used in a pietistic sense to refer to individuals who seemed to exhibit a remarkable degree of holiness or spiritual power. They were “apostolic” in that their lives were considered to be “like” the apostles of old. With the advent of Monasticism and with many retreating to the deserts to live isolated lives of prayer and meditation, some gained great fame for their sanctity and power in prayer. As a result, they were often referred to as being apostolic, i.e., like the apostles.
Interestingly, the New Testament apostles never held themselves up as examples or models for others to follow. One only has to look at Peter after the healing of the cripple man in Acts 3. As the wide-eyed crowd looked on in amazement, ready to pay homage to him and John because of the miracle, Peter responded, Why are you looking at us as though by our own power of holiness we had made this man to walk . . .. He then proceeded to direct the people’s attention away from himself and John to Jesus. One could thus say that to be “apostolic,” i.e. “like the apostles,” is to be always looking away from self to Christ.
The Reformers’ View of the “Apostolic”
The 16th century Reformers rejected the idea that to be “apostolic” one had to be in communion with a church founded by one of the original apostles, which, by this time, meant communion with Rome. Martin Luther showed little interest in official church structure and order, focusing his energies, rather, on the defense of the gospel of God’s saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He and other reformers believed they were “apostolic” because they were preaching the same gospel as those first apostles of the Lord. As one writer put it, “The Reformers rejected the teaching of apostolic authority through the Church office and stressed instead that the apostolic nature of the Church is actualized through the preaching of gospel.[i] The famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, expressed this concept when he wrote,
The apostolic community means concretely the community which hears the apostolic witness of the New Testament and recognizes and puts this witness into effect as the source and norm of its existence. The Church is apostolic . . . when it exists on the basis of Scripture and in conformity with it.[ii]
Considered Themselves “Apostolic”
Considered Themselves “Apostolic”
Early Pentecostals used the word “apostolic” to describe their movement. Charles Parham and William Seymour, the two most prominent early leaders, called their ministries and their publications “The Apostolic Faith” because they believed that through their ministries God was restoring the faith of the New Testament Church, particularly in regards to the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Other Pentecostals, such as Gordon Lindsay, sometimes referred to individuals who exhibited Spiritual gifts of power and healing as being “apostolic” because their ministries were like the apostles of old. “Apostolic” was also used in the Latter Rain movement of the 1950s and is used today by some Oneness Pentecostal groups who claim that their unique form of baptism (in the name of Jesus only) is the way the apostles in the New Testament baptized.
The Contemporary Shift
in the Use of “Apostolic”
in the Use of “Apostolic”
In all the above usages the word “apostolic” refers, in one way or another, to the apostles of the New Testament. But in charismatic circles today it seems that “apostolic” is being used to refer to that which pertains, not to the apostles of the New Testament, but to modern apostles. This is where the danger lies—in tying the “apostolic” to modern apostles and their teachings rather than to Jesus, His apostles and the New Testament. Because of this new and innovative approach, there exists the real danger that the modern “apostolic” is becoming another sectarian movement built upon the teachings, not of Scripture, but of its own new apostles. This is not to deny the existence of present day apostles, but to deny that they define what it means to be “apostolic.”
We are never told in Scripture to be “apostolic.” Our ultimate destiny is not to be like Peter, John or Paul, but to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). We follow the apostles of the New Testament only as their example leads us and points us to Jesus Christ, as Paul stated in I Corinthians 11:1, Follow me as I follow Christ. It is in this sense that we may consider ourselves “apostolic” in that we follow those earliest apostles in their absolute devotion and commitment to Jesus, not because we have aligned ourselves with a particular church or adopted a certain church order.
Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, Bible teacher and ordained minister. His latest book, PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, is available from Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.
[i] Charles J. Conniry, Jr., “Identifying Apostolic Christianity: A Synthesis of Viewpoints,” JETS 37/2 (June 1994): 252.
[ii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962), 722.