Of all the gifts God continues to give the church, this one seems to be the least explored and taught about.1 The role of the apostle is to go out and plant and help establish new communities. I am not talking about new church buildings. I am talking about new communities of fully functioning, vibrant Christian bodies.
Apostles (Greek apostolos ‘messenger’, from apostellein ‘send forth’) are those who have been sent out by Jesus and set apart for the gospel (Romans 1:1). They have a personally allocated role, territory, and assignment from God, not appointed by humans, but by Jesus. I do not believe this has to necessarily be a physical, regional territorial position of authority or an assignment to a place, town or city. Rather, it is a spiritually given authority given by Jesus through a personal call and encounter to shepherd specific communities as directed by His Spirit, confirmed by the local church. If you are an apostle, you find yourself carrying a prayer burden not just for these individuals but for entire groups of believers (aka churches). From what I see in scripture, apostles are those sent out from local communities (“It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit”) to be missionary church planters and overseers supported by networks of local sending churches.2
Apostles have a calling to train and establish new local churches among the global church, sometimes in their own culture (church planters), sometimes in another (missionaries). Often these are people who have shepherded other shepherds. They know the scriptures and teach them well, rightly dividing the word of truth. They may also have an evangelistic gifting as well as a prophecy gifting. This is because all these gifts are often needed in order to start and establish churches.
Apostles get God’s heart for the broader territory of the kingdom and they have received the great commission as a personal calling (as all believers will hopefully do if they desire to obey Jesus). They consider Kingdom building their job alongside and through the Holy Spirit. Apostles give the message, teach and train the churches (Spirit-led assemblies of Christ-followers) under their care to function together by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit under the head of Christ for as long as they are needed and then they normally get direction to move and expand territory. They plant churches and establish elders (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23) who will remind others of the message (the original pure decontextualized gospel of the kingdom). But there doesn’t need to be a title, maintained lineage, or formal following necessary.
Apostleship is a role and specific calling from Jesus. We follow Christ together. Apostleship is not a celebrity position or title. You are not chosen to be an apostle because you have earned a community’s respect, been responsible for the things under your care, or been of good social/moral standing (that’s eldership). The opinion of people matter little to the apostle because the apostle is sent by the Lord, and in the same way a prophet MUST speak, an evangelist MUST share the gospel, apostles MUST go. It is a deeply difficult assignment received personally from God, not to be envied or earned. But we will see how the role of the local church is indispensable in supporting and confirming the true apostle.
SO WHERE ARE THE APOSTLES?
We do have apostles these days. True apostles are even now living among us in plain sight, though few know them as such, because they bear the titles of “head pastors,” “church planters,” and “missionaries.” Understanding the roles of the spiritual gifts will help us distinguish the unique role of apostles. For example, a pastor/shepherd role is to care for the sheep, not necessarily teach a sermon. That is a job of a teacher. And it is not the teacher’s job to run the administrative life of a community. That is for someone with a spiritually sourced administrative gift (not just someone naturally good with money, but someone called to administer under the wisdom and power of the Spirit). But a pastor who has other pastors and their communities under his care is fulfilling the role of an apostle. Apostles specifically serve by encouraging and shepherding the shepherds, sometimes from a distance. The apostle also participates in Christian community not as an outsider (though it may feel that way as loneliness sets in), but as a beloved representative sent out by his or her brothers and sisters.
Apostleship is FOR THE Expansion of JESUS’ SPIRITUAL KINGDOM Territory
As you disciple those who are now giving the message to others through their spiritual gifts, you will see the internal heart-Kingdom “sphere” of territory grow through those you have mentored. So even as God sends you out, you will also continue to feel compelled by the Spirit to serve those you love in prayer and encouragement and correction as God gives grace to do so. I am reminded of a scripture from Isaiah:
Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.Isaiah 50:2-3
Apostles are also those “sent” with a message who actually are gifted to go and keep going. (For the things that can happen if you stay in one place too long, you’ll have to make it to the end of this article). In apostleship, the focus is not a drawing inward to become part of us (like shepherding is), but a going outward to expand territory.
The Weight of Glory
As I have seen it emerge, this spiritual gift may sometimes come suddenly or grow or be added onto a pre-existing spiritual gifting of evangelism or shepherding. Apostleship is not a leadership role achieved by climbing up a ladder and rising above the rest. It is a spreading out and a lowering into humility that comes with a weight of intercession for groups people and their leaders, those you disciple. Many times these are your “people’s people.” In other words, you have given the message to someone who now is giving it to others.
True apostleship comes with a pressure and weight you must face (Besides everything else, I face daily the PRESSURE of my concern for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:29). If you resist the weight of it, you lose the right to minister. However, if you come under the easy yoke and light burden of Jesus, and accept the responsibility then you can let the weight move you to prayer and let prayer move you to understanding the direction for encouraging and correcting. You will feel released and light after you intercede (this is the lightness of His burden that Jesus invites us to in Matthew 11:29). There is good pressure that comes with being assigned to a group of people in apostleship.
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves (context: false apostles). When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.1 Corinthians 10:12-13
As an apostle, you are assigned responsibility for territory by God. That is your authority and your responsibility in spiritual realms. You fight for those people and places accordingly as God directs, which is the weight of intercession (Ephesians 6). In fact, your authority as an apostle is based in the fact that God has assigned them to you to selflessly love (which some will and others will not receive—remember the enemy would like to twist into a perception of manipulation or control even if motives are pure). This is also the ministry of parenting and why God wants to turn the hearts of Fathers to their children and children to their fathers. The enemy wants to destroy all mentoring relationships). For us to remain healthy in leadership, we have to pray until we feel the pressure release and the responsibility transfer back to God.
There is no pressure on you to produce change in a person or in an assembly of believers but to pray for them and trust that with Jesus, there will be fruit as they stay connected to Him by the Holy Spirit (John 15:5). Your job is to encourage them to connect back to Jesus through personal and collective prayer and to Scriptural truth, even if it irritates them-which it will if you are doing your job right so be ready to handle their irritation and lashing out with prayer and grace and a lot of forgiveness.
Apostleship is Foolishness
Apostleship is not a resume position based on age or life experience or whether or not you are spiritually qualified in terms of your social standing, favor with other leaders, and good education. This kind of wisdom is not of God and building churches on worldly wisdom and theories and philosophy is really dangerous. Paul knew this:
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” 20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. 24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. 26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.1 Cor. 10:18-29
While older people with life experience may be wise in some ways, we can’t assume they are wise in Godly wisdom just because they are older. There is a worldly “wisdom” that comes from getting old that can lead to being prideful and presumptuous in your advice. There’s a worldly “wisdom” that comes with life experience that leads to being jaded and cynical. Following the advice of these advisors will lead to faithlessness, distrust in the community, and unrest.
Others, especially young and ambitious believers, will presume leadership out of pure zeal, entitlement or selfish ambition masquerading as kingdom work (building their own kingdom), not realizing they are sourcing their own source of significance from having a following of people. But there is a wisdom greater than these that leads to a harvest of righteousness:
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18 And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.James 3:17-18
We Lead but Have No “Following”
Apostles are not meant to have “followings” even though they do lead people. We do follow our leaders’ examples as they follow Christ, but if a “spiritual leader” starts to build a personal following (intentionally or unintentionally), that is irresponsible and idolatrous. Correct by directing the gaze to Jesus at all times. People always want a human leader. There are also those who want to lead and are quite willing to be or designate a human leader. This is called politics. But Jesus did not call us to human politics or business -corporation approaches to church ministry and growth, He called us to Himself as King and to build the kingdom His way—to branch out, not by might, not by power, but by His Spirit, to bring glory to only God as our high priest, king, teacher, and Father.
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. 11 For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. 12 Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 for now no one can say they were baptized in my name. 16 (Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don‘t remember baptizing anyone else.) 17 For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power.1 Corinthians 1:10-17
There should be no teaching distinct to one apostle (though each apostle will build/teach/gospelize in their own unique way). An apostle is like an ambassador. There is a specific message they have been entrusted with. To change the message would be treason. So the apostle is fully convinced of both the message and the Giver of the message (Jesus), and the fact that they have been entrusted with it and sent out to plant and tend that word in the hearts of people and their communities. With that in mind, note that the exact delivery and wording may vary moment by moment according to context and the leadership of the Spirit. Following through in obedience is not even an issue because they have been personally commissioned by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and are responding in love-driven obedience to their King. True apostles will prefer to disappear in anonymity into the glory of God.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20
Humans were not meant to be followed with cult followings. Even John the Baptist, who had his own disciples, knew this and insisted on it:
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.John 3:28-31
The grace in this is that human leaders don’t actually have what people need. In fact, quite the opposite. God intentionally chooses weak and impoverished people to lead because we are not meant to follow human leaders. We are meant to follow Jesus together as brothers and sisters. Expecting yourself as a human leader to be a source of anything is not a biblical concept. Teaching? The Holy Spirit is your teacher. You are meant to be led directly by God. Mediation? You need no mediator. Jesus is the one who united the king/priest role. He alone is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Comforter? The Holy Spirit is the comforter.
And YET, there is a teaching and a mediation and a comforting that takes place in the body because of the outpouring of love (1 Corinthians 1:3-4). The way to encourage your people to accept that you are not enough is to 1) live openly before them and 2) continually shift their gaze back to Jesus, the true source of Living Water, who also wants to baptize them in this lifegiving flow of the Holy Spirit so they can pour out as clay vessels (weak, but flowing strong).
To keep from developing a personal following, I would recommend following this pattern that disciple maker movements follow. Basically, when someone wants to bring a friend to hear your teaching, you say no (this is hard). Then offer to meet the person at their house and help them lead their friend to Jesus so that person who invited the friend becomes a disciple maker and a new church starts there. In this way the kingdom branches quickly and effectively and the community does not become stagnant and isolationist. More here on tools for this kind of branching ministry. I like this because all of it is based not on a model, but on what they call a “Shema lifestyle” (listening to Jesus step by step and obeying). People typically fight this branching at first because they would rather be in worship gatherings with all the people they love and know than obey Jesus in branching out and trusting the Holy Spirit to provide a new community with all the gifts needed to function. You have to call your people to obedience and repentance.
A genuine apostle who has proven by the fruits of their life to love God and love others, to follow only Christ, and to only have God’s agenda in mind should be trusted and supported by those God has assigned to them. But people will not always appreciate or trust you, because humans, while they like to have leaders and reliable structures to lean on, are also innately fearful, prideful, and rebellious. Some are even led away by their own shepherds (“deceived ones who follow the teaching of demons!” 1 Timothy 4:1).
My people have become lost sheep; Their shepherds have led them astray. They have made them turn aside on the mountains; They have gone along from mountain to hill And have forgotten their resting place.Jeremiah 50:6
While this is not ideal to have scattered sheep, wolves, or confused sheep among the flock misleading others, it is also not beyond the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit to heal. We make every effort to live in the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). But the process of healing or correction or even the resulting loss of life can be hard and painful. In 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul is responding to a problem where people are losing trust in him as a spiritual leader because of false teachers/“super-apostles” that are commending themselves to a people. Chapter 12 gets really strong as Paul puts forth the true nature of an apostle. Rather than appearing as thriving examples of abundant life, or a beautiful angel of light like these masqueraders, the true apostle will often look (and genuinely be) tired, thirsty, weak, shipwrecked, restless, endangered, exposed, beaten, and facing great pressure of concern for those under their care:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn.2 Corinthians 11:23-29
So don’t be surprised if the life of an apostle starts to look a little like this. If this is you, then identify “with” your weakness, great man or woman of God, because it is here in that weakness that His strength is able to be made perfect as you obey Him and He moves you toward the mind of Christ and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings. From what we see in Paul’s life, at least in some seasons, a true apostle is someone who is weak, burning with temptation to sin, hungry, beaten, disgraced, spoken poorly of and still, because of God’s grace, commits to love and serve and love those God has assigned to him or her. Sounds great right? You will feel the religious gazes assessing your life circumstances and your motives for all your faults and failures and that will hurt. HOWEVER, if you are living openly before God and others, and living in obedience to Him, you have no reason to be afraid or ashamed.
In situations that you are being critiqued, you don’t need to always respond initially. Sometimes you will “take the hit,” forgive, and simply turn the other check without complaint or apology from another person. Sometimes, you will correct churches and even rebuke them. In 2 Corinthians 9-11, for example, Paul talks (rather sarcastically) about how he never made the Corinthians spend themselves for him, how he poured out for them because he loved them. If they continue with the Lord, maturity will teach them grace. Be open before God and washed by the Word, accept the aid of those who He will send to minister to your heart, and remember you are charged by God to pray consistently for your people and listen to God on their behalf. You encourage them out of the wisdom God gives in prayer and listening as much as they will allow it. If they don’t allow it, God may release them from your care telling you to shake the dust off your feet (Matthew 10:14), but He may lead you to endure in the relationship as your assigned people. If so, He will give you the strength to do it. Live sacrificially (Romans 12) and humbly. But a true apostle does not rely on their own education or spiritual lineage in order to maintain their position as a leader. We insist on operating simply in the love and power of God. This is your posture:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 4:31-32, 5:1-2
Apostles Reap Great Rewards
One of the exciting things about being an apostle is hearing reports of the faith of people you have discipled around the world! In healthy apostle/church community relationships, you are in a partnership for the gospel together, and the “burden” of prayer is accompanied by a deep fondness and a longing to be together. We can see this kind of healthy relationship between Paul and the church communities of Rome and Philippi:
I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:3-8
But even better is the mutual encouragement from one another’s faith when you get to actually worship and be with those communities you have prayed for. It is a joy to be able to be together and pour out love and impart new spiritual gifts.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. 11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.Romans 1:8-12
Fix Your Gaze
So as we live in humility and very aware of our weakness, there is a deep joy and a wild confidence that comes with the gift and calling of true apostleship and a true apostle does boast. We boast in confidence in our knowledge of the Lord and His steadfast love, and we boast in our weakness so we can boast in God.
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. 31 Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the LORD.” 1 Corinthians 1:30-31
Instead, let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord. Jeremiah 9:24
Don’t worry if people see you timid one moment and overbearing the next. Paul experienced this too. (1 Corinthians 10:1-6) The thing is, we do have the authority and responsibility to tear down spiritual strongholds and every argument that sets itself up against the knowledge of Christ. We are passionate about the purity of the message. We can’t stop speaking the message. We have been sent. And we can’t speak boldly if we are not confident. And if we are confident, how could we NOT preach it with boldness. The message is as clear today as it was off the lips of Jesus when He left us, that in His authority he commissions us to—”GO and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” 14 We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you. 15 All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory. 16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. 2 Corinthians 4:13-18
The amplified version says verse 17 his way: For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory [beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!]
The weight of spiritual responsibility, when carried under the easy and light yoke of Jesus, ends in a weight of glory that is our eternal treasure, His presence and pleasure! Eyes on Jesus now. Never give up. As you move lower into service, as you are wounded, persecuted, rejected, neglected, God will receive more and more glory! Focusing on God’s glory will always be our strategy as apostles, just as with every other Spiritual gift.
One thing necessary. Fix your gaze on Him. Sit at His feet and listen to what He has to say and apply it (obey).
When we look at God’s glory, in His presence, we don’t have to decide where to go or what to say or who to minister to, we follow His gaze. Sometimes His gaze is directed right back at our hearts and we take time to address the condition of our heart, our own soul or body or mind. But often, as we follow His gaze we see it directed beyond us to the world. As Jesus said, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” John 4:35
These are the apostles—the “sent ones.”
Know When to Leave
The apostle’s strong giftings are given for the building up of the church, but this paired with their fearlessness and boldness can overwhelm a new community who may look to them for answers and defer to them for decisions and for speaking on behalf of the body. Your goal is to help them reach maturity in the faith although they must choose that for themselves. Therefore, the apostle is always looking for who can carry on the ministry after they leave (elders), training those people, and giving ample opportunity and time for everyone to use their newly emerging Spiritual gifts. The fact that you have the gift of apostleship may make it necessary to separate (on good terms) from the community for some time, so you can plant new churches and God can have room to strengthen new leaders in the place you just left. They need to be able to function without you. You will still check in on them often and you all still remain part of the community together.
The leaders of the new community need to be confident in the leadership of God, not your human leadership. Remember Gideon, who was asked to be king. He denied the honor and said only God would rule His people.
22 After the battle with the Midianites, the Israelites said, “Gideon, you rescued us! Now we want you to be our king. Then after your death, your son and then your grandson will rule.”
23 “No,” Gideon replied, “I won’t be your king, and my son won’t be king either. Only the Lord is your ruler. 24 But I will ask you to do one thing: Give me all the earrings you took from the enemy.”
The enemy soldiers had been Ishmaelites,[a] and they wore gold earrings.
25 The Israelite soldiers replied, “Of course we will give you the earrings.” Then they spread out a robe on the ground and tossed the earrings on it. 26 The total weight of this gold was over forty pounds. In addition, there was the gold from the camels’ ornaments and from the beautiful jewelry worn by the Midianite kings. Gideon also took their purple robes.
27-29 Gideon returned to his home in Ophrah and had the gold made into a statue, which the Israelites soon started worshiping. They became unfaithful to God, and even Gideon and his family were trapped into worshiping the statue.Judges 8:22-29
All humans are prone to idolatry. Our joy cannot be in our effective ministry or even the amount of territory taken. Our source of joy cannot even be sourced in the community, our brothers ans sisters, or in those we shepherd, although we praise God when we enjoy fellowship and see them thrive. But their joy needs to be Jesus. And our joy has to be Jesus, otherwise we will collect war trophies and count censuses among the people, and brag about our models and approaches which others should emulate. This is not the heart of God.
We are not trying to grow the church through our own models and strategies. We need to hear the specific strategy of God for this time and place and people. The church grows naturally from the work of the Holy Spirit, and as we follow Him we build at His direction and become a temple of worship together.
If you are overshadowing or distracting from the Kingship and leadership of Christ, you may need to ask if you need to decrease. An apostle has accepted his or her role as the friend of the bridegroom. It is possible in Christian ministry to be detracting or competing with Jesus, even as you serve in obedience and love.
I MUST DECREASE, HE MUST INCREASE
Remember the story of John the Baptist, mentioned earlier, which shows a man who had obeyed God and developed a great following. John never claimed to be the Messiah. He never tried to take the place of Jesus. Nonetheless, His ministry aroused his disciples to take a protective stance, distracting His disciples from actually following Christ! Instead of running to join Jesus, they asked John the Baptist (their Rabbi) this question:
“Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
27 To this John replied,
A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less. 31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
John the Baptist dies before Jesus sent out the apostles, but he was sent by God with a clear directive, to prepare the way of the Lord. Our purpose is the same. If at any point it become clear that the apostle has come to be seen as the source of knowledge and understanding and people are starting to view them as a priest or rely on them in a way that delays their maturity, the apostle should ask God if they have become a hindrance for the community. Are you standing in between someone and Christ in an unhealthy way, either by trying to help out of human sympathy, meddling, or co-dependency. If so, the words of John the Baptist will become yours to speak for yourself, “He must increase and I must decrease.” You must die a self-death, a decreasing in visibility and presence, so that Jesus can be glorified and so that the Holy Spirit maintains His rule over the church, because people are very willing to have a king rule them.
That’s why Jesus said not to let anyone call you “Teacher” or “Father” (Matthew 23:8-12). He knows our propensity to idolatry. He knows our preference to look to human leaders instead to the Spirit of God who you cannot see with your eyes. If a human leader is idolized in a community, teachers will not teach, leaders will not emerge, because they do not need to. The stronger, bolder leader is doing it for them. The result can be a self-centered, receptor-based Christian community which says “Feed me. Help me. Love me.” Do not harshly judge your community. These are simply growing pains. This is probably not coming from a place of entitlement, though it may seem like it at first glance, but rather from a place of insecurity and comparison. And any who fear have not yet been completed in love (1 John 4:18). But it can become idolatrous if you don’t leave when you need to. Idolatrous communities will “look like” Christian communities, but are not functioning as a healthy body with all its parts. If there is the idolizing of human leadership, you will probably see fighting for status, jealousy, backbiting, gossiping, comparison, regression in growth, a heart of rebellion against leadership, and a fading out of the fire of the Holy Spirit and His giftings in their lives. And usually you can sense these things before they become full-grown. Trust the Holy Spirit to show you and give you wisdom in how to respond quickly and decisively so no permanent damage is done to the community through interpersonal hurt.
Remember, apostles are in danger of becoming celebrities, put on pedestals and seen as superhuman, super-spiritual and untouchable. They also face an enormous amount of criticism because people often blame them personally for any difficulty or challenges in the church. This creates a pressure on the apostle to not “fail,” to not confess sin, and to hide from anyone who wants to know their life, because the unfortunate fact is that not everyone in a church body can be trusted to respond in love to a leader’s shortcomings. Their ministry becomes a show, their spiritual life becomes a performance, and their intimacy with God and community is lost. An apostle who has overstayed and become idolized will themselves, be tempted quickly into sin, resentment, bitterness, loneliness, greed, pride, and idolatry. Unless…
You decrease, so He can increase. This is the cry of the apostle. John’s disciples were distanced from Jesus because they followed a man or woman who was sent by God, instead of following God for themselves. And that…is idolatry.
Know when it is time to leave.
He must increase and I must decrease. I both love and hate the idea of John shrinking back so His people would go to follow Jesus. I feel the disciples’ hesitancy, their love for the person who taught them, and their longing to step out and learn to rely on Jesus for themselves. I hate the feeling John must have felt as he wondered at his continued purpose after he baptized Jesus. Jesus never told Him to stop. John was not in disobedience, but still, John saw his role very clearly. He was simply a friend of the bridegroom. He had no right of ownership to the bride. He was not counting numbers. He refused to be in competition with Jesus. He was happy to let people learn courage and joy in experiencing the thrill of following Jesus for themselves. And then, John would go into a season of doubt regarding Jesus later (John 7:20-22).
Here’s the connection. Once a church is established, they need to be able to function under the direct leadership of the Spirit of Christ. You may be a deeply spiritually gifted teacher, leader, administrator, and prophet, but if you start to do all of that for a community, or if others see you that way even if you do not, they may be hindered from truly functioning as the body. In fact, your very presence in the room could be keeping that from happening. This does not mean you are being disobedient, but you may be a hindrance.
If you sense this happening (or if people tell you that it is happening), try to not get your feelings hurt. God still needs you. He needs you to minister to this community still, but the logistical and practical working out of that must shift.
You must decrease and Jesus must increase.
IT’S NOT SAD, IT’S HOPEFUL
If you start sensing you need to step back, do not ignore this prompting. Ask your team to move into prayer with you. Do not be concerned that you will be losing ministry impact. In fact, by releasing your place of visible and present leadership in this community, you may be giving room for your impact to expand. There may be a time of mourning for you because you will be separated for a time from people you love, and there may also be a fear that they will not be able to function without you, but they can, by the power of the God, who is zealous for His own name! And when you see the faithfulness of God give them what they need, you will have so much joy in Jesus. You will find yourself visiting them often, still teaching, still training, still loved. In Jesus true Christians community is not only in physical proximity at a weekly gathering (though apostles do need to be in regular, confessing community), but it can expand over miles and time to become a spreading out of our tents and a broadening of the family of God.
Also, if you are friends with an apostle, realize that they may be distracted by their concern for their people assigned to them, they may seem a little discontent in one place for long, they may always be looking for ways God wants to branch out and expand the kingdom. They may also get frustrated with others who don’t seem to “get it”–the call to reach the nations. Go easy on them, call them to forgiveness and mercy and, by all means, ask them boldly if they need prayer or a time of confession. Remember, Paul says apostles are the beaten up ones. So know that apostles carry a great deal of hurt with them. Ask the Holy Spirit who you know in your life that is fulfilling the role of apostles and ask God how you can bring a salve of healing to minister to their hearts. Though they may seem at times intimidating, far away, aloof, independent, capable, and maybe a little scary, they are also people in need of the body ministry of the church. And they may need you to financially support their ministry too, so they don’t have to go hungry or homeless. Just a thought.
- It should be noted that this post supports the idea that the gift of apostleship continues in the church, I do not support the NAR ideals of dominionism because I believe Jesus is going to be the one to bring His physical kingdom to earth, not us.
- Some have a view that the apostles are simply the twelve disciples of Jesus, expanded to Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:21–26). The number twelve has been linked to the importance of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus gave these twelve a special name “sent ones” but did apostleship stop there? Absolutely not—not in title or function/gifting. We see others called apostles like Paul and Barnabus (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia (a woman) (Romans 16:7), Silvanus and Timotheus (Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6). We see the gift of apostleship is clearly listed among those that Paul believes the Holy Spirit has given to the Corinthians church, none of whom were actually one of the twelve original disciples (1 Corinthians 12:27-31). Despite church traditions who support “apostolic succession,” there is no explicit evidence I see in scripture that apostleship or church oversight needs to be conveyed from one apostle to another (although some gifts are conveyed through the laying on of hands in some cases at least), but this gift seems to be under the jurisdiction of the Holy Spirit alongside other Spiritual gifts, which we are encouraged to desire eagerly in the most excellent way of love as we see the church built up to completion, that is, perfect maturity in Christ! (1 Corinthians 12-13)