I am intrigued by the wording of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 that confesses, “We believe … In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Within this expression, known historically as the four marks of the church, I am mostly intrigued with the words ‘apostolic church’ (ἀποστολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν). As the Nicene Creed is recited regularly in Orthodox, Roman, and Protestant churches around the world, what do Christians mean by the words ‘apostolic church’?
I raise this question because of the present emphasis on the church as missional. This adjective describes the church as “sent” or “on mission.” So, is it possible that ‘apostolic church’ in the Nicene Creed describes the church as sent or on mission? Or does it refer simply to the origin and beliefs of the church as rooted in the teachings of the apostles of Jesus? Or does it, as some claim, refer to the institution of the church as built upon Jesus and the apostles, with authority conferred successively to bishops through the laying on of hands? Although the Nicene Creed was written as a statement of orthodox faith in response to heresies, it affirms nevertheless the church as apostolic in nature. So, how should Christians understand ‘apostolic church’? Is the apostolic nature of the church missional as well as doctrinal? Is it characterized by orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy? Does apostolicity include missionality?
Originally, the Greek verb apostellō (ἀποστέλλω) from which the adjective ‘apostolic’ came means to send forth a messenger, agent, message, or command. The one sent (apostlos) was the personal representative of the one who sent him. Moreover, a connection existed between the sender and the recipient. The noun apostolos (ἀποστόλος), derived from the verb apostellō, was used first “in maritime language where it referred to a cargo ship, or the fleet sent, and later denoted a commander of a naval expedition, or a band of colonists sent overseas. The Jewish historian Josephus used a form of the word for a “group sent on a mission,” specifically Jews sent to Rome. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the verb apostellō was not used to denote an institutional appointment of someone to an office but the authorization of a person to fulfill a particular function or a clearly defined task. The stress fell on the one who gave authority to the one who was sent.
In the New Testament, John uses the verb apostellō to stress that it is the Lord who sends. For instance, in John 17:18, Jesus prays: “As you [Father] sent (aposteilas) me into the world, so I have sent (apesteila) them [disciples] into the world.” John also uses apostellō with another Greek verb pempō (πέμπω)—a virtual synonym of apostellō—to emphasize that it is the Lord who sends. In John 20:21, Jesus says to his disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent (apestalkev) me, even so I am sending (pempo) you.” Clearly, John’s use of pempo along with apostellō stresses the function of the disciples as being sent, in contrast to any institutional concept of apostolos.
Needless to say, apostolos is used in the New Testament of the fixed designation of a definite office, namely, that of the apostles (ἀπόστολοι) or apostolate, most often designating the Twelve. Mark’s Gospel records:
And he [Jesus] went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send (apostelle) them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13-14)
Jesus appointed these disciples as apostles and soon sent them out to participate in his mission. It is important to note that originally the apostolate was not an office but a commission. This commission was renewed by Jesus following his resurrection, and certainly the Twelve were called to their authoritative position as witnesses of the resurrection with missionary responsibility (Matthew 28:19).
And where did the Twelve go? Based upon history of church's expansion in the first centuries, various traditions record that Matthew went to Persia and Ethiopia. Peter went to Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Betania, and Italy, dying in Rome. Andrew preached to the Scythians and Thracians. Thomas traveled east and preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, dying in India. Philip preached in Phrygia, and was crucified in Hierapolis. Thaddaeus preached in Edessa, Mesopotamia, and died at Berytus. Bartholomew preached in India with Thomas, went back to Armenia, and perhaps to Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. James preached the gospel in Spain. Simon the Zealot went to Parthia. John ministered in Asia Minor and was exiled on the island of Patmos.
So, is it possible that ‘apostolic church’ describes the church as sent or on mission? Does 'apostolic church' describe a mark of the church concerned as much with orthopraxy as with orthodoxy, as much with the missionary nature of the apostles as with any historic connection to them? Is missionality inherently tied to apostolicity? Is the 'apostolic church' missional? (continued)
 Colin Brown, ed., New Testament Theology Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986): 126-127.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. 17, 11, 1. “So when Varus had settled these affairs, and had placed the former legion at Jerusalem, he returned back to Antioch; but as for Archelaus, he had new sources of trouble come upon him at Rome, on the occasions following: for an embassage of the Jews was come to Rome, Varus having permitted the nation to send it, that they might petition for the liberty of living by their own laws. Now the number of the ambassadors that were sent by the authority of the nation were fifty, to which they joined above eight thousand of the Jews that were at Rome already.”
 Brown, New Testament Theology Vol. 1, 127.
 John 17:18, καθὼς ἐμὲ ἀπέστειλας εἰς τὸν κόσμον, κἀγὼ ἀπέστειλα αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
 John 20:21, Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν, καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς.
 Mark 6:7, “And he called the twelve and began to send them (αὐτοὺς ἀποστέλλειν) out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.”
 Brown, New Testament Theology Vol. 1, 131.
 Cf. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004): 19.