Monday, May 12, 2014

Is the “apostolic church” missional? Part Five

What are the marks of apostolicity? What are characteristics of the apostolic church?  Are there tests or qualifications of apostolicity, and if so, what are they?  And what constitutes a breach or break in apostolicity?

Briefly described, apostolicity is continuity with Jesus and the Twelve Apostles in origin, teaching, mission, character, and life in the Spirit.  Apostolicity relates to, or is derived from, the authority, teaching and practice of the Twelve. Generally speaking, there is continuity of this apostolic tradition and identity with Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.[1]

The first mark of apostolicity is continuity in origin in and foundation upon Jesus Christ and the Twelve (Ephesians 2:20).  In other words, there is a volitional identity and visible solidarity with Jesus as the Christ and the message of the gospel which he gave to the Twelve (Gal. 1:12; 1 Cor. 11:23-25; 2 Cor. 4:5). While such continuity may be an unbroken succession of bishops back to the Twelve, apostolicity is neither guaranteed by historic succession, especially when deviating from apostolic character and teaching (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 1:13-15; 1 John 2:19), nor does it preclude spontaneous works of the Holy Spirit that result in new churches that are in unity with the “one, holy catholic, and apostolic church.”  When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God—a work that started without an apostle—they sent Peter and John to validate the work (Acts 8:14-17).

As the Lima Report states, Christian traditions that have not retained the historic episcopate, nevertheless, “appreciate the episcopal succession as a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the Church.”[2] Continuity with the historic, orthodox and apostolic church is embraced generally in principle, even by many evangelicals. They highlight connections such as that of Irenaeus, the church father and apologist, who was a hearer of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John.[3] What is often taught as a principle of disciple-making (Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:2), and practiced in ordination “when persons in whom the Church recognizes the authority to transmit the ministerial connection,” is a type of apostolic succession.[4]  However, Protestants generally hold that whatever authority is conferred with an office is nevertheless conditional upon continuity with the Apostles’ teaching, mission, character, and life in the Spirit.[5]

The second mark of apostolicity is holding to the apostles’ teaching canonized in the NT and equally authoritative with the OT (Acts 2:42; 2 Pet. 3:14-18). The Twelve were authorities of early Christianity who safeguarded the gospel of Jesus Christ. Apostolicity of doctrine required that the deposit of faith be held as authoritative and infallible, and remain unchanged (2 Tim. 1:14; 2:2; 3:16; Jude 1:3).[6] Even though “the apostles’ teaching” is infallible, the church cannot claim infallibility in her teaching. While the scriptures are understood from the horizon of church tradition, church tradition remains subject to the authority of the scriptures.[7] Clement of Rome summarized the continuity of the apostles’ teaching, saying:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God.  Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.[8]

The third mark of apostolicity is missionality; in other words, the church is missional by nature. The Gospels give accounts of Jesus calling his disciples to a special appointment as apostles who then were sent as witnesses of the risen Jesus Christ (Matt 10:1-4; 28:16-20; Mark 3:16-19; 16:14-18; Luke 6:12-16; 24:36-49; John 6:60-70; 20:19-23).  He commissioned them to continue his mission on earth. Apostolicity is thus linked to the apostles in a dual sense of the word.  The church is founded on the “teachings of the apostles (ἀποστόλων)” and like them, is sent (ἀποστέλλῃ) into the world as witnesses.[9]

The mission of the Apostles (missio Apostolica), like the mission of Christ (missio Christi), flows from the mission of God (missio Dei). The Twelve understood their mission in this sense. Just as they transmitted their mission by appointing others to the work of ministry, so their successors were to appoint elders to perpetuate the same mission given by Jesus Christ (Matt. 28: 18-20; Acts 14:23; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:5). In the same way, the apostolic church, following the existence and example of the apostles, “exists only as she exercises the ministry of a herald.”[10] As Chris Wright says, “The church is missional or it is not church.”[11]

Similarly, John Howard Yoder asks: “Is a non-missionary church a church? Can we say that missionary identity and commitment is a good thing, but dispensable?”[12] His conclusion is that when “the missionary mark of the church” is missing, the church is apostate.  In contrast to heresy, Yoder holds that “apostasy is not something we think wrong; it is something we do wrong.”[13]  Denying mission is apostasy, and on this point he concludes:

Then we have to ask, can a theology be condemned as apostate if it does not point to mission, if it rejects the necessity of mission or does not contribute to mission?  There are theologies that deny the usefulness or necessity of mission or that reject the conversion of non-Christians to Christianity as a goal. … An adaptation of my thesis would say that to exclude any category of persons from the imperative to make disciples is apostasy. … Faithfulness or apostasy depends on whether the church is a community that is propagating the Jesus message.[14]

The fourth mark of apostolicity is Christ-like character—the church represents the character of Jesus Christ. The church not only proclaims Christ but proclaims Christ in Christ’s way.  Paul declared: “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” (2 Cor. 1:12) The mission of Jesus and the Twelve concerned both presence and proclamation of the kingdom. Words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are void of meaning.  Apostolic character requires faithfulness to truth, justice, integrity, mercy, and compassion.

The fifth mark of apostolicity is life in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  The Acts of the Apostles written by Luke reveals equally the acts of the Holy Spirit. This book records the state of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and their subsequent mission “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  

At every step in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit’s work is recognized. Ananias with his wife Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). The seven deacons who were chosen to serve were characterized as “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” and scolded Jewish leaders because they “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). The Apostles Peter and John went to the Samaritans to “pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15). The Spirit tells Philip to go and join the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot to preach Christ to him (Acts 8:29).  Paul’s conversion was completed by the laying-on of Ananias’s hands and the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17). The acceptance of the Gentiles in the person of Cornelius is attested by the pouring out of “the gift of the Holy Spirit” which resulted in a Gentile Pentecost (Acts 10:44-48). Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24), and the Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas for mission to the Gentiles.

This presence and power of the Holy Spirit is often manifested in signs and wonders. (Acts 5:15; 13:8-11; 19:12; 1 Cor. 2:4; 2 Cor. 12:12).  Paul described such work of the Spirit in his apostolic ministry, saying:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Rom. 15:18-21)

Continuity with Jesus and the Twelve, however, may be broken or breached when there is a serious digression from the apostolic origin, teaching, mission, character, or life in the Spirit.  This is why Paul advised Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” (2 Tim. 1:13)  Paul knew this for himself equally as well and said: “… lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)  The apostolic role is conditional; the most obvious case is that of Judas Iscariot, one of the original Twelve.

So, is the “apostolic church” missional? While apostolicity is not limited to missionality it certainly includes it. This is observed in those who have been identified as apostles throughout church history. Such apostolic work on the pattern of the Twelve and their congregations has yielded missional apostles throughout the centuries.  Continued.

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 66-67.
[2] Lima Report: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, IV, 38, cited in Francis A. Sullivan, S. J., From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (New York: The Newman Press, 2001), 9.
[3] McDonald, Lee Martin and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 368. In his writing against Gnostic Christians, Irenaeus maintained that orthodox bishops could be traced back to the Twelve. This succession which included succession of elders was important to establish orthodoxy. It is also of interest to note that not all who were connected to the Apostle John remained apostolic (1 John 2:19).
[4] Lima Report, in Sullivan, 8-9.
[5] Protestants are mindful of examples of those who held ecclesial posts but lacked Christ-like character for the office. See Russell Chamberlin, The Bad Popes (Sutton Publishing, 2003).
[6] Holding to “the apostles’ teaching” is a prerequisite for corollary marks of the church “where the Word of God is properly preached and the sacraments are properly administered.”
[7] The three eastern sees of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople were under the jurisdiction of heretical patriarchs simultaneously during five different periods: AD 357-60 (Arian), 475-77, 482-96, and 512-17 (Monophysite), and 640-42 (Monothelite).
[8] I Clement, ad. Cor., 42 in Bernardino, 77.
[9] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis, 1997), 120.
[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1 (Bloomsbury: T & T Clark, 2004), 724.
[11] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 93.
[12] John Howard Yoder, Theology of Mission: A Believers Church Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 185.
[13] Ibid., 189.
[14] Ibid., 192.

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