“Apostolic,” like “catholic,” is not found as an explicit expression of the Church. But the Church’s apostolicity is an important truth taught in the Bible. Before we address the biblical teaching on what “apostolic” means, it is important that we look at two common meanings that are inaccurate or not biblical. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, believes that the Church is apostolic through its connection with Peter and all the successors of Peter primarily seen in the office of the bishop of Rome or the Pope (this is known as apostolic succession). This claim will not stand up to biblical scrutiny.
Another misunderstanding is rooted in the meaning of “apostle” as “sent ones.” Overlooking the technical meaning of the term, viz.. those who were with Jesus, the emphasis is on the present-day “sentness” of the church or its missionary mandate. This is partly right, but it assumes or ignores the heart of what it means to be apostolic. What is missing in both of these missteps is the apostolic deposit, the gospel of Jesus Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit and inscripturated in the Word of God, incarnated in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
The clearest teaching of the apostolic nature of the church comes from the pen of Paul as he writes to the saints in and around Ephesus – and to all the saints of all time including us today – these words: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22). Paul continued by writing of the mystery that had been revealed “to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). This mystery is that both Jews and Gentiles are “members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). This beautiful creation of God the Holy Spirit, the church, is that upon whom the principalities and powers (those evil beings opposed to the work of God) gaze and they see a manifestation of God’s wisdom and His transforming and victorious grace (Eph. 3:9-12).
Here are five truths we can glean from Paul about what it means for the church to be apostolic. First, the church that is apostolic focuses on Christ. Although the “apostles and the prophets” are the foundation in this image, Jesus is the cornerstone. This means that He is at the center of all that is said and done (cf. Col. 1:18).
Second, the church that is apostolic recognizes the important historical role the apostles played in salvation history. These apostles were not paragons of greatness, but what made the foundation great was the cornerstone, Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 118:22; 1 Pet. 2:6-7). Their function and role were unique and unrepeatable: they were chosen in the Spirit (Acts 1:2), they remembered Christ’s words and deeds through the Spirit (Jn. 14:26; Acts 10:41), and they received the complete – final and definitive – revelation of the resurrected Christ (Jn. 15:26-27; 16:13-15). The heart of this is that they had been with Jesus (Lk. 6:12; Acts 1:21-22; 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:8-10). Thus the church is founded upon the apostolic witness and testimony of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5), as they stand between Christ and all subsequent generations of Christians pointing the way to Him through the Word.
Third, the church that is apostolic is rooted in the Scripture. We know of Jesus only through the apostles and their testimony of Him as recorded in the New Testament which is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17-20). This means the church orders its belief and behavior according to the apostolic faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. Acts 2:42). In all her endeavors, the apostolic Scripture is the supreme authority, and this is manifested in the preaching, teaching and reading of that Word, and passing this Word on to others (2 Tim. 2:2).
Fourth, the church that is apostolic is continually being reformed by and to the Scripture, the apostles’ writings that give preeminence to Jesus Christ. We have not yet arrived at God’s desired end for His people. This is why Paul emphasizes that we are being built, presently and ongoingly, together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). And, very importantly, this happens together with other believers (cf. Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25).
Fifth, the church that is apostolic is missional. This means that the church is missional in her very being, i.e., God has called His people to be a light to the nations (1 Pet. 2:9). But she is also missional in her lifestyle as she proclaims the gospel of Christ, the whole counsel of God, to all people (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). She not only proclaims the gospel, but is also a visible manifestation of the gospel.
Please join me in confessing our sin against Christ and His Church in that we have neglected, ignored or denied that we are apostolic – we have assumed Christ and His gospel by not giving Him and it preeminence in our preaching, teaching, counseling, living, etc.; we have taken the apostolic deposit, the Bible, for granted in that we do not read and study it diligently; we engage in reform based on relevancy to the culture not the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ; we live as if God’s blessings are to terminate on us rather than God blessing us to be a blessing to others.
Lord, please forgive us. Please also join me in praying that we will recommit to all those positive things we have confessed we have or have not done above, so that God in His grace and mercy will once again enable us to be, as an association of churches, apostolic. Please also pray specifically for all of the details of the conference – for those responsible for planning and those who will be attending. We are convinced that apart from God’s work in this conference, it will be a failure, so please join us in prayer asking God to do great things, for His glory and the good of His people.