Notify me when new issues are released


Winter 2005, Vol. 2, No. 1

Apostolic Practice

Vinson Synan, Ph.D., Dean and Professor of Divinity, Regent University School of Divinity

Printer Friendly Version (PDF,Download Help)

Nothing has stirred more interest in Pentecostal-charismatic circles in recent years than the restoration of the “fivefold ministries” Paul mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-13: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV).

Although most Pentecostals refer to these as “fivefold,” others see them as “fourfold,” combining the ministries of pastor and teacher into one. These “ascension gifts,” as they are called in traditional churches, were given to the Church after Jesus ascended to the Father to extend, guide and mature the Church.

We can assume that, at the time Paul wrote, the New Testament church had a clear understanding of what these offices required, how they operated and who filled them. However, with the passing of time, the role and operation of these ministries in the everyday life of the church became less clear.

Thus, for centuries, the offices of pastor and teacher have been familiar ministries in all churches. However, only since the middle of the nineteenth century, with the success of Charles Finney and other “professional” evangelists of that day, has the office of evangelist gained a popular understanding and acceptance.

The offices of apostle and prophet have been more elusive for modern Christians. Many have accepted a belief developed throughout the centuries that the age of the apostles and prophets ended around 96 AD, about the time John, the last apostle, died. Another belief, first stated by St. Augustine (and later retracted), has been widely accepted along with this. It holds that, with the completion of the canon of Scripture, the Lord withdrew miraculous gifts of the Spirit such as tongues, prophecy and healing.

Over time, as the bishops consolidated their power in the church, the office of apostle was almost forgotten. By the second century, apostles and prophets were seen as nothing more than traveling medicine men with little or no influence or authority. In the Didache (11:3) the following rules were laid down for itinerant “apostles and prophets”: “Now, as regards apostles and prophets, act strictly according to the precept of the Gospel. Upon his arrival every apostle must be welcomed as the Lord; but he must not stay except one day. In case of necessity, however, he may stay the next day also; but if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. At his departure the apostle must receive nothing except food to last till the next night’s lodging; but if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”

In spite of cessationist views and the low esteem showed to those who claimed to be apostles, the idea of a continuing apostleship continued to surface sporadically throughout church history. For example, Mani of Persia (216-274), founder of the Manichee sect in the third century, called himself the “Apostle of Light”—the last apostle of Jesus Christ, he said, who would ever appear. Like Mani, whose dualistic religion the church rejected as heretical, most people in church history who have claimed to be new apostles have been branded as heretics and excommunicated from the church. (Mohammed also claimed to be the last apostle and prophet for all time.) Other so-called end-time apostles, such as Joseph Smith, have appeared over the centuries and have been rejected. Nevertheless, the question of whether there are contemporary apostles has refused to die. In fact, the modern debate is as lively as ever.

Since 1901, despite long-standing cessation theories, Pentecostals and charismatics have loudly proclaimed that the charismata, or gifts of the Spirit, are a present-day reality in the church. Millions of modern-day Christians speak in tongues, prophesy, cast out demons and pray for the sick with an expectation of divine healing. These gifts of the Spirit are regarded as part of the modern Christian experience in a large percentage of the churches of Christendom.

The question many sincere Christians are now asking is this: If the charismata have been restored, why have not the prophets and apostles—those offices that the Lord himself set in the church—been restored also? As with the gifts of the Spirit, the dispensational limit on the exercise of these offices seems to be more man-made than biblical.

Prophecy has been an integral feature of most Pentecostal and charismatic movements through the years. Until recently, however, there has been an extreme reluctance to recognize the office of prophet, although some were ordained to the prophetic office in the Latter Rain movement of the late 1940s and ‘50s. In the words of the Anglican charismatic leader Colin Urquhart, “There have been many prophecies but few prophets.” In the past two decades, however, particularly among independent Pentecostals and charismatics, men such as Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle and Paul Cain have led a sweeping prophetic movement.

So, what about the office of apostle? When considering the fivefold ministries, the average believer can understand that pastors care for their flock, evangelists preach to the unconverted, teachers instruct their students and prophets prophesy the Word of God. But what do apostles do to show they are apostles? If there are apostles today, who are they?

What the Bible Says

The biblical definition of the Greek word apostolos is “one sent forth,” encompassing such ideas as messenger, ambassador and missionary. Perhaps the clearest definition would be “one sent on a special mission.” In the New Testament, the “special mission” was to preach the good news of the gospel. An apostle was sent forth by the Lord Jesus Christ as an ambassador of the good news, one carrying the all-important message of salvation.

In the New Testament, a variety of ministers bore the title of apostle:

  1. The Unique Apostle—Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 speaks of Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our profession.” He, indeed, was one sent on a special mission to save the world. Of course, there will be no other apostle like the Son of God. He is unique and stands alone!
  2. The twelve apostles. The Bible seems to place “the Twelve” in a unique category as well. This special group of messengers is without parallel in church history; their unique ministry will never be repeated. Some call these the “apostles of Christ” or the “apostles of the Lamb” because they saw Jesus with their own eyes and were witnesses of His resurrection (Acts 1:21,22). To these twelve men, Jesus promised a special place in the Kingdom: “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).
  3. Eight other apostles. Some of these are called the “apostles of the Churches” (2 Cor. 8:23). After Judas betrayed Jesus and hanged himself, Matthias was chosen to take his place. Later, Paul, who saw the Lord “as one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8), was also called an apostle. These two men were not the end of the list. Paul called James, the brother of Jesus, an “apostle” (Gal. 1:19). Others were Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6-9), Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). Some early church fathers even called Mary Magdalene “the first apostle” because she was the first to see the risen Lord. Ann Graham Block and other scholars claim that Junia was almost certainly a woman because of the feminine form of the name.

    Thus, the identification of at least eight other leaders who were “apostles” clearly puts in question the argument that the apostolic office was limited to the original Twelve (although their unique place in the biblical record is undisputed). Implicitly or explicitly, the Bible gives no fewer than twenty people the apostolic title.
  4. The “false” apostles. In addition to the twenty people with recognized apostolic ministries, the Scriptures define a category of “false apostles,” whose positions were not appointed by God but usurped by carnal men for their own glory. Paul called these men “deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). He likened them to Satan, who “transformed himself into an angel of light” in order to deceive the elect.

To distinguish between the genuine apostles and the false, the Bible suggests the following criteria:

  • True apostles saw Jesus in the flesh and witnessed the Resurrection (see 1 Cor. 9:1).
  • True apostles are accompanied by “signs, wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12).
  • True apostles equip the saints for the work of the ministry, bring unity to the body, speak the truth in love and join and knit the whole body together (see Eph. 4:7-16). They are the authoritative teachers of the truths in the Gospels.
  • True apostles are ecumenical, with a universal interest in and authority in the whole body of Christ (see Gal. 2:8).
  • True apostles are chosen by God, not necessarily elected (see Eph. 1:1).

Several Church Traditions

Throughout Christian history, there have been differing views concerning the apostolic office. The Roman Catholic view, developed in subapostolic times, is that Christ commissioned the original Twelve as a unique, unrepeatable body led by Peter and Paul. The “Petrine theory” holds that Simon Peter was given a place of primacy among the Twelve; his successors have been the popes. All other bishops are “successors to the apostles” and exercise a magisterial, pastoral and teaching authority that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Thus, in Catholic theology, all ecclesiastical power is derived from prior generations through apostolic succession. There are no “apostles” as such in succeeding generations, though all authority in the Church stems from apostolic succession. With the exception of the claim to papal authority, this also represents the general belief of the Orthodox churches.

Nevertheless, this view has not kept the Catholic Church from recognizing apostolic-like ministries over the centuries. For instance, missionaries who were the first to bring the gospel to a new people group have been called “apostles” to that group. Thus, St. Augustine of Canterbury is called the “apostle to England,” and St. Patrick is called the “apostle to Ireland.” This tradition is as old as Paul, who called himself “an apostle to the Gentiles.” Over the centuries, there have been thousands of these “apostles to (whatever locale).” Even today, some conduct apostolic ministry among remote tribes and peoples.

The Protestant Reformers rejected the Catholic view of apostolic succession and busied themselves with the new movement they founded. Most believed that the office of apostle had ended with the Early Church, with no “successors” as in the Catholic tradition. Some Reformers, such as John Calvin, thought that apostles might reappear under certain circumstances. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote the Lord “now and again revives them [apostles, prophets and evangelists] as the need of the times demands.” These offices, however, have no place in “duly constituted churches,” he added. In a similar vein, Luther believed “the apostolic message rather than the office” would remain in the church.

A little-known instance of Protestants sending out “apostles” as missionaries occurred among the Baptists in Colonial America. For a time, Baptists in New England ordained “apostles” as missionaries to such southern colonies as Virginia, Carolina and Georgia. After some time, however, the term “apostle” was dropped for the more traditional term “missionary.”

In general, Protestants have been prone to refer to founders of movements and doctrinal systems as “apostles of” certain movements or theological views. Thus, Luther is often called the “apostle of the Reformation,” or the “apostle of justification by faith.” Similarly, Calvin has been called the “apostle of reformed Christianity,” while Wesley is known as the “apostle of Methodism.” Every denomination seems to have an “apostle” who served as the founder of the ecclesial body, usually based on a new and unique teaching from Scripture.

In the nineteenth century, a restorationist movement began in Britain with the avowed purpose of restoring all aspects of New Testament Christianity to the modern church. Lewis Way, John Nelson Darby, Edward Irving and others pioneered a restoration of the charismata (such as glossolalia and prophecy). The movement culminated in the creation of the Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832. In addition to the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, the church attempted to restore the fivefold ministries, including the office of apostle.

In due time, the church ordained twelve “apostles” who were to be the end-times equivalent of the Twelve chosen by Christ. According to their prophecies, this group would be the last apostles to exist before the rapture of the church. Eventually, however, these apostles died. When the last one died in 1901, the British church collapsed and practically disappeared. Only in Germany were new apostles ordained to succeed those who had passed away. This church took the name “New Apostolic Church” and is today the third largest body of Christians in Germany (after the Catholic and Lutheran churches).

Another sad case of a modern “apostle” who went over the hill was Alexander Dowie, who claimed the titles of “apostle” and “Elijah the restorer” just before sinking into dementia.

The earliest name chosen by the Pentecostal movement in America was “Apostolic Faith,” a designation given by Charles Parham to his church in Topeka, Kansas. It was here, in 1901, that modern Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in other tongues, began. Parham’s student, William J. Seymour, chose the same name for his Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in 1906.

In this context, “Apostolic Faith” did not signal a move to restore the office of apostle to the church. Parham, in fact, was extremely critical of any kind of church government, especially a highly centralized system with apostolic authority. Yet, there are those who refer to him as the “apostle of Pentecost

In the years that followed the glory days at Azusa Street, Pentecostal missionaries traveled around the world preaching the “latter rain” message of a mighty “Holy Ghost outpouring” that would occur before the second coming of Christ. A new generation of Pentecostal “apostles” appeared. They included G.B. Cashwell, the “apostle to the south”; T.B. Barratt, the “apostle to Europe”; W.C. Hoover, the “apostle to Chile”; Ivan Voronaev, the “apostle to the Slavs” and Luigi Francescon, the “apostle to Italy.”

Other early Pentecostal groups claimed to restore the office of apostle to the church. These included “apostolic churches” in Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States, in which “apostles” were duly elected and ordained along with any other office in the church. Some of these continue to this day, with colleges of apostles (usually twelve) that govern their denominations. The “New Order of the Latter Rain” movement of the late 1940s also popularized the restoration of the “fivefold ministries” in preparation for the revelation of the “manifested sons company.” These perfected ones, it was claimed, would rule and reign at the end of the Church Age. Prominent among this elite group would be prophets and apostles. Overall, however, Pentecostals have been far more interested in restoring the charismata than in restoring any type of ecclesiastical offices to the church. In the words of David du Plessis, “Pentecostals are more interested in apostolic success rather than in apostolic succession.”

Independent Charismatic Views

Many independent charismatics have developed a thirst for the restoration of apostolic authority in the body of Christ. They have produced mountains of tapes and books that assert the fivefold ministries must be restored in power to the modern church. Indeed, many contemporary leaders freely claim to be “apostles.” Some even have the title printed on their stationery and business cards.

In general, charismatics have defined apostolic ministry as applying to any one who has a trans-local ministry, usually leaving the pastorate to itinerate in a teaching or church-planting ministry.

The New Apostolic Reformation. In the last decade, Peter Wagner has led the “new apostolic reformation movement,” which he claims is now sweeping the world as the new way leaders are “doing church.” This movement came out of the “National Symposium on the Post-Denominational Church,” a conference Wagner led at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1996. After years of studying church growth in the “postmodern age,” Wagner concluded that the day of the historic denomination was rapidly coming to a close while a new generation of “post-denominational churches was dawning. Before the conference could convene, however, many critics of the idea, including Jack Hayford, forced Wagner to choose a new name. He finally settled on the term “New Apostolic Churches” to describe what he called a “New Testament model of leadership,” or “new wineskins for a new Church Age.”

These new churches, which many think are really “pre-denominational movements,” would have the following “new” features:

  • A new name (“New Apostolic Reformation”)
  • New authority structures (the leaders are called “apostles”)
  • New leadership training (no seminaries but volunteers, homegrown staff, local Bible colleges)
  • New ministry focus (“vision driven” [toward the future] rather than “heritage driven” [toward the past])
  • New worship styles (keyboards, ministry teams, lifted hands, loud praise, overhead projectors)
  • New prayer forms (concert prayer, singing in the Spirit)
  • New financing (“finances are abundant, giving is expected, beneficial, cheerful”)
  • New outreach (church planting, compassion for the poor)
  • New power orientation (openness to the Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit: healing, demonic deliverance and prophecy)

In his book, The New Apostolic Churches, Wagner listed eighteen pastors (or “apostles”) who represented the new movement. Of these, only Bill Hybels, Michael Fletcher and David Kim do not appear to have Pentecostal or charismatic backgrounds. Most, such as Billy Joe Daugherty, Roberts Liardon and William Kumuyi, are openly Pentecostal or charismatic. Others have been part of the Pentecostal/charismatic renewal for years. Clearly most of the “New Apostolic Churches” have their roots in classical Pentecostalism. Their distinctive features were pioneered by Pentecostals who were successful pastors long before the apostolic movement began.

In 1999, Wagner attempted to organize the movement into an umbrella grouping under the name “International Coalition of Apostles,” with Wagner listed as the “Presiding Apostle.” New “apostles” could join and pay $69 a month as membership dues. Wagner listed the many types of “apostles” who could be members. They included:

“Vertical apostles,” which included “ecclesiastical, functional, apostolic team members and congregational apostles”

“Horizontal apostles,” which included: “convening, ambassadorial, mobilizing and territorial apostles”

“Marketplace apostles,” (undefined)

“Calling apostles,” which are those who call Christians together in unity

By 2004, in his book, Aftershock! How the Second Apostolic Age is Changing the Church, Wagner made grandiose claims about this new movement, claiming that the charismatic movement was “a vision unfulfilled” and that the new “apostolic renewal” movement had taken its place as the wave of the future.

Since almost all of them operate in the gifts of the Spirit, it seems that most of these networks were planted and inspired by the Pentecostal-charismatic movement in the first place. David Barrett previously listed most of them as “denominational Pentecostals” until his New World Christian Encyclopedia (2000) began to designate them as “neo-charismatic.” Rather than being part of a “New Apostolic Reformation,” most of them are actually part of the “Pentecostal/charismatic reformation.” It seems that Wagner has tried to impose a new title for movements that were already dynamic churches originally inspired by the Pentecostals and to create an artificial apostolic structure with himself as “presiding apostle.” Although they claim to be only “apostolic networks,” they are rapidly organizing and developing structures under their claim of apostolic authority. They are in reality new denominations.

Because of my studies of church history, I view this movement with the following reservations:

  • It fails to appreciate and recognize the missionary accomplishments of the Pentecostal “denominations” such as the Assemblies of God. It also fails to distinguish between the dynamic and growing Pentecostal denominations and the mainline Protestant denominations, many of which are slowly dwindling away.
  • Many of these post-denominational networks are simply incipient denominations themselves.
  • Having an unaccountable “apostle” intervening between a church’s constituted authorities and a minister can cause conflicts of authority that could lead to confusion similar to the shepherding-discipleship controversy of the 1980s.
  • This could become an elitist movement that places all power in the hands of self-appointed “apostles” at the expense of accountability to the church as a whole.
  • The ultimate end could be the removal of all lay influence in the governance of the churches and the end of all democratic or congregational government in favor of a hierarchical system that rules from the top.
  • The appointing of “territorial apostles” who are unknown to most of the Christian community in a particular area can be dangerous and divisive.
  • In church history, most apostolic movements, such as the Irvingite movement of the 1830s and the various twentieth-century Pentecostal groups that ordained “apostles,” have been notable for their lack of growth and missionary success.
  • When individuals have claimed the title of “apostle” or “Elijah” it sometimes has resulted from an exaggerated ego or, in several cases, actual dementia.
  • There have been recent reports of American or British apostolic groups offering indigenous third-world Pentecostal and charismatic churches large sums of money to come under their “apostolic covering.”

In spite of these concerns, the apostolic movement might inspire some persons to exercise the function of apostle in bringing the gospel to unreached peoples. Although I respect Peter Wagner for his tremendous contributions to the growth of evangelicalism, and even to the Pentecostal movement, I am disappointed that he has attempted to place himself at the head (“presiding apostle”) of an organization designed for all those who claim to have apostolic ministries.

As interest in the apostolic emphasis has spread, more books and articles analyzing the movement have appeared in major Christian journals. Ministries Today magazine devoted an entire issue to the topic in November 2004. Although generally favorable, these articles raised some serious concerns about the movement. Dr. Doug Beacham, an official of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, addressed Wagner’s apparent disdain for denominations in an article named “The Leadershift.” Although he sees a bright future for some denominations, he contends, “Twentieth-century charismatic/Pentecostal wineskins must be adapted to hold twenty-first century wine.”

In the same issue, David Moore, an adjunct professor at Regent University, states positively, “We need present-day apostles, and the New Apostolic Reformation is a genuine expression of God’s renewing work in His church.” He warns the new apostolic movement, however, of the excesses of the discipleship-shepherding movement that divided the charismatic movement in the 1970s. As a former devotee of the shepherding movement, Moore experienced many of the problems that caused massive confusion at that time. He sees “great danger in ‘triumphalism’—viewing one’s movement as the ‘cutting edge’ of what God is doing today. This mind-set,” he explains, “especially if coupled with success, tends to devalue those who don’t see it their way, or worse, write off critics as old-fashioned defenders of ‘tradition’ unwilling to embrace God’s new move.”

Yes—and No

This brings us back to the original question: Are there genuine apostles in the earth today? The answer would seem to be yes—and no. No, there are no living persons like the original Twelve who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These “apostles of Christ” were and will remain unique in salvation history. And, yes, there are apostles abroad today who are carrying out the same mission as the apostles in the New Testament. Who are they? The nearest parallel to the New Testament and historic use of the term “apostle” are those missionaries—often unnamed—who are bringing the message of the gospel to unreached peoples and tribes. They are busy translating the Scriptures and planting churches where none existed. They have little time to consider their apostolic office.

It is axiomatic to say that anyone who claims to be an apostle probably is not one. An apostle is not self-appointed or elected by any ecclesiastical body but is chosen by the Lord himself. As Lewi Pethrus, founder of the famous Filadelphia Church in Stockholm, Sweden, has said anyone who claims apostleship is suspect. The one most likely to be an apostle is he who, like John the Baptist, claims only to be “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Who are the apostles today? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Where do we find apostolic ministry and apostolic results? The modern church needs these far more than it needs names to carry as a title or warm bodies to fill an office.


Christenson, Larry. A Message to the Charismatic Movement. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1972.

Flegg, Columba Graham. Gathered Under Apostles: A Study of the Catholic Apostolic Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Dayton, Donald. The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987.

John Eckhardt. Moving in the Apostolic. Ventura, Calif.: Renew, 1999.

Faupel, William. The Everlasting Gospel: The Significance of Eschatology in the Development of Pentecostal Thought. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles Fox Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: Arkansas University Press, 1988.

Hamon, Bill. Apostles and Prophets and the Coming Moves of God. Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.: Christian International, 1997.

Hollenweger, Walter. The Pentecostals. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988. First published in 1972.

Hunter, George G. Radical Outreach: Recovering Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Lindsay, Gordon. John Alexander Dowie. Dallas: CFNI, 1985.

McGee, Gary B. Initial Evidence. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

———. People of the Spirit: The Assemblies of God. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 2004.

Menzies, William. Anointed to Serve: The Story of the Assemblies of God. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1971.

Moore, David. “Cover Me: Apostleship, Submission and Accountability—Five Lessons We Learned From the Shepherding Controversy.” Ministries Today, November-December, 2004.

Nelson, P.C. Bible Doctrines: A Series of Studies Based on the Statement of Fundamental Truths as Adopted by the General Council of the Assemblies of God. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1948.

Riss, Richard M. “The Latter Rain Movement of 1948.” Pneuma 4, spring, 1982. 

———. A Survey of 20th Century Revival Movements in North America. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989.

Ruthven, Jon. On the Cessation of the Charismata. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993 (see 211-220).

Strachan, Gordon. The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1973.

Synan, Vinson. Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

———. The Holiness Pentecostal Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971,1998.

———. Voices of Pentecost, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Vine Books, 2003.

———. “Who are the Modern Apostles?” Ministries Today, March-April, 1992.

Wagner, C. Peter. Aftershock! How the Second Apostolic Age Is Changing the Church. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2004.

———. Churchquake: How the New Apostolic Reformation Is Shaking Up the Church as We Know It. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1999.

———, ed. The New Apostolic Churches. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1998.

Worsfold, James E. The Origins of the Apostolic Church in Great Britain: With a Breviate of Its Early Missionary Endeavours. Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand: Julian Literature Trust, 1991.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM