How do you respond to the teaching that there are apostles today who have authority over the churches they plant in much the same way the apostles of Jesus did in New Testament times?

The one point I would want to make about the supposed authority of modern-day apostles is that we must bear in mind the big difference between the time of the apostolic church and today; and it is simply that back then they didn’t have the completed New Testament. Indeed, it was still in process of actually being written. And of course this explains why, although the original apostles were generally reluctant to use authority as opposed to reason and persuasion leading to consensus, they nevertheless did occasionally make declarations of absolute and unmitigated command. We understand readily enough that for us today the New Testament is our absolute and complete authority, but at the time of the early church it was the apostles of Jesus themselves. They were the actual walking New Testament; and although there were those who contributed to its writing whilst not being apostles of Jesus in the same way that John, Peter and Paul were, it is still the case that the New Testament came predominantly from the teaching and influence of those men. We would therefore expect at times to hear from them the language of divine command.

However, the function of church leadership since their day is rather to persuade people, and as much by personal example as by propositional argument, of their need and responsibility to submit to what the Bible says. Therefore, leadership today (and this is true of every gifting, whether apostle, prophet, elder, teacher or whatever) has no need whatsoever to command anyone to do anything at all, but to rather simply direct them towards the commands of scripture. But of course the point is that in New Testament times no one could do that because it was precisely the completed New Testament which they didn’t have, and therefore had to be passing on and implementing apostolic commands instead. Hence Timothy is told by Paul to command certain things precisely because Timothy had no chapter and verse in his New Testament to refer them to because he didn’t have the New Testament full stop. But what he did have was Paul’s letter to him which, of course, was pretty much the same thing (and actually a small part of what was to eventually become the New Testament). So Timothy commanded people to do what Paul had written to him because he knew the Lord’s authority rested completely in him. But today an apostle, whether in relating to a church he has planted himself or to an existing one which has merely invited him in to help out would, when it came to what he taught and advised, simply refer people to scripture. That church would therefore judge and test everything he said, taught or did according to the scripture, the very thing the New Testament churches could not do given that they didn’t even have the New Testament with which to do it.

Therefore, unlike the apostles of Jesus back then, apostles today have no authority whatsoever within themselves; that is, based merely on who they are and what their calling is, but are to be judged by others purely according to scripture just like everyone else should be.
Let’s make this even clearer by asking and answering a couple of questions:

• To whom is a non-elder accountable? Answer: Those whom he is in fellowship with at any given time; that is, the church of which he is a part!

• To whom are elders accountable then? Answer: Exactly the same! An elder is accountable to both the other elders and the non-elders of the church of which he is a part!

• To whom are travelling ministries, including apostles, accountable? Answer: When at home they are accountable to those in the church they are part of, and when away they are accountable to those in whichever church they are helping out at any one time.

In each case the person concerned, whether elder or non-elder, apostle, prophet, or whatever, is to be held accountable, and assessed and tested by the rest of the church regarding both their lives and what they teach or advise, purely on the basis of consistency with scripture. No one, whether an elder or someone in trans-local service, has authority within themselves over any church either of which they are a part or temporarily helping out. All anyone can do is to simply appeal to scripture in order to establish whatever it is they say or do, and then persuade others accordingly whilst being nevertheless willing to submit to the general consensus of the church should they find themselves unable to do so.

And of course it is no different for those who function in an apostolic role, whether to single or multiple churches. The principle remains exactly the same, and they too must consider themselves accountable to whichever church they are a part of and helping at any one time. Although they will be obviously be part of a church back home somewhere. (Apostles functioned in two ways. Those like Paul travelled constantly and so were not usually part of a church other than the one they were bringing into being and nurturing at any one time. And the thing we note about them is that whether Paul, Timothy, Titus, Barnabus etc, they were all single men. After all, a married man can’t travel much without neglecting his family, and of course that would immediately disqualify him from any kind of church leadership anyhow. Therefore, the constantly-travelling-Paul-type apostles were always in permanent teams and were therefore like small travelling little churches, hence providing accountability one to another. The other type of apostle, however, is the Peter-type, and of course they are family men. Hence we see of Peter that he only travelled a bit – and taking his wife with him was a matter of apostolic right – and was an elder in the church he was permanently part of at home. Beware of roaming believers who think themselves called to travelling ministry but who aren’t actually part of a permanent team or a church back where they live.)

Further, as with both elders and non-elders, such men can say absolutely nothing by way of absolute authoritative command, but must simply seek to persuade their listeners on the basis that whatever they are saying, suggesting, or teaching is consistent with scripture and thereby worthy of acceptance. However, should they advise a course of action which brings forth no consensus from that church and leaves those in it un-persuaded, then the apostle has no further authority upon which to call. Whether the church ends up actually going against scripture (e.g. wanting women elders or forbidding the proper use of the gifts of the Spirit), or whether the issue is something that cannot be settled finally merely by chapter or verse (e.g. whether or not a particular brother should or shouldn’t be recognized as an elder), he nevertheless has no right to fall back on either the language, or tenor, of personal command.

When it comes to church life the idea of any believer, whether apostle, prophet, elder or whatever, having authority over another believer and telling them what to do, or what they ought to believe by way of doctrine, is just plain ridiculous. And it is ridiculous precisely because if the command in question is something clearly scriptural, such as working to earn your own living and not being lazy, or believing that Jesus came in the flesh, then the Bible has already beaten them to it and any authority lies in the pages of scripture and not the person presumptuously taking it upon themselves to be doing the commanding. Yet if the said command is something not clearly demonstrable or sustainable from scripture (e.g. changing jobs, where you live, who you marry, the finer points of election and predestination and other doctrinal differences etc) then you would be under no compunction whatever to comply with such instruction. Further, anyone presuming to exercise such authority over others needs to be held accountable by the corporate church for such a domineering attitude and desperately needs to learn what humility and servant hood is all about.

The authority of the apostles of Jesus wasn’t like a booster rocket to get things into orbit and then be discarded as having done its job and being of no more use. It was rather the very and actual God given authority to bring into being what would become the New Testament scriptures, which are authoritative and binding on us to the ultimate degree. Therefore it could never be said that apostles today might, even pragmatically, have some kind of authority over either individuals or churches. No, it is simply the fact that, pertaining to church life, authority no longer resides in individuals, whoever they might be, but simply in the pages of scripture. Once we have God’s written Word (and we have it in the Old and New Testaments) there is no longer the slightest need for men with any kind of hierarchical authority over churches. Indeed, the very idea is an absurdity and merely presents us with the idea of having two final authorities: present-day apostles and scripture – a complete nonsense! And of course you can’t have two final authorities anyway, whatever they might be. When they disagree with each other you would then have to decide between them as to which was ultimately right and therefore your ultimate final authority. And that, of course, is just another way of saying that you can’t have two final authorities.

No matter what is said or taught, or who is saying or teaching it, everything should ultimately be tested according to scripture. The early church didn’t have to decide between the New Testament scriptures or the teaching of the apostles because the apostles’ teachings were the New Testament; as simple as that! And neither do we ever have to choose between scripture and mere men, no matter what they like to call themselves. It should be obvious that, when it comes to a choice between what mere men say and what scripture teaches, mere men, even apostles, whoever they might be, are completely, utterly, unequivocally and totally wrong! (Do you think I emphasized that sufficiently? I sure hope I did! It is, after all, as important a point as any believer ever needs to understand!)