By Mike Willis
We have looked at the Apostles to see their function in the first century church. There are some things that were unique to them that cannot be repeated in another generation. Other things they did were models for men to imitate (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:9; etc.). Unless we can discriminate what these were, we shall not know what men are and are not to imitate. Consequently, we continue our study of the Apostles.
Some Things Being An Apostle Did Not Do
Because of mistaken ideas about what being an apostle did and did not do, we need to notice some things that were not results of one’s being an apostle.
1. Being an apostle did not keep one from sin. Peter’s conduct at Antioch shows that conclusively. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul reported his rebuke of Peter’s hypocrisy in his treatment of the Gentiles, not to belittle Peter, but to confirm that the gospel he preached was approved by the Apostles. As an aside, however, this incident demonstrates that the Apostles fought the same battle with sin as do the rest of us. This battle with sin, described in Romans 7:14-25, did not cease when God called a person to be an Apostle.
2. Being an apostle did not give one authority over a brotherhood of churches. Some brethren appear to have the idea that the Apostles had authority over a brotherhood of churches (church-hood) in a way that no one else does. Their idea appears to be that the Apostles could give orders to a local church in another area of the country and that local church was obligated to submit to the authority of this officer of a brotherhood of churches, much like any local Catholic Church is obligated to submit to the authority of the pope.
Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 11:28 needs to be considered. The text reads, “Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). This expression states his mental anxiety about the churches; it does not define a role of an apostle as being a “pope” over all of the churches, or a “bishop” over an ecclesiastical diocese. That same concern is on the hearts of every Christian who witnesses the spread of error or trouble in local congregations.
I know these apostles were not officers over a brotherhood of churches because of one simple fact: The universal church is not composed of a brotherhood of churches. The Apostles could not hold authority over a brotherhood of churches because there never was a brotherhood of churches in the first century.
Whenever a person does what the Apostles of the first century did in addressing the error in a church of which one is not a member (such as what Paul did at Corinth, the churches of Galatia, etc.), someone is quick to condemn their action saying, “But you’re not an apostle.” The full implication of this argument is that the Apostles could do this because they were officers over a brotherhood of churches in contrast to a local preacher who does not hold that office. That argument is wrong because the Apostles were not officers in a brotherhood of churches. There never was a brotherhood of churches in the New Testament.
The work of the Apostles was to give revelation. Aside from that, these men had no greater and no lesser authority over local churches than any other man. Whereas the Apostles could speak through inspiration to these churches, any other man can follow the Apostles’ example in addressing churches, using the “apostles’ doctrine” in addressing the needs of those churches.
3. Being an apostle did not give one authority to commit sin. We are being told that one is guilty of violating the autonomy of a local church whenever he teaches on errors existing in a local church of which he is not a member. If that is a sin for a person living in the twentieth century, then it was a sin for a person living in the first century. And the Apostles did not have authority from God to commit sin just because they were apostles. Lying is just as much a sin when committed by an apostle as it is when committed by anyone else; hypocrisy is just as much a sin when committed by an apostle as it is when committed by anyone else (Gal. 2:11-14). In the same manner, violating the autonomy of the local church is just as much a sin when committed by an apostle as it is when it is committed by anyone else!
The truth of the matter is that some brethren have a mistaken view of what is meant by the autonomy of a local church. When New Testament examples are cited of an apostle doing the very thing that they are condemning in modern day practice as a violation of congregational autonomy, these brethren excuse what they judge to be sinful behavior on the grounds that an apostle did it. That reasoning is mistaken and absurd. The Apostles did not have a free reign to commit sin because they were apostles.
Undermining Apostolic Examples
Through the years, brethren have understood that God reveals his will to mankind through direct command or statement, apostolic example, and necessary inference. Some of the uses of the “you’re not an apostle” argument effectively undermine the example of the apostles as a means of learning the revealed will of God.
Let’s remind ourselves of the evidences that the examples of the apostles are to be used to learn what is approved conduct before the Lord.
The plain statement of Scripture emphasizes that their examples are to be imitated. Here are some statements that this is so.
Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you (Phil. 4:9).
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing. Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample (Phil. 3:14-17).
Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church (1 Cor. 4:16-17).
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess. 1:6-7).
Note that these Scriptures reveal that one can learn how to conduct himself in the Lord by imitating what he had seen an apostle do (Phil. 4:9), by being a follower of an apostle (Phil. 3:17), and by imitating the apostles’ “ways” (1 Cor. 4:17).
The argument “you’re not an apostle” presupposes that the examples of the apostles cannot be followed, which is directly contrary to what these Scriptures state — that the examples of the apostles are to be used for our imitation.
We conclude that the examples of the conduct of the Apostles are to be imitated as much as possible, the exception being that the apostles gave divine revelation and confirmed that revelation by miracles, wonders, and signs. Revelation is not on-going and miracles have ceased (1 Cor. 13:8-10; Jude 3). When this is understood as the limited sphere unique to apostles, prophets, and those possessing other miraculous gifts, what is left in the divine record of the conduct of the Apostles can be imitated and used as an example that men should follow.