Understanding Apostolic Authority

In the church today many are wrestling with the ministry of the apostle and trying to grasp what authority an apostle has and what does that authority look like. Like any function in the church it can become more complicated because of the weakness of man’s flesh, yet God has chosen to work through earthen vessels. There is a great need in the body of Christ today to have a biblical understanding of apostolic authority because the ministry of the apostles are being more and more accepted.

This blog will address true apostolic authority, its means and function. Paul the apostle, regularly dealt with the challenge of his apostolic authority. In dealing with the Corinthian church it becomes quite clear that Paul’s apostolic authority is challenged from every side. Questions arose among the people of his authenticity as an apostle, his measure of authority to them, and whether he should act upon his God-given measure.

When he was away, he wrote strong letters to the church calling them to repentance from sin, giving them instructions and directives concerning church discipline and establishing doctrine. Apparently they received from him but eventually began to resist his authority. There were those who judged him from his outward presentation and considered his bodily presence nothing to be respected and even challenged his spirituality. They criticized him as acting in the flesh for his own selfish motives rather than what was best for the church. Evidently, they felt justified in undermining his spiritual authority, but became guilty of falsely judging his motives, thus for a period, the church in Corinth rejected Paul’s apostolic authority. It is from this view that he writes 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13. In these four chapters, we are given insight into apostolic authority that operated through him. We are able to learn several aspects concerning this authority.

It Is Spiritual, Not Carnal
Paul begins his appeal to the church of Corinth with meekness and gentleness. He took the kingdom approach of not exerting himself beyond what God had given him, but rather came to them in humility. They were immaturity and misinterpreted this as weakness. He warned them of the true divine aspects of his authority given to him by God for their edification. This authority, he told them, would manifest if they remained in disobedience. We are not told just how this authority would be “present” if he came to them and found them in disobedience. Peter’s dealings with Ananias and Sapphira and Paul’s dealing with Hymenaeus and Alexander is perhaps what he had in mine. “It is important to note that in none of these situations was it a case of praying, ‘against’ those who were disciplined, nor desiring ill favor for them. Rather, it was a matter of ‘giving up’ and ‘delivering over.’ It was not a threatening of their souls with a loss of salvation. On the contrary, it was a delivering over for the destruction of the flesh in order that the spirit might be saved.”1 If they did not respond correctly when he was present he said that he would be bold with confidence against those who misjudged him. “The apostle had reason to believe that he should be obliged to use the severe and authoritative part of his function in the excommunication of those who had sinned, and delivering them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”2 In order to give them space to change he delayed his visit and sent a letter trusting that it would produce the desired result. Through this, Paul demonstrates for us how spiritual authority should operate.

There are times that Paul chose to use persuasive means when he had the right to command (Phm 8). He was careful not to overstep his bounds. Though spiritual authority is legitimate, it should be pointed out that in the kingdom one cannot demand more than what God gives. That is why Paul said that he did not boast beyond his measure. Jesus taught that we are not to exercise authority over each other in the same way the world does. He explained the difference in Matthew 20:25-26: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.’”

The word exercise is translated from the Greek word, katakurieuo. It is a derivative from three other Greek words, which means, to control through lordship and dominion over and against others. Though one must be willing to be bold and move in authority in the church intimidation and manipulation is not part of kingdom authority. True apostles to whom God has given a measure of authority will not love preeminence nor exalt themselves. They will be careful not to exercise dominion over the faith of believers, but will respect the right of each one to be led by God. This is what Peter, an apostle and an elder, meant when he warned other elders to not “lord” over those entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:3).

Man’s conscience is one of the most sacred possessions that individuals have, thus those who move in spiritual authority must always guard against defrauding someone’s conscience. This transgression happens when directives are given beyond what is clear in the scripture. Even if one should give the leader permission to invade his conscience it is wisdom to stop short lest damage comes to the follower. God must always remain as Lord over man and his conscience. There are those who desire to be told what to do in matters of personal concern, but they should be trained to hear from God for themselves. True leaders will command or instruct only in areas where there is a clear biblical mandate that protects followers from stumbling into sin.

The fundamental principle here is that God must remain supreme in each individual life and Jesus the high priest of each soul. “Some have said that the gifts of the Spirit operative in the Church are to express the body of Christ, while the leaders [ordained elders from the five-fold gifts of Ephesians 4:11] are to reveal the headship of Christ.”3 The truth is that each believer is connected to the head, Christ Himself, and Christ’s gifts of Ephesians 4:11 are given to equip, strengthen, and mature the church. We must be careful not to create a separation between leaders and the members and Christ. Paul understood the difference in authoritarian government and one moving in spiritual authority. His response was often that of a father using spiritual authority to encourage those under his care.

Apostolic authority is to be recognized through divine connections. God joins His Church together as it pleases Him. Organizational or denominational government may be easier to recognize because the authority structure is positional. Leadership is generally appointed or elected by the other church leaders and these positions are filled as needed. However, the one who stands in the place of positional authority within an organizational structure may not have a spiritual authority.

When churches begin to embrace spiritual authority among apostles organizations can be threatened. For example, if one has  been given spiritual authority with a church within a denominational structure an issue can arise. That can be unsettling for organizational or positional authority. Once this takes place, denominational leaders often are tempted to protect their organizational sphere. This is one reason that apostolic authority is not encouraged to develop in some church structures; it stands to undermine organizational government. Therefore, true apostolic authority seldom remains within organizational structure. The spiritual authority given to that apostle can be beyond the borders of an organization.

One can only receive what God gives him. An apostle only has authority where God gives it, however, it is quite possible for one to have been given authority by God and it not be recognized by those to whom he is sent. This was part of Paul’s struggle with the Corinthian church. He was bold to argue his rightful place, but in the end his power-force was spiritual authority. He had no organizational authority to which to threaten the Corinthians. If they failed to follow, then it was to their loss. In this situation, it is imperative that spiritual authority not be imposed beyond what God has given, but rather allowed it to develop as one labors in the gospel. If those to whom God has sent the authority to do not discern that spiritual authority then they must be permitted to miss their opportunity. And in due time, Christ who is the head of His Church will bring about matters that will cause the wise to see His hand; consequently, proper authority is not carnal but spiritual.

It Is Powerful, Not Clever
Paul was appealing to the Corinthians to embrace his apostolic authority as he described it as not being according to the flesh, but as mighty through God. Spiritual authority comes when others perceive the anointing of the gift and the development in spirituality of the leader.

Apostles serve with an authority according to their commission that gives them the ability to address certain strongholds of false notions about God and His purposes. Here, in our study of Corinthians Paul knew that was his responsibility. For the sake of the church in Corinth Paul was committed to continue his preaching and boasting until he had cut off the opportunity from those who desired to be regarded as he was in the matter. He declares, “And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about” (2 Corinthians 11:12). He was not willing to allow his responsibilities to be lost either by the false apostles or by the disobedience of some in the church.

John Echardt of Crusaders Church and International Ministries of Prophetic and Apostolic Churches, said, “Apostles are called to challenge and confront those mind-sets that are in opposition to the Word of God. They change our philosophy of ministry because the wrong philosophy of ministry can produce an inability to reach certain people, [and undermine the proper function of the church. Once these strongholds are addressed through the spiritual authority of apostles] entire regions come open to the truth.”4 That is why Paul wrote concerning his apostolic authority, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

Here Paul uses warfare terminology in describing this authority. It is spiritual warfare and is conducted through true apostolic authority. This verse is most often quoted in reference to spiritual authority over demonic activity by all believers. In its context, this passage speaks specifically of Paul’s apostolic authority to tear down the teachings of false apostles and the misguided thinking of the Corinthian Christians. That is not to say, these verses do not apply in some ways to all Christians, because we know that all scripture is profitable for training in righteousness; however, we should first note the contextual purpose. Paul is teaching us something here concerning apostolic authority. First, that it is spiritual and powerful, and second, that it concerns itself with sound teaching and the destruction of fortresses that are established in the Church built upon false pretenses. This is one reason that apostolic authority is seen as a foundational ministry to the church. Too often, men can establish an order that is contrary to the purposes of God. That is why true apostolic authority will deal with the very foundational aspects of a church even though it has been in existence for sometime.

Apostolic authority does not lie with those who have the supreme ability to argue or debate, but rather, with the one who has the spiritual grace to destroy false speculations by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This is often done without notice. Simply a change begins to take place once a true apostolic gift begins to minister in a particular setting. Paul explained his authority as being “divinely powerful,” able to bring every thought into obedience to Christ. This kind of authority is not recognized by the outward appearance or by comparisons with one’s authority against another. This is simply what God provides. Paul tell us, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). This authority is a grace given by God that bears fruit from the ministry of the apostle. A powerfully anointed apostle can often address strongholds that have existed for a long time in a region or local church as he ministers the Word of God under the leadership of the Spirit.

It Is Measured, Not Unlimited
One of the most misunderstood aspects of apostolic authority is in the understanding of “measure.” We have already noted that Paul did not boast beyond his measure or sphere. He knew that God had given him a major responsibility among the Corinthians. In his first letter to the church, he boldly declared, “Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:2). He understood that because he was an apostle in one sphere that did not make him an apostle to everyone. Paul was certainly received by the whole Church as “an” apostle, but he himself did not claim to be the apostle to every place.

Misguided men who have claimed apostleship without measure have given many a reason to reject apostolic leadership completely. Some so-called apostles have been known to enter a community, declare themselves to be apostles, and expect others to respond accordingly. This attitude indicates that others should honor them with some special place though they have not been given such a measure by God or through their own labor. This approach is immature at best and damaging to the movement at worst. One may have a measure of apostolic authority in a limited sphere, but that does not mean that it carries over into all places of ministry. Each apostle has a different commission and each commission has a different measure of authority. Not all apostolic authority is equal.

Paul understood that his measure to reach the Corinthians had been given to him by God. He also pointed out that it was because he labored in Christ among them by bringing the gospel. When an entrance is given for apostolic ministry then the apostle must be willing to labor among those who receive him. It is through this labor and fellowship that the fullness of his apostolic measure is realized.

Apostolic authority is not received simply by affiliating with an apostolic network. It order to bestow apostolic authority in an area the apostle must be willing to labor among the people. However, if an apostle labors in Christ in a particular area and those who receive his ministry reach others, his influence will be among those as well. We see this illustrated with Paul and the Corinthians when he wrote, “We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory”
(2 Corinthians 10:13-17). With the measure or sphere of authority comes the grace and ability to accomplish what needs to be done. Unless God gives that measure, one cannot expect to have the success that is needed.

It is Discerned, Not Flaunted
There is tendency for the pendulum of opinions to swing toward two opposite extremes in matters where misunderstandings may be prevalent. That is the case with accepting apostolic authority. Either you have those who flaunt the gift as a means to establish an acceptance, or there are those who walk in pseudo humility constantly playing down what others see in them. Real spiritual authority given to true apostles is best discerned rather than displayed. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that apostles are seen as a spectacle to men and angels. “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9). Why did Paul make such a statement? What does he mean when he says that they are a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels, and to men? Jesus taught His disciples that in the kingdom of God, those who wished to be great must be the servant of all and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. He also taught them that, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last” Mark (:35). Jesus, Himself demonstrated this for us in that He took upon Himself the form of a servant and humbled Himself to come to earth. As a result God has highly exalted Him far above all names and His authority is supreme. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, the world would have seen Him as a spectacle. Even the angels watched to see what redemption would bring and why God had to come in the flesh.

It seems that to the degree that one has received a commission is to the degree that he will suffer persecution. An apostle often serves as a pioneer moving in areas that rest of the church has not yet accepted. This was true not only with Paul but also with the early church fathers as they suffered the brunt of many new ventures. It remained true in the life of the reformers, and even into our day.

With the apostolic ministry, comes a testing of humility. As we have mentioned, Paul’s words that apostles are considered last are not only true, but seems to be a pattern. One reason for this is that we are in a spiritual battle. If apostles carry a measure of spiritual authority then it will be resisted by spiritual darkness causing confusion to arise. The aim of the enemy is to prevent the body of Christ from receiving the ministry of the apostle. We see this happening several times in the Scriptures. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue, which was his custom, to preach Christ. When some Jews believed and turned from their bondage of sin while other Jews who did not believe were envious, gathered those of bad character and stirred up a riot. These envious Jews saw the spiritual authority or influence that Paul had and arose to neutralize it with an uproar. This type of event seemed to follow Paul many places. And again, in Acts 19, it was said of him that he had led astray large numbers of people in Ephesus and practically the whole province of Asia. Those of the world saw Paul’s influence as a threat even to their economy. Because he preached that man-made gods were not gods at all, they feared his influence would hinder their idol making business. That is real spiritual authority.

I personally believe this type of opposition against his apostolic authority was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment him.” In the context of 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, Paul speaks of those false apostles who followed him around saying that he was nothing and that they were the true apostles to the Corinthians and other cities into which he had been sent. It was within this context that Paul felt that he must go on boasting to prove that he was their apostle. Even as he described Satan as a messenger or angel of light it makes sense to me that those false apostles who followed him taking advantage of his labor and enticing the new converts unto themselves were certainly messengers of Satan. They constantly worked to turn the church against Paul and it became a tremendous hindrance to his ministry. Look how much energy and time was given to just to prove his apostolic authority with the Corinthians. He sought the Lord three times for this to be removed, yet God’s grace that was given to him with his calling was sufficient to help him through it.

If apostles are going to walk in a measure of authority given to them by God, man will at times, see them as a spectacle. Paul was saying to be made a spectacle is to be placed on public show. Men questioned what God had sent to them through Paul. No doubt, they reasoned that if Paul was truly an apostle he would look better, speak better, and be what they were looking for in a leader. If God was really with him they must have reasoned why did he suffer such persecution and hardship? That question came from carnal men, but they were only looking on the surface of things. They were more attracted to a show of authority than discerning it.

Some men of notoriety may in fact be apostles, but the danger comes in associating apostles with great abilities. “Men are often thought of as apostles whenever they are able to bring theological truths into concrete activity and mobilize others to follow them in their particular burden. However, God’s requirements of builders in the construction of His house are very specific. There is more involved than simply doing impressive works in the name of the Lord.”5

The kingdom principle is that in order to be first, one must be last. Paul list the apostles as being first in order of God’s placement in Christ’s bod. It stands to reason that with that measure of authority there is also a measure of lowliness. I am convinced this is the reason that many have not been able to discern apostles that have been sent to them. They have reasoned from a carnal mentality and thus looked for someone who stands in a celebrity status rather than one who came to serve. God’s authority must be discerned, not flaunted. If Paul had come to the Corinthians demanding offerings and displaying himself as being something of a leader, the Corinthians no doubt, would have been more accepting. Paul came not in the wisdom of men’s words, but in the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. It should be kept in mind that the Corinthians did not reject his authority at first for he was the one who brought them forth in the gospel. It was only after he had been gone for some time that many began to be enticed by those who displayed themselves as apostles, but in reality, were as Paul described them, false.

In the process of Paul trying to communicate with the Corinthians on a fleshly level in order they might see his credentials his own conscience told him that it is unprofitable. He knew that when he was boasting of his accomplishments it was not according to the Lord, but as foolishness in the flesh. That is why he wrote, “I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast” (2 Corinthians 11:1618). Paul, saw the necessity of boasting only to save the Corinthians from false apostles. It became necessary because the Corinthians failed to discern his place among them (2 Corinthians 12:1).

Those in the Church must discern spiritual authority. In the world men need titles and positions to be seen of men. Jesus warned His disciples and the multitudes to not be caught up in the desire for recognition from others through titles. Certainly, we should give honor where honor is due, but guard against those who insist upon titles of honor. Jesus said, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:810). Here Jesus speaks of the subject of authority in reference to “Moses’ seat,” referring to government. These Pharisees and scribes wanted positions of authority according to their traditions. Jesus took this opportunity to teach His disciples and the multitudes a lesson on authority. Here, He warns them of desiring titles from men and forbids them from being called teacher or master.

The word teacher is a derivative from two Greek words meaning, chief or ruler among. Obviously, there are leaders who are chief among others, so Jesus was not ruling out proper respect and honor that should be given to those who serve, but he was dealing with the desire to be labeled with certain titles of honor. When we emphasize the titles rather than spiritual authority, it conveys to the people “the impression that there is authority resting in the one who merely has a title or who occupies an office. Howard Snyder said it well, ‘God provides for leadership in the Church through the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit. This is God’s ecclesiology.’”6 Authority in the Body of Christ should be discerned not displayed. Paul, in reference to local elders, understood the need for honor to be given and gave instructions to Timothy to assure the practice. He wrote: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17).

It is certainly appropriate to honor servant/leaders and to acknowledge their place in the church. It is a true aspect of the kingdom to give honor where honor is due. It is only questionable when those of authority display it before others. True apostolic authority needs not to be showcased by titles, but rather discerned by the Church. Paul encountered those who enticed the Corinthians by some form of false display. Frustrated with the Corinthian’s foolish actions to so easily receive them, Paul responds with a note of sarcasm calling them wise for putting up with fools. He declared that the false apostles had enslaved the church and took advantage of them. He wrote, “You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that” (2 Corinthians 11:19-21)!

These so-called apostles had, in fact, taken from the church for themselves. Apparently, Paul is referring to offerings received by these men, because he asked the question, “Was it sin for me to preach the gospel to you free of charge?” Paul was not against churches supporting apostles, because he reminded them that he had “robbed other churches, taking wages from them” in order to be able to preach to the Corinthians. What he despised, was the acts of seduction and usurping of true apostolic authority, for the benefit of these false apostles.

We can only imagine what was taking place. It appears that these false apostles had set themselves up in some form of display to appear to be more than what Paul was to the Corinthians. We are not told, but there must have been some outward display of organization or means by which the Corinthians could feel they belonged to something greater than what Paul had to offer. These false apostles lifted themselves up, “masquerading as apostles of Christ.” We are not told that they used titles of honor, but something of this sort must have taken place to attract the foolish Corinthians. Why would the Corinthians forsake Paul, the true apostle with spiritual authority, and turn to others who made themselves to be something they were not? It must have been something that they could relate to openly. The Corinthian’s carnality blocked them from discerning what God had given them, and thrust them toward others that seemed more than Paul did. These false apostles must have had quite an attractive organizational display to move these carnal Christians away from the spiritual father.

People often feel more important if they have leadership that is well accepted by those who seem to be fashionable and popular. The Corinthians were even willing to put up with abuse in order to have those men who were accepted by others. Whatever was being offered, it was not true apostolic authority.

Notes:

1  Carlton Kenny, The Church Which is His Body (Waco, TX)

ADAM CLARK’S COMMENTARY, Electronic Database. 1997 by Biblesoft)

3  Donald Rumble, Apostolic and Prophetic Foundations, Giving the Lord Back His Church (Clinton, Corners, NY: The Attic Studio Press, 1996), 83.

4  Peter C. Wagner, The New Apostolic Churches, Rediscovering the New Testament Model of Leadership and Why It is God’s Desire for the Church Today (Ventura, Calif: Regal Books, 1998), 50.

5  Donald Rumble, Apostolic and Prophetic Foundations, Giving the Lord Back His Church (Clinton Corners, NY: The Attic Studio Press, 1996), 30.

6  Ibid., 67.


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