This is part four of a blog series by John Alley on the subject of apostolic authority. These are taken from Chapter 5 of his book, The Apostolic Revelation. Part three is available here.

The Specific Authorities of an Apostle

A review of the New Testament shows us a clear pattern for the exercise of apostolic authority in the life of the church. Again, Paul and his relationship with the churches is the apostolic model given by inspiration of the Spirit of God and recorded in Holy Scripture.

By examination of the biblical revelation, we are able to see how the relationship of the apostle and the churches functioned. We can see the specific areas of church life and leadership over which the apostle exercised direct authority. We also recognise areas of church life over which the apostle is not seen to exercise authority at all.

In this chapter we are speaking in general of the authority of all apostles, but we are dealing especially with the relationship between what we shall call a ‘primary apostle’ and the churches over which he has been appointed, or developed God-ordained relationship. I will further define this term a little later. Paul was the primary apostle for Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, Crete and other places, but not for Rome or Jerusalem.
We see that the apostles exercised complete authority in matters of doctrine. No local church could go its own way on doctrine, or else the apostle would quickly deal with them, as Paul did with the Galatians. In addition, the apostle always had an authority to speak concerning the spiritual life of the church. He would call the church to order, and instruct them how to live both personally and corporately. In matters of church discipline, he had final authority — if the church did not discipline itself, he acted.

Furthermore, the apostles appointed the elders of the churches (see the definition of New Testament eldership in chapter 8) and maintained an authority over those elders. The apostles also addressed relationships, the attitudes of the believers to their leaders, and the attitude of the church to the apostle. And, the apostle was entitled to their financial support, as well as their love, prayers and honour. All of this was the apostle’s province.

However, certain things you will not find addressed as matters of authority when the apostle wrote to the churches. Aside from appealing for generous offerings, and with an acknowledgement that they owed him his own support, the apostle did not govern the finance of the local church. He did not control their offerings. Nor did he own their property, or tell them what to do with property. Neither did the apostle control the constitution of the local church. He made no comment on how the church should be internally structured, or what should be their internal rules for order or government. Finally, the apostle did not set the vision for the local church.

Paul, at least in his letters, never spelt out specific local goals and objectives, or any immediate purpose, but focussed on great spiritual goals. For example, he pursued the great goal of presenting everyone perfect in Christ (Colossians 1:28), and the need for the believers to be of one heart and one mind (Philippians 1:27, 2:2, 1 Peter 3:8), advancing in the love of Christ (Philippians 1:9), and to be built together to be a dwelling in which God will live by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).

Naturally, however, today’s apostles will certainly be advisors to the churches on every matter of church life.

The ‘Local’ Ministry

The local church is meant to be autonomous and self-governing. If, as we say they should, the leaders of the local church have authority over the finance, the property, the constitution, the vision and the local government of the church, then that church is indeed autonomous.

Still, the apostle has a key role, where in love and before Christ he holds the senior minister, the leadership team, and the church accountable. There is a general accountability in all things, but he has direct authority to hold them accountable in the big things — like unity, for example, and purity of heart, relationships, morality, discipline, doctrine, attitudes, holiness, love, Christlikeness, and passion for Christ.

However, the relationship between the pastor/leaders/church and the apostle is far more than accountability. This is a personal, caring, loving and mutually honouring, mutually helpful relationship. There is a great empowering which takes place for all ministry through apostolic relationships. We will deal with this more extensively elsewhere. It is also a fun relationship — usually there is great delight on both sides of the equation.

What we call the ‘vision’ should be established by the anointed leader or leaders of the local ministry. This is not usually the apostle, except of course in his own ministry. The local leader has the immediate authority over the ministry, but remains in an accountable relationship with an apostle.

The way in which churches and ministries govern themselves may vary greatly. The New Testament does not establish ‘rules’ concerning this, aside from the fact that the apostles appointed elders over the church in every town or city, and maintained an accountable relationship with those elders as well as with the church is a whole. There is a great deal of liberty for every ministry or congregation to be themselves.

Authority in Doctrine

From the beginning the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42-43). The true Christian faith has always been the apostolic faith, and the church the apostolic church. The apostle Peter instructed, “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2).

Church doctrine is not just the special domain of theologians, and it is not theological colleges that determine by some scholastic process what true doctrine is. Of course the church has been blessed with many truly great teachers, theologians and authors. But apostles have anointing from Christ to clearly understand the truth of “the apostles doctrine” (Acts 2:42 KJV), and the responsibility to keep the church in the purity of it. It was apostles who set the doctrine of the church with authority. This is not suggesting that apostles in this day will change doctrine. We cling to the great historic doctrines of the Christian faith that were established by those first apostles, and which have been recorded faithfully and accurately in the Scriptures of the New Testament. As Paul said, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13).

Apostles today do have two primary responsibilities in the area of doctrine. One, to teach and maintain the doctrinal purity of the church and correct error, and two, to bring out of the Holy Scriptures the things we have not been able to see before. The apostles of the New Testament were given great revelation (2 Corinthians 12:7) and taught many things that are not fully understood today (Ephesians 3:2-5). These are alluded to in Holy Scripture, but the church does not always see or understand what is written. Apostles and prophets will help to “enlighten” the “eyes of (our) heart” (Ephesians 1:18).

The Holy Spirit is constantly bringing enlightenment to the church through many parts of the body (1 Corinthians 14:26, 30). Apostles hold final authority to determine that what enlightenment comes to the church is truly biblical and truly Christ. The following is an example of that authority. “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work - which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:3-5).

Notice that the apostle has authority to “command”, an authority referred to repeatedly throughout the epistles. Note that this ‘authority to command’ is not only Paul’s, but also Timothy’s, who is here being instructed to command, not only the believers, but also those who are in error.

Paul encouraged his apostolic team in other responsibilities of the ministry also. In the same letter he urges, “Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim 4:11-13). To Titus, his other faithful son, he writes, “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (Titus 2:15).

So we see that once the apostles have established doctrine, subordinate apostles maintain the pattern of that doctrine. They are not constantly recreating the pattern, but they cling to what has been revealed (1 Timothy 4:16, 2 Timothy 1:14).

Authority in Appointing Elders

The elders of the church should be appointed by apostles, not elected by the believers. We can say this because there is only one pattern given in scripture for establishing elders in the church.

Of particular significance is that Paul never wrote to any of the churches with instructions for the selection of elders — Paul wrote those instructions only to his apostles. Two passages in the New Testament outline the criteria by which elders are to be chosen — one was written to Timothy and the other to Titus. This was because it was not the responsibility of the believers or even the local leaders of the church to choose and appoint elders. It was the specific work of the apostles.

In the book of Acts, the apostles went to many places pioneering churches. We read that they revisited those churches, and “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23). We could argue that they would have done this in complete cooperation and harmony with the local leaders and believers, and in thinking that we would be right. This is precisely the way apostles would work. But the revelation remains — it is the apostles who must judge the suitability of someone for the ministry, and it is the apostles who have the authority to set them apart and lay hands on them, appointing them to be elders over the church.

Confirmation of this truth was given when Paul clarified Titus’ purpose. “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5-6). Paul proceeded immediately to define the qualifications of those elders. This was instruction for the apostle he had left in charge. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he not only sets forth a similar set of qualifications for elders, he also gives instructions for the honouring and remuneration of the elders, the protection of elders from false accusation, and for dealing with any elder who sins (1 Timothy 5:17-20). This is because apostles have authority over elders, and elders are to be accountable to apostles.

To understand exactly who these elders are, you will need to read chapter 9 of this book, since the elders will be defined as something quite different from what most of us have known in denominational Christianity.

A further insight comes from Acts chapter 20 wherein is recorded Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders, whom he had called to see him (Acts 20:17-38). He told them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-31). The telling words are “after I leave”. Without the apostle, the covering authority would not be in place to protect the church and to help the elders guard their own spirit so as to remain humble and accountable. Paul instructed them to watch over themselves and each other, yet nevertheless this would prove to be insufficient. An apostle was needed.

Every church needs an apostle to be such a father to the elders. The apostle has the love and authority of a father to bless and to honour, to love and correct, and if necessary to discipline.

We have a great advantage today over those early apostles. They were greatly limited in travel and communication, but we have the telephone, the internet, fast cars and the jumbo jet. Apostles and pastors can be in constant contact with each other, which must greatly help in developing effective relationships, mutual encouragement, supporting one another in building the house of God, and helping each other by means of our grace gifts.

Authority over Church Life, Order, and Spirituality

“For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it” (2 Corinthians 10:8). Even to his own, Paul sometimes had to argue his case.

There were times when he had to state plainly his authority, and command a good hearing. He would insist that they accept his authority where Christ had given him authority, and he was not prepared to allow anyone to undermine what God had given him.

In writing to Timothy and Titus, he told them to not let anyone look down on them, to allow no one to despise them, and to teach, correct and rebuke with authority. There were good reasons for this. He was not prepared to let anyone take from him the ground of his apostolate, which God had given him. Paul always gave his reason for taking this stand — it was not for his own sake, but for the sake of the church and the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:23)

When you read these letters to the Corinthian church, it is obvious that we have here the pure, passionate heart of Christ’s apostle crying out for righteousness and godly order in the church.

Paul is writing to an established church with an established eldership, yet he is claiming that he holds the Lord’s authority to build up that church. Later he refers to this again. “...I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority - the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down” (2 Corinthians 13:10). The point is that the apostles claimed and took a stand upon the authority that Christ gave them over the life of the churches, even though those churches had elders and other leaders.

And the authority was personal! There are many passages which, whilst showing the apostle’s heart and great love for his people, also show the apostle held a personal authority over those churches. For example, he writes,“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone...” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Observe the personal pronoun, “I” . This is not “God gave me this command so I am passing it onto you”.

No, the apostle has his heart full of the divine pattern, and has a commission from Christ to define what is required. A few sentences later he explained “for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle - I am telling the truth, I am not lying - and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (1 Tim 2:7).

All apostolic authority is personal. It is not received from committees or institutions, nor can any denomination impart the apostolate to anyone, no matter how sincere. Neither does Christ give this apostolic authority to organisations, institutions, missions, or denominations. It is always given to individuals. It is these individuals who bring Christ’s authority to the church.

Of course apostles will empower others, and so we often end up with empowered movements and anointed missions. But without the apostle, or someone who inherited the genuine apostolic succession (as Joshua did from Moses, Elisha from Elijah, Timothy from Paul, and the twelve from Jesus) the movement will ‘dry out’. In place of power, there will be tradition — and in time it becomes only a monument to a past greatness. So the church must ever continue to pray for Christ to raise and send His apostles. Why? Because apostolic authority is personal!
The apostles are the master builders of the church. All others are to build on the foundations that apostles lay in the church. Paul said “I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it” (1 Corinthians 3:10). When he says ‘someone else’, he actually means every person who is at work in the church. Today, apostles must continue to lay foundations in the lives of believers, in towns and cities, in missions and ministries and congregations. All other leadership in the church is in fruitful partnership with the apostle (through personal relationship) to build on those apostolic foundations.

In the Pauline epistles we see the apostle addressing every matter of spiritual importance, and exercising the clear authority of Christ to issue commands, make judgements, and give advice and instruction. Paul summarises this for us, “...brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2). The apostolic instruction had behind it the full authority of Christ, yet it was always urged upon the believers with the care and personal concern of a true father, which apostles are.

Even so, the apostle expected that the believers and the church leaders accepted his authority in Christ, and understood that when he spoke, he spoke for God. Paul confidently expected that every prophet and every spiritually discerning believer would have a clear inner witness of the validity of his words.

“If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). In fact, Paul seems to make a judgement here that anyone ignoring the word of God through the apostle would be set aside, it would seem, from being fruitful in the life of the church.

Despite such warnings, and the serious words of correction and discipline which the apostle needed to speak, the relationships were always buoyant, cheerful, and full of good hope and expectation. The apostle had confidence in those he loved, and they had confidence in him. He assured them, “We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Thessalonians 3:4-5).

In the exercise of this authority, the apostle was careful to make a distinction between commands, allowances for freedom, and general good advice. Take for example the following three statements, all of which occur in the same passage of Holy Scripture:

  • “I say this as a concession, not as a command”
    (1 Corinthians 7:6-7).
  • “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord)”
    (1 Corinthians 7:10).
  • “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25).

These statements indicate that the apostolic authority extends not only to church order, and the moral life and holiness of the individual believers, but further. It extends to order and discipline in the personal lives and relationships of the believers, as we see here. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-7), and again, “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12).

My purpose here is not to identify every issue of church life to which the apostle speaks, but rather to demonstrate the extent of the apostle’ s personal authority in speaking to churches and believers regarding the will of God. The apostle holds an authority to call the church to follow Christ, and to follow also the apostle’ s own example (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Part five will be available next week.