Apostolic is a word that connects us to the church of all times, but especially to the church of the New Testament. We naturally relate apostolic to The Twelve apostles. It feels as if it were a first century expression, and we appreciate the continuity with the Twelve. The New Testament connection is certainly important, especially if we understand the passive implication of apostolic, that we too are sent to be witnesses. Yet this important term has been given different accents over the last twenty centuries.
Sometimes those who say the church is apostolic are describing its doctrine. George Forell, a noted Lutheran theologian, gives this definition:
When we confess our faith in the apostolic church we are setting limits [emphasis mine] to the religious discussion. The [Nicene] Creed defines the faith of the Christian church as “apostolic”. This means that Christianity is based on the witness of the apostles as we find it in the Bible. This apostolic witness defines and limits the Christian message. It is the standard by which it must be measured.1
Frankly, I believe this understanding, though certainly true, is too narrow; something very important is left out.
That “something” is the mission activity of the Apostles. When we call the church apostolic we are talking about more than just our pedigree; we are declaring the church’s missionary task. Of course apostolic means that the church continues to believe the doctrine of the first apostles. But it means something more. It means that the church continues to do what the apostles did, because the church also has been sent by the same Sender, (Mt 24:14).
I particularly appreciate the insight of Bible scholar T.W. Manson. He says,
It is a pity that the word “apostolic” has had its meaning narrowed in the course of the centuries, so that instead of declaring primarily the church’s commitment to a great missionary task, it merely registers a claim on the part of the Eastern and Roman Communions to be lawful successors of the apostles.2
Why has it been so hard for the church to hold on to its missionary character? At the outset the church could not be contained. In the next chapter I will show how the desire of those first believers to tell the Gospel pushed the borders of the unevangelized world back further and further. As a result, by the second century many thought the entire known world embraced the love of Christ.
But in later centuries the Bride of Christ, his church, acted as if mission work were an elective and not a binding commitment. George Vicedom complained that “God has had to wring missionary commitment from his church.”
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