It’s important to remember that we are talking about sincere brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Those within the NAR movement are some of the most passionate and committed believers you can find. It’s also important to remember that sincerity is no guarantee of good theology.
There have always been prophets and apostles, and there has not been any time since Pentecost when this has not been true. What is truly new is the identification of these gifts with offices, the connection of the restoration of these gifts to a particular eschatology, and the firm institutionalization of these gifts in a movement and administrative network. It’s worth noting that every movement that has worked within this prophetic framework has resulted in disillusioned Christians and the abuse of power.
So.. where are today’s apostles? If they exist today outside established “offices” and roles, and even outside denominational appointments, who are they and what are they doing? How many apostles are there in the world?
If we examine the context of the relevant passage in Eph. 4, we see that the context is love and community. The gifts of Christ to His body are given whenever believers gather to encourage one another, love God, and reach out to their neighbors. In other words, where the community of faith is, God”s gifts are given. It doesn’t take buildings, staff, a set curriculum, or ordained clergy to enable the work of the Spirit, and in fact these things often detract from that work. (See the history of the church in China, when the growth of the church exploded when missionaries were expelled, church schools closed, and pastors thrown in prison).
What is the function of the apostolic? All the ascension gifts are given to equip the saints for the work of service. Apostolic gifts are given to raise up new missional efforts, to safeguard truth, to network between groups and between working regions (a kind of ambassadorial call). There are no reliable rules for identifying apostles. Sometimes the various inventories (like Hirsch “APEST” test) can help. They may be paid for what they do, or they may not. Larry the lawyer could well be functioning in an apostolic calling, as could Mike the mechanic. (Note that Paul made his living as a tentmaker, and he was probably known in the churches merely as Paul, not Dr. Paul nor as Paul the Apostle.)
The gifts appear to operate best when they are organic. That is, they function in the most healthy ways when they operate in the soil from which they are born. It’s not a great idea to adopt or import an apostle. Too many of these men and women end up falling into sin, relative to ego, pride, pedestals and hero-worship. This seems far less likely to occur when they are connected organically to the communities they serve and they aren’t flying all over the world.
The organic and charismatic nature of the church means that God has set within it all that it needs. The DNA for her complete growth is fully present even in a small child. It takes time and care for a young boy to become a mature adult, but if the conditions are right and if he is trained, cared for, and becomes capable of forming his own family, then he is fully mature.
Similarly, the five-fold gifts didn’t disappear, then reappear because someone prophesied that God was restoring divine order to His church. Nor are the gifts limited to those who function within the established and visible institution. In fact, in many established churches the gifts of God to His body are limited by an institutional expression. When the only valid pastoral ministry is seen to occur by those who are trained and paid, we are no longer understanding the biblical gift of pastor and have have limited the gift to a narrow and human frame. When the only teaching ministry is limited to those same people, we have neglected to equip the teaching gifts within the body. When apostles must be those who travel internationally and who are members of a restorationist organization, we are failing to see what God is doing in releasing innovation and kingdom entrepreneurs around us. (See the excerpt from Frost and Hirsch on new movements.)
The inevitable conclusion.. apostleship is like the iceberg phenomenon. For every one you think you see publicly, there are a hundred who will never be known by name. There could be a million apostles in the world. The vast majority of them will never hold such a title, and would deny it if offered. There are apostles within every denomination, within many simple churches, and even existing outside structured church experience (how about Bono?). The title doesn’t matter. What matters is that they know themselves to be grasped by God for His purposes, they pursue God’s kingdom with passion, and they evidence the character of Christ who emptied himself and gave His life for others.