The Importance of Language: Are Apostles For Today?

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The term apostle can provoke all kinds of reactions. What exactly does this word mean? Are there really present day apostles? If so, what do they do? And why does it matter? These are all really important questions. This blog post series is an attempt to look at these questions and point to biblical answers. I have asked Tim Catchim, a great thinker and writer on the apostolic, to write a blog series for us. Here is post one in the series “Are Apostles For Today?”

In Organization at the Limit, a book dedicated to looking at organizational dynamics that contributed to the Columbia space shuttle disaster, William Ocasio discusses the unique connection between language and our ability to “see” what is going on around us. Language has the subtle, yet powerful ability to focus our attention. It can point us toward existing problems and solutions, or it can blind us from those very things. In other words, the language we commonly use can greatly influence what gets noticed and what gets ignored. He says it like this, “It’s not that language determines what can be thought, but that language influences what routinely does get thought.”[1]

Side View Mirrors

Take, for example, the history of mirrors in our vehicles. At one time, all three mirrors in our vehicles were termed “rearview mirrors.” However, traffic and safety analysts were noticing that, despite the two mirrors on the side of the cars, there were an unusual numbers of accidents due to people not recognizing obstacles on either side of the vehicle. They discovered that people were using the mirrors on the side of the vehicle, not to view the areas on either side of the vehicle, but to view the rear of the vehicle. Because those side mirrors were referred to as “rear-view mirrors,” people tended to use them to look at the rear view alone…hence creating the blind spot on the side. The fact that drivers were experiencing blind spots in vehicles was not so much a problem of engineering as it was a problem of language.  To correct the problem, they began to call the mirrors on the side of the vehicle “side-view mirrors.” Because of this subtle change in language, drivers began to focus their attention to the sides of the vehicle (not just the rear of the vehicle.) As a result, there was a significant reduction in accidents related to the so called “blind spot” on the side of the vehicle. Essentially, language plays a significant role in determining what will be considered normal, and what will literally be  “un-heard of.” Thus, language can actually shape how people think and act.  Language matters big time.

What is Happening To The Church?

I think this notion of language being able to subtlety, yet significantly shape what we think and do offers us an important clue as to what has been happening with the Church in the West. This may be a news flash to some, but we have been experiencing a long term, trended decline in every Western context. This decline has often been traced to the church not being able to hang with the cultural shifts of our day. Post-modernity, consumerism, post-Christendom, post-everything is somehow supposed to explain the dilemma we find ourselves in. But I don’t buy it. While those shifts have posed significant challenges, we cannot afford to locate the problem outside the church.

We can actually trace the problem, to a large degree, to how we talk about (and therefore think and do) ministry and leadership. If language focuses our attention and shapes our actions, could it be that the language we use to categorize ministry and leadership in the church has actually been contributing to the problem? What if our current vocabulary has, at a fundamental level, been blinding us to realities that are right in front of us, realities that we desperately need to engage in order to be the church Jesus intended us to be?

For example, think about the language used in your church or denomination for people in ministry and leadership. What is the most common term or title used to describe those people? I would venture to say, by in large, it is probably the term pastor. This is quite perplexing seeing the term pastor is only used once in the entire New Testament to describe people in ministry! Yet this one solitary word has been used as the catch all term for countless ministries and leaders. It has become what linguists term a “controlling metaphor” that has significantly shaped our imagination. If ministry and leadership in the church are primarily framed around the more internally focused ministry of shepherding, then we should not be surprised to find ourselves struggling to engage in mission.

In our book The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church, I and Alan Hirsch propose that if we are to break out of our current experience of decline in the West, we will need to recover a broader, more biblical understanding of ministry and leadership in the church. We suggest Ephesians 4:1-16 is the place to start. There we read of five distinct ministry callings: apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd(pastor) and teacher. While there is much to be said about all five of these ministries and how they work together, this blog series will be focusing primarily on the ministry of the apostle.

Where Does The Word Apostle Come From?

The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostello, which is actually a conjunction of two words: apo – meaning to separate and stello meaning to send. In English, we would translate this as “one who is sent.” Interestingly enough, the latin version of apostello is missio, which is where we get our word mission from. Unfortunately, in the process of translation, scholars took the word apostello, and instead of translating it into it’s English equivalent, they trans-literated it. In other words, they took the Greek word apostello and literally spelled it out in English, giving us the word “apostle.” (They did the same thing with words like prophet, evangelist, and baptism – all trans-literations of Greek words.)

It is also helpful to remember that the term “apostle” was used long before the “Twelve Apostles” came on the scene.  It was initially a secular word, used primarily as a verb to indicate the sending of people or cargo by way of seafaring voyages.[2] This is important to recognize because it establishes the original meaning. It is not a “Bible word” as it were. It was a common, everyday term among shipyards and sailors.

This common, everyday usage of the word is clearly seen when we look at other people in the New Testament outside of Paul and The Twelve who are also called “apostles.” In fact, the word apostle is used around 80 times in the New Testament, and many of these refer to people other than Paul or the original Twelve. For instance Paul casually mentions a cross section of eight other people who are viewed by himself and his communities as apostles.

Name Reference
Barnabas Acts 14:4,14
Andronicus Romans 16:7
Junias [actually Junia, in modern scholarly understanding, i.e., a woman] Romans 16:7
Un-Named apostle of the Churches 2 Corinthians 8:23
Epaphroditus Philippians 2:25
Silvanus I Thessalonians 1:1; 2:6
Timothy I Thessalonians 1:1; 2:6

 

The language of the apostle is thus clearly applied to people outside the circle of the twelve and Paul. This points to a category of people who were known to function as apostles. So whether we like it or not, we are stuck with the word apostle. It is in our Bible’s and I don’t see it being replaced with a literal translation any time soon.

If the way we talk about ministry and leadership radically affects the way we think and do ministry and leadership, then this issue of language come to the forefront of our discussion related to our decline in the West. Our most missionaly potent language, that of apostle (one who is sent), has been essentially edited out of our organizational vocabulary. By editing this language out of our vocabulary, we have essentially directed our attention, and therefore activity, away from our missional task. We are now scripted not to see, or pay attention to, issues related to mission even when they are staring us in the face.  As result, we have some serious blind spots in our views of ministry and leadership. The attempt to recover the language of apostle (as well as prophet and evangelist) is essentially an attempt to bring the missional task of the church back into visibility, and hopefully reposition us to think and do ministry and leadership from a distinctly missional approach.

[1] William Ocasio, “The Opacity of Risk: Language and the Culture of Safety in NASA’s Space Shuttle Program” in William H. Starbuck and Moshe Farjoun, Organization at the Limit: Lessons from the Columba Disaster (Maine:Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p. 103

[2] C.M Francis H. Agnew, “The origin of the NT apostle-concept: A review of Research,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 105/1 (1986) p. 75-96.

(Read the rest of the posts in the “are apostles for today” series)

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Release the APE is a blog for practitioners committed to giving you vision and encouragement around planting (apostolic), sharing your faith (evangelistic) and bringing justice and healing to the world (prophetic).

4 comments

  1. Hey! I fully agree with this idea of reclaiming the language of “apostle”… However, I keep running into problems with many in the church… the argument states that the term “apostle” properly can only be applied to those who actually SAW the risen Jesus.

    so in Acts 1 we read:
    21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection
    (Acts 1:21-22 NIV)

    and in 1 Cor 15:
    4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born
    (1 Corinthians 15:4-8 NIV)

    Paul himself says that he was the last to see the risen Lord and 1 Cor 15 leaves room for over 500 men and women “apostles”… (which is where those 80 or so names would theoretically come from)…

    because of this there’s a lot that would caution again using the word “apostle”… I’ve had to adjust my language in a lot of settings and use “apostolic” or “apostolic spirit” when talking about this gift instead of labeling people “apostles”… I’d love some thoughts on how to pursue this conversation with people in the church that would refuse to use the word “apostle”. (the same goes for “prophet”- probably the other label that people shy from using…)

  2. Hey Tyler, those are some good questions. Not to tease, but I will be addressing some of these very things in a later post in this series. So thanks for anticipating those issues for us 🙂

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