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Gregory Metzger

A New Apostolic Movement?

The need for discernment.

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The ecclesiological challenges facing the church in the West are the subject of intense debate across confessional and denominational lines. In what sense is there a crisis of church identity and leadership? What are the roots of the crisis? How do categories like "postmodern" and "post-Christian" affect Christian mission in the West? These are the kinds of questions being addressed in a steady stream of books and conferences. The missional church movement has made a major contribution to this discussion through leaders like Timothy Keller and scholars like Christopher Wright. In one of his reflections on the missional movement, Keller identified five key elements of the missional movement. One of these elements is to "practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level."[1] This instinct for what John H. Armstrong has called "missional-ecumenism"[2] is part of what has made the missional movement such a strong influence on the church catholic—to be "missional" has meant, in part, to "not spend our time bashing and criticizing other kinds of churches," as Keller puts it. To put it another way, the missional movement has seen itself working within a number of ecclesiological contexts and helping to transform, not overturn, denominational structures. That is why missional organizations such as the Gospel and Our Culture Network[3] draw on membership from a wide range of Christian traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, emergent, independent evangelical, and so on.

The humble ecclesiology of the missional movement is fitting given the ecclesial career of the man widely considered the father of the movement, Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin served in a leadership capacity in a number of Protestant denominations and was a key figure in ecumenical organizations, including the World Council of Churches, which he served for a time as Associate General Secretary. Of course, Newbigin was not a "progressive" churchman in the sense evangelicals typically associate with the World Council of Churches, but he was a man steeped in the Great Tradition of the church, deeply conversant with it and profoundly respectful of those church bodies that were birthed by classical orthodox Christianity. Newbigin's profound critique of what are often called "Christendom models of ministry" was tempered by his respect for the ecclesial offices and structures of the historic Christian bodies.

Given the historically ecumenical character of the missional movement and the humble ecclesiological claims of its leading thinkers, it is surprising to see a number of missional leaders being drawn to the radical ecclesiology of Alan Hirsch. The center point of his proposal is the notion, increasingly popular in "third wave"[4] charismatic circles, that the five roles mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4—"apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (APEST)"—are all meant for the church in all places and times.

While Hirsch has been urging adoption of this "APEST five-fold ministry" model for years, he has been ambiguous about what he means by "apostolic movements" and whether or not he believes that actual apostles should be active in the church today.[5] In his newest book, The Permanent Revolution, coauthored with Tim Catchim, he makes his most comprehensive case for turning the missional movement into an apostolic movement. Hirsch leaves no doubt that, for him, this shift calls for the restoration of apostles acting decisively as the "primary custodian of the DNA of the church." This suggestion is so radical that the noted missional thinker Darrell Guder says in his surprising foreword that Hirsch's is a "revolutionary missional ecclesiology." Armed with the support of a range of leading Christian thinkers like Guder, and plugged into a burgeoning network of church consultants and media savvy organizations, Hirsch speaks with some justification of being "on the verge" of penetrating the American evangelical consciousness with the notion of five-fold ministry in general and apostolic leadership in particular.[6]

The ramifications of such a shift in theological language and ecclesial practice are profound. For virtually the entire history of the Christian church in all its startling diversity, there has been unity around the parameters of "apostle" and its various grammatical derivations like "apostolic" and "apostolate." One could even go so far as to see this unity as representing the catholicity of doctrine. At the center of this unity is the notion that there is a sharp distinction between the apostles of the New Testament and any leaders thereafter. Even Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions that hold to a doctrine of apostolic succession claiming a certain continuity between present-day bishops and New Testament Apostles acknowledge a significant difference between bishops (even the Bishop of Rome) and the original apostles. Catholics do not, as general practice, refer to any of their leaders as Apostles. The 1997 Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains within its robust assertion of Petrine succession through the papacy and general apostolic succession through bishops a significant acknowledgment that the New Testament apostles alone are "the chosen witnesses of the Lord's Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church." This statement echoes the language of Ephesians 2:20, which says the Church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets," and makes clear that even in official Roman Catholic doctrine the "successors to the apostles" read Paul as limiting the successors' authority in a way that clearly distinguishes it from that of the New Testament apostles. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Protestant Reformers and their heirs over the centuries have never criticized the Roman Catholic Church for too narrow a reading of Eph. 2:20, but rather have rebuked Rome for asserting too great a power for bishops and have rejected what they see as Rome's exaggerated assertions of authority. But for Hirsch even the Roman Catholic limitation of present-day apostles is wrong. He explicitly "reject[s] the traditionalist, procrustean interpretation that this [Eph. 2:20] applies only to the original apostles and prophets." The only distinction Hirsch has made, in the book and in other settings, is to say that present-day apostles cannot write new Scripture. Hirsch's jarring assertion that the apostles he wants to see restored today should be viewed as having the same ability to set the church's doctrinal foundation as the apostles who Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 2:20 explains why thinkers like Guder believe that this view calls for a reordering of the Nicene Creed's wording about the church.

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