When Did Apostleship End?

Is the office of Apostle still functioning in the Church and churches? Who gets to appoint Apostles? What is the nature of the Apostolic gift or office? If Apostleship ended, when did this happen?

These are important theological, specifically ecclesiological, questions that are becoming increasingly relevant. In the disparate sectors of the Church across the world, we are seeing more individuals attach “Apostle” to their name. We are also hearing about individuals who have “apostolic” type ministries, while also hearing a clamoring of a return of an Apostle-like individual to help lead the Church and churches. We live amid confusing times.

In the study of the formation and development of the historical Church there is certainly a period where the Apostles existed and had ministries which thrived. Particularly in the testimony of the New Testament, we see a group of leaders who went out and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and catapulted this minor sect of Jewish millenarians into the largest worldwide religion. Luke, the author of the Gospel and likely writer of Acts, frames the first century understanding of the nature of the Apostles through the two volume work.  

The Apostles of the Church remain a group that is spoken of often, but still linger in the fog of historical understanding.

For many historians and theologians, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the Apostles. One particularly important document during the first century that illustrates this shift towards the earliest churches agreeing to end the office of the Apostle is that of the Didache. Likely written between 75-90, the Didache is an early manual on church polity, liturgical instruction, and instruction on worship. In the instructions that are part of the Didache, there is much space devoted to the

As we survey the literature from the turn of the second century until the Council of Chalcedon Gogulet Chartin 451, usually the parameters given to the patristic era, we see that there are no references to an ongoing office of the apostles and that nearly all the references are historic in nature.

In his book, The Primitive Church, Maurice Goguel provides a helpful chart demonstrating how the earliest Christian documents deal with the various offices through the early part of the second century. When considering how the earliest documents reflect the status of the Apostles, it becomes clear that once one gets through the Johannine Gospel the references to the Apostles become historical.

It would appear that the early Church made a conscious decision to end the formal office of Apostle by the end of the first generation of the Apostles. Since there are no references to Apostles as an ongoing office past the pre-70 New Testament documents and only a passing reference in the Didache, it is reasonable to posit that the earliest Christian communities found anyone attempting to claim ongoing apostolic authority dubious and dangerous. It is likely that the office of Apostle was indeed expanded beyond the Twelve, there seems to be plenty of New Testament evidence for that, this expansion seems to be wholly contained within the first generation of apostles.

There are indeed implications for our present day ministry environment here as well. Perhaps the most significant question is that if the office of Apostle has indeed ended, or has been closed are there other offices in the New Testament era which have also gone away? And does this possibly show us the nature of ecclesial office was indeed being shaped by the times and necessities of ministry in their era.

As well, it would seem anyone attempting to apply the label of “Apostle” to their own ministry would need to be challenged if they are assuming the same authority of the Apostles. The early church, likely up until Nicaea, spurned the application of the label Apostle to heterodoxical teachers.

So, it seems that the nature of the office of Apostle was one that received direct application in the New Testament era but not outside of it. Likewise, the early Christian communities, scattered around the Mediterranean region (and beyond) seem to have formed some kind of consensus that the office ended when the last Apostle (perhaps John depending on one’s views here) died. As a result, while we can look historically to the way in which an Apostle would have functioned and gone about their missionary work, the office and label are no longer available to anyone today. It is indeed an important historical reminder for how we are to function today. Most certainly we can look and see that the authority of the Apostles bears no new revelation and is best understood through their inscripturated testimonies available in the New Testament.