Summary: In the Christian faith all denominations have pastors and teachers. Many of the larger churches have evangelists but nearly none have prophets or apostles. Yet Paul states that Christ placed apostles and prophets in the church. But what is the difference between an apostle, evangelist, pastor or teacher? Aren’t they all just preachers? This article answers that question.
The Apostle Paul explained that Christ “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
In the Christian faith all denominations have pastors and teachers. Many of the larger churches have evangelists but nearly none have prophets or apostles. Yet Paul states that Christ also placed apostles and prophets in the church. Then why don’t Christians churches today have these positions in their organization? Furthermore, Paul cites these two positions at the beginning of his list and, indeed, in the earliest church the apostles were at the head.
The most common answer given to this question is that Paul is saying that the Christian church is based on the writings of the original twelve apostles and the writings of the ancient prophets. Since we have those writings today, it is said that Paul’s statement means that Christ has given us the writings of apostles and prophets to guide us in our understanding of how to go about perfecting the saints, doing the work of spreading the gospel, and edifying the body of Christ, and it is these writings that provide the foundation on which all preachers based their teachings.
Most Christians will also point out that just before Christ ascended into heaven he instructed his apostles to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). In other words, apostles were the original preachers of the gospel and their job was to travel throughout the world proclaiming the good news and bringing people to Christ.
The Greek word for apostle is “apostolos” which means “a messenger or one who is sent with orders” (Strong’s Concordance). Therefore, the original twelve apostles were men who were specially chosen and trained by Christ himself and given the assignment to take the message of the gospel to the world. With this understanding, it is felt that the role of an apostle was merely to be a preacher. Therefore it is said that the church today is built on the foundation of the written messages of the original apostles and ancient prophets and we have evangelists, pastors, and teachers to help us understand their writings.
But if this is the case, then what is the difference between being an apostle and being an evangelist? For that matter, what is the difference between an apostle and a pastor or teacher if we say that all the apostles did was to help people understand the teachings of Christ?
It could be said that a pastor or teacher is only concerned with meeting the needs of their local congregation while the role of an apostle was to be a traveling preacher concerned with spreading the gospel throughout the world. However, that is the same definition of an evangelist or a missionary. And, in fact, we talk about the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul
But as we study the New Testament, we see that this answer doesn’t fully fit with what actually happened. All of the letters that Paul wrote were to give guidance and counsel to local groups of Christians living in a particular city. For example, Paul wrote a letter to the saints who were living in the city of Rome, to those who were living in the city of Corinth, and to those living in the city of Ephesus.
This included the letters he wrote to Timothy and Titus, whom Paul had ordained to be bishops, giving them counsel and advice on fulfilling their duties as local priests. So what we see is that Paul was very much concerned with each congregation he had helped establish and he kept himself informed on their spiritual progress, much like a pastor would do.
In fact, since he traveled from one place to another and didn’t stay in any one particular city for very long, he ordained certain men, known as bishops (from the Greek word meaning overseer) to watch over each congregation of saints he helped organize. As such, they took the place of Paul when he couldn’t be there. However, it is also clear from the scriptures that Paul’s words took precedence over those of the bishop.
From historical records we learn that the apostle Peter was the bishop of Rome (hence comes the Catholic doctrine that the Bishop of Rome has authority over all the Catholic churches), and from letters written in the very beginning of the second century (100 A.D.) which admonished the saints to honor their bishops as they would the apostles. If that is true, then why aren’t bishops referred to as apostles? After all, they are messengers of Christ who have a specific duty to share the gospel and bring people to Christ, which was the role given to the apostles.
Today there are a small handful of churches who have people in leadership positions who hold the title of apostle. The most well-known of these is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but this church differs from all the others in the way their apostles are chosen.
Since nearly all Christian faiths strongly believe in following the words contained in the New Testament, they base their practices solely on what is written there. For example, when the Bible talks about there being apostles and prophets in the church, and indicates that they seem to have held significant authority in the church, some denominations give the title of apostle or prophet to their leader simply because that’s what the Bible says about these positions.
However, that is not what the LDS Church does. Jesus told his apostles, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16). Early in his ministry Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountain and out of all those who were assembled there he personally chose twelve of them to become known as apostles (Luke 6:12,13). These men didn’t ask to be an apostle and, in fact, they didn’t even know what it meant to be one.
These specific twelve men then became intimate associates with Jesus, receiving special instruction, guidance, and teachings that no one else was entitled to. Just before he was crucified Jesus told these men “when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27) “[And] the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).
From these scriptures we learn that apostles are not men chosen through the wisdom and understanding of men but are those who have been chosen directly by God, which is how the prophets of old where chosen. Furthermore, the apostles were given a special gift of the Holy Ghost that was meant to aid them in their ministry of testifying about Christ and being a witness of him to the world. Thus, an apostle is someone who has a specific calling that is different from all the other positions in the church.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when someone is called to be an apostle it is after a revelation from God has been received by the current leaders of the church. But how was the first leader of the LDS Church called to be an apostle? His name was Joseph Smith and it was Christ himself who appeared to him and called him to this position. In the very beginning, it was Christ himself who chose those who were to become apostles but after his death it was the remaining apostles themselves who met together in prayer to learn who the Lord wanted to replace an apostle who had died (see Acts 1).
In the LDS Church, when an apostle dies, the remaining apostles prayerfully meet together to discuss his replacement. A number of names are considered of who would be worthy to hold that title, yet the people being considered are not aware that their names are even being discussed. The discussion doesn’t involve knowing the vocation, talents, financial capabilities or other temporal aspects of these people, but rather, as they discuss each name under consideration, the current apostles seek for the Lord’s inspiration to know which person he wants called to fill that empty position. It is only when all the remaining apostles are in agreement with one another that a particular person is called.
But what does an apostle do? Are they merely preachers? And if so, what makes what they have to say any more important than what someone else has to say about salvation? After all, there is only so much that can be said about how to become saved. For this reason, evangelists, pastors, ministers, preachers, and teachers can proclaim the gospel just as well as an apostle.
Twice a year members of the LDS church listen to their church leaders give inspiring messages in a forum known as General Conference and from this it would seem that the role of an apostle is merely to preach the gospel. Yet there are some who are more gifted in speaking than others. In fact, there are those who are not apostles who can explain the gospel with better eloquence than some LDS church leaders. Therefore, if we think that the role of an apostle is merely to preach the gospel we would be greatly mistaken.
As discussed earlier, bishops, pastors, and teachers have responsibility to oversee the needs of those in a particular geographical location, usually referred to as a congregation (which are called “wards” in the LDS Church). In the LDS Church there are people called stake presidents who preside over a specific number of local wards, and then there are those who preside over an area that includes a number of stakes. Each of these various leadership positions are responsible for overseeing the members of the church in a defined geographical location.
But the jurisdiction of apostles is not confined to one particular area. Rather their authority is over the entire church in general. As such, they are referred to as “general authorities” as opposed to local or area authorities. Thus, the main duty of an apostle is to watch over the entire church and see to it that each area and local leader is properly edifying and perfecting the saints within their jurisdiction so that all are united in the faith.
Perhaps the greatest responsibilities apostles have is to ensure that the gospel of Christ is being taught in its purity throughout the entire church and to prevent the rise and spread of false doctrine. As we read the various epistles in the New Testament we find that nearly all of them were written to correct a number of false doctrines that were being taught and practiced within the church. To the Romans Paul had to correct their false idea that people must be circumcised in order to be saved. To the Corinthians, Paul lashed out at the members who were celebrating one of their own who had committed fornication with his father’s wife. He marveled how the saints in Galatia had so quickly departed from the true teachings of Christ. He complained about those who ate meat offered to idols, and there were many other false ideas that were being taught among the saints that Paul had to speak out against.
Peter complained about false teachers in the church who were teaching “damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1) Paul likewise talked about those in the church who “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts” (2 Timothy 3:6). Jude felt compelled to write an epistle warning church members about “certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:2).
For this reason, apostles have the specific task of making sure that the gospel of Christ is not being corrupted. Therefore, they travel throughout the church teaching, training, and helping area, stake, and local leaders to correctly and effectively teach the gospel. They visit with missionaries around the world to likewise give them training, counsel, and guidance so that they become better at preaching the gospel and bringing people to Christ. As new mission, stake, and temple presidents are called, apostles meet with them to give them training and counsel.
Apostles are also responsible for the teaching material that is used throughout the church. Therefore, they carefully review all the church curriculum, manuals, and resource material to ensure that everything in them is doctrinally correct and is conducive to helping correctly teach the gospel.
Apostles also travel throughout the world meeting with government leaders as they seek to open new areas for the preaching of the gospel. They personally pray over the name of each young person who requests to serve as a missionary to determine where the Lord would have them labor, and they make changes in missionary assignments as the need arises.
A ward and a stake is comprised of a certain number of people and when a ward or stake gets too large, it is “split” into two wards or stakes. It is the duty of the apostles to make this decision, including what the geographical boundaries of the new wards and stakes will be.
Apostles also sit on committees that have oversight of church finances, the building and maintenance of church facilities, of temple construction, church educational organizations, welfare projects, and a host of other important aspects that affect helping the saints, both temporally as well as spiritually. This is similar to what the early apostles did with the collection and distribution of food for the widows and the poor (Acts. 6:2). As Paul traveled from city to city he too collected the money that the saints had donated for the poor and took it back to Jerusalem.
Modern-day apostles also attend other functions around the world where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeks to have its voice heard at meetings and conferences where issues that affect the family, morality, religious freedom, and other important topics are discussed.
In addition to these duties, all the apostles frequently and regularly meet together to discuss and help resolve the many problems that come before the church, which include issues that are spiritual, physical, and legal. And, in addition to all of these duties, they also spend a lot of time preaching the gospel as they visit with members of the church living all over the world.
The calling of an apostle carries with it a very heavy responsibility and their workload is tremendous. Often they find themselves being asked to do things that seem almost impossible at the time, therefore their faith in the Lord and their knowledge of the gospel has to be strong. For this reason, many apostles, over their time in the church, have previously been bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, temple presidents, and/or area authorities. They have learned and demonstrated their faith in God over many years of service, and yet, when called to be an apostle, all of that previous training still doesn’t fully prepare them to take on the staggering duties that is required for apostles to shoulder. This is why they need a special gift of the Holy Ghost in order for them to be fruitful in their work.
For this reason, when hands are laid upon the head of a newly ordained apostle they are given a special blessing from the Lord that others are not entitled to because they have a work to perform that is not required of others. They are blessed with a greater degree of inspiration for the work they do, and with a greater degree of the Spirit as they teach. Yet they are not spared the challenges of life and struggle with the same adversities that we all face.
With this calling comes the realization that they have a special responsibility to speak in the name of Christ as they serve as his ambassadors. Therefore, they must set the example for the church members to follow. For this reason they cannot afford to live differently than they preach. In fact, the power of their teachings is enhanced when it is coupled with a personal conviction born from personal experiences. Because of this, once a person has been called to be an apostle they strive even harder to become more like Christ and live closer to his Spirit so that the image of Christ is reflected in all they do.
While the office of an apostle is one that places them in a position that others look up to with respect and reverence, it is not one of haughtiness, self-importance, or arrogance. Just like the apostles of old, modern-day apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are required to spend the rest of their life serving the Lord with all of their heart, mind, and strength as they seek to build up his kingdom and prepare the earth for Christ’s second coming. It is also a calling to lose themselves in the service of others by watching over and feeding the flock of God throughout the world. Their job is to perfect and edify the saints while overseeing the work of the ministry and ensuring there is a unity of the faith. This is what Paul did in the ancient church and what modern-day apostles do today.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism