The term “apostle” has been around ever since before the beginning of what we would call the church. Although traditionally used to refer to the twelve apostles that Christ had personally chosen, the term may be acceptable to use even for Christians today. The word apostle is from the Greek word apostolos which means, “one who is sent.” There are many instances in the Bible where the word apostle is mentioned – eighty times in the King James Version.
Until the beginning of the church, the word in its Biblical context referred only to the twelve apostles that were specifically chosen by the Lord while in His human form. With the death of Judas Iscariot, however, the remaining eleven apostles believed it necessary that another man fill the spot, which Judas Iscariot had left vacant. After casting lots, the apostles chose Matthias to become the new twelfth apostle, even though he was not chosen by the Lord while in His physical body.
Another example of an apostle who was chosen by a process other than by Christ in his physical body is that of Paul. Paul was confronted on the road to Damascus by the voice of the Lord and a bright light, which soon led to his conversion. Then, in the introduction of the book to the Romans, Paul writes, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1), clearly believing that he was an apostle even though he had not had any face-to-face contact with the Lord.
One may argue, however, that Paul, through his confrontation on the road to Damascus, and Matthias, through the Lord’s sovereignty over the outcome of the lots, were indeed chosen directly by the Lord to be called apostles. Even in the examples of people such as James, the Lord’s brother, and Barnabas, who were both referred as apostles in Galatians 1:19 and Acts 14:14, respectively, it is safe to argue that the Lord may have bestowed a similar honor upon them. In the case of James, close fellowship with Christ was likely a daily routine, and, as seen in Acts 9:27, Barnabas already had an established relationship with the apostles and for that reason he may have been considered an apostle himself.
There is no accounting, however, using the previously stated arguments for the following verse written to the Corinthians: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Corinthians 12:12), for Christ never was recorded to visit the city of Corinth, which was about 600 miles away from Jerusalem as the crow flies, and it is unlikely that the Corinthians received any special revelation from the risen Christ in which he ordained them to be apostles. It is also important to note that Paul did not “ordain” any of the Corinthians to be apostles since his missionary to the city of Corinth was not particularly long and scholars are not sure whether or not Paul made a second journey to that city.
So should Christians today be called apostles? This is a question wrought with peril and many implications. The term apostle is traditionally reserved only for those chosen by Christ during His life on the earth and for Paul. The term thus implies religious authority that none today possess. However, by strictly using the definition of the word as our guideline, many people could be “apostles,” though not necessarily apostles of Christ.
By narrowing the definition to include only those who “are sent” and those who meet the requirements of 2 Corinthians 12:12, we may say that missionaries and church planters, and, quite possibly, all Christians under the Great Commission, are apostles. It may be wisest, however, to avoid use of this term because it implies a degree of religious authority that no Christian possesses today.