I’ve been on a quest lately to trace the roots of the words we use when talking about mission. You know, like the difference between “mission” and “missions.” I’ve written quite a bit about my frustration with poorly-defined, extrabiblical words like “reach” (as in, “reaching the unreached”) and “complete” (as in, “We can complete the Great Commission in our lifetime!”).
Another such word is “missionary.” Obviously, a missionary is someone who has a mission. Being rooted in Latin, the word itself is not found in scripture, but we do see the term apostle (meaning “sent-one”) used in multiple ways that inform our understanding of missionary. In every use, it conveys a sense of sent-ness under the authority of the sender.
What I’ve found is the widespread conflation of three related uses of apostle: the New Testament office of Apostle with missionary gifting and the role of missionary.
The Apostles were the original Twelve disciples of Jesus minus Judas, plus his replacement Matthias, and also Paul. Because they had spent lots of time with Jesus, they were established by the early church as authorities on Christ’s teachings. Of course, these Apostles all died long ago, so we depend on the Scriptures (the New Testament being largely written by Apostles) as our authority on Christ’s teachings.
The “apostolic gifting” is something that is mentioned in Paul’s outline of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and in Ephesians 4. Paul doesn’t define these gifts, but he does mention in Ephesians 4:12 that they exist “ for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” Today, apostolic gifting is commonly understood to be that God-given desire and ability to cross cultures and start ministry in new places.
It’s important to note that while the gifts included in Paul’s list–apostle, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and preachers–are not necessarily given to all believers, the resulting activity of these gifts are expected to be practiced by all of God’s people in some form or another. All Christians should regularly share their faith (evangelism), teach the scriptures (teaching), and proclaim truth (preaching) in some fashion.
Which brings us to the last but most common use of the word, apostle; the role of missionary. Missionaries are those who have been sent out on mission. Regardless of your gifting, if you’ve been sent, you are a missionary. Paul demonstrates this understanding of the word “apostle” by using it to refer to people who neither walked with Jesus (Titus, Epaphriditus, Andronicus, Junia) nor had the gifting of apostle (Barnabas). In Scripture, we find multiple instances of Christ commissioning His people on His mission.
- “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” John 20:21
- “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
- “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Of course, you may not be a very good missionary (which is to be expected when leaders in the missions community keep telling you that only those who travel to faraway people are, in fact, missionaries). In this case, you would do well to seek out someone with apostolic gifting. Follow them around for a while. Ask them questions. Learn from them.
God’s mission is too important to be left to the professionals. As God’s people, we have all been sent.