Craig Keener: How to Recognize False Apostles

Podium with microphone infront of people seated

As I speak in various countries, there is increasing concern about “apostles” who compete with each other in rival miracle claims, followings and income. They view apostleship as a high-status and lucrative office to which they may be promoted if successful in lower roles. The complaint is not about using the title “apostle” simply for overseers, the way some churches use “bishop” or “superintendent.” The complaint is about those who demand special recognition.

I do not deny the importance of genuine apostleship. Biblically, it is among the gifts that Christ’s church needs to bring us to maturity (Eph 4:11-13). Although the Twelve are no longer with us, Paul clearly uses the term “apostle” more broadly than that (Rom 11:13; 16:7; 1 Cor 15:5-7; Gal 1:19; 1 Thess 2:6). He probably applies it to those involved in cutting-edge, sacrificial, groundbreaking evangelism that lays foundations in new spheres (cf. Rom 15:20).

Yet Paul, an apostle, denounced false apostles (2 Cor 11:13). Jesus commended an ancient church for testing those who claim to be apostles, and calling out those who were false (Rev 2:2). Similarly, Jeremiah, a true prophet, denounced false prophecy, clearly dissociating the true from the false. “For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD (Jer 23:28, NIV).

What are some criteria that can help us distinguish true from false apostles?

First, false apostles seek their own honor. They promote themselves more than Jesus. Paul’s rivals in Corinth boasted in themselves (2 Cor 10:17-18; 11:12), and indeed were flashier speakers than Paul (11:6). Yet Paul warns that these “super-apostles” (11:5) are false apostles (11:13), servants of Satan (11:14-15).

Paul also warned church elders that some of them would “arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30 NIV; cf. Mark 3:19). That they draw disciples after themselves, rather than after the Lord Jesus, reveals their deadly error. Jesus warns against seeking titles for ourselves (Matt 23:7-11); the truly greatest must be the servant (Mark 9:35; 10:43). Although true apostles are first in role (1 Cor 12:28), they appear last in terms of worldly status (4:9). As Rolland and Heidi Baker put it, “Our desired direction is always lower still. The apostle is in the lowest position of all.”

It is true that we live in a world dominated by marketing. In most capitalist countries with freedom of religion, the religious “market” favors those with adequate promotion. It is right for true teachers to promote God’s message that they bring, especially when needed to counter false teaching. At the same time, “we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many” (2 Cor 2:17, NRSV); “we don’t proclaim ourselves, but instead Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake” (4:5; cf. 1 Pet 5:3). True apostles serve Christ and his people, not seek to dominate them. As Randy Clark says, “Biblical apostleship focuses on serving rather than ruling. Jesus said the greatest of all would be the servant of all.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Craig Keener