No discussion of ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—could be complete without a consideration of the various offices that Christ has given to His church. As we look at the New Testament, we find at least seven offices revealed—Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers, deacons, and elders or overseers (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1–13). We will consider deacons and elders in a few months when we look at the Protestant doctrine of vocation. Today and tomorrow we will briefly examine the other five offices.
In the church today, some pastors are called Apostles. Others identify as prophets. As we consider these claims, we should first note that the Protestant Reformers would find it odd that some claim to be Apostles and prophets today. John Calvin’s comments on Ephesians 4:11 are representative: “Of the five offices which are here enumerated, not more than the last two are intended to be perpetual. Apostles, Evangelists, and Prophets were bestowed on the church for a limited time only—except in those cases where religion has fallen into decay, and evangelists are raised up in an extraordinary manner, to restore the pure doctrine which had been lost.”
The nature of the Apostolic and prophetic offices explains why the Reformers believed that no Apostles or prophets lead the earthly church today. As we look at the New Testament, we see clearly a unique and foundational role for Apostles and prophets. These offices, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:20, make up the foundation of the church, along with Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. The foundation of the church is laid only once, and Paul and the other Apostles understood themselves to be laying that foundation with their instruction (1 Cor. 3:11). From this we conclude that the office of Apostle was of limited duration; once the foundation was laid, God stopped sending Apostles.
Prophets hold in common with Apostles the responsibility of delivering divinely revealed, authoritative teaching. Once God has spoken finally through His Son and those whom He appointed as His Apostles, there is no more special divine revelation until Christ returns (Heb. 1:1–2). Paul confirms this in 2 Timothy. He does not tell Timothy to look for new prophets and Apostles but to hold fast to what has already been delivered (2 Tim. 3:14–17).
God gave His church prophets and Apostles so that we would have His inerrant, infallible Word. Now that we have His Word, we do not need living prophets or Apostles.
God gave the Apostles and prophets for the good of His people, and they fulfilled their task by delivering to us His infallible Word. If we want to benefit from what these officers have to offer us today, we must pay heed to what they give us in Scripture. There is no other place today where we can find God’s special revelation to His people.