In this short series, I’m looking at the ways that Paul referred to people who traveled with him and people he worked with in various cities in order to answer these questions: How did Paul think those who traveled with him and worked with him? Did he think of himself as being a superior with them being subordinates (i.e., a hierarchy)? Did he think of them all as equals?
A few days ago, I introduced the series by asking, “What did Paul think of his subordinates?” Next, I defined some of the terms that I will use: superior, subordinate, and hierarchy. Then, I covered the terms that Paul used most often to refer to other believers: brother/sister and fellow-worker/soldier/servant. Next, I listed all the passages in which Paul used father/child (or mother/child) language and summarized how Paul used father/child language according to those passages.
In this post, I’m examining another term that Paul uses that is occasionally used as an example of a hierarchy with some being superior while others are subordinates. That term is “apostle.”
We know that Paul often refers to himself as an apostle, and he also refers to others as apostles: Apollos (and others in 1 Corinthians 4:9, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and 1 Corinthians 15:7,9), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), Silas (and perhaps others in 1 Thessalonians 2:6), and perhaps Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Does Paul use the term “apostle” to indicate that these people are superior to others in some type of hierarchy?
No. In fact, if we read what Paul says about apostles, he says just the opposite. He does not place apostles above other Christians. Instead, he places apostles below others as their servants. (See especially 1 Corinthians 4:1,9.)
But, wait! Doesn’t Paul say that apostles are “first” among gifts given by God? Yes, Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians:
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28 ESV)
So, doesn’t this indicate that apostles are first in the sense of superior to other believers in a hierarchy? No. Whatever Paul intended to communicate with that ordered list of spiritual gifted persons (and there are a few suggested interpretations), he could not have meant an order of importance or superiority.
How do we know that Paul could not have meant this? Because just before that previous statement, Paul had written this:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:22-25 ESV)
Based on that passage, regardless of what Paul means when he wrote, “God has appointed in the church first apostles,” he did not mean that God gave them authority over others or made them superior to others.
As with other types of spiritual gifts (prophecy, teaching, pastoring, evangelizing, serving, encouraging, working miracles, healing, etc.), God gives those gifted as apostles to the church as servants, not as authority figures.
So, Paul did not refer to some as apostles in order to show that they were superior while others were subordinate in some type of hierarchy.
Series: Does Paul refer to other Christians as superiors/subordinates?
- What did Paul think about his subordinates?
- Defining the terms
- The ways that Paul most often refers to other believers
- When Paul refers to other believers using father/child language
- Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language
- Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?
- When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates