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Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?

Posted by on Aug 30, 2012 in discipleship, office | 13 comments

Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?

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?

  1. What did Paul think about his subordinates?
  2. Defining the terms
  3. The ways that Paul most often refers to other believers
  4. When Paul refers to other believers using father/child language
  5. Examining Paul’s use of the father/child language
  6. Does Paul use the term apostle to refer to a superior/subordinate relationship?
  7. When Paul DOES use the language of superiors and subordinates


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-30-2012

    Heirarchy is seen throughout creation;
    “In the beginning God” begins at uppermost level.
    Eve was created as a helpmeet and God gave Adam dominion.

    Heirarchy is inescapable but in most cases need not include a superior/inferior implication. God called me to witness and reachout to the lost…our church designated me to be pastor of evangelism with the responsibility of leading our team. I am not any better that any of them but I have been chosen to lead. I do that as a “We” leader. I think Paul did too.

  2. 8-30-2012


    I explained what I meant by “superior,” “subordinate,” and “hierarchy” in a post linked to above (about defining terms). Since I don’t know your situation, I can’t really respond to that. I agree that Paul led (i.e., served) with many others.


  3. 8-30-2012

    You seem to assume that “servants” and “authority figures” are mutually exclusive categories, but I think that’s only true of a worldly understanding of authority, and not a Biblical understanding of authority. Christ redefines our fallen, abusive ideas of authority and leadership by demonstrating servant leadership and self-sacrifice on the Cross.

    You quote Paul from 1 Corinthians 12 on the body of Christ. It’s clear that there are gradations of greater and lesser honour, of strength and weakness and indispensability. There is still hierarchy, a differentiation of rank, but honour is defined by service rather than by power, for the good and unity of the body. Hierarchy is not flattened in the New Testament, but redefined by service and love; not abolished, but redeemed.

    Also I think your definitions, e.g. “A person higher than another person in rank, status, authority, or quality”, are too one-dimensional. You need to differentiate between authority/role and being/quality. 1 Corinthians 11:3 tells us that the head of Christ is God, and Jesus obeys the Father (several times in John’s Gospel). Christ submits to the Father’s authority, but is completely co-equal with the Father. Unless we hold together authority and equality, any thinking about hierarchy will be hopelessly muddled.

  4. 8-30-2012


    Thanks for the comment. My definitions for “superior,” “subordinate,” and “hierarchy” come from standard dictionaries. How did you decide that honor (in 1 Cor 12) is “defined by service rather than by power”?

    By the way, I’m not arguing for a lack of authority in the New Testament.


  5. 8-30-2012

    So the answer to your question to me from the original post comments would be that you can have position and office without hierarchy?

  6. 8-30-2012


    It depends on what you mean by position or office, but from the way I’ve seen those terms used, they usually point to some type of superior/subordinate relationship (or hierarchy).


  7. 8-31-2012


    Is it possible that an authority in fact would not necessarily mean hierarchy? It seems that was what Paul had.

  8. 8-31-2012


    How would you define “authority” in a way that it would not indicate a hierarchy?


  9. 9-1-2012


    I would think a moral authority that would come because the person has proven by their example that they are someone to listen to and follow.


  10. 9-1-2012


    But, that sounds like any and every follower of Jesus could have the same authority… 🙂


  11. 9-2-2012

    It also makes sense that Paul was not using the term first in a hierarchical form. While Protos CAN refer to rank, the other words used are ordinal in nature and not hierarchical. So from a contextual point of view, that is the only interpretation of the sentence that to me makes sense.

    I am reminded of something said to me by a person I know who clearly operates in the apostolic realm. He said, “I am an apostle because God called me one, not because I or any other man said I am.” He went on to state that it was not a title, or an office, but a job description, and that His, and every other believer’s title was “son (or daughter) of the Most High King, priest of the Almighty, heir of the Kingdom, beloved of the Father, in whom He is well pleased, ambassador of the Lord of Lords. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for me to start walking in the fullness of those titles.

  12. 9-2-2012


    I like that title.


  13. 9-2-2012

    I like the description of apostle from Kevin’s friend as it resonates with me.