That’s a word that we Lutherans say every Sunday while reciting either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed: “We believe in … the Holy catholic and apostolic church”. But what actually does ‘apostolic’ mean? (That sometimes puzzling word ‘catholic’ is an ancient word meaning ‘universal.’) It’s presumably obvious that it has something to do with ‘apostles’ — a designation that may seem to be just another way of saying ‘disciples.’ But apostle is a more specific title: every Apostle of Christ was a disciple, but only certain disciples were Apostles.
Our English word ‘apostle’ is derived from the Greek word apostolos which consists of the two parts apo (meaning ‘away from’) and stellos (meaning ‘sent to’). This was originally a nautical term for a ship sent away to deliver a cargo to a recipient. By analogy, the term later came to mean a personal representative or emissary who was entrusted to deliver a message or request. Apostles played an important role in the ancient Greco-Roman world as ones who could be counted on to deliver the sender’s message accurately; it is said that they were expected to memorize not only the exact words, but also reenact the tone of voice and body language so that, in an age long before Facetime® and Skype®, it was not only the words but also the demeanor that was conveyed, and with the full authority of the sender.
So, when Jesus “called unto him his disciples, and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles” (Luke 6:13) He was giving a special commission to these chosen twelve to be His personal representatives. The same commissioning is described in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels but with the additional information that Jesus gave them power to heal (Matthew 10:1), and discretion to judge those who didn’t receive His message (Mark 6:11). We see in this that the appointed apostles were to represent Jesus in both their words and their deeds – not because they possessed personal power or authority, but because that was their role as true apostles of the One by whom they were sent. They were the ones chosen to present His words and His power in the world when He was gone.
We repeatedly find Jesus preparing the Apostles for this special role by His private teaching (e.g., Matthew 11:1, 20:17-28). On the night of His last supper with them, John’s Gospel recounts five chapters (13-17) of His final instructions, highlighted by His promises to continue guiding them by His Holy Spirit after His departure (John 16:12-13). And it was to the remaining eleven apostles (Judas having killed himself) to whom Jesus gave His Great Commission before His ascension to Heaven (Matthew 28:16-20).
Shortly after Jesus departed, Judas was replaced by Matthias, an early disciple, who was chosen to be an Apostle by casting lots so it would be God’s decision (Acts 1:12-26). Later, Paul was directly chosen by Christ on the road to Damascus and accepted as an Apostle for that reason (1 Corinthian 1:1). There may also have been a few others known as Apostles, such as James, the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19). However, the Twelve occupy a unique position in God’s plan (Revelation 21:14)
So, what does it mean to say that we believe in the Apostolic Church? Simply that we believe that the Church that was founded by the Apostles is in fact established on the foundation laid by Jesus Christ Himself – that the teachings that they transmitted are His own and that the practices that were established during the Apostolic Age were according to His authority. In other words, we aspire to follow the teachings of the Apostles as they received them from Christ and the Holy Spirit He sent.
But, one might ask, is there still an Apostolic Office in today’s church? That’s a matter of debate. Catholics, Anglicans, and a few other denominations practice Apostolic Succession, by which they mean that the authority of the Apostles has been transmitted (to a greater or lesser degree) by an unbroken line of successors, tracing back to the original Apostles. Some sects (such as Mormons and some charismatic groups) believe that modern apostles may arise that are empowered to reveal new truths. Lutherans and most other Protestants hold that only those who were personally appointed by Christ can claim Apostolic authority. However, every Christian should be apostolic (small ‘a’) in the sense of carrying on Christ’s commission to witness Him to the world.