What Greek Grammar Can’t Do to Help Recapture the Apostolic

There’s no doubt in my mind that some kind of apostolic function must be recovered in order to help churches and denominations transition to missional. A church culture where sentness, everybody sent as missionaries, is the norm means sodalic gifting is operational in some way. A simple, face value reading of Ephesians 4:11-12 has convinced me of this. We can’t expect the body of Christ to be built up without apostolic gifting.

Having said that, if you are in a position to lead or teach others about the missing function of the apostolic in evangelical churches today please don’t use Greek grammar to prove your point. Here’s an example of how not to operate.

In his excellent book The Church is Bigger Than You Think, Patrick Johnstone rightly mentions the verbal cognate of the Greek word for apostle is apostello, I send. Because of this he draws the conclusion that apostles are ‘sent ones’ and their main function is to send missionaries. (Ever heard that?) In other words, the meaning of a word, in this case apostle, can be discovered by examining a word’s etymology. While I don’t disagree with Johnstone’s conclusion per se, I think his use of Greek to prove his point doesn’t help his cause.

In Exegetical Fallacies Don Carson calls this gymnastics use of Greek grammar ‘linguistic nonsense’ (p.28). He gives the following illustration to show how etymology shouldn’t be used to determine the meaning of words. Context determines meaning, not etymology.

By way of example our word nice, comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ‘ignorant.’ Our ‘good-bye’ is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon ‘God be with you.’ Now it may be possible to trace out diachronically (through time) just how nescius generated ‘nice’; it is certainly easy to imagine how ‘God be with you’ came to be contacted to ‘good-bye.’ But I know of no one today who in saying such and such a person is ‘nice’ believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the ‘root meaning’ or ‘hidden meaning’ or ‘literal meaning’ of ‘nice’ is ‘ignorant.’

Case closed. The word apostle doesn’t mean ‘sent one.’ So what does the New Testament mean when it uses the word apostle? Let me again turn to Carson for insight. 

It is arguable that although apostolos (apostle) is cognate with apostello (I send), New Testament use of the noun does not center on the meaning the one sent but on ‘messenger.’ Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word messenger also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the New Testament suggests that apostolos (apostle) commonly bears the meaning special representative or a special messenger rather than ‘someone sent out.’

I firmly believe the church today is sorely lacking in special representatives who actively work to further the mission of Christ thereby building up the body of Christ. Just don’t use a fallacy of grammar to prove it to me.

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