by John W. Ritenbaugh
Along with doctrinal matters, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong's status as an apostle has been called into question. It is a good and proper question. His title of apostle is a fact most have accepted as easily as the other categories of ministers such as prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher as given in Ephesians 4:11. He frequently referred to himself in both sermons and writings as Christ's apostle. Was this a false claim of a man trying to exert his authority? Or is there a biblical basis to validate his claim?
Such claims need to be proved. Though our salvation does not hinge on whether he was or was not, it is always good policy to collect the best evidence available to answer every question. We will see as we proceed through the evidence regarding apostles that the answer eventually resides in the interpretation of several factors.
What Is an Apostle?
Defining apostolos is not difficult. Its usage in the Bible and elsewhere, however, causes a measure of confusion. Apostolos means a delegate, envoy, agent, ambassador or representative, and indicates "one sent with a special message or commission." The commission's duration may be limited to a specific errand or last a lifetime.
In John 13:16, the phrase translated "he who is sent" is the word apostolos. The word translated "messengers" in II Corinthians 8:23 is also apostolos, clearly used in the sense of "delegates." Some Bibles' margins suggest "sent ones" in defining these "messengers."
The Jews, according to both Unger's Dictionary of the Bible and the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (article "Apostle"), had several interesting usages of this term. They called the person who collected the annual half-shekel temple tax an apostle. A Roman named Theodosian, writing in Greek, referred to ordained emissaries from Jerusalem synagogues as apostles. These emissaries generally collected taxes for the support of the rabbinate.
The rabbinic term for such agents was shaliah. They might represent individuals or corporate bodies such as courts and synagogues, their duties depending upon the terms of their commission—to serve legal documents, collect monies or convey instructions, particularly concerning the calendar and festivals. In the synagogue the shaliah might lead the congregation in prayer. The rabbinic principle was "a man's shaliah [agent, representative] is like himself." If the shaliah (apostle) followed his instructions, his actions identified the one who authorized and sent him. An apostle is the direct representative of the one who sent him.
New Testament Usage
Scholars believe this is the model from which Jesus and the apostles derived their usage. However, there is an important difference. The Christian usage is totally religious, institutional and missionary in its character. The Jewish usage was with precisely defined authority, for a limited term and almost totally nonreligious, though an apostle may have been commissioned by a synagogue.
In Hebrews 3:1-2, we are asked to "consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him. . . ." In John 5:36 Jesus stated, ". . . the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me." Jesus fulfilled His commission so completely that He could state in John 14:9, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." Jesus, the One appointed and sent by the Father, is the pattern of the New Testament apostle.
Jesus repeated the Jewish model when He ordained twelve and sent them out representing Him. In John 20:21 He said, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." They thus were Christ's apostles. This process began early in His ministry. "Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons" (Mark 3:14-15). Added to this is a principle stated by Jesus to the Twelve in Mark 9:37: "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me." He implies that those sent are especially chosen by the divine will for their mission, bearing His authority.
Other men are specifically designated as apostles in Acts, but undoubtedly the Twelve are in a unique category. They are described by Peter in Acts 1:21-22: "Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection." No other apostle, not Paul, nor the Lord's brothers James and Jude, nor Barnabas, can meet this description. Paul calls himself "one born out of due time" while specifying apostles (I Corinthians 15:8). The uniqueness of the Twelve is further emphasized in Revelation 21:14: "Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." In describing New Jerusalem, Christ shows foundations named only for the Twelve.
The last time Luke refers to the Twelve is in Acts 6:2. From that time on, references in Acts are to apostles in general. By chapter 15, the reference is to "the apostles and elders" in Jerusalem, and James, the Lord's brother, is presiding over the council—even in the presence of one of the Twelve, Peter!
As early as Acts 12:17, James holds no small authority, even with Peter. Though James does not fit the description given by Peter in Acts 1, Paul conclusively identifies him as an apostle (Galatians 1:19). An intriguing statement in I Corinthians 9:5 asks, "Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?" Having "brothers of the Lord" bracketed by "apostles" and "Cephas" (Peter) means at least two of Jesus' brothers were apostles.
Barnabas is first mentioned in Acts 4:36. He brought the converted Paul directly to the apostles' attention (Acts 9:27). He was sent out (set apart) by the Jerusalem church to go as far as Antioch (Acts 11:22).
Christ did not specifically identify Paul as an apostle in Acts 9, but Paul certainly was a chosen vessel and sent. He identifies himself as an apostle in virtually every one of his epistles, because others were challenging his assertion. He defended himself in this regard in I Corinthians 9:3.
The Bible irrefutably names these men as apostles. How did they come into their offices? Whose apostles were they? We see a glimmer of an answer to these questions in Acts 13:2-4. "As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus." Both are named as apostles one chapter later (Acts 14:14).
In these few verses, Luke shows officers of the church of God (of which Christ is the Head), under the direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, setting men apart by ordination, and sending them out on a mission. In light of this witness from scripture, we must conclude that similar occurrences inducted others labeled apostles (like the Lord's brothers) into their offices and missions.
In II Corinthians 12:12 Paul, defending a challenge to his apostleship, said, "Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds." What were the signs? They were things the Corinthians could see, the fruits of his ministry. The gospel of the Kingdom of God was preached to them, people were healed, demons cast out, people converted, congregations raised up, and apostles used to clarify doctrine under Christ (as in Acts 15).
What About HWA?
With this background we can now consider Mr. Armstrong. He was ordained from the very beginning as an apostle by the Church of God, Seventh Day, Oregon Conference. One might argue that this was only because they ordained every minister as an apostle. Yes, but who else in the twentieth century did what he did in preaching the true gospel of the Kingdom of God around the world? In Revelation 3:8 Christ says, "I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My Word, and have not denied My name." If Christ opened the door, then Christ sent him forth. Has anyone in the entire history of the church of God since Christ done what was done through Mr. Armstrong? Such a claim is a difficult thing to measure, but there is no record of anyone else even coming close! What is important is not how much was done, but for the purpose of this article, that we are witnesses that it was done—and done through him. Were people healed, demons cast out, thousands converted worldwide, congregations raised? Were people given priceless, true vision and hope through millions upon millions of copies of the Plain Truth and Good News, books, booklets and letters by God through him?
Who else did God use to restore true doctrines that somehow became lost in the shuffle of deception and confusion through the centuries?
Couldn't he honestly say with the apostle Paul, "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (I Corinthians 4:15)? Mr. Armstrong played a part in the conversion of each of us, directly or indirectly.
Are the signs of an apostle evident in his life's work? Surely they are! Not that he was like the Twelve, but like those apostles who came along later, "out of due time." Mr. Armstrong fulfilled the office like those who were ordained by the church, the body of which Christ is Head, and sent to fulfill a mission.