This morning I drove by a storefront that looks like it would have been a music store in the 1970s. When I read the marquee, though, I discovered that this was in fact a church. Instead of the names of singers or bands, the names of the church leadership were emblazoned on the sign. What really caught my eye, though, was the additional title that the pastor had for himself: apostle. (That is, I'm assuming it was the title, and that it wasn't his name, like Priest Holmes or Deacon Jones.) It was a tad surprising to see. When we hear the word apostle, we think of the 12 selected by Jesus to assist in and carry on his ministry, and of men like Mathias and Barnabas and Paul who joined this effort. We don't think of Todd Smith who runs his little place on Third and Main. How do we understand this? What exactly is an apostle anyway?
The word apostle comes from the Greek word meaning "to be sent." Its Latin equivalent would be something like missionary. Now, the thing about the verb "to send" is that there's always an object--that is, there is always someone or something being sent, and there's always someone doing the sending. The identity of the sender is a crucial question. If someone approaches you and says "I have been sent to you," your immediate response will be to ask "By whom?" You are always less interested in the messenger than in the one who sent the message. So, we know right off the bat that if someone calls himself an apostle he must have been sent by someone, and it's essential that we know who that is.
To be an apostle is to be sent by Christ for the purpose of preaching the Good News and building up the Church. Christ is no longer personally present on earth to appoint more apostles, nor has he made extraordinary interventions as he did with St. Paul. So we know that, strictly speaking, there can be no one today who holds that rank, and certainly no one can seize it for themselves. Yet the gospel still needs preaching, and the church still needs building, so who is left to do it? The apostles were aware both of their own limited lifespans and of the Church's perpetual need for this ministry, and thus they provided for us in the form of those offices mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of St. Paul, most especially in the letters to Timothy and Titus. Those are the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon. It is to these offices that the apostles entrusted the sacred duties of teaching, governing, and sanctifying. The bishops especially are considered the successors of the apostles, not in the sense that they carry the full weight of apostleship, but in the sense that the office of bishop succeeds that of apostle and provides for the Church those essential things which the apostle provided and which need to be carried on through time.
The mandate to carry on this ministry of servant leadership comes directly from Christ himself. Christ commanded his apostles to preach, to baptize, to forgive sins, and to celebrate the Eucharist, among other things. And all of these duties are essential to the church. So, it is essential that there be an office to carry them out. Thus, bishops, priests, and deacons trace their mandate, their commissioning, their being sent, through a direct line of bishops all the way back to the apostles and to Christ himself. This is what we call apostolic succession.
To be an apostle is to have been sent directly by Christ. No one today can fit that bill. To be in apostolic succession is to be sent by those who were sent by Christ. Those unbroken lines are found in the hierarchies of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The bishops send men on behalf of Christ to carry out this work. If you are not sent by one who has the authority to send, you are not an apostle, nor are you apostolic. Pastors who take this title unto themselves should be very wary. Apostleship cannot be claimed or assumed; it must be given; you must be sent. Much as we might want to style ourselves after the Twelve, we can't summon apostleship by ourselves down to Third and Main.