Are Apostles and Prophets the Foundation of the Church?

There is an error that is being circulated in some parts of the church. I do not think this error is intentional or purposeful, but is leading down a very dangerous path. What I mean by that is that many times small errors lead us down a path that ends up in a place we never intended. A live frog in the pot looks very different than a cooked frog. I am talking about a teaching that is presented in the book, Spheres of Authority: Apostles in Today’s Church written by C. Peter Wagner. To be fair, I want to say that Dr. Wagner is a great man of faith and I do not take any of what he says lightly. He is a former professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary and has written more than 70 books. With that said, his writing carries a great amount of authority and I do not want to discount the many things he has done throughout his life. In his book, Spheres of Authority, he is making a case for a new apostolic reformation and shows how many modern apostles operate in different spheres. The book in general lacks adequate scriptural evidence, but there is only one main issue I believe is serious error. It is his discussion of Ephesians 2:20. Dr. Wagner writes, “the nuts and bolts of the growth and development of the church after He ascended and left the earth, Jesus apparently prefers to be thought of, not as the foundation, but as the cornerstone. The foundation of the church through the ages is to be made up of apostles and prophets. The cornerstone, in turn, is essential because the cornerstone holds the foundation together.” Now, I want to start by saying I agree with some of what he states, but there is also a very serious error. I do not think Wagner intends for us to believe that Christ is not central. You have to keep in mind the focus of his book is modern day apostles. But what he has done is use Scripture to back up the claim that apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church and not Christ. Although he states that “the church through the ages is to be made up of apostles and prophets,” the focus of his book is modern day apostles, and we know that is where this type of teaching will lead. In other words, modern day apostles and prophets are part of the foundation of the church. The implication is far reaching and there are plenty of people (due to Wagner’s influence) saying that modern apostles are the foundation. Even if they do not use those words, it is the intended meaning. I agree that the gift of apostle, prophet, teacher, evangelist and pastor are “foundational” gifts. However, my question is, what does Ephesians 2:20 actually say? Once we discover that, then we can decide if what Wagner is saying has any merit or application. I contend that he has misinterpreted the text and not only that, the meaning he is ascribing is not the historical understanding of this verse. In my opinion he is using the Bible to make a point, but the problem is this requires us to go beyond the intended meaning and completely ignore the context, other passages of the Bible and an enormous amount of historical theological understanding. What he is saying has tremendous ramifications and is not congruent with other parts of Scripture.

But don’t take my word for it, discover for yourself what the Bible actually says. First, we are talking about the book of Ephesians, which most of us know was written by the Apostle Paul. So we are talking the New Testament Epistles where Paul is giving instruction on the origin, building, and function of the church. Chapter 2 is specifically about the building of the church or house of God.

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22

So, Paul is talking about the house of God being built, and as Wagner noted, it is built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets. However, before I get to that, I want to first look at Christ as the cornerstone. Since historical context is paramount in understanding any type of literature, including the Bible, the initial question we should ask is when did Paul write Ephesians. According to Merrill Unger Ephesians is one of Paul’s “prison epistles” written in Rome around 61 A.D. This is important because the references Paul is using for building are Roman. When the Romans built structures, they would dig down about 20 plus feet and then put in the foundation with huge stones. The first stones put in place were the cornerstones. All the other stones were put in place around the cornerstones. The cornerstones held everything in place, straight and steady. The large stones of the foundation were fitted together and held in line with the cornerstones. Notice verse 22, “in whom (or him) the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple”. When Paul writes Jesus is the cornerstone, he is not saying Christ is not the foundation, actually quite the opposite, he is saying Jesus is not only the foundation, but also what holds everything together, on which all other “stones” are based and formed. An interlocking foundation with Christ as its center and strength. Isaiah confirms this in chapter 28, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; (vs. 16).

I Corinthians 3:9-11 says, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

These verses tells us that we are the building, we are the interlocking stones in God’s house, but it also says very clearly in verse 11 that there is no foundation except Christ! He is the foundation – to saying anything else is heresy.

Now, let’s move to the problem of apostles and prophets as the foundation. The text of Ephesians 2:20 does say that the household of God is built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets. So the question is what does that mean? Since Christ is the foundation, what can it mean? It might be better to ask how do we even know about Christ? Where did we get the revelation of Jesus? The answer is simple, the holy Bible. When Paul says apostles and prophets, he does not mean the actual people, but their teachings or doctrines, or specifically their writings, which we know to be the word of God through the guidance of the Spirit. So, the foundation of the house of God is the writings of the apostles and prophets, the Old and New Testaments, God’s inspired word. And of course the whole of the Bible is the revelation of God to man. However, since there is disagreement, let us take a look at the historical understanding of this verse.

John Calvin writes:

Foundation, in this passage, unquestionably means doctrine;…It is laid down by Paul, that the faith of the church ought to be founded on this doctrine. . . Christ is the only foundation. He alone supports the whole church. He alone is the rule and standard of faith. . . Nothing else, Paul tells us, was ever intended by the prophets and apostles, than to found a church on Christ.

According to Adam Clarke’s commentary, the foundation is the doctrine taught by the prophets in the Old Testament, and the apostles in the New. Jesus Christ being that corner stone, the chief angle or foundation corner stone, the connecting medium by which both Jews and Gentiles were united in the same building.

And John Wesley explains:

As the foundation sustains the building, so the word of God, declared by the apostles and prophets, sustains the faith of all believers. God laid the foundation by them; but Christ himself is the chief corner – stone of the foundation.

So to say that Ephesians 2:20 refers to the apostles and prophets (modern day or otherwise) as the foundation of God’s house is absolutely flawed and incorrect. This is proven by other Biblical texts, the general understanding and context of the surrounding verses and the historical understanding of the passage. The Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Body of Christ, God’s household, as revealed through the writings of the apostles and prophets.

So where does this leave us in reference to Dr. Wagner. While the ideas of apostles and prophets as individuals not being the foundation of God’s house is clear, the error still runs through some circles. The bottom line is that whether intentional or not, the elevation of man alongside Christ is abhorrent and dangerous. When we elevate man’s status then inevitably we must lower Christ. This erodes the foundation of the Bible and Lordship of Christ. This is no small thing! It can be likened to the difference between the wise man who built his house on the rock versus the foolish man who built his house on the sand. Remember in Matthew 7 when the storms came to the house built on sand, the house fell and great was its fall. Like a crash!  And this is the problem with our culture, we insist on building on the foundation of people, men and women, instead of the eternal nature of Christ. In the end, every knee will bow to the King of kings and Lord of lords, no one will bow to any of us, only the Christ, the Alpha and Omega. And one final thought, if we do not build on the pure foundation of Christ and Christ alone, then when the building gets tall and magnificent in man’s eyes, the foundation will crack and the crash will be devastating.

“I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.”

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