When we speak about apostles today, we are talking about those who are called and sent out by God. They have authority only as one sent by God. Apostles are not called or sent by the church, but are called by God, sent forth by the Spirit, and work under the authority of the Spirit. Their movement and authority comes directly from the Spirit. In Acts 13:1-3, the Spirit said, "Separate unto Me..."
When an apostle goes beyond the local gathering, he is directly under the Holy Spirit, not the local church. We must still understand what this means. God is directing the apostle and those who are with him, and he must answer to God. The apostle is not a freelancer. If he is a spiritual man he will be subject to spiritual brethren, yet not in the direction of his call and ministry. The apostle's authority is his because of the revelation God has given him and the work he is called to do--establishing and building up the local church. When elders have been duly recognized in the local church, there is no higher authority than God's working in the local expression of the body of Christ.
The only extra-local authority is the apostle, and his authority is for the purpose of establishing and building up the local church. The apostle does not have authority over the local church or its elders. We must always remember that spiritual authority is first recognized by spiritual brethren, and it is not so the one in authority may be ruling or lording over, but for the purpose of doing God's will in establishing. At the end of his life, Paul said, "I have finished my course." The Spirit has a course for each one He calls and sends forth. An apostle has spiritual authority only when he is moving and functioning where God wants him to be. Spiritual authority can only be exercised because one is under God's authority and direction, not because one has a position or office.
If spiritual brethren recognize an apostle's establishing ministry, they can benefit greatly, but if they refuse to recognize his authority, he has no authority to move in, take over, remove recognized eldership or set himself up as an authority. He does not have authority over a group or church even if God used him to bring it into expression. Christ is the authority in the church and He directs the work, that work being done by spiritual brethren called and sent by God.
The authority in the local church is also for discipling and watching over the saints. It is spiritual authority, not legal authority, and must be recognized by spiritual brethren. Without spiritual authority there can be no working through elders in the local church or through the apostles who have been sent forth by the Spirit. And this authority never opposes itself. All authority is given to Christ in heaven and earth. God's order and plan are perfect; therefore let us not think that we can come up with a better plan, or that we can do the work of God without seeing and submitting to Christ as the authority, in the church and in those He has called.
Unless a man is seeing and functioning in the local church, he has no spiritual authority or ministry. The apostle sees and is working to bring into manifestation local expressions of the church. Those who are building upon their own organizations or personalities do not see, nor do they have any authority other than their own authority. If we or others are moving in our own authority, we cannot build or function in the church. It is only through Him that we can have access in one Spirit to the Father.
God has never called one man to be His authority in the local church, nor has He called a group of men to be His authority in the church. He has called men who will allow His authority to flow through them, that His purpose might be done and that God's people might be cared for by God through men who are themselves under authority. A man who is not under authority himself has no authority. When we say he has no authority, we mean that there is no way God's authority can flow through him or be revealed unless he is under authority and being controlled by the Spirit himself (Matthew 8:5-10).
"The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Corinthians 2:14). In order for the church to function as a theocracy, spiritual authority must be recognized and submitted to. God has not given His authority to just anyone or everyone. All authority has been given to Christ in the building of the church. The church is His body, "the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23).
"The manifold wisdom of God is now being made known through the church, to rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:10-11).
Man cannot work for God on his own. He cannot "do his own thing" or create his own work or ministry within the work of God. Christ gave gifts, and they must function under His authority to build in what God is building. Man cannot under any circumstances become an authority in himself, nor can he start a work just because he sees the need. All true ministry is building the local expression of the one church. Many men are working for God, but are without a call or a revelation of the body of Christ and its working. Paul said, "Let each man be careful how he builds upon the foundation." He goes on to say in I Corinthians 3:14, "If any man's work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward."
An apostle has spiritual authority because of the revelation he has from the Lord. If there is no revelation, there is no authority. The apostle must have a revelation to be able to labor in the work and ministry of establishing and discipling the local church. This can be said of every man that is called of God to a ministry either in the local church or an extra-local ministry such as that of the apostle, prophet or teacher.
When a man tries to establish even a spiritual fellowship and goes beyond the framework of the local assembly, there are many dangers that may come in to take away from the authority God has placed in the local gathering. Authority can be created that is not recognized and established in the gathering, but develops out of brothers with strong personalities or ministries. When we go farther than God goes, we open ourselves up for trouble which could destroy the witness God intended to be given by the local church.
This does not mean we are not to have fellowship with other Christians in other assemblies. We would only warn against creating a continuing fellowship that takes away from God's ordained authority in the local assembly. If brethren or ministries want to have fellowship with other believers and assemblies, let it be within the local gathering, with that local authority as the spiritual covering. If we would abide by this simple rule, much trouble could be eliminated.
We believe that all of God's servants can benefit greatly from fellowship with older brethren and ministries from other areas, but some have gone too far. If we would keep this in proper balance, we would have nothing to fear and all to gain, since we can learn from others' experience. We do not want to close the door to any fellowship the Lord would give us. At the same time, we would not want to begin a gathering of God's people that is out from under the local care of the overseers whom God has given to care for souls which they must give an account for (Hebrews 13:17).
If overseers are going to give account to God for souls under them, they must be elders in the midst of a local gathering of believers, watching over souls in the same gathering. They could not be a gathering of elders or workers from different elderships, watching over more than one assembly. There may be many different arrangements that sound good and even seem beneficial for a time, but nothing short of God's pattern can witness to His life and authority. We must never forget, it is Christ who is building His church, and He does not need man's programs or changes. Do we think we know more than the Lord?
Even in the Old Testament, eldership was the order in the cities. Each city had its own elders. We cannot use this city government of the Old Testament as a pattern for church government, but the spirit of the working of eldership on the basis of authority is the same. The difference is that eldership in the church is a ministry of grace functioning through spiritual brethren in one local assembly. Even apostles with spiritual authority and a call from God cannot be rulers over a group of local assemblies. Each gathering must be under the headship of Christ.