New, Improved, and Condemned
I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. (2 Corinthians 11:5)
The Apostle Paul struggled against many obstacles as he labored to plant the Church of Christ throughout the Roman world. He was opposed in Ephesus by pagan craftsmen, eager to preserve their standard of living. Angry religious leaders stoned him in Asia Minor. Public officials tried to frustrate his ministry on Crete, in Philippi, and elsewhere. Pop philosophers pooh-poohed his teaching in Athens. He was afflicted with a disability that was more a nuisance than an obstacle. Certain of those he taught and nurtured abandoned him when push came to shove. He was frequently without proper food, clothing, or accommodations. And, at least in Corinth, he had to hold down a job to make ends meet while he worked to nurture a divisive, inconsiderate, and uncaring congregation.
But the greatest struggle Paul had, almost from the beginning of his ministry, was with those who, in the Name of Jesus, sought to undo his work by substituting what Paul described as “another gospel” for the true Gospel of the Kingdom (Galatians 1:6-9). Paul referred to these itinerate teachers as “the super-apostles.” This was an altogether fitting term to describe these men because they set themselves above the apostles, as having a more relevant word than they, and bringing a gospel that was not nearly as demanding as that of Paul and the other true apostles.
The super-apostles were everywhere. John encountered them in Ephesus. Peter exposed their work among the churches in the north of Asia Minor. Jude warned about them, as did James and the writer of Hebrews. Titus opposed them on Crete, and Timothy had to deal with them in Ephesus. Wherever the true Gospel took root and churches began to flourish, the super-apostles appeared, seeking to gather followers for their own version of the faith of Christ. Paul warned the elders at Ephesus that these men would appear, rising out of the ranks of the congregations of the Lord, seeking to create a following for themselves, and distorting the Gospel in order to achieve their objectives (Acts 20:29,30). He strongly admonished those church leaders to be on the lookout for the super-apostles and to guard themselves and the flock under their care against their destructive influence.
The super-apostles have been with the Church in every age; they are undoubtedly with us even today. What are the characteristics of these false teachers? How may we recognize their presence among us? From a wide range of Paul’s—and other apostles’—writings we may note five identifying attributes of the super-apostles.
THEY WENT BEYOND WHAT WAS WRITTEN.
First, their message went beyond what was written in the Word of God and what was contained in the teaching of the apostles (1 Corinthians 4:6; cf. 1 John 4:6). Paul and the other apostles pursued their callings and sought to establish the churches of the Lord on the foundation of the writings of prophets and apostles (cf. Ephesians 2:21,22; 2 Peter 2:15,16). Their own writings are salted throughout with references to the Old Testament, showing that they were always conscious of carrying on the tradition of revelation received from their fathers in the faith. They urged the congregations under their care to keep within the doctrinal parameters marked out by the faith once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15), and warned them “not to go beyond what is written.”
That didn’t stop the super-apostles, however. In the name of Christ, claiming to be faithful teachers of the Gospel, the super-apostles—through a combination of subtle logic, Scripture-twisting, and appeal to contemporary practice—told people that the real faith of Christ was something other than the plain message of repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and seeking the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit that Paul and the other apostles consistently proclaimed. Their teaching sounded like that of the apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:1,2), but it departed from and went beyond them by adding to the Gospel teachings not explicitly revealed in the Word or laid down by apostolic tradition. In going beyond what was written, and what the apostles taught, these men were super-apostles, indeed, but not true teachers of Christ.
THEY ACCOMMODATED THE GOSPEL TO THE TIMES.
A second characteristic of the super-apostles was their practice of accommodating the Gospel of Christ to the temper of the times. Did people have difficulty, because of their familiar spiritual views, believing that God could become incarnate in a Man? No problem: Jesus merely appeared to be a man. Did they ask: But what about all those cherished traditions and practices associated with our former beloved religion? Not to worry: you need to hold on to those in addition to believing in Jesus; then you’ll be a true follower of God, like us. Was it hard for them to grasp the concept of the resurrection of Jesus? No big deal: the resurrection’s not all that important, anyway. Was the law they had followed all those years a burden too hard to bear? Hey, don’t you worry a bit. We’ll just set that nasty old law aside.
All the while the super-apostles added to or detracted from the true Gospel, they continued using the language of the Gospel to create followers for their own camps. They were good. They were persuasive, eloquent, even funny. They told the people what they wanted to hear, tickling their ears in the name of the Lord, even as they led people away from Him into their own peculiar brand of heresy.
THEY MADE BELIEVING EASIER.
Believing the Gospel as the super-apostles taught it was always easier than what Paul required, because the super-apostles took a light view of repentance. There was room in their systems for all manner of contemporary belief and practice. They didn’t judge anyone—except, of course, Paul. They wanted everybody to feel right at home in the new faith of Jesus. So they encouraged people to hold on to old beliefs that were really important to establishing their individual identities.
The super-apostles looked really hip and chic because they were in touch with popular philosophical and cultural trends, and brought these right into every house church, doubtless in the name of “being relevant” (cf. Titus 1:10-16). They didn’t require their followers to turn away from sin, or the congregations where they served to deal with scandals in their midst. They stressed affirming the right teachings as the thing that mattered most; they were not urgent and obstinate about such things as pursuing holiness, doing good, and serving others, like you-know-who. The super-apostles played off and compared themselves with one another; they loved to provoke the tendency of all of us to choose sides and argue, and they were masters at engaging one another in dazzling theological word games about arcane matters. People loved listening to them, as opposed to the “harsh” words of a guy like Paul (2 Corinthians 10:10-12). It was sure easier to be a Christian like the super-apostles than one like Paul.
THEY MADE BELIEVING HARDER.
Fourth, though they made following Jesus easier for people, they actually made it harder to be a Christian. Since the teaching that people were supposed to affirm was not bound by the unchanging parameters of Scripture and apostolic tradition, but could be re-invented to suit the changing times; and since the glibness and popularity of the super-apostles waxed and waned with each new rising star, folks must have had a hard time knowing just what to believe in the name of Christ. By setting themselves and their changeable views as the standard of true faith—rather than that faith once for all delivered to the saints—the super-apostles actually sowed uncertainty, tentativeness, and doubt into their followers. This, in turn, bred lack of assurance, loss of hope, and listlessness in the work of ministry and mission, as well as schism and backbiting.
In so doing, the super-apostles actually increased their importance among their followers, who could hardly wait to hear what they should believe or whom they should listen to today.
THEY SERVED THEMSELVES, NOT THE CHURCHES.
Finally, what really mattered to the super-apostles was their own standing and status in the Church. They loved for people to be identified as their followers. They fixed rates and charges for their services, to make sure they could support themselves in the manner to which they had become accustomed. They were careful to acknowledge Paul’s good points, but then went on to show how their new, improved version of the Gospel was really what God was commending. After all, they said, look at how many folks are getting on board with us! Listen to these suave words! Look at these nice clothes, this handsome entourage! You can have a piece of this action, too; but, well, you’ll have to get beyond Paul and all that old quaintness and those disagreeable doctrines, so that you can join us in the dazzling light of newness, relevance, and theological chic!
Paul condemned the super-apostles as preaching another Gospel. He said they were false teachers, wolves ravaging the flock of God; they were detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good work (Titus 1:16). New they may have been, but they definitely were not improved. Instead, they were condemned, and any who followed the way of the super-apostles, departing from the faith once for all delivered to the saints—the faith encoded in Scripture and faithfully handed down in the tradition of the apostles—would be condemned with their super-apostle teachers as well.
The super-apostles were present in the Church from its earliest days. They have been there in every era of church history, and they are with us today. Their claims and practices have changed—to fit the needs and opportunities of the moment—but the pattern is still the same: tip the hat to the apostles, discover the itch of the people, then scratch for all their might by whatever means is necessary to establish their place as the latest and best of “Christian” teaching. Caveat auditor.
How would you be able to recognize a super-apostle’s ministry today? Are you vulnerable to being led astray by a super-apostle? How do you know?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet), and Culture Matters (Brazos). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
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