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Apostolic Pioneering

Summary: In recent years, the extent and centrality of an apostolic function has been much debated within The Navigators. This has been a debate about biblical concepts, not merely vocabulary. In order to embrace various viewpoints, I have chosen “Apostolic Pioneering” as the title for this article even though some would argue that this mixes two different concepts


Theological Discussion of the Term Apostolos
Increasing Secularization and Apostleship
The Critical Need for Apostolic Pioneers, 1990s
Defining “Apostolic Function”
The Four Quadrants
The Navigator Pioneering Spirit

Theological Discussion of the Term Apostolos

It may be helpful to begin with some extracts about the use of apostolos from a standard explanatory volume. Thus:

The Greek word apostolos (‘someone who has been sent’) is seldom used in classical Greek, but it occurs eighty times in the New Testament, where it means ‘delegate’ of Jesus Christ and ‘messenger’ of the Gospel. Paul lists apostles first among the members of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:29, cf. Ephesians 4:11).

The corresponding word in Hebrew (saliah) was especially used to denote someone given full authority, for a specific purpose and for a limited time, to represent the person or persons from whom the delegate comes; the rabbis said that ‘a man’s saliah is as himself.’ The legal status of such a delegate has its roots in Semitic customs pertaining to a messenger (see 1 Samuel 25:40; 2 Samuel 10:1-5). The mission of Paul to Damascus (Acts 9:1-2) and the delegation of Barnabas and Paul by the church of Antioch (Acts 11:30; see 14:4, 14) are to be understood in terms of a rabbinic saliah. The same holds true for the sending of the disciples by Jesus, who included the ‘apostles’ (Mark 3:14).

Although Jesus is called ‘apostle’ only once in the NT (Hebrews 3:1) in his Son of Man sayings he presents himself as the agent of God for salvation (Mark 2:17; 10:45).

. . . the status of a post-Easter apostle of Christ transcends that of a Jewish saliah. In his letters, Paul often defends and defines his apostolic authority. . . . Besides the limited group of apostles (the twelve) in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 15:5, 7; Galatians 1:17, 19) Paul knew another circle of apostolic preachers (1 Corinthians 9:5; 12:28; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Romans16:7). Therefore, one may distinguish between two types of New Testament apostles in Paul’s view: those called through an appearance of the risen Lord; and charismatic preachers, who were delegated by a church such as that at Antioch . . . including both men and women (Romans 16:7). But both types were united in a figure such as Paul. On the other hand, Luke reserves the designation ‘apostle’ for the twelve disciples of Jesus who became the leaders of the Jerusalem church. For him, the apostle has to be a companion of Jesus and a witness to the resurrection (Acts 1: 21-22). This seems to be the view of Mark (6:30; see 6:7) as well as that of Matthew (10:2).1

As early as our Overseas Policy Conference (OPC) in 1961, the five functions of Ephesians 4:11 were referenced, in a discussion of how we should relate to local churches. Roy Robertson pointed to these functions and went on to comment, “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers . . . it seems the pastor is the head of the local church, but there is the work of the other four that seems to be above the local church level . . .”2

In the research papers leading to the Fundamentals of Navigator Ministry (FOM), we find a study on apostleship by Jim Petersen. From the New Testament, he showed that apostles were sent out as communicators of the Gospel with authority. Apostleship was not exclusive to the Twelve, though they were unique. Dr. George Peters had recently suggested that the Navs were apostle-makers.3

Petersen observed:

Apostles are dependent upon believers for the fulfillment of their function (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Corinthians 10:16). There is an interdependence between the apostle and the believer. Neither one can fulfill his responsibility or ministry without the other.

Whatever our position on apostleship may be, this observation gets to what appears to me to be the crux of our current need. We have to understand how to relate the ‘rare bird,’ the ‘wild-eyed individual,’ the ‘faithful, able man,’ or whatever term we apply to that individual whom we agree is at the heart of our ministry to his other-gifted brothers. Each needs the other to function.4

Increasing Secularization and Apostleship

Much later, the US Eastern division formed a steering committee to probe the process of cultural changes. Their first report5 brought into focus many insights and challenges, often aspects of increasing secularization. Seven sections addressed implications for The Navigators, observing that:

Our movement has dramatically evolved from a conservative, rural-oriented society to a multi-ethnic, global society that is seeking to minister to an increasingly urbanized and secularized world. If we are to stay in touch with our times, we must recognize three essential effects of secularization:

There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality with regard to Christianity’s practical influence on areas such as moral values, social customs, and economic habits.

Secularization and the loss of a national religious consensus has significantly undermined the biblical presuppositions absolutely essential for effective evangelism. In a society that has lost a common belief in moral absolutes, relativism reigns. Thus, the Bible is viewed as just another book and Jesus as simply another moral teacher.

American Christians are, for the most part, not fighting effectively against the impact of secularization. They have failed to see just how much they have accommodated themselves to the values espoused by the world around them. Sadly, as Chuck Colson has noted, much of US Christianity today is ‘entertainment for the faithful.’. . . Instead of penetrating the mainstreams of thought and life in secular culture, Christians are themselves riddled with the effects of secularization.

A second report soon followed. This work helped sensitize many of our staff to their environment and played a large role in encouraging pioneers and apostles to break free of some of the emerging constraints.

Within the US Navigators, an early expression of the apostolic spirit was the Bristol Group,6 which became for several years an unofficial community of friends who were experimenting with innovative approaches to what were then called “the far lost.” Their informal leaders were Chuck Blakeman7 and Gary Bradley. The group lived within the organization of the US Navigators, without disruption. By 1992, they could be characterized as:

  • Connecting across many boundaries
  • Almost invisible to outsiders
  • A committed community
  • Fervently supporting one another
  • Some laypersons, some staff
  • Some employed in non-Navigator work, some on gift income8

They were “missionaries,” working separately from the arena in which most donor churches would understand and support them. Another emphasis displayed by the group and others was restoring the importance of cultivating relationships with those who were not yet believers, a path that often required increasing perseverance in relating to friends who were far from Christ.9

The Critical Need for Apostolic Pioneers, 1990s

In February 1992, our International Executive Team (IET) explored how to help and free up more pioneers. The advance of the kingdom through The Navigators “depended upon increasing the numbers and space and energy released through our pioneers.”

Our Microconsult ‘92 gathering occurred in Oxford, England, the following month, orchestrated by Wolfgang Hasselkus. Six restless development practitioners from the fringes of the organizational Navigators (and two bridging leaders), met with consultation leader Donald McGilchrist to express their concerns and probe whether there would be a continuing place for them. As pioneers, they had experienced a lack of help and a tendency to feel controlled by conservative mid-level leaders. In response, McGilchrist drew attention to the increasing liberty of form and cultural freedom unleashed by the Global Society and the Scriptural Roots of our Ministry.10

Meanwhile, the research papers that helped us prepare for and design the Scriptural Roots of our Ministry had multiplied. Among eighty-eight such papers from many contributors were several that investigated the “apostolic function.”

This was a vexed area. How were apostles understood in the New Testament? What functions did they perform? On either biblical or pragmatic grounds, may we refer to “apostles” or “apostolic” within our movement? Should we? If so, how does it help or hinder the progress of the Gospel?

Jake Barnett, a businessman from Minneapolis, presented a research paper11 on “The Apostolic Function” which looked at the New Testament evidence. He concluded that there is:

A critical need for the function of apostleship in the world today. It is impossible for the local church to set aside cultural forms and to communicate a pure gospel cross-culturally. It is culture that makes apostleship a necessity. . . . Paul’s example indicates the function of apostleship involves the ability to carry the pure gospel across cultural barriers.

Furthermore, he pointed to “the conviction of many of our brothers that they personally and perhaps we as an organization are called to this ministry.” Our commitment would involve:

  • Mobility
  • Cultural adaptability
  • Discernment of essentials vs. tradition
  • Discernment of function vs. form
  • Confidence in the Spirit working through the Word to produce new manifestations
  • Absolute reliance on the Word
  • Excellence of scholarship in the Word
  • Intimate relationship with Christ through the Word
  • Dependency upon the Holy Spirit
  • Respect for the integrity of cultures
  • Ability to live with diversity
  • Willingness to pay the price of rejection
  • Ability to accept movement, and relinquish control

As Jake saw it, “rejection” would come from “brothers who insist on conformity.”

In a reprise of his perspective, Jake offered another paper as task force 2 considered our sphere of ministry. He lists “apostleship and supporting gifts within the apostolic function” as his first characteristic essential to our emerging sphere, and ends his paper with these words:

If one were to list the factors in Christian history and in the present Christian world that have been hindrances to the Gospel, the neglect of the apostolic function would be prominent among them. Not only has this function of the body been neglected, [but] it has been preempted by an inadequate ecclesiology expressed in either of two directions. On the one hand has been the institutionalization of the concept of the Church. On the other has been the insistence that the “local church” is the sole franchised agent of the Gospel. Both have served to abrogate the priesthood of the believer, to limit the effective utilization of the gifts, and have produced the contemporary inward focus of the body upon itself. The prevalence of these erroneous ecclesiologies is evidenced by their designation of anything outside of their own definitions as “parachurch.” Neither the institution nor the localized body is equipped to carry out the apostolic function.12

Papers by Dick Fischer and Jeff Jernigan followed, in this SRM research section, neither of which mentions an apostolic function. Then came Stacy Rinehart’s paper which begins: “Historically, we have been an apostolic function in my analysis . . . . In the future, our functions need to be both apostolic and organic. By definition, we need to be organic when we are local.” Stacy does not further address the apostolic function, but he places a focus on “continuing to be on the cutting edge of ministry among the lost and among the saved.” In this setting, he lists seven primary values.

Next comes a stimulating paper by Paul Williams, who concludes from a review of our history that: “We have been operating on some half-truths. We have identified concepts in the Bible, plundered them and brought them into the service of the corporate organization model . . . with new insight, we are seeing more clearly the incompatibility of our organizational posture with the organic body metaphor of Scripture.” He then writes:

From our past and from the men and women God has brought into our society, we have a bias toward making an apostolic contribution in both the Body and the cosmic plan. However, that contribution will only be valid and make any sense as it serves the mobility and impact of the Gospel and builds local expressions of the community of the king. In other words, our organizing principle as Navigators must be bigger than the apostolic function. It must embrace the whole panorama of God’s activity. Then, each individual will be free to seek his identity and to make his contribution without unnatural constraints.

Since we do have this apostolic bias . . . we must guard against our bias producing a license for cavalier individualism.

. . . we are then a brotherhood of kingdom citizens, committed to the incarnation and mobility of the Gospel, functioning either locally or apostolically as is personally appropriate.

Defining “Apostolic Function”

The consensus of SRM task force 2 in January 1989 was that The Navigators were, “a society in God’s kingdom committed to the apostolic function with a focus on the lost among the nations.”

The SRM process began to be introduced in many countries from 1990 onward. During the later SRM task force in 1992, which was convened to take stock of progress, Mike Treneer expressed some concerns briefly to Jerry White. Mike later responded to Jerry’s suggestion that he put in writing his concerns.13 These were:

  1. We are using a biblical term (apostle) without agreement among us on its meaning and primary biblical use.
  2. We begin more and more to base our understanding of who we are and what we are called to do as Navigators on a debatable interpretation of the meaning of “apostolic,” rather than continuing to focus on that which is clear and central in scripture, in our calling, and in our vision.
  3. The term “apostolic” has strong connotations in the wider Body of Christ and the world at large, which make us likely to be misunderstood.
  4. The continuing feeling by many, especially in certain parts of the world, that there is an agenda behind the SRM associated with the use of “apostolic” as a buzz word.

Unwrapping his concerns as to the use of “apostolic” within Nav circles, Mike attached twelve pages of notes on “The Meaning and Biblical Use of the Term Apostolos” supported by five pages of response to Barnett’s paper on apostolic function.

Jerry gave the above material to the IET.

This debate surfaced again in 1998 as preparatory work was being done for what became The Fundamentals of Navigator Missions (FONM).

When the International Team met in April 1998, on their agenda was the proposed text of the FONM. The materials before the team traced the evolution of what became the FONM from 1993 onward.14 The team was told that the IET found the following expression of our Calling to be helpful:

We are an apostolic partnership called to bring the Gospel to the nations for the glory of God. We do this by winning the lost and helping them build their lives in Christ through obedience to the Scripture—to successive generations.

Examining the published text of the six FONM studies, we find that section 3 on the mobile function examines Paul’s apostolic team, commenting that “although Paul and his team cannot be normative for us, his work is highly instructive. The need today is not much different from that of Paul’s day.” Section 4 was on the local mission of the church. The introduction states that “the scope of an apostolic ministry is really very limited, dependent upon what follows its effectiveness . . . The nucleus of people that emerged out of the apostolic effort had the advantage of being insiders. . . . Communicating Christ in one’s own context requires a distinctively different approach from that of an apostle.”

It is surprising, as Dick Fischer has pointed out,15 that the prayer of Jesus in John 17 has rarely been drawn upon by us, for insight into the apostolic function. Yet, Jesus identifies three aspects of His own apostolic ministry (cf. Hebrews 3:1) and of what he envisioned for those who would follow him:

Sent: verses 3, 8, 25, and (for us) 18.
Entrusted with a task: verses 2, 4, 6, and (for us) 23.
Authorized: verses 2, 18, and (for us) 19 and 26.

In “Our Commitments,” which were adopted in March 1998,16 we find that the third out of four commitments, “Called by Christ to the Nations,” requires six emphases of which the first is said to be “apostolic pioneering.” Similarly, the “Six Critical Factors to a Multiplying Ministry” presented to the team in April 1998 affirm that communicating the Gospel (factor 2) requires “apostolic teams and local expansion: two distinct spheres.”17

Before the meeting of the team in April 1998, Mike Treneer wrote again about his concerns on the apostolic/local sections of the FONM. Jim Petersen responded:

You and I really do hold two different points of view on this subject, and your suggestion that we use pioneering as an alternative word for apostolic doesn’t work for me. Pioneering covers only a part of the kinds of work I see the sent ones doing in the New Testament. And it misses the ongoing, non-pioneering contributions by the apostolic people among the established churches.

I read you as saying that apostleship ended with the first century. That raises problems with various biblical passages for me. What’s more, I don’t think we can do good missions today without the concept of apostleship. We have tried—and look where we’ve gotten!

We Navigators have managed to hold together in unity despite the broad array of our theological positions. That is because we have chosen to agree on only a few truths, such as the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. We have chosen to not hold a common theology on the rest.

Now, I find myself forcing my brother Mike to defend his position on something we should leave open. I find myself wondering if a theology of missions is even a good idea. I’m more inclined to defend your freedom to believe what you do about apostleship than I am to believe what I believe about it!18

On the next day, McGilchrist wrote separately to Treneer, expressing his perspective. Thus:

There are individuals called apostle in the New Testament. There are also individuals who worked cross-culturally in the New Testament. Our mistake has been to regard them as synonymous, yet our theology should be about missions, not apostleship. We have compounded this by talking about an “apostolic function” as if one could plainly see such a function in the New Testament. However, the reality is that missionaries did lots of things. The priority was the Gospel. . . . Of course, we need an extended treatment of Paul’s methodology. Not because Paul is called an apostle, but because what he did and said is vastly important and instructive as we learn to push into the nations.

The Four Quadrants

In May 1999, Mike Treneer proposed four ways of understanding ministry realities that became known as “The Four Quadrants.” From the traditional perspectives of Christendom, these segments could be called:

Q1: Major Senders
Q2: Traditional Partners
Q3: Missions Frontiers
Q4: Internal Frontiers

This arrangement reduced unhealthy polarizations and helped us discern how each segment or quadrant was perceived and valued by the other segments. It certainly stimulated mutual respect and trust. It recognized that ministries from more than one quadrant often existed within a single country.

Mike led the discussion again when the International Team met a year later, by posing five opening questions. Within each quadrant:

  • What is our aim and purpose, our identity, our organizational model?
  • How are we positioned with respect to the wider body of Christ?
  • How is our ministry financed?
  • What is helpful or needed from other parts of The Navigators?
  • How do you view other quadrants, in terms of problems or blessings for you?

To stimulate debate, Mike offered a provocative case study of a notional but complex country called Antipodia. Select comments from the team:

  • Beware of importing Navigator fads and trends that are not needed.
  • The organized structures of Q1 and Q2 enable us to function invisibly in Q4.
  • The more we move outside Christendom, the more we must add value to society.
  • We must predict more accurately who will function well as apostolic leaders.
  • In Q4, one does not have much margin; it has to be right the first time.
  • In struggling to free oneself from traditionalism, our people can easily irritate one another.

Alan Andrews observed that, if one appoints an apostolic leader to the overall responsibility in a country, one is asking for trouble. A good leader should be able to bias a work toward the apostolic, but to sustain the overall umbrella of acceptance and progress within each stream. A wise overall leader makes space for the apostolic. Examples: Jim Petersen under Jerry White, Mike Shamy under Alan Andrews. Alan added that the overall leader must be a bridge builder. He must not insist on or elevate his personal bias to the rejection of other segments.

Mike Treneer spoke on the need for supporting ligaments, out of Ephesians 4:16. Not everything has to be directly connected to everything. It is not functional, for example, if a hand and a foot are joined together: they would need surgery to separate and best function in their own spheres.

Mike summarized that, so far, we have worked mainly on the interface of Q1 and Q4. We have to find ways to articulate our calling, so that it is compelling in every Quadrant. Alan observed that our Primary Aim had taken us to the nations, but that it had not served us within the nations.

The Navigator Pioneering Spirit

Although neither “apostle” nor “apostolic function” is mentioned in The Core, notice that toward the end of Alan Andrews’s term as US director, in 2008, steps were taken to bring into focus such an apostolic network. An exploratory meeting took place in September 2005 during which a call to action was affirmed:19 “We will pioneer new pathways and plan the Gospel among new people and in new places.” This was to be expressed through four core functions:

  1. To birth and plant new Gospel expressions
  2. To catalyze and resource stakeholders who are aligned with our Navigator Calling
  3. To launch an apostolic network that serves and resources apostolic staff across the Navigator missions and ministries
  4. To bring influence and experience to the rest of the Body within the context of our Calling

In fact, two interrelated apostolic networks were intended—one focused primarily on natural20 stakeholders (functions 1 and 2) and the other focused on staff stakeholders (function 3). In January 2006, a leadership resource team21 was assembled for the natural stakeholder network. This team was committed to empowering people to be sent with a new Gospel narrative to new places in our US culture. Their task would be to validate, connect, and provide resources for those natural stakeholders who identify with an apostolic calling.

Two initiatives took place during 2006:

  • In June 2006, a “Beauty Forum” (Via Affirmativa) for eighty people in the arts intended to develop an environment for creative and thoughtful exploration of the relationships between beauty, goodness, truth, and the purity and mobility of the Gospel.
  • In September 2006, a gathering of about twenty-five apostolically gifted people to stimulate one another in various aspects of such a ministry. This has continued annually and is now known as APNET. About forty-to-fifty people attend, organized by Gary Bradley.

Concurrently, Don Bartel conducted a survey of twenty-to-thirty staff with apostolic tendencies to assess their needs, with a view to establishing coaching or mentoring relationships.

Recently, some Navigators have placed a specific focus on the five gifts or ministries that Paul lists in Ephesians 4:11. Namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, popularly summarized as APEST. It is argued in the literature (Hirsch) that this is “the DNA of all God’s people, making it a universal feature of all communities in Christ . . . the organizing principle, around which the other gifts listed in Scripture are organized.” This understanding, of course, elevates the significance of apostolic ministry.22

An example of how the phrase “apostolic function” is variously used among evangelicals can be found in the inaugural address23 by Dr. Alan Johnson for the Chair of World Missions at the Assemblies of God in October 2006. It was entitled “Apostolic Function and Mission.” He argues for recovering the vision of going where the Gospel is not yet present, which had become obscured by the rise of national church movements from the 1960s onward. He concludes that, “in order to be true to Scripture, the original vision of our founders, the early generations of our missionaries and the missiological reality of large numbers of ethnolinguistic groups where the Church does not exist, we must stir up among ourselves the sense of apostolic function.”

See also articles on:
Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry
The Scriptural Roots of our Ministry
Bristol Group
Cross-cultural Missions
Church Planting
Six Critical Factors
The Approach to The Core

By Donald McGilchrist
4244 words


  1. Apostle. Extracts from article by Otto Betz in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.
  2. OPC 61, session 4.
  3. Dr. Peters was a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who attended our April 1974 corporate planning conference.
  4. June 1975 paper, three pages, in H2010 FOM file.
  5. “Evangelism, Secularization and The Navigators,” the steering committee on secularization in the US, January 1987.
  6. Named simply for the town in which they first met: Bristol, Connecticut. See separate article on this group which, flourishing around 1989 to 1991, may be seen as a precursor of the later APNET (Apostolic Network).
  7. It was proposed that Chuck and Diane Blakeman be commissioned as missionaries, because they crossed cultures within the US, during the 1990 urban consultation in Chicago.
  8. After about 2006, this distinction was expressed as Conventional Income People (CIPs) and Gift Income People (GIPs).
  9. This is well developed in Gary Bradley’s August 1987 paper on “The Tension of Time in Relational Evangelism.”
  10. McGilchrist, session with frontiers group at Microconsult ‘92.
  11. See p. 42-49 of additional biblical research for SRM task force 2.
  12. This paper is pages 3-5 of code B, “Navigator Sphere, Functions & Values.” Between TF1 and TF2, another twenty papers were provided.
  13. Memo: Treneer to White, June 23, 1993.
  14. Originating as our Philosophy of Missions, the project was renamed FONM in April 1996.
  15. Fischer to McGilchrist, December 9, 2016.
  16. These four commitments were a concentrated distillation of the mass of conclusions (often very similar) authored by our countries as they ended their SRM process.
  17. For more on this, see the material in section 6 of the agenda for the April 1998 International Team. In May 1997, the International Council had discussed the FONM draft for two days, leading to a vigorous debate. In fact, an optional evening session in the Glen Eyrie Castle room 303 was given to an energetic discussion on whether or not “apostolic” conveyed what we wanted to be.
  18. Petersen to Treneer, with copies to Grindheim and McGilchrist, February 10, 1998.
  19. Source: NLT update on the Apostolic Network of July 10, 2006 by Bradley and Bartel.
  20. During this period, “natural” was used in the US Navs in the sense of laypersons, as contrasted with our staff.
  21. Consisting of Gary Bradley, Don Bartel, Leslie Martin, Neval Erturk, Chuck Blakeman, Skip Asjes, Chuck Tompkins, Jim Petersen, John R.
  22. In Navigator circles, this draws especially from the teachings of Alan Hirsch such as in The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) and The Permanent Revolution (2012). The latter text, especially, lays out this perspective in detail. Hirsch himself uses APEPT, preferring Pastor to Shepherd: both are acceptable translations of the NT Greek poimen.
  23. Reprinted in Volume 25.4 of Transformation published by the OCMS in October 2008, p. 249.
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