Update: a colleague sent the following list of times in Scripture when "apostles" didn't mean the Twelve, helpful:
- A great prototype for our kind of apostle, Barnabas: “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul…” (Acts 14:14)
- Most debated, Junia (a clearly female name), who was “outstanding among the apostles.” (Romans 16:7)
- Andronicus – same description, in Romans 16:7
- James: “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother.” (Galatians 1:19 ESV) “From the form of this phrase it would appear that James, the Lord's brother, was considered to be an Apostle.”
- Others in Paul’s team: “We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority” (1 Thessalonians 2:6). (None of the 12 were with Paul in Thessalonica.)
What is an "apostle"? This is really the question we need to ask, since it will drive our understanding of the word "missionary."
Let's ask again: is a missionary an apostle? With a non-Biblical word, we can make "missionary" mean whatever we want it to--and we have. By "missionary" some mean "I go to a distant place and proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, baptize"--and this is permitted because we're commanded in Matthew 28 to do precisely that. This is the sense those who argue "everyone is a missionary" use the word in. If someone goes to be a worship leader, a pastor, an English teacher, a business-starter in a distant place, and through that attempts to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples--this is "going on mission." That's a worthy thing. It is obedience to Matthew 28. On the other hand, if we say "missionary" is one "called by God and sent for the specific task of proclaiming the Gospel and planting the church"--now we are verging on equating missionary with apostle, in my book. "Can I be a missionary?" in this sense? I'd tread a little more lightly. I don't know all of what the apostolic role means, but one thing seems clear: one does not simply choose it. To be an apostle is not just to go, but to be sent; and not just to be sent, but to be chosen; and not just to be chosen by men, but chosen by God. This is ground that we ought to enter with some fear and trembling. To be an apostle seems to be taking spiritual responsibility for others (Philemon 1:19). It seems to be taking responsibility for places no one has gotten to (Romans 15). It seems to be taking responsibility for all within an area, not just a handful (Acts 19). It is maintaining relationships and continuing to mentor over long periods of time (1 Timothy 1:2). In passing, let me dispense with the idea of an apostle as a kind of "rank." While 1 Corinthians makes some kind of ordered list (with apostles placed first), in other places the list is given without any sort of ranking, and still in other places Paul made clear that all parts of the body are needed and equal before the Lord. Jesus himself said those who would be first in the Kingdom must be the servant of all. One more time - can I be a missionary? (or, can I be an apostle?) - I think the answer for anyone is "yes" -- anyone can be (don't prejudge whether someone is or not), but not everyone is (depending on how it is defined). And you can't decide to take on the apostolic role on your own; you can't "send yourself." You need to first place yourself in a position before the Lord of saying "Here am I, send me." Then, I think you need a clear sense of being sent--one that is confirmed by others (even if it isn't always widely confirmed!). I know this flies in the face of what some have said ("we are all sent") and particularly what Eddie Arthur has argued (whom I very much respect, and generally agree with--and I think he'd agree with me in this post). I think in this I've balanced the two ideas and delineated between the two. Am I called? I can't answer that for you--but let me suggest perhaps the strongest initial signal of God's calling is the willingness to "go on mission" even if you are not "sent." In my experience very few are willing to "go" - so few that I suspect a strong correlation between "I want to go" and "God has sent me." If you're asking the question, "Can I be a missionary," it's a pretty good indicator to me the answer will be "Yes." See also "Are we all missionaries?" Rollin Grams. ("No.") "Are all Christians called to be missionaries?" Eddie Arthur. ("Yes.") "What do words mean?" Eddie Arthur (also on the complexities of how we define "missionary") I'm not a theologian by degree; I'm just a lay activist for missions. I welcome comments, thoughts and critiques.