The Apollos Heresy in the Church Today
By James Fratzia 2001
For some time now I have pondered the message of Acts 18:24-19:1 and its relationship to 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 16:12. It seems to me that there is an important warning to the church in this section. Apollos was a native of Alexandria, presumably a Christian Jew, who presumably was found in Ephesus in Acts 18:24-26. He was “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately”. He was enthusiastic and courageous and “spoke boldly in the synagogue.”
Apollos was an educated man and an eloquent, passionate public speaker. Alexandria was the site of the Great Library, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Alexandria was a place of learning and scholarship. Presumably Apollos had an extensive Hellenic education, including the Greek speaking arts, such as rhetoric. Also of note is the tradition of the Greco-Roman philosopher which had been present of many generations in the Greek and Hellenistic periods. These philosophers who operated in the world of words and arguments were highly sought-after public speakers, attracting followers of their philosophy. This was an activity that generated an income. Also note that Alexandria was the place where over two hundred years earlier Alexander the Great gathered seventy Jewish scholars to translate the Old Testament into Greek. That is the LXX (Septuagint) which we have today. It is very likely that Apollos was schooled in those Scriptures too.
He was the sort of man that many modern churches seek and prize highly. In my experience such men are promoted as the model of maturity, particularly in evangelical churches where they are presented as the epitome of the ideal minister of the gospel – simply because they are able to speak persuasively. Apollos seems to me to represent a model that appeals to both the most ambitious on the one hand, and the most honest of men on the other. Yet the thing that strikes me is the emphatic pronouncement that “he only knew the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25).
This statement is a ‘red flag’ in Acts. It is indicative of those who have not received the Holy Spirit which is the key ingredient Jesus told Nicodemus for entering the kingdom of heaven (John 3:1-8). Simply put, Apollos is not ‘born again’ – he is unregenerate – he isn’t ‘saved’ Yet he accurately teaches Jesus! Therefore, a disturbing contrast is set up in the New Testament between a worldly human basis for assessing maturity based on education, training, natural ability and passionate speech, and a Kingdom view of maturity where genuine knowledge of Jesus is foundational. The Apollonian heresy, as I call it, is the practical inability to distinguish between the two as a consequence of an intellectual acknowledgement of Jesus and a Spiritless model of church.
Priscilla and Aquila are impressed by Apollo’s abilities but they needed to take him aside and explain “to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). Apollos’ understanding of Jesus, though accurate, was still short of the mark. The thing that is striking is that the next passage does not follow the common pattern of Acts. It should tell us that Apollos then received the Holy Spirit. But it doesn’t. This is the point of the following passage (Acts 19:1-20), where Paul finds twelve disciples in Ephesus who too had only received the baptism of John, and not received the Holy Spirit. This of course, does not preclude the possibility that eventually, Apollos did receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So perhaps what we see of Apollos in Scripture is a pre and a post conversion picture. But his pre conversion characteristics are unusual for the New Testament in that they appear superficially to be Christian and are accepted as such by some folk, especially in Corinth. But they are not unusual in Churches today.
Did Apollos preach the gospel? I’m sure he did. We are told that his exegetical ability was a great help to the brothers who by grace had “believed” in their struggles with the Jews (Acts 18:27). Later, Paul talks about Apollos “watering the seed” which Paul had planted as the founder of the Church (1 Corinthians 3:5-11).
Exactly where Apollos fell short is not explicit. However, it is implicit that it had to do with the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’. The significance of this is that, despite his exegetical ability, he did not ‘walk by the spirit’ (Galatians 5:25). The gospel Apollos taught at this time in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26) was accurate, but incomplete, presumably because it lacked the message of “power“ to the believer that comes by the Spirit in the new age. This is the power available to the believer to live the new life in Him. Peter understood this at Pentecost when he said “repent believe and be baptised, each and every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). This power in Christ by His Spirit seems to be the inherent characteristic of the life of authentic faith promised in the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4) that would be brought about by God’s Messiah (John 14:16-20). Paul pulls all this together in Romans 1:16-17 where he says of the gospel that “it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew & then the Greek, for in it righteousness is revealed that is by faith from first to last.” This is what Priscilla and Aquila explained to Apollos (Acts 18:24).
Did Apollos ‘believe’? I’m sure he did. Did he have a ‘saving faith’? I argue he didn’t! Look at what the subsequent passages tell us. “Some Jews went around driving evil spirits by invoking the name of Jesus over those who were demon possessed” (Acts 19:13). Where these Jews inaccurate? No, because it is Jesus who has power over the Devil. But like Apollos they fell short somehow. What did they get wrong? It is not easy to see at first but we are told that they said “In the name of Jesus, the one whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (Acts 19:13). The point of this passage is not a mechanistic formula for casting out demons. It is something far deeper that has to do with Apollos too.
The issue is the personal knowing of Jesus because it is His indwelling within the believer that allows the casting out of demons. It was not the conceptual Jesus that Paul preached that was important here. It was that Paul’s Jesus was known by Paul through the mutual indwelling/abiding which Jesus himself described (John 15:7), which was the source of power to eliminate the demons. Did these Jewish exorcists believe? I suspect that after 2 years and 3 months of preaching by Paul they did believe. But their belief was like the apostolic belief before Pentecost. It was inadequate. Jesus told the apostles “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait until the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised in water but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). These Jews who invoked the name of “Jesus who Paul preached” to cast out demons had a powerless belief, that only allowed activity in the name of God in man’s strength and intellect. The end result was a terrible beating by the demons (Acts 19:16).
Does the Bible talk about different types of belief? Yes it does. James talks about two different types of belief in James 2:14-25. What makes the difference between a ‘saving’ faith and a belief that is unregenerate? We are told that “as the body without the Spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). In James 2:14-25 we are told that the non-saving ‘intellectual” or ‘confessional’ belief has more in common with the ‘accurate’ belief of demons than with authentic saving faith. The Jewish exorcists are correctly identified as unrelated to Jesus and Paul by the demons! In the subsequent passage in Acts 19:17-20, we again see the difference between these two different types of belief. After these Jewish exorcists received their beating, “fear gripped the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus”. They couldn’t manipulate the power of God. It was not subject to man’s control through formulaic incantations. The belief was inadequate partly because their repentance was not authentic. We’re told that “many of those who had believed now came openly and confessed their evil deeds.” What was the consequence of this demonstration between inadequate belief and the power of true repentance driven by authentic Spirit-mediated faith? The “name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” and “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:17,20).
Perhaps I’ve been a little hard on Apollos? Yet I can’t help linking the factionalism in the Corinthian church berated by Paul to this passage in Acts and the odd way it deals with Apollos. In 1 Corinthians 1:12 Apollos appears to have a clique factioned around him. In Ephesians 4:3-5 we are told that Christian unity is in the Holy Spirit and that this is inseparable from being united in the Lord and authentic faith. When the Holy Spirit is not present within leaders and believers in a fellowship, it seems only logical that there would be factionalism, competition, quarrels, empire-building; everything is done in the name of Jesus, but without power, love or with His glory at heart. There is the form and the language but not the substance. The teaching is about the conceptual Jesus that Paul preaches, but not about the Jesus who is known personally by the teacher and the listener, as Paul knew him and was personally empowered by him. Paul quite clearly refers to this in 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 where he says “I came to you not with eloquence or superior wisdom (Apollos-like) as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God….My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words (Apollos-like again), but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” The lack of the Spirit’s power in leaders, teachers and ‘believers’ leads to division, exploitation, the abuse of people and the misuse of the name of God. It is blasphemy. Paul is arguing the difference between abstraction and authenticity. In my view this is a fundamental issue with many modern Bible-teaching churches today.
The church in Ephesus decades later is dealt with by Jesus in Revelation 2:1-7. It is a doctrinally fantastic church, exalting the name of Jesus and even suffering persecution for His name. Presumably, this is the church from the Acts passage in which both Paul and Apollos taught. Yet all they do is not about Jesus. They exalt in his name but their activity is not really about Jesus. Jesus calls them to repent. Their faith is not authentic. Jesus says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev 2:4-5). Essentially, Jesus threatens to take away His saving grace from them. Why do they meet? Well it’s not because of Jesus. Jesus is their marketing tool, their self-justification. Perhaps even, the teachers are creating followers for themselves and their factions, rather than authentic followers of Jesus. I’ve seen many churches like this one described by Jesus. They share the Apollonian heresy.
Let me say one more thing about Apollos. Paul refers to him in 1 Corinthian 16:12. Paul accepts Apollos as a brother. We are told Apollos is reluctant to go to Ephesus. I think it is because he doesn’t want to encourage the faction there who follow him and use his name to divide the church. Another possibility is that Paul has preceded him there (Acts 18:19 , Acts 19:1) to ‘reason‘ with the Jews. One of the things he taught the elders in the Church is not to take money for ministry (Acts 20:34) – basically to earn their own keep. In fact, he argued that those who come after him will be wolves (Acts 29:30), and presumably payment for ministry and the creation of a following is the key pattern of their falsehood. This follows his extraordinary statement regarding the pattern of ministry to the gentiles in (1 Corinthians 9:18). Essentially, gentiles are not Jews, and ministry to them is all of grace demonstrated in a pattern of ministry without pay. Paul’s view is that teachers are gifts of grace to believers, not that the believers are gifts to financially support the teachers (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). Again, the worlds view inverted, a characteristic of the ‘unworldly’ value-system of the kingdom of God taught by Jesus (Matthew 6).
Nevertheless, it is still hard to interpret Paul’s tone and language here in Acts 18 and elsewhere regarding Apollos. Perhaps Apollos is just a genuinely noble man who has only received the baptism of John and now teaches more adequately about Jesus even if it is simply doctrinal, polemic and intellectual. Perhaps, by Paul’s tone, at some stage after Priscilla & Aquilia spoke to him, he did receive the Holy Spirit. It seems likely to me. This possibly happened after he left the church in Corinth which is why the factionalism occurred and why Apollos finds it so difficult to go back. Perhaps, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, God has led him elsewhere. Or perhaps he didn’t go to Ephesus after him because Paul had made the attraction of a following and payment for his speaking less likely.
In my view, the reason God gives us this passage in Acts is to see the danger of the non-recognition of unregenerate Apollos-like teachers and leaders, and their effect on the witness of the church. This 1st century warning applies to us in the 21st century. When such people are given authority and power in the church the gospel loses its power and its love. That is not to say God doesn’t use the abilities of these people to encourage and rebuke, or the enthusiasm they engender in others to act in the world. But God will use even evil to bring about His own good purposes. In my view, the existence of Apollos-like teachers is a heresy because it leads to disruption in fellowship and impairs effectiveness. It undermines the personal and corporate joy and peace inherent in the new life in Christ. It distorts fellowship and ministry, and though the Holy Spirit is acknowledged in doctrine, He has no role in the life of the church. Though Jesus is doctrinally the Lord, he has no leadership. The motives of such people are always worldly, regardless of their training, passion and belief. Their effect is not unity of the spirit. If there is unity it is through conformity to their faction’s will. Their impact is often to create ‘empires’, and it is only by God’s grace that He sometimes uses the stunted gospel they preach to grow His kingdom through their efforts. James assertion is chilling; ”… the body without the spirit is dead…..” (James2:26). Such churches are actually spiritually dead and so are their teachers/leaders.
Disunity is a scandal. Yet disunity is understandable if unity is not in the Spirit. In my experience, the “Apollonian heresy” is so complete in some churches that James 2:26 was habitually excluded from the exegesis of James 2:14-25! The Apollonian heresy has always been rife in the church, because it appears so authentic to the bulk of unregenerate church goers who see things through a wordly/human perspective, or, because regenerate churchgoers are institutionally powerless. Yet the powerless (and usually loveless) Christianity it leads to is offensive to Jesus. God shows us in the Bible that being ‘an Apollos’ is not the touchstone of authenticity and maturity as a Christian. He shows us that the ‘Apollonian heresy’ is an impediment to the exultation of Jesus, the honouring of his name, and the wide spread of the word of the Lord in transformational power. That is why this heresy troubles me greatly. And I think that is why it is explained to us in the Bible.
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