In the tradition I was raised in we often would sing a call-repeat style chorus in which the song leader would sing the phrase “what kind of Church is this?” and the congregation would sing the answer with exuberance “this is an Apostolic Church!” Of course, I was raised in a Restorationist[1] movement that considered themselves to be the restoration of the Apostolic Church. I eventually came to see that this was simply not the case, yet for most of my life I spent a good deal of time thinking about just what sort of church I belonged to and trying to justify that it was truly the Apostolic Church. This desire to be truly Apostolic, in fact, became one of the driving forces that guided my life and, with some irony, led me to come home to the Holy Orthodox Church.

When we consider the identity of the Church, we would certainly hope that the tradition we now worship in is truly Apostolic. After all, one of the very first things that Christ does is to choose twelve men, which He called Apostles. We read in the scripture that the Church is to be built on the “foundation of the Apostles and prophets.”[2] In John 17 we read that those who believe on Christ are to do so through the teaching of the Apostles. In Acts, after the Holy Spirit visited those gathered with thunderous power, we read that those who received the word “continued steadfastly in the Apostle’s teaching.”[3] If we were to begin our search for the Church, the one that Christ promised the He Himself would build upon the rock, we certainly should begin with the Apostles.

This is a point that should not be passed over lightly. For, Christ Himself designates the Apostles as the very foundation of His Church. They are given power to teach the world the Gospel of Christ, and they are promised that whatever they “bind on earth, will be bound in heaven.”[4] This charge is taken very seriously by the first Christian congregations. Paul, in fact, declares that if anyone preaches anything in contradiction to that proclaimed by the Apostles that this person should be considered anathema; an accursed thing. [5] In order to stress the point, Paul writes that “even if an angel from heaven” preaches anything other than what the Apostles delivered to them that they should consider it accursed. This is powerful statement when we reflect upon it. What we should take away from this is that the defining aspect of the Lord’s Church is that it is the Church built on the Apostolic foundation.

This, in fact, is one of the major points of contention with regards to just who or what has the authority to define Christian faith and practice. From the days of the Reformation to the present, Western Christianity has been divided over just where to appeal to in matters of faith and practice. The story is old and familiar. The Protestant position being that one need only to appeal to the scripture. The Roman Catholic Church proclaiming that the Bishop of Rome has the ultimate power to make such determinations. Each side of this debate is wrought with difficulty, and the bickering and fighting among those who are struggling to define Christianity has been so frustrating that many have abandoned any attempt to define it at all. The question remains however: Just what carries Apostolic authority? I would suggest here that we return to the Apostles themselves. We can certainly agree that they had inherent authority given to them by Christ. The question then that we should ask is just how did the Apostles designate the succession of their authority to guide the Church? The tradition that I was brought up in would respond quickly “their authority is found in their teaching that we find in the scripture.” To a degree this is correct, but not utterly correct. First of all, the record of Apostolic teaching in the New Testament is limited. We have the Gospels, which relate the life and ministry of the Lord. We have the epistles, which are for the most part letters from Paul and other Apostles correcting and teaching what was lacking in existing Churches in their absence. When we truly think about this situation, it becomes apparent that the New Testament is limited in what it has to share with us concerning the Apostolic faith. When we read Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, we have Paul writing to a congregation that he has already spent several years teaching and establishing. There is no way that we could have, in only two letters, the totality of what Paul taught to that Church over several years. Further, many times in these two epistles, Paul refers back to what he taught them while he was with them. The nature of these epistles is that after Paul left these congregations, there arose new issues and Paul was writing back to correct these and instruct them in regard to these issues. What we have then in the New Testament is a very limited portion of the Apostolic teaching, and most of this is letters from Paul. We do not have many writings from the other Apostles. There are some from John, James and Peter, but there are no writings from the others that the Lord chose. So then, while the writings of the New Testament are certainly very sacred and holy, and contain important Apostolic teaching, they could not possibly be a complete body of work that would define the faith and practice of the Church.

Another reality that must be considered is that the first Christian congregations did not have a New Testament in its entirety. Of course, the answer I was given in regard to this was that once the scriptures were completed, then the Church had the Bible and no longer depended on Apostles to guide it. This sounds good on first pass. But when we consider this deeply, it is simply untenable. First of all, there was no concerted effort to “finish” a New Testament. What I am saying is that Paul did not write his letters to Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia and the rest in order to fill his quota for Bible books so that the New Testament could be completed. There was no meeting in Jerusalem in which the Apostles gathered and decided to write a Bible to govern the life of the Church. In fact, the scriptures that are mentioned in the writings of the New Testament are what we call the Old Testament. They were the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. So then, the idea of a “New Testament” is never even mentioned in the New Testament. What I am saying here is important. The first Christians had no concept of a New Testament in the way that many modern Christians do. They were not gathering in Bible study groups and trying to decide what Paul’s letter could mean. They were, rather, keeping the faith and practice delivered to them and teaching that faith to others.

It would, in fact, be nearly four centuries before a final canon of scripture was recognized. Now of course the content of the New Testament had been considered sacred before its final canonization. We do have some lists of sacred texts similar to our present day New Testament in about the second century. The reality is, however, that these were not consistent. Further, there were numerous documents from the first three centuries proclaiming themselves to be the genuine writings of the Apostles. It would be impossible for us, in our modern time, to discern which were authentic and which were not, except that the Church gathered and defined the canon of scripture.

So then, while we might today, or at the time of the Reformation, want to appeal to the New Testament alone as a rule of faith and practice, for several centuries no one could have appealed to the New Testament. This is certainly the case for those who were written about and lived during the time of the New Testament. Now consider the irony: If we are to take seriously the challenge to use the “scripture alone” to determine how to practice the Christian faith, then we would have to discard the New Testament – because no one in the New Testament had a New Testament. Hopefully the difficulty is apparent here.

Another consideration that must be addressed is the reality of the limited access to reading material in the ancient world. Writings were expensive to reproduce. In the ancient world, it was often the wealthy who could afford to own books (or scrolls). Because of this, ancient Churches would often have only one copy of the scripture, and this was entrusted to a Deacon who would bring it with him to be read in the services. What this points to is limited access. In fact, this was an issue until more recent times when the printing press was invented. The point is simply this: the average person could not have owned their own Bible for many centuries. This further means that study and teaching of the scripture was always  done within the Church and its worship. For the vast majority of Christian history, it would have been impossible for the average person to appeal to the scripture alone for their rule of faith and practice. We do not say all of this to disparage the scripture. They are certainly very holy, and stand as the pinnacle of the Apostolic tradition. But what we are saying is that the idea that the scriptures, via private interpretation, constitutes the ongoing manifestation of Apostolic authority, is untenable. So then, where then do we go to find the continuation of Apostolic authority? It would be wise, I think, to go to the Apostles themselves and follow their example.

What was the Apostolic practice for establishing leadership in the Church and just what was designated to those who received that leadership? This situation is first addressed in the earliest moments of the Acts of the Apostles. With the absence of Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, the Apostles, gathered with the whole Church, decided that this office should not be left vacant. They quote the psalm “let his bishopric another take.”[6] This is important, because this indicates that the seat of an Apostle should not, by Apostolic example, be left vacated. It should be taken up by another. The next thing we notice is that several candidates for this office are put forth and certain criteria was established as to who could qualify for this particular charge. This is again important because it shows that the office of an Apostle was not limited to a personality, but was a standing thing on its own that had to be taken by a willing and qualified individual. Peter in fact asserts that “it is necessary that another take his office.” The term office comes from the term ἐπισκοπὴν (episkopean) and means an “oversight” or, perhaps, a jurisdiction. It is an area of authority to which the person is to see to. What we see then is the idea that the Apostolic authority died with the Apostles is not scriptural and not Apostolic. What the Apostles taught was that the seat of the Apostles must be filled and continue through succession.

This continuation of authority was not only linear in succession, but it expanded as well. Very soon we find recorded in Acts that the Apostles, being overwhelmed with the work of the ministry, established the office of the Deacon, and charged them with a certain oversight. Once again, we find that the Deacon had to meet a certain criteria, and that they were then presented to the Apostles and ordained to their oversight by the laying on of hands. Here we see then in the first several chapters of Acts the pattern of ordination being established as the means of transferring authority and oversight in the New Testament. It is also important to note that while the Apostles, in each case, had the authority to appoint new Apostles and then to create the office of the Deacon, they appealed to the consent of the whole Church in this decision.

By the time of Paul’s evangelistic endeavors, the offices had expanded to include those of the Bishop and Deacons. These two offices, working in conjunction with the Apostle, were called collectively the presbytery, or the elders. By this time also, Paul is leaving an emissary in each city to represent his Apostolic authority. This is, in fact, the source of three of Paul’s letters. Two letters to Timothy, and one to Titus. Thus, as we come near to the close of the Apostolic era we have an Apostolic emissary in each city or region, who has Bishops (overseers) and Deacons working under his authority. It is important to note that these appointed, or ordained, individuals are the embodiment of the Apostolic authority in that region. Timothy, for example, is given authority by Paul to act in the stead of Paul. He has a charge to “reprove, rebuke and exhort.” He can appoint clergy (bishops and deacons). His words carry the same authority as those of Paul to those congregations to which he has been given the oversight. Thus, the Apostolic authority has been clearly transmitted. It is also clear that this has been done by the very same pattern we see in the beginning in Acts – by a qualified candidate who is ordained into the office by the laying on of hands of the Apostles or someone duly authorized by the Apostles. It is further clear that Paul intends for this pattern to be self-perpetuating. He writes to Timothy “and the things that you have heard me say among many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be qualified to teach others as well.” Note here that Timothy is being given authority to commit the faith to “faithful men”, who will in turn have the authority to do the same. Thus, we have here the perpetuation of Apostolic authority in the Church firmly established.

The segment of history we find covered in the New Testament takes us to the precipice of the end of the Apostolic age. In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus we find an aging Apostle giving important words of instruction to his proteges’. These are men who have been trained and duly ordained to act with Apostolic authority. What is important is that they are themselves able to transmit oversight, thus perpetuating the oversight of the Church of God; ensuring the continuation of Apostolic authority to the next generation. When I was a protestant Christian, I was not very familiar with the Christians that lived in the generation proceeding the death of the Apostles. I had some vague idea that there were Christians that lived after their death, but I was not really informed as to what went on in the first several centuries of Christian history. This is something that the serious student of the Christian faith should truly pause and consider. What was the Church like after the death of the Apostles? The last of the Apostles, John, died in about 90AD. What did the Church look like at this point? In reality, this is no mystery. We have writings from the very disciples of the Apostles, some of which were mentioned in the pages of the New Testament. What do these men tell us? They tell us that the Apostolic authority that Christ had invested in His chosen twelve had been transmitted, by ordination, to men who were sitting in the seat of the Apostles. In 95AD, within a few years of the death of the Apostle John, Clement of Rome writes “our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”[7] Ignatius of Antioch, in 110AD, writes “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[8] Ignatius of Antioch, in about 180AD, writes “It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority,”[9] He writes again “It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the Apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion.” [10] Clement of Alexandria, in about 190AD, writes “After the death of the tyrant, the [Apostle John] came back again to Ephesus from the Island of Patmos; and, upon being invited, he went even to the neighboring cities of the pagans, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, and there to ordain to the clerical estate such as were designated by the Spirit.”[11] These are not men who are writing centuries removed from the Apostles. No, these are men who came up in Churches where the faithful remembered the Apostles teaching them in person. Further we note, that as is the case with Ignatius, that these men are appealing to the Apostles to defend the faithful from subversive and innovative heresies from those who were departing from the Apostolic faith and tradition.

Here I would like to pause and compare the narrative I am sharing with the one that is related in Restorationist, Protestant tradition. According to most Restorationists the death of the Apostles left the Church with little to no direction. According to them the Church, without Apostolic authority, soon plunged into abject apostacy. But does this really seem like a tenable narrative? Would Christ, who promised to build a Church, leave that Church to the mercy of wolves who would devour His precious flock? Would the Apostles, who hazarded their lives to build the Church, then leave it with no direction? With none to defend it and guide it? Such an assertion seems absurd, and history shows it has no basis. Even in the pages of the New Testament itself we have the beginnings of succession from the Apostles. Men like Timothy and Titus have been ordained and commissioned to act with Apostolic authority. These men are appointing others after them. While the rebuttal of the Restorationist assertion, that the Church of Christ failed and went into apostacy, is beyond our present topic we would point out that this purported failure could not have happened with the death of the Apostles. When they had “finished their course” there were duly ordained men to continue their work.

While there are certainly other matters to consider when looking for the New Testament Church, the matter of Apostolic succession is one that should not be overlooked. How could one claim to be an Apostolic Church without having a connection to the original Apostolic authority? Why would Christ promise to build a Church, ordain Apostles, and then allow that Church to plunge into error and apostasy? Would not the continuation of the Apostolic lines of ordination be paramount to the preservation of the Church? The scripture says that the household of God is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”.[12] How then can one truly be a part of Christ’s Church without having this very Apostolic foundation. One could certainly assert that the Apostolic teaching and tradition, including the New Testament, is another essential component of the Church of the Apostles. Yet it should be apparent that true Apostolic succession is just as integral. Further the recent Protestant endeavor to reinvent the Apostolic tradition through scripture alone, without the guidance of Apostolic leadership, has proven to be an exercise in chaos. Hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations each claiming to be the true Church. Very often holding polar opposite views of the same texts. It should be clear at this point that something is missing in this equation, and that thing is Apostolic pastoral guidance. The purity of the Apostolic faith is certainly important, yet Christ did not give us a set of dogmas, He gave us Apostles[13].

What kind of Church is this? What kind of Church did Christ promise to build? That Church is indeed an Apostolic Church. This does not, however, mean a group of people who have come together in an attempt to reinvent the Apostolic faith based on their personal interpretation of the Bible. This means a Church pastored by men who have been duly ordained in succession from the Apostles and have maintained this ordination to the present day. This is what the scriptures teach us, what Christ promised and this is what history bears witness to.

 

 

 

 

[1] Restorationism, also called Christian Primitivism, is a movement within Protestantism that holds that the original form of Christian worship and faith were lost or distorted in the first centuries. These movements seek to reinvent what they understand to be primitive Christianity.

[2] Ephesians 2:20

[3] Acts 2:42

[4] Matthew 18:18-20

[5] Galatians 1:8

[6] Acts 1:20

[7] (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1 [A.D. 95])

[8] (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:1 [A.D. 110]).

[9] (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 180-199]).

[10] (ibid 4:26:2)

[11] (Who is the Rich Man that is Saved? 42:2 [inter 190-210 A.D.])

[12] Eph 2:20

[13] Eph 4:11

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