I got into a long-running email discussion in one of those wonderfully odd ways God has of putting things together. I’d been friends at Bob Jones University with this guy named Doug, but after school we’d gone our separate ways. I ended up in England, and he wound up as an English professor in the Midwest. After twenty years I posted a note in an Internet religious chat room asking if any Bob Jones graduates were out there wanting to talk. A complete stranger who worked with Doug saw the note, took my address, and gave it to Doug. Doug emailed me out of the blue, and we started discussing religion. Three or four years later the debate is still going on.
We’re both from a Fundamentalist background, but we’ve both had a pretty good dose of education since then. I became an Anglican and finally, about six years ago, a Catholic. (As a friend of Doug’s said, “The trajectory from South Carolina through Canterbury was far more likely to end up in Rome than in Missouri.”) The nice thing about debating Doug is that he is fair, intelligent, and well read. He’s not a Catholic, but he has taken the trouble to read Catholic writings. He doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church, but at least he knows what he doesn’t agree with.
Over the years we’ve discussed seemingly everything about the Catholic Church, until one day we ended up tapping away at our computers about how the Church is apostolic. Both of us agreed that our Christian faith comes to us from the apostles, but I hadn’t really looked hard at just what that means. We did some Bible digging and came up with some pretty interesting stuff. It has to do with spiritual authority on earth, where the authority comes from, and how we know something is true.
Doug and I sorted out the basics together. The argument goes like this: The Gospels make an amazing claim. They give Jesus universal divine authority. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). The Father “has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35). He has authority over all people (John 17:2), and his authority has been given to him by his Father in heaven (Luke 10:22). In his epistles, Paul also affirms the divine authority that Jesus claimed (1 Cor. 15:27, Eph.1:20–22, Phil.2:9–10).
Jesus knew he couldn’t stay on the earth forever, and the Gospels show how he intended his ministry to be continued on earth. He called twelve men to lead his followers. So they could lead the church with power and authority, Jesus gave the apostles a share in his own divine authority—he says the apostles are sent just as the Father sent him (John 20:21). Jesus had the authority to cast out demons and teach the truth. In Luke 9:1–3, he gives his apostles the authority to do the same. Jesus says whoever listens to them listens to him (Luke 10:16).
At the end of all four Gospels, Jesus gives the apostles special authority to continue his work. In Matthew 28:18–20 and Mark 16:15, he tells them to preach the truth and baptize. In Luke 24:45–48, he commands them to understand Scripture and preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and in John 20:23 he gives them his authority to forgive sins. Jesus must have intended this ministry to continue, because in Matthew 28:20 he promises to be with the apostles until the end of time. Then, in John’s gospel, he promises to send the Holy Spirit to help with the work of understanding the truth (John 16:13) and says the Holy Spirit will remain with the apostles forever (John 14:16).
Both Peter and Paul claim their message comes directly from God, and Peter claims the authority to interpret the word of God as well (2 Pet. 1:20–21, 3:2). Paul agrees with Peter. In Ephesians 3:5, he says the mystery of God has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. It is the same Spirit-led group of men who are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20).
The Apostolic Church
Doug and I both believe the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The Bible says that clearly. But after that we start to differ. Doug says his church is also founded on the apostles and prophets because it holds to the faith that was taught by the apostles. I’m not totally happy about this; on the other hand, I can see that a Protestant church that tries to hold to the biblical, unchanging apostolic faith is closer to the truth than some liberal church that has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage (cf. Gen. 2533–34).
I’m holding out for bishops. Catholics believe that the bishops are the successors of the apostles. The bishops are our living link with Christ’s original followers. Loyalty to them produces unity in the Church. From the very earliest days of the Church this has been true. So I cut and paste some chunks about the early Church and send them to Doug. I remind him Clement of Rome, a Christian leader just sixty years or so after the Crucifixion. Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth pleading with them to maintain unity with the properly appointed leaders. In his letter he explains clearly from what source those leaders had received their authority:
“The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and they went out full of confidence in the Holy Spirit . . . and appointed their first fruits . . . to be bishops and deacons. Our apostles knew there would be strife on the question of the bishop’s office. Therefore, they appointed these people already mentioned and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should succeed to their ministry” (quoted in The Early Christian Fathers, Henry Bettenson, ed., 33).
Other writings from all over the ancient world show that the entire Church believed the same thing. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in A.D. 115. In writing to the Trallian church, he equates the church elders with apostles: “When you obey the bishop as if he were Christ Jesus, you are living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way. . . . It is essential therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery [the body of elders] as to the apostles of Jesus Christ” (ibid., 44).
By the middle of the second century—less than a hundred years after the death of the last apostle—the evidence comes from North Africa, Syria, France, and Italy. The church members in all of these locations recognize that the proper authority in the Church must be descended historically from the apostles.
I reminded Doug about Irenaeus. Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. According to Irenaeus, it is because the Church leaders have inherited the apostolic authority that they can interpret Scripture properly. “By knowledge of the truth we mean the teaching of the apostles; the order of the Church as established from earliest times throughout the world . . . preserved through the episcopal succession: for to the bishops the apostles committed the care of the Church in each place which has come down to our own time safeguarded by . . . the most complete exposition . . . the reading of the scriptures without falsification and careful and consistent exposition of them—avoiding both rashness and b.asphemy” (ibid., 89).
Elsewhere he says that the bishops of the Church not only received the apostolic teaching but the apostolic authority to define and defend that teaching. “We can enumerate those who were appointed bishops in the churches by the apostles and their successors down to our own day . . . they [the apostles] were handing over to them their own office of doctrinal authority” (ibid., 90).
So I come back to Doug insisting that part of the apostolic faith he wants to hold on to includes having bishops. It’s clear, isn’t it? For the first generation of Christians the apostolic faith meant being part of a Church that not only taught the true faith but also had leaders whose authority descended historically from the apostles. Even in those early days there were groups who broke off from the established apostolic authority to do their own thing. Clement and Ignatius called them to return to the unified Church led by the apostolically appointed leaders.
Irenaeus insisted that the fullest expression of Christianity was to be found in the churches which traced their authority right back to the apostles themselves. He says of those who broke away from the apostolic Church, “We challenge them by an appeal to that tradition which derives from the apostles, and which is preserved in the churches by the succession of presbyters. . . . Those who wish to see the truth can observe in every church the tradition of the apostles. . . . It is our duty to obey those bishops who are in the Church, who have their succession from the apostles, as we have shown, who with their succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the pleasure of the Father” (ibid., 90).
We debate back and forth—the computers are hot with our discussion on the issue. I think Doug is starting to agree that bishops are a good thing. Finally we come up with a kind of synthesis. Maybe a church can be apostolic in four different ways. These four different ways accumulate, so you might have one or two apostolic traits, but it’s best to have all of them.
Conceived of in one way, apostolicity is faithfulness to essentials of the apostolic teaching. In other words, if a non-Catholic Christian believes the simple gospel and accepts the “old-time religion,” it can be said that he shares to some degree in the apostolic faith. Both Doug and I are happy about this. It’s inclusive. No Christian is left out. The individual who repents of his sins and trusts Jesus Christ as his savior is taking part in the apostolic faith. Of course, true apostolicity involves the fullness of faith found only in the Catholic Church. But we’re trying to find common ground.
But where does such a Christian turn for his answers and his doctrine? Without another authority, he’s on his own. Also, if there is nothing but personal experience, that single individual is cut off from a large measure of the apostolic faith. According to the New Testament, individual believers have to be baptized into the body of Christ, and the body of Christ has recognized leaders. Therefore a second level of the apostolic faith means an individual joins a church and so submits in some sort of recognized, ordained ministry. If an individual joins a church with an ordained ministry, or if he or she is ordained, then he is sharing, at least in a surface sense, in this second degree of apostolicity.
Two levels of apostolicity are better than one, but there’s more. I keep reminding Doug that the New Testament and the documents of the early Church show that the apostles established a recognized, historical succession for the Church leadership. The third level of the apostolic faith means a denomination or individual shares in some way in the historical apostolic succession. In other words, only those churches that have bishops who claim historical succession from the apostles may share in this third level of apostolicity. The Orthodox and some other Catholic-minded Christian denominations make this claim. Even if their claims to apostolic succession are spurious, their desire to be a part of this higher level of apostolicity recognizes the importance of a link to the apostles by ordination.
Now I’m pushing things. I suggest that there are four levels of apostolicity. I want a fourth level because this is where the rubber meets the road. The fourth level is being a part of the historic Catholic Church. Only in the Catholic Church is there a clear, universal voice of authority connected right back to the apostles Peter and Paul that is recognizable and dynamic in the world today. When Catholics therefore say they believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” it is not just an idea. It is a person who lives and speaks to us. He is the successor of the one on whom Christ founded the Church (Matt.16:18), the one to whom Jesus entrusted his authority as the Good Shepherd of the sheep (John 21:15–17).
Not by Faith Alone
Usually the “not by faith alone” tag is used in reference to our debates about faith and works. But the “not by faith alone” tag works here, too. Doug and I had been discussing how somebody could profess to believe in the apostolic faith. It dawned on me at church one day while we were saying the Nicene Creed (which was formalized in the fourth century): The early Christians reciting the Nicene Creed didn’t profess to believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. Instead they spoke about believing in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The penny dropped, as we say in England. Bing! The light went on.
From the very beginning the faith has never been separated from membership in the family of God. The Jews couldn’t conceive of following Yahweh, for instance, without also being a Jew. Likewise, it is impossible to really hold to the apostolic faith without belonging to the apostolic Church. Saying you are an apostolic Christian without belonging to the apostolic Church is like saying you love your fiancée but you never spend time with her and don’t intend to marry her. Actions speak louder than words, and they speak even louder than thoughts and ideas.
When we say we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we mean that believing and belonging are part of the same thing. Belonging puts flesh on believing. The Church is the way we live out the apostolic faith. To live in this Church is not simply a matter of choosing a church we happen to like best.
I didn’t join the Catholic Church because it was the church I liked best. I also didn’t join it because I thought it was a humanly perfect Church—anybody who takes a glance at Church history can lay that one to rest. I joined the Catholic Church because I discovered that it was the true Church.