Back to John Robin's Homepage


Did apostolic authority end in the first century?


The Book of Acts very clearly records the apostles appointing the first successor to their apostolic ministry. Peter quoted the Old Testament to prove that it was necessary to fill the vacancy of Judas' "office" (or "bishopric", according to the King James Version). The Greek word there is "episcope" (overseer), from which we get the English term "bishop". They prayed, asking for God to show them which man He chose "to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place." (Acts 1:25 RSV). "...the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles." (Acts 1:26 RSV).


The meaning of the passage is clear: even Judas, the betrayer of Christ and the first bad bishop, held an important ministry which survived his death: a position which was filled subsequently by a man who originally was not one of the Twelve. How was this episcopal office filled? The account in Acts reveals that God's will in the matter was discerned and manifested by the decision of the apostles, on the basis of the authority given them by Christ.


Now, the Apostles had the divine commission to preserve and infallibly interpret the Gospel even before the earliest words of the New Testament were written. If they did not have this mandate and the divine protection necessary to carry it out, then the pure Gospel was lost in the very first years of the Church, for the only means of transmitting the Gospel in those days was by the apostles' oral teaching. If the apostles, to whom Jesus gave the commission to preach the true Gospel to the ends of the world, corrupted the message before the New Testament was written, then there is no assurance that the written portion of their teaching escaped this same corruption.


But Jesus promised that His words would not pass away. The New Testament is incorrupt and inerrant not only because God gave the apostles His message intact, but also because God gave them the ability to preserve it and recognizable authority to proclaim it without error. Just as their oral teaching was inspired and free from error, so are their writings, which comprise the New Testament.

"Therefore, brothers, stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter." 2 Thessalonians 2:15 NAB

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching..." Acts 2:42 NAB


Now, if the apostolic ministry of "overseer" -bishop- was to end with the appearance of the New Testament, then why does the Bible nowhere say so?

For God to revoke the episcopal teaching ministry would amount to changing profoundly the structure of the Church, a change indicated nowhere in Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture describes the Church as having the apostles at Her very foundation.

"You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone." Ephesians 2:20 RSV

"The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." Revelation 21:14 NAB


Jesus promised the Church the permanent presence of the "Spirit of truth" and a divine guarantee that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against" Her. Paul referred to Her as

"...the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth." 1 Timothy 3:15 RSV


Were Jesus to remove the role of "overseer" from the Church, an attribute which He Himself had created and given Her to preserve His message, this would make the Church not a "city on a hill", not a "light to the nations", not "the pillar and bulwark of truth", but would reduce it to a pitiful array of factions forever unable to agree on the meaning of the Scriptures.


Paul taught that such divisions are contrary to the Gospel and contradict the essence of the Church. He pulled no punches in rebuking those who discounted the binding authority of the apostles' teachings.

"I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority." 3 John 9 RSV

"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." Galatians 1:8

"Moreover, we [the apostles] possess the prophetic message which is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it... Know first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation." 2 Peter 1:19-20


He taught that the Church was to be united in adherence to the teachings of himself and his fellow apostles. Often he imposed his interpretation of the Gospel as the 'last word' in settling problems within local churches. Wretched sinner though he was, Paul was by God's grace an "apostle", "steward of the mysteries of God". With no taint of arrogance he insisted that in this role as apostolic teacher he was answerable not to other believers, but only to the Lord. Yet he realized that he shared this authority with the other apostles and was careful to maintain unity with them in their teachings.

"But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court… It is the Lord who judges me." 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 RSV

"Moreover, we [the apostles] possess the prophetic message which is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it... Know first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation." 2 Peter 1:19-20


Even though this ongoing apostolic "bishopric" is clearly visible in the appointment of Matthias to the episcopal ministry, some have rejected its existence. But the rejection has lead inevitably to the rise of factions, error, and schism. Not surprisingly, this is just what occurred in Paul's time when some local churches began to listen to teachers and interpretations at odds with the message that he and the other apostles had preached to them.

Witness the tens of thousands of Christian denominations that exist today. Do the sectarian divisions that today separate believers testify for or against the oneness that Christ prayed would mark His Church?

"And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets... Are all apostles? Are all prophets?" 1 Corinthians 12:27-29 NAB