HOW THE EARLY CHURCH UNDERSTOOD THE APOSTLES
by Ken Silva pastor-teacher Features, Roman Catholicism
By Apprising Ministries special correspondent Bob DeWaay
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone”(Ephesians 2:19, 20).
This article explores the idea of apostles in the church throughout church history…we will review how the early church understood apostles in church history… At a 1996 Fuller Seminary conference hosted by C. Peter Wagner, a movement that Wagner previously labeled “post-denominational” became the New Apostolic Reformation.1
Besides Wagner himself is another person prominent in the movement—Bill Hamon—who is strongly endorsed by Wagner. Hamon is important, as we will see, because his ministry goes all the way back to the early 1950’s and began on the heels of the Latter Rain Movement.
In 97 AD, Clement of Rome wrote an epistle to the church at Corinth. The epistle provides solid evidence that the early church did not believe that the apostles had successors or that new apostles were needed in order to provide direction to the church.
At issue was the fact that certain individuals in Corinth challenged the duly constituted elders’ authority; Clement wrote to correct them. Clement’s testimony is remarkable because he likely was the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3, whom Paul called a “fellow worker.”
Clement mentions the apostles in this passage:
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God.
Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.2
Although the Roman Catholic Church claims that Clement himself was an apostle of Christ in succession from Peter, Clement claimed no such title and neither did he acknowledge any apostles but the true apostles—the ones Christ appointed personally. What we will see from Clement is that the apostles appointed overseers and elders (the same group), and these were the authorities in the local church.
The apostle Paul had given instructions on the qualifications and roles of elders (Acts 20:28 – 31; Titus 1:5-9; 1Timothy 3:1 – 7) and provided for their continuation (2Timothy 2:2). Clement goes on to discuss this:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.
We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them.3
Clement did not claim the apostolic authority to intervene, but rather pointed to elders who were appointed according to the standards of the Biblical apostles. It is noteworthy that he used the terms “episcopate” and “presbyters” interchangeably for the same people. Soon the church would develop “bishops” over cities (the “monepiscopate” or single bishop over a city), which was an innovation not endorsed by the Biblical apostles. However, Clement, who had been an associate of Paul, used episkopos (overseers or bishops – KJV) and presbuteros (elders) to describe the same group of people. This is precisely what Paul did in Acts 20:17, 28 when he called the elders together and described them as “overseers.”
By 97 AD, the authorities in the church were not apostles and prophets, but elders who had been appointed according to the standards lain down by the apostles. Those who claim that God always intended there to be authoritative apostles in the church who give binding revelation ignore the fact that the apostles themselves never anticipated that they would have successors and gave no instructions for the qualifications of any such successors.
But they did provide qualifications for elders, and these would apply to future generations. Sadly, the fact that there are no qualifications for apostles (other than that they must have seen the risen Lord and have been appointed directly by Him – which qualifications the NAR apostles ignore or reject) has opened to the door the proliferation of apostles around the world, many of whom claim apostolic status even though they do not even have the necessary qualifications to be elders in a local church.
The Roman Catholic Church’s Apostles
As church history progressed, the understanding of church authority as seen in the days of Clement of Rome disappeared very quickly in favor of the monepiscopate and progressed from that unbiblical innovation to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. This idea eventually led to the Papacy. Later in church history, and in amazing irony, the Roman Catholic Church claimed that Clement was a successor of Peter and had apostolic status. This travesty dishonors the very teachings of Clement himself who taught no such thing.
Roman Catholic innovation removed the status of the Biblical apostles as the foundation of the church4 and replaced it with a succession of apostles who claimed the liberty to give new, binding revelation to the church. Here is how the Roman Catholic Church explains its own position:
We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.5 (Catholic Encyclopedia)
It is ironic that C. Peter Wagner claims we need restored apostles when there have been claimants to the office of apostle going back over 1,000 years. Wagner acknowledges this:
[I]n certain segments of the Church the office of apostle has, indeed, been recognized throughout the past two millennia. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican or Episcopal Church and many denominations that have actually incorporated “apostolic” into their name would come to mind as examples. However, just as was true of prophetic movements, the emphases of these apostolic movements had not penetrated the mainstream of what I am calling life-giving evangelical churches that are now the cutting edge of the spread of Christianity. This only began to happen in the 1990’s.6
So, with regard to having apostles Wagner sees the Roman Catholic Church not as guilty of unbiblical innovation as Luther and the other Reformers claimed, but as a positive role model for evangelicals. His new “reformation” claims to have many thousands of apostles and prophets. At least Rome put some reigns on apostles in that they only have one at a time and he speaks “ex cathedra” only occasionally. The new apostles are continually speaking new revelations from God.
The Reformation Teaches “Scripture Alone”
The Reformation rightly rejected the authority of the Pope and church tradition and returned to “scripture alone.” This was a return to the true foundation of the church, the Biblical apostles and prophets who speak to us through the Scripture. This means that the decrees of men in church history are not binding on any believer unless those decrees are valid implications and applications of Scripture.
This brings up an important point mentioned in the previous issue of CIC: God only binds us to what is inerrant and infallible.7 Words from men that contain mixture and error and lack the qualities of inspired Scripture cannot be binding on the lives of believers. This truth was at the crux of the Reformation. The words of the Popes do not have this quality nor do those of latter day apostles and prophets.