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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ What About Apostolic Succession? ~


We bring to your attention what can be called an ancient legal brief by a Christian scholar named Justin, written in A.D. 155. (You can find it on the "What's New/Article Index" page and also on our "Christian Links" (Cruising Christian Cyberspace) page on our web site.) Called "The First Apology," it refutes the claims of "The Da Vinci Code" book and film, namely that the divinity of Christ was established as dogma at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. Moreover, it is an excellent description of the beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church.

This treasure of early Christian scholarship is lengthy, but divided into sections, one or two of which may be of particular interest to you. I recommend scrolling down to the last section just before the "Conclusion" concerning worship and liturgical practices. If your denomination or "independent" church (and I continually ask myself independent of what or whom?) does not follow or reflect the practices of the early churches as described in the New Testament and in the non-canonical historical records of the time, you may want to ask yourself "why not?" I welcome your answers and will be happy to publish them for others to consider. We should all be prepared to be apologists for not only Christian beliefs and practices, but for our own "version" of them.

The number of versions (well over 5000 and counting) upsets me. They are a scar of the face of modern Christianity that most religious traditions do not have, particularly Judaism upon which Christianity is founded. Recently, in my neighborhood, a small church building was built, naming itself "The New Apostolic Church of Christ." How on earth or in heaven can there be a "new" apostolic anything? Does it proclaim anything "new" to the Christian faith? Of course, that church is "independent."

And probably independent of the Kingdom of God and its history. The metaphor of "kingdom" is vital to our faith: A kingdom has a King, of course, and a hierarchy of subjects, each accountable to the ranks of those above them. The New Testament churches had presbyters (pastors or priests), bishops and deacons. They were united and accountable to the church in Jerusalem and the standards of their offices are clearly defined in the New Testament letters. Even the great evangelist to the Gentile nations, St. Paul, recognized their authority by asking them to "certify" his ministry in general and to provide him a letter concerning the question of circumcising the Gentile converts to bring back to their churches. His appearance before the apostles may well be the first "council" convened to settle problems of dogma and practice. The apostles gave Paul their blessings and the letter he requested. He respected their authority and, I believe, if the apostles said "No, the Gentiles must be circumcised and be converted to Judaism as we still are Jews," Paul would not have segregated himself and started his own church, like "The New Apostolic Church of the Gentiles." Paul respected the apostles' authority. (Though he did have some confrontational disputes with Peter. Dialog has always been part of the Christian growth, within the context of Christ's teachings given to the apostles for guardianship and dissemination.)

That authority is indisputable. When Judas left their ranks, they could have gone on with their mission. But the apostolic commission was an office of the church and had a set number, established by Christ. So they filled the empty chair with Mathias. So important was this apostolic office that the Book of Revelation declares their names to be imprinted on the pillars of the heavenly Jerusalem: "The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (Revelation 21:14).

Obviously, we are accountable to them and the one Church they instituted and supervised. They did not envision the explosion of 5000 and more churches "independent" of them with their own "opinions" or "dogmas" of what a Christian church should look like and practice. The letters of St. Paul attests to his fervent attention to keeping them all in line with the apostolic institution, pulling in the ones that were going astray, particularly that of Corinth. More important of note is Christ's own messages to the seven churches through St. John in the beginning of the Book of Revelation.  

Too many denominations do not subject themselves to apostolic authority and the definitive hierarchy that was set up for all to follow. "Paul intuits this when he speaks in Ephesians (4:4-6) of 'one Body, one Spirit...one hope...one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all'...We're living in a time when the far right and the far left in almost every institution are using the eccentricities and evils of the other end to justify their own extremes...This ping-pong game has been so common in this century, even with Christianity -- which should know better by now -- that Christianity, for many, has come to mean anti-intellectual, fanatically narrow-minded people. Christianity, for some, is neither faith nor reason -- just reactive tribalsim hiding behind the skirts of 'Mother Church.' How sad if the Great Tradition ever settled for so little..I move in some circles where the word Christian, unfortunately, is a negative adjective. To them 'He's a Christian' means he knows nothing about history, nothing about politics, and is probably incapable of civil conversation about anything. Five Bible quotes are the available answers to everything. How did we ever get to this low point after such a tradition of wisdom? How did we ever regress to such arrogance after the humble folly of the cross? When there is no ability to build brides to the other, to even understand otherness, we know we are outside the pale of authentic Christianity. Surely Jesus came to more than self-congratulative societies who forever circle the wagons around their own saved identity and their own self-serving god!" (Richard Rohr, Hope Against Darkness, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001.)

John's Gospel ends with this statement: "Jesus also did many other things. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the world wouldn't have enough room for the books that would be written" (John 21:25). We do have for study a plethora of writings that continue the historical accounts of the developing churches beyond the time of the writing of Revelation. We must study and respect them, for without them we could not have refuted such theological garbage as "The Da Vinci Code" nor could we understand our rich heritage of wisdom, scholarship and historical documentation of our Christian faith and beliefs.

Part of the answer to this problem of Christian diversity is addressed in the Weekly Reflection, "How to Build a Temple." It explains how no stones were allowed to be placed at the temple site until they were perfectly shaped far away at the quarry. No noise of chiseling was allowed at the temple site as all the stones were fitted together in silence and respect. No arguments, no last minute hammering away to get every stone block just right. The over 5000 denominations and all the Christians embracing their own will never leave the quarry until they get it right. I believe Justin the Martyr got it right, and so did Thomas a Kempis ("The Imitation of Christ," also available on our web site on the "Christian Links" section.) These, and the many other early Christian apologists, deserve our attention. After all, our spirituality is at stake, and so are our very lives.

"You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem is in ruins...'Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer...Let us start!...Let us build'; and with willing hands they set about the good work" (Nehemiah 2:17-18).

"Brothers, let us begin again, for up to now we have done nothing." (St. Francis of Assisi near his death.)

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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