Saturday, September 15, 2018

Getting Back to the Apostolic Church

It is always moving, and sometimes deeply frustrating, to hear or see someone talking about "getting back to the apostolic church."

But not so much because we've somehow lost our way for a couple thousand years. Rather, I am moved and sometimes frustrated by the fact that there are such apostolic churches right around most corners in the U.S.--and even, as I am increasingly learning, in many places around the world where the gospel is only recently penetrating.

Where are they? Reformed, Presbyterian churches. That was the entire point of the Reformation--back to the Bible. But here we are in a biblically illiterate age, in which it is assumed that all expressions of the church are equally man-made, and therefore this idea of "the apostolic" church is floated as something without creed, confession, or organization. 

Really, I cannot think of a more efficient way of ensuring that you will have nothing but a man-made expression of the church than to leave it up to every man to make his own expression.

The most recent reminder of this for me was in response to a Presbyterian social media meme which humorously pointed out the great danger in being without formal church membership, being without creeds and confessions, and being without church discipline.

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Predictably, one commentator complained, "I don't think the disciples had any of this."

If we knew our Bibles better, such rubbish would be rather easily dismissed as the ravings of unbelievers. But I actually hear this kind of reasoning from Reformed church officers

Alas! Alas! God grant us a rediscovery of His Word as in the days of Josiah, where we realize that we need not make it up as we go along and, mourning over our past confusion and rebellion, eagerly put into place all that His Word calls for in His church.

So, is it true that the disciples had no formal church membership, no creeds or confessions, and no church discipline?

2Tim 1:13 refers to some kind of confession or catechism that Paul had given Timothy. Remarkable that, as far as we know, it doesn't appear in Scripture--just reinforces that uninspired arrangements of doctrine are a biblical response to Scriptural teaching.

Luke 1:4 ... Theophilus's instruction is literally referred to as catechizing

And of course they definitely had formal church membership and church discipline, otherwise what's with keeping a record of their number (Ac 2-4, etc), and how could someone be put out of the church if there was not a formal identification of who is in the church (1Cor 5-6, etc), and with all of the duties of believers to "one another" and of elders to their flock and the flock to their elders (Eph 4, 1Cor 12, Heb 13, 1Pet 5, all the pastoral epistles, etc), it would be impossible to know whether you are doing that without some formal recognition of who is a member and who is an elder. From whom could delegates to the Acts 15 assembly be selected? Etc. etc.

The canard of an unorganized apostolic hippie community is a figment of the imagination of an anti-authority age.

"Let's get back to the apostolic church" is just contemporary speak for "let me be rid of submission and commitment." But look at how Christ talks about being a disciple. It's all about submission and commitment. So, not at all surprising that there is plain evidence of all of these things in the New Testament.

Authority and orderliness have been instituted by Christ, through the Holy Spirit, since the very beginning.

Want to "get back to the apostolic church"? If you live in America, that's not difficult to do. Join a NAPARC (or similar) church.

If these thoughts are new to you, or you find yourself unconvinced, you may wish to read Witherow's Apostolic Church.


  1. A friend of mine, Ginny Youmans, shared on facebook your blogpost about the apostolic church, and I enjoyed reading what you had to say. Your comment about hearing people supposedly wanting to “get back to the apostolic church” is well taken. Although I’ve heard it more often said in terms of getting back to “the New Testament church,” the intent is the same. Your phrasing as apostolic church, though, is more helpful in tracing what is truly the “New Testament church.”

    Equating the “apostolic church” with “getting back to the Bible,” however, is problematic. One of the outgrowths of the Reformation is a wide assortment of denominations (and non-denominations) that claim to be getting back to the Bible. Presbyterianism is certainly among the earlier forms making the attempt (the earliest Reformation outcome being Lutheranism), but the various iterations of Presbyterianism are still simply a choice among many others. What is lacking in the “getting back” process is not a lack of biblical knowledge but a lack of historical knowledge.

    Because there was no Bible as we know it in the first centuries of the church, getting back to it is not even possible. The earliest collections of Scripture we call canonical were not fully recognized until the fourth century. Meanwhile, churches functioned well based on being “apostolic.” This means they passed on in word and practice the teachings of the apostles. Church members were admonished to respect their leaders as those entrusted with correct teaching.

    Here’s where history helps grasp how this happens. In 110 A.D., for instance, Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and he repeatedly encouraged his readers with direction such as “do nothing without the bishop” because the leaders were directly connected—through the laying on of hands—with the apostles and their teachings. This is likely why Paul encouraged Timothy not to lay hands quickly on any man to raise him to leadership (1 Timothy 5:22).

    I agree that a return to the apostolic church is needed today, but the early church definition of “apostolic” is clear. It means those who follow the teachings and practices of Christianity as passed along by the apostles, and to know what that is requires a bit of research to grasp what “getting back” would be according to original Christian teaching.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    --Greg Webster

    1. Thank-you for your thoughts, brother, and your kind words. Perhaps I will write a follow-up with exegesis and exposition of the relevant passages. It was a joy to meet you in person and share Christian fellowship at the camp-out! When I have time, I do plan to write a follow-up post on canonization, and how Scripture itself informs our understanding of how it occurred. There's a lot more there than I was taught in Bible College and Seminary.

    2. Agreed. I've learned a lot since seminary as well. I'll look forward to your next installment. Thanks for your corporate hospitality at the Hopewell camp-out. Meeting you was certainly a highlight!