Apostolic in two ways

What is an Apostle? What is apostolic? And why is this important for all Christian churches? This is a question raised by a feast celebrated by Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants on 11 June, the Feast of Barnabas.

Jesus “appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach,” it says in Mark 3: 14. So there are only these twelve, right? There is at least one number thirteen that Acts 1: 26 is aware of. He was chosen to replace Judas after he had left the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples for the reasons we are familiar with. Striking is that this successor’s calling, his name was Matthias, was bound to having been an eyewitness to the life of Jesus.

No requirements are documented for any of the other Apostles named in the New Testament: neither for Paul, one of the most prolific letter writers, nor James, the brother of Jesus, nor for Silvanus and Timothy, nor Andronicus and Junia. And then this Barnabas, who is being commemorated on 11 June.

He came from Cyprus, was held in high esteem by the members of the early church in Jerusalem and was one of the church founders in Antioch. It was there that Barnabas and Paul nearly came to blows over the Jewish dietary regulations. But at the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem both were on the same side and from then on travelled together as Apostles on their official Gentile mission.

Apostolic in content

The apostolate remained a central reference value of Christianity even after the death of the first Apostles. “We believe in the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church,” the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, says, which all denominations basically share.

But what makes a Church apostolic? The denominations offer two or three different answers to this question. First, this entails content-related aspects and then personal aspects.

Apostolic in person

“And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine.” Our understanding of apostolicity builds on these words from Acts 2: 42. Central is therefore what the first Apostles proclaimed: the gospel of Jesus, namely the message of the life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ.

The Bible gives a clear answer concerning this proclamation. Apostolic is therefore what corresponds to that which the New Testament attests. This is how Churches which follow reformed theology understand apostolicity—as continuity in terms of content.

The term “apostolic succession” is recognised by the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as some Anglican churches. They derive their apostolicity from the fact that the consecration of Bishops through the laying on of hands can be traced back in uninterrupted continuity to the time of the biblical Apostles. This understanding is thus based on personal continuity.

Apostolic in ministry

And the New Apostolic Church? “The church of Christ is apostolic in two respects: in it the apostolic doctrine is proclaimed and in it the apostolic ministry is active,” it says in the Catechism:

  • “The apostolic doctrine is the unadulterated message of the death, resurrection, and return of Christ, according to the teaching of the early Christian Apostles, as attested in the New Testament, and as believed and practised by the first Christians.
  • “The apostolic ministry is the Apostle ministry given by Christ and led by the Holy Spirit, with all its powers.”

So this is not about personal continuity, but about a renewed occupation, the Catechism continues: “With the renewed occupation of the Apostle ministry in the year 1832, the Lord gave back something essential to His church on earth: apostolicity was once more fully restored in the visible church.”

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Andreas Rother
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