Over and over in Scripture, we see Jesus and the apostles laying down a blueprint for the Christian Church, writes Graham Osborne.
To many Christians, the "church" or denomination you belong to is of minimal importance, and many will change their affiliations multiple times in the course of their lifetime. Rather than a clearly defined, hierarchical, authoritative structure, the "church" is often considered to be essentially invisible — just a loosely bound collection of believers that follows the authority of the Bible alone, and admits to a dizzying array of important but often contradictory doctrines.
But how different this view is from the picture painted in the New Testament. Over and over in Scripture, we see Jesus and the apostles laying down a blueprint for the hierarchy ("holy rule") of the Christian Church. Let's take a closer look at seven different aspects of this blueprint.
The first thing to consider is that Jesus founded this Church. His Church. One Church. Not 30,000 denominations like we see today. And he founded it on the apostles: "the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles" (Eph 2:19-20).
Secondly, this Church had authority. His authority: "he who hears you hears Me." Jesus gave the apostles authority to cast out demons, heal (Mk 6:7-13), baptize, and forgive sins (Jn 20:21). And in 1 Timothy 3:15, St. Paul would declare that "the church" is "the pillar and foundation of truth." Similarly, in Ephesians 3:9-10, St. Paul would also attest that "the plan ... the wisdom of God" would be "made known through the Church."
This third point is a showstopper. The Church had an authoritative leader — appointed by Jesus himself: "thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Mt 16:16-19).
One simply needs to consider the long list of firsts that Peter heads to see that this is true. He gives the first sermon, after which 3,000 convert. He performs the first healing, the first ecclesial punishment, the first raising from the dead. He admits the first Gentiles. He silences the first Council with an authoritative doctrinal decision. He heads virtually all the New Testament lists of apostles, and his name is mentioned 191 times, with St. John a distant second at 39.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul outlined the nature of apostolic succession for the Church. (Wikimedia)
The writings of the early Church also clearly confirm this primacy, with St. Cyprian (AD 250) teaching: "It is on him [Peter] that He [Jesus] builds the church ... a primacy is given to Peter ... there is but one church and one chair ... If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the church?"
The first thing to consider is that Jesus founded this Church. His Church. One Church. Not 30,000 denominations like we see today.
Fourthly, the New Testament clearly demonstrates apostolic succession, with the apostles and their successors ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons. In Acts 14:23, we read that Paul and Barnabas "appointed presbyters [the Greek root for the English word "priest"] for them in each church." Similarly, St. Paul exhorts Titus: "I left you in Crete so that you might appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you."
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, St. Paul addresses the office of bishop, instructing that "if any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task." A chapter later, he would remind the young Bishop Timothy of his own ordination, and to "not neglect the gift ... conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate [priests]."
St. Clement of Rome (AD 80, fourth Pope, and ordained to the priesthood by St. Peter) illustrates this need for apostolic succession: "Our Apostles also knew ... there would be contention over the bishop's office. So ... they appointed the above mentioned men, and gave them a permanent character, so that, as they died, other approved men should succeed to their ministry."
Clement's quote leads nicely into our fifth point: the apostles had perpetual offices that would extend past their deaths. Of particular interest is the office of the papacy. While many Protestants now acknowledge Peter as the head of the New Testament Church, few will admit that he held a perpetual office.
But when Jesus appoints Peter as the head of his Church in Matthew 16, he parallels several verses from Isaiah 22:19-22 that document the removal of a corrupt official holding the Davidic office of Vizier (second in command to the king) hundreds of years after the death of David himself. The implication is that this was a perpetual office, existing since the time of David, and Jesus is referring to it here to indicate that, as the new Son of David, he is now appointing Peter to this same office. The New Testament fulfillment of this Old Testament office would be the papacy.
Similarly, in Acts 1:16-26 Peter, again as the head of the Church, would direct the apostles to choose a successor to Judas: "May another take his office." If Judas' office needed to be filled, how much more Peter's.
The writings from the early Church also confirm the perpetual nature of the papacy. St. Augustine (AD ≈400), hailed as one of the greatest saint scholars of the Christian Church by Protestants and Catholics alike, would confirm: "if the succession of bishops is to be considered, how much more surely, truly and safely do we number them from Peter, to whom, as representing the whole Church, the Lord said: 'Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' For, to Peter succeeded Linus, Linus to Anacletus ... to Anastasius." (Augustine lists all the Popes, from St. Peter to the Pope of his day).
Related to this idea of perpetual offices, our sixth point is that the New Testament blueprint for this apostolic, authoritative, hierarchical Church unquestionably carried on past the apostolic age and into the succeeding centuries of Christianity as well.
St. Irenaeus (AD 190) distinctly outlines the test of a valid Christian Church in his day: "We are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and (to demonstrate) the succession of these men to our own times."
In AD 200, the formidable theologian Tertullian wrote: "if there be any heresies ... let them make known the origins of their Churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops so coming down in succession from the beginning, that their first bishop had for his ordainer ... one of the Apostles, or of apostolic men, so he were one that continued steadfast with the Apostles. For in this manner do the Apostolic Churches reckon their origin: as the Church of Smyrna recounts that Polycarp was placed there by John; as that of Rome does that Clement was in like manner ordained by Peter. Just so can the rest also show those whom, being appointed by the Apostles to the Episcopate [office of bishop], they have as transmitters of the Apostolic seed."
Stunningly, every bishop, priest, and deacon in the Catholic Church can trace his ordination back in an unbroken line to one of the apostles. This apostolic succession is one of the clear marks of the Church Jesus founded, and sets it apart from others who might try to claim validity as a legitimate Christian church.
The writings from the early Church also confirm the perpetual nature of the papacy.
Our final point is one that should give any Christian who is not Catholic serious pause. The historic Church Jesus founded, the Catholic Church, will never fall. As the wisest of builders, Jesus builds his Church on rock, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (c.f. Mt 7:24-25; 16:16-19). Scripture does speak of individuals falling away from the Church, even of heretics and scoundrels within the Church, but it neverspeaks of a total apostasy of the Church itself.
I think St. Irenaeus captures our current situation succinctly: "it is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, those who ... possess the succession from the Apostles; those who ... have received the certain gift of truth ... But to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever."
But my favourite quote comes from St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and disciple and friend of St. John the Apostle: "all should respect the deacons ... [and the] bishop as representing the Father and the priests as the council of God and the college of the Apostles. Apart from these there is nothing that can be called a Church."
If Jesus founded a Church on rock, promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it, appointed its leader (Peter) to a perpetual office, and then gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and that Church is still here today (the Catholic Church), shouldn't every Christian be a member of this Church? And if your church doesn't have a successor to Peter, and validly ordained bishops, priests, and deacons succeeding from the apostles, you might ask yourself: why not?
Graham Osborne. "The blueprint for the Church that Jesus left behind." The B.C. Catholic (2020).
Reprinted with permission of Graham Osborne.
Graham Osborne is a professional nature photographer and biologist. He has spent the last twenty years studying Sacred Scripture and Church teaching and teaches Scripture and apologetics classes for the Archdiocese of Vancouver's Office of Catechetics' quarterly Institutes. He also teaches adult faith education courses and gives retreats and conferences at parishes around the Archdiocese. Graham makes his home in Wynndel, B.C. with his wife and 3 children. His website is here.Copyright © 2020 The B.C. Catholic
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