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Do We Need Apostles to Run the Church?
by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
The LDS claim is that the church is supposed to be run from the top down led by apostles and prophets. However, the New Testament speaks of the apostles as a first-generation, foundational ministry only (Eph. ; 3:5; Heb. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:2; Jude 17). The danger that the church was going to face after the apostles died was not a lack of apostles or prophets, but the teachings of false apostles and prophets. For that reason, both Jesus and his apostles warned repeatedly about false apostles and prophets (Matt. ; 24:11, 24; Mark ; 2 Cor. -15; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1-6; Rev. 2:2; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10), but never once expressed concern about the church losing its way with a lack of apostles or prophets. Nor does the New Testament make any provision for a top-down church polity after the departure of the apostles. Therefore, the New Testament does not teach that the church was to be run from the top down after the apostles’ departure. Rather, the principle for the “changing of the guard” after the departure of the apostles is found (for example) in 2 Timothy 2:2, which says that faithful men were to teach other men to serve faithfully as they had done. This description of how the faith is to be perpetuated does not present a top-down, vertical, authoritarian model of church government. Instead, the model is “horizontal,” of older men teaching younger men and those men going on later to teach younger men again.
Look more closely and fully at Paul’s
instructions to Timothy and Titus. The false teachers in
If we look at the other apostolic writings issued as the period of the apostles was passing and some of them were already dying, we find the same pattern. In Peter’s last instructions to the church, he warned that just as false prophets arose among the people in the past, false teachers would arise among the believers (2 Pet. 2:1). Peter says nothing about the church languishing into a general apostasy because of a lack of apostles or prophets. Nor does he suggest that the church will cease to exist. Instead, after speaking at length about the divine judgment awaiting false prophets and teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-22), Peter encourages his Christian readers to remember what the true prophets taught in what we call the Old Testament and what Christ taught through his apostles, which we have preserved for us now in the New Testament (2 Pet. 3:1-2). Notice here that Peter does not say anything about Christians needing the guidance of living prophets and apostles; no, what he says they will need is to remember what the prophets and apostles said. Christians will hear skeptics who mock the Christian faith because the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment about which they warn has not taken place (2 Pet. 3:3-10). Peter’s warnings and encouragement here presupposes that true Christians will continue faithfully well after the apostles are gone (and therefore benefit from Peter’s teaching). He encourages them to live in a godly way until Christ’s return (2 Pet. -14), again presupposing that godly believers will continue following the apostolic teaching until Christ’s return. They are to be diligent in following the teachings of the Scriptures, including those of the apostle Paul (2 Pet. -16a). Admittedly, some of what he wrote is hard to understand, but they are to beware of the untaught and unstable who clearly distort Paul’s teachings and those of the rest of the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16b). They are to keep themselves from being carried away by these false teachers, not by looking to some authoritarian religious organization or restored apostolic hierarchy to guide them, but by “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:17-18).
The apostle Jude’s teaching in his short
epistle closely parallels that of the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 2-3. Jude
encourages his Christian readers to “contend earnestly for the faith once for
all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). They are to contend against false
teachers who distort the gospel, people whose judgment is as sure as that
Both Peter and Jude, then, are quite clear: the day of the apostles is passing; the church will be rocked by false prophets and false teachers, but will continue existing until Christ’s return; the church is to ward off false teaching by adhering to what the Scriptures teach, as they are the preserved revelations given through the prophets and apostles. Nothing is said to suggest that the church needs apostles and prophets to function properly, or that the church will be reconstituted with such offices in the future. No provisions are made or mentioned for a top-down, hierarchical administration of the postapostolic church. Instead, Christians are warned about false prophets and false teachers, encouraged to adhere to the Scriptures and to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, and promised that if they do so they will make it intact to the end of the age and the return of Christ to consummate their salvation.
The claim that the church can only exist or be properly constituted or administered if it is structured as a hierarchy with apostles and prophets at the top, then, is false. Not only is it not taught in the New Testament, the epistles written toward the end of the apostolic era make it clear that the apostles did not expect their office to be perpetuated and did not envision a religious hierarchy as the structure of the postapostolic church. Their focus in choosing leaders after the passing of the apostles was not to be on ecclesiastical power structures but on ethical, spiritual, and doctrinal fidelity to the teachings of the Scriptures.