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Apostolic Practice, by Vinson Synan

Several Church Traditions

Throughout Christian history, there have been differing views concerning the apostolic office. The Roman Catholic view, developed in subapostolic times, is that Christ commissioned the original Twelve as a unique, unrepeatable body led by Peter and Paul. The “Petrine theory” holds that Simon Peter was given a place of primacy among the Twelve; his successors have been the popes. All other bishops are “successors to the apostles” and exercise a magisterial, pastoral and teaching authority that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Thus, in Catholic theology, all ecclesiastical power is derived from prior generations through apostolic succession. There are no “apostles” as such in succeeding generations, though all authority in the Church stems from apostolic succession. With the exception of the claim to papal authority, this also represents the general belief of the Orthodox churches.

Nevertheless, this view has not kept the Catholic Church from recognizing apostolic-like ministries over the centuries. For instance, missionaries who were the first to bring the gospel to a new people group have been called “apostles” to that group. Thus, St. Augustine of Canterbury is called the “apostle to England,” and St. Patrick is called the “apostle to Ireland.” This tradition is as old as Paul, who called himself “an apostle to the Gentiles.” Over the centuries, there have been thousands of these “apostles to (whatever locale).” Even today, some conduct apostolic ministry among remote tribes and peoples.

The Protestant Reformers rejected the Catholic view of apostolic succession and busied themselves with the new movement they founded. Most believed that the office of apostle had ended with the Early Church, with no “successors” as in the Catholic tradition. Some Reformers, such as John Calvin, thought that apostles might reappear under certain circumstances. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote the Lord “now and again revives them [apostles, prophets and evangelists] as the need of the times demands.” These offices, however, have no place in “duly constituted churches,” he added. In a similar vein, Luther believed “the apostolic message rather than the office” would remain in the church.

A little-known instance of Protestants sending out “apostles” as missionaries occurred among the Baptists in Colonial America. For a time, Baptists in New England ordained “apostles” as missionaries to such southern colonies as Virginia, Carolina and Georgia. After some time, however, the term “apostle” was dropped for the more traditional term “missionary.”

In general, Protestants have been prone to refer to founders of movements and doctrinal systems as “apostles of” certain movements or theological views. Thus, Luther is often called the “apostle of the Reformation,” or the “apostle of justification by faith.” Similarly, Calvin has been called the “apostle of reformed Christianity,” while Wesley is known as the “apostle of Methodism.” Every denomination seems to have an “apostle” who served as the founder of the ecclesial body, usually based on a new and unique teaching from Scripture.

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Category: Ministry

About the Author: Vinson Synan, Ph.D., is Visiting Professor of Church History and Dean Emeritus of Regent University’s School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, VA. Dr. Synan has over ten years of pastoral experience and is the author of several books including The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, The Century Of The Holy Spirit 100 Years Of Pentecostal And Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001, Global Renewal Christianity: Europe and North America Spirit Empowered Movements: Past, Present, and Future, and The Twentieth-Century Pentecostal Explosion: The Exciting Growth of Pentecostal Churches and Charismatic Renewal Movements. Dr. Synan has been a leader bringing Christians together in the gospel of Jesus Christ through such efforts as founding the Society for Pentecostal Studies and participating in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of North America (PCCNA) Task Force. www.regent.edu/acad/schdiv/faculty_staff/synan.shtml

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