One feature of modern times in the Western world is the dazzling array of churches. At the end of the first millennium, there was one united Christian church, with only a couple of separated offshoots; at the end of the second millennium, there are thousands of independent churches.
Yet Christ taught that we are one body. And he promised the apostles to be "with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). In the midst of all these churches with contradictory beliefs and interpretations, where is Jesus Christ? Who speaks for him today? How do we know who is speaking the truth and who is providing human interpretations and opinions?
Part of sorting out this issue involves asking who today has the faith of the apostles? Early in his public ministry, Jesus chose 12 "to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message" (Mark 3:14). The apostles were not just ordinary followers of Jesus; Jesus identified himself with them. "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me," he told them (Matthew 10:40).
At the Last Supper, Jesus made a crucial promise to the 12 which he did not extend to his other followers: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). Thus, while Jesus revealed truth to many people, only the apostles were given a special guarantee of knowing the truth. The Twelve -- whose names all four Gospels took care to list -- had a charism for keeping the truth intact and revealing it to all humanity.
Christian churches all generally accept the importance of the apostles. Where they begin to differ is on whether the mission of the apostles could be passed on to others as the original 12 died. In the early Christian community, there was widespread belief that Christ's second coming would take place before the last apostle died.
Many Christian churches believe that the mission of the apostles could not be passed on, that it was unique. They see the apostolic faith being preserved and renewed only through the seemingly random outpouring of charismatic gifts by the Holy Spirit. From this point of view, it is the presence of signs and wonders that is the guarantee of God's presence in the church.
In one sense, it is true that the apostles' ministry was unique. They were eyewitnesses to Christ's public ministry and to his resurrection. When they died, there could be no new Christian revelation.
But in the Scriptures, we see the apostles attempting to pass on the ministry of preserving the truth which was entrusted to them. Of particular interest are the efforts of Paul -- who had been accepted as an apostle -- to pass on his ministry to Timothy. Indeed, his second letter to Timothy makes little sense except in the context of the passing on of ordained ministry.
Timothy, the first bishop of Ephesus, had received "the gift of God" through the laying-on of hands (2 Timothy 1:6; 1 Timothy 4:14). And he is urged to "Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us" (1 Timothy 1:14). Both Timothy and Titus, though never called apostles, received a mandate to teach, govern, and ordain deacons, priests and bishops.
Thus, although the church is "built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20), their mandate endures even after they are gone. This is the fulfillment of Christ's promise to be "with you always."
It is also important that there be historic continuity of today's ordained ministers with the apostles themselves. The apostolic ministry cannot be entrusted to a person by others who have not also received that ministry. If the line of succession is broken, those who come after are not true spiritual successors of the apostles.
Understood in this way, only the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are true inheritors of the apostolic tradition. This does not mean Christ is not present in other denominations. Those churches can be places for great outpourings of God's grace. Their members can be baptized, pray and read Scripture.
All this is of great importance. But it does mean that those churches have lost most of the sacraments and have lost the guarantee that they are passing on the teachings of the apostles. And when they confront new questions, not directly dealt with by the apostles, there is no assurance that their answers are the ones that would have been given by Christ and the apostles.
Fidelity to the apostolic tradition is not without consequences for the life of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This fidelity dictates a hierarchical structure of church and it also gives those churches a special responsibility to work for Christian unity.
Further, rather than being a reason for Catholics and Orthodox to boast, it imposes a duty to submit ourselves to the teaching and authority of the successors of the apostles. We must learn our faith, believe it with great fervor and pass it on to others. Frequently, we must ask ourselves how well we are fulfilling that responsibility.
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