Summary: Five characteristics of an apostolic congregation.
For the last one thousand, seven hundred years, Christians across the world have recited the Nicene Creed in their worship. Part of the Nicene Creed says, "We believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church." What does that really mean? We know what "one" means, that it refers to the oneness of the Christian community, that we’re united in by a common faith, no matter who we are, what language we speak, where we live. We know what "holy" means, that the Church belongs to God, it’s set apart to him. And the word "catholic" simply means "universal," that this church is the universal Christian community across the world that transcends different denominations and traditions.
But what about that word "apostolic"; what does it mean? Someone in my family this week told me they thought it had something to do with apples. Well, apostolic isn’t a word we use very much these days, but what we think about first when we hear the word is the apostles. Out of all Jesus’ followers, Jesus choose twelve and named them apostles. The word Jesus chose "apostle" suggests these twelve people had special and unique authority, that they spoke and acted with Jesus’ own authority. So they were more than pastors, more than evangelists and leaders; they were official representatives of Jesus himself.
But the title "apostle" wasn’t handed down past that first generation that Jesus personally chose, so there’s debate among churches as to how a church today can still be considered "apostolic." The Roman catholic church claims that the authority of the apostles was handed down through the pope, so Roman Catholic pope is a living apostle of Jesus Christ, with the same authority the apostles Peter and Paul had. The Eastern Orthodox church suggests the authority of the apostles was handed down to the bishops in the church, so the leadership of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the source of apostolic authority. Some charismatic churches believe that God directly calls certain individuals to be living apostles of Jesus. For instance, Peter Wagner, who used to teach at Fuller Seminary, believes himself to be a living apostle of Jesus. According to Wagner, these living apostles have unique authority to speak and act in Jesus’ name, and they receive direct revelation from God about what God wants to say to the Christian community.
Well the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago, this question about what makes a church apostolic was a big debate. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and John Huss noticed that after the original apostles all died, the way the second generation of Christians sorted through which Christian books were considered scripture and which books weren’t scripture was by looking at whether the book was apostolic or not. Every book they could determine was written by an apostle, endorsed by an apostle, or associated with an original apostle of Jesus was viewed as scripture, thus to be included in the Bible. Every book that wasn’t written by, endorsed by, or associated with an apostle was rejected as scripture. The Reformers concluded from this observation the authority of Jesus’ apostles wasn’t passed on to people but it was written down in the writings of the apostles. According to the Reformers, apostolic authority was handed down from generation to generation as the Bible was handed down from generation to generation. And a given group of Christians is living under apostolic authority if its living under the authority of the Bible. This was one of the key beliefs of the Protestant Reformation that separated it from the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.