Christian Authority -- In Focus

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My good brothers and sisters in the Protestant churches frequently ask me what the major difference is between Catholics and Protestants.  That is, assuming they're not cracking jokes about it.  Now, as I have said on this blog before, don't judge them.  They have good reason for what they do.  Granted, I don't agree with their reasoning, but nevertheless, it is sound from a certain point of view.  Occasionally however, I do get very sincere questions, and that has given me pause to consider some very sincere answers.

Most of my countrymen in the Ozarks are genuinely ignorant of Catholic Christianity.  This is through no fault of their own.  They live in the "Bible Belt" (also known as the "Baptist Belt") of the United States as illustrated in the map to the right which comes to us from the U.S. Census Bureau.  You will notice in the map, the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri to Northern Arkansas are overwhelmingly "red" for Baptist.  The two counties shaded "yellow" in my immediate area are probably due to the high concentration of Pentecostals in this region.  These belong mostly to the "Assemblies of God," and there happens to be some very large Assemblies churches in those counties.  From a Catholic perspective, there is not much difference between Baptists and Pentecostals, though from a Baptist or Pentecostal perspective, the differences may seem enormous.  As you can see, the "Bible Belt" stretches from Texas and Oklahoma eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean, as far north as Missouri, to as far south as Florida.  Catholics only make up a majority in Southern Texas, Southern Louisiana, and Southern Florida.  Outside of these areas, Catholicism is an extreme minority religion.  The average Baptist (and Pentecostal) is rarely exposed to Catholicism.  They may occasionally drive by a Catholic Church, and wonder what goes on inside, but unless they personally know some Catholics, the majority of what they know about Catholicism probably comes from Hollywood and television.  Catholicism is basically a mystery to them, and most of them will freely admit that.  It is common for many of my fellow Ozarkians to mistake Catholicism for a minority religion worldwide, based on their personal experiences in the Bible Belt.  In fact, I've met a lot of Catholic children here in Missouri who think the same thing!  They are unaware that Catholicism is not only the largest single Christian Church in the United States, but also the largest in the world, dwarfing all others with over one-billion members.  They are usually pleased and a bit energised to learn this.  Outside of the Bible Belt, such knowledge may be commonplace, but inside the Bible Belt, it is a bit of trivia relatively unknown.

So first let me clarify the question I'm frequently asked.  It usually goes something like this: "So Shane, what is the major difference between Catholicism and Christianity?"

Okay, I usually have to stop them right there, because already what we have is a loaded question.  Now granted, most people don't know it, and I explained that in detail in a previous essay entitled "Are Catholics Christians?"  To clarify, I break it down for them like this.  First, Catholics are Christians.  So there is no difference between Catholicism and Christianity.  They are one in the same.  Second, Western Christianity has broken down into two major divisions.  One is Catholic and the other is Protestant.  Now how do you know the difference? I ask, Are you a Catholic?  If the answer is "no" then guess what?  You're a Protestant!  Now I quickly go on to explain that Protestantism itself is broken down into many denominations, thus there are many different types of Protestants.  There are Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, etc.  At this point a light bulb usually pops on in their head.  "I didn't know I was a Protestant!" I've heard many a Baptist exclaim.  Some are resistant to the idea, so I usually don't push the issue.  I do however rephrase their question for them into: "So Shane, what is the major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism?"  Now that we have the right question, we can begin to delve into the answer.

The major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, in my estimation, is the issue of authority.  That's right -- I'm talking Authority -- with a capital "A."  You see, I tell them, the Catholic Church asserts a certain claim to authority over the message of the gospel and the religious lives of Christians.  So Christians who accept that claim to authority are called "Catholic" meaning "of the whole" and "complete," whereas Christians who reject some or all of that claim to authority are called "Protestant"  meaning "one who protests."  The "protest" in Protestant is against the pope and his claim to Christian authority.  Believe it or not, once you briefly explain this, many Bible-Belt Christians become less resistant to the idea of being classified as "Protestant."  There is a strong independent streak that runs through the Ozarks.  The idea of resisting authority can be appealing to some.  So, I explain, the major difference between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians is that Catholic Christians accept the Catholic Church's claim to authority while Protestant Christians generally reject it, sometimes preferring a more "personal" and "private" relationship with God over any one man's claim to have authority over religious matters.  That is the major difference between Catholic and Protestant Christianity.  Naturally, this explanation tends to generate a lot more questions ranging on various topics.  So that's my short answer for casual conversation.  Only on very rare occasion does the subject of authority progress beyond that.

In my two previous essays (Are Catholics Christians? and The Bible Is Not Alone) I explored the problems of relying on the Bible alone, or Sola Scriptura, for all religious authority.  I pointed out that all Christians, including Protestants (and even Baptists), rely on some extra-Biblical traditions just to function.  Where there is tradition however, there must likewise be authority.  For if we do not have some authority, some group or institution, telling us what extra-Biblical traditions to follow, then we will have nothing but chaos.  For example; most Protestant churches have a central body (or individual) who dogmatically proclaims that the Bible shall be used as their sole source of authority.  Since the Bible nowhere claims this for itself, (see The Bible Is Not Alone), you need to have an extra-biblical authority make such a claim.  This same central body (or individual) will pontificate "which Bible" they shall use.  For not all Bibles are the same.  Catholic Bibles contain more books than Protestant Bibles, so it would be common for such central bodies (or individuals) to pontificate the shorter 66-book Protestant Bible, as opposed to the longer 73-book Catholic Bible.  Some of these central authorities (or individuals) will even pontificate which particular English translation they will use in their Protestant churches.  Some will insist on the King James Version (KJV) only.  Others prefer to use the New King James Version (NKJV).  Some prefer the New International Version (NIV), and still yet others insist on the New American Standard Bible (NASB).  Now that doesn't include the various doctrines they will sometimes insist on.  Some Protestant churches are Calvinist, while others are not.  Some are Dispensationalist, and others are not.  Some believe in consubstantiation when it comes to Holy Communion, others believe it is just a symbolic "Lord's Supper."  Some believe in infant baptism, others do not.  The list goes on and on.  Why is this?  How can there be such uniformity of doctrine in the Catholic Church, shared by the Eastern Orthodox as well (over 2/3 of all Christians), yet in Protestantism there is so much diversity in doctrine?  Literally, you can go to any Catholic Church, anywhere in the world, and the doctrine is the same.  You can go to any Eastern Orthodox church in the world, and while their form of worship may look different, their doctrine is virtually identical to the Catholic Church.  Yet, when you go from one Protestant church to another, the beliefs change depending on where you are.  How can this be?  Perhaps this is where a little knowledge of history comes in handy.

You see, prior to the 16th century, all Christians in the Western world were Catholic.  That's right, the word "Catholic" and the word "Christian" were totally synonymous.  People just used them interchangeably.  This had been the case in the West since the age of the apostles.  However, in the late 15th century, certain corruptions set into the Catholic Church, so that by the early 16th century, these corruptions were quite profound in Northern Europe.  This gave way to political instability in Northern Europe, which gave rise to many attempts at reformation.  There had been reformation movements in the past, and most of them were quite successful.  However, in the 16th century, these new reformers were different from the old.

What is the difference between St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther?  They were both great reformers, where they not?  They were both misunderstood by their contemporaries, where they not?  They both fought against insurmountable odds and overwhelming religious corruption in their time, did they not?  So what's the difference?  Why isn't Martin Luther regarded as "Saint Martin Luther?"  Well, I'll tell you, and for me this is a bit personal.  You see my direct ancestors were some of the first Christians baptised under Martin Luther's religion.  My surname comes from Guntersblum Germany, which is just about 12 miles north of Worms on the Rhine River.  I can trace this line of my ancestry directly to baptismal records in the local Lutheran church going back to the late 1500s. My family was among the first Protestants ever, and they remained faithful Lutherans (for the most part) for nearly 500 years!  I myself was baptised in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church in the United States back in 1970.  So how come the reformer Francis of Assisi is a Saint and the reformer Martin Luther is not?  The answer is simple really.  Saint Francis of Assisi sought to change corruption within the Church, while Martin Luther sought to change the doctrine of the Church itself.  That's the difference.  Saint Francis of Assisi claimed no authority of his own, outside of that which was given to him by the pope to govern his religious order.  Martin Luther on the other hand, claimed all authority under heaven, putting himself on equal authority with the bishops, pope and the apostles of Jesus Christ.  He assumed for himself the authority to redefine Christian doctrines that had been defined for centuries.  He not only reinterpreted the Bible to his own fancy, but he even removed books from the Bible that he disagreed with (Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, in addition to the 7 Old Testament books sometimes called the Apocrypha).  So sweeping were the powers he assumed that he quickly became known as "that pope in Wittenberg," though one must historically observe that no real pope in Rome ever dared to claim so much authority for himself.  Martin Luther effectively made himself a "super-pope."  Luther was not alone in his time.  Others followed his example; John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli just to name a couple. The English Reformation was a bit different, but in the end, the cause was the same.  In this case, King Henry VIII, and later his daughter Elizabeth I, simply adopted the same position as Martin Luther, taking on all authority under heaven to remake Christianity however they saw fit.  For all of the quibbling over this doctrine or that, the entire Reformation of the 16th century could easily be simplified to just calling it a crisis of authority within the Western Church.  The so-called "Reformers" simply assumed for themselves a level of authority not seen since the apostolic era.  That they assumed such authority is indisputable, let the historical records show, but the real question is: Did they have the right to assume such authority?

Today, there are many Protestant churches.  I really don't know how many.  Open up any citywide phone book, turn it to the yellow pages, and under the listing for "churches" one can easily find literally dozens of Protestant denominations to choose from.  One of the more recent trends is the so-called "non-denominational" church.  These too are Protestant churches no doubt, as they usually cling to all of the basic tenets of Protestantism, including the 66-book Protestant Bible.  However, they are not always affiliated with any centralised authority structure.  Thus the individual "non-denominational" church becomes a denomination unto itself, completely free and independent of all others.  There the pastor serves as priest, bishop and pope, all in one.  There is also the house-church or small-group trend within Protestantism which may, or may not, have a centralised authority structure.  Of course the ultimate example of Sola Scriptura run amok is the "individual church movement."  What's that?  You might ask.  Well, it's been around for a long time, but there is no official structure of any kind behind it.  I doubt you would find a specific website devoted to it.  It is simply the growing Protestant notion that one doesn't really need a church at all.  It is Sola Scriptura taken to such an extreme, that each individual becomes a church unto himself, with his own authority to interpret the Bible for himself, as he sees fit, without the aid of anyone else.  I'm sure you've heard about it.  Every time a Christian says, "I don't need a church, I can worship Christ just fine in my own home," this is what is meant by the "individual church movement."  Ultimately, under this ideology, a single passage of Scripture can be interpreted literally a thousand different ways, by a thousand different people, and to be consistent, one would have to say that no one interpretation is better than another (i.e. "Biblical relativism").

So how did we go from then till now?  How did we go from the 15th century, when all Western Christians basically agreed the pope and bishops were the undisputed authority, to where we are today in the 21st century, when half of Western Christians (the Protestants) cannot agree amongst themselves who the undisputed authority is?  Or even if there is one?  How did we go from a time when there was one set of doctrines which all Christians believed, to hundreds of sets of doctrines which few Christians can agree on?

Might I suggest that the original reason for this devolution may have been pride, but perhaps the reason today is completely different?  While I think the so-called Protestant "Reformers" of the 16th century really had some nerve, I am not convinced the Protestants of today are cut from the same cloth.  Sure, there are some who go out to start their own churches, because they think they have a better understanding of the gospel than others, but I think the fact that there are so many variations of the gospel offered by Protestants today causes so much confusion that it's easy to think you might have a better grasp on the gospel than others.  I mean if any hack with a Bible can go out and start a church, then what is to stop me from doing the same?  Or so that's the general rationale, especially when one thinks he can do a better job.  So I wonder if what the last five centuries of Protestantism has really produced is little more than a steady progression from pride to confusion.  That's why I just can't put the Protestants of today into the same category as the Protestants from five centuries ago.  The world has changed a lot, much of it the result of the Protestant Reformation, which has changed the motives and reasons why Protestants continue to start new churches today.

So in summary, Catholics have a set authority structure and Protestants do not.  Oh sure, some Protestants have an authority structure of their own making, essentially a reinvention of the wheel that already existed in the Catholic Church, but this varies from denomination to denomination, and few of them can agree with each other on that.  I suppose if we really want to understand this difference between Catholics and Protestants on authority, we are going to have to look further back in history, back to the time of the apostles and their immediate successors.  What did they have to say about authority?

I have already demonstrated in two previous essays (Are Catholics Christians? and The Bible Is Not Alone) that the apostles knew nothing of Sola Scriptura.  The New Testament hadn't even been collected into a single volume yet, and they repeatedly appealed to "oral tradition" alongside Scripture as the source of their teachings.  I have also demonstrated clearly that the Apostle Paul called upon Christians to look to the Church, not the Scriptures, as the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1st Timothy 3:15).  From my previous essays, I believe we can safely conclude the following about the apostles of Jesus Christ...
  1. They did not subscribe to Sola Scriptura.
  2. They called upon Christians to follow their oral Traditions and well as the written Scriptures.
  3. They considered their oral Traditions equal to the written Scriptures.
  4. They considered the Church as the mediator of both Tradition and Scripture, having received this things from God.
  5. They asserted that they, and their successors alone, had the sole authority to interpret both Tradition and Scripture in any kind of authoritative way.
  6. They considered Peter (and his successors) to have primacy over all other bishops.
This is just what the Bible says about the apostolic view on religious authority.  Sorry if you find this bothersome, I know I did initially before my conversion to Catholicism, but it is "just the facts" ma'am.

The early Church echoed these points and then some, even going so far as to insist that the Bishop of Rome, the successor of the Apostle Peter, had primacy and authority over all others. The following was written by a Bishop of Rome in the late first century...
Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." -- Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, (A.D. 105)
"The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth.... If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him (Jesus Christ) through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger." -- Clement of Rome, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians,1,59:1 (c.A.D. 96)
Other writings from the early Church continue to back this apostolic role of authority, particularly as it applies to the Bishop of Rome, that is "the pope"...
"Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." -- Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, (A.D. 105) 
"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Mast High God the Father, and of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is sanctified and enlightened by the will of God, who farmed all things that are according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour; the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love..." -- Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Prologue (A.D. 110)

"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere." -- Irenaeus, Against Heresies,3:3:2 (A.D. 180)
The sentiments of the earliest Christians on this matter were nearly unanimous. So we know what the early Christians thought about authority, but we still have yet to explore the reasons why.

Perhaps it helps to understand where religious authority comes from in the historic sense.  To do this, we are going to have to look to Jesus Christ himself.  You see, when Jesus instructed his disciples, he made it very clear that they were all still Jewish, that the scribes and Pharisees had legitimate authority over Judaism because they sit in Moses' seat (Matthew 23:2), and that he did not come to abolish the Law of Moses but rather to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17-20).  Here Jesus is giving a nod to succession.  He is acknowledging that a form of authoritative succession did exist in ancient Israel.  We know that among the Jewish priesthood (and yes they did have a priesthood) it was genetic, passed from father to son, in a form of bloodline succession.  However, Jesus is talking about the "scribes and Pharisees" here, not the priests, so there was another line of succession that existed as well, not necessarily genetic in nature, viewed as having the authority of Moses (Christ's words not mine).  Those of us familiar with Judaism know of the Jewish tradition called semikhah which literally translated means "the laying on of hands" and carried the meaning of "transference" or what we Christians might call "ordination."  It is likely this custom to which Jesus referred when he said the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  Jewish rabbis received semikhah to receive their title as "rabbi" both in ancient Judaism and modern Judaism.  (Yes, it is possible that Jesus may have received this as well, since he is called "rabbi" many times in the gospels, though we have no record of such a rite ever performed on him.  He certainly didn't need it, but his antagonists never seemed to question his claim to rabbinical authority either.  So who knows?)  Now the term rabbi means more than just "teacher."  Literally translated it means "my master" or "my great one."  You simply don't call a Jew "rabbi" unless he has earned that title, and a Jew doesn't earn that title through mere studies in the Torah.  While academics are important of course, and necessary, it is not an academic title.  The title cannot be attained by one's self.  Nobody has a right to it, no matter how much study has been accomplished or how much knowledge has been gained.  The title must be given, and it can only be given by somebody who already has it.  This process is called semikhah and it is done by a rabbi laying hands on a student, with the intention of transferring not only the authority of his rabbinical title, but the very character of its office as well.  A newly ordained rabbi becomes a "copy" (if you will) of his former master, with all the same authority and rights.  Everything the former rabbi could do, is now possible to the newly ordained rabbi.  The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time were rabbis, each and every one of them.  They didn't have the priestly authorities of the kohanim (temple priests) or duties of the Levites, but they did have the authority to teach the law and apply it's statues on the people.  So where did they get this authority?  They claimed to get it from Moses.  In other words, they claimed that they could trace their semikhah all the way back to the Mosaic time, when the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness and eat manna for their daily sustenance.  In other words, they claimed the original semikhah came from Moses himself, as he gave them the authority to interpret and apply the Law.  Jesus gave a nod to this when he said the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses's seat (Matthew 23:2).  In this respect, they acted in Moses' place, and their decisions had just as much binding authority as those made by Moses himself.  Such is the nature of semikhah.

So what we see here is the original Jewish context of Christian authority.  Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of his apostles.  Let us never forget that!  So when we look at the things Jesus did, and the institutions he established, we need to look as them in a Jewish context.  The New Testament tells us that the Jewish authorities were just a precursor, a sign of much bigger and better things to come.  So when we look at the Jewish priesthood and the Jewish rabbinate, we need to understand that these were merely forerunners.  What Moses gave the Hebrew people was a foretaste of things to come -- a foreshadowing if you will, of a much bigger future reality.  According to Jesus himself, the consummation of all the Law and prophets was in him.  He was the prophesied one of whom Moses foretold would come.  The Law could never be abrogated, but it could be fulfilled.  So there could be no new Lawgiver, until the old Law (the Torah) was fulfilled.  Moses foretold of a new Lawgiver, one greater than he, who would eventually come to take his place (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).  This new Lawgiver was none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Messiah, or the "Christ."  Jesus acknowledged the authority of the scribes and Pharisees as having come from Moses directly, and he commanded his disciples to obey them (at least for the time being), that is until he had fulfilled the Law on the cross and created a New Covenant with his own blood, thus becoming the new Lawgiver to succeed the old.  Before he did this however, he established a new chain of authority to succeed the old as well. You ask: Where is that in the Bible?
Jesus speaking to Peter... I say to thee: That 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. -- Matthew 16:18-19 
Jesus speaking to the apostles...   Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.  Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven.  For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. -- Matthew 18:18-19
Jesus again speaking to the apostles after he had sealed the New Covenant with his own blood...   When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost.  Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. -- John 20:22-23
When we look at the panorama of Jesus' ministry on earth, we see a common bone of contention constantly resurfacing between him and the Pharisees, and that is the power (or authority) to forgive sins.  For example; Jesus would frequently tell a crippled man his sins are forgiven.  The Pharisees would protest saying that only God alone has the authority to forgive sins.  At that Jesus would prove to them his divinity by healing the physical infirmity of the man who's sins he just forgave.  However, we see in these passages above that Jesus chose to share this very same authority, the divine authority to forgive sins, with his apostles!  Stop and think about that for a moment.  The authority to forgive another's sins, both in heaven and on earth, is by far the greatest authority imaginable.  The Pharisees correctly pointed out that no one can forgive sins except God, yet Jesus proved to them that he was/is God, and then he turned around and shared that aspect of his divine authority with his apostles. He didn't share it with the Pharisees.  He didn't share it with the Jewish priesthood.  He shared it with his apostles and his apostles only!  Thus, a whole new sacramental system to forgive sins had just been established, one that surpasses the Mosaic Law, and is derived from the semikhah of God Himself, having come in the flesh!

This is the basis of Christian authority, the Jewish basis of it, but it does not come to us from Moses.  It comes to us from God in the flesh.  God used the established customs of Judaism to create an authority structure (a "hierarchy" if you will) for Christianity, and yes, the whole thing centres around the forgiveness of sins.  Just as the Jewish sacramental system of animal sacrifices centred around the forgiveness of sins, so too the new and improved Christian sacramental system centres around the forgiveness of sins.  Granted, not every aspect of Christianity deals directly with sin, just as not every aspect of the Judaism dealt directly with sin, but it is the core of both sacramental systems.

Like the rabbinical and priestly custom of succession, Jesus' Jewish apostles kept the same system for themselves. Modelled after the rabbinical practice of semikhah, the apostles would lay hands upon those whom they chose to succeed them in apostolic authority.  We see the first incident of this immediately after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ...
And they appointed two, Joseph, called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.  And praying, they said: Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, To take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas hath by transgression fallen, that he might go to his own place. And they gave them lots, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.  -- Acts 1:23-26 
Here we see that Matthias was numbered as an apostle, taking Judas Iscariot's place, assuming all the authority of an apostle, though he himself was never named an apostle by Jesus Christ.  The other eleven apostles did this on their own, numbering him among themselves, making a complete twelve like the twelve tribes of Israel, transferring all of their apostolic authority to him, though he himself had not received it directly from Jesus Christ while Christ walked the earth.  This process eventually came to be called "apostolic succession," which means quite literally, the apostles had the authority to transfer the authority they received from Christ onto another.  How did they specifically do this?  The answer comes to us directly from a Jewish rabbi and Christian apostle named Paul.
  • Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophesy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood. -- 1st Timothy 4:14
  • Impose not hands lightly upon any man, neither be partaker of other men's sins. Keep thyself chaste. -- 1st Timothy 5:22
What were the apostles and their successors doing?  They were performing the Jewish rite of semikhah, or something similar to it, what we call today the Christian rite of ordination.  It was a transference of apostolic authority, from one generation to the next, wherein (like the Jewish priests and rabbis of old) the full authority and character of the office is transferred from one to another.  In other words, a "copy" is made.  The successor is just as "apostolic" as the predecessor, retaining all the same rights and authority.  It's a Jewish thing.  Since Jesus and all the original apostles were Jewish, that Jewish thing is now a deeply entrenched Christian Tradition.  This is where Christian authority comes from.  There is no other Christian authority other than this.  It comes directly from Jesus Christ himself, through the apostles, to their successors, all the way down to the modern era.  Like the Jewish Old Covenant, it centres around the forgiveness of sins, but it is not limited to that alone.  Christian authority through apostolic succession was the undisputed litmus test of the early Church period.  For many people went out attempting to preach their own version of the Christian gospel, but if they could not produce a credible reference to having obtained apostolic succession, they were quickly dismissed as frauds.

As time progressed, the apostolic office tended to take on a threefold character.  The primary character was the full character, meaning the episcopal office, commonly called the "bishop" in English.  This is the full apostolic ordination (semikhah), meaning the one who receives it receives the full apostolic ministry.  To create helpers for the bishop, a lesser form of office was created called the presbytery.  The presbyter would obtain the full apostolic ordination (semikhah) minus the ability to ordain others, so his ministry stops with him, and he is by nature subordinate to the bishop.  In English, a presbyter is commonly referred to as a "priest."  Finally, there is the least of the threefold office called the diaconate, which is commonly called "deacon" in English, and the deacon simply receives a small portion of the apostolic ministry through ordination (semikhah) which is designed to simply help the bishop and priests in their daily functions.

For 1,500 years after the apostolic era this understanding of apostolic authority remained virtually unchallenged.  We have to understand that even the Sacred Scriptures were more disputed than this.  That's right, even the Holy Bible itself had more controversy surrounding it.  Apostolic succession was considered something that could be relied upon.   The "canon" of the Bible, meaning the books the Bible was supposed to contain, was not settled until 401 AD.  In fact, were it not for a dispute that arose with the Arian heretics in the 4th century, the early Church probably wouldn't have even created a canon of Scripture (Holy Bible).  You see, the Arians were a Gnostic sect that tried to hijack Christianity in the early to middle 4th century.  They were led by a rogue priest named Arius who claimed that Jesus was not divine and denied the orthodox teaching of the Trinity.  Arius appealed to Scripture for his rationale, but it was his own compilation of Scripture (the Arian canon), and since the early Church had not yet settled which books belong in the Bible, he got away with this for a very long time.  Arius appealed to the authority of Scripture, at least as far as how he interpreted it, and of course he got to choose which books belonged in his "Bible."  Arius created nothing short of a crisis in the early Church, and for a brief time there were more Arian "Christians" than there were orthodox Christians.  The bishops of the early Church had to act definitively against this heresy lest the gospel of Jesus Christ be lost to a heretical understanding that would dilute its meaning forever.  So drawing upon the apostolic authority that was given to their predecessors by Jesus Christ himself, they exercised this authority to do two things.  First, they constructed a creed called the Nicene Creed, named after the city of Nicea in which they met.  By ordering that all churches have this creed memorised and regularly recited by their members, they took their first step at combating the Arian heresy.  Second, they countered the Arian Bible by creating their own list (canon) of books which they could agree upon based on the "oral traditions" which came from the original apostles that they all had in common.  It took a while for them to agree on this list -- nearly 75 years! -- but by 401 AD the Holy Bible (the one we all know today) was compiled into one book and promulgated to all churches in the ancient world.  It was a one-two punch that put Arianism in its grave.  It didn't work overnight.  In fact, it took over a hundred years, but the bishops were planning for a more effective long-term victory.  Once it was finally down, they didn't want Arianism rearing it's ugly head ever again.  By exercising the authority that Jesus Christ gave to them through apostolic succession, they were able to decimate this attack of the devil.  Where is the Arian heresy today?  Where is the "International Church of Arius?"  It's gone - extinct.  This is why Jesus Christ gave AUTHORITY to his apostles.  This is why he gave it to them under the Jewish pretext of semikhah, which allowed them to transfer it to successors.  The devil rose up Arius to attack the Church over a hundred years after the death of the last apostle.  The apostles couldn't be there to defend the Church in her hour of need, but their successors could be, and so that is how it worked.  Jesus Christ acknowledged the Jewish rite of semikhah for this reason, that the Church he founded might have apostles at all times, to defend her from error, and maintain a sacramental system for the forgiveness of sins.

Exactly eleven centuries later, another man rose up and followed in the footsteps of Arius, though he did not deny the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.  That man's name was Martin Luther, and like Arius he appealed to Scripture as his final authority, even going so far as to modify Scripture by deleting books he disagreed with (including Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation) as well as change passages of Scripture he didn't like (yes, he really did do this).  However, the most lasting legacy that Martin Luther gave was the first of his "five solas" -- Sola Scriptura -- wherein he flushed the whole reliance on apostolic secession and gave Western Christians a whole new authority structure to rely on -- the printed word.  Virtually every Protestant denomination relies on it in one way or another.  For this reason, I believe Martin Luther is considered the Father of the entire Reformation.  He is the first and highest Reformation Father.  All others are subordinate to him, for you see, they all followed his example.  Sola Scriptura is an authority structure that has resulted in the fracture of Western Christianity into many denominations, sects, nondenominational-independent churches, house churches and individuals who say they no longer need church.  They call this progress?

Christian authority comes from Jesus Christ and no other.  It cannot come from an inanimate object, a book, such as the Bible.  It is not something that is earned academically or just assumed by opening up a church building.  It is easy to lay hands on a man and call him "ordained," but if that ordination cannot be traced back to an apostle, it has little to no value.  No, Christian authority came from the hands of the man who ordained Peter, James, John and all the rest.  Outside of this, there is no Christian authority.  It either comes directly from the physical hands of Jesus Christ, or else it does not exist at all.  This is the only reasonable explanation for the doctrinal chaos that has plagued Protestantism for the last five centuries and most intensely in the last five decades.

Without apostolic authority we are left with the inevitable result of Biblical relativism. For without apostolic succession, one pastor's interpretation of Scripture cannot be any more authoritative than another.

This in no way diminishes the pastoral care that Protestant ministers give to their flocks, and what I have written here should not be misinterpreted to disparage the fine work often performed by dedicated Protestant pastors. What I have written here should be interpreted in the most strict sense when it comes to the issue of authority. Indeed, many Protestant ministers have done excellent work tending to the needs of their congregations. All I am saying here is that none of them can speak with absolute authority on the meaning of the scriptures, since none have apostolic succession, and I think it's safe to say that most Protestant ministers would actually agree with me on that. For few of them would claim a level of authority on par with the apostles.

The author makes no attempt to hide his bias here.  I've lived as a Christian on both sides of the fence.  I know what the Protestant side is like, as I've been through more than a few Protestant denominations.  I know what the Catholic side is like.  Neither is without its share of problems.  However, when forced to choose between the doctrinal chaos of Protestantism, verses the doctrinal consistency of Catholicism, I have chosen the latter.  Are the Catholic Church's leaders perfect?  No.  Are they without sin?  Of course not.  Nothing in my faith requires me to believe they are.  Do they make mistakes?  Of course they do.  Can they be corrupt?  Unfortunately the answer is yes.  However, when they teach authoritatively, exercising their apostolic offices, You can rest assured their teaching is as good as if it came from the original apostles themselves.  I can go to a Catholic Church in Springfield Missouri on one Sunday, then attend another in Myrtle Beach South Carolina the next Sunday, knowing with absolute certainty that the beliefs are the same, the liturgy is the same, and the sacraments are the same.  This is the result of the gift of authority.  Jesus gave it to his Church for a reason.


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