Why It All Matters
Today, if you look anywhere online or in print, you will see Roman Catholics arguing for their faith against the Protestants; and Protestants arguing for their faith against the Roman Catholics. They have been responding to each other for so long that many people are unaware that there are any options other than Roman Catholic or Protestant.
In the public sphere today, very few people are aware that there is a third way. Christians are being divided between two sides, neither of which is the ancient faith. Few Christians realize that there is a third way, the Anabaptist faith, which comes closer to the original faith as the apostles taught it.
In this essay, I’ll offer an apologetic for the faith traditionally held by the Anabaptists. Others have called this faith “Kingdom Christianity,” and have classified Anabaptism as a specific example of it. I use the term Anabaptist because it is more widely understood, but if you prefer the term Kingdom Christian, please receive this essay as an apologetic for the faith as you prefer to name it.
However, I don’t intend to claim that all historically Anabaptist and Kingdom Christian churches are practicing the apostolic faith. Many are; many are not. Furthermore, many Christians outside of those groups are practicing the apostolic faith—but, whether they are or not, I have no right or wish to judge them.
How do I define Anabaptism, then? And why do I call this faith “Anabaptist”?
I won’t be using the term “Anabaptist” to designate a specific church or churches; instead, I will use the term as shorthand for a specific view of Christianity. One of the main principles of the Anabaptist faith, as I’ll define it, is that living as citizens of the Kingdom of God by obeying New Testament commands (like those found in the Sermon on the Mount) is essential to the Christian faith; holding right beliefs is also important, but not as important as holy living. There might be other traditions that share parts of this principle, but the rest of this article will help clarify and provide support for the ways the Anabaptist faith differs from other views of Christianity.
It is this faith, not these churches, for which I will argue in this essay (though I have a high appreciation for many Anabaptist and Kingdom Christian churches as well). I am, of course, arguing for a view of Christianity that has been held by many Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists throughout the ages. I call this faith “Anabaptist” because I need a name to describe it, and because the historic Anabaptist movement was what convinced many to return to obedience to the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the New Testament.
Whether you agree or disagree with the arguments offered in this essay, please don’t hesitate to comment. I would very much value your feedback.
How Do We Know What the Faith Is? Can It Ever Be Changed?
I will begin by arguing that the teachings of Jesus’ apostles, which are found in the New Testament, are our infallible authority for Christian doctrine.
First, the books that make up our New Testament accurately contain the words of Jesus, his apostles, and others who faithfully represented their teachings. This fact is not under dispute by any of the groups that I’m critiquing. In fact, Christians have never disputed it. Our New Testament contains books that not all Christians were sure of in the earliest years of the church. However, all Christians agreed that the most significant New Testament books, such as the four Gospels, were written by apostles or others who knew them. In fact, more and more scholars today, both religious and secular, also agree with them.
We can also know that the New Testament books that we read today are the actual text of the original books. Through textual criticism, we know that none of the major Greek texts in use today in Bible translation (the Textus Receptus, the Critical Text, or the Majority Text) differs in any substantial way from the original text that the New Testament authors wrote. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that we have the actual text of the New Testament, and that the New Testament books accurately depict the teachings of the apostles.
But Didn’t the Roman Catholic Church (or Eastern Orthodox Church) Give Us the New Testament?
I will briefly note an objection that will probably arise later. Roman Catholics argue that their church councils decided which books were part of the New Testament canon; to them, this shows that the Roman Catholic Church has authority over the Scriptures.
However, my argument in this essay will not rely on the New Testament canon—instead, I will argue that the apostolic teachings are authoritative. So the real question is, did the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches determine what doctrines were apostolic? Here are three reasons why the answer is no:
- The books in which all of Jesus’ written teachings appear, as well as most of the apostles’ written teachings (the four Gospels and others), were always considered apostolic by Christians, long before the canon was decided.
- In the canonization process, none of the other books proposed by Christian leaders contradicted any known apostolic teaching. That means that, before the canon was formed, the Church already knew what the apostolic teachings were, so that they would only canonize books that contained or supported those teachings.
- The decision whether to canonize a book did not hinge on what doctrines were true; instead, books were accepted based on whether there was good evidence that they were written either by apostles or by those who taught directly under the apostles.
As far as I know, all scholars, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or secular, agree with these three points. So we can conclude that the Roman Catholic Church did not determine which doctrines were apostolic.
In presenting my argument, I have drawn from the full range of books—from those that were universally regarded as apostolic to those that were disputed before being accepted. However, this entire argument can be made from books that were universally accepted; I use the other books because Roman Catholics and Protestants both accept them (as do I).
The Argument for Doctrinal Authority
I will now proceed to argue, without depending on the canonization process for authority, that Christian doctrines and practices are defined by the apostolic teachings which are found in the New Testament, and that these teachings cannot be changed. Finally, I will critique the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine of church authority.
Let’s start with Jesus’ words on doctrinal authority. This is recorded most clearly in John 16. Before his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus told his eleven faithful apostles many things. Here is one of his statements:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15 ESV)
This passage is often interpreted to apply to all Christians, but Jesus didn’t actually say it to all of his disciples.1 He said these words to the eleven apostles who were with him in the upper room after Judas had left to betray him. He told those specific men that the Spirit would guide them into all the truth.
After his resurrection, Jesus entrusted these same apostles to teach his message. He commissioned them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). However, Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4–5).
On Pentecost, the apostles received the Holy Spirit, and it was then that they began to teach (Acts 2:1–4). But just how much value did their teaching have in the first years of their ministry?
Paul wrote to the Galatians somewhere around A.D. 50, within thirty years of Pentecost. In that letter, he told the Galatian churches,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:6–9)
Less than thirty years after the apostles first preached the gospel, Paul says that not even the apostles could change the gospel with new revelation. So the gospel that was preached in those first years is the one and only gospel of Christianity.
But what if it’s just the gospel that didn’t change? How do we know that other teachings might have changed since then? Let’s just take a look at what Paul says about the church traditions.
Jesus and Paul both spoke against traditions of man. However, the apostles also taught traditions, as in instructions for Christian practice. In the first Scripture quoted below, Paul classifies the Christian woman’s head covering as one of these apostolic traditions. Other traditions can be found throughout the New Testament books.
Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions [ordinances; instructions; precepts] even as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor 11:1–2)
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thes 2:15)
These passages show that Paul taught that the apostolic traditions or instructions could also not be changed. The author of Hebrews also implies that these traditions were for all time, when he said,
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. (Hebrews 13:7–9)
These Christians were to imitate their leaders, who had told them the word of God, and not to follow other teachings. Within this exhortation, he asserts that Jesus Christ himself never changes. This fact seems to imply to him that Christian teachings could never be changed.
The apostle Peter also admonished Christians to keep what they already had. He reminded them of the importance of faith, knowledge, steadfastness, and other virtues, saying,
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. . . . I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet 1:5–15)
Peter told his readers that they were already established in the truth. They already had what he had been commissioned to pass on to them. However, he wrote them again so that they would continue to recall and live out what they had already been taught.2
Jude also wrote to the church to remind them to hold fast to what they were given in the beginning. He said,
I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
Jude realized that Christians needed to be warned against moving away from their faith. Like the other writers, he does not suggest that any part of the faith had not been revealed—no, the faith had been delivered once for all.
So, as I’ve shown by quoting the relevant Scriptures, Jesus and the apostles offered no reason to think that any further church leaders would be needed in order to develop or clarify Christian doctrines; in fact, these Scriptures suggest the very opposite. Remember that Jesus told the eleven faithful apostles that the Spirit would guide them into all the truth, speaking to them what Jesus wished he could say to them.
We can conclude that no further defining of doctrine is needed beyond what the apostles gave. The Spirit revealed all Christian teachings to the apostles in their lifetime. This means that any church councils or later teachings can only offer a helpful perspective on the original faith; they cannot be considered infallible definitions of or pronouncements on the faith. Church leaders have the authority to teach and, in so doing, to help their people better understand the faith; however, their clarifications do not have the authority to define Christian doctrine or practice.
The apostles already defined the Christian faith by spoken word or by letter. They gave us one faith that was intended for all Christians throughout all time until the end of the age. This faith can be found in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there are no more true things to be said, or no further revelations to come. We can and should spend our lifetimes learning more about God. Besides, God has revealed occasional truths to many people since then. This argument simply shows that these further truths will affect no doctrine or practice necessary to Christianity—our doctrines and practices have never changed from the faith that the apostles first proclaimed and which is recorded in the New Testament.
Is It All Found in Scripture?
I said earlier that the apostles already defined the Christian faith by spoken word or by letter. But what if the apostles said or wrote something that’s not recorded in the New Testament? Might there be other authoritative sources for Christian doctrine?
The only way we could know this is if that teaching or writing was witnessed in the writings of someone who heard it from an apostle. But for the first two or three hundred years of the Church, the early Christian writers were very conservative in their view of the faith. When describing what is necessary to the faith, they overwhelmingly held to what is included in the Scriptures.
In fact, the writings of early Christian leaders are a valuable historical reference, because they show us that, for hundreds of years, the church believed that the faith was delivered once for all. Christians faithfully lived out what the apostles had first taught them, whether by spoken word or by letter. Though church organization, local traditions, and other such things changed over the years, nothing that Christians considered essential to the faith was added or changed for nearly three hundred years. Yet, if the apostles had handed down traditions that were not recorded in the New Testament, we would expect these traditions to surface in Christian writings before three hundred years had passed. Therefore, from the apostolic writings and from the early Christians, we can conclude that the apostolic doctrines are all found in Scripture, and that the apostles never handed future church leaders the authority to make infallible pronouncements on the faith.
The Authority of the New Testament
So Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach the Christian faith, and whatever they taught to the churches in the first century is what we should still believe and practice today. Their teachings can be found in the books that were later compiled into the New Testament, which contains books written by members of the original twelve apostles, by later apostles like Paul, and by other apostolic men like James and Jude.
Just as Jesus trusted the apostles to teach the faith, we can trust the apostolic writings to contain the true faith. Scripture has full authority over us, because it contains the teachings of the true faith by those whom God had given full authority to teach. This conclusion shores up the central tenet of Anabaptism, which holds that Jesus’ message in the Scriptures is our authoritative source for doctrine and practice today.
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
The conclusion of my argument is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture is incorrect. These churches hold that Jesus invested the Church with continuing authority to define doctrines and make new pronouncements on how Christians should live. They teach that the Church (by which they mean the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church) is the only source for true teaching. The Scriptures, they believe, derive their authority from that of the Church, which gains its continuing doctrinal authority from the apostles.
Scripture clearly shows that Jesus and the apostles gave certain forms of authority to churches. However, the letters of the apostles wrote their authority directly into the Scriptures, and the doctrines and instructions that were taught in the first century of the Church cannot change. Therefore, if a church ever teaches something beyond what the apostles gave us in the New Testament, that teaching cannot be infallible.
So have the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches taught non-apostolic teachings as authoritative? In short, yes. They have held numerous church councils that further developed Christian doctrines and altered Christian practices—such as approving the use of icons of saints and prayers to Mary. Not everything that was decided was wrong, and some decisions, like the Nicene creed, were helpful. No matter how helpful some of them might have been, however, these decisions were wrongly claimed to be infallible pronouncements for Christians. Furthermore, as I will show later, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have not followed all the practices that Jesus commanded for his disciples.
What About Apostolic Succession?
Finally, I want to respond to another view of authority. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches hold that a church’s authority to baptize, ordain leaders, and teach doctrine comes from what is called “apostolic succession.” What this means is that their church leaders were ordained by bishops who were ordained by other bishops, etc., etc., in an unbroken chain that goes back to the apostles. They believe that the apostles’ authority lives on in the bishops who are alive today, as long as the ordination pedigree of those bishops goes back in a direct line to the apostles. Additionally, the Roman Catholics hold that the Pope has special authority which goes straight back to the apostle Peter.
I certainly don’t have the time to give a full refutation of the doctrines of apostolic succession and the Papacy in this essay. If people are interested, I might follow up later. However, I’ll offer a simple answer.
The doctrines of apostolic succession and the Papacy are mainly supported by selective quotations from Scripture and the early Christian writers. However, you won’t find clear teachings on either subject in any apostolic writing. On the other hand, Scripture is very clear about what the apostolic faith is, so we can know who is teaching it and who isn’t. If someone, whether a bishop, or a thousand bishops, or even the Pope, has further defined doctrine beyond what the apostles taught, and then has the presumption to claim that those alterations have the same authority as what the apostles taught, then we can hardly say that they are “apostolic.” That is what these churches have done by claiming their church pronouncements to be infallible and by neglecting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (as I will show later).
Any authority that a church has today must be founded on “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” which the Spirit delivered through the apostles. So it is those who follow the doctrines and practices laid down by the apostles who have true apostolic succession. Those who obey Jesus and the apostles are “succeeding,” or following in the footsteps of the apostles themselves. However, since the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have added to and changed Christianity, they have not entirely followed the apostolic faith.
I conclude that there is no church anywhere that has authority to stand between us and the apostolic teaching. No church has the authority to change or further define Christian doctrines or practices beyond what the apostles taught in spoken word or letter.
My next post will argue in support of the Anabaptist doctrines for salvation and nonresistance.
- The question naturally follows, “If that’s a valid point, how can we know that any of Jesus’ statements apply to us rather than to the immediate hearers?” The answer is that we must always go by context. In the case of this passage, see similar passages in the same discourse, like John 14:25-26, 15:26-27, which are clearly spoken to the eleven. Furthermore, within hours after 16:12-15, and within the same context, Jesus prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (17:20), indicating that we receive the truth primarily through the teachings of Jesus’ immediate disciples. So even though many parts of this discourse can and should be applied to all Christians as well as the eleven, there is good reason to believe that this statement shouldn’t be applied directly to us.
- Several similar Scriptures are 1 Cor 14:37, 1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 1:14, Rev 2:25.