I have put together a list that may help missionaries explain the apostasy to investigators and new converts. Specifically I want to address what was lost and why in early Christianity after the death of the apostles. Leadership in the early Church transitioned from apostles to local bishops, what happened to the priesthood keys?
It is hoped that this guide will not distract missionaries from teaching the essentials as outlined in the authoritative Preach My Gospel curriculum. Rather it should be regarded as a supplementary resource for further exploration and an aid to addressing advanced concerns.
A note to investigators reading this article: I hope you can forgive me for not addressing this article directly to you. It is awesome that you are engaging in serious study and I hope you will find the answers you need to make an informed decision.
There are limitations to using this guide. First it should be understood the primary evidence of the apostasy is modern revelation. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed to have received visits from heavenly messengers and investigators are challenged to prayerfully seek after their own spiritual witness of claims regarding authority. An examination of ancient history can at best demonstrate plausibility and not proof of the apostasy.
Second, the text below is not sufficient to give the reader a mastery of all the issues involved. The provided links should be read to understand more context, underlying assumptions, and limitations of the observations being made. The links lead to LDS treatments on the subject that are accessible over the net.
Third, in some cases the LDS-authored literature linked to may be out of date relative to progress that has been made in the relevant scholarly fields. I welcome comments from LDS scholars to help correct errors and point out weaknesses in this literature.
Fourth, non-LDS scholars are cited sometimes in agreement with LDS thought and sometimes in contrast. In some cases the consequences of agreement have been under-explored. For example, the methodology used might have a double-edged effect with the potential work against some aspect of Mormon thought.
Fifth, the data we have about first century Christianity is very sparse beyond the New Testament. Some of the sources were written much after the fact and may suffer from distortion. Therefore conclusions about what happened exactly often have to extrapolated beyond what the meager evidence can definitively establish. Even among Latter-day Saints, historical reconstructions can vary widely. So please feel free to disregard my views if you find them unhelpful or unpersuasive.
Finally, those expecting that the evidence will show that ancient church organization was exactly the same as the latter day church may be disappointed. Let me suggest three author’s essays that provide valuable orientation for beginning such a comparative study.
Grant Underwood, “The ‘Same’ Organization the Existed in the Primitive Church”
Kevin Barney, A Tale of Two Restorations
Blair Hodges, Liken with Care
With those disclaimers, let us us proceed to 10 points exploring the loss of priesthood keys.
1. Studying the story in Acts where Matthias was chosen to replace Judas can be beneficial. Mormons often generalize from that the apostles were meant to continue as the governing body of Christ’s church, replacing apostles that died or apostatized. This practice did not continue and LDS thinkers have commonly attributed this to persecution and widespread (but not universal) rejection of the apostles.
2. There is also New Testament evidence for other apostles like Paul, James the brother of Jesus, Barnabas, etc. There is some different takes by non-Mormons about what to do with these additional apostles, which I sample on the FAIR blog .
* Some argue that apostles were no longer necessary after these as they had served their purpose in laying the foundation of the Church (for example Catholic Francis Sullivan).
* Some argue that soon no one could meet the requirement (read into Matthias’ selection) that an apostle had to have been a living witness to Christ’s mortal ministry. (no citation but I encounter this idea a lot from Catholics and Protestants).
* Some argue that the new apostles weren’t necessarily members of the Twelve (Bruce Chilton). There might be something to this idea given that some modern apostles have not been members of the Q12. There is some early Christian evidence that Seventies could also be considered apostles and other special witnesses of Christ could likewise be considered as such (see Mormon writer John Tvedtnes’ citations in this article. ).
* Refreshingly, one non-Mormon author argues that the Twelve as a governing body headquartered in Jerusalem were meant to continue, but eventually Roman persecution drove the Christians out of there (Baptist R.A. Campbell).
3. Missionaries may want to ponder Matt 16:18’s “rock” that the Church will be built and maintained upon. Both Protestants and Catholics typically use the passage as a guarantee the Church will never be taken from the earth and conclude that they must have the “rock.” Mormons tend to read it as a conditional promise, and the Apostasy is evidence that Protestants don’t have the rock. Catholics often identify the rock with Peter’s apostleship and conclude that Bishops (and more specifically the Pope) must be apostolic successors.
Protestants sometimes contend the rock is Christ and a special priesthood is not strictly necessary. Mormons occasionally look at the context of Matt. 16:18 and conclude the rock is a symbol for revelation, but deny that the Church continued on the earth. The gates of Hell are taken to be associated with the Spirit world and more specifically the ones that prevent or delay resurrection. Note that Christ ultimately triumphed over these gates. Metaphorically a spirit’s death and resurrection is symbolic for a Church’s apostasy and restoration.
Some limitations on using these ideas is missionaries will encounter articulate Protestants and Catholics who do a much better job presenting their case than I do. Scripture interpretation can occur at two levels: a consensus reading that is adapted to serve the needs of a particular group, or a reading arrived at by trying to reconstruct the original context. It can be difficult to get someone to consider the latter if they are attached to the former.
4. Missionaries are likely familiar with passages in Ephesians about how prophets and apostles are the living foundation of the Church. Jesus is the chief cornerstone. So in the sense of rocks/stones being used as a foundation, Catholics and Protestants are both right and the foundation rock refers to both Christ and apostles. Since both received revelation as spokesmen for God, the Mormon position is also insightful.
My survey of other non-Mormon scholars (Draper and Mathewson) develops these concepts even more. They use ancient Judeo-Christian texts to show the twelve apostles were associated with revelation (12 Urim and Thummim) stones, with restored temple worship (as stone temple pillars), and are princes and judges over Israel (symbolically gatekeepers). Only the LDS Church claims to have living apostles functioning in all these roles that I am aware of.
5. Another thing lost or at least greatly modified in content and presentation with the loss of apostles was a priestly gnosis or body of knowledge related to the temple and heavenly ascents.
Hugh Nibley had an interesting quip in Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity (2005) p. 209:
“There are three periods in the history of the church,” writes Cyril, that of Christ, that of the apostles and”–we wait in eager anticipation for the successor in the leadership, but in vain–“those times which have passed since the apostles.” What a strange way to designate the third period of the church. It is as disappointing as Clement’s announcement that Christ gave the gnosis to Peter, James, and John; they passed it on “to the rest of the Twelve” and they in turn “passed it on to the Seventy.” Since the discussion is of the transmission of the key–the knowledge of the gospel–we wait for the next link in the chain, but there is none.
LDS scholars have different points of view on the evidential value of parallels between the modern temple endowment and reconstructions of the what the gnosis was.
[I hope to have more analysis and references here later.]
6. Missionaries could benefit from awareness that in the New Testament, apostles are noted as the only deterrent from preventing false teachers from corrupting the Church from with in. I am thinking specifically about Acts 20:29, but the book Early Christians in Disarray has an appendix of New Testament passages on apostasy.
There is also a 4th century early Christian historian, named Eusebius, that confirms this and it is cited in a Nov. 1972 Ensign article :
Besides this, the same man, when relating the events of these times, adds that until then the Church had remained a pure and undefiled virgin, since those who attempted to corrupt the sound rule of the Saviour’s preaching, if any did exist, until then lurked somewhere in obscure darkness.
But when the sacred band of the Apostles had received an end of life in various ways, and that generation of those who were deemed worthy to hear the divine wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its beginnings because of the deceit of heretical teachers who, since none of the Apostles still remained, attempted henceforth barefacedly to proclaim in opposition to the preaching of truth the knowledge falsely so-called.’
7) The great commission to the apostles was to do missionary work Matt. 28:19-20. Yet their supposed successors, the Bishops, had been primarily stationary overseers over local congregations looking after temporal needs when an apostle present and taking charge of meetings in limited way during an apostle’s absence. This difference between an apostle and a bishop is crucial in Hugh Nibley’s Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity and in Catholic Francis Sullivan’s book.
I have some blogs on these items worth checking out: http://www.mormonandcatholic.org/apostles-and-bishops-in-early-christianity/
Another good resource is an Ensign article on early Christian bishops Polycarp, Clement, and Ignatius who did not regard themselves as having the authority the apostles had.
8. Apostasy is more correctly thought of as a mutiny than merely a falling away. Notice that local leaders reject John and refuse to accept his letters in 3 John 1:19. I suggest this example is indicative of a wider trend where wealthy local leaders began to resent traveling apostles and prophets supervising them. Local leaders abused tests to detect false prophets (and revelation) to reject true prophets as well. I cover this source of tension my blog primarily citing non-LDS scholar David Horrell.
Other explanations for the leadership transition between apostles and bishops also may have some merit. Variations across cultures and geography may make Horrell’s model less than fully applicable.
9) It is also clear in early Christian writings that Christians were also rebelling against the local leaders (Bishops) whom the apostles had appointed. John Tvedtnes has a good article covering this.
There is a risk of over-generalizing specific examples of rebellion (such as described in 1 Clement) and overstating evidence that apostles or their delegates were universally rejected.
10) It is also important to note that there were factions within the early church that didn’t like each other. Even the apostles sometimes didn’t get along very well. See John Welch’s chapter in Early Christians in Disarray.
In a blog I noted that Raymond Brown in Antioch and Rome and John Painter in Just James have created a categories of different factions regarding missionary policies. Brown speculates that the death of Peter and Paul in Rome under Nero was a conspiracy by envious Christians who disagreed with their policies.”
Bruce Chilton, Types of Authority in Formative Christianity and Judaism. London, UK: Routledge, (1999).
J. A. Draper, “The Apostles as Foundation Stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Foundation of the Qumran Community” Neotestamentica 22 (1988).
David Mathewson, “A Note on the Foundation Stones in Revelation 21.14, 19-20″ JSNT 25.4 (2003) 487-498]
R. A. Campbell, “The Elders of the Jerusalem Church” Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993). p. 517-518 also The Elders (1994) p. 162-3
Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops (2001)
David Horrell, “Leadership Patterns and the Development of Ideology in Early Christianity” Sociology of Religion v58 p. 323-41 Winter ‘97