Evangelical Questions: What IS an Apostle anyway?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about apostles. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
I will remind you about the FAIR conference August 2-4 in Provo, Utah. You can buy tickets and come in person, or you can stream online for free. Go to FAIRLatterdaySaints.org to sign up for streaming. I am speaking on Friday, so you can come hang out with me. But I also want to tell you about a new podcast FAIR has going called, “By Study and Faith.” It’s hosted by an up-and-coming young scholar named Zachary Wright. I met Zach when he was still a missionary and have been impressed with how well he gets what the Disciple-Scholar model is all about. The basic idea of which is that your head and your heart don’t have to be in competition. The scholar makes the disciple better – and the disciple makes the scholar better. He has a few episodes out already and the one on how to evaluate evidences is very good. There are so many areas of evidences that can be explored – this is what apologetics is all about – but you have to have a good understanding of how to evaluate sources or you get off-track pretty easily. And Zach’s video is a great introduction to that topic. So go give him a listen.
Okay, so today we’re going to talk about Apostles. What actually is an Apostle? What makes someone an Apostle? Why do Evangelicals have such a different way of understanding this topic? The Come Follow Me readings are working our way through the New Testament and we’ve arrived at Acts – or Acts of the Apostles. Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals would easily agree that the Apostles mention in the New Testament are true messengers. The word “Apostle” literally means, “messenger” or “one who is sent.” The question becomes, “Who is a true messenger?” In our view, a true messenger is one who helps the people know what to do to follow God, to stay true to the instruction they’ve already been given. And a false messenger is one who leads the people astray, burdens them, exploits them.
Why wasn’t the apostleship passed down?
Often Latter-day Saints wonder with something like, “Maybe the Apostles forgot to pass it down?” Or, “Maybe they didn’t know they were supposed to?” As if the Apostles all died without ever trying. So this is not the common understanding for Latter-day Saints, but Peter actually does pass on his authority. He ordains Linus to follow in his place. Linus ordains Anacletus who ordains Clement 1. We use the word “Pope” to describe this role today, but what they’re doing is handing down authority to act in God’s name. My thinking is that they did try to pass it down. But there is a difference between passing it down and having that priesthood honored and respected. I know men in the church, and you probably do too, who appear to be “priesthood holders in name only.” They’ve been ordained to the priesthood – but they do not bear it in any recognizable way. If you follow the story of what happens to the generations that follow after Peter, you can see how this plays out – fast-forward to the year 950 and we get Pope John the 12th. He’s ordained as Pope at age 18 and things pretty much play out how you’d expect they would if a hormonal teenage boy was in charge of the church.
Evangelicals don’t disagree with this storyline. They would call Pope John the 12th a bad example of priesthood too.
The Evangelicals certainly can talk about how they see the original apostles as being the only ones, and they have verses they use to explain that. But more likely their view can be summed up by saying that Apostles are no longer needed because we have the Bible and the Spirit to listen to.
If you’ve listened to very many of these episodes that won’t feel surprising or non-sequitur to you. Evangelicals are very focused on the importance of the Bible and are very confident in their ability to interpret it correctly. It’s a very anti-Catholic stand of, “I can interpret this on my own and don’t need an authority to help me do so.” There’s a theological level understanding (their biblical evidence that no new apostles are needed) but there is also a cultural level understanding that says each person is charged with being their own Apostle, as it were. They are the ones who must decide what is true, how to interpret it, and how to apply it. The idea of, “true messengers,” isn’t really a category for them. Evangelical leaders, pastors, and others are only “true’ to the degree that the individual agrees with them. It’s probably easy for Latter-day Saints to see all the ways in which this can go wrong, but if we’re looking for the best version of Evangelicals on this they’re doing it because they’re very worried that someone might corrupt what has been handed down. So they only can trust themselves, and not necessarily what they’re taught.
This is really well illustrated in the story of Rob Bell.
Bell was an Evangelical pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He started a church there in 1999 with the idea that other Evangelical churches had become focused on the wrong things and church should be stripped down to its basic elements: Worship and teaching. 5 years later they have 6,000 members and people around the world were downloading Rob’s sermons – at the height up to 50,000 downloads a week. Bell is very clearly a talented teacher (he was actually an adjunct at my Divinity School and I took homiletics from him, which was a wild class.) He writes a book, makes a video series with a huge following, goes on a speaking tour. He’s basically one of the hottest things in the Evangelical world at that moment in time. He’s 30 years old and struggling in all the ways that you might imagine a 30-year-old would struggle who has been shot to that kind of fame. But he’s created this huge empire that now employs hundreds of people and thousands of people are relying on him for spiritual guidance. And he’s wildly successful at it. People love him.
But in 2011 he writes a book that pushes against the traditional beliefs of Evangelicals that those who have not made an profession of faith in this life will be tortured in Hell for eternity. Honestly, the book doesn’t even push that hard. In our church we have a full-blown theology about how that isn’t true, and in Bell’s book he just gives some pushback to it. But people turn on him in an instant. The book was released in March of 2011 and by November that year he was forced out. He’s the leader (and founder) of this huge church, but the people he’s leading don’t agree with his new book (I would actually say he gets a lot of things right in that book) and he’s no longer considered a worthy teacher. This is the epitome of why Evangelicals don’t accept Apostles. Evangelicals generally love, and sometimes worship, their leaders – until that leader says something they don’t like or don’t agree with and then they’re canceled as soon as possible. The individual Evangelical is the one who decides what is true, and which new ideas are worthy of being considered. If you remember many episodes back we talked about their fierce independent streak. This is how that streak comes out when we’re talking about Apostles.
So, how do you talk with your Evangelical friends or family about this in any helpful kind of way? Their worry is that by following an Apostle we Latter-day Saints are giving up our autonomy. Unfortunately, there are some portrayals in the media that feed into this -the idea that Latter-day Saints are only allowed to think or read certain things and can never have questions, or never take our time to come to a testimony of certain things. In the realm of church culture, not theology, Evangelicals don’t have a very well-developed idea about, “developing a testimony” of something benign true – at least its not nearly as well-developed culturally as it is for Latter-day Saints. Evangelicals are never going to use the phrase, “I know my church is true.” That’s just not in their culture – it would require them to give up the independent spirit of, “I am the final authority.” A conversation about why you have a testimony of certain things would probably really resonate with them.
Okay, shorter episode today – but it makes up for all the other times when I’ve kept you long after class should have been over! Come back next week and we’re talking about the Holy Ghost. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.