The issue of authority in the Early Christianity

Notes from “The issue of authority in the Early Christianity” Dr Kenneth Howell teaching from Coming Home Network Conference

1. Questions that need to be asked

  • How did the authority of the Apostles expressed itself in their ministries, when the New Testament was not yet completed?
  • What kind of authority did the Apostles have? Was it just a guidence and suggestions without the force of the divine law?
  • Was the authority of apostles shared by others and passed on or did it cease with their death?
  • If the authority of the Apostles was passed, what form did it take?

2. Great Commission was given to the Apostles as the foundation of the church: the ministry of Word and Sacraments, modeled after Jesus’ ministry: preach and heal.

3. John 20 – What kind of authority did Jesus give to the Apostles when He appeared to them? It is the same authority as Christ had himself – the authority of forgiveness of sins was given to the Apostles. If ultimate authority does not derive from the Book, because the Book came from the church, the ultimate authority comes from that body of men that God planted in this world to do his work.

4. The Acts of the Apostles describes the ministry which surrounded mostly two Apostles – Peter (ch.1-12) and Paul (ch. 13-28)

5. Two important decades of the church of the first century:

  • First Ecumenical Council (Acts 15) in Jerusalem concerning the main question: Is circumcision necessary for salvation? (Do the Gentiles have to live as Jews to be saved? ) The Pharisees in Antioch were insisting on circumcising Gentiles, so Paul and Barnabas brough this question to the  Apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem. Apostles and presbyters together with the whole church made their decision, and sent the letter with their decision to inform the church of Antioch, which was looking to Jerusalem church as to the mother church. The leaders of the church recognized historical connection that must be maintained with what has proceeded them. How much connection do we need with history that proceeded us? Do we live in continuity or are we free to establish a sort of different faith based on what we read in the New Testament? The church had the sense of “catholicity” already there. They communicated the decision in the form of the letter and four messengers. The church in Antioch did now want to make the decision by themselves, but asked the church in Jerusalem for a council. This happened around 50-60 AD.
  • If Peter and Paul were in Rome in the early 60ties than what Peter says at the end of his second letter is important 2Pet 3:15 Peter is affirming the authority of divine inspiration of writings of another Apostle.
  • In the last letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus he tells them that they should be very careful to protect the sound teaching (sound words, helpful teaching) which they have received. Paul mentions that those who oppose the Gospel do not hold to those sound words of Jesus. And he tells Titus that he should ordain presbyters who are able to exhort in the sound teaching and to rebuke those who contradict them. The content of faith (deposit of faith) has to be guarded and transferred to their successors. 2 Tim 2:2: This is the pattern of the passing on of the content of faith to the next generation.
  • Paul leaves instructions how to establish permanent offices of bishops, presbyters (elders=priests), deacons. Content of the faith and the offices guarding the content.

6. From 60 AD to 120 AD all of the witnesses suggest that the notion of the Apostolic succession and the authority of a bishop is a norm and the rule within the church. Clement of Rome, third bishop of Rome after Peter, wrote a letter in the 90ties to Corinthians who wanted to overthrow their bishop. The letter explains the order of authority given: God- Jesus-Apostles and the order of continuity of authority within the church in the office of bishops, as well as the primacy of the Roman bishop.

7. The authority of a bishop and pope (bishop of Rome) is the authority of a servant. Authority does not derive from bishops themselves, but authority derives by being faithful witnesses in the offices that were established by the Apostles.

8. I live in a church where the leaders lived in a stream of continuity from the times of Jesus and Apostles. This continuity with the early church gives us the confidence that what we believe was not invented yesterday, that what we believe comes fro the very root of the church with a divine authority of Christ Himself. The church that we are part of has been established by a living Son of God, and He decided that He would commit that authority to fallible men.


4 thoughts on “The issue of authority in the Early Christianity

  1. Why are you under the impression that Paul and Barnabas brought the question of circumcision to the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem? That was never a question for Paul and Barnabas to consider. They were flat out opposed to it because the Gospel of Christ, which they preached, was opposed to it. The issue at hand was regarding the misconception of the Pharisees in the Jerusalem church who were Judaizing the gentile believers. The letter that was drafted was not a decision, but an apology to the gentile churches for the false teachings that came to them from Jerusalem.


  2. The point is rather in Paul and Barnabas being sent to consult the church in Jerusalem, instead of deciding on their own, which is an early sign of universality of the church, need of central authority and decisions obligating the whole church not particular group of believers in one city.

  3. Paul and Barnabas confronted the Judaizers to their face. What the Judaizers were doing is what Paul called “preaching another gospel” in his letter to the Galatians. Paul and Barnabas were by no means going to yield to this false doctrine. The Judaizers came to Antioch under the pretence that they were sent by the church in Jerusalem. This would have been very confusing to the church in Antioch since no such teaching had been presented to them before.

    The church in Antioch needed to prevent the mischief of this dangerous notion, and silence those that vented it, as well as quieting the minds of the people with reference to it. They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and some others of their number, should go to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders, concerning this doubt. Not that the church at Antioch had any doubt concerning it: they knew the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free; but they sent the case to Jerusalem because those who taught this doctrine came from Jerusalem, and pretended to have directions from the apostles there to urge circumcision upon the Gentile converts; it was therefore very proper to send to Jerusalem about it, to know if they had any such direction from the church there.

    The main point of the letter from the Jerusalem church was to comfort the church in Antioch by confirming the fact they did not send these men out to preach circumcision. There is nothing about this incident that suggests a need for central authority.

  4. “As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules.” (Acts 16:3)

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