The Apostolicity of the Church
Rev. Angus Stewart
Since the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), the Christian
church has confessed creedally four attributes of the true church, that she is
"one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Ephesians 2:20 teaches the church’s
apostolicity, for the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and
Thus the apostolicity of the church is biblical and
creedal, but what does it mean? On the day of Pentecost, the beginning of the
New Testament age, the church was gathered through the preaching of the
apostles, and the church "continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine" (Acts
2:42). Today, apostolic doctrine is contained in the New Testament which is the
completion and fulfilment of the Old Testament. Therefore that church is
apostolic which is wholly characterised by the truth taught by the apostles in
sacred Scripture, and Christian ministers are successors to the apostles if they
preach apostolic doctrine.
Ephesians 2:20 teaches that apostolicity is the foundation of
the church, for the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and
prophets." The holiness of the church is its beauty (Eph. 5:26-27); not its
foundation. The catholicity of the church is its universal extent including all
nations, languages, age groups etc. (Rev. 7:9); not its foundation. The unity of
the church is its spiritual and numerical oneness; not its foundation. As the
"foundation" of the church, apostolicity is the basis for the church’s holiness,
catholicity and unity. The true church possesses apostolic holiness, apostolic
catholicity and apostolic unity. Thus ecumenical relations between congregations
and denominations must begin with doctrinal discussions: Do we agree together on
the apostolic faith?
Moreover, there is only one foundation of the church; not two
or more. The basis of the church is not apostolicity and
unity or holiness or catholicity. Nor is the church based upon apostolicity and
man’s free will or modern science or church tradition. The church’s sole
foundation is the apostolic truth of the Holy Scriptures that reveal Jesus
Christ crucified, risen and reigning, for He personally is the foundation of the
church (I Cor. 3:11).
Foundations, of course, are laid once, and the foundation of
the church can never be re-laid. The apostolic faith "was once [for all]
delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). As a wise builder, God’s foundation is strong
enough to support the whole church of all ages. Thus departing from apostolic
doctrine—the truth about the Triune God, Scripture, creation, sovereign grace
etc.—is tampering with the foundation of the church and results in the fall of
a congregation or denomination. People may still attend, but spiritually the
congregation is degenerating and on the way to becoming a false church. Churches
with apostles and prophets today not only fail to understand the nature of these
temporary, extraordinary offices, but they also add to and thereby undermine the
foundation of the church: the biblical, New Testament "apostles and prophets"
(Eph. 2:20; cf. 3:5). The claim that there are apostles and prophets today
necessary involves their receiving direct, verbal revelation from God (other
than that in the 66 God-breathed books of Holy Scripture). This denies the
all-sufficient Word of God (Ps. 19:7-11; II Tim. 3:16-17) and the all-sufficient
foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20).
Foundations also determine the length and breadth, and thus
the shape, of a building. False doctrines in a church not only tear up the
foundation; they also lay an additional foundation. All that claims to be church
but is not built on the apostolic foundation is under the judgment of God.
The best way to demolish a building is not to smash its
windows or its chimney or even its walls but to destroy the foundation that
supports the whole edifice. Likewise, the most effective way to overthrow a
church is to undermine its foundation: apostolic doctrine. Thus, openly or
subtly, false teachers attack total depravity, justification by faith alone,
unconditional election and reprobation etc.; and undermine the Reformed creeds
that summarise apostolic truth.
All this enables us to test instituted churches by the light
of God’s Word. The key question is this: Is this congregation or denomination
apostolic in all things? Is this or that church wholly characterised by
apostolic teaching so that it is a "pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim.
3:15) holding up the truth of Jesus Christ in a truth-hating world? Are the
three marks of the church present: apostolic preaching, apostolic sacraments and
apostolic church discipline? Is the congregation apostolic in its worship,
prayers, church polity, offices (minister, elder and deacon), instruction of
covenant children, evangelism etc.?
Membership in an apostolic church is honouring Jesus Christ
who is present where apostolic truth is preached, believed, loved, confessed,
defended and suffered for. Such churches are places where its members "grow in
grace" through "the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Peter
3:18), the one set forth in all His riches in apostolic teaching.
For more on this subject, listen to this sermon:
The Apostolicity of the Church (Eph.