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Apostolic Tradition

by Steve Atkerson

This is an excellent article by Steve Atkerson on the question of both the validity and applicability of biblical Apostolic Tradition in the church today.


Roman Catholicism has made much of church tradition by placing it equal in authority to Scripture. The reformers rejected this in their cry, sola scriptura (Scripture only). While past church tradition is interesting and informative, we must ever remember Jesus' words to the pharisees: "...you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Mt. 15:6).

In jettisoning church tradition, some have sadly made the mistake of also ejecting apostolic tradition. This is somewhat akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. The apostles of our Lord not only taught specific doctrines and gave definite commands, they also established patterns of behavior that they clearly expected all churches everywhere to follow. Dare we disregard these patterns?


Jesus vested unique authority in the twelve, saying to them, "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me..." (Lk. 10:16). He also promised them (the twelve) the gift of the Holy Spirit who would lead them into all truth (Jn. 15:26-27; 16:13). What did these representatives of Christ have to say about mimicking their behavior?

  • "I urge you to imitate me...Timothy will remind you of my way of life ...which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church" (1 Co. 4:16-17).

  • "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Co. 11:1).

  • "I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions, just as I passed them on to you" (1 Co. 11:2).

  • "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. 3:17).

  • "Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:9).

  • "You became imitators of us and of the Lord...and so you became a model to all the believers..." (1 Th. 1:6-7).

  • "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Th. 2:15).

Believers are to "imitate" the apostles' "way of life," to "follow" their "example," to be "remembering" them in "everything," to be "holding" to their "traditions," to "take note" of others who also live "according" to the apostolic "pattern," and to "put into practice" "whatever" an apostle taught.


Notice that these commands to copy the apostles apply to "everything" and "whatever," including their "traditions." As believers, we are eager to follow apostolic doctrine; but then why do we balk at following apostolic tradition, especially since holding to it is expressly commanded? "Tradition" is from paradosis and means "that which is handed down" (it is the same word used in Mt. 15:2-6!). Thus, although Jesus condemned the Pharisees for allowing their traditions to nullify the word of God, the Scriptures elevate the traditions of the twelve to a level equal to the word of God. To hold firmly to apostolic tradition is to fulfill God's word.

It is evident from Scripture that the apostles expected all churches to follow the same pattern. For instance, Paul taught the same thing "everywhere in every church." Those who imitated the apostles were said to be a "model" to "all" believers.... In establishing guidelines for orderly church meetings Paul wrote, "As in all the congregations of the saints...," thus appealing to a universal practice of all churches to justify his guidelines (1 Cor. 14:33). Whenever a church broke with established tradition, it received immediate rebuke from the apostle: "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?" Put in slightly different terms, Paul is saying, "Did you get some new revelation from God that it is okay to change the standard practice of the church? If so, are you the only ones he gave it to, because none of the other churches are practicing this?" (1 Cor. 14:36) Thus again appealing to the universal practice of all the churches.

What patterns are evident in the NT that believers generally still follow today?

  • The autonomy of the local church

  • Government by a plurality of elders ( a “Broader Episcopate”)

  • Meeting for church on the "Lord's Day"

  • The laying of hands on those being ordained

  • Baptizing believers only

  • The separation of church and state

  • The legitimacy of the office of deacon

  • The sending out and supporting of missionaries

What NT patterns (or even imperatives) are there that believers generally ignore today?

  • "Open" (participatory) church meetings

  • Mutual edification

  • The "love feast"

  • Weekly observance of "the Lord's supper"

  • Church discipline

  • Baptism by immersion

  • Meeting for church in believers' homes rather than in specially designed religious structures

Theological liberals readily admit that certain doctrines were taught by the NT church, but they reject these doctrines because of their belief that the church today is more enlightened and sophisticated than the church of two thousand years ago: "Yes, the NT teaches that Christ's death was propitiatory, but what use have we for such a bloody, barbaric religion? God is God of love, not wrath. Jesus died because of human sinfulness, but not a payment for it. Certainly Paul condemned homosexuality, but Paul was a product of his narrow-minded ethnic group. Today we know better; homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle when practiced responsibly. Christian homosexuals should not be denied ordination."


Though evangelicals quickly and rightly reject this kind of reasoning, it actually is not far removed from the reasoning of those who argue that NT patterns are neither important nor normative today: "The church of the twentieth century is, after all, more enlightened and sophisticated than the church of the first century. Yes, the NT church was characterized by small, informal, participatory meetings held in people's homes, but we know better. God intended for his people to gather in massive religious structures, listening to professional orators deliver high-powered Bible lectures. Certainly the churches of the NT were ruled by a plurality of elders, but common sense tells us that anything other than a one-man rule will produce nothing but chaos in the decision-making process. We will therefore employ one man to come in and lead us as 'the' pastor." Rejecting apostolic tradition is not as serious as rejecting apostolic doctrine, but they are both steps in the same direction.


Sadly, many (most?) churches today are firmly entrenched in traditions developed after the close of the apostolic era. (Often these sacrosanct traditions date only from the last generation). Although sympathetic with apostolic tradition, the preference is usually given to more recently developed traditions. In such cases, are we not guilty of nullifying the inspired tradition of the twelve for the sake of our own traditions (Mt. 15)? Jude 3 states that the faith was "...once for all entrusted to the saints." What authorization have we to tamper with it?

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