How Did The Church Evolve After The Apostles?

By Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas –

According to Acts 1:26, Matthias was selected to replace Judas, bringing the number of apostles back to 12.  We know that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is considered the successor of Peter.  Were the other apostles replaced upon their deaths?  Do we still maintain individual successors for the other 11 apostles?  If so, what is the position called and who selects them?

The Twelve Apostles are a unique category whom the Bible considers to be the foundation of the Church (Rev 21:14). As such, they are irreplaceable – except for one, namely Judas, who betrayed Jesus and had to be replaced. Keeping in mind that the root meaning of “apostle” is basically “one who is sent”, we can find others called apostles in the Bible, such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:3-4). Many of these were great missionaries and evangelists, but they never attained the same status as the Twelve, who were with Jesus from the beginning – specifically, from the time that John the Baptist was still preaching (Acts 1:21-22). Matthias was qualified in this sense, and was therefore inducted into the Twelve, to take the place of Judas.

Such witnesses, however, existed only among the very first group of disciples of Christ on the day of Pentecost, and it is unlikely that anyone who joined them later would have the same qualifications.

Hence, when the Twelve began to die, starting with James (Acts 12:2), no new members were added to the company of the Twelve, though new “apostles” (in the sense of missionaries with complete authority to initiate new local churches) were still emerging.

So what happened instead? The leadership of the Church began to pass on to the second generation of Christians, namely those whom the apostles had appointed to take care of the local churches. They had various roles and responsibilities, such as prophets, teachers and so on, but in the course of the first century, the authority in each church came to be vested in the hands of the episkopoi or overseers (the later bishops), presbyteroi or elders (the later priests) and diakonoi or ministers (the later deacons). Naturally, the foundational role of the apostles could not be passed on to them. But many aspects of the apostolic ministry – such as the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the Sacraments, the authoritative leadership of the faithful – these were handed on to the new generation of Church leaders, who therefore became in a real sense the successors of the apostles. Among them, the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, held an important place from the very beginning. Moreover, the writings of the original apostles began to hold an important place in the second generation of Christianity, and eventually became our New Testament.

The bishops all over the world are united in a fraternity called the “College of Bishops”. The College of Bishops succeeds as a whole to the company of the apostles; it is therefore no longer suitable to speak of an individual bishop as the successor of an individual apostle, except in the case of Peter who had a special role. However, some churches have strong traditions concerning their apostolic origins, and may maintain a list of bishops who, they believe, successively governed their dioceses right from the time of the apostles. In a certain sense, these bishops can be considered the successors of those individual apostles – as for example, the Patriarch of Constantinople is considered to be the successor of Andrew, Peter’s brother. Since the other apostles did not have a specific mission given by Jesus, such titles do not carry much theological significance, but may help to preserve the ancient self-understanding of the Church.

Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Church and Ascension Church, and has completed two years of ministry at St. Peter’s Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.