Manager, Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism
North American Mission Board
A basic premise for the existence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is that the lack of apostles and prophets in the Christian denominations is evidence that they are apostate. Mormons believe that Christ needed to “restore” the true church to the earth by reinstituting an earthly hierarchical system led by apostles and prophets (beginning with Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church). If they were right and the true church could not function properly or adequately without living apostles and prophets, we would need to take seriously their claim that such ministries were restored through Joseph Smith. On the other hand, if we have good reason to deny that the church is supposed to be run from the top down led by apostles and prophets, we should dismiss its claim to be the true church, since that claim rests on a false premise.
The New Testament speaks of the apostles as a first-generation, foundational ministry only (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; Heb. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:2; Jude 17). The danger that the church was going to face after the apostles died was not a lack of apostles or prophets, but the teachings of false apostles and prophets. For that reason, both Jesus and his apostles warned repeatedly about false apostles and prophets (Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1-6; Rev. 2:2; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10), but never once expressed concern about the church losing its way with a lack of apostles or prophets. Nor does the New Testament make any provision for a top-down worldwide church polity after the departure of the apostles.
Therefore, the New Testament does not teach that the church was to be run from the top down after the departure of the first-century apostles. Rather, the principle for the “changing of the guard” after their departure is found (for example) in 2 Timothy 2:2, which says that faithful men were to teach others to serve faithfully as they had done. This description of how the faith is to be perpetuated does not present a top-down, vertical, authoritarian model of church government. Instead, the model is “horizontal,” of older Christians teaching younger ones who would then go on to teach the next generation of Christian leaders.
Let’s look more closely and fully at the latest New Testament writings, beginning with Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus (in the last inspired letters that he wrote). The false teachers in Ephesus were to be rebuked because they were teaching nonsense (1 Tim. 1:3-7), not because they lacked the proper recognition from the top down. Both overseers (“bishops” in the KJV) and deacons were to be generally above reproach ethically and spiritually (1 Tim. 3:1-13). The focus here is on getting mature Christians into these positions, and nothing is said whatsoever about their being credentialed by a hierarchical religious organization. Likewise, Paul tells Titus to appoint men above reproach as elders (Tit. 1:5-9). Paul says nothing about Titus acting as the agent of an authoritarian religious hierarchy. The focus is entirely on establishing the church in Crete with leadership that is godly and sound of faith, in contrast with Judaizers whose teachings were leading people astray (Tit. 1:10-16).
Neither Paul nor the other apostles make any provision here or anywhere else in the New Testament for a succession of apostles or prophets to lead the church from the top down. The apostasy that was coming would not be a complete apostasy because of a lack of supposedly essential prophets, but would instead be a partial apostasy, a falling away of some (as Paul says explicitly) because they paid attention to prophets inspired by “deceitful spirits” or “demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). When difficult times came and many people professed faith but did not have its reality, the solution would not be to have the church start over with new apostles and prophets, but for truly godly people to continue basing their teaching and life on the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:1-17).
If we look at the other apostolic writings issued as the period of the apostles was passing and some of them were already dying, we find the same pattern. In Peter’s last instructions to the church, he warned that just as false prophets arose among the people in the past, false teachers would arise among the believers (2 Pet. 2:1). Peter says nothing about the church languishing into a general apostasy because of a lack of apostles or prophets. Nor does he suggest that the church will cease to exist. Instead, after speaking at length about the divine judgment awaiting false prophets and teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-22), Peter encourages his Christian readers to remember what the true prophets taught in what we call the Old Testament and what Christ taught through his apostles, which we have preserved for us now in the New Testament (2 Pet. 3:1-2). Notice here that Peter does not say anything about Christians needing the guidance of living prophets and apostles; no, what he says they will need is to remember what the prophets and apostles said.
Peter goes on to alert Christians that they will hear skeptics who mock the Christian faith because the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment about which they warn has not taken place (2 Pet. 3:3-10). Peter’s comments here presuppose that true Christians would continue faithfully well after the apostles were gone (and therefore could benefit from Peter’s teaching). He encourages them to live in a godly way until Christ’s return (2 Pet. 3:11-14), again presupposing that godly believers will continue following the apostolic teaching until Christ’s return. They are to be diligent in following the teachings of the Scriptures, including those of the apostle Paul (2 Pet. 3:15-16a). Admittedly, some of what Paul wrote is hard to understand, but they are to beware of the untaught and unstable who distort his teachings and those of the rest of the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16b). Christians are to keep themselves from being carried away by these false teachers, not by looking to some authoritarian religious organization or restored apostolic hierarchy to guide them, but by “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:17-18).
The apostle Jude’s teaching in his short epistle closely parallels that of the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 2-3. Jude encourages his Christian readers to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). They are to contend against false teachers who distort the gospel, people whose judgment is as sure as that brought on Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, and Korah (Jude 4-16). To avoid falling into such error, Jude tells us, “remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). Here again, the church is to maintain its integrity by remembering what the apostles said, not by waiting for apostles yet to come. While they await Christ’s return, they are to build themselves up in the faith and be agents of God’s mercy to others (Jude 18-23).
Both Peter and Jude, then, are quite clear: the day of the apostles is passing; the church will be rocked by false prophets and false teachers, but will continue existing until Christ’s return; the church is to ward off false teaching by adhering to what the Scriptures teach, as they are the preserved revelations given through the prophets and apostles. Nothing is said to suggest that the church needs apostles and prophets to function properly, or that the church will be reconstituted with such offices in the future. No provisions are made or mentioned for a top-down, hierarchical administration of the postapostolic church. Instead, Christians are warned about false prophets and false teachers, encouraged to adhere to the Scriptures and to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, and promised that if they do so they will make it intact to the end of the age and the return of Christ to consummate their salvation.
The claim that the church can only exist or be properly constituted or administered if it is structured as a hierarchy with apostles and prophets at the top is false. Not only is this claim not taught in the New Testament, the epistles written toward the end of the apostolic era make it clear that the apostles did not expect their office to be perpetuated and did not envision a religious hierarchy as the structure of the postapostolic church. Their focus in choosing leaders after the passing of the apostles was not to be on ecclesiastical power structures but on ethical, spiritual, and doctrinal fidelity to the teachings of the (Old and New Testament) Scriptures. It is on the basis of this standard that orthodox Christians reject the LDS Church’s claim to be the one true church.