Jesus is no longer with us as he was with his first disciples—at least not in the same way. He’s no longer walking around teaching by word and example. Nevertheless, he didn’t leave us to grapple with life’s questions all by ourselves. Jesus left his community of disciples ways of recalling his presence and preserving his teachings. On Pentecost, he gifted the young church with the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” who would guide the church “into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). He instituted rituals like the Eucharist to act as the church’s living memory, calling to mind the life of Christ.
Jesus has given his followers two other means of connecting with him in particular: the written Word of God and its servants, the church’s pastors. In a sense, Jesus founded his church on these two gifts, the apostolic writings and on apostolic leaders—on the Bible and on bishops.
That’s right, Starship. He built this city on rock and scroll.
Most people recognize the role of the scroll—the Bible—in Christianity. Of great importance are the twenty-seven documents of the New Testament. They contain accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings as well as other writings that provide a peek at early Christian life and practice.
Besides acting as historical witness to Jesus and the first Christians, the New Testament came to be regarded as divinely inspired, and therefore on par with the Jewish scriptures (or Old Testament). With such ease of access to the Bible today, we tend to view the Bible as a single leather-bound book properly used for devotion, bible study, and self-help. However, for the first centuries of Christianity, the written Word of God’s significance primarily related to its proclamation at the Eucharistic liturgy. Christians would gather together to partake of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper). In fact, “New Testament” originally referred to the Eucharist, since Jesus used this term in reference to the Last Supper.
Since the New Testament writings reflected the larger context of the Christian life and worship, one could say that Christians were “doing church” long before the Bible was ever a single-volume work—even before there was an official determination of what belonged in the Bible, in the first place.
This brings us to the other foundation of the church, the rock.
Even when Christians were without the Bible’s table of contents, Christians still knew the contents of the faith. Jesus charged his Apostles to preach the gospel to all nations. There is actually no indication that Jesus asked his disciples to write anything down; instead, he gave them his own authority to teach in his name (Mt. 28:18-20), forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23), lead the Christian community (Mt. 18:18), and, of course, preside at the Eucharist (Lk. 22:19).
The New Testament writings reveal that the early church gathered around Christ’s appointed shepherds, the Apostles, who in turn appointed other pastors as well. One shepherd of the church, the Apostle Peter, occupied a chief place of leadership.1 At one critical point in the gospels, after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus in turn declares Peter to be the “rock” upon which Jesus would “build [his] church” (Mt. 16:18). Additionally, Jesus gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” which signify the Old Testament role of royal steward in the Davidic household.2 Jesus, the new king of the Davidic Kingdom, is in effect making Peter the shepherd and steward of his church.
So even though the first Christians were without a Bible, Jesus did not leave the early church without guidance. Instead, Jesus left human shepherds as his representatives to teach and govern the church. They acted as the “foundation” of the church (Eph. 2:20), with the rock Peter holding a preeminent position of leadership.
This rock of the church was not only for the first century, when the Apostles were still around. Christians of the second century immediately picked up on this principle of apostolic authority. They not only regarded the Apostles but the men they appointed as legitimate leaders of the church. These successors to the Apostles, the bishops, were looked to as a source of Christian unity and teaching. Second-century Christian Ignatius, who himself was bishop of Antioch, was firm that union with the bishop meant union with the church and, in turn, Jesus Christ:
Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop…” –Letter to the Trallians 2, ~AD 110
And as one may expect, these second-century Christians also identified a certain bishop as occupying an important place of leadership: the bishop of Rome, who succeeded Peter, the original rock:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all […] by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul […] With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” -Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3:3:2, ~AD 180
So Jesus built his “city,” the church, on rock and scroll. Both are important. They are complementary, and each makes sense only in reference to the other. Jesus didn’t leave us a book to be the only foundation of the church and faith. He is still with us in the scriptures, to be sure, but his truth also comes from his appointed shepherds as well.
What does this mean on a daily, practical level? For me, it ultimately means respecting the authority of scripture as well as the authority of the church’s pastors. On the one hand, this involves learning about Jesus through the perspective of those closest to him, the Apostles and other disciples, whose writings are in the Bible. I seek God’s will by paying attention to the teachings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, the prophets, Moses, and the other biblical writers—as well as the overall patterns and themes of the Bible.
I attempt to respect the church’s pastors by remembering those that have come before me: the bishops, priests, and theologians of the church who have, in turn, received teachings from those that came before them. I seek to faithfully adhere to the church’s historic doctrine as maintained by the bishops throughout the world—and not just rely on my own interpretation of the Bible, which may be misguided. I intend to attentively listen when the church’s leaders speak to important issues of the day. This includes reading the writings of the Pope, who occupies the role of rock like Peter first did. By respecting the Pope’s role—and that of all the bishops and pastors—I acknowledge that Christ did not leave us to figure out everything by ourselves. When we honor their positions of leadership, we remember that Christ has left us shepherds to guide us to himself, the Good Shepherd.