Following the Master’s instructions, about 120 of Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem under the leadership of Peter. The first order of business was the selection of a replacement for Judas. The method adopted shows us something of the way the Church will operate: The Apostles themselves choose the most worthy candidates and then leave the final choice to chance, that is, to God. In other words, power over the Church has been entrusted to the Apostles, who must use their own wisdom but also rely on divine guidance, particularly when it is a question of transmitting their authority.
The Apostles showed their power in many ways: by communicating to foreigners at Pentecost, by healing the sick, and by punishing those who violated the rules of their fellowship. Faithfully following the commandments, they instituted a communal life in which they voluntarily shared their possessions and ate a common meal in commemoration of the Last Supper. When Ananias and Sapphira sold one of their possessions and retained the money, they were rebuked by Peter. No one had demanded them to share their wealth, but they had thought to cheat the Holy Ghost. When confronted with their sin, each died, as of apoplexy. Once again, the Church is revealed: She can condemn but not impose death.
The incident is important in other ways. Many early Christians thought everyone should practice communism and celibacy and observe strict dietary laws. If these restrictions had endured, Christianity would have remained an obscure sect of Jews, waiting for the end of the world much like the Adventists and their various splinter sects (e.g., the Branch Davidians). But as the Church grew in wisdom, these ideals were considered marks of the monastic clergy and not rules for all ordinary Christians. This was only one of many problems that were solved as the Church matured, and Christians could make no worse mistake than to imagine that the early Church was superior to the developed Church.
Then, whenever we hear the appeal to go back to apostolic simplicity, we should remember to include communism and probably celibacy. On the face of it, though, such appeals should seem ridiculous to people with a stable head. We do not have to be Aristotelians to realized that few human institutions are perfect in the beginning. Many follow the familiar trajectory from the infantile to the promising but immature to the ripe to the decadent. Of course, the Church, we have been assured, is guided by the Holy Ghost and is thus, at the least, capable of occasional bouts of regeneration and rejuvenation. Please note that I am not taking sides in any sectarian controversy. It is perfectly possible and reasonable for Protestants to point out the corruption and decadence of the Renaissance papacy and to regard their Reformation as a part of the process of rejuvenation. (I agree more than half with this point of view.)
Our Lord well knew that his followers had a need for what is now called “continuing education." He was aware that the disciples would forget some of what He told them and be confused about many things, especially as fresh issues demanded attention. He did not, as some people imagine in the vanity of their imaginations, tell them that a book would be put together that would tell them everything. On the contrary, He told them, in His last instructions, that His suffering and death were necessary, because only then could He send them the Holy Ghost, the Comforter (“the Paraklete”), the Spirit of Truth, Who “will guide you into all truth…and he will shew you things to come.” [John 16:13]. This same Holy Ghost “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” [John 14:26]. As time went on, Jesus’ disciples helped to establish a sacred institution that would serve as the vehicle for the operation of the Holy Ghost, and that institution is the Church. It was this Church, through the authority it inherited from the Apostles, which selected the Scriptures to be included in the Bible. Thus it was the Church, guided by the Holy Ghost, that made the Bible and not the Bible the Church.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.