If one is ever in need of a laugh at misguided scholarly intentions, Bob Thiel’s Cogwriter website is always filled with good humor. One of the most ridiculous doctrines on display here is his defense of apostolic succession. It is ridiculous for a variety of reasons, some of which are highly relevant to any discussion on the fragility of truth and the difficulties in ensuring that one’s principles pass along after one is dead. In contrast to the mindset of apostolic succession which views leadership in a monarchical way, what we find in the Bible and in history is that the truth is constantly being neglected and corrupted and that it periodically has to be revived because it never seems to be passed down faithfully more than one or two generations.
Let us take the example of the organization that Bob Thiel represents, the Living Church of God. This organization is headed, and has been headed since the organization split off from its parent church, the Global Church of God, over questions of governance, in the late 1990’s, by the original head of Global Church of God, Roderick Meredith. He (along with dozens of other leaders) considers himself to be the legitimate successor of Herbert W. Armstrong, who led the Radio Church of God and then Worldwide Church of God for many years, until his death in 1986. Unfortunately for any claims of apostolic succession in the Church of God, the successor to Mr. Armstrong happened to be an open heretic. Furthermore, there is a complete impossibility to determining an unbroken and unheretical chain of apostolic leadership going from Mr. Armstrong back to the First Century Church. Helpfully, Mr. Thiel includes reasons why this is impossible for the Orthodox and Syriac Christians as well, in his convoluted paper on the topic .
If one bases one’s authority on tradition, rather than biblical truth, one has to connect that tradition in an unbroken way to the supposed source of that truth. The oral Torah of the Orthodox Jews sprang from tradition that the rabbis of the Pharisees claimed was passed down (but never recorded in the written scriptures) from rabbi to disciple as part of the supposedly original Sanhredrin of Moses, going all the way the back to Moses himself. Muslims consider those hadiths (sayings) as valid only those that have an unbroken chain going back to Mohammed. Likewise, Bob Thiel, the Anglicans, Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics all agree that a true church must have unbroken apostolic succession going all the way back to the original disciples, even if it remains very unclear (and doubtful) the extent that we can even know who the godly leaders were during large periods of history, particularly those where the true faith was hidden and in exile and being oppressed by church and state. Even among the Roman Catholic Church, which has largely spearheaded those efforts to persecute genuine religion and has for long periods of history achieved rather strong positions vis-a-vis the ruling governments in Western and Southern Europe, there is no unbroken chain of succession, because of quarrels over power and disputes over succession, as well as the tendency of popes to call some of their predecessors and rival popes heretics or anti-popes for one reason or another. As a result, no one can claim any sort of apostolic succession from the original Christians, given the very limited information we possess about them and their leadership, or even a full understanding of their practices beyond that little information we can gather from scriptures (which would indicate their fidelity to the obedience of the Sabbath and their faith in the Hebrew scriptures).
Instead of a model of apostolic succession, whether in the history of the Church or in that of ancient Israel, the Bible presents a model of brief and periodic revivals among a general and grim reality of widespread apostasy. Whether we are talking about the rare restorations of the temple and the rededication of the priests and Levites (so long as there is a godly leader over them) to preach and practice godly ways, such as during the reigns of Hezekiah or Josiah (see 2 Chronicles 29-30, 34-35), or whether it is Elijah rebuilding the altar on Mount Carmel that had been allowed to fall into disrepair (see 1 Kings 18), or whether it is Paul finding out in his tribulation during the Neronian persecution that leaders and successors he had been grooming for decades forsook God and fled to save their own necks, like Demas, Titus, and Crescens (2 Timothy 4:9-11), the lesson is the same: succession is rare and elusive, and far more common is the need for God’s ways to be renewed every generation or two by new leaders who have been called by God without firm succession, but in part of a genuine fellowship with those that came before who likewise had to be called out of the world, and with those afterward who will have to rebuild the ruins again.
So, given the clear biblical model of periodic revivals of righteousness, why is it that Bob Thiel and others of his ilk support the heathen and ungodly model of apostolic succession that is used by authoritarian satanic religions like Roman Catholicism and Islam instead of the genuine biblical model of mentoring leaders over decades and a vastly more egalitarian view of leadership (i.e. the biblical servant leader model)? The reason is that Bob Thiel and others like him wish to have power as a permanent and entrenched elite, and this desire for power is threatened by the biblical model of periodic prophets who are called by God, often from obscure backgrounds and no recent or prior family history of religious leadership, to deliver God’s judgment on corrupt and wicked leaders. The model of apostolic succession seeks to deny any validity to anyone who comes from outside the elite power base and who would be critical to the corrupt practices that elites generally engage in. By foreclosing this possibility according to their own heretical doctrines of primacy and apostolic succession, they seek to artificially limit the people that God can speak through in order to correct and rebuke them for their corrupt practices, and show themselves to be unwilling to listen to the still small voice of God that can speak through stones or donkeys just as easily as through kings and priests.
A very brief examination of the prophet Amos is instructive to show the difference between apostolic succession and the biblical model of periodic prophetic revivals. Amos was a shepherd from very modest background, not trained as a prophet, but God called him to go to Bethel to deliver judgment on Israel (and her neighbors) for their flagrant sins. The crowd loved Amos’ condemnations of the surrounding nations, but when Amos started on Israel’s sins of injustice and exploitation toward the poor and Israel’s hypocritical false religion, as well as the selfish and greedy behavior of Israel’s corrupt elites, then the crowd (and the rulers of Israel) became more hostile, eventually throwing Amos out of the country because they accused him of advocating rebellion and sedition against the rule of the current king. Basically, Amos got deported for lese majeste, even as Israel was facing approaching divine judgment for their own offenses against the majesty of God, who is sovereign over the whole universe, an irony that I cannot help but be aware of in my own personal situation. And yet the priest of Bethel, Amaziah (see Amos 7:14-17), who opposed Amos and who had the support of Israel’s royal establishment as well as the proper “apostolic succession” from the priests that Jeroboam had put in charge some two hundred years before, was in the wrong, and Amos, the shepherd from the wilderness of obscure background, was God’s true prophet and spokesman. Whose side are you on?
We see therefore that it is the content of the message and not the pedigree of the messenger that matters to God, and to the genuine people of God. A true prophet of God does not, as does Bob Thiel, engage in fallacious speculation as to the dates of end time events . Instead a true biblical prophet understands biblical law and its application both in matters of social justice and in personal morality and worship, and then acts as a spiritual physician to diagnose the wrongs of a society, clearly and bluntly, by showing how the conduct of a nation falls short of the divine standard as well as the judgment that will follow as certainly as night follows day if that nation does not repent of their sins and return to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, without being afraid of the corrupt laws that seek to make it illegal to preach the truth because that nation has become so hard-hearted that they cannot bear to be rebuked for their sins. And if they repent, even for a while, that judgment (as it was during the times of Josiah) is delayed. And if they refuse to repent, the curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, including drought and pestilence and defeat in war and slavery and captivity will come upon that nation in the time and situation that God chooses. But our job at least will be done.