When Mormons attempt to show from the New Testament that the church cannot function without a continuing office of living apostles on the earth, they invariably cite Matthias as precedent. Matthias is the man whom Christ chose to replace Judas Iscariot after he had abandoned his apostolic office, betrayed Christ to the authorities, and then committed suicide (Acts 1:15-26).
The main difficulty with this argument is that nothing in the passage indicates that Matthias’s appointment was precedent for anything. Indeed, everything about the passage argues against it serving as precedent. The passage presents an unusual and in some ways unique event.
1. Judas had abandoned his office. The new apostle was “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:25 NRSV). There certainly is no precedent here, then, for a succession of apostles who served in their office faithfully.
2. Matthias was chosen to replace Judas. That is clearly an unusual, even unique, situation. Matthias did not succeed Judas; he replaced him: “Let another take his position of overseer” (Acts 1:20 NRSV). Matthias was “to take the place” of Judas’s apostolic ministry (v. 25). The difference is important. A successor would prove a succession, an intergenerational line of one apostle after another. A replacement does not prove or imply a succession.
3. Matthias’s appointment was a fulfillment of messianic prophecy or typology specific to the historically unique event of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Peter is explicit on this point:
Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus…. For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’” (Acts 1:16, 20 NRSV)
Since no one else will ever even have an opportunity to betray Jesus in this way, this is a unique historical incident that is not to be repeated.
4. Peter specified that the replacement was to be one of the men who had been a disciple of Jesus since the time of John the Baptist’s ministry (Acts 1:21-22). No one living after the first century could possibly fulfill this requirement.
My point here is not that all apostles had to meet this requirement. Paul was later chosen by Christ to be an apostle, and Paul had not been a disciple at all prior to that famous encounter on the road to Damascus. My point is that here again we see that the appointment of Matthias does not fit any sort of paradigm or model of a continuing succession. The requirement stipulated on this occasion that the appointee have been a disciple of Jesus back while John the Baptist was still alive shows yet again that the situation here was not precedent for future ordinations of men to the office of apostle.
5. The apostles did not ordain Matthias. As I showed in an earlier post, the apostles did not themselves “ordain” Matthias. The two candidates for Judas’s replacement were put forth by the entire assembly of disciples (the 120), not by the apostles (Acts 1:15, 23). The apostles did not choose Matthias, but deliberately took themselves out of the decision-making process by asking the Lord to reveal his choice through the casting of lots (Acts 1:24-26).
6. Matthias did not become an apostle by any sort of institutional process. There was no “vetting” process, no interview with the candidates, no background check, no review of their ministry accomplishments, and no praying for the existing apostles to have the wisdom to make the right choice (since they did not make the choice at all). Matthias had not worked his way up the ranks; he was simply one of the men disciples who had been with the movement since its inception. Everything about the actual process of Matthias’s appointment shows that it was not a regular, institutionalized process of selecting a successor to an office.
It is fallacious enough to claim precedent for making a practice ongoing or routine from an historical narrative. It is an egregious error when the narrative contains several clear indications that the occurrence was not setting any sort of precedent, as is the case here. I conclude that Acts 1 offers no support whatsoever for the claim that the office of apostle in the early church was perpetuated through a succession.