Many Christians have attributed semi-divine status to the apostles. Some of them believe that these men were incapable of errors when acting in matters related to faith and church. In short, there are a large number of Christians who believe that these men were always acting in the capacity of God's instruments - that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit made them infallible. Is this, however, the truth? Were these men subject to the same weaknesses, frailties and imperfections that all humans experience? And, if so, how can we trust what they wrote (or what others wrote about them)?
First, an objective evaluation of the scriptural evidence related to this topic demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that these men were very human and very fallible. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all simple fishermen when Christ called them to be his disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), and Simon was a Jewish nationalist (verse 4). The gospel accounts tell us that Judas betrayed him to the authorities (Matthew 26:14-16, 47-49), all twelve of these men abandoned Christ in his hour of need (Matthew 26:56), Peter denied him on three separate occasions the night that he was arrested (Matthew 26:69-75) and Paul started out as an Orthodox Jew who persecuted the Christian Church (Acts 9:1-2). "That was prior to their conversion!" some of my conservative friends will protest.
Fair enough, let's take a look at their behavior after they were converted. Even though Christ had instructed them all to "go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19), we know that they only preached the gospel to the Jews for many years after he ascended into heaven (Acts 6:7, 9:31). In fact, God had to give Peter a special vision to move the apostle to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Even then, the church was slow to get started on the Great Commission (Acts 11). At first, even Paul began preaching to the Jewish citizens of the Gentile cities that he visited (Acts 13). In other words, these men were a little slow and dense when it came to following Divine instructions! Like many of their predecessors in the Old Testament, they had to be pushed and prodded into performing the tasks that God had given them to do.
There was also apparently a great fuss within the church over just how much of the Mosaic Law the Gentiles would be required to obey (Acts 15). In fact, we are told that they had to have a great council of the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem to settle the matter (same chapter). Although the ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles was affirmed by this council, we read that Paul and Barnabas later had a dispute over who should accompany them in that effort and parted company because they couldn't resolve their differences (Acts 15:36-41). Does that sound like Christian behavior to you? Wasn't their dispute directly related to their ministry and the Church?
In his letter to God's Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul reveals that there were deep divisions extant within that congregation. He said that some of the people claimed to be followers of Paul, some Apollos and others Peter (I Corinthians 1:12). In light of this information, one has to wonder if these leaders had any culpability in producing or nurturing this kind of an environment within the Church? To be sure, Paul's letter seeks to correct the situation; but one is still left to wonder about how and why it developed in the first place!
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul reveals that he angrily confronted Peter over his hypocritical conduct toward Gentile Christians when in the presence of Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). Apparently he had to remind Peter (himself an apostle, author of Scripture and acknowledged leader within the Church - some say the first Pope) that Christians are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic Law (verses 15-16). I don't know about you, but it certainly sounds to me like Peter was in error regarding this matter of the faith (at least, that seems to be what Paul is saying)!
Paul, on the other hand, sometimes seems riddled with insecurity about his apostleship and place within the Church (I Corinthians 9:1-2, 15:9, Galatians 1 & 2). Paul is also quick to point out on a number of occasions that he is giving his opinion on certain matters - that he is not operating under direct instructions from the Lord (I Corinthians 7:6-8, 12, 25 and 40). We are also informed in the book of Acts that the Bereans were "more noble" than the saints at Thessalonica because they "searched the scriptures" every day to make sure that what Paul was telling them was corroborated by those Scriptures (Acts 17:11). In other words, it wasn't the truth just because Paul said it! Finally, in his second general epistle, Peter writes that some of Paul's "comments are hard to understand" and subject to misinterpretation by certain people (II Peter 3:15-16).
In addition to the scriptural evidence cited within this post, we must carefully consider the matter from the perspective of our own experience and reasoning. Have you ever known a Christian who was perfect? Didn't John say that any Christian who claims to be without sin is not only fooling themselves, but is also "not living in the truth" (I John 1:8-10)? Didn't Paul (the apostle and author of Scripture) confess that he was still struggling against his own sinful nature on a daily basis (Romans 7:14-25)? Have you ever known anyone who wasn't subject to the same human frailties, mistakes and errors that we all make from time to time? Are you confident that everything that you believe about God and Christianity is "the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Is there any possibility that you could be wrong about something? What did Paul mean when he said that we (he included himself) now "see through a glass darkly" (I Corinthians 13:12)? Was Paul implying in this passage that he wouldn't have all of the answers until he was in God's Kingdom? It certainly sounds that way to me.
Hence, if these men (the apostles) were subject to error and mistakes, how can we trust anything they told us? How do you trust anything that anyone has ever told you? Did your parents make mistakes? Did that cause you to reject everything that they ever told you? Has anyone ever told you that they love you? Did their mistakes prevent you from believing in that love? Once again, isn't it just a little illogical (maybe even ridiculous) to suggest that everything that someone tells you is an either/or proposition? How do we know the difference between truth and falsehood? The guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit is the key. Nevertheless, we must always be willing to acknowledge that our willingness to accept that guidance is not always what it should be. Just like Peter, Paul, James and John, we can be wrong sometimes! Moreover, our admission of this fact is not the end of the world. I agree with Paul - someday we will know more than we do today - someday we will be perfect. What do you think?