Last month, at my church in Fonthill, I preached on Church History. My goal was to demonstrate that Christianity has always been evolving and adapting in order to survive within challenging circumstances. However, one thing that I found consistent throughout Church History is that every generation has tried to claim some sort of connection to Jesus and the Apostles for the purpose of demonstrating their authority. Since the very beginning, going all the way back to the generation after the Apostles in the early second century AD, there have always been claims of authenticity.
Firstly, in the case of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers from the second century AD, these writings are understood to have a degree of authority because several of them had direct contact with some of the Apostles. People like Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius were likely taught by Apostles such as Paul, Peter, and John before they died.
In the centuries that followed, church leadership kept track of the lineage of leadership, with some churches able to claim that their leadership lineage goes back to the Apostles. Of course, the Catholic Church claims that its authority goes back to Peter as the first bishop of the Roman church. The Eastern Orthodox Church claims Apostolic succession through the leadership lineage of the churches in cities like Antioch and Alexandria.
It was an accepted idea that Jesus had given the Apostles authority to make decisions. Indeed, Jesus told Peter and the other Apostles: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19, NASB). The Apostles used that authority to make decisions that were to be followed by all churches (cf. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15).
So, as long as a church could trace its leadership lineage back to the Apostles, it was believed that they had the authority to make decisions that were binding upon all Christians. Therefore, an argument could be made that if a Church institution can trace its leadership's lineage to the Apostles, they had and have the authority to adapt the Christian faith within their context.
Does this authority mean, however, that those who disagree with their decisions are not true Christians? Can't there be room for independent Christians who do not rely on a Church's authority but instead rely on reading the writings of the Apostles themselves, using reason and historical evidence to come to conclusions? I think so. I believe that today's Christians should be those who seek to understand the Bible in its original context, seeking to uncover the original authors' intentions for their audience, and then come to conclusions regarding beliefs and practices accordingly.