Apostolic Succession Part I – Scripture and the Early Church

What is meant by Apostolic Succession?  Where is it found in Holy Scripture?  Why is it important?

These are good questions.  Questions that I have thought quite a lot about.  My very first reaction to the idea of Apostolic Succession was …not a positive one, to say the least.  But over time, as I prayed and considered the heart of the matter; I found that I could not deny Jesus’ hand in it.  I was moved to repentance as I saw the grace and love of Jesus expressed through what I once considered a foreign, dead, ritualistic practice.  My judgments were unfair, incredibly hasty and altogether too harsh.

Please don’t make the same mistakes I did.  If you have questions, ask them.  Ask them in a genuine manner and not in an accusatory manner.  And remember that though we may not find agreement here; we do have agreement in Christ.  We make judgments about all kinds of things every day, but it is Christ who is the Judge of man.  It is his job alone to separate the sheep from the goats.  Whichever side of this issue that you find yourself on, please refrain from casting undue judgment on your beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is any one area exhaustive; but as I have pondered this question, I think there are at least four ways that I personally have come to be convinced of the legitimacy of Apostolic Succession, (also referred to as Holy Orders or Episcopacy).  I will, for the sake of time and space, be breaking them into separate posts.

Apostolic Succession in Scripture and the Early Church

Jesus, at many times, speaks about himself as being sent by the Father.  In Luke 4, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in a dramatic declaration that he was sent to proclaim freedom for the captives and the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19).  Just a few verses later, he reiterates that he was sent to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.  (Luke 4:43).  Throughout his ministry, this is a dominant theme – Jesus only does what the Father is doing (John 5:19), he does only the will of his Father (John 6:38), Jesus is a man who is under authority (Matthew 8:8-9), he was sent (John 7:29).

When we say that Jesus was sent there are a couple of things that are implied.  Namely that the message and mission of Jesus (the Sent One) have the approval, the authority and the anointing of God the Father (the Sender).  We take Jesus’ words as if they are coming from the Father himself.

What does that have to do with Apostolic Succession?

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

John 20:21

In the same way that the Father sent the Son; the Son sends the Apostles.  In fact, the word ‘apostle’ literally means ‘sent one’.  The Apostles were sent by Jesus to continue his mission and ministry on earth, and all the same things are implied.  The sent ones have the approval, the authority and the anointing of the Sender.

The Apostles’ primary means of accomplishing Jesus’ mission and ministry was by founding and growing a community of people which would become known as the Church, or the ekklesia – the called out People of God.  Jesus did not leave us with a written record, he left us with a life giving Community filled by his Spirit and led by his chosen Apostles.  Even today, we know the message of Jesus primarily through the witness of the Apostles.  The apostolic message and the apostolic community were never meant to be severed from one another.

We see the Apostles, in obedience to Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20), training successors who they eventually laid hands on and set into places of ministry (2 Timothy 1:6).  Paul not only trains Timothy, but exhorts him to do the same for the next generation and even helps him to discern good candidates.  (1 Timothy 3).

And on it goes through history, each generation equipping and releasing the next.  Discipleship exemplified in leadership.

It isn’t long before the successors began to be known by another term – episkopos, which is translated directly as ‘overseer’ but has also come to be known as ‘bishop’.  A bishop in the New Testament Church was the overseer of a particular church.  As Church governance developed, bishops began to oversee larger regions and presbyters took over the bulk of the local ministry obligations.  We see these things already beginning to form by the end of the New Testament record and we see them continue to develop in the Early Church.

In the writings of the Church fathers we unequivocally see bishops as the link between the Apostles and the Christian churches.  It seems that churches would even turn to their lists of successive bishops in order to prove that they were truly Apostolic.  So Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.3.1, written in approximately 180 A.D. writes:

The tradition of the Apostles is there, manifest throughout the world in each church, to be seen by all who wish to see the truth. Further we can list those who were appointed by the Apostles to be bishops in the churches and their successors to our own day.

This lineage is still alive and well in today’s Church.  I find it truly fascinating that we actually have an unbroken line of succession, of hands being laid on from one generation to the next right from Christ himself, through the original Apostles to our modern day bishops.

But really, it should be more than just a subject of interest.  Whatever your thoughts about later generations, the early years of the Church when it was in its most formative stage are held in high esteem by all Christian Traditions.  We hold this period of Church history in common; we affirm together that the Church moved as one with Christ as her head and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  If we didn’t believe that, we’d be forced to reconsider the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation and… well, perhaps more on that another time.

My point is that we’re talking about the beliefs and practices of those who were closest to Jesus; and that in virtually every other area of Christian doctrine and practice we see them as being authoritative.  As such, I do not believe that we can in good conscience simply dismiss them on this point.

The answer of the Early Church to the question of Church governance was the threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons in Apostolic Succession.

Summary – The practice of ordaining successors to apostolic ministry through the laying on of hands was normative very early on in the history of the Church and founded upon what we see in the New Testament itself.

Apostolic Succession Part II -The Sacrament of Holy Orders

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6 Comments

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  1. Stephen,

    A friend recently sent me a link to this blog post, in part due to private discussions that have been ongoing regarding this topic, of which you are aware (you contacted me privately about it recently).

    I would just point out some things… I say this in love, concern for The Body of Christ as a whole. However, if you (or any reader so chooses) to qualify the content of what I am saying, by the tone in which your read it, you will take the focus off of truth and put it onto emotions and how what I am saying makes you feel. In my experience, feelings are not a reliable aid in separating truth from error.

    I’m quite comfortable posting verses to back up my assertions, but in the interest of time and effort, I will post a link to someone else’s work below.

    What I will point out, personally, is that while there is Biblical justification for the laying on of hands to confer authority to an elder (to appoint an elder, not a person with apostolic authority), such as Paul did to Timothy, no man today has possession and power to wield at will The Holy Spirit, as Apostolic Succession infers.

    The Apostles were unique, having a very unique authority, and, as a necessary qualifier, had to have seen Jesus in person.

    If the power of the Apostles was still being transferred today, any person in the line of succession would also have the ability to heal as they did. Healing all they laid hands on, indiscriminately, not some, as this was also a marker of their authority.

    They did not give their unique authority to “successors”, because had they in fact done that, their successors would have authority to write and decree scripture, such as the Apostles were called to do.

    You claim that Jesus did not leave us with a written record, but you are wrong. The Holy Bible was inspired and composed by God Himself, through hand-picked men. God being omnipotent, most certainly had influence in which books passed the proverbial grade, do you not believe that? Is anything too difficult for God? Why could He not oversee the establishment of the Holy Bible, for distribution all over the world, and even into this age? What would stop Him, if He intended for writings not currently included, to be so? Nothing.

    Church “Fathers”, as you refer to them – despite Jesus having very clearly told His followers not to call anyone on earth their spiritual father (Matthew 23:9) – did not have, by God’s direct influence, their writings included in the Bible. God used Apostles specifically to write the Bible. The office of apostle is obsolete today because the apostles laid the groundwork, and no one lays a foundation a second time for one edifice.

    The Church was established, it does not need to be re-established over and over and again (though, Joseph Smith, who considered himself worthy to write scripture, would certainly argue that alongside other leaders of false religions).

    In your above post, you are seemingly placing the authority of the “Church Fathers” (again, those whose writings are not a part of The Holy Bible), on the same level as the Apostles, when you quote one to justify your claims about apostolic succession.

    The fact that you would equate the early writings of men like Irenaeus, to the writers of the Bible God chose, is precisely why Apostolic Succession is a threat to the church – if anyone can be given authority to dictate infallibly, then truth is a moving target.

    The Pope claims to speak Ex Cathedra – does ROL support the Pope’s claim of infallibility? If not, will you renounce his claims as heretical? The pope has denied the Word of God over and over. Where does ROL (sorry, Via Apostolica now, I understand) stand on this issue?

    We have the Word of God for this exact purpose – that men of ambition would not be able to skew truth without consequence or notice. Jesus preached equality and accountability within the established church, not a hierarchy of elite powers and private authority or interpretation. He specifically told His followers that He did not want them to behave like the Gentiles (also Romans, you’ll note), in exercising authority and lording over one another (Mark 10:42).

    If you truly believe The Catholic Church’s assertion that the Word of God can be established by any person who makes claims on the authority of the Apostles, by extension, you do not believe that the Word of God is unchanging. That is a dangerous and slippery slope, and if you do not support the unchanging nature of God’s inspired Word as established (in His sovereignty) I don’t think you can reasonably call yourself a Christian church anymore. You would be Catholic, and under the ultimate authority of the Pope in Rome. If this is off-base, please publicly denounce The Popery.

    If one must rely on teachings that are extra-Biblical to make their argument, simply put, their argument is based on extra-Biblical beliefs.

    Some additional reading:

    http://www.gotquestions.org/apostolic-succession.html

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    • “Stephen”

      I’m not Stephen. I’m amos. Nice to meet you, Robin.

      “no man today has possession and power to wield at will The Holy Spirit, as Apostolic Succession infers.”

      Apostolic Succession does not infer that any man has authority to control the Holy Spirit. It is Christ who imparts the charism of the Holy Spirit.

      “The Apostles were unique”

      I agree. The Apostles have a unique, once for all time place in redemptive history. They had a special calling from God to be direct witnesses to Christ, to build the foundations of the Church, and to write Holy Scripture.

      “They did not give their unique authority to “successors””

      Correct. The unique calling of the Twelve was connected to their being direct witnesses to Jesus. The successors carried authority to lead and safeguard the Church, (episkopos), but the unique calling of the Twelve was once for all time.

      “…because had they in fact done that, their successors would have authority to write and decree scripture, such as the Apostles were called to do.”

      I’m not really sure what you mean. The Canon of Scripture is closed. The main qualifier for the Canon is that the writing have apostolic origins. (i.e. – written by or under the supervision of the Twelve).

      “You claim that Jesus did not leave us with a written record, but you are wrong.”

      Jesus of Nazareth in his 33 years spent physically on earth did not leave us with a written record of his message. Instead, he chose to establish a community, trained the Apostles to lead it, and commissioned them to continue his mission and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s way of doing things is important to me and I think it carries with it implications for all Christians everywhere. Why did Jesus choose to put energy into people, instead of just writing things down personally? Why did he entrust his message to the Apostles? How then should we view the apostolic message? How then should we view the apostolic community? I think these are questions worth thinking about.

      “God being omnipotent, most certainly had influence in which books passed the proverbial grade, do you not believe that?”

      I do believe that. I’m not sure why you assume that I don’t. I can also see from Church history that it was hundreds of years before the Bible was formally canonized; and it was bishops in Apostolic Succession who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decided which books would be included. You seem to think that the Scriptures are in some way independent of the Church. Is that accurate? If not, what do you think is the relationship between the Scriptures and the Church? How did you arrive at this belief?

      “God used Apostles specifically to write the Bible.”

      Yes, I agree with that. Apostles or men under the supervision of the Apostles (i.e. – Mark).

      “The Church was established, it does not need to be re-established over and over and again”

      I agree. It is precisely because the Church was established once for all time that I care so much about how exactly the Church went about doing things in her most formative stages.

      Do you value the developments that took place in the Church in her most formative stages? Do you adhere to the doctrine of the Trinity? Do you affirm the doctrine of the Incarnation? Do you agree with the Church on her Canon of Scripture?

      “In your above post, you are seemingly placing the authority of the “Church Fathers” (again, those whose writings are not a part of The Holy Bible), on the same level as the Apostles, when you quote one to justify your claims about apostolic succession.”

      I am not placing the writings of the Church fathers on par with Scripture.

      This post is about observing the development of the Episcopal model of Church governance in Scripture and the early Church. We see the roots of it in the New Testament, and it is unquestionably the model of Church governance that emerged in the early Church. I quote the fathers to show that this was indeed the model that was established.

      Do you think that the Church fathers departed from the gospel so soon after the Church was established? Why wouldn’t I read what they had to say, in the same way that I might read what John Calvin or Charles Spurgeon had to say?

      “The fact that you would equate the early writings of men like Irenaeus, to the writers of the Bible God chose, is precisely why Apostolic Succession is a threat to the church – if anyone can be given authority to dictate infallibly, then truth is a moving target.”

      At the beginning of this post I specifically asked that if you had questions, to ask them in a genuine manner and not an accusatory manner. So far Robin, I feel like all I have done is correct your misconceptions. If you got the impression from my post, that I have equated the writings of Irenaeus with that of Scripture, you could say something like, “Hey, It seems like you’re equating the writings of Irenaeus with that of Scripture – is that an accurate portrayal of what you’re trying to communicate?”, rather than accusing me of something I’m not doing and stating it as though it is a fact.

      “The pope has denied the Word of God over and over.”

      I think you are mistaken, or perhaps you can clarify what you mean.

      The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that “God is the author of Sacred Scripture. The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (Catholic Church Catechism 105)

      “He specifically told His followers that He did not want them to behave like the Gentiles (also Romans, you’ll note), in exercising authority and lording over one another (Mark 10:42).”

      If you’ll read the rest of my posts in this series, you will see that the apostolic office is meant to be one of humility and servitude. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t give certain people more authority than others, but it does indicate the manner in which God given authority should be carried.

      I am genuinely sorry if the way you have seen authority carried in the past has not reflected this truth. It’s unfortunate, but I think most Christians today have seen authority abused far more than they have seen it carried in a Christ-like manner. “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.”

      “If you truly believe The Catholic Church’s assertion that the Word of God can be established by any person who makes claims on the authority of the Apostles, by extension, you do not believe that the Word of God is unchanging.”

      That is not the Catholic Church’s assertion, nor is it mine.

      “…I don’t think you can reasonably call yourself a Christian church anymore. You would be Catholic, and under the ultimate authority of the Pope in Rome. If this is off-base, please publicly denounce The Popery.”

      It is Christ’s job to judge who belongs to him, and who doesn’t. That is not my job.

      Additionally, I have many beloved brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church and, as I said in the intro to this blog post, I would appreciate if you could refrain from casting personal judgments.

      I would like for this blog to be a place for asking genuine questions, and a place where healthy disagreement is allowed, and even encouraged. However, in the interest of keeping this a safe place for everyone, I can’t simply allow you to openly slander the Bride of Christ. Please consider your words carefully before posting here again.

      “If one must rely on teachings that are extra-Biblical to make their argument, simply put, their argument is based on extra-Biblical beliefs.”

      When the question is, “What model of church governance developed in the early Church?” Answers are necessarily sought in the formative years of the early Church – which was building upon the foundation that Christ and his chosen Apostles laid. I’m not relying on anything “extra-Biblical”, I’m simply pointing to the early Church to say “Hey, look – those guys were really close to the events… like some of them personally knew the Apostles; and this is the way that they did things. I wonder why they did things that way, and if it has any merit for us today.”

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  2. Having re-read your post for a second time, I would also point out that great leaps are being made between was is actually written, and what is being practised.

    To state that Jesus was sent by the Father, and that because He sent apostles out, there is justification for maintaining succession is frankly preposterous and without basis.

    Yes, He was sent. Yes, He sent, but He also actively “sends” people out every day to minister to other people (that’s why we go in Jesus’
    name), and that does not make those ministers “apostles” or infer any unique authority.

    Like

  3. Worth consideration, before aligning oneself with The Anglican Communion.

    http://www.wayoflife.org/index_files/fifty_years_of_anglican_liberalism.html

    Like

  4. My apologies if I addressed the wrong person above. I was speaking to Stephen Barbour earlier this week, and was under the impression he had subsequently written this. I would respond the same way to this article, regardless of who penned it, however.

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  5. Amos, thanks for taking the time to write these posts. I’m just at the beginning point of learning more about our historic connections (not just ours as in Via, but as in thr modern church), and I’m finding your writing to be a helpful guideline for how to approach it all.
    I’m also surprised by the reality of how divided we really are. We, meaning the Church. I think because I grew up in a very mixed tradition/denomination environment, and with a lot of curiosity and love of discussion/new ideas on my part, some of these deeper conflicts haven’t been a big part of my life.
    It’s sobering…adds gravity to the hope that we will one day be united.

    Liked by 1 person

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