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.
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.