Last time I talked about how seeing Apostolic Succession in the pages of the New Testament and throughout Church history, particularly in the formative years following the Apostolic age itself, was one of the ways that I have become convinced of the legitimacy of Holy Orders. Today, I will talk about another way.
Apostolic Succession as a Sacrament
What’s the big deal with the laying on of hands?
As a Pentecostal, I firmly believed in laying hands on the sick, in accordance with the Scriptural examples and instructions (for example, Mark16:18; Luke 4:40; Acts 28:8). But why? Why is physical contact important?
I don’t like to do things if I don’t understand why I’m doing them. If I’m only laying hands on the sick because “that’s what we’ve always done”, I’d prefer not to. I do not like empty traditions. What I have realized is that I believe in laying hands on the sick because I believe something actually happens when hands are laid upon someone in faith. Though I may not understand it, there is more happening in that action than just physical touch.
It’s probably fair to say that along with the physical touch, there is potential for something non-physical to be imparted – in this case a grace for healing. In other words, our laying hands on the sick is a sacramental act: Divine grace communicated in an ordinary, physical, tangible way. (For more on sacrament and ritual see this post by Stephen Barbour).
In Acts 6, the Apostles lay hands on seven men who were full of the Spirit and of wisdom in order to ‘appoint’ them to serve the community. In this case, we again see hands being laid on in prayer – but this time it’s not for healing, it’s for an ‘appointment’ or a ‘setting in place’. It is an early form of ordination.
And what happens?
The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.
What we see in the following chapters is that something permanent took place in the lives of these seven, and in the Church itself. These men were forever changed. Though they were already devout men of faith, they received that day a level of authority and anointing that they had not known before. They were appointed to serve tables, and in the very next chapter we see Stephen, one of the seven, giving a public proclamation of the gospel en route to becoming the first martyr in the Christian Church.
The laying on of the Apostles’ hands was a sacramental act. There was a supernatural grace for ministry imparted to the seven for the purpose of building up the Church.
When I say that Apostolic Succession is sacramental I mean two things. First of all, that through the laying on of hands, the individual receives the grace needed to enable them to function in the office to which God is appointing them. Secondly, this grace is given for the Church. It is a grace to be the extension of Christ to his Church.
Don’t misunderstand me.
A minister does not stand in the place of Christ – that is, they do not stand to represent him as if he is absent – they stand, rather, to communicate the active presence of Christ to his People. We do not believe that Christ is absent and now we have a bishop in his stead – the bishop serves to point us to our ever present Shepherd, Teacher, Prophet and King.
Apostolic Succession gives us a tangible sign of the abiding presence of Christ with his people.
Now, it’s important to note that all grace has its source in Christ. If we don’t understand that, then our view of Holy Orders, or of any sacrament, can quickly turn to a form of idolatry; we will be looking to man instead of Christ.
No, in the administering of the sacraments, we do not look to the one presiding, but rather we always look to Christ himself. Whoever it is standing in the waters of baptism – it is Christ, truly, who baptises. Whoever it is saying the words of consecration – it is the Lord who presides at his Table. When hands are laid upon someone in faith; it is Christ who heals, and Christ who ordains.
This is vitally important because we need to understand that the grace that is imparted through the sacraments is an objective grace – given by Christ to his Body – it does not depend on the worthiness of the one administering the sacraments.
Seriously. Thank God. Take a moment right now and thank God that his grace is not hindered by the unworthiness or imperfection of his ministers. Thank him that you don’t have to even think about whether or not your pastor sinned this week before you participate in Holy Communion. Thank him that he is big enough to foresee and provide for our many and inevitable shortcomings. Thank him that nothing – nothing – in all of creation is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Has there been sin and corruption amongst bishops in this line of Apostolic Succession? Yes, there certainly has.
Does that impact the efficacy or the validity of the sacrament of Holy Orders? No. Absolutely not. Sin and corruption do not have the power to invalidate or hinder the grace of God.
Christ is the head of his Church. It is Christ who administers the sacraments. It is Christ who bestows his grace. Whether any bishop between the Apostles and today received the grace available to them, or walked worthy of that grace, does not diminish the grace itself. The grace that is imparted through Apostolic Succession is rooted and preserved in Christ alone.
Always, always, always look to Jesus.
Summary – In Apostolic Succession the minister receives a divine grace from Christ to function in the office to which God has called them; and the Church receives a tangible sign of the abiding presence of Christ with his People.