Apostolic Succession Part II – The Sacrament of Holy Orders

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.

Acts 6:7

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.

Wow!

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.

Thank God.

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.

Apostolic Succession Part III – Unity and the Gospel.

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5 Comments

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  1. Hey Amos, you brought up the topic of the ordained ministers administering the sacraments; if their worthiness does not affect Christ being present in the sacrament, does it matter who administers them?

    As it is, I am wondering our position on this as a church. Having been trained in ACOP, it did not matter who have the sacrament. I myself have given it with friends in a room and his presence was made manifest. Curious as to your thoughts on this. Thanks Amos! Great series; clear, concise, and humbling.

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    • Hi Alex!

      Great question.

      For our purposes here, I’m going to narrow the scope of your question to apply only to the Eucharist. (Because that is the context you have provided, and because the answer is not static across every sacrament… and also because this is going to get pretty long as it is).

      The short answer is, yes, I believe it does matter who presides over the Eucharist. It is the responsibility of the bishop to oversee and safeguard the administration of the sacrament; and therefore it is either the bishop or those whom the bishop has authorized who are given to preside over the Lord’s Table. There are several reasons for this.

      To begin with, this has simply been the practice of the Church since the earliest of times. We could very easily look at evidence from throughout the history of the Church to establish that this has been the normative practice. However, although I do think this should be reason enough to at least seriously question deviation from the practice, I recognize that it’s really not that compelling to a Protestant audience. What we need then, is not only to establish what the Church has done, but why.

      It is no doubt, a little overambitious to expect to be able to thoroughly answer that question in this context, but let me at least point out a few areas that I think should be given some consideration.

      Calling

      Take Moses as an example. Moses, I think you’d agree, seemed to enjoy some privileges and have some responsibilities that the rest of the Israelites did not… could not. Surely, he was an exemplary individual, but if it’s true that our “righteousness is as filthy rags”, then he can’t be considered more ‘worthy’ than anyone else. Why then was Moses allowed on Mount Sinai when the rest of the Israelites were held back?

      Or another example, perhaps a closer parallel to our discussion; the Levitical priesthood. The Levites were called out among the Israelites and given particular tasks related to the tabernacle (and later the temple). They were responsible to care for God’s house. They offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people; and they instructed the people how to properly obey God’s laws. Once again, I think it would be incorrect to assume that the Levites were given this task because they were more ‘worthy’. Yet, it was completely out of the question that a non-Levite could assume a Levitical role. The Levites belonged to God in a special way, to serve a special purpose and no other Israelite could simply take that calling upon themselves.

      There are many things discontinuous between the Old and New Testaments, but one of the things that has remained continuous is that the Lord has specially set apart people to serve him and care for his house in a particular way. Every Israelite was called to serve God through offering sacrifices; but it was the Levites who were called to administrate those sacrifices.

      The question then is whether or not the Apostles themselves had a unique calling from God? Following that, which aspects of that calling were unique to them, and which aspects were given to be passed on and preserved through their successors?

      If there’s nothing unique, then I would think that we shouldn’t ordain at all; nor should we recognize anyone’s unique calling in the Body of Christ. (After all, we’re all called to evangelize – so why do we need evangelists? We’re all called to prophesy– why do we need prophets? Etc.)

      If there are things unique to the Apostles and their successors, what are those things, and how might that be represented in the Body of Christ? In the administration of our worship?

      Anointing

      This post that you commented in is about the sacrament of Holy Orders. In other words, through the laying on of hands, a grace is imparted to the individual to equip them for service in their particular area of calling.

      Again, I think questions must be asked. If the successors of the Apostles are being anointed… what are they being anointed for? If there is an impartation of grace… grace to do what, exactly?

      As I said above, “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.”

      Nowhere is this role more obvious or this grace more necessary than in presiding at the Lord’s Table. And once again, anointing is not something that can be assumed or taken, but rather something that is given by God.

      Side note – I think this is obvious, but perhaps it isn’t… if one believes that the Eucharist is merely a symbolic act; then clearly there is no grace or anointing required to preside at the Lord’s Table. However, if one believes that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist – if, as Paul says, the cup of blessing is a participation in the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16) – then the Lord’s Table is absolutely central to Christian worship and is itself an expression of the gospel. One way that the centrality of the Eucharist and the purity of its message are safeguarded is through apostolic oversight. And those who are called to minister to the Body in this way, are also equipped by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

      Unity

      This, in my opinion, is the most practically straightforward reason why not just everybody can preside at the Lord’s Table.

      Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17).

      He doesn’t say we’re all one body, so we should all eat of one bread; it’s the other way around. We are one body because we all eat of one bread. It’s the bread that makes us one. If what Paul says is true, then the Eucharist actually manifests and preserves unity in the Body of Christ. Would it make sense to participate in the sacrament of unity apart from the Church? In opposition to the apostolic authorities that God has placed in the Church? In isolation of those with whom we are supposedly ‘one’? I don’t think it would. In the Eucharist we commune with Christ – and we commune with the Body of Christ.

      The practice of having only a few people authorized to preside over the Lord’s Table ensures that we must come together to participate in this sacred and unifying act. It is a safeguard for unity and community.

      Alex, I don’t doubt that the Spirit has been present with you in the many and various contexts in which you have celebrated communion. I know for myself that the Lord has met with me in communion in many different contexts over the years as well. However, although I know this response is incomplete, I hope it’s enough that you can see that there are good reasons for our return to an orthodox understanding of the practice of celebrating the Eucharist and its relation to Holy Orders. I realize as well that this reply may raise more questions than it provides answers, and I’d be happy to continue that conversation in the New Year.

      Thanks.

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      • That was a very clear and well-presented reply, and a post in of itself; thank you very much Amos!

        I suppose that the questions from there would be more along the line of “Why would God still manifest himself in communion when those presiding over it are not ordained in apostolic succession, if ordained at all?” Yet I think I already have a few answers, though to know all of God’s ways are impossible for me.

        I would have to boil it down to grace and honor. He honors our continuing the sacrament of communion, even if the way we go about it is imperfect. It was in those times when I most felt his presence in communion before doing it the way we do now, that I was caused to begin to hunger for it more regularly. There was a season where I was at a church that did not partake of communion for three months while I was there; by that time I craved communion. I craved to be united to the body around me and the Lord above in a way that just wasn’t happening.

        Now, if I miss a single Sunday due to travel, Communion is what I often miss most. I do believe I have visited a church where my wife is from at least ten times now, and maybe once did we ever have communion there. I crave it. I thank God for his grace when I was unaware of the greater effects of communion and how it was to be done, and I thank God even more for bringing me into participation in this greater way of celebrating his Table, where his presence is stronger than I have ever had it in Communion, and my heart responds in much deeper worship and repentance.

        On that note, perhaps you could take your reply and turn it into a part 4 or a new blog? You guys haven’t posted in a while!

        Have a great day, Amos!

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    • I don’t seem to be able to reply to your other comment, so I’ll respond here.

      I appreciate your question, and I think it’s a good one and that your initial thoughts are on the right track.

      Though we have come a long way in our understanding of the Eucharist and the way that we practice it, it would be a bit foolish for us to think that we’ve got it all figured out now. I think it’s that kind of thinking that can lead people into abusing the sacraments – treating them almost like magic rather than a miraculous gift from God. There is a proper form, but we can’t elevate the form of the sacrament above the grace imparted. There are proper words, but we can’t forget that it’s the Spirit who gives life to those words. There are ministers set apart by God for this work, but it’s Christ, truly, who ministers to his Body and it’s him who we must look to. We need God’s grace every time we celebrate Communion and we are ever thankful that he continues to be gracious in the midst of our errors and shortcomings.

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey. I realize we haven’t blogged in a while, and I do think a series on the Eucharist would be very beneficial, but I’ve also got a few other things brewing, so we shall see. Thanks for the encouragement Alex, have a great day.

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  2. You’re really exposing what is at the heart of these traditions – Christ himself, our source for all things. Thank you! It’s painting a really beautiful picture of our inheritance.

    Liked by 1 person

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