I began by writing about seeing the roots of Apostolic Succession in the New Testament and the early years of Church history. In the next post I talked about the grace of Jesus imparted to his Church through the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this final post, I am going to briefly explore two of the more functional aspects of Apostolic Succession.
Apostolic Succession Manifests and Preserves Unity
Of all the different models of Church government out there… why this one? Why is it so important that it be structured in this way?
One does not have to look very long at the Protestant Church to see that one of the fruits of rejecting the Episcopate has been division and doctrinal variation. Of an estimated 33 000 Christian denominations worldwide 94% of them are Protestant.
What does Apostolic Succession have to do with unity?
In the New Testament, there is a very close relationship between the Apostles and the Church. It is the Apostles who write congregations to bring encouragement, or correction, or to expound on matters of doctrine. In every case, it is taken for granted that the local congregation has some relation and responsibility to the whole and that they are submitted to the authority of the Apostles who are able to address them in the name of the larger Body.
It is absolutely inconceivable that a church could form and remain in any way independent of the Apostles or the wider Church. It is the Apostles that tangibly hold the Body together.
We see this vividly in Acts 8. Philip has preached the gospel to Samaria, and the Samaritans have received the message and been baptised… but something is missing. Someone is missing.
These new believers did not receive the Holy Spirit.
Why would God withhold his Spirit from them? That doesn’t seem to be in line with his nature. Jesus told us in Luke 11 that God loves to give the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is regularly spoken of in terms of having been promised (John 14:25-26 and Acts 2:38-39 for example). God has promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. So why does he delay the gift of the Spirit in this case… what is he waiting for? Whatever it is, it must be pretty serious.
In Acts 8:14-17 we read about Apostles Peter and John going out from Jerusalem to meet up with the Samaritans. When they do, something wonderful happens:
Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
You may recall that the Jews and the Samaritans did not have a great relationship. That’s probably putting it a little mildly…. So, what do you think would have happened if the Samaritans had received the gift of the Holy Spirit apart from the Apostles in Jerusalem? The Samaritans would have had a claim to unity with Christ while remaining at enmity with the Body of Christ.
That is not an option.
There is no such thing as an independent Christian community. The very idea of it is a contradiction of terms. There is One Body, and fellowship with that Body is expressed through incorporation into the Apostolic community that Christ established to be his witnesses.
Part of the responsibility of bishops in Holy Orders is to continue to function in this role to hold the Body together. Submission to apostolic authority ensures unity.
Additionally, Apostolic Succession is a witness to continuity – unity through time. It expresses that the one Body of which we have become a part, existed long before our own conversion took place. Our faith is not subjective or individualized. This Body that we have become a part of has one continuous life that we all share in which is connected to the actual historic events in the life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The Apostles and the bishops which succeed them are the visible link to the historic events; agents of unity and continuity.
Apostolic Succession Expresses and Safeguards the Gospel
Ignatius, in the epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8, says:
Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop . . . so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
In preserving unity, the Episcopate is also a safeguard to the very message of the gospel. The gospel is central to all that the Church is and does, including its structure.
How does the structure of Apostolic Succession reflect the gospel?
For this we need an example.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a problem which is, in part caused by individualization of the gifts of God. The Corinthians were abusing the spiritual gifts to the detriment of the local church. Individual desires were being elevated above the corporate well-being of the community. The result was chaotic and poorly representative of the gospel.
Paul’s solution is largely to remind them of proper church order.
He esteems Christ as the foundation and the supreme head (1:24, 3:11, 11:1, 15:27, etc.); he reiterates the role of apostles as servants, ministers, and officers of the Church, (4:1-13, 9:19-27, 12:27-30, 16:1-4, etc.); and their own place as members of the Body of Christ under apostolic authority, (1:10, 3:1-4, 4:14-16, 12:12-31, 14:12, etc.).
When the order of the Church is compromised – when the individual is elevated above the corporate – the very message of the gospel is distorted and deprived of its power. The Corinthians learn to live the gospel again by looking to the organizational structure of the Church. It is the place of Christ that must be exalted, not that of individuals, however gifted they might be. And it is the responsibility of the apostolic oversight to ensure that the gospel remains pure.
Within this apostolic structure, it seems to me that the roles themselves also bear the marks of Christ. As members of the Body, the Corinthians are directed to love their brothers passionately and self sacrificially – not unlike the way Christ has loved us. Love for others takes precedence over love for self.
And the Apostles… well, as much as the apostolic office is honoured and respected, it is not one to be envied. The trials that Paul faced were not unique to him, but were common – even expected in apostolic ministry.
We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
1 Corinthians 4:13
The apostolic office is an office of humility and servitude. An office that willingly shares in the suffering of Christ for the sake of his glory and exaltation in the world. The order set out in the early church embodies the message of the gospel to such an extent that Paul can say “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1).
Summary: Apostolic Succession manifests and preserves unity and continuity in the Body of Christ; as well as safeguarding and expressing the gospel message.