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Among certain Evangelical groups, the belief in apostolic succession is unintentionally ignored, presumptuously glossed over, or even perceived to be a “man-made tradition”. After all, aren’t personal skillsets such as people skills, teaching skills or administrative skills simply what qualifies someone to be a Christian leader? But can we really make the assumption that being gifted and being given legitimate authority go hand-in-hand? After all, weren’t many of the leaders in Sacred Scripture unqualified in some sense but given legitimate authority by God? Weren’t many leaders (particularly in the Old Testament Scriptures) people of either questionable moralities, attitudes or skill sets but yet possessed a valid claim to authority over the people of God? So, what exactly is it that gives a Christian leader legitimate authority today?
And, by “authority” what I mean is the power or right to make decisions and to set a course for people to follow that will, hopefully, help lead others closer to Christ and fulfill God’s plan for His Church. This may be related to the general tasks of guiding people on how to live their life, or it may, for example, relate to leading people in prayers or in practices such as the Lord’s Supper, or it may look like teaching, preaching or offering advice. Since authority relates to leading people along the paths of salvation, it is apparent why the question of whether one has any legitimate authority or not is an important one. In essence, a leader asks their followers to follow them as they follow Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1). Thus, it is crucially important that one follows a leader with legitimate authority.
“Anointing” Equals Authority?
A belief more common among charismatic Evangelicals and Pentecostals is that a person is given legitimate authority dependent on whether they are “anointed” by God; a phrase that certainly has Biblical roots and so may appear authentic at first. By this, what they usually mean is that God has marked an individual, distinguished them or singled them out by His Holy Spirit in some unique way. However, in practice, the fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that individuals are inevitably left to decide by their own authority whether someone is “anointed” or not. Which, in turn, devalues any meaningful sense of authority a person may be given due to their “anointing”. And should a person or group decide their leader had lost their “anointing”, would they be consistent and cease to recognize them as such?
Another trap in this line of thinking is that people usually will end up equating people skills, teaching skills, administrative skills or any other attractive quality as being the proof that someone is “anointed”, and thus a legitimate Christian leader. One problem, however, is that there are no clear definitions of what “anointed” actually means. And so, this lack of definition will cause some of them to call a certain singer “anointed” purely on the virtue of them singing well. But should this vocalist go on to pastor the Church just because they can sing well? If “anointed” has such a broad definition then surely herein lies another problem with this approach that equates “anointing” with legitimate authority.
In practice, the word “anointed” often becomes a synonym for being either fully or partially qualified to lead. Which, as I have just highlighted from Scripture, does not necessarily mean that one is actually invested with authority since, within Scripture, God often chooses the less likely, lesser attractive, and not particularly skilled individual, and invests them with legitimate authority and office. Moreover, 99% of the examples of legitimate authority within Sacred Scripture come about through a mechanism whereby authority is passed on through an already established legitimate authority. This process occurs through the laying on of hands. And, in the exceptions to the rule, such as when St. Paul became an Apostle to the Gentiles by virtue of a mystical experience of Christ, we yet see him traveling to previously established legitimate authorities to validate his own claims. In Galatians 2:9, St. Paul talks about going to the “three pillars of the Church” (meaning Saints Peter, John and James) to receive their “right hand of fellowship” in order “to go to the Gentiles” to preach and lead.
The Dilemma Runs Deep
Ignoring or rejecting the belief of apostolic succession is when the dilemma becomes apparent; how can one trust any claim to authority if there is no logical mechanism for investing someone with legitimate authority? And, if one rejects apostolic succession, how would they suppose St. Paul would have validated his own claim to authority had he lived in the 21st Century? If the 12 Apostles had never passed on their authority, who would have St. Paul turned to if he had lived today? The person today with the best Bible knowledge? The pastor whose sermons receives the most listens on iTunes? Or what about randomly choosing the nearest church in his locality and asking to speak to the pastor at the end of the service? Or, even better, how about going to see some isolated Christian committee in some random location?
By rejecting the notion that there are successors to the Apostles, do we not just subtly become our own leaders by using our own authority to decide for ourselves who our leaders are? Or, as in our hypothetical case of a present-day St. Paul, by choosing which committee we go and submit to? In choosing our own leaders, we may use words such as “anointed” or point to some leadership quality possessed by the individual to justify us doing so, but—to hammer the point home—where does Scripture ever teach us that people automatically become legitimate leaders purely because of these reasons and thus bypass validation from previously established authorities? Scripture clearly teaches the opposite. St. Paul’s instruction to St. Timothy to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22) surely places the emphasis on a chained mechanism rather than automatic leadership enrollments due to personal skills or qualities, or simply because some committee approves of an individual.
And, if a hypothetical committee did handpick and decide who their leaders were, for what special reason do they themselves possess the legitimate authority to be able to pass on Godly authority to someone else? The members of the committee may indeed be wise or prudent individuals, but this is (yet again) just another quality that might help qualify someone for leadership but does not necessarily invest someone with authority. So, to ask the question again, where does legitimate authority come from if one rejects succession?
Spiritualizing The Dilemma Doesn’t Help
Some may answer this by pointing to Scriptures such as, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9a) and say that we’re all priests and thus all have authority, but this cannot account for the clear contradiction of hierarchy being present within the New Testament Scriptures. Some may infer that because we, “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), the whole body of believers has Christ-given authority to elect leaders from within themselves, but this is nonsensical and would cause utter chaos within the Church since I’d follow Apollos, you’d follow Paul (cf 1 Corinthians 3:4) and everyone else worldwide would be following someone else and electing their own leaders. Additionally, this interpretation is not supported by early Church history or indeed within Scripture itself. In fact, it is actually contradicted by numerous Scriptures such as Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18, Matthew 19:28, Matthew 28:19, Luke 22:19, John 20:23 and others that show a distinction in role and authority between the Apostles and the regular faithful believer in Christ. Moreover, this is also the view of the Church Fathers who uphold the difference between the ministerial and faithful priesthood. For example, in regards to Luke 22:19, St. Justin Martyr writes during the mid-2nd Century,
“The apostles, in the Memoirs which they produced, which we called Gospels, have thus passed on that which was enjoined upon them: that Jesus took bread and, having given thanks, said, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me; this is My Body'”
The emphasis being on “enjoined upon them“, which means the Twelve were the ones exclusively told to, “Do this in remembrance of me” at the Last Supper. One can also point to many other Church Father quotes that show how these Bible verses listed above were prerogatives of the Apostles alone. Thus it is clear that interpretations of 1 Peter 2:9a or 1 Corinthians 2:16 that teach the opposite are going against the grain and, if actually executed, would rip apart the Body of Christ limb from limb in the disunity it would cause.
And so, by rejecting the doctrine of apostolic succession, the question, “Why do you possess authority?”, cannot be adequately answered without using circular, arbitrary or subjective reasons. There is no legitimate authority to turn to in which to validate your own claims. And, even if you attempted turning to a perceived legitimate authority, who is to say their reasons for having authority are not circular, arbitrary or subjective in of themselves? The dilemma runs deep!
Apostolic Succession Is Logically Necessary
This dilemma is easily solved by being open to learning from Sacred Christian Tradition and Jewish tradition. For more traditional Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, high Episcopalians and, to some extent, Lutherans—apostolic succession is recognized as the necessary mechanism by which an individual is given legitimate authority for reasons other than the circular, arbitrary or subjective; it is a longstanding mechanism by which God’s-chosen can be called out and distinguished by previously established authority in a clear and objective way witnessed by others. From studying history, we see that this precise mechanism makes it’s first appearance in the Old Testament and is detailed further in the Jewish traditions contained within the Talmud (more on this later).
Let’s Define The Term
As defined by Dictionary.com, apostolic succession is,
“The unbroken line of succession beginning with the apostles and perpetuated through bishops, considered essential for orders and sacraments to be valid.”
Furthermore, Dictionary.com correctly identifies that this belief is held (though in varied forms) by “the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Anglican Church.” And so, the belief in apostolic succession maintains that there is an unbroken line of succession, beginning with the Apostles but sourced in Christ, that extends into the present day.
And, given that the definition above mentions valid “orders” and “sacraments”, it is worth making the observation here that, due to the rejection of apostolic succession by Evangelicals and other Protestants, barely any thought is given on “orders” or “sacraments”—let alone what might make them valid or not. And so, for example, not really any thought is given on what might constitute a valid Eucharist. The pastor, in this regard, acts more like a manager who can loan out his presumed authority to other members of his congregation, thereby meaning that each month one may see a new member leading the ceremony of the breaking of bread. A practice, of course, completely foreign to the totality of Scripture and early Church tradition, and would possibly render St. Ignatius of Antioch speechless!
“SEE THAT YOU ALL FOLLOW THE BISHOP, EVEN AS JESUS CHRIST DOES THE FATHER, AND THE PRESBYTERY AS YOU WOULD THE APOSTLES; AND REVERENCE THE DEACONS, AS BEING THE INSTITUTION OF GOD. LET NO MAN DO ANYTHING CONNECTED WITH THE CHURCH WITHOUT THE BISHOP. LET THAT BE DEEMED A PROPER EUCHARIST, WHICH IS ADMINISTERED EITHER BY THE BISHOP, OR BY ONE TO WHOM HE ORDAINS. WHEREVER THE BISHOP SHALL APPEAR, THERE LET THE MULTITUDE OF THE PEOPLE ALSO BE; EVEN AS WHEREVER JESUS CHRIST IS, THERE IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.”
In the phrase, “[Follow] the presbytery as you would the Apostles”, it must be noted here that the modern English words “priest” or “presbyter” are derived etymologically from the Greek word “presbyteros”, which is oft translated “elder” in the New Testament. Thus St, Ignatius of Antioch, in this statement, provides clear support for defined positions of authority within the Early Church and the priestly function of the “elders” mentioned within the New Testament. This statement, written only 70 years after Jesus’ ascension by a disciple of St. John, is a clear reference to apostolic succession in that the new priests, who all would have been directly or indirectly ordained by one of the 12 Apostles, are to be followed “as you would the Apostles”.
So, to reiterate, the belief in apostolic succession includes the belief in an “unbroken line” that traces back to the 12 Apostles and means that the exclusivity of being one of the Twelve of Jesus extends into the present day for a handful of believers. These are the ones with the legitimate authority. It’s that simple. And so, for the adherents of this belief, what really matters when someone claims to be a Christian leader is not necessarily how qualified that individual is, or which group or committee let them lead, but whether or not they are a part of that unbroken line going back to the Twelve. And, to be apart of that unbroken line, Scripture (as I’ll show shortly) clearly reveals that one must receive the laying on of hands from someone else who, in turn, received the laying on of hands from another legitimate authority.
The Jews May Rejected Jesus But…
“By what authority do you do these things?” the Pharisees once roared at Jesus. They may have missed out on the answer, but they certainly didn’t miss the mark in identifying an important issue. After all, it was a fair question. One to which Jesus does not gloss over or ignore. In fact, it was Jesus who once said of the Pharisees, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So practice and observe everything they tell you.” (Matthew 23:2-3). What was it that gave the Pharisees this special authority so respected by Jesus? Again: succession.
Not a single Jew would have respected the Pharisees claim to authority simply because their Grandma Chaviva thought they were gifted or “anointed”, or because a committee of Jewish men got together and voted the Pharisees in. It was because the Pharisees claimed succession all the way back to Moses. In fact, according to the Talmud, the scribes and the Pharisees actually could demonstrate that their authority went back to Moses himself, which, I suppose, is why Jesus says that the scribes and the Pharisees “sit on the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:2).
Here is a Talmudic verse (Pirkei Avot 1:1) to support the Pharisees claim:
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.”
The first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, also writes in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIII, Chapter 10:
“What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses”
The Pharisees, therefore, had the authority to deliver to the people “a great many observances” precisely because of their succession from “their fathers”. Furthermore, by saying, “which are not written in the laws of Moses”, Josephus here alludes to the Oral Torah, which was the Law of Moses that had not been written down but was passed down orally from generation to generation. This was a mainstream Jewish belief during Jesus’ day and so—one can see here—not even mainstream Jews believed (or still believe) in a Jewish version of Sola Scriptura! The belief in the Oral Torah exacerbated the need for the authoritative succession of scribes in order to protect these oral teachings. Likewise, the same is true for Catholics who, in a slightly similar way, have their own “Oral Torah” in their Sacred Traditions, which thus makes apostolic succession all the more necessary.
It’s Not Just Jewish Tradition
Moreover, the laying on of hands was an action referred to on numerous occasions in the Old Testament Scriptures to accompany the conferring of authority. For example, Moses ordained Joshua through semikhah—i.e. by the laying on of hands (Numbers 27:15–23, Deuteronomy 34:9). The Bible adds that Joshua was thereby “filled with the spirit of wisdom”. Moses also ordained the 70 elders (Num 11:16–25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors, in turn, ordained others. And, this chain of hands-on semikhah continued through the time of the Second Temple, to an undetermined time.
This practice carried over into the New Testament. In Acts 1:21-26 we see the remaining Apostles acting swiftly to replace Judas, they pray for guidance on which person would be “chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away”, which shows that this “apostolic ministry” immediately extended beyond the original Twelve. Once both St. Mathias and St. Paul had been ordained it’s apparent that there was more than just 12 persons sharing in this “apostolic ministry”.
Looking at 1 Timothy 1:6 and 4:14, we see St. Paul reminding St. Timothy that the office of bishop had been conferred on him through the laying on of hands (I use the word “bishop” because that’s the word Eusebius of Caesarea uses in the early 4th Century to describe St. Timothy and can also be inferred from Scripture). As I mentioned earlier, in 1 Timothy 5:22 St. Paul instructs St. Timothy not to be hasty in handing on this authority to others. In Titus 1:5, St. Paul instructs St. Titus to “ordain presbyteros in every city” (again, “presbyteros” being the basis of our word “priest”).
Early Christian Tradition Is Unanimous
And looking at the early Church Fathers is where the real fun begins.
St. Clement of Rome, whom Catholics believe to be either the 3rd or 4th Pope, wrote 50-ish years after the ascension of Jesus in his letter to the Corinthians, 42:4–5, 44:1–3:
“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier…Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry”
St. Hegesippus, who was most likely a Jewish convert and so probably familiar with the succession in Judaism, writes in his memoirs around 180AD (and which is cited in Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius):
“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord”
St. Irenaeus, a Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in what is now the south of France, writes in his sterling work, Against Heresies, in 189AD:
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about”
St. Irenaeus also quips in this work, “It would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches”. And, in this work, St. Irenaeus provides so much more proof for the doctrine of apostolic succession that it would similarly “be too long to enumerate in such a – BLOG – as this”!
Tertullian, writing around 200AD, sums up exactly my own sentiments regarding those who reject apostolic succession and teach anti-traditional precepts:
“But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter”
And so, although I could also quote St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and many others to provide more traditional support for the doctrine of apostolic succession, I am left resigned to summarise the words of Tertullian.
Who gave your pastor authority? Can their authority be shown—to use the words of Tertullian—in such a manner that they can “unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that their first bishop shall be able to show his ordainer and predecessor as one of the apostles or of apostolic men”. Because, if they can’t, they have no more authority than me or you.
I have thus tried to show that the belief in apostolic succession is logical, Scriptural (both Old and New Testaments) and traditional (both Jewish and Christian). However, a question still remains—and I alluded to it earlier. Since a few denominations claim apostolic succession for themselves at the expense of the other, which one has the criteria right? And so, which one has true apostolic succession? If you’re interested, why not read my next blog where I break down exactly what this criterion is, and weigh up each denomination that claims apostolic succession and ascertain which one is most likely to be right.
Though, if even now, you’re still closed minded to being a general believer in apostolic succession, I am simply forced to finish with the words of the Greek poet Homer:
“I guess some people never change… Or, they quickly change and then quickly change back.”