Is apostolic succession a biblical doctrine? The answer is it all depends on who you talk to. If you have never heard of apostolic succession, you are probably not alone. This is a belief that is held primarily within the Roman Catholic and some Orthodox churches. Most churches that fall under the Protestant category reject this idea. These clear differences of opinion should lead us back to one place to search for the answer…the Bible. Let’s discover what the Bible has to say about apostolic succession.
What Is Apostolic Succession?
If we are going to talk about apostolic succession, it helps to be clear about what it is. Apostolic succession is the belief that the authority of the original twelve apostles who were chosen by Jesus has been passed down to their successors. This succession of authority began with the initial twelve in the first-century church and has been continuing through the centuries. This succession is generally passed on through the laying on of hands and is granted to bishops which include the authority to preach, teach, and govern within the church. Here is this doctrine as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am highlighting three parts of this definition that will help you understand what apostolic succession is.
“The Church she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, "assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church's supreme pastor"
"In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God. They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry."
“Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops." Hence the Church teaches that "the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ."
Hopefully, that has cleared up for you what apostolic succession is now let’s answer the question is this biblical?
Is Apostolic Succession a Biblical Doctrine?
There are a few problems with the teaching of apostolic succession. Let’s look at each one pertaining to the definition from the Catholic catechism.
1. Peter is not the church’s supreme pastor.
While Peter played an important role in the formation of the early church, there is no evidence in scripture that Peter was the pastor of pastors or the sole leader of the early apostles. What is often pointed to is a misunderstanding of Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus tells Peter “on this rock I will build my church.” Peter is not the rock Jesus built his church upon, Jesus is that rock. God used Peter mightily, but he also used Paul and the other apostles mightily as well.
2. There is no evidence of a succession plan in the Bible.
According to the catechism, this is how succession took place. “In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun…”
The problem with this is that there is no evidence of this plan of succession in the scriptures. What we do see in some of the writings is an encouragement for those who are pastors and leaders in the church to remain faithful to the duty they have been entrusted. While it is reasonable to assume that those who did remain faithful would encourage those after them to do the same, there is no evidence that there was a formal consignment engaged in by the early apostles. Here is an example of what Peter told the leaders in 1 Peter 5.
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” – 1 Peter 5:1-3
The best we can say is there is an admonishment to remain faithful, but there is no formal apostolic succession plan.
3. Listening to the bishops is not the same as listening to Christ.
"…the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ."
Perhaps this is the most troubling aspect of this teaching of apostolic succession. There is a big difference between the teaching and writings we find of the apostles in Scripture and those who are entrusted to preserve those teachings and continue teaching the generations after. Here is the main difference. The writings of the apostles, who wrote the New Testament, were done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and were the very words of God himself. As Paul wrote to Timothy,
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” – 2 Timothy 3:16
As these men wrote the Scriptures, they wrote the Word of God as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Refusing to obey the Scriptures is a refusal to obey God. While it is important to follow leaders and teachers in the church, we don’t put them on the level that their words are equivalent to Christ’s words. We are all given the responsibility to search the scriptures and test what we are taught to see how it aligns with the Word of God. Those who are in leadership in the church have the responsibility to properly handle the Word of Truth to lead the people effectively. This authority does not equate to the authority those who wrote the Scriptures had.
The Verdict on Apostolic Succession
As you consider biblical evidence, apostolic succession is not a biblical doctrine. Yes, leaders in the church have the responsibility to preach and teach, however, the responsibility of handling God’s Word correctly is not just for those in leadership. Everyone who is a believer has access to the Word of God and has an obligation to study and know what God is instructing them to do. This does not remove leadership or diminish their importance; it just puts them in the proper light. There will always be those who are responsible for teaching and leading the flock, but there will never be those who function exactly as the early apostles and the writers of the New Testament did. We must all be faithful in handling the Word of Truth and be willing to hold our leaders accountable when they don’t. Lastly, let’s remember this. Pastors and leaders in the church don’t obtain those positions by apostolic succession, but by calling. It is God who appoints and there is no apostolic succession required.
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.
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