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By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline
January 11, 2014


The true "apostolic succession" is the handing down to future generations the essential gospel doctrines established by the original Apostles, the message of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 1:3b, NIV) without alterations. Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic traditionalists also believe that the historic episcopate is the God-ordained vehicle through which the sacred deposit of faith is to be guarded and entrusted to the churches. They believe the Apostolic Succession to be an unbroken line of episcopal succession that goes back to the original Apostles through the Sacrament of Ordination, the "laying on of hands." It is the common RCC belief that this college of Bishops has been given the authority as Apostles to govern the Church.

Even those people invested in this tradition believe that the real authority to pass on the "faith once delivered" rests with the Holy Spirit and the sacred deposit of scripture itself, and if the bishops fail to guard it and keep it pure, they lose all rights to their claim of authority. What always remain viable are God's purposes and the faith of those who receive the blessings. Bad bishops or presbyters cannot nullify God's saving grace. It is not the human ceremonial act that truly matters but the power of God through the Holy Spirit's work within.

Of course, part of the reason why the Catholic traditionalists regard Apostolic Succession as an essential, sacred church doctrine is that they secretly believe that it gives their church more legitimacy and religious power in the world than other traditions. However, I am not convinced that this is God's opinion. God can raise up stones for His purposes; He is sovereign and not bound by human church traditions, even ones begun during the second and third centuries. He chooses who to give what kind of authority (for example, Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles). Ultimately we will "know the tree by its fruit." Yet at the same time it is reasonable to preserve and maintain the episcopate itself, imperfect though it is, as one means (but not the only one) for selecting and preparing leaders to carry on the faith.

The Reformation View of Apostolic Succession

Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and in England, John Jewel, John Hooper, and William Whitaker were strong in their views that true Apostolic Succession meant passing on the faith and teachings of the Apostles to future generations; it was not about inheriting apostolic powers, gifts, or authority in the Church, as the Roman Church had long asserted. Bishop Jewel, in his Defence of the Apology, retorted to his opponent Thomas Harding: "Succession, you say, is the chief way for any Christian man to avoid antichrist. I grant you, if you mean the succession of [apostolic] doctrine. " (See Theology of the English Reformers by Philip E. Hughes, especially pages 177-183.)

These Reformers often quoted Augustine as did Bishop Jewel here: "A 'bishop is a name of labour and not of honor' because he would have that man understand himself to be no bishop who will seek to have preeminence and not to profit others. And that neither the pope, nor any other worldly creature, can no more be head of the Church, or a bishop over all, than he can be the bridegroom, the light, the salvation, and life of the Church: for these privileges and names belong only to Christ, and properly and only fit for Him alone." (Jewel, Works, Vol III, p. 60) While this Reformed view was mostly battling the claims of the Roman pope, it applied as well to any bishop or priest who attempted to be more ruler than servant or who regarded himself as somehow superior to other church members.

By the beginning of the 15th Century, the Roman Church had already elevated clergy as a ruling class far above the laity and had made ordination a sacrament - in order to establish their earthly authority more solidly, with no room for any laity uprisings. But over the next century, with the invention of the printing press and translations of the Bible into many languages, literacy for the masses became a growing reality, providing freedom from the ecclesial rule of the Roman Catholic clergy. The clergy class had kept the scripture truth to themselves with their Latin versions and they had often distorted the gospel when they did translate it for the people. Over the many centuries of unchallenged power they had institutionalized elitism, greed, power politics, and all kinds of corrupt practices into the church system.

I remind the readers of these embarrassing historical facts because the Reformation will never be completely finished as long as these erring traditions continue. In those churches with a rigid hierarchy associated with the historic episcopate and also in those churches with an overly powerful leader, these temptations continue to hold considerable sway over those at the top. Fortunately, in these times, especially in the North and West, each individual church member has a number of options; there is never just one church in town. And since a large majority of us are literate, we can prayerfully read the scriptures for ourselves as well as other Christian writings, both early and recent. We can ask for the Holy Spirit's discernment. And we can find a church that is more faithful to the scriptures. So the priests and bishops had better preach the real Gospel and teach true doctrine. Or else... over time, those naval-gazing churches with self-important and power hungry leaders will necessarily shrink and eventually become an asterisk in Church history.

I can summarize the Reformation view no better than to quote the late great John R.W. Stott: "Almost deafened by the babel of voices in the contemporary church, how are we to decide whom to follow? The answer is: we must test them all by the teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ. 'Peace and mercy' will be on the church when it 'walks by this rule' (Gal. 6:16). Indeed, this is the only kind of apostolic succession we can accept - not a line of bishops stretching back to the apostles and claiming to be their successors (for the apostles were unique in both authorization and inspiration, and they have no successors), but loyalty to the apostolic doctrine of the New Testament. The teaching of the apostles, now permanently preserved in the New Testament, is to regulate the beliefs and practices of the church of every generation. This is why the Bible is over the church and not vice versa. The apostolic authors of the New Testament were commissioned by Christ, not by the church, and wrote with the authority of Christ, not of the church. 'To that authority [of the apostles]', as the Anglican bishops said at the 1958 Lambeth Conference, 'the Church must ever bow.' Would that it did. The only church union schemes which can be pleasing to God and beneficial to the church are those which first distinguish between apostolic traditions and ecclesiastical traditions and then subject the latter to the former." (from "The Message of Galatians", John Stott, 1968) And from ACNA Bishop John Rodgers (in an article "Why I Am A Reformation Christian"): "I think it odd to limit the efficacy of the sacraments to those in which these 'apostolic' ministers preside as if all Christian Churches did not have the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist even when their ordained ministers are not in historic succession. I note the Lambeth Conferences never limit 'Church' to those with historic orders. The Articles do not either. In fact they seem to intentionally avoid giving that impression. In short such a limitation is not a classical Anglican thing to do. I do not believe it is a biblical thing to do."

Scripture and Apostolic Succession

The original 'Apostolic Succession' was when the 11 Apostles came up with a way to choose a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1). From two acceptable nominations, they essentially threw the dice and it came up in favor of Matthias. I notice that this procedure is not how the Church did it later. Why not? It was certainly an 'apostolic' method of 'apostolic' origin. Apparently, not everything the Apostles did was ordained of God nor accepted by the Church over time. Like living in a commune. That experiment didn't last past the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The NT scriptures do not advocate for (or even address) Apostolic Succession as it is defined by Catholicism. The occasional laying on of hands and praying for leaders in the earliest church certainly does not equate with an ecclesiological tradition of "Apostolic Succession." Catholics like to point to the conversation between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16:13-19. Peter's faith in Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God" led to Jesus claiming this faith (which was provided only by the Father) to be the foundation for the Church. A reasonable exegesis of this passage indicates that the foundation of the Church was not Peter himself, it was the truth that Peter was the first to actually state, that is, the truth regarding the identity of Jesus. This truth is the foundation of the Gospel and its proclamation is an essential purpose of the Church. This unbreakable connection between the gospel truth about who Jesus is and the role of the church is emphasized by Paul in 1Timothy 3:15b-16: "...the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory."

God has never worked in an automatic, mechanical way. The thief on the cross next to Jesus did not need to be baptized to enter the Kingdom, but He did need to believe and trust in Jesus as his King. He stated his belief publicly, which counted for his confirmation. Abraham was justified by his faith, not by the act of circumcision he was commanded to do afterwards. Likewise, the laying on of hands is the outward and visible sign; it is the public confession aspect but it does not carry the real authority and power to transform, which is spiritual, hidden, and requires both faith and the sovereign will of God. So the laying on of hands does not automatically make an episcopal candidate into an Apostle. Many people have pretended to believe in Christ (for their own reasons) and became ordained under the appropriate tradition- and yet turned out to be heretics and unbelievers. A number of Archbishops (even Popes) were manifestly not even Christian by any reasonable standard. So how does the ordination ritual make a minister of God in any way "better" than those chosen and called by God through other means? Surely we cannot limit God to only use this traditional method. But we do it and it is not wrong to choose our leaders this way if a proper discernment process and evaluation precedes it. But what IS wrong is to assume that the ordination provides a divine litmus test that insures validity for the office and faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel. See I Timothy 3:2-7 for the actual qualifications and requirements (which many Anglican provinces ignore) for higher leadership roles in the Church. As a friend who is given to sardonic humor told me, all the bishops in the world laying hands on a donkey will not make it into an Apostle.

Personally, I prefer the way the Lord Himself "ordained" His leaders- as with the Apostles themselves and with Saul of Tarsus. I don't know how valid the apostleship was for Matthias, but I have no doubt about the validity of Paul's "ordination." There is nothing to compare with Jesus showing up and choosing you directly. How many ministers of God have been called personally by the Lord but were never associated with a church in the Apostolic Succession? Is their ministry any less valid in the eyes of God? It is my opinion that it is not the "hands on" ritual that makes the difference, but the individual's heart for God and call to ministry- which is accomplished by God's grace and will, not by any human ritual.

Historically, the idea of an unbroken line of bishops to be used as a litmus test of validity for God's calling to the role was gradually approached by the early church fathers and with the power of Rome to back it up, it eventually became 'the' tradition. But the opinions and writings of the early church fathers, helpful though they may be at times, was never accepted as part of the scripture canon - for excellent reasons. What they wrote must always be judged by the scriptures themselves.

In my Reformed point of view, I can go further: no tradition developed after the Apostles should hold much water. They are human inventions. If God wanted us to build such traditions, He would have clearly said so through Jesus or the Apostles. If you cannot clearly prove it by Scripture, then it should not be required and should not be a necessary point of church doctrine. I agree with Article VI even more than many leaders in the Anglican Church: "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." To put it more personally, if anything is not found to be obviously important in the scriptures, then neither will it be important to me. My priorities must be established by God's priorities and these can be found only in His Word.

Servants Not Rulers

The harshest criticisms made by Jesus (see Matthew 23) were not directed toward those who knew they were sinners but were directed toward the leaders of the traditional religious establishment, the Chief Priests, Pharisees, and scribes. These were the ones who thought more highly of themselves than they ought, who loved to point their elitist fingers at the 'sinners' as if they themselves were excluded from sin, and who could not really hear Jesus because they were religious careerists who only cared about promoting their own status and lining their own pockets. Truth from God was not as important to them as protecting their own turf. So they were jealous of the popularity of this country preacher/ healer and fearful of his evident persuasive power. Some people were even calling Him the Messiah King. So they had to kill him.

Hear some of Jesus' harsh words to these religious leaders: "You hypocrites. Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'" (Matthew 15:7-8, NIV) Christ's words undoubtedly apply to many leaders in the churches today.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:1-15, NIV)

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45, ESV)

Now I ask you, how did this clear teaching get lost during the first few centuries after the Apostles? Both the western (RCC) and eastern (EO) churches developed self-exalting ruling clergy classes and clear signs (in clothing, etc.) of those who were in authority and more 'holy' than others. It was wrong back then and it continues to be disobedient to the clear teaching of Jesus as exemplified in these passages. And the selfish motives for these practices continue to be obvious: the ego massage of elitism, public respect, and prestige, the political power in the church, and in most cases, material comfort and security. For the individual bishops, it often results in hypocrisy, thinking of oneself more highly than one ought, in the separation of one's sacred public life and one's profane private life, and in the abuse of those beneath them in the hierarchy. Do all clergy succumb to these temptations? Of course not. But the ecclesial system itself is more of the world than of the Kingdom of God and thus inevitably produces these temptations by how it is set up (ruling rather than serving, with artificial separations between clergy and lay members, and built-in appeals to vanity and power in dress and other details). I don't see how anyone can argue against this point. But what I hear is this: "It is the sacred Church Tradition. It's the way we've always done it." But that does not make it right.

This issue also affects church discipline. In response to Cyprian and in defense of the priesthood of all believers, John Stott wrote: "The Christian presbyter is no more a New Testament apostle than he is an Old Testament priest, and the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline belongs to the whole congregation, not to the leaders only. See for example, our Lord's injunction, 'tell it to the church' [Matt 18:15f], and the apostle's instructions to the Corinthian Church to take action as a body to excommunicate the incestuous offender: 'When you are assembled....you are to deliver this man to Satan...'And again, 'Drive out the wicked person from among you."

To summarize and underline the point: the Church is truly the priesthood of all believers. Collars, robes, miters, and other paraphernalia of priesthood are not only products of vanity but go against the teachings of Jesus about leadership in His Kingdom. They emphasize the difference in roles, obviously giving clergy more importance and prestige than everyone else.

On Trusting the Church

My own personal experience and study of history have certainly informed my opinion. I have been betrayed by those in the historic episcopate again and again. I had to leave the church of my youth to escape the heresies. In all churches of every stripe and at every level of leadership, I have found goats and pigs and wolves in sheep's clothing mixed in with the sheep, even at the very top.

In my study of church history I discovered that this has always been true (Jesus predicted it in Matthew 13, and both Peter and Paul warned that in the future, enemies to the Gospel would spring up within the church). Is it any wonder that I don't trust ecclesiastic tradition or church leaders? So now I only trust the Word-of-God-made-flesh (Jesus Christ) and the Word-of-God-written (Scripture). Thus I am no longer surprised nor unduly upset when church leaders (or traditions) go wrong. But neither will I think too highly of any leader- nor any tradition that is not solidly based on the scriptures.

Conclusion and Summary

I see no scriptural warrant for being ordained in a supposed "unbroken line" and I have seen no advantage historically or experientially for such churches or their leaders. It only causes those in this ecclesial tradition to feel superior to those who are not, and this can only be a spiritual disadvantage. We know that God did not choose for Jesus to be born into the Levite priestly tradition or to become a Pharisee or to be identified with any established religious group other than being Jewish. Why not? There was no need and no spiritual advantage. In fact, it would have been a distinct disadvantage, as Saul of Tarsus discovered.

John Stott taught that the true and spiritual Apostolic Succession is fulfilled when the teaching and witness of the Apostles is heard, respected, believed, confessed, and followed (2 Tim.1:14, Titus 1:5-9).

True Apostolic Succession is not a divine entitlement of apostleship conferred by the Church. True Apostolic Succession is not a sacramental sign of validity provided to individuals entering episcopal ministry as a result of a ritual that connects them to an unbroken line of succession back to the Apostles. Rather, it is associated with the faith we all can receive from the grace of God when we interact with the scriptures and with the doctrines taught by Jesus and the Apostles.

Apostolic Succession is not some spiritual authority or power that only bishops inherit from the Apostles; this simply does not exist. Since the Church consists of the priesthood of all believers, we are "all in the same boat" so to speak. Either none of us today can be regarded as Apostles or all true believers can be so regarded.

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia

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