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Does Christ’s Church Have Apostolic Succession?

OBJECTOR: Doesn’t the Catholic Church believe in the idea of apostolic succession? I find no evidence in the Bible for such an idea.

CATHOLIC: Yes, the Catholic Church does believe that the New Testament teaches the concept of apostolic succession, and it is not the only church today that espouses such a doctrine. For example, the Orthodox churches believe in apostolic succession, as do some forms of Episcopalianism and Lutheranism. But tell me first what you understand by this term.

OBJECTOR: Apostolic succession, as I understand it, is the idea that bishops today are successors or descendants of the apostles whom Jesus appointed to go into all the world and preach the gospel. It supposes that the original apostles ordained men as bishops, who in turn ordained others, and that this process continues today.

CATHOLIC: You have the basic idea down correctly, although I would refrain from using the word descendants, because the bishops, who are successors of the apostles, are not physical descendants of the apostles. They are and were men chosen from among the members of the Church to lead the flock as shepherds. These bishops are the primary pastors of the Church.

Priests (presbyters), who are ordained by the bishops, are their assistants in ministry. They have valid orders because they are connected to the original apostles through their bishops’ succession. In a secondary sense, they too have apostolic succession. This implies that the local Church is not the individual parish but the diocese of which the bishop is pastor.

Why is this idea objectionable?

OBJECTOR: The hierarchical structure that you outline is not in the Bible. Jesus gave us his teachings through the apostles. They handed on that teaching to the next generation, but they themselves died off toward the end of the first century. The only “apostolic succession” in the Bible is a handing on of the truth that Jesus taught. For example, Paul says, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). And Jude speaks about “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” in Jude 3. These are the truths contained in the New Testament.

CATHOLIC: We agree that the apostolic ministry handed on the teachings of Christ. Paul as a faithful servant taught the truth of Jesus Christ, but we Catholics contend that what was passed on was not teaching only. He and the other apostles passed on the office of shepherd for the Church. The function of a bishop is to teach Christ’s gospel and shepherd the Church of a local diocese. This was intended by Christ and faithfully transmitted by the original apostles.

OBJECTOR: Unwarranted additions like this crop up from time to time in the Catholic Church, but they are not in Scripture.

CATHOLIC: Let me see if I understand you. You believe that Jesus passed on his teachings to the apostles and then they passed them on to successive generations of Christians? If so, why couldn’t Jesus also have passed on duties or office to the apostles?

OBJECTOR: He appointed the apostles as the foundation of the Church, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, but he did not mean for the office of apostle to continue after their deaths. There is simply no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that the office of the apostle was meant to be continued.

CATHOLIC: Apostolic succession means that the authority of the apostles was passed on to the early bishops of the Church. You say this is not biblical? I presume that you mean that the early Church had no bishops that were considered successors of the apostles.

OBJECTOR: That would be one consequence my position. There were pastors in the early Church, of course, but they were not bishops and definitely were not considered as authoritative as the apostles.

CATHOLIC: I have evidence that that isn’t true. One witness to the structure of the early Church is St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose seven authentic letters are dated no later than A.D. 117 or 118, so he must have known some of the apostles themselves, as Antioch was a center of missionary activity frequented by Paul in Acts 11:26–30 and 13:1–3. Ignatius says, “It is fitting in every way . . . that you be knit together in a unified submission, subject to the bishop and presbytery that you may be completely sanctified” (Letter to Ephesians 2:2). Again he says of the Church, “Jesus Christ . . . is the will of the Father, just as the bishops, who are appointed in every land, are the will of Jesus Christ. So it is proper for you to be in harmony with the will of the bishop” (ibid., 3:2–4:1). He also wrote, “It is clear that one should see the bishop as the Lord himself” (ibid., 6:1). These quotes show first that Ignatius considered the bishops of the Church to be the “will of God” (i.e., their office was appointed by God) and second that obedience to the bishop was considered obedience to God himself. In some sense, the bishop represented God in the same way that the apostles did.

OBJECTOR: But Ignatius may be expressing only his own view, not one widely shared among the early leaders of the Church. And further, Ignatius is not Scripture.

CATHOLIC: The idea that Ignatius expressed only his own views is common among modern readers. Today, people tend to read these ancient views atomistically and individualistically. But that is not how ancient Church leaders functioned. They almost always sought to express the faith held in common rather than their own views. You see the importance of this continuity in St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century): “We can enumerate those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches as their successors even to our time” (Against Heresies 3.1). And in the next section, Irenaeus begins to list the successors of Peter at Rome with these words: “But since it would be too long, in a work like this, to list the successions in all the churches, we shall take only one of them, the church that is greatest, most ancient, and known to all, founded and set up by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul at Rome while showing that the tradition and the faith it proclaims to men comes down through the successions of the bishops even to us” (ibid., 3.2).

OBJECTOR: These early leaders, while venerable, are not the same as Scripture.

CATHOLIC: But they are expressing a tradition that we see in Scripture. In Paul’s teaching, we hear him saying, “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul envisions four generations of succession here: (1) Paul, (2) Timothy, (3) others taught by Timothy, and (4) others taught by Timothy’s hearers.

OBJECTOR: But that verse just confirms my point. Paul is telling Timothy to teach what he heard, not to ordain others.

CATHOLIC: You’re placing an either/or where there should be a both/and. Yes, Paul is telling Timothy to transmit the teaching he has given to him, but he also is saying that this teaching should be committed to faithful men. Both the teaching and the men are important. And it is clear from Titus 1:5 that Paul wanted Timothy and Titus to ordain other men as presbyters (priests) and bishops.

OBJECTOR: But this does not mean that these men were going to have the same authority as Paul the apostle.

CATHOLIC: In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul teaches that there is continuity between himself and successive generations. This was envisioned by Jesus himself when he told his original apostles, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). That same authority is expressed in Matthew 10:1: “He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.” These texts suggest that Jesus gave his authority to the apostles—the same authority that he had from the Father. What good would that authority be for the successive generations of the Church if it was not passed on, as 2 Timothy 2:2 seems to suggest?

OBJECTOR: We agree that Jesus gave his authority to the apostles, but we disagree that it was passed on to others. Or, maybe I should say that the authority lies in the teaching, not in the office.

CATHOLIC: I find that contradicts Acts 1:15–26. There we read about the election of Matthias as Judas’s successor. If you read this passage carefully, you will see that it shows that there was an apostolic college that had to be passed on through ordination. The whole point of the election is that there was a position (or office) vacated by Judas. In verse 16, Peter considers Judas’s betrayal as a fulfillment of Old Testament prediction. And he also quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation of Psalm 109:8 (Psalm 108:8 in the Septuagint numbering) to show that filling the office was foreseen in Scripture. Verse 20 reads, “His office let another take.” The word translated “office” is episkope, which in New Testament language means “episcopal office” (see 1 Tim. 3:1).

OBJECTOR: This is all very interesting, but all it shows is that Judas’s office had to be filled, not that the apostolic office was passed on after the original apostles died. If you look at Acts 1:21–22, you will see that the man to be chosen had to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ Resurrection. That can’t be said of “the successors of apostles.”

CATHOLIC: Obviously! That requirement could not last forever, but the passage shows that the office of overseer had to be filled. If we didn’t have other indicators in the New Testament about the office of bishop, your point would be valid. But when we put Acts 1:15–26 in conjunction with the instructions in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus about ordaining men to the office of bishop (i.e., episkope), we must conclude that the office of bishop was intended to continue after the apostles’ deaths.

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