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The Biblical Evidence for Apostolic Succession

Christ assured that his followers would pass on his teachings unadulterated, and part of that succession involves the laying on of hands.

The first Christians had no doubts as to how to determine what was the true Church and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ: simply trace the apostolic succession of the claimants. Apostolic succession is the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles. Catholic bishops worldwide are part of that lineage, something that is impossible in Protestant denominations, most of which do not even claim to have bishops. 

To make sure the apostles’ teachings would be passed down after their deaths, Paul told Timothy, “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). In this passage he refers to the first three generations of apostolic succession: his own generation, Timothy’s generation, and the generation Timothy will teach. 

Hebrews 6:1-3 presents insight into the doctrine of apostolic succession: 

Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of [1] repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with [2] instruction about ablutions [i.e., baptisms], [3] the laying on of hands, [4] the resurrection of the dead, and [5] eternal judgment.  And this we will do if God permits. 

Yet with the advent of the Protestant rebellion of the sixteenth century, each of these five topics have manifold different definitions depending upon the Protestant sect, or quasi-Christian sect, you may happen upon. 

In this article, I want to focus on the “laying on of hands,” a phrase that has multiple applications in the New Testament and in Catholic theology, including confirmation (Acts 19:6;8:14-17; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1289), the anointing of the sick (James 5:14-16; CCC 1519; 1507), and the charismatic gift of healing (CCC 1508).  

But for our purpose now, the “laying on of hands” also refers to the sacrament of holy orders and apostolic succession: 

The sacrament of holy orders is conferred by the laying on of hands followed by a solemn prayer of consecration asking God to grant the ordinand the graces of the Holy Spirit required for his ministry. Ordination imprints an indelible sacramental character (CCC 1597).

What does the Bible say? 

In the New Testament, we find “the laying on of hands” refers in the plainest of terms to holy orders. St. Paul lays out some essential criteria for candidates for holy orders, followed by stern warnings concerning the grave responsibility that accompanies this august sacrament: “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). 

Then Paul warns against “be[ing] hasty in the laying on of hands” (5:22), meaning don’t ordain just anyone—you must be sure the ordinandi are truly prepared for ministry. Notice the use of the terms “laying on of hands.”  

St. Paul had a special interest in Timothy because he had ordained him personally to the priesthood (probably to the bishopric). Notice again the language Paul uses in reminding young Timothy of the ongoing challenge of his office: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). 

Thus, there can be no reasonable doubt that “the laying on of hands” refers to holy orders in the New Testament. But the question now is: how does this relate to apostolic succession? 

Sent in the name of Jesus   

To understand apostolic succession, we must understand the biblical concept of being sent. The Catechism uses John 20:21 as an example of this: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (CCC 858). The Greek word here for send is a form of apostello—a familiar-sounding term. Apostolos is the noun form of the same word. Its connotation is not sending in the sense of sending a letter. It has a specific meaning of “one sent with the authority of the one who sent him.” Thus, according to Jesus, his New Covenant ministers were not just “sent” in a generic sense; rather, they were “sent” by and with the authority of Christ 

Understanding this idea has ramifications regarding the infallibility of the Church, its juridical authority, and more. Think about it: if Christ’s ministers are “sent” with the authority of Christ, infallibility necessarily follows. Jesus did not teach mere opinions of what he thought Scripture might mean. He spoke the infallible word of God, and so must his ministers!  

Jesus limited this infallible authority he gave to the apostles in both Matthew 16:18-19, when he communicated it to St. Peter and his successors, and in Matthew 18:15-18, when he communicated a similar authority to all the apostles and their successors in union with Peter and his successors. He limited it to “whatever you bind” or “loose” (singular) when speaking to Peter and his successors. And he limited it to “whatever you bind” or “loose” (plural) when speaking to all the apostles.  

An in-depth discussion of these limiting details is beyond the scope of this article. Unfortunately, this basic concept of the communication of an infallible, ongoing apostolic authority has been so muddled with the advent of Protestantism that there are thousands of sects all claiming to be “sent” by God while teaching contradictory doctrines concerning even those “foundational” teachings the inspired author of Hebrews recounted as “elementary.”  

From a New Testament standpoint, apostolic authority is so foundational, so basic, that the idea of anything less is unthinkable.  

And mind you, this apostolic authority Jesus communicated to his ministers is so radical, Jesus would say of those he “sent”: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16, Matt. 10:40). To claim there could be thousands of differing sects, or “denominations” as they are called today, speaking different teachings after having been “sent” by Christ, would have been utterly foreign to the inspired authors of the New Testament. 

The Catechism introduces another crucial phrase into this discussion: “Christ sent his apostles so that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations’” (CCC 1122, quoting Luke 24:47).  

In his name is another phrase in the New Testament that has been reduced and misunderstood among the multitudinous Protestant sects. When Jesus said, “I come in my Father’s name and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive” (John 5:43-44), he reveals the power of this phrase. When Jesus speaks “in the name of” his Father, he leaves no wiggle room around his words. To reject him is to reject his Father. In the same way, when he sends his apostles “in his name,” he also leaves no wiggle room. To reject the apostles is to reject Jesus. This is the essence of apostolic succession regarding teaching authority. 

Succession 

According to Scripture, the apostles ordained others to succeed them in their ministry. And this is more than implied to continue in the Church perennially. This is the undergirding principle of these famous words: 

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. . . . Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:15-18).

Just as Jesus “sent” the apostles, the apostles would send men as well. And those men would send men, and those men would send men—until the end of time. And they alone possess the fullness of the authority of Jesus Christ on Earth. Again, that is the definition of apostolic succession. And this is made clear in the New Testament not only by the above-cited text, which is incoherent apart from a proper understanding of apostolic succession, but also by the idea of the necessity of being “sent” by proper authority in the Church beyond the apostles. More about that below. 

But for now, one crucial note: 

In the office of the apostles there is one aspect that cannot be transmitted [cannot “succeed”]: to be the chosen witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church” (CCC 860, referencing Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21:14). 

However, the Catechism goes on to say: 

Their office also has a permanent aspect. Christ promised to remain with them always. The divine mission entrusted by Jesus to them ‘will continue to the end of time, since the Gospel they handed on is the lasting source of all life for the Church. Therefore, . . . the apostles took care to appoint successors (referencing the Letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians, 42, 44; ca. A.D. 96). 

Apostolic succession has as one of its central purposes infallible certitude regarding Christ’s promise to remain with the Church until the end of time: “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This promise was given in the context of the sending of the apostles to the ends of the Earth, the implication being that the apostolic gift would continue until the end in their successors, the bishops. 

The episcopacy 

Apostolic authority is also seen to succeed in the Church in the choosing of the replacement (successor) of Judas. St. Peter declared, in Acts 1:15-22: 

In those days Peter stood up . . . and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas. . . . For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “His office let another take.”

The Greek word here for “office” is a form of episcope, or “bishopric.” Thus, the office of apostle in succession is referred to as tein episkopein, or “the episcopacy.” According to I Timothy 3:1ff, that office continues in the Church beyond the original apostles. 

Being “sent” by an apostle or by someone sent by an apostle is just as necessary if one is going to be an official representative of Jesus in the Church after the apostles as it was for the apostles themselves to be sent by Jesus. 

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent (Romans 10:14-15)? 

The Greek word for “sent” here is apostalosin. There’s that word again! What does it mean? It means that, for St. Paul, unless you are sent with apostolic authority, you have no authority in the Church. You speak in your own name, rather than the name of Jesus Christ.  

So, who are these “sent ones” that Paul talks about? Timothy certainly qualifies, as we saw above from 2 Tim. 1:6. But most important for us now: this succession does not stop with Timothy and those ordained by apostles: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:1-2). 

And remember, Paul is not just talking about “teachers” such as a Sunday school teacher. First and second Timothy are both pastoral epistles that focus on the pastoral ministry of the ordained.  

Titus 1:5 is another example: ”This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” 

Maintaining union 

In Acts 15, we discover the first major heresy in the Church as well as first-century instructions for dealing with grave error in the Church in general. The details of the controversy are for another article. But for now, take note how the early Church functioned during this controversy about which a Church council had been called and the matter discussed and settled (Acts 15:1-12). Afterward, the apostles wrote an epistle and sent it to the troubled churches:  

Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions (Greek, diasteila’metha, meaning “commandment” or “mandate”): it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul. . . . For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things (Acts 15:24-28).

Notice a crucial addition to what we have seen before: not only does one have to be “sent” with apostolic authority by way of ordination, as we’ve seen, but one has to maintain union with the apostles or their successors, the bishops, by way of an apostolic mandate as well.   

And finally, in Acts 16:4-5, we see how unity was and is maintained in the Church: 

As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.

Unfortunately, not everyone believed and obeyed these “decisions . . . reached by the apostles and elders.” In fact, according to Scripture and tradition a rebellious sect arose led by one of the first seven deacons ordained in Acts 6 (v. 5), “Nicola′us, a proselyte of Antioch” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:26:3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III:29:1). Not coincidentally, he was from Antioch, where the trouble started, according to Acts 14:26. Evidently, he rejected the decisions of the council, no doubt claiming the authority of a member of the clergy. 

Jesus would have disagreed with Deacon Nicola’us. Decades later, our Blessed Lord himself had a message for Nicola’us and his followers. In the book of Revelation, Jesus first says to the Church at Ephesus: 

Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicola′itans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:5-7).

And then, to the Church at Pergamum: 

So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicola′itans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:15-17).

The message seems clear. The true Church speaks with the authority of Christ. If you reject the Church, you reject Jesus. This is true whether you are a layman or a clergyman—and whether you lived in the first century or live in the twenty-first century. That is at the core of the truth of apostolic succession.

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