Apostolic Succession or Apostolic Truth?

The following article is by Reed K. Merino. I’ve reposted it by permission.

The Day I Became Two Thousand Years Old!

At Philadelphia, on December 14, 1968, our bishop Robert DeWitt in the “apostolic succession” ordained me as an Episcopalian priest at our parish, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Over a period of several years, I had evolved to become a zealous adherent of the “Anglo-Catholic” movement within that denomination. That movement laid great stress on the “apostolic succession” of their bishops, meaning that the apostles themselves had supposedly created an order of leaders that ruled OVER the elders/ presbyters/ priests under their charge (originally, “priest” was merely a shortening of “presbyter,” which simply meant “elder” in Greek).

What this idea of “apostolic succession” meant was that when you are ordained by a bishop who was in that continuous line of episcopal (i.e., bishops) ordinations, which lead directly back to the apostles themselves you are continuing the very presence of apostolic authority in the church: you teach and lead with apostolic authority!

My ordination had a magical effect upon me on that day. Starting on that very day, I no longer felt like a twenty-seven-year-old young adult who was supposed to teach what he had learned in college and seminary. Instead, I now felt like I was now somehow two thousand years old, or carrying a burden and an authority which was that old.

I felt like I no longer had any right whatsoever to take part in any new form of Christian theology, or any new form of leadership structure, or participate in any new Christian movement. Now it was exclusively about teaching and defending that two thousand year old continuous apostolic tradition. Heavy, yet wonderfully exhilarating! And it still is!

But my personal problem back then was that I did not know what that burden specifically implied and included. I had given the Lord a “blank check,” as it were, but had to be stretched several decades before realizing the amount of detail that needed to be written into it.

It is no wonder that few such priests who minister in such an “apostolic succession” ever want to become a “mere” Protestant minister (their sentiment, not mine). It feels to them sort of like being a Federally-recognized and commissioned military officer who is being offered to leave that position and become a Boy Scout leader! “Not quite the real thing!”

It took some years for me to see cracks developing within the walls of that “episcopal apostolic succession” castle. I continued to study the history of the earliest centuries of Church history in great detail—I planned to teach it at the seminary level. But as my understanding became more detailed, it slowly began to dawn upon me that the specific teachings, disciplines, and institutions of the actual groups who claimed that “apostolic succession” were, in actual fact, NOT two-thousand years old!

At their best, the Eastern Orthodox version of those teachings and institutions brought you back only to about 600 A.D., when their current institutional version was finally “cast in concrete.” The Episcopalian/Anglican version (at their best) took you back to the middle of the third century days, when Cyprian was the Bishop of the Churches in Carthage. The Roman Catholic version is more subtle; this is because it essentially created the same foundation as the Orthodox, but continued to historically build upon it in a direction that has shifted with the times: at first, becoming more and more hierarchical and authoritarian than our “cast in concrete” Orthodox versions, but in our democratic times becoming more and more adaptable to democratic public pressures.

But in all three cases, those supposedly two thousands of years I had personally embraced turned out to bring me significantly less—dangerously less—than what was promised by those who hold to that claim of “apostolic succession.”

For one thing, those “monarchical bishops” who were supposedly created by the apostles themselves to be rulers over the people, deacons, and “presbyters” turned out to be an historical fiction or devolution away from what the apostles actually had created. Even some Roman Catholic scholars I have talked to and read who are more open to the facts of history have accepted that in apostolic times the New Testament “bishop” (“overseer;” Greek, “episkopos”) was merely another title and function given to the team of “presbyters”—the words are merely synonyms for the same team of elders who lead each brotherhood! Those Roman Catholics tend to justify the one-man ruler “bishop” as a “Spirit-guided” development, which was needed in order to bring the poor infant church to the “maturity” we see it manifesting in our day!

And, to top it all off, as late as the early fifth century, the very learned Jerome (died 420 A.D.) had this to say about those hierarchical “bishops”:

“. . . a presbyter is the same as a bishop, and before ambition came into religion by the prompting of the devil, and people began to say, ‘I belong to Paul; I to Apollo; I to Cephas,’ the churches were governed by the direction of the presbyters acting as a body. But when each presbyter began to suppose that those whom he had baptized belonged to him, rather than to Christ, it was decreed in the whole church that one of the presbyters would be chosen to preside over the others, and that the whole responsibility for the church should devolve on him, so that the seeds of schism should be removed” (“Commentary on the Epistle of Titus,” 1:1,5).

The only possible “apostolic succession” taught by the apostles that can be found within the inspired apostolic writings was applied by Paul to the plurality of elders who ruled as a team:

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

The idea found within the apostolic writings is that the initial elders/presbyters were created by the laying on of apostolic hands; they, in turn, would create new fellow elders as needed, and thus provide the church with a “succession” of ruling elders. The office and title of “overseer” belongs to the elders/presbyters who minister in teams, but definitely not to some separate senior ruler called a “bishop,” who rules over all the congregations and elders in his geographical areas of control!

The only reference to a “one-man” rule found within the New Testament is in 3 John 1:9 (the infamous Diotrephes, who “loves to be first among them”). As I wrote in my book Blueprint For A Revolution: Building Upon ALL Of The New Testament (page 27),

“That passage is the only place in the New Testament where there is an indication of one-man rule, and it is certainly not being commended there, is it! The churches’ later adoption of a monarchial form of leadership was an example of yielding to the deeply rooted idea of kingship that was universal in worldly cultures of the day. Their failure is as easy to understand as the churches’ drive to make leadership fit the worldly model of democratic leadership in our own age. Both are understandable, both disobedient, both sad. One carnalizes authority, the other almost eliminates it.”

Furthermore, from the testimony of the New Testament Scriptures and of the very earliest churches, the idea that the apostolic ministry would be succeeded and replaced by some other institution (i.e., monarchical “bishops”) is quite nonexistent! In Revelation 2:2 we are told that the church was testing whether a claimed apostleship was true or not. The Didache (chapter 11) shows that the same testing and discernment was still going on by the end of the first century, and that some claims were indeed still considered to be true!

As the Apostle Paul indicates, it seems clear that Apostles can only rise up when and if God creates and supernaturally equips them:

“The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Ministering in all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit seems to be an essential aspect of the apostolic ministry. There is no evidence that the apostolic ministry must be a regular and continual part of the church’s life, in the way that presbyters, deacons, prophets, teachers and evangelists are. If and when the Spirit of God creates and gifts a man to be an apostle, that man would bring other churches into being, and ordain their initial leaders, but only “if and when” He does create them.

But, even at the ripe old age of eighty-two I still feel like I am two thousand years old; and I love it! If you are a leader or member of your church and love the Word of God you also should have that same instinct as I do, and delight in saying, “My only desire is to understand, teach, obey and experience, exactly what is described within the literature inspired by the same Spirit that was in Jesus and released into His apostles two thousand years ago.

I do not want any interpretation that they did not have, because they were trained by the very best to be had! Their understanding, their surrender, their faith, their childlike humility, their Holy Spirit anointing causes demons to be forced out into the open and cast away! Their version of “ministry” brings healing to the sick and raises the dead! Their version of “church” creates a form of humanity in which there are no poor, no racial hatred, no “class clashing,” and neither oppressive conformity nor promiscuous chaos!”

Being sixteen or eighteen hundred years old is pretty old indeed—by human, carnal standards. Compared to that age, a Protestant age of not quite five hundred years sounds like mere adolescence! But even sixteen hundred years merely sounds much more impressive than it actually is in the eyes of God. God insists it from you, and you need to be, two thousand years old, no?

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