Apostolic Succession Refuted

Some churches argue that they have special authority, because they have “apostolic succession.” By that, they mean that their bishops hold a continuing church office as successors of the apostles. Because they are successors of the apostles, these churches say, their clergy are the only ones who can legitimately serve communion, ordain church leaders, and make decisions for Jesus’ church.

This is important—if this view of apostolic succession is true, then Protestants and Anabaptists should all go join one of these ancient churches. So this post is an evaluation of and a response to that claim, as it is held by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches.

Two Views of Apostolic Succession

Now, it’s important to note that every church agrees that there must be some sort of continuity from the apostles to Christians today. The apostles, after all, were the ones whom Christ authorized to teach the faith. The question is, what kind of continuity? Protestants and Anabaptists both typically hold that the important kind of continuity is “apostolic succession of doctrine.” In other words, it is enough to insist that Christians should live according to the teachings of the apostles. Those who hold this view often assert that the ancient churches have changed the Christian faith in some ways, and that they no longer hold to apostolic doctrines. If this view is correct, the way we would tell whether a particular church is apostolic is by comparing their doctrines to what the apostles taught.

On the other hand, the ancient churches claim that a church’s legitimacy rests on apostolic succession of ordination. If this is true, you can objectively tell whether a church is a real church or not, simply by answering the question, “Was this church’s bishop ordained in a direct line from the apostles?” To these churches, deviation from the earliest Christian teachings is less important to them because

  1. They don’t believe the changes they’ve made are deviations, just developments or clarifications.
  2. They believe that bishops with apostolic succession of ordination have the continued authority to make infallible statements about the faith (with authority on a par with Scripture) in certain circumstances, like in church councils.

Here’s how one Roman Catholic source puts it:

While it is true that the original Twelve Apostles were unique in that they had been personally chosen by Jesus and had witnessed to the Resurrection, the Catholic Church believes that the ministry of Peter and the apostles continues in the Church, and that therefore the apostolic and Petrine ministries have been transmitted through the ages.1From Simply Catholic

Since the people who use the term “apostolic succession” generally mean it as shorthand for apostolic succession of ordination, that’s the way I’ll use the shorthand term in this article, too. However, whenever I contrast the two different views of apostolic succession, I will specify which view I’m talking about.

The Dividing Lines

Now, how can we find out if apostolic succession is true, and whether the ancient churches have it? To do so, we will need to answer the following questions:

  1. Did the apostles set up a church with three ordained offices (bishop, presbyter [also called priest or elder], and deacon) rather than two offices (bishop [also called presbyter or elder] and deacon)?
  2. Is the authoritative office in the church that the apostles held inherited by bishops who succeed them, by virtue of a direct line of ordination?
  3. Have the bishops of the ancient churches legitimately filled and passed on this office such that the chain has remained unbroken since the apostles?
  4. Must this office be passed down from bishop to bishop, with no allowance for a congregation (of people who don’t carry that office) to legitimately ordain a person into that office?
  5. Does this office include the continued ability to make infallible pronouncements on the faith under certain circumstances, such as in church councils?

As I understand the doctrine of apostolic succession, those who hold to it must answer yes to every one of these questions. Yet I will argue that none of these questions can be answered in the affirmative, if we follow the evidence in the earliest Christians sources. Apostolic succession must be supported by early evidence, since there is no point in the apostolic chain being solid for the last seventeen hundred years if it is broken in the first three hundred. That is, it is no longer apostolic succession if the apostles and the succeeding church leaders knew nothing of the doctrine.

Therefore, the doctrine of apostolic succession must appear, and certainly must not be contradicted, in either the New Testament or the first few hundred years of post-apostolic Christian writings. Otherwise, we cannot accept it as true. However, in the rest of this article, I will go through each question and demonstrate that the earliest sources show that the answer to each question is no.

Did the Apostles Set Up Three Offices?

The first question is, “Did the apostles set up a church with three ordained offices (bishop, priest, and deacon) rather than two (bishop and deacon)?” This is important, because the ancient churches claim that bishops are the only office that can pass on apostolic succession. Priests and deacons must be ordained by someone with apostolic succession, but they can’t pass on the succession. Bishops are said to have authority in the church because they and they alone hold the office that the apostles held.

However, this claim very dubious, simply because the earliest evidence shows that the apostles set up churches with two offices, rather than three. Each church had multiple elders (presbyters), who were also called bishops (the episcopate), and multiple deacons. I’ll give several reasons for this conclusion.

First, Scripture never mentions any churches that are ruled by one bishop. Instead, when bishops are mentioned, they are mentioned as groups.2See Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1 (sometimes the word is translated “overseer” rather than “bishop”) This suggests that each church had multiple bishops. Other early sources also indicate cases of churches with a plurality of bishops.3“Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15)

“he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.” (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man 42, ANF)

Second, in the New Testament churches, the word “elder” is used synonymously with “bishop,” showing that they were the same office. For example, in Acts 20, Paul calls together the “elders” of the church at Ephesus (v. 17), and in his speech to them, he calls them “bishops” (v. 28). Paul also writes to Titus to appoint “elders” (1:5) and when he lists the qualifications for that office, he calls it the office of “bishop” (1:7). This same usage is found in at least one other early source.4“For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate [office of bishop] those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure” (1 Clement 44, ANF)

Thirdly, the term “elders” is often used in situations where we would expect the highest church office to be mentioned. This suggests that elders and bishops ranked at the same level.5See Acts 15, 16:4, 21:18, 1 Tim 4:14

Finally, when the apostles refer to the church offices, they only ever mention two of them in any instance: “bishops and deacons.”6Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3 This same usage continues through some of the earliest post-apostolic sources.7“And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons.” (1 Clement 42, ANF)

“Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15)

Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. (Polycarp to Philippians V)

Now, in the first few centuries of the church, this model changed. This office was eventually divided into the offices of bishop and presbyter, and eventually each city had a single bishop. This is quite possibly an apostolic development, since some of the first references to the threefold order are by Ignatius.8Ignatius was an early bishop in Asia Minor, where John, the longest-lived apostle, concluded his ministry. Whether or not it is an apostolic development, though, the point is that it was a development. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops can hardly be the successors of the apostles if there was no office corresponding to it until the final days of the last living apostle. The single bishops (monarchical episcopate) could not be the ones who carry the apostolic succession from the apostles, since there were no single bishops in the beginning!

Now, I grant that the statements I’ve made in this section are based on very few sources. However, I’ve cited the best sources we have. Unfortunately, the earliest Christian texts doesn’t often clearly mention the number of church offices. However, wherever Scripture mentions it, it consistently holds to the reading I have offered, and multiple other early sources also support this reading. Only a few of the earliest post-apostolic sources contest it.

So this provides good reason to believe that the doctrine of apostolic succession of ordination is either false or needs to be revised to better fit the evidence. My answer to the next question will be more certain.

Does the Bible Teach a Continuing Apostolic Office?

In answering the previous question, I cast doubt on the credibility of apostolic succession. However, the answer to this question will serve to undercut the doctrine entirely. This is simply because most arguments for apostolic succession are based on quoting Scripture and other early writings to support an answer of yes to this question. So, “Is the authoritative office in the church that the apostles held inherited by bishops who succeed them, by virtue of a direct line of ordination?” If I can show that the quotes used to support apostolic succession don’t actually do so, we will be left with basically no evidence for the doctrine itself.

Now, the apostles held a highly important role in the church. They taught all Christian doctrines to those who followed them, and their original teachings were the worldwide standard for true belief. The apostles’ writings are authoritative and can be completely trusted to contain Jesus’ true message. If their role passed on to other people, we would expect to have fairly clear evidence of that in the first several centuries of Christian history. Instead, we see no evidence at all.

Criteria for an Apostolic Succession Argument

The two kinds of quotations that are usually offered in support of apostolic succession are teachings that seem to support apostolic succession and examples that seem to be apostolic succession in action. However, evaluating these quotes can become complicated. That’s because everybody agrees that the apostles gave bishops the authority to teach and to lead their churches. It’s just that proponents of apostolic succession also believe that these bishops have special authority like the apostles, by virtue of being ordained by other bishops with this kind of special authority.

Pardon me while I get detailed for a moment. If we don’t get this right, we won’t be able to evaluate any quotations properly.

If a quotation from Scripture or other early writings doesn’t provide support for one or the other of these claims, then that quote can be used just as easily to support apostolic succession of doctrine as it can be used to support succession of ordination. Therefore, that quote doesn’t provide any evidence for the ancient churches’ view of apostolic succession. A quotation only provides evidence for their view as long as it supports some aspect that is unique to their view.

So, what criteria can we use to tell whether a particular teaching from the early Christian writings supports apostolic succession of ordination, rather than of doctrine?

1. It must teach (or provide an example of) one of the following elements that are specific to apostolic succession of ordination:

1a. That bishops hold an office with special authority like the apostles.

1b. Or that bishops have been ordained by bishops in a direct line of ordination that goes back to the apostles.

2. However, both 1a and 1b, by themselves, can be consistent with apostolic succession of doctrine as well as of ordination. Therefore, if the quotation is to be used as significant evidence for succession of ordination, it must also indicate one of the following corresponding conditions:

2a. In the case of 1a, it must also indicate that 1a is true because the bishop was properly ordained.

2b. In the case of 1b, it must also indicate that 1b is a necessary condition for a proper bishop ordination to occur.

Condition 2 is important, because if the quotation includes 1a or 1b but does not indicate that 1a or 1b is important due to the importance of proper ordination, then it is completely compatible with succession of doctrine. Thus, it would only give minor support to succession of ordination over succession of doctrine. In fact, it’s doubly important, because if the quote teaches that some aspect of apostolic succession is important because of the importance of proper doctrine, then it actually gives more support to apostolic succession of doctrine rather than to ordination.

So a quote can be valid by matching conditions 1a and 2a, in which case it will indicate that bishops hold an office with special authority like the apostles, because the bishops were properly ordained. A quote can also be valid by matching conditions 1b and 2b, in which case it will indicate that bishops have been ordained in a direct line from the apostles, and that this fact is necessary in order for their ordinations to be valid.

Now, even if we find quotes that meet one or the other, or even both, of these possibilities, the full doctrine of apostolic succession of ordination won’t automatically follow, since there are a number of other claims involved in it. But we can at least know that such quotes support succession of ordination over succession of doctrine.

All right. Back to the issue at hand. How do the writings we have stack up against these criteria?

Biblical Arguments for Apostolic Succession

Acts

Before Pentecost, the eleven faithful apostles ordained Matthias to take the place of Judas Iscariot, since Jesus had ordained twelve apostles but Judas’s unfaithfulness had reduced their number to eleven. Supporters of apostolic succession argue that this story shows that church leaders can be ordained into the “apostolic college” as needed. Let’s see the passage:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” . . . “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and “‘Let another take his office.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15-26 ESV

1a. This quotation does not indicate that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. Matthias had apostolic authority, but that was because he was ordained as an apostle, not merely as a bishop.9Note that the Greek word translated “office” is related to the word used for “bishop” in the New Testament. This is sometimes used to argue that the bishops took the apostles’ place. But even if this were a valid reading of the Greek text, consider this: Just because the office of apostle might also make someone a bishop as well, that doesn’t mean that the office of bishop also makes someone an apostle as well!

1b. This is not a bishop ordination, so the criteria for Matthias’s apostle ordination do not apply to bishop ordinations. Thus, this doesn’t meet condition 1b. But if you think the criteria for this ordination do apply to bishop ordinations, then I ask you,

  • Where are the bishops alive today who “have accompanied us [the eleven] during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—[to] become with us a witness to his resurrection”?
  • Matthias was ordained to fill a specific place among the twelve that was left open by Judas’s unfaithfulness, “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside.” So where are the twelve people today who fill the places of the twelve faithful apostles? (Because they were faithful, their places don’t need to be filled, but even if they did, there would still be only twelve places.)

Nowhere, of course. Matthias’s ordination does not suggest that more positions could be added to the apostolic college; in fact, it serves to show that a specified number of positions needed to be filled for the apostles to begin their ministry, which actually counts against the addition of more seats in the apostolic college. To see this point a little more clearly, consider the special role that the twelve faithful apostles were given. In Revelation, John calls these twelve men the foundation of the walls of the City of God.10Rev 21:14; also see Eph 2:20 Adding a stone to the foundation to complete it, because the stone that previously held that spot was defective, is entirely different from expanding the foundation. And ordaining Matthias was completing the foundation, not expanding it.

Consider that we have no record of anyone being ordained to the apostle James’s place when he was killed (Acts 12:1-3). If Matthias’s ordination is to prove that new leaders with the same authority were to be ordained whenever apostles died, why is there no such record? The simplest explanation is that Matthias’s ordination had nothing to do with apostolic succession. Quite simply, there were to be twelve apostles to found the church, and when Judas defected before the church was to be founded, his place was filled by one who would prove faithful. Yet once the church was founded, the faithful apostles who died were considered to have completed their work, and could ever afterwards be considered a foundation for the church.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination for bishops, so it doesn’t meet condition 2. (It doesn’t even specify that Matthias’s ordination to apostleship involved the laying on of hands of the apostles!) So it gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination over succession of doctrine.

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)

1a. This quotation does not say that bishops had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. In fact, it is elders (presbyters) who are being ordained and given authority, and the ancient churches don’t believe that presbyters have full apostolic authority.

1b. No mention is made of how the elders were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination for bishops. So it gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination over succession of doctrine.

Timothy

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. . . . Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 4:14, 5:22)

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:6)

[W]hat you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

1a. These quotations do not say that bishops (or even Timothy) had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a.

1b. This does not support apostolic succession, since elders laid hands on Timothy, while the ancient churches believe that ordination requires bishops. Furthermore, the text doesn’t even say that the laying on of hands was for a specific church office. The apostle Paul did lay hands on Timothy to give him a spiritual gift (2 Tim 1:6), but there is no indication that this was the same occasion, nor that the gift was a specific church office (besides, I pointed out earlier that Paul was not ordained by the twelve apostles). Therefore, no mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b. But even if these quotes are actually about the ordination of bishops, they call apostolic succession into question, since presbyters laid hands on Timothy.

2. The quotations do not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In one case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine (2 Timothy 2:2). So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Titus

Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)

1a. “All” authority is certainly a strong way of wording it. However, this quotation does not clearly say that even Titus (let alone bishops in general, who are not mentioned) had special authority like the apostles, so this doesn’t meet condition 1a. If he did have special authority, it was likely because Paul gave him the authority for this specific case (“these things”).

1b. No mention is made of who ordained bishops or how they were ordained, so this doesn’t meet condition 1b.

2. The quotation does not stress the necessity of proper ordination. In this case, the goal is in fact to stress the necessity of proper doctrine. So this gives no support to apostolic succession of ordination, while offering support to apostolic succession of doctrine.

Ephesians

Those are the most common Scriptures that are appealed to. However, here’s another attempt at finding apostolic succession in Scripture:

“And interestingly, in Ephesians 4:11, he doesn’t mention bishop, he only mentions apostle, prophet, pastor, evangelist, and teacher. Why didn’t he mention bishop? . . . Well, because the bishop takes the place of the apostle, or succeeds the apostle.”11https://www.catholic.com/video/apostolic-succession-in-the-bible

But this of course fails. How can the office of bishop be conspicuously absent in this passage when no other church office (presbyter or deacon) is mentioned? And couldn’t the bishop more accurately take the place of the pastor instead?

So far we have no evidence from the New Testament for apostolic succession of ordination, but some evidence for succession of doctrine.

Biblical Arguments from the Old Testament

The ancient churches also try to support apostolic succession with analogies to the way ordination worked in the Old Testament. In this video, for example, a Roman Catholic argues that something very much like apostolic succession was practiced in the Jewish Sanhedrin. However, examples like this merely serve to show that the idea of apostolic succession wouldn’t have been a crazy idea to people at that time period. Such examples don’t give any evidence for whether or not it was actually practiced in the early church.

Examining the Early Church Fathers

Besides appealing to Scripture, the ancient churches also use many passages from the early Christian writings to try to show that apostolic succession is a historic doctrine agreed on from the beginning. The weight of the argument usually falls on those quotes.

However, I’ve examined every quotation from the early Christians that I can find offered in online defences of apostolic succession. Though a few of them give support to conditions 1a and 1b, none gives any support to condition 2. You can examine these quotes and my analysis of each one in this post, where I go through them systematically. Since they don’t meet the criteria, they offer no evidence for apostolic succession of ordination. In fact, only about four quotes give support for conditions 1a and 1b, but about three times as many quotes actually lend more support for succession of doctrine.

So the weight of the early Christian writings is definitely on the side of apostolic succession of doctrine. However, don’t take my word for it. Check out the quotes for yourself.

Bishop Lists

One Roman Catholic video claims, “[Every Catholic] bishop can trace his apostolic succession all the way back to one of the apostles. The Church has kept meticulous records for two thousand years. Is that awesome or what? That is awesome. But my friend, this is all rooted in Sacred Scripture.”12https://www.catholic.com/video/apostolic-succession-in-the-bible

Is that true? Are there really records of who ordained who, going all the way back to the apostles? That would indeed be awesome if it were true. In fact, it’s true that there are bishop lists that claim to go back to the apostles. However, there are two reasons why these lists don’t support apostolic succession.

First, the lists contradict each other at important points. Tertullian and Irenaeus, for example, disagree over who was the first bishop of Rome.13Irenaeus says it’s Linus, while Tertullian says it’s Clement. How do we know which lists are accurate when there are direct contradictions between them?

Second, and more importantly, the earliest lists do not say who ordained who. They simply say who followed who in office.14See for example, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 3.3 (ANF): “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. We don’t know whether these bishops were ordained by previous bishops or not. In fact, some of the bishops in these lists were martyred, so they could hardly have ordained their successors—their successors must have been ordained by other people, who may or may not have had apostolic succession. So these bishop lists do not even attempt to show a line of ordinations going back to the apostles. They only try to show that the office of bishop in certain cities was filled the whole way back to the apostles’ day. So these lists provide no support for apostolic succession of ordination.

I conclude that Scripture and the early Christian writings do not support apostolic succession of ordination. You’ll remember that I asked, “Is the authoritative office in the church that the apostles held inherited by bishops who succeed them, by virtue of a direct line of ordination?” As you can see, the answer is no.

A Priori Arguments

Before continuing to the next question, however, I would like to address one more style of argument that tries to support the idea of a continuing apostolic office. Some proponents of apostolic succession try to argue for the doctrine using a priori arguments.

An a priori argument is one that uses the very idea of a thing as evidence for the truth of that thing, rather than providing data as evidence for that idea. Such arguments will ask, “How might we expect God to set up a church structure?” These arguments try to conclude that God would employ apostolic succession in order to ensure proper leadership and doctrine for his church throughout the centuries. A priori arguments can be valuable, but in this case, I don’t think they carry much weight.

I must say that I have a weakness for apostolic succession, because it’s a beautiful idea. For me, it seems so poetic to conceive of a church whose leaders were ordained by other leaders, in a line that goes back to the apostles themselves. (Although it’s not so poetic when it’s weaponized to prove the supremacy of a particular church.) These arguments can sound really emotionally compelling, and our emotions are not always wrong.

But this beautiful idea is meaningless, if we have direct evidence that things never happened that way. And, unfortunately, I’ve shown things didn’t happen that way. Apostolic succession is a beautiful idea, but it has no tie to reality.

Have the Ancient Churches Passed On the Office?

The third question is “Have the bishops of the ancient churches legitimately filled and passed on this office such that the chain has remained unbroken since the apostles?”

In the last section, I showed that there is little evidence for apostolic succession at the very beginning of the church. Of course, if the chain is broken that early, there is no point in keeping the links straight ever afterwards. However, there are several further reasons to doubt whether the bishops of the ancient churches have kept the chain unbroken since the apostles.

First, individual bishops have deviated from the apostolic faith in their teachings (I will look further into deviations by whole churches in answer to the final question). Many bishops taught, for example, that Christians should go to war, even though the early church taught that war is a terrible wrong. Individuals who persisted in doctrinal errors of this sort don’t give much credibility to a bishop list.

Second, many bishops, including many Popes, have lived very ungodly lives. It used to be almost assumed that high churchmen would have illegitimate children. Ungodly bishops have participated power struggles, assassinations, persecutions, and almost every other perversion known to man. Many churchmen grew fabulously wealthy off the sweat of their people, lording it over their people in direct disobedience to Jesus (Matt 23:11). Yet such people, who should have been removed from their office, instead remained and often ordained more bishops who were just like them.

Third, many bishops, including many Popes, have obtained their office through money or politics, rather than through their holiness or spirituality. For example, rich families in the past often used their money and influence to obtain positions in the church for their younger sons, if those sons weren’t going to receive enough inheritance to be able to live on it without working. However, the Apostolic Constitutions shows that early Christians removed such bishops from office and even excommunicated them.15“If any bishop obtains that dignity by money, or even a presbyter or deacon, let him and the person that ordained him be deprived; and let him be entirely cut off from communion, as Simon Magus was by me Peter. If any bishop makes use of the rulers of this world, and by their means obtains to be a bishop of a church, let him be deprived and suspended, and all that communicate with him.” Apostolic Constitutions 8.47.30-31 ANF Yet the power of the Kingdoms of this world kept these people in office, and such men ordained others like them.

I do not say all this to try to make the ancient churches look bad. I would rather tell stories of the countless godly and holy bishops who have done credit to their churches throughout the ages. But the examples that I have given demand this question: Is an ordination valid when the people bestowing ordination are in doctrinal error and/or unrepented sin?

My answer may surprise you. I believe, along with the ancient churches that the answer is yes. However, I disagree with the rationale that the ancient churches give.

In the early 300s, during a time of persecution, the Roman government went easy on some churches after those churches handed over copies of the Scriptures for destruction. After the persecution was over, however, many Christians, who became called the Donatists, turned against the church leaders who had handed over Scriptures. They considered such leaders to be traitors, and held that, because of their betrayal, those leaders could not validly give communion or ordain other leaders.

The rest of the church disagreed with the Donatists. After all, if the efficacy of an ordination is based on the faithfulness of the person giving it, how can anyone be sure that their ordination is valid? And just how faithful or sinless do you need to be before you can ordain someone? Thus, while I honor the Donatists for their uncompromising loyalty to Christ, their stance created huge problems for the church.

But the question remains: How can God’s grace of ordination work through people who aren’t themselves holy? The ancient churches answer that it is a church leader’s ordination that makes it possible to validly give communion and ordain others. In other words, no matter how unholy a bishop is, what he does is valid as long as his ordination is valid.

But this is a very mechanical answer to the question. Is the Spirit limited to working its way down the list of ordinations, from person to person, in order to be able to work through the person who offers communion? Because the ancient churches believe that ordination is a transaction which leaves a mark on the ordained person’s soul, giving him the ability to pass it on to the next person, even the most evil bishop can validly ordain, while the most holy priest, deacon, or lay person cannot. But surely this is an answer devised by human logic. It is not found in Scripture or the early Christian writings, and it was added to the faith in order to make sense of why someone can be ordained by an evil person.

So what is the alternative? Simply that the Holy Spirit is the one who ordains anybody. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes a baptism or a communion valid. He is not dependent on third parties in order to be able to fill us—he will fill those who humble themselves to his work. The Holy Spirit can also validly ordain a godly man, even if the people administering the ordination are traitors to the Lord.

However, this also means that the Holy Spirit can validly ordain a godly man, even if the people administering the ordination are lay people. I’m not making this up; we have support from early Christianity to show that ordination by non-bishops is valid, as I will show in the next section.

Thus, a bishop who is ordained by a congregation of holy people is just as validly ordained as a bishop who is ordained by a group of unfaithful bishops. If generations of succeeding bishops are unfaithful, but no one has put them out of the church, does the laying on of their hands have more value than the laying on of hands of Spirit-filled, God-fearing laymen?

The ancient churches answer yes, but Scripture and the early Christians do not support them. As I showed earlier, the whole point of succession, as the apostles and early Christians intended it, was for succession of doctrine, not ordination. If the doctrine of a church does not continue, the legitimacy of the church is gone, no matter how well the leaders were ordained. Yet the Holy Spirit will still move, even in an illegitimate church, in the lives of all who open themselves to him.

Bishop to Bishop?

My fourth question was, “Must this office be passed down from bishop to bishop, with no allowance for a congregation (of people who don’t carry that office) to legitimately ordain a person into that office?” Again, proponents of apostolic succession answer yes to this question, while I will argue that the answer is no.  

This is perhaps the most straightforward answer to apostolic succession. Because if we can find an instance of a valid ordination in the earliest churches that does not involve bishops who have a direct line of ordination from the apostles, then we know that apostolic succession of ordination has not always been required. Even if it were, the chain has been broken from the very beginning.

Though there is not a lot of data on this point, I found three quotations that provide counterexamples to apostolic succession.

Paul and Barnabas’s Ordination: A Biblical Example

In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas were ordained as missionaries.

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1-3)

As this passage shows, Paul and Barnabas were ordained by prophets and teachers, not by apostles or bishops. Later, Paul and Barnabas were to ordain many bishops in many different churches. Yet this appears to be the only ordination that they themselves received. Paul, at least, denies that any of the twelve apostles ordained him before he first set out to establish churches.16See Galatians 1.

The Didache

The Didache, a very early source that was written to Christians who didn’t have bishops or deacons, tells its readers to “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15). No indication is given that bishops with apostolic succession would need to come to ordain these bishops and deacons; the text suggests that the congregation will be doing the ordaining.

1 Clement

Another example of a congregation ordaining a bishop is in 1 Clement, a book that proponents of apostolic succession often quote in support of their views. However, the setting of the book hardly supports apostolic succession of ordination.

1 Clement is a letter that the church leadership in Rome wrote to the church in Corinth, because the congregation removed their leaders and instated new ones. If apostolic succession were true, the congregation would have had no ability to validly do either. But the church leaders at Rome didn’t tell the Corinthians that their newly appointed leaders weren’t validly ordained. The letter simply takes issue with their reasons for removing the old leadership.

We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by [the apostles], or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. (1 Clement 44)

This quotation indicates that the congregation had the authority to remove its ordained leaders and to ordain new ones. The church in Rome merely questioned their propriety in doing so.

But how can un-ordained people pass on a gift that they don’t have?

But where does the ordination of a bishop originate from, if not from the people ordaining him? John Henry Newman, a famous convert to Roman Catholicism, used that question in support of apostolic succession:

[T]hrough the Bishop who ordained us, we received the HOLY GHOST, the power to bind and to loose, to administer the Sacraments, and to preach. Now how is he able to give these great gifts? Whence is his right? Are these words idle, (which would be taking GOD’S name in vain,) or do they express merely a wish, (which surely is very far below their meaning,) or do they not rather indicate that the Speaker is conveying a gift? Surely they can mean nothing short of this. But whence, I ask, his right to do so? Has he any right, except as having received the power from those who consecrated him to be a Bishop? He could not give what he had never received. It is plain then that he but transmits; and that the Christian Ministry is a succession.

I asked, “How can un-ordained people pass on a gift that they don’t have?” But we must also ask, “How can even ordained people pass on a gift that they do have?” Isn’t it clear that the Spirit gives any gifts that accompany ordination, since they are by nature spiritual gifts? As I pointed out in the last section, the Holy Spirit can work even without those who possess proper ordination.

Newman says, “But whence, I ask, his right to do so? Has he any right, except as having received the power from those who consecrated him to be a Bishop?” But is that the only option, Newman? Is the Spirit unable to work with new people, and must he therefore hand down ordination in an unbroken chain? Or does the Spirit confer the gift as he wishes? I think the answer is clear.

Infallible Pronouncements?

My final question of the five is, “Do these offices include the continued ability to make infallible pronouncements on the faith under certain circumstances, such as in church councils?” Again, proponents of apostolic succession answer yes. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans accept multiple church councils in which bishops claimed to make infallible pronouncements for all Christians to follow. However, the first few hundred years of Christianity give no evidence that bishops have such authority.

As I have shown in my article on doctrinal authority, the Christian faith cannot be further developed in this way. The apostles preached the complete faith, and it is a faith that needed no further clarification than the teaching they gave. So the answer to this question is no. I encourage you to read and assess the arguments that I offer in that article.

Conclusion: What’s the Alternative?

I listed five questions that proponents of apostolic succession answer in the affirmative, and I’ve shown that, for each question, the most reasonable answer is no. Therefore, I conclude that there is no such thing in Christianity as apostolic succession of ordination. The evidence shows that it is more important for churches today to have the right doctrines and practices than for their bishops to have the right pedigree. If any church is apostolic, it is because that church teaches proper doctrine.

So I conclude that if we want to find out what church to join, we need to evaluate the church according to the way it lines up with the historic faith rather than by who ordained the church leaders.


Note: “ANF” in the footnotes indicates the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, by Schaff, Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. From a digital copy scanned from a printing in 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Numbers in references are chapter numbers as found in the ANF set.

  • 1
  • 2
    See Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1 (sometimes the word is translated “overseer” rather than “bishop”)
  • 3
    “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15)

    “he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.” (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man 42, ANF)
  • 4
    “For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate [office of bishop] those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure” (1 Clement 44, ANF)
  • 5
    See Acts 15, 16:4, 21:18, 1 Tim 4:14
  • 6
    Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3
  • 7
    “And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons.” (1 Clement 42, ANF)

    “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache 15)

    Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. (Polycarp to Philippians V)
  • 8
    Ignatius was an early bishop in Asia Minor, where John, the longest-lived apostle, concluded his ministry.
  • 9
    Note that the Greek word translated “office” is related to the word used for “bishop” in the New Testament. This is sometimes used to argue that the bishops took the apostles’ place. But even if this were a valid reading of the Greek text, consider this: Just because the office of apostle might also make someone a bishop as well, that doesn’t mean that the office of bishop also makes someone an apostle as well!
  • 10
    Rev 21:14; also see Eph 2:20
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
    Irenaeus says it’s Linus, while Tertullian says it’s Clement.
  • 14
    See for example, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 3.3 (ANF): “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.
  • 15
    “If any bishop obtains that dignity by money, or even a presbyter or deacon, let him and the person that ordained him be deprived; and let him be entirely cut off from communion, as Simon Magus was by me Peter. If any bishop makes use of the rulers of this world, and by their means obtains to be a bishop of a church, let him be deprived and suspended, and all that communicate with him.” Apostolic Constitutions 8.47.30-31 ANF
  • 16
    See Galatians 1.

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