Apostolic Succession Refuted

One of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church and some other churches give for believing their authority claims is apostolic succession. In its simplest form, apostolic succession describes church leadership offices or churches themselves that were founded by the apostles and continued through the succeeding generations.

However, these churches claim even more for themselves. They argue that they have special authority because their bishops were ordained (they believe) in a direct line from the apostles. As 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 the church.

This is important. If this view of apostolic succession is true, then Protestants and Anabaptists should all join one of these churches. However, in this post, I will show that their claims are not historical. Apostolic succession as they teach it is very different from the way the early church believed.

In this post, I will evaluate the biblical evidence for and against the ancient churches’ view. I will also summarize the early Christian evidence, which I analyzed in the linked article.

Who Uses This Argument?

The claim to special ongoing apostolic succession is made by the following churches:

  • Roman Catholic Church
  • Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Oriental Orthodox Communion (including the Coptic Church)
  • Assyrian Orthodox Church (Church of the East)
  • Many Anglican churches
  • Some Lutheran churches
  • Many Catholic splinter groups

I’ll call these churches “the ancient churches,” since it’s not just the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches who claim this doctrine. That’s a designation used sometimes to refer to churches that claim to have kept a consistent continuity with the church throughout the ages into the first century.

The Claims Surrounding Apostolic Succession

Without knowing where the key points of contention are, we won’t be able to know which view each quotation supports. So in this section, I’ll give the key claims of the ancient churches’ view of apostolic succession.

Apostolic Succession—What Everyone Agrees With

Everyone can agree that apostolic succession refers to church leaders following in the church leadership positions that the apostles founded. The early Christians pointed out that their church leader held the same leadership offices (like bishop of Ephesus or bishop of Rome) that the church leaders appointed by the apostles had held.

It’s important to note that everybody agrees that the apostles gave bishops and presbyters (or elders) the authority to teach and to lead their churches. So that’s not a difference between the two views.

So if this is uncontroversial, what do we disagree on? We disagree on 1) what the benefits of apostolic succession were for the early church and why they valued those benefits, and 2) how we can have those benefits today.

Apostolic Succession According to the Ancient Churches

The ancient churches teach that apostolic succession plays the role of ensuring true ordination. Here are their relevant beliefs:

  1. Apostolic succession applies to bishops, not to other church leaders like presbyters/elders (now called “priests” by the ancient churches).
  2. Apostolic succession is important because it ensures that bishops are real bishops (validly ordained) and a church is a/the real church.
  3. When each apostle died, he left a single bishop in each church that he had founded, not a plurality of bishops.
  4. Bishops must necessarily be ordained by bishops (who must necessarily have been ordained in a direct line from the apostles).
  5. Because of a bishop’s proper ordination through apostolic succession, he remains validly ordained even if he teaches or practices error.
  6. Because of their proper ordination through apostolic succession, bishops join the “apostolic college” and have special authority (in certain circumstances) to participate in authoritatively defining Christian doctrine (such as the Pope’s ex cathedra statements or an ecumenical council).

We can summarize this view as “Apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination.” For shorthand, I’ll call these points O1–6, since the main goal is true ordination.

If you’re not a member of one of these churches, some of these claims probably sound weird. Can it be true that all churches that don’t have this line of ordination are just fake churches? Must church leaders be ordained in a particular way if they are to preside over a valid communion? Can we actually know what church is right even without considering how their beliefs compare to the apostolic faith? Yet the ancient churches would say yes.

Apostolic Succession—A View Based on the Primary Sources

From studying the primary sources, I propose that the early Christians taught a different form of apostolic succession. They believed that apostolic succession played the role of preserving preserve true doctrine:

  1. Apostolic succession applied to both teaching offices (bishop and presbyter) and also applied to churches themselves (their beliefs).
  2. Apostolic succession didn’t have to do with a bishop’s ordination. Instead, the continuation of church leaders from a church’s apostolic origin helped indicate that a church was continuing to teach the original doctrines.
  3. After c. 150, there was a single bishop in each church, not a plurality of bishops. But in the beginning, it was typical for churches to be ruled by a plurality of leaders, this one office being called both “bishops” and “presbyters.” At the close of the apostolic years, churches as prominent as Rome were still ruled by a plurality of bishops/presbyters.
  4. Early in the church’s history, it was normal but not necessary for bishops to be ordained by other bishops. As time went on, this custom became more important to the early Christians.
  5. Apostolic succession loses its purpose when a bishop teaches or practices error.
  6. The apostles had a foundational ministry that bishops did not entirely inherit; for example, no one but the apostles could define Christian doctrine.

We can summarize this view as “Apostolic succession was an indicator of correct doctrine.” For shorthand, I’ll call these points D1–6, since the main goal is true doctrine.

This view actually makes perfect sense. Instead of being focused on the exact right ordination procedure, the reason the early church cared about apostolic succession was very simple. Bishops and presbyters in the churches that had been founded by apostles were only a few teachers removed from the oral teachings of the apostles. That meant that they were in a good position to be practicing and teaching the faith in continuity with the apostles—though of course that didn’t mean there weren’t people with apostolic succession who taught false doctrine. Of course, by now none of us are that close to the apostles, so this advantage is lost today.

Showcasing the Areas of Disagreement

I said that we disagree on 1) what the benefits of apostolic succession were for the early church and why they valued those benefits, and 2) how we can have those benefits today.

  1. The ancient churches believe that a primary benefit of apostolic succession for the early church was that it ensured that their bishops were validly ordained and comprised the true church. Instead, the early church valued apostolic succession as an indicator of who had correct doctrine.
  2. The ancient churches believe that we can have those benefits today by ensuring that bishops are ordained by bishops with apostolic succession. Instead, the end goal of the early church was correct doctrine, so the way to have the benefit of apostolic succession today—is to teach correct doctrine.

Summary of the Approach

Here is my basic approach to the subject of apostolic succession.

The apostles taught true doctrine to the churches that they founded. In the years following the apostles’ deaths, the churches leaned heavily on the apostolic writings—but also on the church leaders who had been taught directly by the apostles. They wanted to be sure they correctly understood true doctrine.

Successive generations of church leaders came and went, filling these positions in turn and learning the apostolic faith from the last leaders as well as from the New Testament. The early Christians valued this succession.

Throughout the years, the Gnostics claimed to have secret or special teachings of the apostles that they hadn’t revealed to other people. So apostolic succession became an effective argument against them. The early Christians could say, “So . . . where are your leaders who were established by the apostles? We know what the apostles taught, because they taught it to our former leaders.”

However, the doctrines themselves were the most important thing. Everyone knew that someone with apostolic succession could still teach what is false. Apostolic succession never guaranteed that any church would stay free from error. Now that the ancient churches are hundreds of steps removed from the apostles, rather than just five or ten, there’s good reason to wonder whether the traditions were really kept all along the way.

So the question is no longer who has preserved an unbroken line of succession from the apostles. The question is, “Who is practicing the doctrines that the early Christians were attempting to preserve through their use of apostolic succession?” So apostolic succession doesn’t lead us to what the ancient churches are teaching today; it leads us to what the early church taught in the beginning.

Those of us who dissent from the claims of the ancient churches are actually not getting rid of apostolic succession. This is a case in which staying true to the focus of the early church means that we will disagree with them. Their view was context-dependent on the situation as it stood in their day. But today, if we want to believe the apostolic doctrines, which the early church most cared about, we can’t agree with the ancient churches, since they no longer maintain the apostolic faith in its entirety:

  • Where separation from the world had been the mark of Christianity, their churches have joined up with the state and Christians became patriotic citizens of an earthly government, valuing what society around them valued.
  • Where war and the use of violence had been unacceptable, they have become acceptable.
  • Where venerating images had been unacceptable, it has become acceptable.

Essentially, we have true apostolic succession if we pass down the doctrines we learn from the apostles and from their successors who have not altered those doctrines. Thus, our doctrine actually comes from the churches that had apostolic succession. We gain our doctrine from them and do not differ from them in the essentials of the faith. And in this way, we can have the aim of true apostolic succession realized in our churches.

The Evidence Must Be Early Evidence

But why should we care about what the early church believed? Why couldn’t the ancient churches’ current view be more accurate than the early belief?

The view of apostolic succession we hold must be supported by early evidence, since there is no point in the chain of ordinations 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, our view 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.

Deconstructing Arguments for Succession of Ordination

I’ll start out by evaluating the arguments that the ancient churches make for their position. This means that we’ll be looking at the Scripture passages that they point to, as well as to historical evidence from the early church. I’ll show that they don’t actually support the ancient churches’ view. In the following sections, I will discuss the direct evidence against their view.

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. Those who believe that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination argue that this story shows that church leaders can be ordained into the “apostolic college” as needed (O6). 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)

This is used to support O6 by indicating that bishops had special authority like the apostles by virtue of their ordination. However, this quotation doesn’t even indicate that. Matthias had apostolic authority, but that was because he was ordained as an apostle, not merely as a bishop.1Note 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!

This quotation is intended to support O4, that bishops must be ordained in a direct line from the apostles—since the apostles themselves ordained Matthias. This is not a bishop ordination, so the criteria for Matthias’s apostle ordination do not apply to bishop ordinations. Thus, it doesn’t have anything to say about who can ordain bishops. 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? (Of course, 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.2Rev 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.

Another reference in Acts concerns the actions of Paul and Barnabas:

And when they [Paul and Barnabas] 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)

This quotation doesn’t seem to support anything in O1–6. 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. Thus, if this is an example of apostolic succession, it actually supports D1. Furthermore, as we see later, Paul and Barnabas themselves weren’t ordained by the twelve apostles.

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)

These quotations are used to support O4, that bishops must be ordained in a line from the apostles. The texts don’t actually say that, but might they at least demonstrate by example how bishop ordinations must occur?

But the texts don’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). But even if these quotes are actually about the ordination of bishops, they call the ancient churches’ view into question, since presbyters laid hands on Timothy.

[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)

This quotation is used as a general example of the idea of apostolic succession. But if so, it actually supports D2, that apostolic succession was about the passing on of doctrine, rather than any of the claims O1–6.

Titus

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

This quotation could be used to support O6, that bishops have authority to define doctrine like the apostles, since “all” authority is certainly a strong way of wording it. But the text shows that Titus was declaring what Paul had already given him. He was exhorting and rebuking according to what he was taught, not developing doctrine.

If this quotation gives an example of a person who was given apostolic succession, then it’s telling that his main charge is preserving doctrine (D2).

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.”3https://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? Besides, this doesn’t support any of O1–6.

Biblical Arguments from the Old Testament

Since the previous arguments are a bit sketchy, some have argued that we can demonstrate the ancient churches’ view from the Old Testament. The claim is that we can know that apostolic succession is required for valid ordination, since a form of succession from Moses and Joshua was required for ordination by the scribes and Pharisees or the Jewish Sanhedrin. They note that Jesus said that they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:23), and say that their bishops sit on Peter’s seat (or whoever’s seat who established the church in their area).

Of course, the most that an example like this could show is that the idea that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination wouldn’t have been a crazy idea to people at that time period. But such examples don’t give any evidence for whether or not it was actually practiced in the early church.

But they might show something even worse. The scribes and Pharisees, who are claimed to be the example of people with an authoritative line of succession, were the very people Jesus most criticized. Note precisely what they were criticized for:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matt 23:13 ESV)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matt 23:15)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt 23:23)

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “. . . You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:5-13)

Furthermore, Ezekiel describes people who are said to have this proto–apostolic succession:

And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” (Ezekiel 8:9-12)

If these criticisms can be validly brought against those who have proto–apostolic succession, then it would be far too convenient to say that they couldn’t be brought against those who have apostolic succession.

Do the proponents of the ancient churches’ view really want us to feel free to accuse their bishops of

  • Not being in the kingdom of heaven or letting their parishioners enter?
  • Making their converts children of hell?
  • Ignoring the important aspects of apostolic teaching, and focusing on trivial additional traditions?
  • Actually nullifying God’s commands by their added traditions?
  • Worshiping idols and false gods?

If so, then they are undercutting the very foundation of their church without actually finding any direct support for O2 or O4. It would seem that, if someone is willing to resort to associating themselves with the scribes and Pharisees in order to maintain their authority—we should recognize that they either haven’t thought critically about their argument or they’re making a desperate effort to support a lost cause.

Finally, note that the Sanhedrin were the people to whom Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If they had proto–apostolic succession, that serves to underscore that we should follow the apostolic teachings rather than the teachings of churches with apostolic succession.

Examining the Early Church Fathers

Besides appealing to Scripture, the ancient churches also cite many passages from the early Christian writings to try to show that, from the beginning, Christians believed that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination. The weight of their argument usually falls on those quotes; that’s why it doesn’t matter so much to them that the references in Scripture fall so far short.

However, in this post, I examined every relevant quotation from the first nearly 300 years of the church that I know of. Here’s what my analysis shows.

The ancient churches’ view that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination is not the best way of describing the early Christian belief. The view I proposed better fits the sources—apostolic succession was an indicator of correct doctrine.

  1. Five pre-Nicene writers support D1 over O1.
  2. Four support D2 over O2.
  3. Four support D3 over O3, with another one possibly also supporting D3 as well.
  4. No writer strongly supports O4 over D4, so both views are possible, although two (very early) sources possibly support D4 better, and one (significantly later) source possibly supports O4 better.
  5. One writer supports D5 over O5.
  6. None support O6 over D6. Thus, we need to look elsewhere if we are to prove which view was correct—which my article on the source of Christian doctrine does.

There seems to be no question. The ancient church no longer holds to the pre-Nicene view of apostolic succession. I have been told that my view of apostolic succession is “ahistorical”; unfortunately, that word would be better applied to the view of those who make that claim.

The ancient churches seem to have been content with recognizing the words “apostolic succession” in the historic texts and assuming that they meant the same thing by that term that is meant by them today. The evidence shows that this is not the case.

So the weight of the early Christian writings is definitely on the side of those who believe that apostolic succession was an indicator of correct doctrine, rather than on those who believe that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination. However, don’t take my word for it. Check out the evidence 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.”4https://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. However, would that fact, if true, support any of O1–6? Not at all.

In fact, it’s true that there are bishop lists that claim to go back to the apostles. However, there are two problems with these lists that undercut what meager support they could give to the ancient churches’ claim.

First, the lists contradict each other at important points. Tertullian and Irenaeus, for example, disagree over who was the first bishop of Rome.5Irenaeus 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, and we have no supporting evidence for many of their earliest claims?

Second, and more importantly, the earliest lists don’t demonstrate that bishops were ordained by bishops. They simply say who followed who in office.6See 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 an ordination pedigree. 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.

In fact, as a later section will show, the list of Roman bishops, at least, was incorrect in a way that renders it meaningless for the ancient churches’ view. That’s because Rome, like many other churches, started out being governed by a plurality of leaders, not a single bishop.

I conclude that Scripture and the early Christian writings do not support the ancient churches’ claims.

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 the ancient churches’ view try to argue for their view 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 in some cases, but in this case, I don’t think they carry much weight.

I must say that I have a weakness for continuing 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, this article shows that things didn’t happen that way. The idea that the ancient churches have maintained an unbroken line of succession from the apostles, and therefore have special authority, is a beautifully constructed fiction, but it has no tie to reality.

What kind of succession did the apostles care about?

What kind of succession did the apostles themselves care about? Was it (O2), concerning the valid ordination of bishops? Or was their concern more about preserving the doctrine that they had taught? The two are not mutually exclusive, but (O2) is taught alongside (O5), which states that a bishop remains validly ordained even when he teaches error. Thus, the two concepts actually are entirely different ones.

[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)

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor 11:1–2)

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thes 2:15)

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Tim 1:13-14)

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. . . . I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet 1:5–15)

The apostles pay no attention to the precise method of ordaining bishops—they cared about what the Christians succeeding them would be teaching. Thus, D2 is much more to be expected than O2.

Did the Apostles Set Up Three Offices?

In this section, I’ll address two more of the ancient churches’ beliefs about apostolic succession:

  • O1. Apostolic succession applies to bishops, not to other church leaders like presbyters/elders (now called “priests” by the ancient churches).
  • O3. When each apostle died, he left a single bishop in each church that he had founded, not a plurality of bishops.

Both of these claims can be shown to be false with one historical fact. That is D3. After c. 150, there was a single bishop in each church, not a plurality of bishops. But in the beginning, it was typical for churches to be ruled by a plurality of leaders, this one office being called both “bishops” and “presbyters.” At the close of the apostolic years, churches as prominent as Rome were still ruled by a plurality of bishops/presbyters.

According to the ancient churches, bishops fill a special office that can uniquely pass on apostolic succession. Priests (formerly “presbyters”) and deacons must be ordained by someone with apostolic succession, but they can’t pass on the succession. 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). 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.7See 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.8“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” or “presbyter” 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.9“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” or “presbyters” is often used instead of “bishops” in situations where we would expect the highest church office to be mentioned. This suggests that elders and bishops ranked at the same level.10See 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.”11Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3 This same usage continues through some of the earliest post-apostolic sources.12“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)

In the second century 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 a method started by the apostle John, since some of the first references to the threefold order are by Ignatius.13Ignatius was an early bishop in Asia Minor, where John, the longest-lived apostle, concluded his ministry. Whether or not that is the case, we know that not all the apostles left the churches they founded with individual bishops. 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 singular bishops (monarchical episcopate) could not be the ones who carry the apostolic succession from the apostles, since there were no singular bishops in those churches in the beginning!

Now, I grant that the statements I’ve made in this section are based on very few sources. However, the difference between my view and the ancient churches’ view is that mine is consistent with all the early evidence, while theirs is not. 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. Of the earliest post-apostolic sources, only Ignatius differs.

So this provides good reason to believe that the idea that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination is either false or needs to be revised to better fit the evidence.

Can Erring Bishops Keep Apostolic Succession? Have the Ancient Churches Passed On the Office?

This section will refute O5 and show D5 to be true. It will also show that the ancient churches do not meet this criterion for the purpose of apostolic succession. Here are the two opposing views:

  • O5. Because of a bishop’s proper ordination through apostolic succession, he remains validly ordained even if he teaches or practices error.
  • D5. Apostolic succession loses its purpose when a bishop teaches or practices error.

In the last section, I showed that the early church did not practice according to the ancient churches’ view. 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, 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.

Second, 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.14“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.

Third, individual bishops have deviated from the apostolic faith in their teachings, without ever having been corrected by their church. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox may believe that their church would never get to this point, because their church would certainly depose any bishop who taught false teachings. However, many bishops taught, for example, that Christians should go to war, even though the early church taught that war is a terrible wrong—and have not been deposed. Other bishops supported the Marian doctrines and veneration of icons, and their views, far from being condemned, were eventually accepted by the church. Individuals who persisted in doctrinal errors of this sort don’t give much credibility to a bishop list.

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.

The Donatists

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? We can’t know; thus, under their view we couldn’t know who is validly ordained and who isn’t. Thus, while I honor the Donatists for their uncompromising loyalty to Christ, their stance would have 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.

What do the ancient churches now have? Of course they have many godly and devoted Christians. But they have opened their doors to millions of individuals who are not following the apostolic faith in its entirety, sometimes not following it at all. Are we to be happy because they are being fed the true body and blood of Christ by “real” bishops who are often no better than they are? Are we to leave those who follow that faith because we are afraid that they don’t have a special indelible mark that they could receive from a horribly ungodly man rather than the godly people around them?

The Holy Spirit Ordains

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 a church that teaches false doctrine, in the lives of all who open themselves to him.

Bishop to Bishop?

This section will address (O4), the belief that bishops must necessarily be ordained by bishops (who must necessarily have been ordained in a direct line from the apostles).

This is perhaps the most straightforward answer to the idea that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination. 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 has not always been required for ordination. Even if it were, the chain has been broken from the very beginning, so the ancient churches wouldn’t be in a better place than other churches.

Though there is not a lot of data on this point, I found three situations that provide counterexamples to the ancient churches’ view. First is the ordination of Paul and Barnabas. 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.15See Galatians 1.

Two other counterexamples can be found in my analysis of the early Christian sources. The Didache and 1 Clement both suggest situations in which bishops were not ordained by apostles or by other bishops.

We don’t have quite enough information about these situations to be sure that bishops didn’t ordain the new bishops, so one might be able to get around this. However, it’s worth noting that in the very earliest evidence, we have multiple situations that would be most simply understood as contradicting the ancient churches’ view, not supporting it.

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 to support the view that apostolic succession is necessary for valid ordination:

[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, as Newman did, “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.

What makes a valid ordination?

Instead, I suggest that a valid ordination has other criteria. First, for someone to be validly ordained as a bishop or elder, they should meet the New Testament qualifications:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:2–7)

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:7–9)

These are stringent qualifications, and if someone meets them, he won’t be setting himself up or being divisive. If he divides from anyone, it will be because he “hold[s] firm to the trustworthy word as taught.” This describes many of those who were forced to leave churches with apostolic succession in the Reformation, so that they could serve God according to the New Testament.

As far as I can see, there is no early evidence that a bishop, being ordained, receives an “indelible mark” that gives him the ability to administer communion. No indelible mark, but he certainly receives a huge responsibility from God once ordained, to keep watch over the souls of their people (Heb 13:17).

Infallible Pronouncements?

Finally, let me address the most pernicious of all the ancient churches’ beliefs concerning apostolic succession. That is (O6):

O6. Because of their proper ordination through apostolic succession, bishops join the “apostolic college” and have special authority (in certain circumstances) to participate in authoritatively defining Christian doctrine (such as the Pope’s ex cathedra statements or an ecumenical council).

Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and the other ancient churches typically 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. In fact, they believed that only Jesus and the apostles could do so. The apostles’ foundational role was not passed down.

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 authoritative definition than the teaching they gave. So (D6) is true: The apostles had a foundational ministry that bishops did not entirely inherit; for example, no one but the apostles could define Christian doctrine.

Objections

This section deals with some objections:

  • We don’t have any clear examples of anyone besides a bishop or apostle ordaining a bishop. 1) We don’t have any statements that bishops not ordained by bishops were therefore not validly ordained. 2) We do have some evidence that people who hadn’t been ordained as bishops ordained bishops, as I showed earlier.
  • If the apostles ordained church leaders and told them to ordain more, how do those leaders not have special authority? They do have authority. There is just no evidence that they play apostolic roles like having the ability to define the faith.

Conclusion: What’s the Alternative?

I’ve gone through all six of the relevant claims concerning apostolic succession, and I showed that the ancient churches’ view doesn’t fit the early evidence. Therefore, I conclude that it was never necessary for bishops to have apostolic succession. 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.

  • 1
    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!
  • 2
    Rev 21:14; also see Eph 2:20
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
    Irenaeus says it’s Linus, while Tertullian says it’s Clement.
  • 6
    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.
  • 7
    See Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1 (sometimes the word is translated “overseer” rather than “bishop”)
  • 8
    “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)
  • 9
    “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)
  • 10
    See Acts 15, 16:4, 21:18, 1 Tim 4:14
  • 11
    Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3
  • 12
    “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)
  • 13
    Ignatius was an early bishop in Asia Minor, where John, the longest-lived apostle, concluded his ministry.
  • 14
    “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
  • 15
    See Galatians 1.

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