Apostolic succession.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 January 2021
APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION æp.ə'stɑ.lɪk sək'sɛ.ʃən noun. The action, process, or sequence of inheriting a title and office in church leadership, founded by one of Christ Jesus’s first apostles.

Jesus sends his apostles on various missions, and in so doing, many times these apostles start ministries. Sometimes a church or denomination. Sometimes hospitals and hospices, schools and universities, shelters, charities, or whatever Jesus tells ’em to start.

Sometimes the apostle’s job is to only start this ministry, then move along to the next task; Paul of Tarsus obviously did that with churches and schools. But a lot of times it’s to run the ministry for the rest of their lives. Or until they reach a point where they can’t physically do it anymore, and have to retire. Does this mean the ministry is over? Occasionally yes; the apostle kinda was the ministry, and without that apostle it becomes a shell of itself. (Or worse, a mockery.) But if Jesus wants it to keep going, he’ll send other people to keep it going. Ideally he sends another apostle: Someone he instructs to pick up where the last apostle left off, maybe with a vision to take the ministry even further.

But Jesus doesn’t always have to do this. Because many an organization is built to keep running, even after its founders are gone. True of governments; true of businesses and schools; true of ministries. If its director steps down, one of the assistants—who’s often been doing the bulk of the director’s work anyway—can step in and keep things going, and hire people to do the assistant’s old jobs. Or the organization’s trustees hire a competent successor. Might be an outsider; might be the founder’s spouse or child. Regardless, this person succeeds the original leader, and the organization keeps right on ticking.

With anything Christian, of course people feel we have to have some veneer of spirituality attached to everything we do. It can’t just be us hiring a successor; it has to be God’s idea. Even if it wasn’t really. Even if the ministry was only supposed to last as long as the apostle did, and God’s ready to do something else… but the people on the apostle’s team don’t want things to end, and the next best thing to propping up the apostle’s corpse and tricking people into thinking she’s alive, is to prop up the ministry and do the very same thing. Why, God clearly wants it to continue! Look, the successor has the anointing!

Anyway. The way apostolic succession is meant to work, is where Jesus sends an apostle to start a ministry, then sends another apostle to succeed that first apostle. The apostle Apollos probably started the church of Ephesus; the apostle Paul found it, then spent two years training the new Christians; Ac 19.1-10 he left the apostle Timothy behind to lead this church for a few years; 1Ti 1.3-4 and after Timothy, the apostle John led it for a few years himself. If Jesus wants a ministry to keep going, he’s gonna personally appoint people to run it. He’s not gonna let the ministry’s internal machinery keep it going; he keeps it going.

And those churches which believe in apostolic succession, believe that’s kinda what happens. Not just anybody gets tapped to lead their ministries: Again, it’s gotta be God’s idea, and his appointed successor.

But we’ve seen plenty of cases where an incompetent, unqualified, corrupt, godless, foolish individual gets put in charge of one ministry or another. Something in the system broke down. And it certainly wasn’t Jesus.

There’s a certain amount of prestige to a ministry when it’s founded by a well-known apostle. Simon Peter, Francis of Assisi, John Knox, John Wesley… all these guys were definitely chosen by God, and people recognize the ministries and churches they founded are definitely part of God’s will. But for this reason, there’s a great deal of glory given their successors. If you’re the current pastor of a church founded by a great saint, surely there must be something special about you. (One would hope!)

So if you’re the president of a school founded by D.L. Moody, or the bishop of a church founded by Barnabas and Paul themselves, or the head of a denomination founded by Martin Luther, you must either be worthy of their greatness, or some of their greatness musta rubbed off on you. In churches who are really big on apostolic succession, they believe this in quite a literal way: Their first apostles blessed, laid hands on, and commissioned their successors to continue their work. In so doing, they passed down the charge Jesus originally gave them—in a long, unbroken chain to the present-day office-holders. Ergo Pope Francis has the very same commission Jesus gave Simon Peter to oversee the church of Rome. (And of course all the other churches connected with it.)

Why churches make a big, big deal of it.

Is there an unbroken, holy chain of succession from Simon Peter to Francis? If you know your church history, you’re fully aware it’s unlikely. Especially during the time there were several popes fighting over the job between 1378 and 1418. Especially when rotten human beings, like Pope Alexander 6, were better known for their orgies than their righteousness.

But the churches who emphasize apostolic succession—the big long unbroken line back to the Twelve and Paul—find it a very important issue. To them, it’s a sign of legitimacy.

Y’see, in ancient Christianity you’d get Christians who’d show up in some town and claim they were apostles. Jesus sent them! But a lot of these apostles turned out to be heretics. They’d teach all sorts of Pharisee or Gnostic or pagan beliefs—and claim they heard ’em from either Jesus or his other apostles.

Sound familiar? It’s still happening. Yeah, that new independent church in town might be totally orthodox, and teach the very same necessary things every other Christian church does. But then again it may not be. Especially when its pastor claims this church contains the only true Christians on earth, and everyone else is likely going to hell.

The way early Christians countered these heretics and their claims was to point to their traditions: Their churches were founded by one of the Twelve. Or one of the disciples of one of the Twelve. Those apostles appointed leaders; those leaders had appointed their leaders. Their traditions were as the apostles had taught ’em. In an unbroken line from leader to leader to apostle to Jesus himself. Can the heretics say the same thing? Of course not; they had no such pedigree.

Sad to say, there are a lot of Christians with no respect for Christian history or the past. They presume, like the Mormons, everything went corrupt between the New Testament times and today; that the Holy Spirit quit in frustration, but now he’s starting things all over again, with them. They look at the pope fights in 1378–1418, or Alexander 6 (heck, of all the 265 men who’ve been pope, you realize the Roman Catholic Church only officially recognizes about 80 of them as saints?) and figure the line had to have been broken multiple times between then and now. True, some of those popes were profoundly rotten people.

But does that mean Jesus doesn’t keep sending the Catholics new priests to lead his people among them? And don’t some of the people Jesus sent, eventually become pope? Has Jesus abandoned the institution, or is he still replenishing it, and trying to revive it? I say he’s still actively involved, and intends to be until he returns to run it himself. You might disagree if you’re anti-Catholic, but that’s just your partisanship talking.

Of course not all the successors of the apostles were as devout or impressive or worthy as the original apostles. But if Jesus started the ministry through his original apostles, and if Jesus intends it to continue, and if Jesus and his followers can get the right people into leadership, the good works Jesus intends for the ministry to achieve, will get done.

As for the churches which don’t.

Every church, and every Christian, practices apostolic succession to a degree.

your denomination, she or he is working within an organization founded by other apostles, led by other apostles, and (hopefully!) still regularly influenced by many other apostles.

Unless your preacher is just making stuff up off the top of his head, the books he studies, the classes he took, the sermons he grew up on, and everything which informs him how to think and parse the scriptures, were taught by Christians, who were taught by other Christians, who were taught by other Christians, and supposedly this stretches all the way back to the founder of their tradition. Who was hopefully taught and corrected by the Holy Spirit himself—and hopefully we are taught and corrected by the Spirit too.

Unless your ministry’s president was made an apostle by Jesus personally, she’s likely continuing the work of other apostles, which can stretch back years, decades, centuries, or millennia to the beginning.

Christians don’t always emphasize this line between us and our forebears, or the ancients. Sometimes because we wanna emphasize how we ourselves talk with God. As we should! But if our forebears talked with God too, we’d be utter idiots to not pay attention to what they taught, or capitalize on what they achieved instead of starting from scratch. Heck, we at least recognize we need to read the works of those forebears who wrote bible!

Hence the body of Christ is far more interconnected than most of us realize. And every part of it has a link to 11 of the original 12 kids Jesus picked from his synagogue—plus that one Pharisee prosecutor whom Jesus flipped. Some links are way more obvious than others. But they’re there. For all of us.