Apostolic Succession; A Biblical Doctrine?

A Consideration of a Major Doctrine of Catholicism

Bishop Lightfoot

Bishop Lightfoot (1828-1889) admitted that the office of 'bishop' was not a truly biblical office.

T he doctrine of apostolic succession is the belief that the 12 apostles passed on their authority to successors, who then passed that apostolic authority on to their successors, continuing on throughout the centuries, even to today. Whilst this might be a fascinating and intriguing concept, is it truly biblical?

The great thing about the New Testament is that it clearly establishes the major doctrines of the Church. One may find vital doctrines such as the atonement, resurrection and justification by faith alone, clearly outlined with many scriptural references (one may wish to check out this page). One is left in no doubt on the pivotal doctrines of the Church, neither is one left in any doubt regarding the specific content of the Gospel message (Acts 16: 30-31; Acts 26:1-23; Romans 4: 24-25; Romans 10: 9-10; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-2; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). In the face of such clarity, it might seem amazing how so many have managed to successfully teach extraneous, non-biblical messages but this they have certainly done.

One has to say that 'apostolic succession' is conspicuous by it's absence within the New Testament. The basic idea is that Peter the Apostle was the first pope, or chief leader (based on Matthew 16:18), and that this somewhat grandiose conception of 'chief church leader' should then be passed on through the entirely biblical principle of the 'laying on of hands,' and this certainly does seem to be a New Testament principle of conferring authority. Roman Catholicism believes that Peter later became the first bishop of Rome, and that the Roman bishops that followed him were accepted by the early church as overall leaders. However, there are huge problems with this belief. Here are some of them:

1. Apart from the principle of governing elders, the New Testament is pretty much silent on any required church governing schema, or office. For sure, a range of possible church offices are listed in 1 Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:11 and one might expect to find some Christians having the necessary gifts to fulfill certain such offices (but not all), possibly depending on the size and scope of the area of responsibility, but the only required office appears to be that of Elder. See Titus 1:5. Also, one might note that neither 1 Cor. 12:28 nor Eph. 4:11 suggest any system or principle of 'apostolic succession' - but wouldn't these have been the ideal places to mention it?? After all, both Eph. 4:11 and 1 Cor. 12:28 do refer to the office of 'apostle,' however, that does not imply, of course, that that particular office would be continually repeated throughout the church age. 'Bishops' are pretty much essential to the concept of apostolic succession, but even Bishop Lightfoot, one of the greatest New Testament scholars of all time, freely admitted that 'bishop' (the office which he himself eventually inherited within Anglicanism), was not truly a New Testament office. The word is based on 'overseer,' but biblically, it appears that it was certain of the elders who were to be overseers, but with no indications of a separate 'overseer' office. The fact that the office of 'bishop' has no New Testament authority or precedent already seriously weakens the 'apostolic succession' argument.

2. Peter might well have been, in a somewhat loose sense, overall apostolic leader in the New Testament, but if he was, it was a very, very loose sense. For example, on one occasion, Paul the Apostle quite strongly challenges and disagrees with him in public (Galatians 2:11-14). Peter's New Testament epistles are not, perhaps, major epistles, as the Pauline ones are, indeed, they are somewhat short and not high on doctrinal content. Later, he appears to disappear altogether from any New Testament consideration with scarcely a mention anywhere. Peter may well have been the overall leader for taking the gospel to the Jews (as Paul was with respect to the Gentiles), yet the epistle of James (James almost certainly being the Senior Elder at Jerusalem), does not even mention him once! Moreover, there is no evidence that Peter ever became 'bishop' of Rome as Roman Catholicism - even now - continues to (erroneously, in my opinion) teach.
Surely all of this would be utterly inconceivable if Peter had understood Jesus' comment to him in Matthew 16:18 to mean that he should adopt a grandiose and pope-like style of leadership! If he was a leader at all (which seems quite debatable), it was possibly only with regard to the work among the Jewish people.

3. In the New Testament, no 'bishop' (overseer) had jurisdiction over the bishops or presbyters of other churches (carefully check out Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to Polycarp); rather, that function was reserved for the apostles, which was obviously a foundational office of the Church (Eph. 2:20; 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28; 2 Cor. 11:28). But today the office of Apostle is obviously closed.

4. The Roman Catholic Church itself has not maintained it's own concept of apostolic succession through the laying on of hands upon holy men. In fact, 'Simony' (that is, the buying of the office of 'pope' or 'bishop' for money, or favours) was an absolute disgrace when the Church of Rome was at it's peak, which it no longer is. Unless I am misunderstanding something here, appointing a corrupt bishop or pope just once would destroy the whole structure and principle of 'apostolic succession' for all time. Frankly, I think that most studied RCs know this which could be why they tend to play down the teaching on 'apostolic succession.'

5. Sometimes Roman Catholics appeal to the Old Testament to argue their case on this point of 'apostolic succession,' but there is no Old Testament case! When Moses appointed Joshua to take over from him and to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, that certainly shows an organised structure (why should it not? God is not the author of confusion!), but little more than that. In any case, the leadership structure of the former 'congregation in the wilderness' is now utterly defunct under the New Covenant as the Book of Hebrews makes very clear (Hebrews 7:12). Whilst the principle of the Old Testament Elders of Israel lives on, it is no longer simply a matter of honesty and good character but of true Christian conversion first of all, with those elements looked for secondarily.

6. Roman Catholicism points to Matthias being chosen to replace Judas as the 12th apostle in Acts chapter 1 as an example of "apostolic succession," but it is nothing of the kind. While Matthias did indeed succeed Judas as an apostle, this is hardly an argument for apostolic succession. Rather, this just shows the divine determination to launch the New Testament Church with 12 Apostles (just as the Old Testament had had 12 tribes of Israel). Matthias being chosen to replace Judas is only an argument for the church being prepared to replace ungodly leaders (such as Judas), where necessary. The scant Acts 1 references to Matthias being appointed as apostle never say enough to establish an 'apostolic succession' argument upon. Neither, by the way, is this an argument that churches should only operate through 12 leaders, as a few now teach.

7. Nowhere in the New Testament are any of the twelve apostles ever recorded as passing on their apostolic authority to successors. Nowhere do any of the apostles predict that they will pass on their apostolic authority at any point. No - Jesus ordained the apostles to build the foundations of the church upon the chief cornerstone of Christ. These men had to be witnesses of Jesus, His ministry and His resurrection (see Acts 1:21). It was needful that these men alone such build the foundation of the Church. Their ministry fulfilled the office of 'apostle' which no longer exists. Secondly, nowhere in the New Testament is it stated that the office of 'Elder' should be passed on in such a manner. While it is appropriate to lay hands on a new elder, this is about conferring authority and requestiing God to confer the gifts of ministry upon such a man, it is absolutely nothing to do with 'apostolic succession.'

8. Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50 contain a comment of Jesus too often carelessly overlooked!

Vs. 38. 'John said unto him, Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us.
Vs. 39. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.
Vs. 40. For he that is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40. ASV).

Apparently the disciples had tried to stop another man, who was unknown to them, from carrying the message of Jesus to others. In His quick retort to them, Jesus effectively told the disciples that they themselves would have no private ownership of the Gospel, nor exclusive rights to its message, but - rather - that it would be open and accessible to all. This one Scripture strongly challenges the hierarchical approach towards church government. As I have written elsewhere, it gets pretty close to finally demolishing the schema of 'apostolic succession' lock, stock and barrel! John, and maybe the other apostles, had possibly somehow carelessly assumed one future body or institution representative of Christianity (that is, if they had given it any thought at all, and maybe they had not), but the retort of Jesus started to reveal that things would not be panning out in quite that manner. Jesus strongly seemed to indicate no future institutional Christian structure of men could ever claim exclusive ownership of the gospel message. If such a structure should do so, it would be without divine authority. Interesting, and what a widely-ignored Scripture this is!

9. Without question, Paul the Apostle became the first major theologian of the Church. Paul outlines many areas of doctrinal concern in his outstanding epistles, but neglects this one. He later also wrote the two epistles to Timothy when he feared that his own time might be short, but nowhere does Paul warn about the importance of 'apostolic succession,' perhaps warning Timothy to ensure that the principle should be maintained, even though he does discuss appointing elders, and this, indeed, would be the perfect place. Whilst this might be an argument from silence, it is strong evidence that 'apostolic succession' is not a biblical teaching.

10. History has clearly demonstrated that apostolic succession did not protect the Church from heresy. Most of the heresies in the early Church were either initiated or propagated by clergy who were “consecrated” by the Church. The Arian heresy is a case in point. It almost overwhelmed the Church before the AD 325 Nicean Council.

11. Originally a strong advocate of apostolic succession, Iranaeus, who died around 202-205 AD, appears to later contradict that argument when he writes:

"We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1).

As Michael A. Field has pointed out, one can only conclude that Irenaeus believed that apostolic succession was only necessary until the Scriptures were made available as the bedrock of our faith (source: http://www.ukapologetics.net/10/notonlychurch.htm).

The Roman Catholic accusation that Protestantism, with no system of agreed 'apostolic succession' of leadership, must inevitably lead to much more confusion is not entirely wrong. We all know that it is not an entirely incorrect observation, however we insist that liberalism is the cause not the lack of any system of 'apostolic succession.' Protestants believe that calling to ministry must be a work of the Holy Spirit alone rather than any system of hierarchical structure (although some areas of Protestantism certainly do employ such a structure). Protestantism sees - or should see - the authority of the Word of God and the work of the Spirit of God as paramount here.

So we find that the whole principle of 'apostolic succession' with regard to appointing popes or archbishops in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is not a biblical teaching or principle. But does that mean that God would never choose to bless such a person with exceptional gifts of ministry? Absolutely not! Of course He might, but that is within His power alone.
Robin A. Brace, February, 2009.