top of page

Apostolic Succession

Every heard of "7 degrees of separation".  There is a theory that everyone can trace their roots or background to Kevin Bacon by 7 steps.   Basically, everyone can connect their personal life to an actor by the name of Kevin Bacon by making 7 relational contacts.  

In much the same way, many religious institutions try to connect their "organization" to the early church.  The Idea of an Apostolic Succession Began in the Second Century.  The idea of permanent church offices occupied by a succession of bishops did not surface until the latter part of the second century with the church father, Irenaeus, who used it as a tool to combat heresy. Irenaeus pointed the heretics to the apostolic churches of his day—the churches of Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Rome and others that supposedly had been founded by Paul or one of the Twelve. According to Irenaeus, if the heretics were not in communion with one of these churches (or a church in communion with those churches), then they had no claim of Christian legitimacy.


The Roman Catholic Church claims that Peter founded the church in Rome and passed his authority along through a succession of bishops down to the present pope. The Eastern Orthodox Church, on the other hand, claims that the true apostolic succession has continued in their churches, through their bishops. They assert that, with the division between the eastern and western sectors of the church in 1054, the true succession continued with them, while the western Church (Roman Catholic) veered from the true faith into heresy


.The Lutheran Church also traces a succession, although their succession of bishops changes at the time of the Reformation. Lutheran historian, Lars Qualben, says, "The Lutherans did not form a new Church after the schism with Rome. They merely formed a continuation of the early Christian Church, as we know it from the New Testament and from the early Christian Fathers."


The Anglican Church's claim of apostolic succession would be similar to those above. In fact, all the older churches that claim an ecclesial, organizational succession have continued the model begun by Irenaeus with modifications to fit their own unique historical situation.


No Institutionalized Apostolic Succession

There is, of course, no Biblical basis for an institutionalized, apostolic succession. The New Testament writers, in fact, show very little concern for church offices and organizational structure.  Actually, in Revelation and other places we see clear evidence that Jesus rebuked the entire idea.  In Revelation John writes, "I HATE THE PRACTICE OF THE NICOLAITANS".  The word NICOLAITANS is a compound word NIKAO- meaning "Conquering or supression of" and "LAITY" the people.   Jesus hated that practice.


Let's take a closer look at the book of Acts.

The first part of Acts is mostly Peter and the other disciples.  However, a little less than midway through Paul surfaces.   Peter is ministering to the Jews and Paul to the gentiles.   Neither of them claim authority over the other.  Actually, in Galatians chapter 2 Paul rebukes Peter.  Scripture says, "But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong. "   


The establishment of church structure in the New testament laid out the structure for individual churches not one single church.   Also, no where in this church structure is POPES or CARDINALS mentioned.   


This is why the New Testament scholar, Dr. Gordon Fee, says that the New Testament is full of surprises, "but none is so surprising as its generally relaxed attitude toward church structures and leadership." He and others point out that, excepting Phil. 1:1, Paul never addresses himself to a leader or group of leaders in any of his letters to the churches.Lists of succeeding bishops, such as that begun by Irenaeus, tend to be based on dogma and expediency rather than factual history.


Dr. Hans Kung, who is the most widely read Roman Catholic theologian in the world today, says, "An uninterrupted sequence of 'laying on of hands' from the apostles to the bishops of today, an unbroken chain of succession (of the kind cited in later lists of succession) cannot be demonstrated historically."


There is, of course, no evidence that either Jesus or the first apostles established permanent church offices that were to be occupied by a succession of church leaders/bishops. Judas was replaced out of necessity because he had been one of the 12 and by his apostasy he had reduced the number to eleven.

When James, who is also one of the 12, is put to death by Herod in Acts 12, there is no attempt to replace him. He held no continuing office that another must fill, nor does any Christian leader in the New Testament. Instead of establishing permanent offices, Paul and the 12 understood that the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the church guaranteed that He would raise up leaders when and where they were needed.


bottom of page