Apostolic succession is the theological name for the doctrine that the apostles taught, chose and anointed successors to carry on their ministry.
In reading the early Church Fathers, particularly the Apostolic Father, Clement of Rome, I’d been struck by their apologetic – defense of the faith – conversations with heretics. One of the main themes was that their orthodoxy was proven by their direct succession from apostles, particularly the twelve. This pedigree of Christ to apostle and apostle to disciple was of tantamount importance in the early church and really marked most of the orthodox fathers (exceptions of those with a good pedigree gone bad are quite rare). If you read the Church Fathers, particularly any works versus heretics, you will note that this was frequent particularly when arguing about an interpretation of Scripture. In this defense I recognized a pattern I had seen in the epistles – for St. Paul had done the same. He gives significant emphasis to being questioned and approved by the twelve and singles out Peter when he mentions “even Cephas.” He also refers to Timothy and Titus as “my own sons in the faith.”
Most of Christianity today believes in apostolic succession, but the number of adherents isn’t necessarily relevant – truth is true even if no one believes it, and what is false is false no matter how many believe it; however, when this is true of all of the most ancient forms of Christianity, all the way back to the apostles, it is a pattern to heed. Both lungs, East and West, hold to apostolic succession and take great care to retain record of who ordained who – particularly in reference the Apostles, and to the Patriarchal Sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
Can your church’s bishops – or leaders – trace their anointing and teaching back to Jesus’ apostles? If the twelve and other apostles had churches today, would you argue with them theologically? Insist on your private interpretations? Would you still protest? Or would you submit to their teaching? Is there a closer source to Jesus for authentic interpretation and governing? These were some of the questions I asked myself when confronted with the historical reality of deliberately anointed successors.
There were some objections – some said it was like the game of telephone where Christianity was distorted more each generation, but this was never logically consistent – there were many differences regarding when this theoretical distortion began, and no one knew why it ended with Luther and Calvin, or why people would treat the most important revelation ever received, that they dedicated their lives to studying, like whispered nonsense in a parlor game. Others objected that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the doctrine by name, but there are many theological terms – more central than this – that developed over time; they are right to hold that the anointing of Matthias to replace Judas, and the ordination of Timothy and Titus doesn’t by itself necessitate such succession of office, but it also doesn’t indicate a cessation of the office… lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, and, while one needs to avoid arguments from silence, these Biblical instances are not insignificant or silence, and neither is the universal practice of appealing to this pedigree as proof of orthodoxy in the early Church Fathers, and neither are the ancient historical records of names that delineate who succeeded whom. Even the skeptic ought to study the data and ask themselves what is most probable.
Circa A.D. 80, Pope St. Clement of Rome, who learned from Sts. Peter and Paul directly and was the ordained successor of Bishop St. Anacletus of Rome, wrote,
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, 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. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.” (Letter to the Corinthians, 44:1–3; cf. CCC 861 – 862)