06 August 2007

Apostolic Succession

The following is a posting of a response to a question on "Primitive Catholic Fellowship", an e-group I moderate on Yahoo! Groups. The question, in a nutshell, is "Why bother to have Apostolic Succession?"

Apostolic Succession is composed of two very important elements.

1) Apostolic Truth
2) Apostolic Recognition

As you have already stated, Apostolic Truth is vital for any community of faith.

Apostolic Recognition (or the historic Episcopate), referring to the laying on of hands as a means of transmitting authority for mission and ministry is a second matter. While there are several citations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, one only really needs to read the Scriptures in this instance to find a strong case for it.

First, the fact that there is at least a two-fold ordained ministry in Apostolic times is attested to in the Acts of the Apostles. At first, the Apostles operated as the only 'set apart' ministers of the Church. The twelve quickly replaced Judas (and the Greek word episcopos is used in Acts 1:20 to describe his vacated position) and after Pentecost they began to minister. After a time, the selected seven to serve the Church, laid hands upon them, and they became the first deacons (Acts 6: 1-7). It becomes clearly obvious, however, that they had a different ministry than the apostles/overseers. For example, they could baptize, but they could not impart the Holy Spirit (resuting in James and Peter having to go to Samaria to pray over those baptized by Philip (Acts 8: 14-17).

Now we come to the case of the Apostle Paul. For many, Paul is the absolute proof that Apostolic Succession is un-necessary. In fact, he states in the introduction to 1 Corinthians that he is, "chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ." This man, the great Apostle to the Gentiles was unquestionably chosen to minister as an Apostle by Jesus Christ directly...

So it's funny that the Holy Spirit moves in Acts 13, commanding the prophets and teachers of the Church of Antioch to 'dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them." Jesus alrady called him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles... to preach the good news of repentance and mercy... so why the prayer? Why the setting apart?

The leaders of the Church at Antioch were established themselves by the apostles. They, in turn, recognized the call of God on Paul and sent him forth to lead a missionary effort. The Church participated in the ministry set in motion by God. Paul, a man who stated he was beholden to no man for his authority, submitted to the laying on of hands in obedience to the Holy Spirit's calling, in order to do the will of God.

Why? We'll probably never know. At the risk of sounding like I am trying to cop out of the discussion, it is something we simply cannot understand.

Are there Ante-Nicene references to Apostolic Succession, both doctrinally and through the laying on of hands? Yes. Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Origen, and even the Apostolic Constitutions speak of the practice. But if you don't accept it on this Scriptural basis (as well as the other Scriptures that could be brought into play on the topic), then there really isn't a point in quoting the ANF, is there?

Now, to take a moment to debate the merits and long-term effects of Succession...

Obviously the tacticle succession hasn't been effective against preventing heresy. Plenty of people have the historic episcopate and are wallowing in the bog (so to speak). When the Church got split up, first in the Montanist and Donatist eras, and later in the politicization of the Church, the episcopate was comprimised. Thus, all kinds of people claim (and do have) the tactile succession, but have erred greviously in their manner of living or in the content of the faith they profess. The laying on of hands is not an insurance policy against heresy, mainly because it has been used as a weapon since the early 300's.

On the other hand, while I'd take the Apostolic Faith over any mere line of bishops any day, we would be absolutely foolish if we refused to accept the laying on of hands if it was offered to us. Why intentionally deprive ourselves of both sides of Apostolic Succession?

Let us also remember, we cannot take the ministry upon ourselves. As a child I felt a calling to the priesthood, but I couldn't ordain myself. Someone has to examine candidates, train them, and then recognize them through some means... if one could simply delcare themselves ordained, then Simon Magus would have needed nothing other than to be a faithful Christian in order to recieve the apostolic power to confer the Holy Spirit. Or, even more to the point, the Samaratans of Acts 8 wouldn't have needed Peter and John to lay hands on them... or even Philip to baptize them. All they should have needed to hear was the preaching by Philip, and then they could have handled the rest of it themselves.

In closing, is someone outside of the historic episcopate doomed? Surely not. However, why would someone want to refuse the gift of continuity through the laying on of hands to compliment the apostolic teachings of the early Church? God raised up Paul, but Paul still allowed himself to submit to the Church's earthly means of being set apart for ministry.

Who are we to argue with God... or Paul?


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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