Apostolic Succession


1. What is Apostolic Succession?

Apostolic Succession is a doctrine about authority and ordination. It means that the Apostles were given authority over the whole Church, united to Peter their head, as leaders and interpreters and guardians of the faith; and with this they were given the infallibility necessary to keep the faith guarded. But because they would die, and the Church would go on, they were to pass on this authority to the future leaders of the Church, to the bishops and Pope whom they would ordain; and they would pass it on also to their sucessors, and so on. This line of succession draws down to our own day, and all our bishops are ordained in a line that stretches back to the Apostles. We say that Apostolic Succession is necessary to the true Church; Protestants, whose ordinations began in the 16th century and started only with fallen-away Catholics and self-proclaimed preachers, do not have Apostolic Succession, and so they cannot be considered true Churches.

2. Where in the Bible is Apostolic Succession?

In Matthew 18:17-18 Jesus gave infallibility to the leaders of the Church and showed that this was to be forever a part of His Church: "If any man refuses to listen to the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the tax-collectors. Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That they passed on this authority to those whom they ordained to be bishops is shown in other passages: "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee." (Titus 1:5) "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee." (Titus 2:15) "Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands." (2 Tim. 1:6) "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery." (1 Tim. 4:14) "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." (2 Tim. 2:2)

Acts of the Apostles implies Apostolic Succession in the replacement of Judas by Matthias (see Acts 1:15-26). Judas had killed himself after betraying Jesus, and St. Peter afterward said this: "it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. ... Someone must be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection." (Acts 1:20-22) This shows that the Apostles needed to ordain others to succeed them after their deaths. In fact, every time Scripture shows that the Apostles ordained the authorities of the Church, it shows Apostolic succession: "And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch...[and] ordained them elders in every church." (Acts 14:21-23) These elders couldn't ordain themselves or give themselves authority to teach the Gospel, like Protestant pastors had to do in the 16th century; no, in the Bible men had to be ordained to be elders, and ordained by a bishop before them.

3. How does Apostolic Succession relate to Tradition being handed on?

The bishops as successors of the Apostles are the ones entrusted with handing on Sacred Tradition, and they can only do this without risk of error if they have the gift of infallibility united to the Pope. So it is necessary for the sake of passing on Tradition that Apostolic Succession be true; prove Tradition and you imply Apostolic Succession. But Tradition is clear in Scripture: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." (2 Thess. 2:15) "withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us." (2 Thess. 3:6) It follows that Apostolic Succession is true, because Tradition is to be maintained, and cannot be fully known without it.

4. Why do Catholics need bishops over priests over laypeople? The Biblical Church is made up of equals.

We need bishops over priests over laypeople because that is the Biblical portrait: "For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch." (Mark 13:34) "And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me." (Luke 22:29) "If any man does not listen to the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the tax-collectors." (Matthew 18:17) All of these passages show structure in the Church, with someone over and someone under. In fact, the very word bishop, which Scripture often uses, means overseer, and shows that bishops were over the faithful. The Catholic picture is therefore much closer to the Biblical portrait than the Protestant idea of a company of equals, with no authority over them. Scripture is quite clear that there are to be priests and bishops above the faithful to guard them as shepherds their flocks.

5. Bishops aren't in the Bible. It's just pastors and people.

Someone tell that to Saint Paul, who said, "This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work." (1 Timothy 3:10) If there are no bishops, who are these bishops? "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." (Philippians 1:1) Scripture is replete with references to bishops and priests and deacons, it is one of the clearest things in the New Testament. And Church history bears this out, because from the beginning references are made to bishops, priests and deacons over the faithful; where do you think they got this idea, if the Apostles never ordained such a thing? Where did the Church come from that the early Christians knew about, if the Apostles started one so vastly different in structure and doctrine from the one we receive from the history books? But hit the link below for more Scriptures and Church fathers to show and prove the structure of the Church.

6. In the Bible, bishops aren't part of a hierarchy. It's just another word for a pastor.

The bishops were part of a hierarchy, and you would have a hard time proving otherwise. Showing passages where they are called pastors won't do, because of course they were pastors -- they were over the sheep of Christ's flock. And the priests under them were also pastors, so they could share the titles pastor and priest without being identical to one another. But we do have one proof that there was a difference between them, and that's what the early Church taught: already in 107 A.D. St. Ignatius was referring to the structure of the Churches with one bishop that had priests and deacons under him, and decades before that St. Clement was writing of the same structure, with a high priest (the bishop) and priests under him and Levites or deacons as well. Keep in mind that St. John the Apostle was still alive into the year 99 A.D., and you'll see why it is impossible that this Church structure developed in any other time than during the New Testament age.

7. You claim Apostolic Succession, but so do the Eastern Orthodox, and yet you disagree on doctrine.

Yes, because the Eastern Orthodox are in schism with the true Church. Apostolic Succession is the guarantee of infallibility and therefore it proves that the Church has the true faith, but when someone in a line from the Apostles breaks unity with the Pope, he no longer retains infallibility. Bishops do not have infallibility of themselves, only when united to their head; and so, when the bishops are united to their head, they can together claim universal jurisdiction over the whole Church united to the Pope, but when they break faith with him, they lose that claim and the infallibility that goes with it. So the Eastern Orthodox, being in schism, do not have infallibility, and that is why they have lost sight of several doctrines of the faith. But note something important: out of the thousand and more years they have been separated from us, they have only wavered on a few things; that shows that God is still operating with them, and the momentum they have by Apostolic Succession hasn't completely failed. With grace and their cooperation, a full return to the truths of the faith, and union with the Pope, is still possible for them; and on the vast majority of doctrines in which we are still united, their long-time acceptance of these truths is evidence that they are true: for even an ancient Church long separated from us still remembers the Apostolic origin of most of our doctrines.

8. The Church of Corinth was an independant Church -- no bishops, no succession.

You'd have a difficult time proving that in the face of 1 Cor. 16:15-16, which names several leaders of the Church there. Acts 18:1-2 also mentions that a man named Aquila was a leader there before Paul arrived. And Acts 19:1, 10 notes that St. Paul remained for two years in Corinth, so he would have been a leader there, and would almost certainly have ordained more, had they been needed. So it was not an independent church, but had bishops and succession just like any other. And it is further proof of Apostolic Succession by providing us with an example of it, rather than evidence against us like you claim.

9. There is no word that any Apostle ordained someone to be over Antioch (Acts 11:20-30).

That very passage mentions how they were evangelized and straight away sent for an Apostle, and he came and lived with them for a year, after he brought St. Paul to them. So they had two bishops for a years' time right there. Then it mentions others who came from Jerusalem in verse 27, and we know at least some of them were ordained, because Acts 13:1-2 says they were teachers and ministers. And Acts 14:21-23 says explicitly that St. Paul ordained elders to be over them -- so I don't know where at all you get this idea that Antioch was left unshepherded. The fact that when first converted they sent for a bishop is proof enough that they needed bishops, and if then Paul and Barnabas left them without any it would have been pointless to come all that way. So there is every proof available that ordinations occurred there to succeed those who appointed them, and it is simply another proof of Apostolic Succession.

10. The true Church is anywhere two or three people gather in His name.

The true Church is what Scripture says it is, and it says it has bishops and priests. They are ordained by those who precede them in a line that goes back to the Apostles, and this is necessary so that the true faith may be preserved by men of authority united to the Church's head. And since this is what Scripture teaches and shows again and again in Acts and in the Epistles, we can know and be sure that it is good and necessary; and that Protestant churches, which do not have Apostolic Succession and have only existed since the 16th century, are not the true Church. But we are left with the Catholic Church: which preserves the same structure given to the Church by Jesus Himself, its founder, and which preserves whole and entire the complete faith He entrusted to it. Those who believe in the Bible, therefore, are duty-bound to join that Church, the only one built by Christ Jesus.