“Faithful Succession”: Protestants and Apostolic Succession


My last two posts have looked at the model of leadership succession that held unquestioned sway in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for nearly 1500 years. Then came the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Their champions re-examined many of the centuries-old traditions of the established Church and pressed for sweeping change in doctrine and practice.

What do Protestant theologians make of Apostolic Succession? There is no fixed consensus. Some conservative Anglicans believe that apostolic succession is important as a link to the first church. I once met a bishop of an independent Episcopal denomination in America who carried with him a ‘family tree’ showing his supposed succession going right back to St Peter.

Protestants who reject apostolic succession generally do so from three angles:

  1. It is a historical fallacy. Early church history is sketchy and records are incomplete. It is hard to justify a clear and undisputed timeline of leaders from the Apostles to the present day.
  2. It was as political expedient, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
  3. It is irrelevant. It may have been useful in combating heresy in the first centuries, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible, so we are under no obligation to hold to it. Besides, they point out, the New Testament uses ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest’ as alternative names for the same office.

For a fuller exposition of these points and more, see this discussion and this article.

In general, Protestant denominations deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was to be a foundation and that a foundation is not constantly re-laid, but built upon (Eph.2:20). When the apostles died, runs the argument, they were replaced by their writings. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful continuity.

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

There is, however, a Protestant belief in what we might call a “faithful succession” – a spiritual connection to the heart, vision and practice of the first Apostles, in four main areas:

  1. Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching

  2. Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel

  3. Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion

  4. Commissioning others into key areas of service by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Today, Anglicans are passed over by traditional Roman Catholics as being outside the apostolic succession. Anglicans in turn question the validity of Methodist holy orders, because John Wesley stepped outside the apostolic succession to promote his movement. But whose apostolic succession are they meaning? They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:9) can be used by anyone as a convenient stick to beat others with!

Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans / Episcopalians, Lutherans, Moravians and Methodists, maintain a version of Apostolic Succession, which they prefer to call “historic episcopate“. I hope to devote a few posts to some examples.


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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

3 responses to ““Faithful Succession”: Protestants and Apostolic Succession”

  1. Aidan says :

    In ‘An Explosion of Joy’ Krish Kandiah says:

    “According to both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the church is apostolic because of the “apostolic succession”—that a minister can trace his ordination through a line of bishops back to the apostles. According to Protestants, the church is apostolic in so far as its teachings are in line with the apostles’ teaching. Along these lines, the [post ascension and pre pentecost outpouring] locked-in church could be called apostolic. However, both of these approaches reflect limited understandings of the church’s apostolic nature…

    …apostolicity is more than correct supervision and right doctrine.”

    It was the appearance of the resurrected Jesus and baptism of the Holy Spirit that turned the disciples back into the apostles they were commissioned to be. This “apostelos” sending out could be called the missional ministry.

    I would think of apostolicity as the ministry of urgent sentness that makes church happen in new places, launched by the Holy Spirit of Jesus, and requiring only that.

    Link to Kandiah’s original post: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/june/what-apostolic-means-church-explosion-of-joy.html

  2. John MacArthur says :

    I think it’s interesting to read between the lines a bit. I’ve often thought that there is a denominational inevitability about whatever fresh bloom of the HS pokes its head above ground. The Vineyard, Kingdom Faith, Pioneer etc, have all developed their own denominational idiosyncracies. The fact that the JA is considering succession in a meaningful, biblically relevant way, can only be encouraging for long-term growth.

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