“Faithful Succession”: Protestant Responses to Apostolic Succession


My last post 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 political expediency, 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.

16th century Anglicanism saw the theological importance of the historic episcopate, but refused to ‘unchurch’ those churches which did not retain it. 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 post or two 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!

8 responses to ““Faithful Succession”: Protestant Responses to 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.

  3. Ike12Stones says :

    Interesting discussion/ thoughts. I think that ‘apostolic succession’ itself can be (and often is) a misnomer; I don’t believe it is entirely erroneous from the standpoint of apostles being consistently found in the earth, even to this day. Yet, neither do I think that ‘apostleship’ can be conferred from one person to another; as the word ‘apostle’ means ‘sent one,’ and every biblical apostle was sent personally by Jesus Christ (from the twelve to Paul, whom Christ sent [personally] after His ascension).

    Yet in discussions like these, it seems that we don’t generally understand the different ministry roles, as they are laid out scripturally (which you did touch on briefly in your post).

    Here is one I’d written largely on the same topic to add to your conversation (for what its worth):


  4. Trevor Saxby says :

    Thank you for this comment and link, Ike. I agree with you that *sending* is the key aspect of apostleship in the Acts. Apostles were the groundbreakers but also fathers, able to hold a lot of people in their heart. They were gifted to get large groups of people envisioned and united in a vision.

    Continuity of doctrine is the only use of the apostolic succession idea as church history continued it, so if it fails, the thing becomes useless. Using the concept to divide the Body of Christ or to promote any particular geographical centre is the opposite of his intention.

    • John Vagabond says :

      Interesting that this has been reposted. My initial comments stand but I was reminded of Irenaeus’ writing against the Gnostics, who claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. In a passage that became a locus classicus of Catholic-Protestant polemics, he cited the Roman church as an example of the unbroken chain of authority which text Western polemics would use to assert the primacy of Rome over Eastern churches by virtue of its preeminent authority. So, the argument boils down to ‘how to guard against heresy’ and ‘should a traceable succession be the only viable model?’ With regard to the former – of course – sound (historical) doctrine is the bulwark against error whoever administers it – but the latter is to most Protestant eyes, discredited.

      • Trevor Saxby says :

        Once again, hearty thanks for the feedback, John. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you visit the Patristics for Protestants group on Facebook, where a lively discussion grew from the link to this post.

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