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:
- 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.
- It was as political expedient, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
- 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.
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.
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:
Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching
Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel
Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion
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.
In my last post I outlined the development of the concept of Apostolic Succession in early church times. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections.
The New Testament is the work of the first generation of Christians. They easily deferred to the Apostles appointed by Jesus Himself, or to others of trusted and proven calling, like Paul and those whom he appointed. Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following.
Most scholars have no problem accepting that the Apostle Peter commissioned James, the Lord’s brother, to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem, while his own focus shifted to Rome. John, meanwhile, was influential in Asia Minor. This led to tensions even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter” (1 Corinthians 3:4). But greater tensions were to come when Constantinople and Rome operated independently as the East and West of the Empire. Roman Catholic scholars tend to regard this as a lamentable departure from what Jesus intended. Another way to view it is as a logical and eminently practical extension, pointing towards geographically autonomous apostolic circuits with their own senior and junior apostles, appointing their own ministers.
While many Protestant scholars see succession as only in the ministry of the word, the principle of apostolic succession marries the word to the witness. It carries the extra stamp of anointed humanity in the person of a duly commissioned man. There are two extremes to avoid here, as later church history has shown: at one end the placing of God’s word on so high a pedestal that human vessels count for nothing, and at the other the “anointed vessel” whose life might not match the claim.
Historically, the crunch came when Gnosticism in its various forms championed a free and speculative interpretation of God’s word. For a time, referral to a recognised apostolic man was sufficient for “the sure word as taught” to be established (Titus 1:9), but with the passing years, this no longer sufficed. It became necessary to have fixed points for the testimony of truth, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those places where the apostles had been active.
The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.
The fact that, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations, apostolic succession based on the supposed sanctity of particular places has continued to this day, has something to say to us. The church hasn’t died! This shows either a disturbing ignorance or an amazing trust on the part of rank-and-file church members, who are content to receive whoever is sent to them as being God’s choice for them, just because “that’s how it’s done”. And indeed, it works – at least for maintenance, if not for mission or movement.
In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.
Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray, some of them lying prostrate, and close with a blessing.
The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray.
Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.
Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.