Theology of

Apostolic Succession

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Episcopal consecration by one or more other bishops

Apostolic succession is the method whereby the ministry of the Christian Church is held to be derived from the apostles by a continuous succession, which has usually been associated with a claim that the succession is through a series of bishops. This series was initially seen as that of the bishops of a particular see founded by one or more apostles. Still, it is generally understood today as a series of bishops, regardless of see, each consecrated by other bishops consecrated similarly in succession, going back to the apostles. Christians of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Catholic, Anglican, Moravian, and Scandinavian Lutheran traditions maintain that “a bishop cannot have regular or valid orders unless he has been consecrated in this apostolic succession.”

Apostolic succession “may also be understood as a continuity in doctrinal teaching from the time of the apostles to the present.” For example, the British Methodist Conference locates the “true continuity” with the Church of past ages in “the continuity of Christian experience, the fellowship in the gift of the one Spirit; in the continuity in the allegiance to one Lord, the continued proclamation of the message; the continued acceptance of the mission;…”

Those who hold to the importance of apostolic succession via episcopal laying on of hands appeal to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession. They also appeal to other documents of the early Church, especially the Epistle of Clement. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles appointed bishops as successors and directed that these bishops should, in turn, appoint their successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause or in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to AD 431) before being divided into the Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Some Protestants deny the need for this type of continuity, and the historical claims involved have been severely questioned; Eric Jay comments that the account given of the emergence of the episcopate in chapter III of Lumen Gentium “is very sketchy, and many ambiguities in the early history of the Christian ministry is passed over.”

The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic Jewish sect, which historians call Jewish Christianity. The Apostles dispersed from Jerusalem, founding the Apostolic Sees, presumably following the Great Commission’s decree to spread the teachings of Jesus to “all nations,” with great success spreading the religion to Gentiles. The most notable early Christian leaders were Peter, Paul, and James the Just. Though Paul’s influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author, the relationship between Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed today. Rather than having a sudden split, early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism as a predominantly Gentile religion. Christian restorationists propose that the 1st century Apostolic Age represents a purer form of Christianity that should be adopted in the church as it exists today.

Jewish Christians

James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19-29, “…  we should write to them (Gentiles) to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood…” (NRSV). Jewish Christians were among the earliest followers of Jesus and an essential part of Judean society during the mid to late 1st century. This movement was centred around Jerusalem and led by James the Just. They held faithfully to the Torah (perhaps also Jewish law, which was being formalized simultaneously), including acceptance of Gentile converts based on a version of the Noachide laws (Acts 15 and Acts 21).

In Christian circles, “Nazarene” was later used as a label for those faithful to Jewish law, particularly for a particular sect. These Jewish Christians, originally the central group in Christianity, were not initially declared unorthodox but were later excluded and denounced. Some Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, were considered to have unorthodox beliefs, particularly about their views of Christ and Gentile converts. The Nazarenes, holding to orthodoxy except in their adherence to Jewish law, were not deemed heretical until the dominance of orthodoxy in the 4th century. The Ebionites may have been a splinter group of Nazarenes, with disagreements over Christology and leadership. After the condemnation of the Nazarenes, “Ebionite” was often used as a general pejorative for all related “heresies.” Jewish Christians constituted a separate community from the Pauline Christians but maintained a similar faith, differing only in practice.

There was a post-Nicene “double rejection” of the Jewish Christians by both Gentile Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. It is believed that there was no confrontation or persecution between Gentile and Judaic Christianity. However, by this time, the practice of Judeo-Christianity was diluted both by internal schisms and external pressures. Gentile Christianity remained the sole strand of orthodoxy and imposed itself on the previously Jewish Christian sanctuaries, taking complete control of those houses of worship by the end of the 5th century.

The Nasrani or Syrian Malabar Nasrani community in Kerala, India, is conscious of their Jewish origins. However, they have lost many of their Jewish traditions because of Western influences. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. This is because they follow the traditions of Syriac Christianity and are descendants of the early converts by Thomas the Apostle. Today, they belong to various denominations of Christianity, but they have kept their unique identity within each of these denominations.

Christian groups and congregations first organized themselves loosely. In Paul’s time, although certain decisions by Elders and Apostles were binding, as in the Council of Jerusalem, there were no precisely delineated functions yet for bishops, elders, and deacons. A Church hierarchy, however, seems to have developed by the late 1st century and early 2nd century. These structures were formalized well before the end of the Early Christian period, which concluded with the legalization of Christianity by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 and the holding of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 when the title of Metropolitan bishop first appeared.

Fundamentalists' says that apostolic succession is NOT Biblical.