Monday, August 22, 2022

Anonymous Asks (211)

“Is apostolic succession biblical?”

The Greek word translated “apostle” means messenger. The Bible uses it in two senses: (1) formally, meaning a member of the Twelve, or else Paul; and (2) generically, meaning other messengers who took the gospel to the world of their day under apostolic authority, such as Barnabas, Timothy and Silvanus.

The Origin of Apostleship

It was the Lord Jesus who first called the disciples apostles, and it was Paul who called his fellow-workers apostles. Apostles in the formal sense were chosen by Christ, not by men, and were personally charged with carrying the gospel to the world and making disciples. This was true even of Matthias, Judas’s replacement, who was chosen by casting lots and not purely on his spiritual qualifications. Paul too was under very specific orders personally received from the Head of the Church. The apostleship of the Twelve was authenticated by miraculous signs, as also was Paul’s apostleship. Moreover, Paul seems to associate formal apostleship with having seen Christ personally and been a witness of the resurrection.

In this formal sense, there were thirteen apostles, not twelve, just as there were thirteen tribes in Israel. (Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, replaced him, which allowed Levi to be taken by God as his priestly tribe while still leaving twelve others.) We have no warrant to extend the formal designation of apostle beyond that of scripture. It is very clear the apostleship of Timothy or Barnabas was not on the same level as that of Peter or Paul.

Apostolic Succession

Apostleship in the second, generic sense need not concern us in answering our question: any “messenger” who takes the gospel to the world and teaches the faith to others is doing the same thing they were and acting as an apostle in the broader sense. The idea of “apostolic succession” is something else entirely; it is a Roman Catholic convention claiming to confer special authority on their bishops, allegedly passed to them by the laying on of hands by their predecessors.

Now, it is certainly true that Paul laid hands on men like Timothy, but so too did a group of elders, and Timothy would likely later lay hands on others. The practice was common, and it was not specifically apostolic. Moreover, what Timothy received in the process was a gift, not membership in the Twelve.

Moreover, while the apostles were messengers attested by miracles, they did not wield any special authority in local churches, and certainly not over multiple churches or denominations, which did not exist at the time. At the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, Peter, Paul and Barnabas appeared as witnesses. All appear to have been on equal footing. The matter in question was settled not by Peter or Paul, the “capital A” Apostles present, but by a word from James, who was not even a member of the Twelve. Further, their decision was not made on the basis of the spiritual authority of apostles, but because it “seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church” in Jerusalem.

A Yawning Void

This idea of apostolic succession is found nowhere in scripture. To be an apostle in any sense remotely like that of the original thirteen, one would have to be: (1) chosen personally by Christ; (2) charged with a specific mission; (3) authenticated with miracles; and (4) a witness to the resurrection.

Nobody today can claim these things, and no one other than elders has authority in a local church beyond repeating what scripture says and applying it accurately. There are no New Testament instructions to appoint apostles, and no history of apostolic appointment we might use as an example to be followed.

Those who manufactured the expression did so from a yawning void, not from any scriptural teaching to which they can point.

Photo by Jonathunder, GFDL 1.2

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