Apostolic Succession

Definition:

Many Christian denominations are organized with bishops that oversee a number of priests or pastors, who in turn minister to individual congregations (the bishops may also have their own congregation). These bishops are ordained by means of a practice known as “laying on hands”. Other bishops gather around the candidate and place their hands on that person in prayer and blessing. The laying on of hands also serves as a public demonstration of giving authority to the candidate, and the new bishop is consecrated for ministry in the service of God. This practice of ordination is described in the Bible (see Scripture below).

The Apostolic Succession refers to the chain of consecrations as bishop extending back into history. Presumably each new bishop was consecrated by an existing bishop, who was also consecrated by another, and so on. The Apostolic Succession is the sequence of these ordinations all the way back to St. Peter, who was an Apostle of Jesus Christ Himself. The Apostolic Succession is also known as the Historic Episcopate.

The modern Apostolic Succession is not simply the sequence of persons who held the highest office in a denomination (Catholic Popes, Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury, Orthodox Patriarchs of Constantinople). The previous Pope did not necessarily consecrate the new Pope as bishop. For example, Pope John Paul I did not ordain Pope John Paul II as Bishop of Krakow, Poland in 1958 – that consecration was performed by Eugeniusz Baziak. Neither did the old Pope install the new Pope directly, because the selection of Popes is done when the previous Pope has passed away. I’m sure that Pope John Paul I knew Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and probably shook his hand in greeting, but those casual encounters were not the ordination as bishop. This is why the links in the chain of the Apostolic Succession often pass through the highest church office, but not all consecrations as bishop occur there.

In theory the church could guarantee an unbroken Apostolic Succession simply by adopting the practice that only pre-existing bishops may ordain new bishops. In that way we would always preserve the line back to St. Peter. In practice it is harder than that. The Apostolic Succession reaches back 2,000 years through some murky periods of human history, and it is not enough for a person today merely to assert “We’ve always done it that way!” We desire proof, or at least some historical evidence, that the consecrations were done properly, and that the chain is unbroken. The evidence is a list of actual consecrations reaching back to St. Peter.

Scripture References:

If you take your concordance and search for the word “hands” in the New Testament, you will find a selection of Bible verses that refer to the laying on of hands. Here are the verses I found in the New International Version from Acts onward:

  • Acts 6:5-6: This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procurus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
  • Acts 8:14-19: When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
    When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands will receive the Holy Spirit.”
  • Acts 9:12,17: [God said] “In a village he [Saul] has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” . . . Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
  • Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
  • Acts 19:6: When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
  • Acts 28:8: His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.
  • 1 Timothy 4:14: Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
  • 1 Timothy 5:22: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
  • 2 Timothy 1:5-6: I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
  • Hebrews 6:1-2: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.

The Holy Spirit is involved in five out of six passages in Acts from the list above (Acts 28:8 involves healing). Two out of three passages in Timothy refer to a spiritual gift. From these passages it should be evident that churches who practice the Apostolic Succession and do not value the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit might want to re-examine what they’re doing.

The granting of authority is also a theme in the above verses, although by my reading that aspect is secondary to receiving the Holy Spirit. Note that Stephen in Acts 6:6 and Paul in Acts 13:3 were already filled with the Holy Spirit; this laying on of hands was to commission them.

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THE HISTORIC EPISCOPATE

It is clear from the Acts, chapters 2 to 6, that for a time the Apostles were the sole office – bearers of the Church.  A local necessity in the Church at Jerusalem gave rise to the establishment of the Diaconate.  Whether this was to be an Order of the Christian Ministry, or simply an Office for the care of the needy, is a debatable point.  It is sufficient to say that this was an Office established by the Apostles.

As the Church increased and its work and witness spread over a wider area, the Apostles were compelled to provide for instruction, guidance, and pastoral care.  They responded to this situation when they ‘ordained them elders (presbuterous) in every church.’ This practice had its roots in the Old Testament.  It was familiar to the Apostles from their personal experience of Judaism.

The term Elder had long been in use in the synagogue to designate those who had the oversights of the people and the ordering of the services. It is not surprising that an educated Jew should call these Christian officers Elders. But this Office of Elder, or Presbyter, carried another title in the early Church – that of Episcopus, or Bishop, (Oversee or Superintendent).  This was the term familiar to a Gentile of Greek origin; the title chosen and used by the Gentile Churches for him who was set over them as teacher and ruler.  Thus in the New Testament we have two names for one and the same Office. (Phil. 1,1; Acts 20,28; Titus 1,7).

While it is clear from the Scriptures that the Apostles established both the Diaconate and the Presbyterate there is no evidence that they established the Episcopate as an order distinct from and superior to the Presbyterate.  I Timothy 3, 1-10 clearly shows the two grades of Officers, or two Orders of Ministry: The Bishops, whose qualifications are outlined in verses 9-10. This two graded Ministry is confirmed by Phil 1,1 where Paul writes, ‘To the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the Bishops and Deacons.’

It is a far cry from the simplicities of the New Testament to the place and position of a Bishop today.  As we consider the rise of the monarchical Bishop, we must note the plurality of Bishops in the early Church.  The Acts 14,23; 20,28; and Phil 1,1 seem to indicate that government of the Church by a plurality of Bishops was the usual custom. Their main duties were two-fold: –

  1.  The conduct of Divine worship:
  2. The maintenance of Christian fellowship:

The Presbyter – Bishop was the link between widely scattered Churches, exchanging greetings and keeping correspondence alive. He was the one who also spoke and wrote on behalf of the Church.  As the mouthpiece he gained a position of ascendancy and became known personally beyond the borders of his local Church.  The process was doubtless gradual, turning upon the personality and the repute of a given man in a given Church.  In the course of time certain Elders came to be regarded as the Bishop, while others, over whom by the nature of his gifts he had gained the ascendancy, retained the title Presbyter. History seems to show decisively that before the middle of the second century each Church or organized Christian community had its three Orders of ministers, its Bishop, its Presbyters, and its Deacons. On this point there cannot reasonably be two opinion.

It is clear that the early evangelistic efforts of the Church concentrated on the larger cities and towns.  Once Churches were established in populated areas, further missionary work was done in the surrounding countryside. In the early days these outlying districts looked to the city for those who could instruct or guide them in their newfound faith. In this way they became the prototype of the modern highly organized Diocese, and the Bishop of the city would undoubtedly play an important part as a key – figure among the Churches that formed the community.  Where he had enjoyed a certain pre – eminence as the senior Presbyter – Bishop in his local Church, that position was doubtless magnified as he was recognized as the Father – in –  God of the community.  What had begun as a simple Primitive Episcopacy developed over the years into a Hierarchy.  The stages of this process are respectively connected with the names of Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian.

To Ingatius of Antioch, 33-107 A.D., the value of the Episcopate was that it gave to the Church a visible centre of unity and a shield against error and heresy, particularly when the Apostles were no longer there.

Irenaus of Lyons, 130-200 A.D., held the same view as Ignatius, but he took it a step further. In the Episcopate he saw a succession from apostolic days providing for the preservation of the truth, and a source of teaching tat must be correct.  There was the added emphasis by Irenaeus of the necessity to be in union with the Bishops, and to heed them, in order to be sure of possessing the apostolic doctrine which, in his opinion, the Episcopate preserved.

It was left to Cyprian of Carthage, who died in 358 A.D., to take this trend to its logical conclusion. He regarded the Bishops as being, in that Office, the absolute vicegerents of Christ in things spiritual.  Jerome, in his ‘Commentary on Titus 1,5’ has this to say. ‘As Cyprian was the great man of his day, and as his victories were so signal in regard to the absolute supremacy of the Episcopate in the Universal Church, these positions were assumed by other Bishops, and granted by the Church.  So was cemented a power which still stands firm and the structure of episcopal prerogative was complete.’

To this day, throughout the Roman, Greek, and Anglican communions, the Cyprianic view of Episcopacy holds almost total sway. It is principally for this reason that the Episcopal Community in Belgrade, Serbia seeks to make its position clear; to emphasize its own belief and practice which is a return to the original simple Episcopacy of the second century; the period immediately following the decease of the Apostles, in other words, to a Democratic Episcopacy.

WHERE WE STAND

As we come to make our position clear on this issue we find ourselves in good company.  The Episcopal Community in Belgrade, Serbia holds the position – The Episcopate was formed not out of the apostolic order by localization, but out of the Presbyteral by elevation; and the title which originally was common to all came at length to be appropriated to the chief among them.

It is this Historic Episcopate which we believe to be our value, providing a link with an illustrious past and the leadership and direction required for the present.

This Church holds valid Apostolic Succession derived from the Armenian Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of England (through the Reformed Episcopal Church of the United States of America). These lines were in the jurisdictions that united in 1897 to found the Free Protestant Episcopal Church.

In maintaining the Historic Episcopate the Episcopal Community in Belgrade, Serbia (the Episcopal Free Church of Serbia) declares the Holy Scriptures to be the sole rule of faith and practice and holds that the true Apostolic Succession lies in the continuance of the apostolic doctrine and teaching.  Nowhere in the New Testament can it be proved that the Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit laid down any specific form of Church government. Monepiscopacy is traceable in the New Testament, but not as of Divine institution.

Guided by the New Testament and the ecclesiastical polity of the Primitive Church Episcopal Community in Belgrade, Serbia (the Episcopal Free Church of Serbia) declares the Epsicopate to be an Office proceeding from the Presbyterate, primus inter pares, and not an order in succession to the Apostolate, and maintains the ecclesiastical parity of Presbyters.

THE VALUE OF THE EPISCOPATE

While we cannot hold that Episcopacy is of the esse of the Church, yet we do believe it to be of the bene esse.

The Episcopacy, freed form the claims of Hierarchy and the embarrassment of Prelacy, is honoured by the Episcopal Free Church of Serbia as a heritage form the past of proven worth, and as an Office which preserves continuity and order. It can be claimed that whatever historical value it has for other Communions, it ha for ours also.

WHAT IT MEANS

The position taken by this Church concerning the Episcopate raises a question of some importance : – What is the true nature and essence of an ordination to the ministry of the Christian Church?

The Intention can have great effect upon the nature and work of the Office. This applies particularly to the Office of a Bishop. If the Episcopate is not a superior Order to he Presbyterate why is a Bishop consecrated with the ‘laying on of hands’ in a solemn fashion? The answer is to be found in consideration of fundamental principles based on the Word of God.

1.No power but that of the Holy Ghost can make an ambassador of Christ. ‘No man taketh this honour unto himself but he that is called of God.’

2.The election by his fellow-Christians of one of their number to be their teacher, ruler, sheperd, and guide in spiritual things, is the conferring upon the chosen one the right to exercise his ministry among them; it is their acknowledgment of his call from God to this great work.

3.The Ordination, or ‘laying on of hands’ with prayer, upon one chosen to the Office and work of the Ministry is the solemn ratification and confirmation by those in authority of the act of the Church in the choice of the Minister; an outward sign and seal of his admission into the Office. Election and Ordination are parts of one transaction: the one is the complement of the other.

4. Ordination does not ex opere operato confer grace as the Church of Rome teaches, elevating it contrary to all the testimony of Holy Scripture into a Sacrament. It does not confer spiritual gifts or powers; these come form God alone.

Ordination, then, confers authority only to execute the Offices of the Ministry; and this, as the solemn ratification and confirmation by visible sign and seal on the part of those already in authority, of the choice and act of the whole body of the Christian community in action.

In conclusion, the Episcopacy to which we adhere is not of Divine right or of direct apostolic institution, but is a Primitive Episcopacy, the development of the practice and custom of the Apostles; the Episcopacy of Polycarp and Ignatius, and not of Irenaeus and Cyprian, found existing almost universally in the Churches of the second century; an Epsicopacy which is the bond and centre of unity, which claims no prerogative of containing in itself the only Divine order of Christ’s Church; a polity which, limited and controlled by wise safeguards, is admirably fitted to promote the well-being of the whole visible Church of Christ.

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JOHN MOORE, D.D, Archbishop of Canterbury 1783-1805, Consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Frederick Cornwallis) and the Bishops of Ely(Edmund Keene), Oxford (Robert Lowth) and Rochester (John Thomas), 12 February,1775 in Lambeth Palace Chapel, London. Died 1805.

WILLIAM WHITE, D.D, Bishop of Pennsylvania Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA,was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Moore), the Archbishop of York (William Markham) and the Bishops of Peterborough (John Hinchcliffe) and Bath and Wells (Charles Moss) 4 February, 1787 in Lambeth Palace Chapel, London. Died 1836.

JOHN HENRY HOPKINS, DD, Bishop of Vermont,Presiding Bishop of Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, was consecrated by Bishops William  White, Alexander Viets Griswold and Nathaniel  Bowen, 31 October 1832, in St Paul’s Chapel, New York. Died 1868.

BISHOP GEORGE DAVID CUMMINS, M.A., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. John H. Hopkins, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin B. Smith, the Rt. Rev. Henry W. Lee,the Rt. Rev. Joseph C. Talbot, the Rt. Rev. Chides T. Quintard, the Rt. Rev.Robert H. Clarkson, and the Rt. Rev. John B. Kerfoot, of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in Christ Church Cathedral, Louisville, Kentucky, on November 15, 1866.Died at Lutherville, Maryland, June 26, 1875, aged 54.

BISHOP CHARLES EDWARD CHENEY, B.A., S.T.D., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. George D. Cummins, assisted by five presbyters, in Christ Church, Chicago,Illinois, on December 14. 1873. Died at Chicago, Illinois, November 15, 1916,aged 80.

BISHOP SAMUEL FALLOWS, M.A., LLD., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Cheney, the Rt. Rev. William R.Nicholson, and the Rt. Rev. Carman of the Methodist Episcopal Church, assisted by nine presbyters, in Emmanuel Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on July 17, 1876. Diedat Chicago, Illinois, September 5, 1922, aged 87.

BISHOP ROBERT LIVINGSTON RUDOLPH, M.A.,D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Samuel Fallows, the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Cheney, and the Rt.Rev. William T. Sabine, assisted by the Rev. Dr. W. Russell Collins, the Rev.Dr. William A. Freemantle, the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Hendricks, the Rev. George W. Huntington,the Rev. Dr. R. Westly Peach, the Rev. Dr. William D. Stevens, the Rev. Dr.William Tracy, the Rev. Dr. Joseph D. Wilson, and the Rev. Dr. John H. Oerterof the Reformed Church in America, in First Church, New York, New York, on January 12, 1909. Died at Doset, Vermont, September 16, 1930, aged 65.

BISHOP JOSEPH EDGAR KEARNEY, D.D., was consecrated bythe Rt. Rev. Robert L. Rudolph, the Rt. Rev. R. Westly Peach, and the Rt. Rev.Frank Vaughan, assisted by the Rev. Dr. Frank V. C. Cloak, the Rev. Dr. ForrestE. Dager, the Rev. Dr. William A. Freemantle, the Rev. Dr. Howard D. Higgins,the Rev. Dr. Alexander M. Hubly, the Rev. Richard A. Madison, the Rev. Dr.Francis H. Reynolds, the Rev. Dr. Henry H. Trotter, the Rev. Dr. William T.Way, and Rev. R. Milton Webster, in Redeemer Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 23. 1930.Died at Summerville, South Carolina, January 21. 1981, aged 89.

BISHOP HOWARD DAVID HIGGINS, M.A., Th.M., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Joseph E. Kearney, the Rt. Rev. Frank V. C. Cloak,and the Rt. Rev. George Marshall, assisted by Rev. Charles O. Bayard, the Rev. Howell S. Foster, the Rev. ThomasW. Fox, the Rev.Dr. Francis H. Reynolds, the Rev. Joseph Robinson, the Rev. Dr. Robert K. Rudolph, theRev. Henry Short, the Rev. George R. Stout, and the Rev. Dr. Henry H. Trotter, in FirstChurch, New York, New York, on January 19, 1937. Died at Southampton,Pennsylvania, April 6. 1980, aged 77.

BISHOP THEOPHILUS JOHN HERTER, M.A., Th.D., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Howard D. Higgins, the Rt. Rev. William C.Culbertson, III, the Rt. Rev. William H. S. Jerdan, Jr., the Rt. Rev. Joseph E. Kearney, and theRt. Rev. Sanco K. Rembert, assisted by Rev. M. Nelson Buffler, the Rev.Dr. Edwin A. Bustard, the Rev. Dr. Fred C. Kuehner, the Rev. Howard J. Miekley,the Rev. Alton F. Olsen, the Rev. Dr. D. Ellsworth Raudenbush, the Rev. Karl R.Rudolph, the Rev. Dr. Robert K. Rudolph, and Rev. Edwin C. Shisler, in Christ Memorial Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 15, 1966. Died at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 2, 1987, aged74.

BISHOP ROYAL UPTON GROTE, JR., Th.B., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt.Rev. Theophilus J. Herter, the Rt. Rev. William H. S. Jerdan, Jr.,the Rt. Rev. Sanco K. Rembert, the Rt. Rev. Leonard W. Riches, and the Rt. Rev. Franklin H. Sellers, assisted by Rev.Dale H. Crouthamel, the Rev. Samuel M. Forster, the Rev. R. Charles Gillin, the Rev. Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, theRev. Thomas R. May, the Rev. Robert N. McIntyre, the Rev. Dr. James C. West, Sr., and Rev. Richard W.Workowski, in Covenant Chapel, Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on June 7, 1984.

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Rev. Petar Petrovic was consecrated as presbyter by the Rt.Rev.Royal Upton Grote, Jr., and Rt.Rev.Gerhard Meyer, on May 17, 2011.

Rev. Petar Petrovic was consecrated as a bishop by the The Most Reverend Dr.++Muhammad Wolfgang G.A.Schmidth on May 5, 2019.

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