Apostolic Succession Proved from Scripture and History
Many people deny that the modern Catholic Church is the one Church Jesus promised to build (cf. Mt. 16:18-19) claiming that the doctrine of Apostolic Succession is not found in the Bible. Is this argument valid?
Let’s begin by examining the evidence contained in scripture as well as the non-scriptural writings of the earliest Christians for evidence of Apostolic Succession. The Bible contains clear indications that the Apostle Paul taught Apostolic Succession to his disciples and fellow workers, Timothy, Titus and Clement. Here are the relevant passages:
2 Timothy 2:1-2
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.
In the passage above, there are four generations of believers contained in this one passage: 1. Paul himself, 2. Timothy, who was Paul’s disciple, 3. Those whom Timothy would disciple, and 4. Those to whom Timothy’s disciples would preach. Paul commanded Timothy to hand on the gospel to reliable men and further to ensure that those men would also hand on the gospel reliably.
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
In the passage above, we see that Paul was concerned with the appointing of capable leaders in the Cretan church. So in addition to his concern for the content of the message, he is concerned with the succession of the leadership, as well.
Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
In the passage from Philippians, Paul mentions one of his fellow workers, Clement, who was ordained by the Apostle Peter and later became the fourth Bishop of Rome (after Peter, Linus, and Anacletus). Like Paul, who addressed to epistles to the Church of Corinth, Clement wrote his own letter to the Corinthians around 80 AD. In that letter, he stated:
“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
“We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. (ibid.)
From these two passages, we can see that Clement had witnessed his mentors, the Apostles Peter and Paul, naming men to the office of Bishop and had received instructions from them that other men should succeed those Bishops appointed by the Apostles in the event that these first Bishops should die. Thus, history records that both the Apostles and their disciples such as Clement, Timothy and Titus understood and followed the practice of appointing successors to the Apostles in the Church.
While many seem to believe that anyone with a Bible may become a “pastor” by simply gathering around himself a group of fellow believers to form a church, the Bible itself teaches that true leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ must be ordained by those who were ordained before them. This process, known as Apostolic Succession, maintains an unbroken chain of continuity from Jesus, Peter and the Apostles to the leaders of the early Church.