In Christianity, the doctrine that bishops represent an uninterrupted line of descent from the Apostles of Jesus. This succession gives bishops special powers, including the right to confirm church members, ordain priests, consecrate bishops, and rule over the clergy and church members of a diocese. Clement, bishop of Rome, stated the doctrine as early as AD 95, and it is accepted by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, and several other churches. Some Protestant churches maintain that succession is spiritual and doctrinal rather than ritual and historical.
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Apostolic succession is claimed by virtually all churches except most of Protestantism. This includes the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. Apostolic succession is claimed by many smaller Churches like the original Thomas Christians in India, the Old Catholic Church and the Polish National Catholic Church, with 60 000 members. The churches of the Anglican Communion also claim apostolic succession. While their claim is recognized by some Eastern Christian churches, it is not officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, based on Pope Leo XIII's papal bull Apostolicae Curae. However, since the promulgation of Apostolicae Curae, Anglican bishops have acquired Old Catholic lines of apostolic succession recognized by Rome.
Eastern Orthodox theology and ecclesiology teaches that each bishop is equal to the other bishops, even the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is first amongst equals. The Roman Catholic Church and many early Christian writers teach that Jesus Christ gave Saint Peter a unique primacy among the apostles, which has been passed on in the office of the Papacy.
"If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church’ . . . [Matt. 16:18]. Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement, Clement by Anacletus, Anacletus by Evaristus . . . " (St. Augustine; Letters 53:1:2 [A.D. 412]).
"The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. ... ’ [Matt. 16:18]. On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. . . . If someone [today] does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?" (Cyprian of Carthage; The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; first edition [A.D. 251]). early Christian writings on papal succession
While many churches within the historical episcopate argue that Holy Orders are valid only through apostolic succession, most Protestant Churches would deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. 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 sense in which apostolic succession is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching. There is, of course, much disagreement among various Protestant churches about the exact content of apostolic teaching. In addition, Protestants state that the teaching of apostolic succession did not arise until 170–200 A.D.
It is worth noting, however, that the First of the Epistles of Clement which is commonly dated to the first century and claims to be written by the Church of God in Rome which was established by the apostles presents a belief in apostolic succession as do also the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Also worth noting is the fact that others beside the twelve apostles and Saint Paul are called "apostles" in the New Testament. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Apostle Paul, though given spiritual authority directly by Christ, did not embark on his apostleship without conferring with those who were apostles before him as he notes in his Epistle to the Galatians. By contrast, some Protestant charismatic and restorationist churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession or attempt to confer, like Paul, with those who were "apostles" before them. It is frequently the case that the founders or senior leaders of a restorationist church grouping will be referred to as the apostles. Church planting is seen as a key role of these present-day apostles, but the concept of apostolic succession which protected the faith and inter-communion of the Christian churches through the first three centuries of persecution and cross-cultural, translinguistic evangelism has been lost in these new movements.
Those who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession would counter the above by appealing to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul to Timothy and Titus, for example) and which states that Jesus gave the Apostles a "blank check" to lead the Church as they saw fit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written around 96 AD In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of "elders" or "bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not 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 431 AD), from which, as organizations, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (at that point in time one Church until 1054, see Great Schism), as well Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Churches have all directly descended.
At the same time, no defender of the personal apostolic succession of bishops would deny the importance of doctrinal continuity in the Church.
* These churches hold that Christ entrusted the leadership of the community of believers, and the obligation to transmit and preserve the "deposit of faith" (the experience of Christ and his teachings contained in the doctrinal "tradition" handed down from the time of the apostles, the written portion of which is Scripture) to the apostles, and the apostles passed on this role by ordaining bishops after them.
Roman Catholic, Orthodox theology additionally hold that the power and authority to confect the sacraments, or at least all of the sacraments aside from baptism and matrimony (the first of which may be administered by anyone, the second of which is administered by the couple to each other) is passed on only through the sacrament of Holy Orders, and an unbroken line of ordination of bishops to the apostles is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacraments today. Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the bishops, and therefore the rest of the clergy, of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. Since 1896, Rome has not fully recognized all Anglican orders as valid. The Eastern Orthodox do not universally recognize Roman Catholics, Anglicans or any other group as having apostolic succession. Until the time comes when the practices of the Orthodox Church are unified, the validity of any priest's ordination will be decided by each autocephalous Orthodox Church. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Orthodox Church recognize the validity of the apostolic succession of the clergy of the Protestant churches, in large measure because of their theology of the Eucharist.
As a traditional ecclesiastical doctrine, apostolic succession provides an historical basis for the spiritual authority of the bishops of the Church (the episcopate). Apostolic succession is usually described as the official authority that has been passed down through unbroken lines of successive bishops beginning with the original Apostles selected by Jesus, or on a similar basis. Put another way, bishops (in churches subscribing to the doctrine) are only created bishops by other bishops; thus, every bishop today is the end of an unbroken line of bishops, extending all the way back to one (or more) of the Apostles, through which authority descends.
This doctrine is claimed by the ancient Christian Churches (the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox), and other ancient Churches, and as well as by the traditional Episcopal and other Anglican Churches, and by several of the Lutheran Churches; it is referenced favorably by other churches. Some Protestant churches do not accept this doctrine as it has been commonly described, but rather will redefine it in a different way.
Papal primacy is an issue different though related to apostolic succession as described here. The Catholic Church has traditionally claimed a unique leadership role for the apostle Peter, believed to have been named by Jesus as leader of the apostles and as a focus of their unity, became the first Bishop of Rome, whose successors accordingly became the leaders of the worldwide Church as well. Churches not in communion with Rome do not agree completely or at all with this Catholic interpretation.
The literature on this traditional doctrine is substantial. Many inferences from it may be drawn. Some Eastern Christians hold that the Roman church and, by extension, her Protestant offspring lost claim to apostolic succession by an illegitimate addition to the Nicene Creed (the Filioque clause) required by the Bishop of Rome just prior to the Great Schism in AD 1054. The rift resulted in the loss of apostolic succession in the western churches and the consequent doctrinal changes and excesses (e.g., Anselmian penal substitution, indulgences, etc.), resulting in the Protestant Reformation and the further splintering of Western Christendom.
The early Creed of the Church, adopted by the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, affirms that the Church is "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic." But Catholic in Greek "Catholicos" just means universal not referring to the Roman Catholic church but Christianity as a whole. Virtually all Christian denominations consider Apostolic Succession important in some fashion, although their definitions of the concept may vary, in some cases vary greatly (see below).
Churches that claim the historic episcopate include the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Independent Catholic, the Anglican Communion, and several Lutheran Churches (see below). The former churches teach that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles or at least to leaders from the apostolic era. The Anglican and some Lutheran Churches do not specifically teach this but exclusively practice episcopal ordination.
These churches generally hold that Jesus Christ founded a community of believers and selected the apostles to serve, as a group, as the leadership of that community.
In Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine of apostolic succession states that Christ gave the full sacramental authority of the church to the Twelve Apostles in the sacrament of Holy Orders, making them the first bishops. By conferring the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders on the apostles, they were given the authority to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders on others, thus consecrating more bishops in a direct lineage that can trace its origin back to the Twelve Apostles and Christ himself. This direct succession of bishops from the apostles to the present day bishops is referred to as apostolic succession. The Roman Catholic Church also holds that within the College of Apostles, Peter was picked out for the unique role of leadership and to serve as the source of unity among the apostles, a role among the bishops and within the church inherited by the pope as Peter's successor today.
These churches hold that Christ entrusted the apostles with the leadership of the community of believers, and the obligation to transmit and preserve the "deposit of faith" (the experience of Christ and his teachings contained in the doctrinal "tradition" handed down from the time of the apostles and the written portion, which is Scripture). The apostles then passed on this office and authority by ordaining bishops to follow after them.
Roman Catholic theology holds that the apostolic succession effects the power and authority to administer the sacraments except for baptism and matrimony. (Baptism may be administered by anyone and matrimony the couple to each other). Authority to so administer such sacraments is passed on only through the sacrament of Holy Orders, a rite by which a priest is ordained (ordination can be conferred only by a bishop). The bishop, of course, must be from an unbroken line of bishops stemming from the original apostles selected by Jesus Christ. Thus, apostolic succession is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacraments today.
The unbrokenness of apostolic succession is also significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age". According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would happen also with an apostolic succession that, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors, as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.
Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the bishops, and therefore the rest of the clergy, of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. Rome does not fully recognize all Anglican orders as valid. This conflict stems over the Anglican Church's revision of its rite of ordination for its bishops during the 16th century. Most of today's Anglican bishops would trace their succession back through a bishop who was ordained with the revised form and thusly would be viewed as invalid. However, a few Anglican bishops in Europe today can claim a line of succession through bishops who had only been ordained through the old rite. These bishops are viewed as valid by Rome. This validity was achieved through a number of different means, including ordinations by the schismatic Catholic bishops of the Old Catholic and Independent Catholic Churches who converted to Anglicanism.
Eastern Orthodoxy is less concerned with the question of 'validity' than Roman Catholicism, which means that Orthodox bishops can consider the merits of individual cases. It should be noted, however, that the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has specifically stated that Roman Catholic orders are recognized, to the effect that Roman Catholic clergy seeking admission in the Moscow Patriarchate are received without ordination at their existing rank (see reference in section below). The historic and normative practice of Eastern Orthodoxy has been to reordain clergymen coming from the Anglican / Episcopal communion, thus indicating the non-recognition of Anglican orders.
In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Roman Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).
Succeeding judgments, however, have been more conflicting. The Orthodox Churches require a totality of common teaching in order to recognize orders and in this broader view finds ambiguities in Anglican teaching and practice problematic. Accordingly, in practice Anglican clergy who convert to Orthodoxy are treated as if they had not been ordained and must be ordained in the Orthodox Church as would any lay person.
A reply from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (1896) was issued to counter Pope Leo's arguments: Saepius Officio: Answer of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the Bull Apostolicae Curae of H. H. Leo XIII. It was even suggested in their reply that if the Anglican orders were invalid, then the Roman orders were as well:
For if the Pope shall by a new decree declare our Fathers of two hundred and fifty years ago wrongly ordained, there is nothing to hinder the inevitable sentence that by the same law all who have been similarly ordained have received no orders. And if our Fathers, who used in 1550 and 1552 forms which as he (the Pope) says are null, were altogether unable to reform them in 1662, (Roman) Fathers come under the self-same law. And if Hippolytus and Victor and Leo and Gelasius and Gregory have some of them said too little in their rites about the priesthood and the high priesthood, and nothing about the power of offering the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, the church of Rome herself has an invalid priesthood...
It is Roman Catholic doctrine that the teaching of Apostolicae Curae is a truth to be "held definitively", as evidenced by commentary by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, currently Pope Benedict XVI:
With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations...
"While firmly restating the judgment of Apostolicae Curae that Anglican ordination is invalid, the Catholic Church takes account of the involvement, in some Anglican episcopal ordinations, of bishops of the Old Catholic Church of the Union of Utrecht who are validly ordained. In particular and probably rare cases the authorities in Rome may judge that there is a 'prudent doubt' concerning the invalidity of priestly ordination received by an individual Anglican minister ordained in this line of succession." This was a statement issued by Cardinal Basil Hume to explain the conditional character of his ordination of Dr Graham Leonard, former Anglican bishop of the Diocese of London, to the priesthood, but is not widely endorsed, and many would say that such a statement is misleading. Since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals of the early Church. The Nag's Head Fable discrediting Matthew Parker's ordination was dismissed as an invention long before the issuance of Apostolicae Curae.
The six major Lutheran Churches of the Porvoo Communion (those of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania) believe that they ordain their bishops in the apostolic succession in lines from the original Apostles. Two other Lutheran Churches (those of Denmark and of Latvia) were observers at Porvoo. Several Churches within the historic episcopate believe the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland have maintained apostolic succession, despite their Lutheranism. This view is not held by the Roman Catholic Church nor by all of Orthodoxy.
One context for the wide differences among the Lutheran Churches is that by the Prussian Union of 1817 the government ordered the Lutheran Churches in Prussia to merge with non-Lutheran reform Churches in Prussia. Perhaps also many of the Lutheran Churches are relatively indifferent as a matter of doctrine to this particular issue of ecclesiastical governance, e.g., the conservative Missouri Synod generally places its church authority in the congregation rather than in the bishop, yet this church is in fellowship with other Lutheran Churches favoring episcopacy. The larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is led by the Presiding Bishop who is elected by the Churchwide Assembly for a six year term. The Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church recovered the apostolic succession from Old Catholic and Independent Catholic Churches, adopted a strict episcopal polity, and all of its clergy have been ordained (or re-ordained) into the historic apostolic succession. Similarly in German High Church Movement some religious brotherhoods like Hochkirchliche St. Johannes-Bruderschaft and Hochkirchlicher Apostolat St. Ansgar have got their own bishop to re-ordain in apostolic succession, while members do not form a separate body. The Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church has autonomous and congregationally oriented ministries and believes it consecrates deacons, priests and bishops in valid and historic apostolic succession. This must be done through the laying on of hands with word and sacrament during the celebration of Holy Communion. Only bishops may consecrate deacons, priests and other bishops into apostolic succession. The newly consecrated bishop's name is added to the apostolic lineage.
In ordination, the church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit. (Book of Discipline paragraph 303)In other words, Methodists understand apostolic succession as being rooted within the Presbyterate. This does not mean, however, that all elders may ordain; quite the contrary: only those elders who have been elected and consecrated as bishops can further the apostolic succession through the ordination of bishops, elders, and deacons within the United Methodist Church. In this way, the United Methodist episcopacy functions as if it were within the historic episcopate.
Accepting, but moving beyond this position, a few Methodists do affirm that their bishops stand in a form of the historic, as well as theological, Apostolic Succession (i.e., in the Anglican fashion); their argument is that Wesley's ordinations, and therefore the subsequent line of Methodist bishops, are legitimate due to the critical nature of the circumstances extant at that time. Some Methodists even make an appeal to the "Erasmian consecration," which asserts that, while on a visit to London in 1763, the Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia, Crete, secretly consecrated Wesley to the episcopacy. That Wesley actually met with Bishop Erasmus during the bishop's visit to London is not questioned; what is questioned is that Erasmus did more than simply "confirm Wesley in his ministry among the Methodists in England and America." When Wesley was asked by a clergyman if Erasmus of Arcadia had consecrated him a bishop, he said: "I cannot answer you. Another source states that when Wesley was asked if Erasmus had made him a bishop, he offered no personal response but, rather, took the unusual course of authorizing a representative to reply that he had not requested episcopal consecration within the Greek Orthodox line. Many take this as a sufficient denial, but those who believe that Wesley was actually consecrated make the following arguments to the contrary:
Contrary to the "Erasmian consecration" stands the undeniable fact that, beginning with the American Revolution in the 1770s, Wesley did request episcopal consecration for several of his preachers and, indeed, for himself, so as to provide sacramental ministry for the Methodists in the break-away colonies. Opponents of the possibility that John Wesley had been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia argue that if Wesley had already been consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, he would have not requested such consecrations for others or for himself. The Greek Orthodox Bishop, Erasmus of Arcadia, is said to have ordained several Methodist lay preachers during Reverend John Wesley's absence from London in 1764,notably, Reverend John Jones.
Nevertheless, the "Erasmian consecration" remained a very popular argument throughout much of the 1800s and, while still garnering a following among some proponents today, it is not accepted by a majority of Methodists nor even by most of those who affirm a form of Apostolicity for their bishops. Interestingly enough, Wesley's consecration as a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia is affirmed by Unity Catholic Church, an Independent Catholic Church.
Many Protestant Churches, especially those following the Magisterial reformers, e.g., John Calvin (1509-1564), deny that the apostolicity of the Church rests on an unbroken episcopacy. In general, while Protestant Churches seldom refer to traditional post-Apostolic (ante-Nicene) doctrine, they will accept such claims advanced by the ancient Churches, as supportive evidence for their (Protestant) understanding of Scripture. Among the non-Calvinistic (Reformed) Protestant Churches, e.g., most of those following Martin Luther (1483-1546), many are, to a degree, similar; nonetheless, some Lutheran Churches claim for their bishops the ecclesiastic authority of traditional Apostolic Succession (see "Lutheran Churches"). Of course, the more moderate "Protestant" Churches claim such traditional authority as well, but with some redefinition of the terms used.
Protestants may hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus and that they witnessed the resurrected Christ. According to this understanding, the work of these twelve (and the Apostle Paul), together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide the doctrinal foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures of the Bible. These Protestants say that to share with the historic apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only sense in which "apostolic succession" is meaningful, because it is in this sense only that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for many Protestants, then, is construed as the faithful succession of apostolic teaching.
Many Protestants point to the fact that when leadership in the Bible became disobedient or strayed from his command, God would then bestow that position upon an individual who was more obedient to his will regardless of any claim that any other person would have through tradition. An example of this would be when King Saul of Israel was removed by God due to his disobedience so that King David could assume the throne. Protestants see apostolic succession in much the same way. In the view of many Protestants apostolic succession is not a matter of tradition, rather it is a matter of God safe-guarding his church by means of bestowing authority to those whom best exemplify sound doctrine.
In addition, many Protestant contras state that the teaching of Apostolic Succession did not arise until 170-200 A.D.
In the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, most debates about apostolic succession in the West concerned the Roman Catholic Church's claim that apostolic succession, as traditionally defined, was essential for valid Christian ministry. Protestants denied this and asserted that the traditional definition of apostolic succession was not revealed in the Bible, but was formulated later by the post-apostolic church.
In the 20th century, there has been more contact between Protestants and Christians from Eastern traditions which also claim apostolic succession. While other denominations, such as various branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, use the doctrine of apostolic succession in their apologetics against Protestantism, many Protestants now feel that the claims made by advocates of apostolic succession have been proven false by the fact that multiple churches claim to have apostolic succession, and the traditions and doctrines of these churches are at odds with each other. According to some Protestant apologists, apostolic succession is a failed theological hypothesis and continued debates about it are no more meaningful than debates about whether the Earth is flat. Among the reasons cited by some Protestant apologists for the doctrine's failure:
According to Protestants, it is self-evident from these facts that claims regarding the necessity of apostolic succession to preserve Christian orthodoxy are false. Continued debates regarding the doctrine would therefore be meaningless, because of the doctrine's failure as historical fact.
Protestants also criticize these churches for being linked to particular nations or ethnic groups. Most apostolic churches are explicitly ethnic or nationalistic in character, and their institutions' names reflect this. The Roman Catholic Church is headquartered in Italy, dominant in southwestern European nations or their former colonies, and most Popes have historically been Italians. Other churches also note their nationalistic scope in their names - some examples include the Russian Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church. While some of these churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have made substantial missionary efforts beyond their original countries, their entrenched traditions and terminology make it difficult for these churches to be truly universal in scope, which suggests that none of the apostolic churches are truly "catholic" or "universal" like they claim.
The above contra position clearly rejects Apostolic Succession as traditionally understood (see above "The Traditional Doctrine"). Yet the contra position goes on to articulate an entirely new and completely different definition of Apostolic Succession, one that references loyalty to the teaching of the apostles. Thus "succession" would not in any way refer to which person will next occupy a leadership position in the church and its theological character, but instead refer to the theological understanding of the church based on its teachings. Of course, each church freely defines or redefines for itself its own understanding of any theological term it uses; in which case, confusion may result if it is not remembered that the same word or phrase may mean something entirely different.
Disagreement is common among the various Protestant reform churches as to the interpreted content of the Christian teaching that commands loyalty. Disagreement also can result among traditionalists as to the identity of bishops under Apostolic Succession, but this rarely happens. However, traditionalist Apostolic Succession does result in an ecclesiastical structure that provides the medium for settling many difficult matters regarding the interpreted content of Christian doctrine or teaching.
Those traditionalists who hold to the importance of episcopal apostolic succession may counter the contra paragraphs above by appealing to the New Testament. These Scriptures imply a personal apostolic succession (e.g., from Paul to Timothy and Titus). Traditionalists say that in the New Testament Jesus gave the Apostles authority to lead the Church as they deemed proper under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Traditionalists may appeal as well to other documents of the very early Church, especially the Epistle of St. Clement to the Church at Corinth, written circa 96 AD. In it, Clement defends the authority and prerogatives of a group of "elders" or "bishops" in the Corinthian Church which had, apparently, been deposed and replaced by the congregation on its own initiative. In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles both appointed bishops as successors and had directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way.
Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church, from which, as ecclesiastical organizations, the Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, as well Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian, Churches have all directly descended.
One reason often given for traditional Apostolic Succession is the need for institutional continuity so that Christian doctrine, not only the written texts (pre-Gutenberg (1397-1468) an important consideration) but also their proper orthodox interpretation, could be better maintained. Many Protestants contra to traditionalist Apostolic Succession would not deny the importance of continuity and consistency in the true interpretation of Christian doctrine. At the same time, traditionalist defending Apostolic Succession would agree that ecclesiastics should remain orthodox in their teaching.
It is worth noting that some Protestant charismatic and restorationist churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession. It is frequently the case that the founders or senior leaders of a restorationist church grouping will be referred to as the apostles. Church planting is seen as a key role of these present-day apostles.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--also, sometimes referred to as "Mormons" (more properly, Latter-day Saints)--has a similar, but unique, position in relation to other Christian denominations.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus Christ directs his church at all times through revelation to a prophet of God. However, individuals are entitled to revelation only for that calling over which they have authority. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that everyone is entitled to revelation concerning themselves; a head of household is entitled to revelation for his or her family; a bishop has the authority to receive revelation concerning the congregation over which he presides (a ward). Only ordained apostles have the authority from the Lord to receive revelation for doctrine for the entire church. An example of what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls church-wide apostolic revelation can be found in where Peter had prayed and received revelation from God that the gospel could now go forward to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Hence, the scripture where Christ says "upon this rock I will build my church" is interpreted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a reference to revelation:
"When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that when Christ asked his disciples who they think he is, Peter had the right answer because he prayed and received revelation: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." They believe that when Christ said "upon this rock I will build my church", the rock of which he was speaking was revelation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that certain aspects of the church will change over time. For example, at one time Christ said not to preach to the Gentiles, and later Peter was given a revelation when it was time to start. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the need for constant ongoing revelation is critical to conduct the affairs of the church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Christ chose apostles and gave them the authority to receive revelation for the church by the laying on of hands. It further teaches that the apostles passed this authority onto others by choosing and ordaining new apostles by the laying on of hands (such as Paul and Matthias). Those individuals then had the appropriate authority to receive revelation for and officiate over the church in that office at that time:
"And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that an apostasy occurred, where the apostolic authority was taken from the earth at some time after the original apostles. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refers to the resultant loss of revelation and falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ as the Great Apostasy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that this was predicted when Amos said that there would be a "famine of hearing the words of the Lord" in , and by Paul when he was talking about the second coming "that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first" in .
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that the authority from God needed to be restored to the earth, which took place when God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith, Jr. near Palmyra, New York in 1820 and called Smith as a prophet to restore Christ's church to the earth with correct doctrines and practices.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that near the time that Smith formally organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, the apostles Peter, James and John appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, laid their hands on Smith and Cowdry and restored to them the apostolic authority to govern the church., and that Smith was visited by other heavenly messengers at different times, each one conferring upon him the particular authority or keys for which they had stewardship. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood to Smith and Cowdry, Peter James and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood to them, with other heavenly messengers such as Moses and Elijah restoring to them the keys to the gathering of Israel and the sealing power of Elijah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Smith was given the authority like the apostles of old, to confer to others specific priesthood authority by the laying on of hands. It further believes that all of the various keys of this authority have been and are passed on to worthy, male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints according to their particular offices. In this way, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims that apostolic authority was restored to the earth through the original twelve apostles and apostolic succession continues today through the ordination of new apostles as the older apostles pass away.
It may also be noted that, since it is the gates of Hades which are mentioned (rather than the Church's or Heaven's), the passage may suggest that "Hades" is on the defensive, fighting a losing battle against the Church's inroads.