Apostolic succession, in Christianity, the teaching that bishops represent a direct, uninterrupted line of continuity from the Apostles of Jesus Christ. According to this teaching, bishops possess certain special powers handed down to them from the Apostles; these consist primarily of the right to confirm church members, to ordain priests, to consecrate other bishops, and to rule over the clergy and church members in their diocese (an area made up of several congregations).(source).

Apostolic Succession means that the current ministers of the church derive their authority by unbroken succession from the apostles. Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans accept this concept but it is denied by most Protestants.

What is the Biblical basis against Apostolic Succession?

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    I think you might have to explain what you mean by against apostolic succession. Do you mean that the current Catholic/Orthodox ministry doesn't have an unbroken line back to the Apostles? Or do you mean that an unbroken line isn't necessary for the church to have authority? Commented Jul 3, 2020 at 21:09
  • @DC, yes. That exactly is what i want to ask. Thank u
    – R. Brown
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 7:16
  • Which do you mean? Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 21:24

4 Answers 4


Protestants are not generally against the idea of certain individuals having been called and gifted by God to exercise authority over a local assembly of believers, nor a hierarchy within that assembly, nor even a limited regional hierarchy within a denomination. If this authority were what the idea of apostolic succession detailed there would be little difficulty. It is the exercise of strong regional and ultimately global authority, which seems to be the ultimate outcome of apostolic succession as practiced by some traditions, that alarms most protestants.

Perhaps the biggest biblical basis against the passing of the apostolic office at a global level is the lack of biblical support for the notion. There is clear and plenteous basis for the notion of guarding and passing on the apostolic message, which is the gospel of God, but the office of apostle is clearly a gifting of God, clearly held by multiple men at the same time and it is clearly not necessary for the succession to remain unbroken for the message to remain, for it is God who protects both his truth and his elect.

In both 1 Timothy and Titus we are given fairly specific lists of the attributes that Paul wants Timothy and Titus to look for in appointing overseers of churches. Neither list indicates anything sounding like the passing of a mantle of apostolic authority. In each list the qualifications appear as blameless character, good report, etc. In fact, what is portrayed is the time tested fruit of the spirit in the lives of these men which qualify them as elders/bishops/overseers.

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. - 1 Timothy 3:2-7

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. - Titus 1:5-9

Just as Timothy was charged by Paul to exhort, rebuke, teach, and correct so Titus was commanded by Paul to do so with all authority. Both of these men were to teach what they had seen and heard from Paul and that which was in accord with the Scriptures with the faith and love of Christ by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. - 2 Timothy 1:13-14

There is nothing in the Scripture that indicates some specialized process of seminary training (not that education is bad) that qualifies a person for leadership of a church. Apostles, pastors, teachers, etc are called and gifted by God through the Holy Spirit which is given by and upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Men are then recognized within a particular body of believers for lives which demonstrate the truth they espouse and those men are set apart for a particular ministry.

The resistance to the kind of Apostolic Succession which leads to a consolidation of authority in one man was nothing newly begun in the Protestant Reformation. Many of the Church Fathers wrote as early as the 3rd Century in opposition to the idea of the passing of the primacy of Peter; notably Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian. They considered an equality and unity of Bishops wherein each Bishop in the church in each city sat in 'Peter's chair": Whomever sat in the 'chair' of the See in Rome held authority only over the Church in Rome rather than everywhere and whomever confessed Peter's confession of "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God" was, by virtue of that confession, both 'rock' and 'key holder'.

There is one God, one faith, one baptism, and one spirit and if there is any connecting principle flowing from one Church leader to the next it is the very same principle which unites all those who are born again by the Grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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    Apostolic succession is not about education and seminaries. It is about the apostles laying hands on specific people to grant them authority in their name, and then those people laying hands on others to grant them authority in turn. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 2:48
  • @DJClayworth Does it appear that I have emphasized theological education? I will soften that. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 11:16

Firstly, lets acknowledge that a lot of Protestants do practice apostolic succession, including the Anglicans, which is how some of their priests are able to be accepted as Catholic Clergy, but also Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and more. But many Protestants, including people who belong to such denominations, would say that while it is helpful for the elders and ministers of a church to be ordained by the previous generation of elders and ministers, it would not be strictly necessary for a healthy church, if for some reason that could not happen.

But there are some Protestants who entirely do away with the idea. Some of these are the churches with a Congregationalist polity, which includes the churches with Congregationalist in their name, but also many Baptist and other churches. In the Congregationalist model it is the congregation who appoint and ordain their ministers, not other ministers.

So what sort of Biblical Basis would Congregationalists see for their polity? Jonathan Leeman, writing at 9Marks, explains that they believe that the authority of the Apostles is now vested in the whole church. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says that he gives Peter the "keys of the kingdom" and the authority that "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." But in Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus's teachings on church discipline and excommunication are seen to be concerned with what ordinary Christians can do, not what church leaders should do, and he even repeats the statement about binding and loosing. No church leaders or elders are explicitly mentioned in Matthew 18:15-20, instead faithful Christians are to take those who need church discipline first to a few other faithful witnesses, and finally to the whole church. Similarly 1 Corinthians 5 also seems to put the responsibility to deal with unrepentant church members on the church, not the church leaders/elders. Larry Oats gives a substantial list of passages in which the whole local church congregation is involved with many expressions of church authority: appointing deacons (Acts 6:2-5); sending and receiving the reports of missionaries (Acts 11:22, 13:1-3, 14:27, 15:4); making important decisions at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:22-25); discipline (Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:12, 2 Cor 2:6, 2 Thess 3:14); and testing the spirits (1 John 4:1).

In a booklet by Elizabeth Mauro the (US) National Association of Congregational Christian Churches teach a congregationalism based on two doctrines: the Covenant of Grace that unites people to God and to each other, and the Priesthood of all Believers which means that no one comes between a believer and God. This Priesthood of all Believers means that the ministry of the Church is shared by all, so that individual members have the right and responsibility in the decision-making process of the church, with all member's votes being counted equal. It is up to each Congregationalist church to determine for itself what role and what authority their ministers will possess. The booklet does not have many verse references at all, but the doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers is well known and well supported by scripture, though many other Christians would disagree with the implications the Congregationalists draw from it. In another NACCC pamphlet by Harry Butman the key Biblical support for Congregationalism is said to be Matthew 18:18-20. These verses are seen as teaching that God has given local churches everything necessary to function effectively, and that from this completeness comes the spiritual autonomy of each local church.

  • Interesting also that, in Revelation, Jesus praises and/or chastises the leader or messenger of each local Church rather than a regional or universal ruler. Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 11:37
  • Anglican orders are not recognized by the Catholic Church. Anglican priests are generally re-ordained as Catholic priests unless they can prove their apostolic succession is in tact, which very few can verify.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 22:51
  • @Ken Huh, I had heard their ordinations were recognised, but I guess that could be just in theory.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 23:04

You are describing a system in which authority is transferred from person to person. In the Bible, authority comes from God. All those that are faithful in submitting to God's will have authority to represent Him to some degree, although I do believe that God also puts people into positions. But just because, for example, Nebuchadnezzar was put into a position by God, doesn't mean Nebuchadnezzar was cooperating with God, which is the prerequisite for being anointed (Acts 5:32).

The Holy Spirit can grant authority to someone through a human, but it's the Holy Spirit that is the one granting the authority, not the person. People can fall out of ministerial (but not salvific) favor with the Holy Spirit if they fail to cooperate with Him.

The Apostles were apostles because of the level at which they were influenced by God Himself on a daily basis for 3 years. Authority in the church comes from God Himself, and those that are considered leaders should be so because of their contact with God Himself, whether through the Son or the Holy Spirit. We can experience the Holy Spirit through people, but some people who were once anointed can fall out of that anointing through their disobedience.

Obedience is the primary cause of ongoing anointing. This is how I see Acts 5:32. People can experience the Holy Spirit through their leaders, but if they don't continue on in obedience then they will lose contact with that anointing and the ability to successfully anoint others.

So, while, ideally, apostolic succession is possible, it is far from a guarantee if you are relying on who someone was anointed by 50 years ago, because the amount of opportunity for disobedience in a 50 year period is high.

The Bible says that those that are faithful in small will be given much. In the end, laying on of hands can provide genuine power, but if that power is not demonstrated to be in use in someone's life through a faithfulness in obedience to God and practicing all that the Bible commands, a person is not qualified for promotion.

Acts 5:32 says, among other things, that God gives the Holy Spirit to those that obey Him. The way I have been taught and the way I understand this is that, while all believers have been born again, not all believers are walking in unison with the Holy Spirit. To the degree that we are living in accordance with our freedom from sin, as well as obeying everything we hear from the Holy Spirit and are practicing everything we see in scripture, is the degree to which we are walking in unison with the Holy Spirit.

All believers have access to such freedom, but not all of us are accessing it, often times out of ignorance that such a freedom is available to us.

I have heard multiple Bible teachers say, "It's not about how much of the Holy Spirit you have, but how much of you the Holy Spirit has". I heard this, among others at a church that describes themselves as "Evangelical in belief and Pentecostal in practice".

I believe in the power of an anointed person laying hands on. I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit at the laying on of hands of particular ministers that are anointed. I believe they are anointed, not because of their position, but because of their prayer life and life of obedience to God.

However, at times, I walked away from that nearness to God and wandered back into a lack of anointing in my own life. They gave me a boost, but I didn't stay living in accordance with that boost for the rest of my life (Luke 8:13).

  • Hello and welcome to the site! This is an interesting answer, but it sounds close to Donatism. If an anointing isn't valid because of the anointer's hidden sin, would you say the same about baptism? And can you please edit this to explain which denominations/churches teach this?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 23:01
  • Hi @curiousdannii! I would not at all say that the same thing applies to baptism. Baptism is a sacrament that can be performed on sinful people in recognition of their faith in Christ and their transition from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity that cannot cooperate with sin at all (Galatians 5:17). Being born of the Spirit is a one time action of the Holy Spirit that does not guarantee comprehensive future cooperation with the Spirit, thus Paul's admonition to believers to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 1:35
  • I am using the word "anointing" and "Holy Spirit" basically interchangeably because of, for example, Isaiah 61:1. Human positions and cooperation with the Holy Spirit do not always go hand in hand. I'd say it's basically a humanist belief to assume they do. Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 1:38
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    My view is that baptism is a separate issue. I believe that someone can baptize people while living in sin (although it's not ideal for other aspects of Church life) and actually be obeying Jesus' words in Matthew 28 by doing so if they are baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit doesn't respect people, per se (although I believe He treasures people and respects their God given freedom). The Holy Spirit respects obedience to Himself. Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 2:17
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    Only God can say. God determines where the river of the Holy Spirit flows. David got up out of his sin and continued to obey God. So did Sampson. God knows who He can rely on to obey Him at any given moment. I believe in residual obedience. It is not ALL lost by a single moment of disobedience any more than becoming truly powerful can happen in a single moment of obedience. With respect to Donatism: in my life I experienced being anointed by a man. That man, years later, walked away from God. It doesn't change that He was obeying God at the time I was anointed by Him. Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 2:33

Perhaps the most relevant portion of the Wiki on apostolic succession is this:

Apostolicity as doctrinal and related continuity Some Protestant denominations, not including Scandinavian Lutherans, Anglicans and Moravians, deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was that, having been chosen directly by Jesus as witnesses of his resurrection, they were to be the "special instruments of the Holy Spirit in founding and building up the Church".[45] Anglican theologian E. A. Litton argues that the Church is "built upon 'the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles' (Ephes. ii. 20), but a foundation does not repeat itself"; therefore he says that when the apostles died, they were replaced by their writings.[45] To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is to many Protestants the only meaningful "continuity". The most meaningful apostolic succession for them, then, is a "faithful succession" of apostolic teaching.

Max Thurian, before his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1988, described the classic Reformed/Presbyterian concept of apostolic succession in the following terms. "The Christian ministry is not derived from the people but from the pastors; a scriptural ordinance provides for this ministry being renewed by the ordination of a presbyter by presbyters; this ordinance originates with the apostles, who were themselves presbyters, and through them it goes back to Christ as its source.".[46] Then he continued:

"it does not guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. A purely historical or mechanical succession of ministers, bishops or pastors would not mean ipso facto true apostolic succession in the church, Reformed tradition, following authentic Catholic tradition, distinguishes four realities which make up the true apostolic succession, symbolized, but not absolutely guaranteed, by ministerial succession."[47] At the same time Thurian argued that the realities form a "composite faithfulness" and are (i) "perseverance in the apostolic doctrine"; (ii) "the will to proclaim God's word"; (iii) "communion in the fundamental continuity of the Church, the Body of Christ, the faithful celebration of Baptism and the Eucharist"; (iv) "succession in the laying on of hands, the sign of ministerial continuity".[47] According to Walter Kasper, the Reformed-Catholic dialogue came to belief that there is an apostolic succession which is important to the life of the Church, though both sides distinguish the meaning of that succession. Besides, the dialogue states that apostolic succession "consists at least in continuity of apostolic doctrine, but this is not in opposition to succession through continuity of ordained ministry" (Ref I, 100).[48]:85 While the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue distinguishes between apostolic succession in faith (in substantive meaning) and apostolic succession as ministerial succession of bishops; agreed that "succession in the sense of the succession of ministers must be seen within the succession of the whole church in the apostolic faith" (Ministry, 61; cf. Malta, 48).[48]:84

Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church asserts that apostolic succession means something more than just a transmission of authorities; it witnesses to the apostolic faith from the same apostolic faith, and in communion with other Churches (attached to the apostolic communion). Apostolic tradition deals with the community, not only an ordained bishop as an isolated person. Since the bishop, once ordained, becomes the guarantor of apostolicity and successor of the apostles; he joins together all the bishops, thus maintaining episkope of the local Churches derived from the college of the apostles.[6]

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostolic_succession

Some relevant scriptural data to consider:

  • Paul claimed apostolic authority independent of recognition by the Twelve before him:

Gal 1:12 NLT - I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.

  • the Catholic claim that Peter started the Roman Church is not supported by Paul's epistle to the Romans

In the epistle Paul mentions and/or sends greetings to some 28 people by name and yet does not mention or greet Peter or Linus! Nor does he make any mention of the office of "Pope". Odd indeed if Peter or Linus were leading the assembly there! Nor does he mention anyone with the role of "Pope" if there were such a role there. Nor does he make any mention of "bishops"/overseers in relation to Rome.

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