How do protestants respond to apostolic succession(the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles) ?

Pope Clement I

“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]).


“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord” (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]).


“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughouart the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).


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    These three quotations do not prove (or even attempt to prove) the theory of so-called 'apostolic succession' (which is not defined in the question). So, thus far, I cannot see any response being possible. Some more detail would be useful, I feel.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26, 2022 at 18:11
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    An old scholarly discussion of this topic is here: archive.org/details/prelaticaldoctri00smyt. The title is: The prelatical doctrine of apostolical succession examined, and the Protestant ministry defended against the assumptions of popery and high-churchism, in a series of lectures Jul 26, 2022 at 20:18
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    @NigelJ, more clarified I think.
    – Wenura
    Jul 27, 2022 at 2:12

3 Answers 3


There is a problem with the word 'bishop' as used in the question. The New Testament uses that word, episkopos (which can also be translated as 'overseer') on three occasions when speaking of men appointed as spiritual servants of local congregations. On another occasion, it speaks of people as 'straying sheep' who had "returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" - Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:25). A properly appointed bishop or overseer could be said to be an under-shepherd of a congregation.

However, in that first century, there was no man appointed to be a Bishop in the sense used today. There was no individual supervising a number of congregations, which already had other men serving them. That development came later. When the N.T. speaks of bishops (or, overseers) it refers to an office of spiritual responsibility, as when Peter was explaining what had to be done after Judas Iscariot had hanged himself:

"For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and his bishoprick (episkope) let another take." (Acts 1:20) Everybody knows that Judas Iscariot had never been appointed by Christ to be in charge of a number of congregations, any more than had the other apostles. This is where a distinction needs to be seen between the unique role of the apostles, and that of innumerable bishops. The apostle Paul stood in the stead of Judas Iscariot.

Now, it is true that Paul traveled around a good number of congregations (some of which he established) writing to them, helping them appoint men who would be based there (for he was an itinerant preacher commissioned to spread the gospel mainly among the Gentiles.) He would make return visits to see how they were getting on. Yet not all the apostles did that. He instructed Timothy in how to select men who could be appointed as bishops. This meant that when the apostles began to die off, the burgeoning congregations were not in a mess for lack of apostolic leadership. The men appointed as bishops knew the apostolic teaching and were to be faithful in passing that on to the congregations they were in. By the end of the first century, none of them would be known to the apostles; only the very elderly John remained, and he had been banished to the isle of Patmos.

There is not a word in the N.T. about any need to have direct links from newly appointed bishops to any of the 12 apostles. All the counsel is for them to "contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (by Jesus and the 12 faithful apostles). Jude vs. 3

It is the continuous line of apostolic teaching that matters, not a direct line (as in a genealogical line of descent in families) from Jesus and the 12 apostles to all bishops thereafter.

However, in Protestantism there are denominations that do have one Bishop overseeing a large number of congregations, with all those appointed in them answerable to that one. Such a system is eschewed by Baptists and those of the Reformed Presbyterian group.

Protestants such as those know that in the book of the Revelation the 12 apostles of the Lamb remain unique, for they form the 12 foundations of the symbolic heavenly Jerusalem (21:14). All those appointed to be bishops (or, overseers) and deacons have to meet strict qualifications as stated in the N.T. and they are to be humble servants of the congregation they are appointed to serve. They are not in a lower position to another person who is viewed as their 'spiritual superior'. They are answerable to Christ, the Head of his Church.

So, that is the problem with the question, that I mentioned at the start. When you say "apostolic succession (the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles)", that is not how Protestants view the matter of bishops. They do not see any need to have an unbroken 'line' going all the way back to the 12 apostles; they maintain that all who are appointed as bishops and deacons in individual congregations must faithfully pass on the apostolic teaching, which we have in all of the N.T. Everything they do and teach must measure up to the scriptures (for the apostolic N.T. teaching had its foundation in the O.T.).

  • "The apostle Paul stood in the stead of Judas Iscariot." That's not what the chapter you cited says just a few verses later. Matthias was ordained as an apostle to replace Judas. This was quite some time before Paul's conversion, and of the specifics of his actual calling as an apostle we know nothing at all.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jul 30, 2022 at 21:34
  • @Mason Wheeler. Okay - eventually. But we do know about his calling.
    – Anne
    Jul 31, 2022 at 13:46

The primary scripture that I have seen presented in favor of the idea of apostolic succession - especially with regards Peter and the Papacy - is this passage:

Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[a] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[b] will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[c] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[d] loosed in heaven.”

Certainly a powerful passage on its own. However, Peter's own relevant powerful interpretation and application of this idea go ignored!

1 Peter 2:4-8 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”[b]

7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”[c]

8 and,

“A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”[d]

They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

So on the one hand, yes Peter is a stone upon which the church is built. On the other hand, Peter does not think himself the Corner Stone (clearly Christ). His being a stone upon which the church is built is not a unique designation. Rather, he speaks of this as a general attribute of the entire body of Christ - we are all living stones, and we are brought together to compose the church.

If it is a question of the validity of churches/Christians who don't try to draw their authority via some claim of succession back to the early church - I would direct you to this passage:

Mark 9:38-41 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

We see here the disciples being concerned about the validity of someone going forth and doing miracles in Jesus' name. They even told him to stop - this man wasn't one of them and they had not authorized him to do any such thing. They felt like they had some kind of ownership over the ministry.

But Jesus rebuked his disciples and told them not to stop the man from doing good in his name. That man was not an enemy of the ministry - but a fellow minister. Jesus and his ministry were not the property of the disciples back then - and they most certainly aren't the property of those who claimed to succeed the disciples and apostles today.


Protestants would answer that apostolic succession does not mean a denomination has some sort of linkage or appointments from today backward to one of the apostles. Apostolic succession is not some continuous line of Person X to Person W to Person V and so forth back to Person A.

The Catholic Church uses this lineage, like a blood line of yore, to prove its apostolic succession.

The principle underlying the Roman claim is contained in the idea of succession. "To succeed" is to be the successor of, especially to be the heir of, or to occupy an official position just after, ... Apostolic Succession NewAdvent

Instead, Protestants would answer that apostolic succession is the biblical concept that a person is teaching what the apostles taught, instructing the same as apostles. Here is Paul:

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. 2 Tim 2:2

To take this a step further, very early on, anyone could know that those at Rome who claimed to teach the same, that is, claimed apostolic succession, were off base.

  1. But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles;2925 any one may know also from the fact, that concerning the celebration of Easter, and concerning many other sacraments of divine matters, he may see that there are some diversities among them, and that all things are not observed among them alike, which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names.2926 And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church, such as Stephen has now dared to make;2927 breaking the peace against you, which his predecessors have always kept with you in mutual love and honour, even herein defaming Peter and Paul the blessed apostles,2928 as if the very men delivered this who in their epistles execrated heretics, and warned us to avoid them. Whence it appears that this tradition is of men which maintains heretics, and asserts that they have baptism, which belongs to the Church alone. Firmillian to Cyprian re Heretical Baptisms

Pope Stephen had departed from "teach the same". Firmillian and anyone else knew this. It had begun within 100 years of Christ's ascension regarding Easter and other sacraments. Rome had departed. As such, Firmillian and others had apostolic succession, not Rome.

Again, as Paul instructed us, saying:

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; 1 Tim 1:12

God is the one who puts faithful people into the ministry of grace.

Apostolic succession is simple enough. Teach the same as apostles and you have apostolic succession.

PS A comment suggested that I had changed the definition of "apostolic succession" from the Pauline "teach the same" to some sort of mystical bloodline.

There are numerous problems with the view of a mystical bloodline from bishop to bishop.

The Orthodox Church claims apostolic succession as does the Catholic Church. Obviously, they have departed from the Pauline "teach the same" to simply claim a mystical bloodline of bishop to bishop who may teach anything they want.

Such was the Firmilian and Cyprian claim against the Catholic (and at the time Orthodox) successors. They were not teaching what was handed down. Anyone may know.

Also, Paul tells us what is required of a successor. It wasn't some mystical appointment, but rather faithful men who would teach the same and hand down that teaching to faithful men who teach the same.

Irenaeus understood.

  1. Such, then, is their [the heretics] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; AH Book 1 8

Prophets, Lord, apostles to faithful men who would teach the same.

We are warned to watch of our own selves men from ourselves who teach other than what was handed down from the beginning. (emphasis mine)

Then, referring to the evil teachers who should arise, he [Paul] said: “I know that after my departure shall grievous wolves come to you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” AH III XIV

Apostolic succession was and remains "teach the same". To paraphrase Jude's "contend for the faith once delivered", Irenaeus says this.

And undoubtedly the preaching of the Church is true and stedfast,4620 in which one and the same way of salvation is shown throughout the whole world. AH Book V XX

All additions and subtractions from the faith once delivered that happen because of appointed men in history are a departure from apostolic succession of original faithful men.

PPS Let's take a closer look at the OP's quotes to see what is actually being said. As we do, keep in mind that neither Cyprian, Firmillian, or those like Polycarp, Polycrates, Melito, the Orthodox Church, and others gave zero credence to the false idea that "apostolic succession" meant anything like a bishop is valid simply because he can trace a mystical bloodline back to an apostle. What mattered to all of them to have apostolic succession is faithful men who taught the same as apostle from the Bible to today. AS is "teach the same".


  1. Hegesippus in the five books of Memoirs1227 which have come down to us has left a most complete record of his own views. In them he states that on a journey to Rome he met a great many bishops, and that he received the same doctrine from all.

Eusebius states the same definition of AS. Hegesippus met bishops. So? The key fact is they taught the same doctrine as apostles. Again, this follows the Pauline "teach the same". Your pedigree matters not.

For there is no respect of persons with God. Rom 2:11

Let's turn to Clement's letter in which he says this.

It is right and holy therefore, men and brethren, rather to obey God than to follow those who, through pride and sedition, have become the leaders of a detestable emulation. Chapter XIV

This is what Peter said too.

Finally, let's turn again to Irenaeus to see his definition of apostolic succession. It is the same as all the others; that is, teach the same.

  1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. AH 3:3:1

Irenaeus does not say, listen to the bishops because they were appointed by other bishops. No, the key is the fact that certain bishops were teaching the same as the apostles. Obviously, any bishop can claim to be a bishop appointed by a bishop blah blah, but apostolic bishops are those who do not veer away, invent doctrine, and add or subtract, rather apostolic bishops are those who teach the same faith once delivered.

As I said before, apostolic succession regardless of your denomination means the same for 2,000 years. Teach the same as apostles and you have apostolic succession.

Obey God. Not a so-called line of appointed men.

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    "Protestants would answer that apostolic succession does not mean a denomination has some sort of linkage or appointments from today backward to one of the apostles. Apostolic succession is not some continuous line of Person X to Person W to Person V and so forth back to Person A." But that's explicitly what these writers are referring to. They list the bishops and tell heretics 'I don't see you anywhere in this list.' .... you are just redefining apostolic succession, not responding to the definition of the words meant by the question. Jul 31, 2022 at 15:17
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    @SolaGratia I'll add a postscript, but basically it was the Catholic Church that changed the definition from the Pauline "teach the same" to a mystical bloodline.
    – SLM
    Jul 31, 2022 at 16:49
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    I meant you aren't actually answering the concept in the question (doesn't matter if they rightly or wrongly label it some word you've already got a defintion for), but disagreeing with the word used to describe it and then proceeding to flesh out a case for another concept. Also, apostolic succession as used by the Church is not an appeal to "mystical" or "bloodline" but the opposite, a non-bloodline, namely bishops ordained ultimately by an apostle, which is an unbroken line of orthodoxy which proves the heresies new or heterodox via their not being supported by these bishops. Jul 31, 2022 at 17:06
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    @SolaGratia as mentioned in the PS, the problem of defining "apostolic succession" as a succession of men is you now have at least two Churches who claim "apostolic succession" but who do not teach the same. Who cares? So, I'll stick to the biblical and very early definition of "teach the same" as the definition of "apostolic succession". IOW, the burden is on you to show how at least two Churches with your definition of bishop-to-bishop means anything more than a mystical "bloodline" permitting any teaching. That is what the OP is about. AS is not teach whatever because you got a bishop
    – SLM
    Jul 31, 2022 at 17:31
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    My point is anything which follows "the problem of defining "apostolic succession" as...." is by definition not an answer to the question asked. It doesn't matter if you would call this succession spoken of by the Fathers something other than "apostolic succession" (even though that's explicitlly how they describe it verbatim), it just matters "how Protestants respond" to this phenomena. Again, what that term means in your theology is distinct to the question asked here. That was my only point—your definition is entirely irrelevant. Jul 31, 2022 at 17:37

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