The following is an excerpt from Archbishop Thomas Henry Jr.'s book, 'Is Apostolic Succession Biblical?', published in 2015 and available on Amazon.com by clicking here. This excerpt details a simple explanation on the history of apostolic succession as a practice within the Church of Jesus Christ. For further, detailed information on apostolic succession and its biblical precedence, please purchase the book, 'Is Apostolic Succession Biblical?', available by link above.
Where do we begin when we deal with this topic of apostolic succession? This topic is not as easy to deal with as some make it out to be. Some who address the topic do not deal with it correctly. There are several definitions out there on this subject, but as with anything biblical—we must go to the root of the matter so that we can better understand it. So, where did it all begin? Apostolic succession?
It all had to do with heresy and false teachers. They were just as common place then as they are now. To complicate matters even more, they were not giving out paperwork or documenting ordinations then as they do now.
So there needed to be a solution that identified who were authentic and who was not. This logic led to what became known as "apostolic succession" in the Catholic Church. It had a very different meaning then than it has now. The definition has grown or been added to, to give us our modern definition of apostolic succession.
Let us first establish that this doctrine was not invented by the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Catholic Church. Neither of those two churches existed at that time. The Church was called Catholic at this time. There is no adjective in front of the word, but Holy.
This church was first called Catholic by St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (107 AD) when he wrote: "Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church" (to the Smyrnaeans 8:2). By the second century, this name "Catholic" which means universal had become the name of the church that Christ had established.
We find St. Polycarp at the time of his death in 155 AD is quoted saying in his final prayers before giving up his life for Christ the following, "remembered all who had met him at any time, both small and great, both those with and those without renown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world."
So the Apostolic Church and the emerging post-Apostolic Church of the second century knew of a church that was called The Holy Catholic Church. This church was called catholic because she was 1. universal; and 2. she was for everyone who would call on the name of the Lord for salvation, and 3. she possess the means of such a salvation.
Clement tells us that the apostles appointed bishops and deacons to the work they had established. "And thus the preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwords believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons." Note he does not say that the bishops were committed to the apostles "full authority" because he tells us in the same breath ordination was not a "new" practice.
The same thought is found in Scripture when it tells us God "set" ministries in the Church through His apostles—1 Corinthians 12:28, Acts 6:1-6; 13:1-3.
But we do see two things in the writing of Clement as it relates to the matter at hand: one element present is an emphasis on the human act of appointing church officials while the other element is that the Spirit is actively selecting individuals for church governance, thus the church organization itself would be governed by God.
Clement tells us in his work that those called to be bishops in the Church were appointed and approved to continue the ministries of the apostles after they move on or after their deaths. His language in his letter, however, does not speak to the issue at hand of whether successive bishops enjoyed full apostolic authority as successors by right; or that the authority once enjoyed by those early apostles was apostles alone; or that said authority rested in the Church.
What is known among us as apostolic succession is the preservation of authoritative interpretation of Scripture and Tradition in Christianity, residing in the unbroken lineage of bishops or presbyters to the Apostles of the New Testament. This definition is what many of our Ancient Church brethren cling to as they deal with those outside of their fold. This definition evolves around the word authority.
The early Fathers of the Church used this definition to combat the heresy they dealt with in their day and age. So early on the doctrine of apostolic succession was about combating heresy and preserving the true and orthodox faith of the Church as founded and taught by the apostles of Christ.
So the Church also around the early second century began to see itself as being orthodox, because she is said to have preserved the right and correct teachings and practices of the early Apostolic Church.
"Have you an apostolic succession? Unfold the line of your bishops." - Tertullian, third century AD.
It is in this light, that we examine a man by the name of Tertullian and what he said on apostolic succession. For him, a succession of bishops wasn't enough without the accompanying apostolic doctrine, and agreement with the apostolic faith is sufficient for those who don't have a succession of bishops.
It must be noted at this point succession still has nothing to do with having the power to perform the sacraments. It centered on the correct teaching and practices in the Church.
In his work (Prescriptions against Heretics), Tertullian make it clear he believes that churches established by the apostles of Christ were the standard by which sound doctrine should be determined. However, he also maintained that sound teaching ultimately determined whether a church was indeed "apostolic". He wrote, "Though they cannot produce an apostle for their founder, still, if they unite in holding the same faith, they are equally reckoned apostolic because of the kinship of their teachings......"
The Encyclopedia Britannica Online (copyright 2015) gives the following definition for apostolic succession; it says, "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 primarily consist of the right to confirm church members, to ordain priests, to consecrate other bishops, and to rule over clergy and church members in their diocese (an area made up of several congregations)."
This is the modern definition that is currently used in its various incarnations in the ancient churches today that subscribe to apostolic succession. This definition is different from the one that is being posited by many Pentecostals today. Their definition today basically focuses on "tactile" succession or tracing succession by the hands from cleric to cleric back to the apostles, which is different from Rome and Orthodoxy's definition of apostolic succession.
It should be noted here that just laying hands does not give you apostolic succession. You may have succession, but you do not have apostolic succession. To have apostolic succession you need to have hands laid on you, and you must maintain the faith of the church you are claiming apostolic succession from.
Keep in mind that apostolic succession started out to protect the Orthodox faith and practice of the Church, and to identify those teachers (bishops) who had such a faith.