Is apostolic succession biblical?Question: "Is apostolic succession biblical?"
Answer: The doctrine of apostolic succession is the belief that the 12 apostles passed on their authority to successors, who then passed the apostolic authority on to their successors, continuing throughout the centuries, even unto today. The Roman Catholic Church sees Peter as the leader of the apostles, with the greatest authority, and therefore his successors carry on the greatest authority. The Roman Catholic Church combines this belief with the concept that Peter later became the first bishop of Rome, and that the Roman bishops that followed Peter were accepted by the early church as the central authority among all of the churches. Apostolic succession, combined with Peter’s supremacy among the apostles, results in the Roman bishop being the supreme authority of the Catholic Church – the Pope.
However, nowhere in Scripture did Jesus, the apostles, or any other New Testament writer set forth the idea of “apostolic succession.” Further, neither is Peter presented as “supreme” over the other apostles. The apostle Paul, in fact, rebukes Peter when Peter was leading others astray (Galatians 2:11-14). Yes, the apostle Peter had a prominent role. Yes, perhaps the apostle Peter was the leader of the apostles (although the book of Acts records the apostle Paul and Jesus’ brother James as also having prominent leadership roles). Whatever the case, Peter was not the “commander” or supreme authority over the other apostles. Even if apostolic succession could be demonstrated from Scripture, which it cannot, apostolic succession would not result in Peter’s successors being absolutely supreme over the other apostles’ successors.
Catholics point to Matthias being chosen to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle in Acts chapter 1 as an example of apostolic succession. While Matthias did indeed “succeed” Judas as an apostle, this is in no sense an argument for continuing apostolic succession. Matthias being chosen to replace Judas is only an argument for the church replacing ungodly and unfaithful leaders (such as Judas) with godly and faithful leaders (such as Matthias). Nowhere in the New Testament are any of the twelve apostles recorded as passing on their apostolic authority to successors. Nowhere do any of the apostles predict that they will pass on their apostolic authority. No, Jesus ordained the apostles to build the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). What is the foundation of the church that the apostles built? The New Testament – the record of the deeds and teachings of the apostles. The church does not need apostolic successors. The church needs the teachings of the apostles accurately recorded and preserved. And that is exactly what God has provided in His Word (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:2).
In short, apostolic succession is not biblical. The concept of apostolic succession is never found in Scripture. What is found in Scripture is that the true church will teach what the Scriptures teach and will compare all doctrines and practices to Scripture in order to determine what is true and right. The Roman Catholic Church claims that a lack of ongoing apostolic authority results in doctrinal confusion and chaos. It is an unfortunate truth (that the apostles acknowledged) that false teachers would arise (2 Peter 2:1). Admittedly, the lack of “supreme authority” among non-Catholic churches results in many different interpretations of the Bible. However, these differences in interpretation are not the result of Scripture being unclear. Rather, they are the result of even non-Catholic Christians carrying on the Catholic tradition of interpreting Scripture in accordance with their own traditions. If Scripture is studied in its entirety and in its proper context, the truth can be easily determined. Doctrinal differences and denominational conflicts are a result of some Christians refusing to agree with what Scripture says – not a result of there being no “supreme authority” to interpret Scripture.
Alignment with scriptural teaching, not apostolic succession, is the determining factor of the trueness of a church. What is mentioned in Scripture is the idea that the Word of God was to be the guide that the church was to follow (Acts 20:32). It is Scripture that was to be the infallible measuring stick for teaching and practice (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is the Scriptures that teachings are to be compared with (Acts 17:10-12). Apostolic authority was passed on through the writings of the apostles, not through apostolic succession.
Recommended Resources: The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and The Word of God by James McCarthy
Dig into this topic more with Logos Bible Software—get the free version now.
What does the Bible say about the pope / papacy?
Is papal infallibility biblical?
Are the seven Catholic sacraments biblical?
Are Catholic beliefs and practices biblical?
Was Saint Peter the first Pope?
Is apostolic succession biblical?