Apostolic succession means that the Apostles ordained bishops who ordained other bishops and so on. This line of ordination comes down to us through the bishops of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the only Christian church that can trace it’s history back 2000 years. Since the Catholic church can directly trace her history and leaders back to the earliest Christians and the apostles themselves, it is called the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the true church founded by Jesus Christ himself.
Authority of the Apostles
In John 20:21-23, Jesus commissioned his apostles saying: “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” The Greek word here to send means to send with the same authority. So Christ gave his divine authority to the apostles and trained them night and day to take his place and be leaders of the future church. They would teach and preach the Gospel, correct and reprove, do miracles, forgive sins, reconcile people back to God, and make doctrinal decisions (Acts 15:11).
In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gave the apostles the power to bind and loose, which are priestly terms of authority. He gave a special authority to Peter when he gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19). 1 Corinthians 12:28 says that the apostles were first in authority, then prophets, priests, presbyters and teachers, etc. (Also see Eph. 4:11-12).
The apostolic office is foundational to the Church as is the authority Christ endowed his apostles with. In fact, Jesus said in Luke 10:16, “He who listens to you, listens to me and he who rejects you, rejects me and the one who sent me.” In other words, if you listen to the authority of the apostles (the church leadership) then you listen to Christ. If you reject them, you reject Christ and God who sent him.
Consequently, there is no making up your own church, denomination, or sect. There is no blazing your own trail, ordaining yourself, starting your own church and designating yourself as Pastor. If you weren’t ordained through the laying on of hands through a succession that comes from the direct lineage of the apostles, then ya person does not have true authority.
Laying of Hand
In Acts 1:15-26, we see that Judas had committed suicide and needed to be replaced. The apostles chose another bishop to replace him. Acts 1:20 says, “When a habitation goes desolate, meaning when one leaves, let another take his office.”
The word here for office is Bishopric. In fact, that’s how the King James Version renders it. The word office is a form of the Greek word episcopy, referring to what we know as the office of Bishop. So the apostles were bishops and when Judas left, they elected Matthias and laid hands on him to pass on Christ’s authority. From the earliest days of Christianity, we see the apostles passing on that authority.
Even Paul who wasn’t one of the 12 apostles became an apostle through the laying on of hands. In turn, Paul laid hands on other men as well to pass on that authority. In Acts 13:2-3, he is ordained Timothy, who goes and ordains others as well.
Moreover, in Acts 6:6, seven deacons are ordained to the deaconate, and they have the hands laid on them.
Note that the laying on of hands is used to ordain various positions in the Church, but there was no authority without this. in different ways in the Bible. To summarize, throughout the early church the authority that the apostles had was passed on to other bishops and priests and deacons as well. This has come down in one continuous line down through the Catholic bishops, priests in deacons and to today.
The post-apostolic age (period after the apostles died) is very rich in examples of apostolic succession. In fact, the first criterion to judge belonging to the true church was the presence of the three offices (bishop, priest and deacon) that Jesus Christ established and that were passed directly from the apostles. For instance, heretics such as Ponticus or Sabellius claimed that Gnosticism beliefs were as true teachings of Jesus. These were discerned in the early church, based on the fact that no heretic could trace their lineage back or prove apostolic succession for their leaders.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch was a Catholic Bishop in Antioch in the first century. He knew the apostle John. He says: “Take care to do everything in harmony with God, with the presiding Bishop, who is in the place of God, and with the Presbyter who are in the place of the council of the apostles (presbyter being priests) and with the deacons who are most dear to me.”
Irenaeus in the 180 A.D. talks about how Polycarp knew the apostle John and was ordained and instructed by the apostles themselves. He states that Polycarp was not only ordained and instructed by the apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also by the apostles in Asia, appointed Bishop of the church in Smyrna. Irenaeus goes on to say that he knew Polycarp, learned from Polycarp, and became bishop of Lyon.
We see from the very earliest days of the Christian faith that the Bishopric had been passed on from person to another. Everywhere the apostles established churches, they also ordained bishops and other elders (priests) to run those churches and to pass on Christ’s authority. Irenaeus is well known for saying that the early church could enumerate the bishops in his day back to the Apostles.
As another example, Augustine in the fifth century states that he chose to remain Catholic because of the succession of priests and bishops that could be traced back to the time of the apostles and of the sure knowledge that could be traced back to Jesus Christ the Savior.
The full deposit of faith that Jesus delivered to the apostles and the Church was passed on faithfully to other men down through the centuries to our bishops and clergy today. When Martin Luther separated from the Catholic Church, he broke from the body of Christ, lost apostolic succession, and all authority from Christ. All denominations who followed in his footsteps or are offshoots of other offshoots meet the same demise.
Some object stating that some men in the Church have been corrupt and therefore could not be a proper successor. We have to remember that Jesus said there would be evil people in the Church but that he would lead and guide the church into all truth, not some truth, all truth (Jn 16) through the Holy Spirit. Jesus also said that he would guide and be with his church until the end of time (Mt. 28:19-20), and finally, that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church because Jesus is the one ultimately in charge of his church.