Apostolic succession.

Apostolic succession [a•pə•STÄL•ik sək•SE•šən, noun] The idea of a position in church leadership, founded by an apostle, continuously held in an unbroken line of successors since its beginning.

Apostles start ministries. Sometimes churches and denominations; sometimes missions, hospitals and hospices, schools and universities, shelters, charities, or whatever Jesus tells them to start. And once started, eventually the apostle steps down—either to start another ministry, as Paul regularly did; or to retire, or die. Does this mean this ministry is over? Sometimes yes. But often, no: Someone else is motivated to continue the ministry.

Ideally it’s another apostle, whom Jesus instructed to pick up where the last apostle left off, and ideally our Lord gave that new apostle a vision to take the ministry even further. But quite often it’s just someone else who was already diligently at work in that ministry, who knows how to run it effectively (or, admittedly, not), and who is recognized by other Christians as a valid successor. Might be the ministry’s current vice-president. Might be the apostle’s spouse or child. Might be someone selected by the ministry’s officials—either a board of directors, or college of cardinals—to do the job. Regardless, this person is a successor to the original apostle.

There’s a certain amount of prestige to the ministry if it was founded by a well-known apostle. People figure such apostles—like Simon Peter, like Francis of Assisi, like John Wesley—were definitely chosen by God; therefore they figure the ministries they founded were definitely part of God’s will. And for this reason there’s a certain amount of prestige given to their successors. If you’re the current pastor of a church founded by a great saint, surely there must be something special about you. (One would hope.)

This is how apostolic succession works.

Read more…