According to Ernst Benz, a world famous author and scholar of the history of Christianity, the idea of apostolic succession was conceived during the first centuries of Christianity, a time when many religious movements began to flourish. Such movements taught beliefs very different from those represented by the official Church. Specifically, even in the first century and later, various Gnostic sects appeared. There were Charismatic movements whose members claimed to have the gift of prophecies and published new revelations, thus attracting many followers to false teaching. In his book
Rome and the First Christians, A. G. Hamman describes a great spiritual time of trouble
during which false prophets appeared and, of course, claimed to represent the true teachings of God:
“The facts stated by Tertullian – which he gives us no reason to doubt – give us an idea about these ecstatic visions, which are closer to Spiritism than the Holy Spirit. Some pious woman during a weekly meeting in Carthage speaks – possessed by a spirit – with angels, hears hidden things, and reads hearts. She counsels solutions to those seeking advice. Another woman – because of her flirting – is beaten at night by an angel. Her revelation commands the exact length that a woman ought to wear her veil. The number of spiritual revelations is impressive and – suspicious. Some woman has taken charge of the church service. As she was making the sign of the cross, during the liturgy she falls down in ecstasy, prophecies, preaches, and woos the astonished listeners.
Prophets of all kinds trolled the streets, and despite the simplicity of their tricks, they used deceiving spirits, and the world believed them to be good – people were eager for wonders and holy arousal… Some prophet in Syria ‘convinced many brothers to take their wives and children into the desert to meet Christ.’ He convinced a whole bunch. Finally, they got lost in the mountains. They nearly murdered the leader as they thought he was a thief. Fortunately, his wife, a Christian, arranged things.
Some bishops from the Black Sea had more visions. They began to prophesy and came to the mad idea that says: ‘Judgment Day will come this year.’ Fainthearted listeners were so frightened that they stopped working on the earth, sold their goods and left the area… The Great Church excommunicated these sects. When the martyrs accidentally were found together with these heretics, they ignored them and had no desire to share anything in common… Sectarians even replaced the wine with water in the Eucharist. They became known as ‘water drinkers’ (Aquarians).”
Christianity faced some major problems, of which only a fraction are mentioned here. The Apocryphal texts which were later canonized into the New Testament and various streams of teaching confused believers. The church elders, according to
Benz, decided to put three walls to protect the Church from heresy. These walls included: the canonization of the New Testament books (and rejection of other writings that did not come from the apostles nor represented the original teachings of Christ ), the writing of the “symbol of faith” (a definition of orthodox Christian doctrine as opposed to heretical teachings ), and the idea of the apostolic heritage (i.e., the doctrine that only bishops ordained as direct successors of the Apostles by the Holy Spirit have the right to interpret and convey true Christian teachings, which essentially condemned the Gnostics and other heterodox teachers, i.e., those who do not follow the beliefs and
practice of the first century disciples of Christ ).
The following passage expresses official teaching of the Orthodox Church regarding apostolic succession:
“The apostolic succession of the bishopric guarantees the complete purity of apostolic teaching, not only, therefore, in its particular form in New Testament, but also in its explicit form, called Holy Tradition. It preserves the apostolic succession as applied in spoken form.”
However, the priest Bozidar Mijac admits that the understanding of “apostolic succession” of the modern Church differs from that of church authorities in the past. Here is how this Orthodox author defines “Succession”:
“In Orthodoxy… the bishop acts as the successor of the Apostles by the famous theory of succession of grace, but the very notion of succession (‘I succeed’ in Latin) is subject to different interpretations. (For example, Cyprian says, ‘The Church belongs to the bishop, while other attempts, for example, by Aquilion and Nisiotis, show a deeper and more visible division. In practice, succession has been vulgarized and expressed in familiar forms of despotism, etc.)…”
Since the fourth century onwards, the office of the Bishops and institutions grew in considerable power and rendered judgments on what is right and what is not in religious matters. However, no matter how sincere the motive might have been which had led the Church during its struggles with heresies (false doctrines) and heretics, both the Holy Scriptures and later church history demonstrate that the idea of apostolic succession was not the intended outcome. The Church and its bishops at the time were was not nearly so unified in opinions as it might appear at first sight. Various religious authorities in the churches of the second to fourth century believed some books to be inspired by God that were later declared apocryphal, and rejected those that were later canonized in the collection called the New Testament. There also existed a variety of theological views about church dogma and practice. (One example is the previously mentioned conflict of positions between Tertullian and Origen on the validity of baptizing young children).
The same was the case with regard to the so-called “apostolic succession”, simply because the apostle Paul himself testified that laying hands by the apostles is not a sure guarantee that the appointed bishop will persevere in Christ’s true teaching by the end of his life. The apostle testifies that some of the elders whom he himself ordained and placed in ministry (even when they confessed the right doctrine) would later distort the faith which Paul introduced and bring heretical teachings to draw converts after themselves:
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
If even Paul, the very apostle to the Gentiles, admits that his authority to lay hands in ordination has no “miraculous” effect and does not guarantee the accuracy of further transmission of Christian truth from generation to generation by the elders he ordained, then we can conclude that the theory of “apostolic succession”, as advocated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, has no validity. Specifically, verse 31 of the above passage shows that what is needed to pass on true Christian faith is to pay attention to the preservation of the Apostolic teaching and the Spirit against various novel heresies that unstable people are vulnerable to accepting. Indeed, Paul’s prediction that some of the elders of the Ephesian church would depart from the true faith and mislead others came true. In 1 Timothy, Paul tells his fellow worker:
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”
The text above makes it clear that some of the elders, previously mentioned in Paul’s prophecy, “wandered” from the faith and were “teaching false doctrines” different from those of the men who had laid hands on them. The same picture of corruption of the elder also applies to an entire church as revealed in the first chapter of John’s Revelation. Namely, Christ Himself “dictates” a letter to the Apostle John, so he would send it to the elders of various churches, which among other things states:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write… Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write… Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write… Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.”
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write… I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write… I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked… Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”
“The angels of the churches” in this case are the church elders, not the angels of heaven. If the question had been about actual angels (spiritual beings), then Christ would not have had to send them a message written on papyrus (or skin) with the pen of the apostle John. Rather, He would have had to communicate with them in a completely different way. Identifying the whole church with its head (the Bishop) stems from the simple reason that
he is responsible for the proper management of its spiritual life. ,
Christ sends a message of encouragement coupled with rebuking due to spiritual failures and sins committed. In each passage of Scripture, there is a call to repentance, with the threat that if it does not happen, Christ might reject the entire religious community (along with its Bishop).
Given the fact that these bishops of the “Revelation” churches were ordained by the apostles themselves (or by other elders ordained by the apostles) were capable of wrongly leading their spiritual flocks, is it not more possible for this to be the case with many church leaders of later times? Even some of the Orthodox authors agree with this position. Namely, the holy monks, the “Old Calendarists”, who claim that most of the modern Orthodox churches fell from the grace of God because they accepted the new calendar and ecumenism led by the Church of Rome, considered “apostolic succession” to be transmitted not by the mechanical laying on of hands, but rather through the legitimacy of one’s uncompromised confession of faith:
“When speaking about the apostolic succession, it is insufficient to prove that there is an uninterrupted chain of ordination, which reaches the apostles. Christ’s Church does not depend on the letter of the law, nor the mechanical act of laying a hand. Even if someone is ordained, yet lacks true faith, his ordination is invalid. He is considered neither a member of the clergy nor of the apostolic succession. The ordination of those who become priests only is valid when performed by a righteous bishop who bears the grace of the Holy Spirit. Can the Holy Spirit dwell where there is a lie? Or where there is heresy? … What value has mere ritual apostolic succession for those from whom the Holy Spirit has departed? … Because, although the first priests who were ordained by the Fathers by laying their hands with the two-fold gift of the Spirit, however, these priests fell away. This next generation of priests became merely laymen who lacked the power to baptize nor to lay hands, else they were unable to transfer grace of the Holy Spirit on the other because it was they themselves lost.”
All these examples, therefore, clearly demonstrate that the idea of “apostolic succession”, which was conceived during the struggle with heretics (an attempt to prove that a majority of the Church elders have a connection to the apostles through a series of ordained bishops, thus representing the true Christian doctrine), does not guarantee that ordination of bishops will prevent them from introducing false doctrines. The heresy differed in one (but significant) way between the early Christian movement cited earlier from Revelation and larger churches of later times. The early church could recognize heresies that appeared abruptly and stood in obvious contrast to the true confession which it possessed. In contrast, today’s larger modern churches suffer a different threat. Great changes in church dogma occurred very slowly (often over centuries) and almost unnoticed by most. The disclosure of these heresies within the dogma of the Church is actually a major purpose for writing this work. As was the case in previous chapters, future chapters of this book will demonstrate this truth.