Pastoral Authority: A Patristic Perspective

Nicolas Poussin, Sacrament of Ordination, 1636-40
The question of ministerial authority can be a sticky one, especially if you're discussing it with a Roman Catholic or ethnic Orthodox friend. Inevitably they will bring up the issue of Apostolic Succession, which, to be honest, many in the Evangelical world are ignorant of, and thus, woefully ill equipped to discuss. Hopefully this article can help to prepare people to discuss the topic intelligently, from an historical and theological perspective, and free of the biases that often disrupts such dialogue. 

So, what did the church in the first three centuries believe about ministerial authority?

The normative method for passing on ministerial authority is rooted in the laying on of hands by the Apostles to appoint presbyters. This was nothing new the Apostles were doing, but a continuance of the Old Testament practice of laying on of hands for "ordination". For example, the Levites received the laying on of hands by the whole congregation. In 
Numbers 27:12-23, we read the following:

"Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go up this mountain in the Abarim Range and see the land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaronwas, for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.” (These were the waters of Meribah Kadesh, in the Desert of Zin.)

Moses said to the Lord,“May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.”

Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses."

Likewise, the Apostles laid hands on the seven, commissioning them to the service of the church. "They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them." - Acts 6:6

And in Acts 13:3, we find Paul and Barnabas being commissioned by the laying on of hands as well.

Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off."

Paul subsequently appointed others and encouraged them to lay hands on qualified men for leadership positions. For example:

"For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you."- Titus 1:5

The church continued this practice of laying on of hands for ministerial authority, resulting in lineages of laying on of hands stemming back to one of the Apostles, and through them to Jesus Himself. 

"And we are in a position to reckon up those who were instituted overseers in the churches by the apostles, and the succession of these men to our own times..."Irenaeus

Tertullian writes:

"Let them produce the original records of their churches. Let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that the first bishop of theirs can show for his ordainer and predecessor one of the apostle or apostolic men- a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles."

It is clear that the Church Fathers considered this line of tactile succession, known today as Apostolic Succession, an important mark of authority. However, that authority was predicated on orthodox Biblical doctrine, and nothing more.

"Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches teach doctrines different from these.."
"By this (succession), they handed down that Church which exists in every place and which has come down even unto us. She is guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine. She neither receives any addition to, nor does she allow any diminishing of the truths which she believes." - Irenaeus

Thus, it is vastly important to stress that the central component of Apostolic Succession is not a mere tactile lineage, but adherence to orthodox Biblical teaching-Apostolic Tradition!

Tertullian notes that even if false teachers can produce a lineage, it is meaningless without solid apostolic doctrine.

"However, even if they (false teachers) were to produce such a contrivance, they will not advance one step. For when their very doctrine is compared with that of the apostles, its own diversity and discrepancy proves that it had neither an apostles nor an apostolic man for its authorship."

I repeat: Adherence to apostolic, orthodox Biblical teaching is the fundamental component of true Apostolic Succession.   

"No other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation."Tertullian

When our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends claim exclusive  authority (as many do), we must then examine their doctrine; compare it to that of the Scriptures-what did the Apostles teach? Do their dogmas, practices and teachings line up with that "apostolic foundation", as Tertullian put it?

As Anglicans it is important for us to establish a clear definition of pastoral authority that meets the standards of history and biblical authenticity. Apostolic Succession is then best defined as consisting of "a succession of 
faith and orthodox Biblical teaching that grants the fullest authority, which is spiritually and physically linked to Christ and the apostles through the laying on of hands." It is quite clear that the early church viewed adherence to Apostolic biblical teaching (according to the common consensus of the church) as more important than the tactile succession as such, since it is Christ, not pastoral authoiity, that saves, and thus authority exists where His Gospel is faithfully preached. Yet we are not to shun the proper transmission of pastoral authority, nor hold it in contempt, simply because some have abused its Apostolic dignity.


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