The Apostolic Succession: Some Theological Reflections from an Oriental Orthodox Perspective | Fr K M George


(A draft paper for the Anglican – Oriental Orthodox International Consultation, Amman, 23-26 October 2023 by Fr K M George, India)

 Ever since the end of the period  of the apostles of Christ in the first century the question of Apostolic Succession loomed large in the life of the churches founded, directly or indirectly, by the Apostles. As the  expectation of an imminent Parousia, the promised  Second Coming of Christ, gradually waned, the institutional-organizational questions arose with regard to authority, teaching, and succession in existing  local Christian churches as well as in newly emerging church communities.

The crux of the question was two-fold:

*How to transmit  and continue the right witness of the apostles to  the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the life  of Christian communities on a historical plane.

*How to ensure the right order  of authorised persons in a  line of succession to uphold the apostolic witness and the teaching of the Twelve.

A major challenge for the Church has always been to discern the true from the false. We see in the New Testament there are alternate claims and claimants with regard to the Messianic person and mission already in the time of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus Christ himself says, “many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am the Christ’, and will deceive many. (Matt.24:5, 24)

 The question ‘ Who is the apostle of Christ? ‘ was answered by the apostles themselves in a significant definition at the time when they had to elect someone to replace Judas Iscariot in order to restore the original group of “The Twelve” (Acts1:21-22,24-25).

So in light of this definition St Paul himself felt that his own apostleship was challenged by some people in the community though he justifies his apostolic status by admitting with great humility that he was like “one born prematurely” and  “the least of the apostles”(1 Cor.15:8-9), but uniquely authorised to witness to Christ and preach the gospel of life by the direct intervention of Christ (Gal.1:11-16). Still he seeks the approbation of the Apostles in Jerusalem in an indirect way.

A set of essential and mutually related questions, needs to be constantly raised on the historical plane of the Church: 

– what is the right apostolic witness (Orthomartyria)? 

⁃ What is the right Order (Orthotaxis)? 

⁃ What is the right faith ( Orthopistis)? 

⁃ What is the right worship ( Orthodoxia)? 

⁃ What is the right practice ( Orthopraxis)? 

⁃ What is the right authority ( Orth’exousia)? 

⁃ What is the right church (Orth’ecclesia)? 

A few words need to be said about these 7 test questions. 

*Right Witness. The word martyria or witness by itself does not convey the Christian meaning since persons or groups working out of hatred and vengeance can produce martyrs . So the cause upheld by the martyrs is crucial. St Stephen’s witness is celebrated in Christian tradition because he followed his master and showed forgiveness on the point of death, and compassionately prayed for his enemies. The essential element of apostolic succession is the unbroken continuation of this living witness of the apostles to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The ultimate test of the authenticity of the witness is martyrdom. In Christ’s own words , “The good shepherd lays down  his life for the sheep” The testimony is with one’s own life. In times of persecution or severe adversity the hired hand leaves the sheep  and runs away because he is not the shepherd of the sheep ( Jn. 10:11-12).

 *Right Order by itself does not bring out the Christian order since there are various competing orders in social, political, economic and religious structures. Christ has clearly given a model of selfless humility for the apostles who are not to follow the model of the rulers of this world or the priests and rabbis of their conventional religion. As the expectation of the imminent return of the Messiah gradually waned , it was mandatory that they established the right order in burgeoning Christian communities in the Mediterranean region and beyond. The word “order” is pivotal in ordination, and the ordained ministry, particularly at the episcopal level, became the symbol of the right apostolic order. It became the key to ensure the authenticity of the other tests. 

*Right Belief. Already in the NT we see St Paul and other apostles struggling in their writings to distinguish true faith in Christ from false teachings. The continued struggle comes to a head at the Council of Nicaea 325 where the Fathers made a minimum statement of faith beginning with “We believe ..( Pisteuomen…) “ . However , the post- Nicene history shows that the story didn’t end there. The fight with “heresy” and heretical teachers inflicted deep wounds of division in the body of the Church. And the struggle continues until now . 

*Right Worship. Originally the right way of praising or worshipping the triune mystery of God, the word orthodoxia implies right belief or true faith. Lex orandi lex credendi, so goes the Latin phrase: The rule of prayer/ worship is the rule of faith. Often reduced to dry dogmatic formulations Orthodoxy is meant to be the dynamic and all inclusive worship of the Triune God by the whole creation in which humanity takes the lead role.  In this sense it may also be called Ecodoxy (Eco-  from oikos= house, taking the whole creation as one oikos or household  praising the Creator God).

*Right Practice. There is no true faith without genuinely practising the gospel values in our personal and ecclesial life. No orthodoxy without orthopraxis. Love, forgiveness, and mutual care along with justice, humility and peace are integral to faith . Christianity did not begin as a philosophical system of abstract theories and  high-flown discourse, but as a simple way of life rooted in love, compassion, integrity, passive suffering, forgiveness and humble service to the other.

*Right Church. Ecclesia in pre-Christian Greek context could be any Assembly convened to transact political or social business. The church community, however,  is called to be the Body of Christ, to radiate light and life to the world , and become a space of joy, justice and freedom. The calling to be the ecclesia of God or ecclesia of Christ was pivotal to the community, and therefore its members ‘cannot conform to the scheme of this world’ ( Rom. 12:2).

*Right Authority. Most, if not all, of the divisive disputes in the history of the Church arose around the question of authority. Despite the clear instruction of Christ, many  leaders of the churches indulged in power games to wield and exercise worldly authority. Genuine authority is recognised by people when the test questions as to the  leadership qualities of a good shepherd are satisfactorily answered. The declamation by the people in a liturgical context of ordination that someone is worthy (axios)of holding authority in the Church is  essentially  the witness of the Body of Christ to that person.

Some of these biblical- theological principles are highlighted here in the  discussion on apostolic succession primarily because there was  a strong tendency to reduce apostolic succession to a formal line of bishops in the principal sees in the Roman/Byzantine empire and elsewhere. It is unfortunately true that sometimes some of the persons canonically appointed to the higher ranks of the clergy do not conform to the high  standards set for the successors of the apostles. Sometimes parallel heads of churches and  parallel hierarchies arise within the same church while holding the same faith and  sacraments. In spite of all these inadequacies and inner contradictions regarding the Apostolic succession in the churches, our only tangible means of acknowledging the orthodoxy of faith is linear succession of bishops in a particular local church. That is why ancient historians and theologians like St Irenaeus created lists of bishops who are in an authentic line of succession in a particular See over against gnostic, sectarian and heretical claims.

The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches had hoped that statements of faith commonly agreed upon by  all the churches would bring about unity of the churches as if all churches are “confessional” bodies. They spent enormous amount of time, energy and money for  consultations, discussion and publication of several volumes on baptism, eucharist and ministry. They even produced a commonly agreed ecumenical text for  eucharistic celebration called  The Lima Liturgy. But there is no way Orthodox churches can think of eucharistic communion on the basis of common statements of faith however theologically sound. It didn’t happen even within the larger Orthodox family of Eastern and Oriental Churches though there were agreed statements on Christology that had divided them at Chalcedon 451, and common affirmation of the same apostolic faith held by both sides.

Neither the ancient Roman/Byzantine imperial ecclesiology nor the Roman Catholic and various European Protestant ecclesiologies that prevailed in the colonial-missionary period  since the 15th century would be of help in rethinking the issue of Apostolic succession.  In the  latter period of the imperial-colonial missions the Roman Church aggressively developed the Uniatist policy and divided almost all Eastern Churches by creating Eastern/Oriental Rites and setting up parallel hierarchies within their midst. The missionary incursion of various western Protestant bodies also finally created divisions in the traditional Orthodox churches. Even new “reformed eastern” churches following Reformation principles  and claiming apostolic succession emerged in the process.

Although the imperial- colonial movement is formally ended, its ecclesiastical vestiges remain structurally  strong at the global level. Therefore, any rethinking of a crucial issue like the Apostolic Succession necessitates a paradigm change in Christian ecclesiology. This is not at all easy, we should honestly admit. We may say in all simplicity and hope that Apostolic succession is not simply a uni-pillar edifice of linear succession, but has to be continually supported and tested by the principles of right witness and right order as well as other such principles to be practised in the community of faith, the Body of Christ. All  four notes of the Church as listed in the Nicene Creed – One, Holy , Catholic and Apostolic- are mutually supportive. Apostolicity essentially and constitutively  needs unity, holiness and catholicity.

We do not know if present day Christianity would ever accept the “Little Sheepfold” model as Christ once prophetically called the fellowship of his true disciples. In the coming age it is not an impossible likelihood. Still “faith, hope and love abide”, and “the greatest of all , love “(1 Cor. 13:13) will provide the key to the solution of some of our vexing ecclesiological enigmas.