by Fr. John Maxwell


When Jesus Christ, the Bishop of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) began His public ministry He chose twelve men who would, with the exception of Judas, become the future bishops of His Holy Church (Acts 1:12-26). Most of His time during His three and one half year ministry was spent teaching and training these future leaders. Jesus gave them power to forgive and retain sins by breathing upon them the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23, see also Matthew 16:19 and 18:18), as well as the power to give the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-24, see also Acts 19:1-7).

Following Christ's example, the Apostles trained other men to be the future leaders of the church. These men would in turn train others (2 Timothy 2:2). When it was apparent that these men had the necessary qualifications for the office of bishop, presbyter or deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9), they ordained them to this ministry (Acts 6:1-7, Acts 20:13-38, Titus 1:5). The main purpose of such ministries was to equip and perfect the faithful in the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-14).

This understanding of Apostolic continuity, of the newly ordained bishops being the rightful heirs of the Apostolic authority, and the existence of bishops, presbyters and deacons are attested to by the earliest records in Christian history.

St. Clement of Rome, a disciple of St. Paul in Philippi (57 A.D.) and the third bishop of Rome (95 A.D.) writes: "The Apostles received the gospel for us from Jesus Christ … they appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers." (Anti-Nicene Fathers, V. 1, p. 16) This same Clement also saw a three-fold ministry which served as leaders of the laity in the structured worship of the Church. To describe this three-fold leadership in worship, he used the Old Testament terms high priest, priest and levite to stand for what we now call bishop, presbyter and deacon. He writes, "These things, therefore, being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings and services to be performed, and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours...For His own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priest, and their own special ministrations devolve on the levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen." (Ibid. p. 16)

St. Ignatius, who became bishop of Antioch in 67 A.D. writes of this same three-fold ministry of leadership on his way to martyrdom in 107 A.D. "… I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the Apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me … As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, … neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart: but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled." (Ibid. pp. 61-62)

In point of fact, St. Ignatius over and over again in his seven letters urged the faithful to be obedient to those whom God has appointed as leaders in the Church. For him, to disobey these leaders was to be disobedient to Christ. Not to have them would negate the existence of the Church. To ignore them would be an affront to the Spirit of God. Here are a few examples: "Do ye, beloved, be careful to be subject to the bishop, and the presbyters and the deacons. For he that is subject to these is obedient to Christ, Who has appointed them; but he that is disobedient to these is disobedient to Christ." (Ibid., p. 51) "And do ye reverence them as Christ Jesus, of whose place they are the keepers, even as the bishop is the representative of the Father of all things, and the presbyters are the … assembly of the Apostles of Christ. Apart from these there is no elect Church, no congregation of holy ones, no assembly of saints." (Ibid. p. 67) "Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. But if ye suspect that I spake thus, as having learned beforehand the division caused by some among you, He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I learned nothing of it from the mouth of any man. But the Spirit made an announcement to me saying as follows: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be followers of Paul, and of the rest of the Apostles, even as they also were of Christ." (Ibid. p. 83)

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) who was a disciple of the martyr Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John, stressed the importance of being in the assembly which has continued from Christ and the Apostles through the succession of bishops. For example he gives us this list of Apostolic Succession in the Church of Rome. He writes: "The blessed Apostles, then having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus, the office of episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man as he had seen the blessed Apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the Apostles still echoing (in his ears), and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone (in this) for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the Apostles...To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the Apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the Apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Ibid. p. 416)

Sadly today, much of Christendom is fragmented into more than 26,000 denominations. Only a handful of these can make any reasonable claim to Apostolic Succession. Regularly self-appointed ministers, and independent thinkers act as if they are their own bishop, "being a law unto themselves." Such was not the case in the early Church or in the Orthodox Church today. This is because self-appointed and separatist movements were challenged by the Church with the questions, "Who are your bishops? Do they come directly from the Apostles and their successors or are they self-appointed? Where is your list showing your historic connection to Christ and His Church?"

The Orthodox Church has continued to this day in unbroken succession from the Apostles of Christ with this three-fold leadership of bishop, presbyter (priest) and deacon. This unbroken continuity has been used by God to preserve His Church in truth, which Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Yes, there were false teachers who arose from among those in Holy Orders in the course of Christian history. The devil works hard at trying to destroy what God has done. But in the long run, God has prevailed, and those men were severed from the one Church of Christ. When one takes seriously the idea of Apostolicity and the structure of Church leadership from the very beginning which all Christians are called to obey (Hebrews 13:17), one must ask: "How am I connected to the Church of the Apostles? Am I living in harmony with these God-ordained leaders?" Moreover, one must ask, "which of the Churches that claim Apostolic Succession is the rightful heir? Which one has been faithful to the teachings which were handed down once and for all to the saints?" (Jude 1:3) And if one concludes that no Church has done this, what does this say about the truthfulness of Christ Who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church?

(The preceding article taken from the May, 1998 issue of The Mustard Seed, the monthly bulletin of SS. George and Alexandra Mission. The Mission's newsletter is used effectively as an outreach tool by Fr. John and parishioners.)

From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America
June 1998