I am in the process of preparing a teaching on Acts 12 which starts off with the account of Herod Agrippa killing James with the sword. This is a significant moment in church history for, among other reasons, this the first Apostle who is martyred and also the first of Jesus’ “inner circle” of James, John and Peter to face death. Reading the passage brought me to a contemplation of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. Apostolic Succession is defined as the uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the Apostles through successive popes and bishops as taught by the Roman Catholic Church and others. It is a belief that there is certain authority among people in certain positions in the world that allows them to speak authoritatively over the activities of God’s Church – think pointy hats.
What struck me in the passage detailing James’ death was not what is present in the text but by what is notably absent, any successor sought, named or set out for James, one of the Apostles from which claimed authority is derived. If Apostolic Succession is to be argued as valid, one would expect that this would be the time in the Bible that it would be spelled out clearly. The fact that the church simply moves on obviously grieving but otherwise making no structural response would seem to argue strongly against the doctrine.
At the outset of the Book of Acts in first chapter, the Apostles deal with the likely painful issue of who should replace Judas, the fallen Apostle. Through prayer and the casting of lots Matthias is chosen to fill the position of Judas and restore the Twelve to being, well, the Twelve. Whether you believe that this was a correct decision on their part or not, commentary is mixed particularly in light of Paul’s later selection by Jesus Himself, the Apostles clearly believe that the office that was vacated by Judas due to betrayal needed to be filled. In Revelation, when the Apostles are mentioned they are numbered as Twelve alone so they may have been on to something. There is a clear action in the Bible during the relevant time period taken to replace a missing Apostle with a successor.
Jump forward to Acts 12 and we have James the Apostle martyred for his faith. It seems that this would be another open Apostle position and if you argue that succession takes place there would need to be a replacement sought out and chosen to pass on the office and the authority. Following James’ death though, there is nothing in the Scriptures indicating that anyone prayed, cast lots or otherwise initiated any process to replace or succeed James. Paul may lay hands on others later in Acts and commission them as leaders in their local churches, but the Apostles don’t seem to do anything to provide a successor to James during a time where they are clearly able to do so. In fact, the Scripture immediately jumps to Peter and his miraculous escape from prison and carry on detailing the work of the remaining Apostles. Why? This would seem to be a very important moment for the doctrine of Apostolic Succession to be established and yet, nothing. I would submit to you that this omission is telling.
This is not the only evidence that argues against the doctrine of Apostolic Succession but I thought it was interesting.
What do you think?