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Talking with my evangelical friends about the apostolic succession
By José Miguel Arráiz
We reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.
Pauline: Hi Joseph, your conversations with Martha have been very interesting, but the truth is that your comprehension of the nature of the Church is really peculiar and most of us evangelists don’t share it. We do not believe in the succession of the Church, as it is supported by it, neither the apostolic succession, as you support it as Catholics.
Michael: I agree with Pauline.
Joseph: Ok, let’s talk about it. Why do you think that way?
Pauline: To start, nowhere in the Scriptures does Jesus, the apostles or any other author of the New Testament, mention the idea of an “apostolic succession”. Moreover, not even Peter is presented as someone “supreme” over the other apostles.
Joseph: The theme of the apostle Peter’s primacy can be treated another time, but first let’s clarify what we Catholics understand as apostolic succession.
Pauline: Go ahead.
Joseph: We believe that the apostles, aware that they would not live forever, and for the Lord’s will, were destined to have successors to continue their ministry, with the same authority that they receive from Christ, and these successors are found in the bishops that were ordered in direct line until they arrived to the apostles.
Michael: We understand, but when does this appear in the Bible?
Joseph: From the very start of the Bible, we see how the apostles’ purpose was not to leave their ministry empty. In the first chapter of the apostolic Acts, we see Saint Peter saying to the rest of the apostles that it was necessary to replace the Judas Iscariot. Let’s read what it says: “Men, brethren, the scripture must needs be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: Who was numbered with us, and had obtained PART of this MINISTRY. And he indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the midst: and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: so that the same field was called in their tongue, Haceldama, that is to say, The field of blood. For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take. Wherefore of these men who have companied with us, all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, until the day wherein he was taken up from us, one of these must be made a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph, called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And praying, they said: Thou, Lord, who knowest the heart of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, to take the place of this MINISTRY and APOSTLESHIP, from which Judas hath by transgression fallen, that he might go to his own place. And they gave them lot, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1,16-17.21-26)
Pauline: We recognize that certainly Matthias “succeeded”. Judas as an apostle, but we do not believe that it is a precedent to continue with the apostolic succession. Matthias’ election to replace Judas is just an argument for the Church to replace the bad leaders or unfaithful (as Judas) with good and loyal leaders (as Matthias).
Joseph: I believe that you take for granted a key matter about this event. See that Saint Peter talks about the “Apostleship Ministry” in which Judas had a “seat”. Don’t forget that the ministries of the Church are offices permanently instituted by Christ by himself in order to build the Church. Saint Paul tells us that it was Christ himself who “gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors: For the perfecting of the saints, FOR THE WORD OF THE MINISTRY, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4,11-12). These ministries were not thought to end when the people initially in charge of them died, so I think you are simplifying it too much by saying that it is only to replace bad leaders with good ones. There, they don’t talk about leaders but ministries, and they’re replaced, not only because of who are occupying them are bad, but because they got empty, independently the cause.
Michael: But nowhere in the New Testament is there any registry of the twelve apostles passing their apostolic authority to any successors. Nowhere has any apostle predicted that they should delegate their apostolic authority to other people.
Joseph: We just read the registry of the first apostolic succession, but remember that whoever wrote the scriptures of the New Testament did not pretend to carry a rigorous registry of the people occupying the functions of the ministries of the different churches, because this in the end is not the important thing. The important thing is the existence itself of the ministry of the Church and its scope.
So, even if it is not frequent to find someone who exercised the different ministries in every church (it would be an endless list), we should find the apostles and their successors organizing the churches and placing people in the different ministries. The book of Acts tells how “And he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors: For the perfecting of the saints, for the word of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Acts 14,23).
Notice that the priestly ministry was always given through the imposition from hands in the direct line of an apostle. That is why Saint Paul exhorts Timothy: “For which cause, I admonish thee that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee by the imposition of my hands.” (2 Tim 1,6), “Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood.” (1 Tim 4,14), and warns him to be careful to not order someone not worthy for the ministry: “Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood.” (1 Tim 5,22). There are other similar texts: “For this cause, I left thee in Crete: that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee.” (Titus 1,5)
Pauline: I can’t find yet in the Bible the authority that is passed from the apostles to any successor, except for Judas and Matthias.
Joseph: Remember that even if Matthias was the first one, that does not mean that other people performed the same ministry after that, and if you examine the Bible closely, you will realise that it is that way. Saint Paul, for example, mentions Andronicus and Junia as two “illustrious apostles” that arrived before Christ before him: “For this cause, I left thee in Crete: that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee.” (Rom 16,7), and they were not part of the group of the twelve apostles. Saint Paul himself admits to be an apostle, and perform the same ministry that the twelve (1 Cor 15,9; 2 Cor 1,1; Gal 1,1). Later on, we see that the functions of the apostle fall over the bishops. (1 Tim 3, 1-10).
Pauline: I think Jesus ordered the apostles to build the foundations of the Church (Eph 2,20). What was the foundation of the church that built the apostles? The New Testament – the registry of the facts and teachings. The church does not need apostolic successors. The church needs the teachings from them to be accurately registered and preserved. And that is exactly what God provided on His word: “In whom you also, after you had heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation), in whom also believing, you were signed with the holy Spirit of promise.” (Ephesians 1,13); “For the hope that is laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard in the word of the truth of the gospel” (Colossians 1,5); “Carefully study to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2,15)
Joseph: Jesus ordered the apostles to “teach ye all nations” (Matt 28,19). Reducing Jesus’ orders to their apostles just to write the New Testament for everyone to interpret it individually is distorting Christ’s orders. That is why, as Jesus leaves us a Revelation, He also institutes authorities and ministries that are able to automatically teach this Revelation. Saint Paul, talking as an apostle, was recognized to have be instituted as administer of God’s mysteries: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor 4,1), and Jesus talking to His apostles says to them: “He that heareth you heareth me: and he that despiseth you despiseth me: and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.” (Luke 10, 16). In the Bible, we also clearly find the intention for this ministry to be transmitted in succession: “…and the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2,1-2). Precisely this is what allows the apostolic teachings to be trustfully preserved: a continuous apostolic succession, which, together with the Scriptures and the Tradition, can avoid that misinterpretations can be confused with the real ones, as there is an uninterrupted teaching line that allows transmitting how they understood the Revelation for those Christians before them.
Pauline: It is not necessary to be an uninterrupted succession, but to be loyal to what is said in the Bible, that is what the Catholic Church does not do. In our churches, there are people that perform those ministries, but they are chosen, not by any succession, but because of their loyalty to the Word.
Joseph: To get the second thing, you need the first one. Nobody denies that the ministry has to be loyal to the teachings that Jesus and His apostles leave us, but precisely to be loyal, they have to know what the sense was and the original and authentic interpretation of those teachings. So that in the entire Bible, we see that the priests and bishops were instituted in direct line until they arrived to the apostles. Nobody was self-named an apostle or priest, as happens now in some evangelist church. Otherwise the members excommunicated like Hymenaeus, Philetus, Alexander (1 Tim 1,20; 2 Tim 2,17) simply would go and find another church. Sadly, this is what happens to the evangelist churches, divided into thousands of denominations, without an authority instituted by Christ that can authentically interpret the Revelation and distinguish fake doctrines from the real ones.
Pauline: It is unfortunately true (and the apostles knew about it) that false masters would emerge in the Church (2 Pet 2,1). We acknowledge that the lack of a “supreme authority” among the evangelist church leads to many different interpretations. However, these differences in the interpretation are not the result of the Scripture not being clear. Moreover, they are the result of some Catholic Christians who follow the Catholic tradition to interpret the Scripture according to their own traditions. If the Scripture is entirely studied within its own context, the truth can be easily determined. The doctrinal differences and the denominational conflicts are the consequence of some Christians that refuse to accept what the Scripture says –not only as a consequence of not having a “supreme authority” that interpret the Scripture.
Joseph: But who really interprets what is really said in the Scriptures? In practice, what you’re saying is that the rest of the Christians do not interpret the Bible as you do, because you refuse to accept what they say, but they say precisely the same thing as you. There is the problem: you can’t have doctrinal unity because you don’t count on an instituted authority by Christ, which originated in the Church that Christ founded, to say the last word, to “tie” and “untie”. That is why Saint Peter noticed in the Scriptures “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3,16) and for that he warns “understanding this first: That no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. ” (2 Pet 1,20). See that he is talking to Christians that have received the Holy Spirit, so he is inviting them to not interpret the Scriptures out of the Church’s authority. If we want to be frank, nothing in the Bible supports the model where each believer defines the doctrine on its own isolated from the ecclesial body, but are the legit authorities which in communion resolve the hard tasks (like in the Council of Jerusalem, whose result was accepted by all Christians who wanted to stay loyal to the Church unity).NOTES
 On the Bible is told how first Jesus institutes twelve apostles (Luke 6,13-16) and then he gives them authority: “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases,” (Luke 9,1); “Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven»” (John 20,21-23)
 The first explicit testimony of apostolic succession we have is thanks to San Clement Roman, who was ordered priest by the apostle Peter and subsequently was the fourth bishop of Rome, according to the unanimous testimony of all the primitive Christian tradition. In the appendix of this book, an extract of his letter is reproduced to the Corinthians where he explains the apostolic succession from the primitive Christian view of the I century (year 96).
 It is generally very hard for the Protestant brothers to understand the difference between what really teaches the Bible and their own interpretation of it. By not understanding this, they immediately assume that who does not interpret the Bible as they, it is not loyal to the God’s Word, and that criteria they do not only apply just for the Catholic Church, but the denominations that are different to them in important points of the doctrine.