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Apostolic succession

In Christianity, the doctrine of apostolic succession maintains that the Christian Church is the spiritual successor of the Apostles. Different Christian denominations interpret this doctrine in different ways.

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican Churches hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the ordination of bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles. Pope Leo XIII clarified, in his bull Apostolicae Curae in 1896, that the Roman Catholic church believes that the Anglican Church's ordinations are invalid because of changes made to the rite of ordination under Edward IV. While denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession, Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. Eastern Orthodox churches generally grant "economic" recognition to ordinations by Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops when an ordained deacon, priest, or bishop converts to Orthodoxy. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Roman Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).

The Eastern Orthodox and Catholics believe that their teaching today is the same as or is in harmony with the teaching of the first apostles. This form of the doctrine was first formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, in response to certain Gnostics. The Gnostics claimed that Christ or the Apostles passed on some teachings secretly, or that there were some secret apostles, and that they (the Gnostics) were passing on these teachings. Irenaeus responded that the identity of the original Apostles was well known, as was the main content of their teaching and the identity of the apostles' successors. Therefore, anyone teaching something contrary to what was known to be apostolic teaching was not a successor to the Apostles or to Christ.

Most Protestant churches do not hold to this doctrine, although in some cases one of their bishops may in fact have a succession of ordination back to the apostles. They believe that to share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful sense of apostolic succession; because it is in this sense that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Lutheran doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) claims that apostolic succession was broken during the Great Apostasy, or falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and later restored in America. The LDS Church maintains that God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith, Jr. near Palmyra, New York in 1820 and called Joseph as a prophet to restore Christ's church and correct doctrines to the earth. Near the time that Joseph formally organized the church in 1830, John the Baptist and later the apostles Peter, James and John appeared as resurrected beings to Joseph. In both of these visitations, these divine messengers were directed by Jesus to lay their hands on Joseph's head to ordain him to the Priesthood giving him authority to conduct some of the affairs of God's Kingdom on earth. Many other divine messengers such as Moses and Elijah also appeared to Joseph during his life and ordained Joseph in a similar manner with the particular authority that had been given to them. Joseph then ordained others who were baptized into the church with various levels of priesthood authority. All the various levels or "keys" of this authority have been and are passed on to worthy, male members of the LDS Church. In the LDS Church, apostles hold more priesthood authority than bishops: while a bishop governs a local congregation, the quorum of the apostles govern the entire church.

In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the unbrokenness of apostolic succession is significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to the end of the age. In this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept.

See also: List of Bishops

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