The Priesthood Of Believers Vs. Apostolic Succession

Candy bars one day, arcane church structure debates the next.

In the course of some friendly e-conversation with a fellow UMC pastor regarding lay involvement in baptism and communion, I realized that we weren’t really disagreeing over baptism and communion.

Our differing viewpoints went back much further, to a fundamental debate in church history: the priestood of believers or apostolic succession?


Under the doctrine of apostolic succession, the original 12 apostles (substituting Matthias for the recently departed Judas) conveyed spiritual responsibility and sacramental authority to their successors in ministry by laying hands on them. Paul alludes to this in I Timothy 4:14.

Well, that original “laying on of hands” has continued in an unbroken though widely divergent (think both Southern Baptist and Greek Orthodox!) line ever since. That’s what an ordination service is all about.

So apostolic succession determines much of the who, the where, and the when in celebrating the sacraments. Only persons who stand (or kneel) in apostolic succession — who are part of an unbroken line of heads who have hands laid upon them — can officiate or celebrate the sacraments. Our friends in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal worlds hold strongly to this belief. Because of our historic connection to the Episcopal (Anglican) communion, Methodists have held ever so moderately to it as well.

Yet with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s came a renewed emphasis on a slighltly different doctrine: the priesthood of all believers. I Peter 2:9 says it this way: “But you are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .”

If we are all “priests,” then, we are all in ministry. We can serve one another in times of grief and in times of remembrance. We can teach one another rather than simply taking the clergy’s word for it. We can express gifts of tongues, healing, and miracles . . . together. I’d say we can even — gulp — celebrate baptisms together in the presence of the gathered church.

I suppose you can tell who landed where in my e-conversation. My friend stands and kneels in apostolic succession. I believe it to be a doctrine more suggested in Scripture rather than taught in it.

And I’m doing all I can to unleash the priesthood lurking inside so many Good Shepherd believers.