The Whole Pastor / Apostolic Succession thing

I’m not really picking on Lutherans, although sometimes I might seem like it.  I pick on everyone, but I really want to like Lutherans, so it’s just natural that I pay attention to them more than, say, Baptists. (Read that any way you like.)

So, I was reading this Lutheran-ish blog where the subject of absolution was being discussed. Absolution is a churchy term for being absolutely forgiven, typically by a representative of the church on behalf of God.  In some traditions, you only get absolved by confessing your individual sins, and promising to do some work (“penance”) to prove you’re sorry. In the Lutheran tradition, which I really like, we corporately confess our sins at the beginning of the liturgy, and the pastor represents that God has forgiven us, which we all agree with. I like the old liturgy better than the new, but that’s what I grew up with.  This is the only problem I have with the Book of Common Prayer — the pronouncement of forgiveness isn’t up front. I like being able to worship after we’ve all agreed we’re forgiven.

So anyway, the post I was reading provides the Biblical basis for absolution by quoting John 20:20-23:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

It’s a great verse, but certainly one that some have a problem with.

Apostolic Succession

My problem comes with the whole concept of Apostolic Succession. In the above verse, Jesus is talking specifically to the Ten disciples.  By this time, of course, Judas was long gone. But, if you read on, you see that Thomas was also absent.  Interesting.

The concept of Apostolic Succession held to by many is that since this authority was only given to the Ten, the authority had to be directly passed down from these Apostles to the next in line.  For a couple of the historic traditions, this authority only passes to their priests; all others are interlopers. For later traditions, it is their expression of their church denomination that has this authority, which can be granted to their pastors.

Now, in traditions with direct succession beliefs, they’ve got to deal with Thomas somehow. Did he get this authority even though he was absent?  I’ve never heard this discussed, but it’s an interesting question.  I’m assuming that this might not have been an issue at the time, at least not worth discussing. But, when you start creating rules, these details become important.

Receiving the Holy Spirit

One thing to keep in mind in the John passage is that this was prior to the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh, at Pentecost. So, the Apostles were given the Holy Spirit earlier as they were the caretakers of the Church between the time of Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost.

While the passage does not specifically tie the 2 concepts together, I believe that we have to assume a connection between receiving the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins (or retain them).

The question is, or at least one question is, now that the Holy Spirit has been poured out over the whole church, does Apostolic succession and the power to forgive sins remain with the hierarchical priesthood/clergy?

The Office of the Ministry

The blog post I referenced earlier makes the case that what Jesus actually did in John 20 was create an “office of the ministry,” which now extends to officially sanctioned pastors (although these would be not recognized by some of the older church traditions).  Now, while this is a nice try, I think we run into a conflict with the concept of the Priesthood of all believers spoken of by Peter in 1 Peter chapter 2.  As the writer of Hebrews explains, we all can now approach the throne, there is no need for any other to mediate for us.

The Problem With Pastors

Another problem we run into with this line of thinking is that in reality, there is no Biblical support for priests or pastors. Elders, yes. Teachers, yes. Pastors, as in professional Christians whose job it is to pronounce forgiveness? Not that I can see.

At the same time, I have no problem attending a Lutheran or Anglican service, etc.  I believe that any Christian can do what a pastor does.  Pastors serve the church, and I respect that. However, if the key is the presence of the Holy Spirit, then perhaps true apostolic authority is passed on to the Church Universal.  Perhaps the “Office of the ministry” is church-wide.

I’m not being “evangelical”

While it sounds like I am championing bad evangelical ecclesiology, I’m really not.  I’ve written enough about my problems with the modern church that you can search through and find that if you’re interested.  I do believe in historic concepts like incarnational theology and the administration of sacraments, for starters.  But, another of my problems with the post-liturgical protestant church is that its existence is, I believe, inherently conflicted.  They deny many of the fundamentals of historic orthodoxy and orthopraxy, yet try to hang on to concepts like the authority of pastors.  But, don’t get me started down that road…


I believe in absolution / forgiveness. In fact, we’re taught in the NT to forgive as being essential to our own forgiveness. I believe forgiving others is the most important thing we can do as Christians, and it’s so often ignored. Withholding forgiveness is a concept I don’t really understand, but I really don’t think that will ever become a problem for us. It seems we are kind of predisposed to “unforgive.”

But bottom line, I think any attempt to restrict “the office of the ministry” or Apostolic Authority to a certain class of Christians is not Scripturally justified.  If I’m wrong, I’d love to read a well-argued response.









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