|Christ's Charge to Peter|
I have a challenge for evangelicals:
Find one example of a Christian group, or even a single individual, in the first 1000 years of the faith who rejected apostolic authority and succession.
Ok, so that's actually pretty easy. Any student of early Church history knows that there were lots of groups that rejected apostolic authority and succession, e.g. the Montanists, Manicheans, etc. They all had on thing in common: every single one of them would be considered heretical by evangelicals (as well as by Catholics).
So here's my real challenge for evangelicals:
Find one example of an orthodox group or individual in the first 1000 years of the faith that rejected apostolic authority and succession. (I'll allow you to define what's orthodox pretty much however you want, assuming here that the definition would be in the ballpark of what most evangelicals believe today.)
To my knowledge, there is not a single group, not even a single individual, of which we have any historical record in the first 1000 years after Christ who rejected apostolic authority and succession and was not heretical by the standards of evangelicals. Not a single one.
The answer as to why this was the case is also an easy one for any student of early Church history: Every single orthodox Christian believed that apostolic authority and succession was instituted by Jesus, that the successors were guided by the Holy Spirit, and that therefore any teaching that went against the teaching of the apostolic Church must be wrong. In other words, apostolic authority and succession was the means by which orthodoxy was distinguished from heterodoxy. (To be clear, it's not that orthodoxy is made to be true because the bishops taught it. Instead, the bishops, because of their Holy Spirit guided authority, teach the truth - and do so infallibly under certain conditions, e.g. ecumenical council, etc.)
|St Paul writing|
Among those groups that claimed to be Christian, there were two main groups.
(1) There were those who followed the bishops, which claimed to have authority in the Church passed down in succession from the apostles themselves (see the quote at the end of this post, and The Early Church was Catholic: Apostolic Succession and Authority). Their beliefs and worship practices were early forms of modern day Catholic beliefs and practices (e.g. the Mass as sacrifice, real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, veneration of saints and relics, baptism necessary for salvation, etc; for more, see How Quickly Catholic Heresy Took Over the Church).
(2) There were those who denied that the bishops had authority in the Church from the apostles, but still wanted to follow Christ. These people populated innumerable groups with a wide range of different beliefs, most of which are usually referred to simply as Gnostics, and are considered heretical by evangelicals and Catholics.
Evangelicals must hold that this situation - in which the orthodox were always those following the bishops with authority from the apostles, and the heretics were always those that denied it - continued until the 16th century when innumerable groups with a wide range of different beliefs, most of which are usually referred to simply as Protestants, began denying apostolic authority and succession like all heretics before them...but this time it was somehow okay to do so.
Or maybe it wasn't.
Maybe denying apostolic authority and succession was heresy in the 1st through 15th centuries, and was also heresy in the 16th-21st centuries.
Or put another way, the precedent for breaking off from the bishops and denying apostolic authority and succession is found only among heretics.
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
(Against Heresies, III.3.1-3)