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On “Apostolic Succession” and ordained leaders

Originally posted on FB 11-21-12

The Episcopal church and the Catholic church have something called “apostolic succession”. This means that we can trace our roots back to the apostles. This means that when somebody gets confirmed or received into these churches, they have hands laid on them by somebody who had hands laid on them, by somebody who had hands laid on them, all the way back to Jesus. This is pretty overwhelming to think about. It really connects you with the “then” – it becomes the “now”.

I was telling a co-worker about this and he said they were apostolic at his church too. I felt like explaining that his little church that his grandfather started, this little church that has self-appointed ministers and no oversight, is not part of this story. But I didn’t, and I’m glad.

It is. All churches are. All Christians are.

The touch doesn’t matter – it is the message. And the only way you are going to hear the message of who Jesus is and what he did for you and what he continues to do for you is going to be from another Christian. Either it is by them talking to you personally, or from reading in a book. This stuff doesn’t spring up out of the ground. Yes, we are told that even if there is nobody to preach the Gospel, even the rocks will proclaim it, but I think there is no need for that. There are plenty of people around who can and will tell their story of who Jesus is and what he has done for them without having rocks start talking.

Each person heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone who heard the story who was there with Jesus (except for Paul, but he is a special case). So the whole idea of how special it is that these churches have apostolic succession is bunk. We all have apostolic succession.

This also ties into the idea of ordained ministers. Not every organized religion has leaders who are set apart and specially trained. The Sikhs are the first example that comes to my mind. Then there are also Quakers and the Baha’i. Some have leaders who are respected as leaders because they have through their lives shown especial piety and reverence, so they are trusted and looked to. However, the moment they start veering from the path, their fellow members of the congregation will call them on it.

Now – the only way they can call them on it is if they themselves know the path. The only way they can know the path is if they too practice piety and study. I’ve heard in the Eastern Orthodox church that each member is expected to read the Bible for themselves and to study and pray just as much as their Pope does. Their Pope also considers himself to be an equal with them – he is not infallible, he is not above question. In fact, the idea that he can be questioned and challenged is part of what keeps him forever accountable. That accountability is what keeps him humble and honest and not grabbing for power. That power isn’t ours to grab. That power is received by us to then be distributed by us. We are not called to hoard power.

I think the moment you give away your own power, your own religious learning and study, and you expect a religious leader to do it all for you, you have become lost. Yes, it is good to have people you trust, people who have studied. It is good for each member of the community to be accountable to each other member. But it is also good for each member of the community to build each other up with their own skills and knowledge. Each person has unique skills and experience. Each person’s viewpoint is helpful. Remember the Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant? It is only through them talking together and sharing their perception of what they were dealing with that they were able to understand the whole.

I’m going to be bold here and say that I think that is also true of world religions. I think God has called to His creation time and time again. I think God has constantly tried to get us to hear and know that He loves us and wants us to work with Him to make this a better world. I think we short-change ourselves when we only hear one voice and one perspective. Look at the Gospels. Those are four different viewpoints of the same story. They could have been woven together and created into one story, but they weren’t. Sure, you can buy something called a Parallel Gospel and that will put them all together for you. But that is extra. If you buy a Bible with a New Testament, you are going to get four different yet the same stories all telling you who Jesus was. Some stress different parts. Some have the same parables repeated. Some have parts that only are in that one Gospel. Where’s the truth? I say the truth is in all of them, all together. I tell you that it is up to us to winnow through and separate the wheat from the chaff, but we have to go out into the field.

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