Is Ecclesiastical Succession Required for a Church to Form?

Author’s note: The following post is a slightly modified version of a booklet I published in September 2020 via Amazon.

Does the Bible require ecclesiastical succession in order for a group of Christians to form a church? In other words, can a church start without being “sent out” by another church? This is a question I have seriously pondered for many years. I believe the need for Christians to plant churches without ecclesiastical succession increases when the established clergy (the “evangelical gatekeepers” as Jon Speed calls them) become more and more unwilling to boldly stand on the authority of Scripture and the lordship of Christ in every area of life. This unwillingness to boldly apply God’s Word has been magnified during the coronavirus. Many churches ceased meeting due to the coronavirus. My view of the response of many churches is similar to Jon Speed’s: “When the coronavirus fell upon the United States, the [evangelical] gatekeepers advised the rest of us small fry to fall into our places in the parade away from the Lord’s Day assembly. The threat of disease and death, the wisdom of pundits, and the guiding hand of government seemed to have more influence than the words of Scripture and the examples of church history” (written in the foreword of Essential Service: Coronavirus and the Assembly of the Saints). While I agree with the need to show grace, there comes a time when Christians unwilling to be part of compromised church, decide that they must be faithful in forming a new local church. To quote Jon Speed again, “You can teach theology at seminaries, but you cannot teach courage or conviction.” As I will write about below, the Pilgrims left a church that even affirmed the doctrines of grace (the Church of England) and formed a new church without being sent out by a church. The established church had the theology, but they didn’t have the courage and conviction that the Pilgrims had. In the paragraphs that follow, I will present my case for why Christians have full authority to plant a church, regardless of whether or not they are “sent out” by another church. As I have already hinted at, I will also note why doing so is sometimes necessary.

Survey the book of Acts and you will see that God is interested in the growth and expansion of Christianity. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message that is meant to be proclaimed “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the book of Acts, the application of the command to spread this message far and wide is demonstrated by (1) the open proclamation of the gospel to everyone visiting Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2); (2) the willingness of the scattered believers to share the gospel, even with Ethiopians and Hellenists (Acts 8, 11); and (3) the journeys by men like Paul, Silas, John Mark, and others, which were undertaken in order to strengthen believers and bring the gospel to lost souls (even Gentiles).

One of the results of these gospel-proclaiming efforts was the formation of Christian churches. In that sense, what was occurring in the book of Acts was part of the process of what we might call “church planting.” Here are two definitions of “church planting” that are helpful to start our thinking about this topic:

Church planting is a process that results in a new Christian church being established.

Church planting is about bringing to birth, by the work of God’s Spirit, worshiping congregations.[1]

Both definitions are very simple, clear, and straightforward. But they do not really tell us much about the process (other than that it involves, in the words of James Renihan, “the work of God’s Spirit”). In order to understand more about church planting—and what is required for a church to form—we must understand the nature of the church. I believe that if we can get a grasp on what the church is, then we can better answer questions regarding the authority for starting a new church. I will seek to address the following questions in this post:

  1. What is a local church?
  2. What is required for a local church to form? (And is ecclesiastical succession one of those things?)
  3. Is there a biblical example of a local church forming without ecclesiastical succession?
  4. Is there an example from church history of a local church forming without ecclesiastical succession?
  5. Is there any more application we can make from these principles?

It is important to note that this post is not a treatment of how to go about forming a new Church—it is not a church planting “how-to” manual. If that were the case, I would spend more time explaining the benefits of working with an existing local church—perhaps most notably the ability of such local churches to regularly send out small groups of families to form new churches in order to continually expand the gospel presence in a community, state, and nation. My focus in this post is the authority required to start a local church. There is a belief present in evangelicalism, though perhaps not clearly articulated, that all new churches should be officially sanctioned and sent out by other, previously existent, local churches. The thesis of this post is that, while such a practice may generally be recommended as the best method, it is not required—nor is it always the most viable (or best) option given any number of factors. I believe such a general guideline should not be applied as a universal rule to the practice of church planting. By “the requirement of ecclesiastical succession,” then, I mean that a previously existing local church is required to officially sanction and endorse another group of Christians in order for that group to legitimately form a true church.

I will also note that I am writing this post from the perspective of a Reformed Baptist who is wholeheartedly committed to the congregational form of church polity. Therefore, readers holding to a Presbyterian form of church government may find it hard to accept some components of my argument. However, I cannot adequately defend the congregational form of church government in this post.[2] Nevertheless, I believe the arguments I make here regarding the authority to plant a church are consistent with the biblical evidence. 

1. What is a local church? 

When discussing what is required in church planting, we must have a proper understanding of a church. The very first thing we need to understand is the nature of a local church. In other words, what is a local church?[3] The word “church” (from the Greek ekklesia) gives us a good starting place. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the 16th century, he did not utilize the English word church. Instead, Tyndale translated the Greek word ekklesia as “congregation.” At least one reason for this is that the word ekklesia typically referred to a physical gathering of people. John A. Broadus notes:

The Greek word ekklesia signified primarily the assembly of citizens in a self-governed state, being derived from ekkaleo, to call out; i.e. out from their homes or places of business, to summon, as we speak of calling out the militia.[4]

Of course, the church is a distinctly Christian assembly. Thus, Earl Radmacher notes that “in the development of the word ekklesia, the technical use of the word came to mean not only a physical assembly, but a physical assembly characterized by a distinctly Christian unity.”[5] Radmacher elaborates:

Thus, the difference between secular and Christian ekklesiai was not in the fact of meeting, but in the kind of person who was attending the meeting…The Scriptures make it plain that the ekklesia is the body of people at worship, not the building in which they worship. Thus, Paul speaks of the ekklesia that is in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16:5); of the ekklesia in the house of Nymphas in Laodicea (Col. 4:15); of the ekklesia in the house of Archippus (Philemon 2).[6]

John Gill, who served as pastor for fifty-one years at New Park Street Chapel (where Charles Spurgeon would later minister), also noted how the word translated as church signifies “an assembly of persons called and convened together.” This understanding of the local church as an assembly of Christians is foundational in defining the local church.

Furthermore, in defining a local church, I think it is helpful to consider the two criteria used by the Reformers in identifying a true church:

1. The faithful preaching of the Word of God: This means that the church teaches the Christian gospel according to the Scripture. Any group that denies the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sin-bearing Atonement, or justification by faith alone, is like the separatists of earlier times whose denials of the Incarnation (1 John 4:1-3) caused John to say, “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).

2. The right use of the sacraments [or ordinances]: This criterion means that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are used and explained as setting forth the gospel of faith in Christ. Turning these sacraments into superstitions that take away the sufficiency of faith in Christ undercuts the identity of the church, like anything else that obstructs faith in Christ. One purpose of baptism is to mark those who are received into the visible church. The Lord’s Supper confirms for the faithful their membership in the church and their community with each other and with Christ.[7]

Some Reformers added other marks. For example, the mark of church discipline. However, I believe church discipline is an application of the first two marks, especially the second: “it is widely acknowledged that [right discipline] is implied in the second mark—the sacraments being rightly administered.”[8] According to this understanding, what makes a local church, is not ecclesiastical succession, or pastoral sanction, but the gospel. Where Christians gather together in a particular assembly united in the gospel, observing the gospel ordinances (which entails church discipline), you have a local church.

In 1534, Philip Melanchthon noted: “The marks which point out the church are the pure gospel and the proper use of the sacraments.” John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Edmund Clowney summarizes the Reformed position: “The Reformation made the gospel, not ecclesiastical organization, the test of the true church.”[9]

To press this point home, let us consider something that a church should have, but is not required as to its essence—namely, elders (pastors). I do not believe that a local church ceases to exist if there are no elders. However, the local church is required to seek out elders if she has none. Therefore, we have at least two occasions in the Bible where elders are appointed in existing churches.

And when they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

The fact that elders were not present in the churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, did not make those gatherings non-churches, it simply made them local churches in need of elders. Likewise, I do not believe that Titus, by his appointment of elders, created the churches in every town of Crete. Rather, he was putting things in order. As we will see later, this is similar to what Paul does when he goes to the already established churches in Rome. The churches were already there. His job was to tidy things up and put things in order, strengthening them in sound doctrine and sound practice.  

As a side note, I do not believe that these verses teach an apostle (or elder) is required for a congregation to call and affirm elders. Much more could be said about that, but my short explanation is that Paul and Barnabas, and Titus, were helping these churches get started on the right foundation, teaching about the qualifications of elders, teaching the congregations to identify these men, and then affirming the congregations’ decisions. We see this pattern with the selection of what I believe were the first deacons in Acts 6. The apostles tell the church to pick out the men, and then they pray and lay hands on them (Acts 6:3, 6). In Titus’ case, I do not believe that he was expected to have the same knowledge of the potential elders that the local congregations would have had. Titus’ job was to set things in order and get these congregations (true churches) into a healthier situation by instructing them regarding their duty to identify and select elders.

In summary, we can define a local church as a group of Christians gathering together in the name of Jesus and his gospel and observing the gospel ordinances.

2. What is required for a local church to form? (And is ecclesiastical succession one of those things?)

The identifying marks of a local church are simultaneously the defining marks of a local church. Even more fundamentally, they are the things that God uses to legitimately create or form a local church. “We can see in these two marks—Gospel proclamation and observance of the sacraments—both the creation and the preservation of the church.”[10] We can define and identify a local church as a particular group of Christians, united in the true gospel, observing the gospel ordinances. We can go even further to say that anytime a group of particular Christians come together around the true doctrine of the gospel and the observance of the gospel ordinances, a local church has, in fact, been created.

The gospel (by the Spirit’s blessing) is what creates the church. Just go back one step before a church: in order for there to be Christians, people must have heard the gospel and responded to it in faith. As the gospel went out from Jerusalem, people started to respond to it in faith. As such, new Christians started “sprouting up” all over the Roman Empire. Naturally, these Christians desired to fellowship with other Christians. As they began to meet together, united around the gospel and the ordinances, churches were formed. When Paul and others then go through the Roman Empire, there are already churches in existence.[11] For example, the church in Rome was formed prior to the arrival of any apostle (more on that later). In fact, I believe the widespread tradition of the Jewish synagogue (which means “gathering-together-place”) provided an important example as churches began forming. Synagogues were built “wherever there were at least ten adult [Jewish] males in the community.”[12] The practice of local synagogues was very common to what developed in the local churches: “psalms were sung, the Scriptures were read, and the sermon was preached (Luke 4:16-21).”[13] “A time of questions and discussion followed” and “elders arranged the details of the service.”[14] The fundamental difference between the synagogue and the local church was commitment to the gospel and the gospel ordinances. 

So, these early local churches had all that was needed—all that was essential and required—for a church to form. Here are the components needed for a church to form (which are also what defines and identifies a true church): Christians gathering together in the name of Jesus and his gospel and observing the gospel ordinances. Or, in numbered list format:

  1. Christians
  2. gathering together
  3. in the name of Jesus and his gospel,
  4. and observing the gospel ordinances.

No apostolic and ecclesiastical succession is required for a local church to form. What someone would need to do in order to prove the thesis that ecclesiastical succession is needed for a legitimate church to form would be to show two things. First and foremost, show a precept (law) that either commands that all local churches are to be formed by the express sanction of another previously (legitimately?) formed church, or a command which forbids a church from forming without the express sanction of another previously (legitimately?) formed church. And second, show that the practice in the Bible was that legitimate local churches only formed by being expressly sanctioned from previously (legitimately?) formed churches. I think both things are impossible to show from Scripture (or history). Therefore, I conclude that that which defines a church, that which identifies it as a church, are also the necessary components for its formation. If some sort of ecclesiastical succession were required for a church to form, then it would necessarily also be a mark of a true church. 

Perhaps another illustration will help apply the concept. Suppose you have a Christian who is captured and taken hostage in a hostile territory. There are no churches in the area. This Christian begins preaching the gospel to his captors. After his death, some people who heard him preach are converted. They grasp the true gospel. They also learned about the ordinances from this Christian man’s preaching. Can they form a local church? Yes. Now, one might say that this is an exceptional circumstance, and the normal practice would be for a local church to plant another local church. We can consider all those things—what is normal, what is best in a specific situation, etc.—but the point of this post is to demonstrate that what is required for a church to form is nothing more than the true gospel and the gospel ordinances.

Would the church in this “exceptional” example be the healthiest church? Possibly not. Would it need people to come and tidy things up and put things in order? Probably. But that does not mean it is not a church. (I will give another example in the historical section to show that sometimes these things happen in areas where there is an established Christian witness and, therefore, there is not a great need for outsiders to come in and put things in order.) My point here is that if we put certain requirements on the formation of a church, we need to be consistent in saying that without these things, there can be no local church.

One final word regarding my illustration of the Christian in an unreached area. I do not believe this is an exception to a rule. I do not believe there is a rule regarding ecclesiastical succession. I believe you could say that a church forming without ecclesiastical succession is an exception to a generally good practice, but not an exception to a rule.

So, what is required for a church to form? Christians united around the gospel and the gospel ordinances. Rightly understood, the ordinances explain and demonstrate the truth of the gospel. With these two things, you have a group of people who are marked off from others (via baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and united around an identifiable body of doctrine (the gospel) which includes right thinking and right living. Someone can certainly be saved by believing in the gospel, quite apart from observing the ordinances, and be part of the universal church. But a local church—according to the Reformed framework I am operating from—must have the gospel and the ordinances.

If someone is going to argue with this Reformed (and I believe biblical) definition of a local church and what is required for a church to form, then he will have to be consistent in his argumentation and apply his requirements to the biblical and historical examples I am about to give.

3. Is there a biblical example of a local church forming without ecclesiastical succession?

First of all, let me be clear: I think local churches sending out teams of Christians to start other churches is an outstanding way, probably even generally the best way, for new churches to form. However, there could be a plethora of situations where that might not happen, and Christians should still form churches. My point here is not to argue what is best in any specific situation. I am defending a principle which can then be applied to whatever specific situation you may have in mind. As such, I am arguing for the idea that a local church can form (properly and righteously) without the Christians forming said church being sent out from another church. In this section, I want to provide a biblical example. The heart of my argument in this post has already been presented in response to questions 1 and 2 above. What follows is example and application. I will seek to demonstrate the consistency of my argument in light of biblical and historical examples. In this section I want to briefly consider the formation of churches in Crete and Rome, respectively.

Let’s take a closer look at the Day of Pentecost following the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. Pentecost, a religious holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks, attracted “Jewish people from throughout the Roman Empire.”[15] Luke (the author of Acts) makes sure to note the geographical origin of the hearers of Peter’s gospel message:

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:5-11)

The list of nations is likely representative of even more nations. In any case, Peter’s hearers came from as far west as Rome, as far north as present-day Turkey, and as far south as Egypt. Many of these visitors were converted upon hearing the gospel; baptisms (the first gospel ordinance) followed (Acts 2:41). These new Christians likely remained in Jerusalem for at least several days, learning more about Jesus, no doubt being involved in the following things: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). These things are “a summary of the essential elements needed in Christian discipleship.”[16] The reference to the “breaking of bread” is likely a reference that at least includes the idea of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, these new Christians would have heard the gospel, been baptized, and observed the Lord’s Supper (the necessary components of a true church). Then, they had to go home—back to Egypt, back to Rome, back to Crete, back to Cyrene. The gospel began to be spread all over the world following the Day of Pentecost.

Many local churches likely formed because of these Christians (probably in some cases groups of them) returning to their native soil and sharing the gospel and the ordinances they learned in Jerusalem. For example, Jews (recently converted to Christianity via Peter’s sermon) returning to Crete likely began to form churches there. Jirair Tashjian notes:

We know from the statement in Titus 1:5 that there were some churches on the island. It may be that the Christian movement on Crete began when Jewish Cretans who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), and returned to Crete and spearheaded the Christian movement on the island.[17]

It is also probable that the local church in Rome formed because of new Christians returning from Jerusalem after Pentecost, not because of a direct planting effort by an apostle:

That the faith of the Roman Christians was well known (Romans 1:8), and that Paul had desired to visit them for some time (Romans 1:13), suggest that the Christian faith had been established in the capital of the empire for a considerable period. These facts are supported by the statement of the Roman historian Suetonius that Claudius had expelled the Jews (in A.D. 49) for rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” (evidently a reference to Christ). Visitors from Rome were present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10, 11) and may have been the first to bring the good news to the city. Its strategic importance and the large number of Jews living there would have brought the gospel message to Rome as though attracted by a magnet. Despite tradition stretching back through Irenaeus, it is certain that the church was not founded by Peter or Paul. It is clear that Paul had never visited the church (Romans 1:8-13), and the absence of any reference to Peter or the other apostles suggests that the Roman church had not experienced direct apostolic ministry.[18]

The local church(es) in Rome, it seems clear, was not formed as the result of being “planted” by another local church. It was the preaching of the gospel which led to their formation. The open proclamation of Jesus led to the rapid dissemination of the gospel and the exponential growth of churches in the Roman Empire. If the growth of churches had been dependent on the travels of select “missionaries,” there would never have been the amount of growth that there was.

If you and I were trying share a message carefully—trying to get the word out in a way as to limit misunderstanding and misapplication—we might do a carefully controlled staged rollout. Maybe the apostles should have started a seminary in Jerusalem. Then, after four years of preparation, they could start sending out certain men with degrees in Old Testament prophecy and first-century apologetics. These men could start in nearby Samaria and perhaps, after several years, expand into Syria. After a few more years of establishing those churches, they could have expanded a bit further, perhaps as far north as modern-day Turkey. Then, only after years and years of carefully observed growth and development could they have expected to reach Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, etc.). Eventually, maybe after a few decades, even Rome could be reached!

But that is not how the apostles did it. They openly declared the gospel from Day One (Pentecost), encouraging others to go throughout the Roman empire and do the same. It was this very willingness to openly proclaim the gospel that led to the controversy about Gentiles being part of the church.

I often think about how God did not do it the way the seminary leaders would have done it. Jesus picked the untrained, the uneducated (Acts 4:13)—the men who had not gone through the authorized religious system of the day. Then, once Jesus is raised from the dead, he decides to simply send a bunch of new converts out into the world (the converts from Peter’s Pentecost preaching)! And then later he will send Peter and Paul and John Mark and Barnabas and Silas and others to start tidying up. There is certainly a place for lengthy preparation, seminary degrees, and advanced training. But those things should not come at the expense of the open proclamation of the gospel, which will lead to the creation of Christians and the formation of local churches. Those new converts, returning to their homes after the Day of Pentecost, had nothing more than the sanction of Christ and the authority of the gospel.[19]

4. Is there an example from church history of a local church forming without ecclesiastical succession?

I will give two brief examples in this section. The first is the formation of Protestant congregations in Germany and the second is the formation of a specific congregation in England. I can only give a brief overview here but encourage you to study these examples more on your own.

Obviously, Martin Luther did not have the sanction of the Roman Catholic “church” when he supported the formation of Protestant congregations in Germany. Luther believed that “the certain mark of the Christian congregation is the preaching of the gospel in its purity.” It is quite natural that Luther did not believe a previously existing church was required to form a new church, but only the gospel—for, he wrote, “we are certain that where the gospel is preached, there must be Christians.” He went further, writing that Christians should not rely on “bishops, theologians, and councils” when calling their pastors. Robert Godfrey notes:

Luther’s focus on the simplicity and importance of the congregation came to quite radical expression, for his day, in his belief that in principle the congregation has the right to call its own minister. As early as 1523, he had written a treatise titled That a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture. Ministers were not a mysterious order created and imposed by a hierarchy, but were to emerge from the congregation.[20]

Of course, you might say that Luther’s was an extreme case. The Roman Catholic church was a false church, without the gospel, and therefore he had no choice but to support the formation of a new church. You might say that—and you might be correct—but it still would not change the fact that ecclesiastical succession is not required—unless you want to argue that the churches formed out of the Reformation were false because they could not trace their formation back to the first true church. If you want to make that argument, you will have some company: the Roman Catholic church.

My second example is the congregation in Scrooby, England at the beginning of the 17th century. Here we have the case of a group of Christians who refused to attend the state-sponsored, Church of England services. In this case, we are not talking about the false Roman Catholic church, but the Church of England—a church many Puritans considered to be a true church, albeit in need of serious reform. For many Puritans, perhaps even the majority, it was enough to wait for Queen Elizabeth (head of the church) to accept their earnest pleas for reform. For other Puritans such an approach was unacceptable. Bradford Smith, a descendent of Pilgrim William Bradford (one-time member of the Scrooby congregation and governor of Plymouth colony), explains what led to the formation of the churches like the Scrooby congregation:

There was, however, a body of men who saw that if they had to wait for Elizabeth to act, they would wait a long time. They conceived of a quicker way to purify the church—by withdrawing from the state church and establishing a separate congregation of like-minded believers. This was the solution brought forward by Robert Browne in 1580, and this was Separatism.

In Elizabeth’s day Separatists were treated as agitators. A mob in Fleet Street kicked one as if intending to kill him. Said an observer: “And I confess it had been no matter if they had beaten the whole tribe in like manner.”

The men we know as Pilgrims were Separatists—regarded by most decent people in their time as revolutionaries, radicals, a threat to the state [and the religious order, I would add]. These radicals are the men we now revere as the staid, conservative, bed-rock founders of our nation. Time changes all things.[21]

While the reasons for forming the Scrooby church without ecclesiastical succession were based on several factors, the church was properly formed on the sole basis of the gospel and the gospel ordinances—nothing less, nothing more. Here was a case in which the newly formed churched—formed without ecclesiastical succession—was not in great need of help in ordering her affairs. The men and women who made up this congregation were quite competent in the Scriptures.

Of course, one could say that this was an extreme case. The Church of England was unbiblical in that it was controlled by the state, and therefore the Separatists had no choice but to support the formation of a new church. You might say that—and you might be correct—but it still would not change the fact that ecclesiastical succession is not required—unless you want to argue that the churches formed by Christians leaving the Church of England were illegitimate because they could not trace their formation back to the first true church. If you want to make that argument, you will have some company: tyrannical King James and others who required attendance in the state-sponsored church.

I am looking for consistency. If someone is going to say ecclesiastical succession is required, then he should be consistent and say that these churches were illegitimate and that any churches that came from them were also illegitimate. Now, if you want to say these churches were planted using less than ideal methods, and you would have had a better idea for Martin Luther or John Robinson (one of the leaders of the Scrooby church), that is totally fine. I would be interested to hear it. But that is different than saying the process was wrong or sinful or illegitimate. 

5. Is there any more application we can make from these principles?

Based on the aforementioned principles and examples, there are several points we should make before closing.

I love traditions, general practices, and guidelines. But such things cannot be required if they are not Scripture. They must not become fetters, preventing good and godly work from being done. Guidelines and general practices are great, but a problem arises when we become constrained by them. I believe the view that churches can only legitimately and righteously come into existence by already formed churches can stymie the growth of the kingdom. 

In most cases, ecclesiastical succession probably is ideal. However, that does not mean that it is ideal in every case. We should not view ecclesiastical succession as always being the best way, simply because it is often the best way. I can think of at least a couple scenarios when it would be preferable for a group of Christians to form a church without ecclesiastical succession, rather than waiting for an already formed church to sanction their effort.

The first scenario has already been hinted at: frontier outreach. When a group of Christians find themselves in a largely unreached area, it might make perfect sense to form a church without being “sent out” by another church.

Another scenario would be a situation in which an already established church is hesitant to take action. A number of factors could be involved here: an overly cautious perspective on growth and multiplication; a reluctancy to see some families leave the “sending” church; disagreements over methodology or doctrine. If ecclesiastical succession is required for group of Christians to form a new church, then these concerns, and others, can legitimately prevent the establishment of Christian congregations. While wisdom, prudence, and tact should be exercised, a group of Christians who are committed to the true gospel, ought not to be hindered from forming a church due to lack of ecclesiastical sanction.

However, I would like to note that rather than desiring to see a massive increase in churches planted without ecclesiastical succession, I would prefer that this short post would encourage existing congregations to be more eager and willing to frequently and freely send out groups of Christians to form new churches. However, I think in modern-day evangelicalism, especially among thoughtful church leaders, there is a tendency to try to be more careful and slower moving about these things. While I do not encourage hastiness (1 Timothy 5:22), I do encourage growth and life, even if that means leaving our comfort zones, taking some “risks,” and experiencing a little messiness or uncertainty.

It might be objected that promoting more independence (or less hesitancy from established churches) in church planting will inevitably lead to doctrinal carelessness and imprecision. While doctrinal carelessness and imprecision can occur in new churches, they also quite readily occur in established, hierarchical churches. Doctrinal carelessness and imprecision do not occur because a group of Christians formed a church without (or with) ecclesiastical succession; they occur because a group of Christians is doctrinally careless and imprecise! I am arguing for both a serious, sober commitment to doctrine and a passionate commitment to see new churches formed whenever feasible. The first mark of a church—the pure doctrine of the gospel—demands that we take doctrine very seriously.

Preaching in 1856, Joshua Wyman Wellman responded to a charge that congregationalism is too independent, careless, and prone to error. His response applies in part to the present discussion:

But it is sometimes objected to this Congregational system, that it fosters too much life in the individual churches; that it does not keep them all quiet and tractable; that it makes the members feel their independence zeal and action, making the churches so many hotbeds of error and fanaticism. But the ground of this inconsiderate objection we regard as one of the greatest excellences of the system. The superabundant light and heat of the sun are great blessings, though they may produce some unnecessary and even noisome vegetation, and now and then momentarily fill the air with troublesome exhalations. We glory in just this feature of our church polity. We believe that life is better than death—that some unnecessary commotion or visionary action is not so great an evil as utter stagnation. Existence, to a man who is always asleep, is not preferable to death…The church of Christ should be a region of the intensest action. It is placed in the world that is all glowing and surging with life, and God never designed that his church should be like an island of ice on a sea of fire. The intensity of its burning zeal for God should even surpass the intensest ardor with which the world around it is pervaded.[22]

I believe that local churches forming without ecclesiastical succession is not so great an evil (in fact, I do not think it an evil at all) as utter stagnation. Whenever possible, ecclesiastical succession will prove quite helpful and beneficial in church planting. In other cases, however, the growth and life caused by the gospel will lead to the legitimate formation of gospel-centered churches, willing and able to further the cause of Christ in this world.  


[1] James Renihan, “A Theology of Church Planting,” http://www.arbca.com

[2] I refer the reader to Joshua Wyman Wellman’s 1856 sermon, “The Church Polity of the Pilgrims.”

[3] While there is certainly an aspect of the church which is universal and invisible, the focus here is on the local church.

[4] John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 358.

[5] Earl Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Company, 1996), 139.

[6] Ibid, 162.

[7] The Reformation Study Bible (P & R Publishing, 2005), 1850. Emphasis added.

[8] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 23.

[9] Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1995), 101. Emphasis added.

[10] Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, 24. Emphasis added.

[11] Timothy Yates notes how Paul’s conversion “has been dated as early as A.D. 34,” which would imply “that there were already Christians in Syria and Damascus” at that point. (The Expansion of Christianity, 11)

[12] Ralph Gower, The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 346.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts: Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), 362.

[16] The Reformation Study Bible (P & R Publishing, 2005), 1563.

[17] Jirair Tashjian, “Life in Crete at the Time of Titus,” http://www.lillenas.com

[18] The Reformation Study Bible, 1610.

[19] I suppose it could be argued that upon their baptism, these new converts were joined to the Jerusalem church and then immediately sent out to form new churches. However, I do not think it is realistic that the Jerusalem church would have been able to do anything beyond providing the essential instruction in the gospel to these thousands of new converts from numerous nations all over the Roman Empire.

[20] W. Robert Godfrey, “Martin Luther’s 7 Characteristics of the Church,” http://www.ligonier.org

[21] Bradford Smith, Bradford of Plymouth (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1951), 48.

[22] Joshua Wyman Wellman, The Church Polity of the Pilgrims: A Sermon (Forgotten Books), 82-83. Sermon originally preached in 1856.

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