So what's the deal with this apostolic succession business? We'll, I'll tell you how I've put it to myself for quite a while now, an analogy that has helped me a lot.
Let me say first of all that the doctrine of apostolic succession seems reasonably persuasive Scripturally, though it's hard to prove it in any final sense, if that's the sort of thing you're looking for. What really gives it the stamp of authority then is how thoroughly it seems to be assumed in the thinking of the early Church; you would think that, sitting so close to their founders, they would have some idea at least of how they were supposed to be governed.
But I'm not wanting to focus on that angle, because that never seems to be the angle from which objections come. Objectors universally say something like, "It just doesn't seem that we can put God in a box like that; the Spirit raises up leaders wherever he wants." This sort of objection has always seemed very odd to me, given the rest of our theology. After all, this is exactly the sort of objection we dismiss when it is brought against our sacraments. No, just because you think you have a personal relationship with God outside the sacraments does not mean that these are not his ordained means of grace and of granting his presence. There cannot, it seems to me, be an a priori objection to the "exclusiveness" of apostolic succession without applying the same argument to the sacraments. Now, of course, this does not mean that the same conditions necessarily apply to both. However, if apostolic succession otherwise looks biblically, historically, and theologically attractive, we can apply this analogy to make more sense of it.
So, baptism is God's ordained means of bringing people into covenant relation with him as his people; he marks them out with it and fills them with his power and grace. Just so, can we not say that the laying on of hands in ordination is God's ordained means of bringing people into covenant relation with him as his ministers; he marks them out with it and fills them with his power and grace?
Can someone be saved without baptism? Of course. It happens all the time. God enters into a gracious relationship with that person outside of his normal means. So can a minister wield true authority of some kind without apostolic succession? Well, yes, of course. It happens all the time. God graciously commissions that person outside of his normal means.
But, by the same token, is the person saved outside of baptism just as well off, all other things being equal, as the person who is rightly baptized and brought into the covenant people? I think we would generally say no. Therefore, the unbaptized believer ought to be strongly urged not to be complacent just because God is gracious, but to seek out His promised means of grace. Likewise, then, the minister appointed without apostolic authority is not, all other things being equal, as well off as the one who is. And therefore, he ought to not be complacent just because God is gracious, and should seek out God's promised means of grace (recognizing, of course, that there may be complications and delays in this process).
The analogy can go further. Sometimes people are baptized under somewhat irregular circumstances, for example, by an unfaithful minister. Sometimes this irregularity is judged so serious that rebaptism may be necessary, but usually, it is recognized that God's mercy extends to grant the benefits to those of true faith but who in ignorance received the sacrament irregularly. Therefore, I see no reason why we may not allow for the occasional irregularity in the apostolic succession...someone being ordained by a heretic, for example. God's mercy extends to grant the benefits in some cases of irregularity. But, of course this is no basis to argue that it extends to grant the benefits when there is not even any appearance of or attempt toward any kind of regularity. That would be like arguing that someone who asks their friend to spray them with a garden hose while reciting the creed can call that a baptism and thereby make it one.
And finally, baptism is a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of salvation. Of course we do not say that because God chooses to work salvation through baptism that means that all you need is baptism to have eternal life. You need faith and faithfulness as well. Just so, hardly anyone who teaches apostolic succession means to suggest that the laying on of hands by proper authority is all that you need--that as long as you can point to your episcopal genealogy you're automatically fine. No, ministers can lose the grace they have received, or rather, have it turned to judgment, if they do not use it with faith and faithfulness. But this is a falling away from grace received, not proof that there never was grace, or that the rite is meaningless.
Up next: So What About the Reformation (the Romans 11 Parable)