In Christianity, the doctrine of apostolic succession maintains that the Christian Church is the spiritual successor of the Apostles. Different Christian denominations interpret this doctrine in different ways.
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Nestorian, Lutheran, and Anglican Churches hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the ordination of bishops in unbroken personal succession back to the apostles but do not necessarily interpret this "succession" identically. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology, the unbrokenness of apostolic succession is significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" (Bible, Matthew 16:18) would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to the end of the age. In this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept.
Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe that each of their teachings today is the same as or is in harmony with the teaching of the first apostles, although each might deny this to the other. This form of the doctrine was first formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, in response to certain Gnostics. The Gnostics claimed that Christ or the Apostles passed on some teachings secretly, or that there were some secret apostles, and that they (the Gnostics) were passing on these teachings. Irenaeus responded that the identity of the original Apostles was well known, as was the main content of their teaching and the identity of the apostles' successors. Therefore, anyone teaching something contrary to what was known to be apostolic teaching was not a successor to the Apostles or to Christ.
Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches (such recognition is not reciprocated by the Eastern Orthodox, who do not separate "valid" from "licit"). Pope Leo XIII clarified, in his 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae, that the Roman Catholic church believes that the Anglican Church's ordinations are invalid because of changes made to the rite of ordination under Edward VI, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession; the Church of Sweden's apostolic succession is seen as having been maintained, and following the establishment of the Porvoo Communion an increasing number of Anglicans will also be able to trace their succession through Swedish bishops.
In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles. The Eastern Orthodox have permitted clergy ordained by Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy. However, this is a matter of ekonomia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Roman Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).
Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans (including those known in the U.S. as Episcopalians), Moravians, Lutherans, and some Methodists do have Apostolic Succession (also known as the "historic episcopate"). The United Methodist Church believes that its bishops and elders receive apostolic succession through John Wesley.
However most Protestant churches do not hold to the doctrine that the Historic Episcopate is necessary. They generally hold that one important qualification of the apostles was that they were chosen directly by Jesus, and the work of these twelve, together with the prophets of the twelve tribes of Israel, provide a foundation for the whole church of subsequent history through the Scriptures which we have from them. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful sense of apostolic succession; because it is in this sense that men have fellowship with God in the truth (an extension of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura). The most meaningful apostolic succession for most Protestants, then, is the faithful succession of apostolic teaching.
It is worth noting, however, that some Protestant charismatic churches include "apostles" among the offices that should be evident into modern times in a true church, though they never trace an historical line of succession.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a similar, but unique position. The LDS claims that apostolic succession was broken during the Great Apostasy, or falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and later restored in America. The LDS Church maintains that God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith, Jr. near Palmyra, New York in 1820 and called Joseph as a prophet to restore Christ's church to the earth with correct doctrines and practices. Near the time that Joseph formally organized the church in 1830, John the Baptist and later the apostles Peter, James and John appeared as resurrected beings to Joseph. In both of these visitations, these divine messengers were directed by Jesus to lay their hands on Joseph's head to ordain him to the Priesthood giving him authority to conduct some of the affairs of God's Kingdom on earth. Many other divine messengers such as Moses and Elijah also appeared to Joseph during his life and ordained Joseph in a similar manner with the particular authority that had been given to them. Joseph then ordained others who were baptized into the church with various levels of priesthood authority. All the various levels or "keys" of this authority have been and are passed on to worthy, male members of the LDS Church. In the LDS Church, apostles hold more priesthood authority than bishops: while a bishop governs a local congregation, the quorum of the apostles govern the entire church. In this way, Latter-day Saints hold that apostolic succession was restored to the earth through the original twelve apostles and continues today through the ordination of new apostles as the older apostles pass away.
Latter-day Saints interpret the Scriptural promise of the Church's constancy differently: in the first, Jesus promises that the gates of hell would not prevail against the "rock" of continuous revelation; in the second, Jesus' promise was to the apostles individually, not to the Church at large, and only so far as his followers continued to obey his commandments. This interpretation allows a break in apostolic succession if the leaders and followers failed to be faithful or obedient. In support of this, Latter-day Saints point to various Old Testament covenants that were made between God and His people and the manner in which some of these blessings were never realized due to the disobedience of the covenant people (Bible, Jeremiah 18:9-10). Turning to the teaching "by their fruits ye shall know them", Latter-day Saints would also hold that it is inconsistent to claim that Jesus' promise to be with the apostles is support for an unbroken line of succession in light of the un-Christian-like behavior of some ecclesiastical leaders through the history of mainstream Christianity.
Joseph Smith was called a prophet, Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb. He read the scriptures in a bag, Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb. Even though nobody else ever saw them, Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb....
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that apostolic succession is an erroneous doctrine. They base this teaching on the accounts of the replacement of Judas Iscariot and the death of the apostle James. In Acts Chapter 1, Peter says:
"Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus, because he had been numbered among us and he obtained a share in this ministry... For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his lodging place become desolate, and let there be no dweller in it,’ and, ‘His office of oversight let someone else take.’" NWT
They contrast this with the fact that Acts does not mention any successor being named for the faithful apostle James. (Acts 12:2; Insight on the Scriptures pg. 129 Vol. I)
See also: List of Bishops and Apostle