The Study of the Church
Exploring the Identity of the One True Church
"He [Jesus Christ] is also head of the body, the church; and He is at the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything." (Col. 1:18)
St. Peter's Basilica, Image Credit
I am sure there will be those who are adherents of Roman Catholicism who will take exception to what I write here in this article. Perhaps there will be those who accuse me of being uncharitable. I do not wish to be so, and if that is your reaction, please accept in advance my apology. If one is afflicted, unbeknown to him, with cancer, he wishes to have a doctor who will be honest enough to say so. Some doctors have a better bedside manner than others. I imagine the same can be said for writers of religious and theological articles. I tend to see things in rather black and white terms. I think my own adult children would tell you that. So let me tell you what drives me in this particular article.
I take with great seriousness the opening verse or two of Jude, the slave of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, both half brothers of Jesus. Jude wrote, "Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 1:3). As I said, I take Jude's exhortation very seriously. That is why I am writing this article.
When did Jude write? Probably some time between A.D. 67 and 80. So by that time, there was a body of truth "once for all handed down to the saints." It distresses me that, operating under the exceedingly flawed assumption that Church Tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture (Paragraphs 78, 80, 81, and 82), the Roman Catholic Church has built up two millennia worth of accretions in its dogma and practice that often times contradict and contravene the Word of God. In so doing, the Church has, in my opinion, spurned the exhortation of Jude. But I have not, although I will be the first to admit my own imperfection and a heart sometimes dominated by sin and an attitude not always exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). For that I ask forgiveness in advance. Let us proceed.
Roman Catholics delight in identifying themselves as "The One True Church." The more sophisticated among them piously assert that the Church headquartered in the Vatican in Rome is "the Church Christ founded." Their reasoning behind this is somewhat convoluted, but let me present it as fairly as I can. They believe that Jesus predicted He would build His church upon Peter (Matt. 16:18). They believe that Christ gave to Peter total authority in the Church (Matt. 16:19). They believe, furthermore, that Peter founded the church in Rome; that Peter was the leading bishop of Rome; that Peter, as an Apostle, had the authority to pass on his apostolic authority to succeeding bishops of the church of Rome. And they believe over a period of time the Church of Rome became the leading church, and that the Bishop of Rome was rightfully acknowledged as the head of the Church Universal. He was the Pope. And from this centralized authority, organized in dioceses, was spread the one true church, the Body of Christ. According to Roman Catholics, the visibly organized Roman Church, to which all legitimate churches in the world must be subservient, is coterminous with the Body of Christ. That is why it calls itself the Catholic Church. In its view it is the Universal Church, the One True Church.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 870, we read the following synopsis:
The sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, . . . subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.
This quotation appears in the section of the Catechism designated as Article 9: "I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH. This quotation actually quotes from Section 8, Paragraph 2 of Lumen Gentium, "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964." This Constitution was published in conjunction with the Ecumenical Council known as Vatican II. The following fuller quotation is from Lumen Gentium, Section 8, Paragraph 1:
8. Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation (9*) through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.(10*)
A portion of Paragraph 2 of Section 8 reads as follows:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, (12*) which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd,(74) and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority,(75) which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth".(76) This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him,(13*) ....
Several observations are in order here:
If what Catholics believe is true, we ought to be able to support it from Scripture. Let us examine the Scripture to see what it says.
In the first place, I emphatically dispute that Jesus predicted He would build His church upon Peter (Matt. 16:18). What Jesus actually said was, "I also say to you that you are Petros (4074), and upon this pétra (4073) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." So Jesus did not say He would build His Church on Peter, but upon this rock pétra (4073). By pétra, Jesus meant either Peter's confession of faith (Matt. 16:15-16), or else He pointed to Himself. Petros does not equal petra. To insist that Jesus stated He would build His Church upon Peter is a classic case of Vatican eisegesis, arbitrarily reading into the text something that is not there for dogmatic purposes. In fact, there is strong evidence that Jesus was speaking of Himself (see below in the discussion of 1 Cor. 10:1-10).
In the second place, I emphatically dispute that the first Century Apostles were authorized by Christ to pass on their Apostolic Authority to any successors. They could pass on their teaching, and they did. But nowhere do we find in the New Testament that either Peter or the other Apostles were commissioned by Christ to pass on their Apostolic authority. All Twelve of the Apostles were hand-picked by Christ. When we turn our attention to the future home of believers in Christ, the New Jerusalem, there are not hundreds of thousands of Apostles. There are only Twelve (Rev. 21:14). So, on the basis of Scripture, I repudiate the myth of Apostolic Succession. That is a belief and practice invented by mere men, not by Christ Himself.
In the third place, I raise my eyebrows when I hear Catholics assert that the church headquartered in the Vatican is "the church Christ founded." This is spelled out in some degree of thoroughness in Lumen Gentium, Chapter I, "The Mystery of the Church;" Chapter II, "On the People of God;" and in Chapter III, "On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate." It is more or less summarized in Paragraph 870 of the Catechism. To me this falls little short of disingenuousness. Let me give my reasons.
(1) The Catholic Church confuses the Biblical distinction between the Universal Church and the Local Church. In the New Testament, which trumps Roman Catholic Church Tradition, there was nothing special about the local Church of Rome, other than that it happened to be located in the capital city of the Roman Empire. The Universal Church had already been established by Christ for decades as the First Century closed. Nothing in the New Testament, even at that time, ever indicated that the local church of Rome was coterminous with the Universal Church, the Body of Christ. That, frankly, is a self-serving myth created by the Roman Catholic Church.
(2) If one is going to make the Church that Jesus founded equivalent to any church at all, it would have to be the Jerusalem Church. As Jesus, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, founded His Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47), for at least a brief moment or day or two, the Universal Church, the Church that Jesus founded, was coterminous with the Jerusalem Church. That would not last long as a number of the founding members of the fledgling Church returned home to their respective locations.
(3) The simplicity of offices that existed in the New Testament Church completely contravenes, over time, the exaggerated complexity of the hierarchical Church headquartered in Rome. In the NT, as long as they were alive, there were Apostles. Shepherding the flocks in the churches of various cities were elders (presbuteros, 4245), who were also depicted as overseers (episkopos, 1985). Unfortunately the latter were later termed "bishops," a most unfortunate departure from the nomenclature of the Greek text with profoundly unbiblical consequences. These two descriptive nouns refer to the same individual (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). Assisting them were, literally, "servants," untranslated as "deacons" (diakonos, 1249) (Acts 6:1-7; Philippians 1:1). As church history developed, overseers were, in a most unbiblical way, assigned ever greater power. There developed what came to be known as "monarchical bishops." Over a period of time, five bishops were, tragically, accorded unique power. They were known in some instances as "Patriarchs." And so there were five competing Bishops or Patriarchs, those of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and, of course, Rome. Rome always insisted that she was first among equals. After the rupture of the East-West Schism of 1054, Rome reigned supreme. With tragic consequences for the Church Universal, the Roman Catholic Church assigned almost Christological powers to the "Bishop of Rome." A culmination of this unbiblical action was when Pope Boniface VIII declared, in 1302, in his Bull, Unam Sanctam, "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." That is absolute heresy. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ apart from any works (John 3:16-18, 36;11:25-27; Acts 4:12; Eph. 2:8-10).
(4) Even if one grants the legitimacy of the notion that the Church Christ founded is coterminous with the Church headquartered in the Vatican (and I do not grant that postulate), there exists an extreme anachronism. As the preceding paragraph outlines, the power of the church of Rome morphed into what it is today over many decades and even centuries. For example, it was not until the early part of the Second Century that there existed such a thing as "a bishop governing a particular church and of at least one bishop, that of the church in Antioch, acting as though it were his acknowledged right to address himself with authority to other churches" (Latourette). Furthermore, it was not until the Eighth Century that the Irish perigrini introduced the practice of private confession to a priest (Latourette). Before that, confession had been public.
Let us now turn our attention to the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. When he began his letter, Paul wrote "to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:1, 2, emphasis mine). That would include me, for I call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. So what Paul wrote applies to me, even though I have determined not to join the Church headquartered in the Vatican.
Later, he wrote that the foundation which he, as a wise master builder, had laid in the church at Corinth was Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). No foundation could be laid other than Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). Pertinent to the present discussion, Paul was saying that he, Paul the Apostle, was not the foundation, but only Jesus Christ could be the foundation of any church. That would include the Church at Rome.
In 1 Cor. 10:1-10, Paul used the OT Israelis as an example to the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 10:11). He said that the Israeli ancestors (he calls them "fathers") experienced some profound spiritual benefits. "They were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea (1 Cor. 10:1). They were all baptized (baptidzo, 907) into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:2). Furthermore they "all ate the same spiritual food (1 Cor. 10:3); and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock (pétra, 4073) which followed them; and the rock (pétra, 4073) was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). Paul's reference to the rock (pétra, 4073) being Christ (in 1 Cor. 10:4) ought to provide considerable assistance in identifying the rock (pétra, 4073) in Matthew 16:18. That is where Jesus told Peter, "I also say to you that you are Peter (Pétros, 4074), and upon this rock (pétra, 4073) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." So it is infinitely more likely that Jesus said He would build His church upon Himself than it is that He would build His church on Peter.
In 1 Corinthians 12:1-31, Paul discussed with the Corinthians the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the members of the Universal Church. Here are some of the points Paul made in his letter: (1) The Holy Spirit seems to be the one in charge of different spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4). (2) The Lord Jesus seems to be in charge of the ministries of church members (1 Cor. 12:5). (3) God the Father seems to be in charge of the results of ministry by the different members of the Church (1 Cor. 12:6). (4) The Holy Spirit gives each Christian a spiritual gift for the common good of the Church (1 Cor. 12:7). (5) Paul lists the various gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10). (6) Paul repeated that the Holy Spirit distributes to each Christian individually as He wills (1 Cor. 12:11). (7) Paul made a correlation between the human body and the Spiritual Body of Christ. There is only one body, yet there are many members (1 Cor. 12:12). (8) It is by one Spirit that all Christians are baptized (i.e., immersed, baptidzo, 907) into one body, i.e., the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). (9) Every member of the Body of Christ is important (1 Cor. 12:14-17). (10) It is God who has placed different members into the Body of Christ just as He desired (1 Cor. 12:18). (11) There should be no division in Christ's Body – we all need one another (1 Cor. 12:19-26). (12) Corporately, we believers in Jesus Christ constitute His mystical Body, and individually, each of us believers is a member of it (1 Cor. 9:27). (13) There is a relative importance and distribution of certain gifts which God has appointed (1 Cor. 12:28-31).
It is imperative that we acknowledge that the Spiritual Body of Christ is coterminous with the Church Universal. We are told that God put all things in subjection under Christ's feet, "and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18). So I agree completely with the Roman Catholic Church that the Church Universal is identical with the Body of Christ. That is inarguable. What is supremely arguable is that the Church headquartered in the Vatican in Rome is coterminous with the Body of Christ, the Church Universal. That sounds more than just a little bit arrogant to me. And it doesn't fit the facts of Scripture.
It is indisputable to me that humans on earth cannot possibly organize the Spiritual Body of Christ. Again and again we are told in 1 Cor. 12:1-31 that it is the members of the Godhead who organize the Body of Christ, placing members and gifting members according to the Divine design. How can humans accomplish that? It is impossible. Humans can organize individual churches or denominations or sects, but they cannot possibly organize the Universal Church, the Body of Christ, any more than they can organize the wind or the weather. A good portion of the Church Universal now resides up in heaven, having departed this life. How can the Church headquartered in the Vatican in Rome possibly organize them? Are the saints in heaven called upon to submit to the Pope? That is laughable. How can the Roman Catholic Church enforce that? Threaten to excommunicate them?
Furthermore, as I read the New Testament, I find no indication that any of the churches existing in the First Century were informed that they must submit either to the Church at Rome or to any elder or overseer ("bishop") of the Church of Rome. I have studied in detail the New Testament letters or portions of letters written to the churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Not a single one of them spoke of any necessity of submitting to the Church of Rome or the overseer (episkopos, 1985) of Rome. I have studied in detail the letters written to individuals, such as Titus, Timothy, and Philemon. Nowhere is there any indication that churches should submit to the Church of Rome or its leadership. I have studied the books of Hebrews, James, the two letters of Peter, the three letters of John, the letter of Jude, and the book of Revelation. I have studied in detail the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. In not a single one of them is there any indication whatever that Christians must submit to the Church of Rome or the "Bishop" of Rome or his successor. Since I find nothing of the sort in Scripture, I repudiate the claim that the Church headquartered in the Vatican in Rome is coterminous with the Universal Church, and I repudiate any suggestion that I am obligated to submit to the Roman Pontiff. Moreover, I repudiate the claim that the Roman Catholic Church is equal to "the Church Jesus founded." Those notions are not Biblical, and they carry no weight. Rome may anathematize me all it wishes, but I have a higher authority. It is the Word of God, the Bible, which trumps all tradition whether it be Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Protestant. The common person in the pew who diligently studies the Scriptures to see if what he is being taught is true or not is more qualified to interpret the Scriptures than any pope or bishop who filters Scripture through the often unbiblical grid of Roman Catholic tradition (Acts 17:11). There is no office of pope or monarchical bishop to be found on a single page of Scripture. Why should church leaders whose office does not even appear in Scripture be granted the authority to be the sole interpreters of Scripture? That seems to me to be an abuse of power. The Apostle Paul warned us about power-hungry church leaders (Acts 20:28-30). Paul left the elders / overseers of Ephesus only two resources to combat savage wolves from without and control-freak, disciple-dragging elders from within. Those two resources are God Himself, and the Word of God (Acts 20:31-32). Roman Catholic Church Tradition was not one of those resources.
Drawing Some Important Conclusions
To this point we have concentrated on what "The One True Church," "The Church That Jesus Founded" is not. We have endeavored to demonstrate that the One True Church is NOT coterminous with the Roman Catholic Church, or the "Catholic Church," as Catholics prefer to call themselves. But we have also have at least mentioned that the "One True Church" is NOT coterminous with the Protestant Church, nor is it coterminous with the Greek Orthodox Church, nor the Coptic Church, nor any other of the small isms that have called themselves Christians down through the centuries.
Let us use the New Testament to define what Jesus' Church is. We will call it the Universal Church. It is not confined in any way to a certain geographical location, such as Jerusalem, or Rome or Ephesus or Constantinople or Antioch.
First, the Universal Church is an Entity that Relates to God.
* It is an entity that is separate and distinct from the nation of Israel, and, as well, from Gentiles as a general class (1 Cor. 10:32). I am not saying that the Church is not composed of believing Israelis or believing Gentiles. But rather, that if there are Israelis who do not believe in Jesus as their Messiah, or if there are Gentiles who do not believe in Jesus as King, the Church is separate from both. It is "the church of God" (1 Cor. 10:32).
Second, the Universal Church is presently being built by Jesus Christ.
* Jesus predicted to His Apostles that He would build His Church (Matt. 16:18).
* Once Jesus had founded His Church on the Day of Pentecost, He began to add to it daily "such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47).
Third, Jesus Christ is the Head of the Universal Church.
* God gave Christ to be the head over all things for the benefit of the Church (Eph. 1:22).
* Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, and He is the Savior of the Body (Eph. 5:23). We see the correlation between the Church having a "Head," who is Christ, and also being called a "Body" -- the Body of Christ.
* Christ is the Head of the Body, which is the Church (Col. 1:18).
* It is worth noting that the New Testament never states that a human, such as Peter, is the Head of the Church. That is impossible.
* Christ is said to be the Savior of the Body (Eph. 5:23).
* Christ is the Head of the Body, which is the Church (Col. 1:18).
* The Church is identified as the Body of Christ (Col. 1:24).
Fifth, the Universal Church is subject to Christ, its Head (Eph. 5:24).
Sixth, the Universal Church is the object of Christ's love and sacrifice (Eph. 5:25).
Seventh, the Universal Church is being nurtured to glorious perfection by Christ (Eph. 5:27).
Eighth, the Universal Church is the object of Christ's nurture and care (Eph. 5:29).
Ninth, the relationship between Christ and the Universal Church is a New Testament revelation. A "mystery" is truth not fully revealed in the Old Testament, but is fully, or more fully revealed in the New (Eph. 5:32).
Tenth, the Universal Church is the possession of Christ, the "Firstborn" (Heb. 12:32).
Eleventh, the Universal Church is a means of bring glory to God.
* The Church displays God's many-colored wisdom (Eph. 3:10).
* The Church, through Christ facilitates God's glory (Eph. 3:21).
* Christ praises God in the midst of His Church (Heb. 2:12).
prayed to the Father for unity among His followers
17:1-26). But He did not stop by praying for unity
only for them. He
also prayed for unity among those who would, in the
followers of Himself through their efforts (John
17:20-21). That would
include you and me, and anyone anywhere who names
the name of Christ as
Lord (1 Cor. 1:2).
Jesus' prayer was specific. He asked that God, His Father, would sanctify ("set apart") the Church. How would God do that? Through the truth. How did Jesus define "the truth"? He defined "the truth" as being God's Word. It is instructive that He did not say, "Church Tradition" is the defining sanctifying agent. It is God's Word (John 17:11).
Here are some suggestions as to how to achieve unity in the One True Church, the Church Jesus Christ founded:
* We must love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34).
* We must be devoted to one another in brotherly love, giving preference to one another in honor (Rom. 12:10).
* We must be of the same mind toward one another. That includes refusing to be haughty, but associating with the lowly, not becoming wise in one's own estimation (Rom. 12:16).
* We must not owe anything to one another, except the unpayable debt of loving one another (Rom. 13:8).
* Let us not judge one another, but rather determine not to put a stumbling block in another brother's way (Rom. 14:13).
* Let us pursue things which make for peace, and for building one another up (Rom. 14:19).
* We Christians of all stripes must be of the same mind toward one another (Rom. 15:5).
* We must accept one another in the same way that Christ has accepted each of us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7).
* Christians that are filled with goodness and knowledge are able to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14).
* There should not be divisions in the Body of Christ, but we members should have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25).
* We Christians should not use our freedom in Christ as an opportunity to give in to the strong desires of the flesh, but through love, we should serve one another (Gal. 5:13).
* Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, or envying one another (Gal. 5:26).
* With all humility and gentleness, along with patience, we should show tolerance toward one another in love (Eph. 4:2).
* Laying aside falsehood, we should speak truth, each one of us, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Eph. 4:25).
* We must be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32).
* We should be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Eph. 5:21).
* We should do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, each of us should regard one another as more important than ourselves (Php. 2:3)
* We must not lie to one another (Col. 3:9).
* We must bear with one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ has forgiven us (Col. 3:13).
* We must increase and abound in love toward one another (1 Thess. 3:12).
* We must love one another (1 Thess. 4:9).
* We must comfort one another with God's words (1 Thess. 4:18).
* We must encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11).
* We must live in peace with one another (1 Thess. 5:13).
* We must seek what is good for one another (1 Thess. 5:15).
* We must encourage one another daily so that none of us will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13).
* Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24).
* Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us be encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the day of Christ's return drawing near (Heb. 10:25).
* Let us not speak against one another, brothers in Christ. He who speaks against a Christian brother or judges his brother speaks against the law and judges it (James 4:11).
* Let us not complain against one another, so that we will not be judged. The Judge is standing at the door (James 5:16).
* We must confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed (James 5:16).
We must fervently love one another from the heart (1
Pet. 1:22; 4:8).
* We must be hospitable to one another without complaining (1 Pet. 4:9).
* According as we have been gifted, we should employ that gift in serving one another as good stewards of the many-colored grace of God (1 Pet. 4:10).
* We must clothe ourselves with humility toward one another, for God opposes proud people, but gives grace to humble people (1 Pet. 5:5).
We should love one another (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7,
11, 12; 2 John 1:5).
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