One True Church?

I believe in one holy, catholic
and apostolic Church.
Credo unam sanctam catholicam et
apostolicam Ecclesiam.

Even if it were right that there were a particular institution that could be called the true Church, history would not point to that institution being headquartered in the Vatican.  It is easy for people who live in North America, where our religious heritage still largely reflects that of Western Europe and Britain, to think of the Roman version of the Church when we think about some kind of continuous, “undivided,” historical institution stretching back to the time of the first century, but that really is a distorted and short-sighted view for several reasons. What follows is not an attack on Roman Catholicism* as such; it is simply a denial of the concept that it is the one and only institution that our Lord Jesus Christ founded.

The Church of the First Century

Collegial Authority

The Church as it is described in New Testament does not vest power in any individual other than our Lord himself; rather, it is patently obvious that each local gathering of believers in the days of the apostles was overseen collegially rather than by one individual:

“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts14:23).

“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church” (Acts20:17).

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).

Elders Are Bishops

Furthermore, the words “bishop” and “elder” clearly refer to the same office: elders are also bishops, and bishops are also elders:

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders (PRESBUTEROS) in every town . . . Since an overseer (EPISKOPOS) is entrusted with God’s work, he must be . . .” (Titus 1:5-7).

“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesusfor the elders (PRESBUTEROS) of the church . . . ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (EPISKOPOS). Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’” (Acts20:17, 28).

The Apostle Peter refers to himself not with some kind of inflated title, but as an elder: “To the elders (PRESBUTEROS) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder (SUMPRESBUTEROS), a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1).

Connectionalism, not Hierarchical Authority

Thirdly, while there clearly is some kind of connectionalism present in the first century church, it does not translate into one central location, much less into one individual person.

We find churches giving talent and money to help other churches: “Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Romans 15:25-27).

The apostles were involved in the establishment of other churches: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them” (Acts 8:14).

But sometimes this kind of activity did not involve the Twelve:  ‘In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers . . . While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off’ (Acts 13:1-3).

In a matter of controversy, the leaders from various churches consulted the Scriptures together, but the picture one gets from reading the account is that of an inclusive involvement of other elders alongside the elder-apostles: “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way . . . The apostles and elders met to consider this question . . . Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas . . . they sent the following letter: ‘The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings’” (Acts 15:2, 3, 22, 23).

Rather than there being a clear-cut, central authority, whether simply de facto or by design, there seems to be a measure of autonomy present in the churches of the first century. The apostle John, one of the inner three confidants of our Lord, refers to himself simply as “The elder” (HO PRESBUTEROS) and states, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (3 John 1, 9, 10).

The Church After the First Century

Missing Links

There are significant gaps in the record of the Church from the days of the apostles until the toleration granted Christianity in A. D. 313, with Constantine’s Edict of Milan, and much is simply conjectural. Evidently, during this hazy time, the apostolic model of some form of quasi-presbyterian government gradually evolved into a primitive form of episcopacy. However, can anyone produce incontrovertible historical evidence of an unbroken line of bishops at Rome going back from Benedict XVI and John Paul II to Linus and Peter? In the final analysis, don’t Roman Catholics accept this dogma by faith?  The Roman Catholic Church can no more prove an unbroken historical line back to the leadership of the church of the first century than can the Landmark Baptists and other groups who base their claims on such.  They are driven by wishful thinking rather than an objective reading of the historical record.  That historical record has so many gaps that an unbroken, clear, historically documented line connecting us with the first century church does not exist.

The Eastern and Western Churches, Politically, Rather than Biblically Determined Institutions

However, over the three centuries that Christianity was an outlaw religion, a hierarchical form of government began to develop among the churches.  And once episcopacy came into its own and achieved ascendancy, there were five key bishops of the Church, not one: the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Furthermore, the authority of these five patriarchs eventually devolved into two: Constantinople and Rome. The reason for this was purely political. Worldly politicians have often found the professing Church to be an “easy” woman (Revelation 17), and they have regularly seduced her for the past seventeen hundred or so years. In modern America, at least among conservative Protestants, Democrats regularly solicit African Americans to prostitute the black church, while Republicans generally seduce white folks, posing their shills, such as the Christian Coalition, simply as objective, independently thinking, Bible-believing Christians.

Once Constantine made Christianity the state religion, starting around A. D. 324, the power in the Church ultimately came to be in the hands of the Roman Emperor, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy grew increasingly subordinate to him. This gradual “Caesaropapism” continued on in the East even after A. D. 1453, when Islamic terrorists captured Constantinople. Though this ancient form of church government is not even remotely hinted at in the Bible, it is still more ancient than the papal model. Therefore, in some ways one may say that the Erastian model of Anglicanism hearkens to a more primitive form of government than that of Rome.

In the Roman empire, once Constantinople was founded early in the fourth century, the already somewhat divided empire eventually split, and the civil division put increasing strain on the relationships between the five patriarchs and their constituencies. The hierarchy in the West faired differently than those of the East. The deposing of the Emperor Romulus Augustulus in A.D. 476 was simply part of a larger implosion of the western empire. Out of this power vacuum, the worldly authority of the bishop of Rome steadily rose, and the Roman bishop gradually came at various times to dominate and arbitrate matters of the states of the western part of the old Roman Empire. Over the ensuing centuries, the conflict between the relatively strong bishop of the West and the relatively weak patriarchs of the East, came to many crisis points, including Orthodoxy’s outright condemnation of the Filioque Clause (“and from the Son”.), the ninth century Photian Schism (where the western bishop bucked the Byzantine emperor’s authority over the Church), the still unhealed eleventh century Great Schism, and the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. While it would have been wrong for the Byzantines to see the direct hand of the meddling Pope (Hardly) Innocent III in their degradation of 1203—Innocent had, in fact, written a letter forbidding an attack on Constantinople, but it was delivered too late to do any good—the impact of a crusade begun by papal encyclical was the same:  the split of 1054 became permanently sealed in blood.


Maybe somebody who finds it easy to believe that Jack Kennedy and Elvis are living on one of Aristotle Onassis’ islands can take a leap of faith and believe that the Church of the New Testament extends in an unbroken, undivided, institutional line to the Roman Catholic Church and to her exclusively or to some other group of professing followers of Christ, but I don’t see how anyone can base such an idea simply on the biblical and historical evidence. This is not an attack on Roman Catholicism as such; it is simply a denial of the concept that it is the one and only institution that our Lord Jesus Christ founded.* 

Bob Vincent


* The word “catholic” is a transliteration of the Greek word KATHOLOU.  When used with a prohibition, KATHOLOU is usually translated “at all.”  That is how it is used in Acts 4:18, “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”  When used without a negative, the word KATHOLOU should be translated “comprehensive, general” or “universal;” it is the opposite of what is partial or limited.  Is there a universal or “catholic” church?  Yes, the Apostle John sees this gathering as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). 

Who are the members of this universal or “catholic” gathering?  It is comprised of those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).  If you have put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, your sins have been washed away, and you are a member of this universal or “catholic” church, regardless of the sign out in front of the building where you worship.  It may read Assembly of God, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian.  It may be a one congregation denomination with a sign out front that says it is “non-denominational.”  But ‘if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10:9).  Whether you want to call yourself “catholic” or not, you are part of a Church that extends throughout time and space, the true Church which is entered by all who put their trust in the finished work of Christ.