One True Church?
I believe in one holy, catholic
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
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).
Paul sent to .
“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).
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
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
The apostles were involved in the
establishment of other churches: “When the apostles in .
But sometimes this kind of activity
did not involve the Twelve: ‘In the church at .
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 ).
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
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
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 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
In the Roman empire,
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
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.*
* 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.