Returning to The Catholic Church
Rediscovering the Way of the Apostles
In the world today there are thousands of different religions. They represent a great diversity in belief and in practice. Even among Christians, there are hundreds of different variations of belief, comprising numerous denominations and sects. It is my firm conviction that Jesus never intended His church to be split. Before Christ's passion and death, he prayed to the Father that we "all might be one....brought together in unity to let the world know that You have sent me". (John 17:22,23) Oh how he must be grieved today by the fact that we have separated ourselves from our Christian brethren, and they from us, by squabbling over insignificant points of doctrine. I believe that it is the duty of all Christians to lay aside the divisive contentions of denominationalism and embrace the church that Jesus established. We are reminded in the Apostle's Creed that we believe in "one holy and apostolic catholic church". That statement doesn't mean that we believe in one Roman Catholic Church, which is merely one denomination among many. What we confess is that there is ONE church that Christ established, which is apostolic (based on the teaching received from the apostles) and it is catholic, which means "universal".
It is interesting that many Protestants who believe in the orthodoxy of the Apostle's Creed, unabashedly admit that their denomination is based on the teaching not of the Apostles, but on that of a man, such as Martin Luther (Lutheran), John Calvin (Presbyterian), or John Wesley (Methodism). We need to return to original apostolic teaching. We need to scrutinize the theology that was not historically part of the apostolic church, and weed out the error that has only served to split Christ's church, and prohibit Christians from participating in the Body that Christ established. Do we indeed care so much about the truth? Is knowing the truth and following our conscience more important to us than our association with a denomination? Recently I was visited by some very anti-Catholic members of a cult that had come to my door distributing their literature. I graciously took their literature, and talked about how important it was that we followed the truth, no matter what the price. They agreed. Being familiar with their organization, I continued to talk with them about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity ( a belief that they reject as paganism). They insisted that they had thoroughly researched it, and knew for sure that the early church did not believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, and that the Trinity was false doctrine. In all gentleness, I offered them a booklet that I had previously written on that very subject, which not only objectively examined the belief in the historical church, but chronicled their organization's own research regarding it. At this, they balked. After just telling me that the "truth" will always stand up to scrutiny, and claiming that they researched the subject thoroughly, they would not even take a piece of literature home with them that discussed the very subject. They said that they wouldn't "read anything that might sow seeds of doubt in our faith". What type of truth is this? If we suspect that intelligent dialogue on a subject will "sow seeds of doubt in our faith", how much conviction can we really put in our "truth"? How honest are we really about following Christ and the apostolic church? We set a time one evening for them to return which was convenient for them, yet they never came back or called. The fact is, many of us really don't want to know the truth. It might interfere with our lifestyle, or our social life, or prick our conscience. Give yourself this little test: Imagine that you discovered that Jesus wasn't everything that He claimed to be, and that he was historically much more the way he is described in the Koran (the Islamic scriptures). What if you also discovered that Mohammed was really a true prophet, and Allah was the proper way to address God. Would you leave your church and join a mosque? Would you indeed become a Muslim and accept the difficult consequences and repercussions that would come with making such a transition? No doubt your social and family life would be drastically altered. You would be paying a potentially difficult price for your obedience to the "truth". Although this example may seem unreasonable to most of us, this is the type of commitment to the truth that Jesus Christ asks of us. Jesus said that there may be such dissension in the home on account of Him. He said regarding this that "Anyone who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37). We must have the moral fortitude to follow the truth no matter what the cost. Since this book is about the beginnings and the tradition of the catholic church that Christ founded, I would ask the reader to ask him or herself who they love more, their denomination that their parents may have brought them up in, or the truth that Jesus brings? If our allegiance is to our denomination, then you need not read any further. If, however, we seriously want to investigate and pursue the truth, then we may proceed.
What it Means to be Catholic:
It is important at this point that we define exactly what being catholic is. To many people, being catholic means that we identify with and are in submission to the Papal See in Rome. They would say that our participation in the tradition that has been preserved by Peter's successors is the distinguishing mark of catholicism today. If we were to be true to this very tradition, however, we would need to revise this definition. When the word "catholic" was first used amongst the early church fathers, it was not a proper name identifying their brand of Christianity. It was an adjective which means "universal". So when we hear in the Ignatius' letter to the Smyneans (Ignatius was a disciple of the Apostle John) the first historical reference to the "catholic" church, we know that he was not identifying a hierarchy based in Rome, but instead, in context, the universal church that was made up of all persons who believed the apostolic gospel.
How did the early church then define what was catholic? Right from the very beginning, the successors of the apostles identified catholicism as that which was part of the very first apostolic churches. According to the testimony of the early church fathers, all tradition and doctrine must be apostolic in origin, or it may be discarded as not being an essential part of the catholic church. We read in St. Vincent of Lerins (434 A.D.) his understanding of the catholic church.
"In the catholic church
itself, we take the greatest care to hold
Tertullian, likewise, in the third century, stated that he knew his church was the "true" church because they held on to the same doctrine that the original apostolic church believed. It is this often overlooked fact which might prove to provide the greatest hope for unity in the Christian church today. You see, virtually every church claims that their belief and tradition is essentially the same as the apostolic church. Even the most radical Protestants would agree that the early churches definition of "catholicism" is an agreeable and noble ideal. Since we all also agree that unity is more desirable than division (unity of the believers was one of Jesus' primary concerns) then why can we not seek to find out what was the essence of the "catholic" church, and have that become our basis for a unified Christian church? The only issue then would not be one of debating dogma and denominational statements, but one of seeking together to find the common faith which we all claim as our source. It must be stated, however, that such a move towards an apostolic church does not mean that we must all lose our diverse flavors and styles as Christians. Unity does not necessarily mean complete conformity. There is certainly room in Christ's church for diversity in gifts and rites, since these things are normally just a variation in form, not in substance. What we must seek is unity in the essentials, granting liberty in the non-essential matters of faith. If we discover a belief or doctrine that is substantially different from the early catholic church, then we must have the integrity to acknowledge that it is not part of Christ's church. That may prove to be the most trying and difficult parts of our quest.
What is our basis for investigating this matter? As all of us would surely agree, the most sound basis would be investigating the writing of the apostles themselves in the New Testament. The writings of the apostles must be understood in their scriptural, cultural and historical context, of course, since many churches are inclined to lift solitary verses out of context to be a "proof" text for their own denominational doctrine.
Besides the scriptures, we must not neglect the contributions of the early church fathers in understanding the apostolic church. These faithful men and women sacrificed their lives in order to transfer the truths of Christianity on to the next generation. Some of them were actual disciples of the apostles themselves. Others, were only one generation form the apostles. Again it is important to recognize their words in their context also. Their writing is not consider scripture. Some their writing (those of Origen for example) was later declared by church councils to be heretical, and cannot be considered trustworthy as to testifying of the apostolic faith.
What was this early church like?
What was this apostolic church like? The very earliest believers who lived in Jerusalem continued to observe the Jewish religious practices of their heritage by going up to the temple to pray daily. Even while the Apostle Paul was engaged in his missionary work in Asia Minor and Europe, we are told that he went to the synagogue on every Sabbath (Saturday). Although this is important to notice because we must recognize the dependency of Christianity upon Judaism, it would be premature to assume that therefore the true apostolic church must conform to the Jewish tradition of worship. The fact is, the apostolic church has always varied the details of it's external appearance to be as understandable and coherent to as many people as possible in whatever culture it was in. It was only natural that, since it had it's roots in Judaism, and Jews already knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, that the early church would start it's evangelism in synagogues. In such a case, the evangelists would have access to the synagogue on account of his or her Jewish heritage, and there they would proclaim that Jesus was the promised Messiah. However, when Paul was in Athens before a non-Jewish audience, and he stood on top of Mar's Hill (the place that philosophers would deliver their discourses from) and preached the eternal message about Jesus, he did not quote a single verse from the Jewish scriptures! Instead, he supported his argument by quoting Greek philosophers and poets. Paul recognized that his audience was familiar with Greek wisdom ( as was he) so he spoke with the language and terminology that was suited to his audience! We can deduce a very important principle: that is that the apostolic church has always endeavored to make it's message understandable to the culture it is in. When the Christian church was in it's infancy and primarily Jewish, the preaching was in Hebrew or Aramaic. When large numbers of Greeks came into the church, most of the correspondence was in Greek. Even more interesting is the fact that the dialect of Greek that the New Testament is written in is not the formal Greek of the scholar, but Koine Greek, the most simple and common dialect among the "layperson". When the center of church authority moved from the Greek speaking East to the Latin speaking West, Jerome had the foresight to translate the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin, the tongue of the common man in Rome. What a tragedy it was that the Roman Church insisted on keeping Latin as the "official" sacred tongue for so long! Long after Latin had disappeared as a tongue of the people of the church, the hierarchy maintained it as the language of it's services. The understanding of the Gospel became lost to all but the most well educated. Since the church forbade the Bible to be translated in to any language other than Latin, the common person was robbed of the life and inspiration which is found in God's Word! It wasn't until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the Roman Church saw how desperate believers were to have a Bible in their own tongue. The reformers published Bibles in German, English, French and other languages and huge numbers of people swarmed out of the Roman church because they perceived that Protestantism was a religion for people, not just one for the theologian and priest. It was not until about thirty years ago that the Roman Catholic magesterium authorized the Mass to be said in the vernacular, a decision that was about 1300 years too late. Many Protestant churches did not learn from the mistake of the Roman Church, and have come to elevate the language and phraseology of the King James Bible, published in 1611. Written in Elizabethan English, it was the vernacular at the time it was written. The language is almost incomprehensible to many people today, although many Protestants will not use any other translation, ascribing a sacredness to the Elizabethan terminology.
From all this, we can deduce that the apostolic church is rightly one that makes the Gospel available and understandable to the common person. Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism still have not divested themselves of the high and lofty phraseology of the theologian and the secretive, coded symbols of the "mystery" religions. We need to purge out the elements which are hindrances to making the Gospel known to the average individual. God does not necessarily speak the language of the theologian.
What would we see in a typical first century church? If we were to attend a service during the end of the apostolic era, what would we witness? First of all, we may not be very impressed with the property that the congregation met in. It would be very inconspicuous; perhaps it would be a believer's house or a small building. On Sunday morning (the first day of the week) the believers would come together before dawn to worship together. Until 311 A.D. it was a capital crime to be a Christian, so the place of meeting was secretive, and meeting before first light gave them the cover of darkness in which to congregate. As we walk in, we might see an elder presiding among them opening up the service by reading a psalm of thanksgiving to God. The congregation would then sing a number of hymns and psalms, all exalting Jesus Christ as Lord and God. We would notice the sincerity and sense of genuine gratitude expressed. All these people have suffered much to continue in the faith. They have undergone persecution, suffered hardship and loss, and in many cases, mourned family and loved ones who had been executed because of the faith. Yet they all knew that their sufferings were inconsequential compared with the eternal glory promised them. Jesus Himself had suffered a terrible death for them, to purchase their salvation, so they would respond with gratitude and praise. They had put their faith in the Living God who had expressed His unconditional Love on Calvary, and would soon return to demonstrate His justice and vindication to the world. The worship might be punctuated with spontaneous ejaculations of praise to God. We know from Paul's letter to the Corinthians that the whole congregation participated in worship God, in psalms, revelations, doctrine (teaching) and speaking in other tongues (I Corinthians 14:26). There were prophets in the church who spoke as the Spirit of God enabled them, revealing God's intentions and Divine wisdom (I Corinthians 14:5). Far from being a extraordinary event, or one limited to only the apostle's ministry, we know from the second century document The Didache that services filled with demonstrations of God's power were still more the norm than the exception. Besides the supernatural happenings, there would be a time set apart for reading of the "memoirs of the apostles (New Testament) or the prophets (selections from the Old Testament), as longs as time permits" ( Justin Martyr 150 A.D.) One of the elders would preach a message from these texts to encourage the congregation to follow the apostolic example.
We are told by Pliny the Younger (ca. 100 A.D.) that the believers would bind themselves with a mutual oath to not commit any crime, adultery or a breach in the faith. In other words, they would made their personal lives accountable to the other believers. We have a picture of a church devoted to Jesus Christ, holiness, and each other. At the end of the service, they would participate in the Lord's Supper, breaking bread with each other, and afterwards, take up a voluntary collection to support their presiding minister and any poor among them. The elders, bishop, deacons and deaconesses would preside over the Lord's Supper, then the diaconate would distribute the "alms" part of the collection to the poor. The elder (sometimes referred to as president or bishop in early Christian writing) would dismiss the congregation.
Eventually, when the service was performed in Latin, the presiding elder would dismiss the service with the words "Ite, missa est", denoting that it was over. Centuries later, the believers referred to the whole service as the "missa", which eventually comes to us as the word "mass".
What They Believed
It would be naive to assume that the early church automatically believed whatever our particular denomination teaches. Many never question how historical the doctrine of their might be church. This is important, however, because we are assured in scripture that the faith was entrusted “once, for all, to the saints” (Jude 3). Novel or new doctrines are to be rejected. One such example is the popular evangelical doctrine of the "pre-tribulational rapture of the church". According to this theory, some seven years before Christ returns in glory, he will evacuate his church secretly, leaving the rest of the world to suffer under the iron hand of the anti-christ and the wrath of God's plagues until Christ wipes out the last bunch of rebels at the battle of Armageddon. I, like many Protestants and many Roman Catholics, assumed that this was the gospel truth. When I discovered that there is no explicit scriptural support, and no evidence that any of the apostles taught it, I came out hard on the side opposing such error. I don't want to be believing some false theory that was not part of Christ's teaching. Such a discovery only made me more inquisitive into the history and development of other doctrine in the church. Let's look at some of the central points of the beliefs or convictions of the apostolic church:
Conviction #1: Jesus Christ is God appearing in the Flesh.
The identity and nature of Jesus Christ was a pivotal part of the early church. Virtually all of the early councils and controversies swirled around the definitions of who Jesus was. Although it would be too involving to chronicle the debates over his Deity, his humanity, and the "hypostatic" union of his incarnation, I would like to point out the evidence that the apostolic church held firmly to the full Deity of Jesus Christ, before there was even any inspired writing that explicitly said so.
Before any council undertook the exhausting and confusing issue of formally
defining Christ's nature, the apostolic church had a very simple and
uncomplicated manner of expressing this point.
The apostolic church was not interested in creating a "water-tight"
formula for Christ's nature that would be consistent with all the speculations
of the Greek Platonists and Stoics. All they needed was a brief, easy to remember
statement that even the uneducated converts could recall and understand.
They did this by converting the core elements of the truths of
Christianity into lyrical poetry and short hymns that encapsulated the
essence of the truth. When the New Testament was written (most of it written some 25+
years after the church began), the apostles included some of these very
earlier statements of Christian theology in the epistles to the churches
in the New Testament. We can identify with reasonable accuracy, where
the primitive hymns and creeds are by examining the structure of the
stanzas in the epistles. It is fascinating that the most prominent deal
with the identity and nature of Christ.
One example is found in 1 Timot hy 3:16
Great is the mystery of godliness: Seen by angels Taken up in glory
Seen by angels
Taken up in glory
In the original language, this stanza is set in poetic strophes. It sets in parallel fashion the truth that Jesus was indeed God, and did appear in a true body of flesh. It took theologians and bishops hundreds of years to hammer out definitive statements that echoed the simple truths contained in these brief apostolic hymns. Likewise, if we look at Philipians 2:6-11, we see the same subject matter also described in primitive poetry. The poetry from Philipians adds one other element, however, which is the voluntary sacrificial death of Jesus, and his subsequent elevation to God's right hand. This pattern is repeated in Colossians 1:15-20, as well as Hebrews 1:3. The apostolic message is always the same: Jesus is Lord, God and King who, because of his great love and mercy, has emptied himself temporarily, to purchase us with His own blood. This is the dominant and recurring theme throughout all of the earliest pre-New Testament hymns and statements. The only other widely used phrases that were in common usage among Christians before the New Testament scriptures that defined their beliefs were "Jesus is Lord" ( Romans 10:10, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Philipians 2:11) and "Maranatha" (1 Corinthians 16:22) which means in Aramaic "come, Lord". The latter phrase not demonstrates that the early church expected Christ to return imminently, but also provides substantial proof that Jesus was to be identified with the Lord God from the earliest days of Christianity.
Conviction #2:The Historical Facts Supporting Christianity Made it Undeniable.
As the apostles began spreading the gospel truth around Palestine, Asia Minor, and Europe, like any other new belief, they ran into opposition from the varied religions dominant in those areas. They were frequently persecuted by the Jews in each city, who resented the apostle's constant insistence that the gospel was completely consistent with the Law and Prophets of Judaism. They encountered resistance from the pagans, who were concerned that the spread of Christianity would detract from the prestige of each city's patron deity. (see Acts 19:26,27) There was a very apparent difference, however, between any of the pagan religions and philosophies and the new church that Christ had established. That was, the Christian church was not based on a mere foundation of "faith" or "belief", but it was centered on the objective and historical fact of the events surrounding the person Jesus Christ. For example, when the apostle Paul preaching the essence of Christianity to Festus and King Agrippa, and he mentioned that Christ had been crucified and risen from the dead, he added
"the king understands these
things, for I am sure that they did not escape his notice, for they were not
done in a corner."
did not escape his notice, for they were not
done in a corner."
(Acts 26:26 )
King Agrippa did not attempt to diffuse Paul's argument by denying the accuracy of Paul's statements about Jesus. He couldn't. Anyone official who lived at that time could reference the records from Pilate, the procurator in Jerusalem at the time of Christ's death. That would show that the events happened just as the apostles claimed. The Roman historian Tacitus made reference to Jesus in Annales, which recorded that Jesus was executed by Pilate during the reign of Tiberias. Even in the next century, Justin Martyr refers the Emperor Antonius Pius to the records of Pilate which would be now kept in Rome as proof to the truth of Christianity. More remarkably, is the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who mentions in his work History of the Jews that Jesus was not only executed by Pilate as the gospel says, but he appeared alive to his disciples three days after he was crucified! The events surrounding Jesus' life and death are some of most well attested events of all time.
This stands in stark contrast to the bizarre and frequently grotesque mythology of the day, which was not only too fantastic to be credible for any rational belief, but could rarely produce a god that had a better disposition than the lowest common denominator of it's adherents. The mythology of Greece and Rome was laden with gods who had nothing better to do with their time than think of which mortal to seduce or which god to plot against. By the time Christianity appeared, the Hellenistic world was so worn out with fables that the scholastic elite had abandoned any theology in favor of the godless philosophies of Stoicism and Epicurianism. Christianity was a belief system that not only was free from the absurdities of paganism, but it revealed the truths about the nature and purpose of God that struck a chord in the hearts of all men who sought the truth. It was verifiable historically so it could not be easily explained away. The undeniable facts of it's foundation, coupled with the demonstration of the life-changing power of God overwhelmed the skeptics and detractors of this fledging religion.
Today, we need to be no less dedicated to establishing what is objectively true. Some well intentioned people have slowly changed the general opinion about the importance of verifiable truth in religious matters. They might insist that the actual facts regarding any religious system is not important, because all religion is valid. They say that as long as we have faith in something, it's all the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Either Jesus lived, or he didn't. He either rose from the dead, or he didn't. The apostle said that if Christ did not really rise from the dead, than his preaching was foolish, he was to be pitied above all men. and our faith was completely in vain ! (Cor 15:14) Peter said that he did not follow cleverly devised fables when he told everyone about the gospel. He told exactly what he and the other apostles had witnessed firsthand. (2 Peter 1:16) Today, there has been a blurring of the clear lines that distinguish truth from error. There had been a resurgence in the study of "myth" which has sought to place all religious belief on the level of myth, making them all equally true without distinction. Many Christians have therefore been led to believe that the unique qualities of Christianity are merely "beliefs" like any other beliefs, which consequently has sapped the conviction from Christians that once provided the force behind the church's growth.
Conviction #3: We are Reconciled to God by Jesus' Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The objective and verifiable basis for Christianity provided the assurance that the promises of Jesus were true. All throughout the writings of the Apostles, we see the frequent references to the fact that believers in Christ now have complete forgiveness with God because of Jesus' sacrifice. We have a restored righteousness or right-standing with God. Although sin had caused an impassable chasm between God and man, Jesus Christ had now become the mediator that gave us access as sons to God once again. He had provided the satisfaction for God's justice by taking our sin upon himself, so we now are "born-again" as children of God.
Few people realize how central this is to the teaching of the apostolic church. Most of the New Testament documents revolve around the premise that we are perfectly reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Many of the parables that Jesus told were expressly for the purpose of showing that we have this righteousness just by humbly going to God and receiving it (grace), rather than "earning" it through good works (observing the "law"). The beauty of the gospel is that we do not deserve the salvation that Jesus has bought for us. Grace is God's unmerited and unearned favor.
One such parable that demonstrates this is that of the "Prodigal Son". In this parable, Jesus tells of a disobedient son who squanders his inheritance but eventually "came to his senses" and decided to return to his home. The father, while "a long way off" sees him, and rushes to him, showering him with affection, gifts, and assembles for him a great party. This son had decided to merely throw himself at his father's feet and beg for mercy, yet he was bestowed with great love and affection. We have all been told that this represents each one of us, who is so wonderfully received by God when we repent and confess that we need God's mercy. Most of us, however, do not ever consider the older son the father had, who represents the "religious" people of Jesus' day. He is indignant by the fact that, although he has labored for his father his whole life, was never shown such affection. Jesus tells this parable to demonstrate that God desires that we would have the attitude of humility and seek to receive forgiveness, rather than hold to the notion that we are "a good person" who has earned right standing with God. The older son, the one who is righteous in his own eyes, can only be embittered and resentful of the mercy that God shows to other individuals. In the same way, it is evident that those who are "self-righteous", can only respond to others with a judgmental and unforgiving spirit.
The New Testament sets forth this distinction between "observing the Law" and "grace" as the cornerstone of the whole gospel. Several of the epistles were written primarily to prove that no one can be justified or made righteous by observing the commandments of the law, and we all must seek the source of God's grace to be saved. In the First chapter of the gospel of John, he states the distinction as "the Law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." With all of this clearly evident, it is amazing how many Christians still hold to the opinion that a "good" person earns salvation. That is completely foreign and contradictory to the apostolic tradition. If one were to read the whole New Testament and write down the major themes, there is no doubt that the foremost theme would be the inability of man to please God by his own works, and his dependency on the forgiveness in Christ to be saved. When we leave behind the understanding of salvation by grace through faith, we slip into what is called "legalism", which is the primary error which the apostle Paul opposed in his missionary endeavors.
When the apostle Paul did preach Christ to someone and they responded by "receiving Christ" (making Christ their Lord), it was understood that the individual was then "born again", was reconciled to God, and had the assurance that they were saved for eternity. This stands in complete contrast to many denominations today, that heap rituals, obligations, and necessary works required for salvation, and then insist that no one can really know if they are "saved". Such tradition would have been condemned by the apostles.
Conviction #4: We Have a Special Calling on our Lives to Serve Each Other, and Serve Christ as His Ministers.
All of the individuals in the apostolic church seemed to be aware that they had a special calling on their lives. When we hear the word "calling" in context of religious discourse, we usually associate it with the vocation of the priesthood or pastoral position. In the apostolic church, this was not the case. Many times the apostles Paul and Peter refer to the calling that all believers have on their lives (Rom 1:6,7; 8:28,30;9:24; 1 Cor 1:2,9,26;7:17; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:1; 2 Thess 1:11; 1 Peter 2:9,21,5:10 ). There was never a distinction made between "clergy" and "laity". In the Bible, there is no such distinction. Everyone who came to Christ realized that they had a role to fulfill in service or ministry, and that God had given them the Holy Spirit to help them fulfill that ministry. It was an unfortunate thing that, over the centuries, Christians began to believe that only certain individuals were picked to be in a unique role of service for God. This idea turned being a Christian into a "spectator sport" in which the role of ministry was reserved for only a few select people. Whereas once, the worship service revolved around the numerous ways God manifested himself through the whole congregation, by the Dark Ages, it was now a service where everyone stood and watched one individual perform a ritual. The people came to expect that a special class of people, the clergy, would do the right motions and say the right words to keep the village in God's good graces. The term "laity" or "layperson" comes from the Latin root "Laic" which means "ignorant", which clearly shows the contempt the "clergy" had for the average individual. Even as early as the fourth century, there is record that the clergy were prohibiting people from singing in church (laity was not considered worthy to even sing hymns). The clergy class became revered and exalted as quasi-magical mediators who could determine the eternal destiny of the people of the parish.
It is true that the early church had it's ecclesiastic position of elders and deacons, but these were positions that were filled by people of each church's own congregation, as determined by the congregation. The leadership of the church was given to those who were of sound moral character, able to teach from the scriptures, and could adequately manage the household of faith. It is apparent that, after the churches were established and the elders installed by the apostles, that each church elected it's own leadership thereafter from among it's ranks. There was no external hierarchy that sent them a minister whom they had to obey. Moreover, the ministers of the apostolic church were those who specialized in "serving" not in "ruling". They saw their role as simply one of facilitating the growth of their fellow believers, so that they (the other believers) could carry out the work of ministry. Today, we use titles like "Father", "Reverend", "His Holiness", and "His Eminence" for those in full-time ministry. In the first church, however, the apostles referred to themselves as "servant", "slave", or "brother". The desired no pomp or high-sounding titles. One word that the apostle Paul uses to describe the role of ministry is a term used by seamen of his day. The word, translated as "minister" in 1 Cor 4:1 is "huperertes" and it means literally "under-rower". To picture what that is, think of the ancient ships called galleys that the Romans used back then. From the sides protruded several rows of oars, which would be dipped in the water and pulled in sync with the beat pounded out by a drummer. The oars would be manned by slaves who would be chained to their oar and pull together to make the ship move forward. Until the day they died, the slaves or "under-rowers" would have to pull together for the sake of the ship. That is how the apostle describes a minister; one who labors for their whole life in tandem with numerous others listening to the beat of the drummer (the Holy Spirit) for the sake of the advancement of the ship (Christianity). It seems that today, we would picture a minister as the captain, who just stands over everyone on the poop deck, barking out commands. Perhaps we need to redefine what a minister is today, to bring it back more in line with apostolic tradition.
Just to show how foreign the titles of pre-eminence were from the early apostolic and patristic church, one could look to the title “Pontifex Maximus” which is a current title of the Pope. If one was to look through the early Christian writings, you can find the title. The early church fathers called the “Pontifex Maximus” the “King of Heathendom”. The title was held by the pagan priest of the mystery religions in Rome up until the 4th century!
What practices are not in the Apostolic Church:
There are a number of practices and beliefs that were not a part of the original apostolic church. It would seem to me that if there is no evidence that they existed in the original church, then it would be questionable as to whether they indeed should have anything to do with catholicism today. Just to name some of the late developments in the church:
The papacy as an institution is completely missing in the early church. If we were to trace the apostolic pattern of leadership, we would see that the first church established was that of Jerusalem, where all of the apostles resided for a number of years after Jesus' ascension. Many have tried to put forth the idea that Peter was preeminent or "first among equals" in relation to all the other apostles, but that is just not the case. Even though we see Peter making the address on the day of Pentecost, that does not mean that Peter somehow had authority over the others. On the contrary, when the apostle Paul came to Jerusalem to meet with those who were apostles before him, he met with "James, Cephas (Peter) and John who seemed to be pillars"(Galatians 2:9). It would appear that the three of them were co-equal in authority, and James is mentioned first, which would imply that he held the "first among equals" designation. This is confirmed by the fact that it was James who both dispatched ministers throughout the churches (Galatians 2:12), and also was the one who presided over the first Council, rendering the decisions, with Peter present, clearly serving in a subservient capacity ( Acts 15:1-21). In the writings of the early church fathers, the primacy of James is maintained universally up until the late 3rd century. Even Eusibieus, the first Church historian records that James was the leader of the first church.
So the "primacy of Peter" cannot be established in the New Testament, nor in the earliest histories. Following the historical development of the church, we can see that the Apostles Peter and Paul established many churches, and tradition alleges that they both ministered in Rome together. The tradition that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome is an old one, with many patristic writers attesting to it, although there is no actual proof. Giving the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that he actually was in Rome for a time as the chief elder, can we build the doctrine that Rome was to be preeminent and have authority over all the other churches the apostles established? If we examine the writing of the fathers, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The first extra-biblical writing that we have from the leadership in Rome is a very early one, and it is one that many Popes have pointed to support the idea that Rome is the seat of authority for the church. It is known as First Clement, and it is addressed to the church in Corinth, from the church in Rome. The occasion of the letter is that the Corinthians were once again departing from sound biblical practices as they did in the days of Paul. The leadership in Rome is taking the occasion to provide some correction for the church. It is interesting, however, that this letter allegedly from Clement, the third bishop of Rome, never identifies it's author as a bishop of that city. As a matter of fact, the letter always uses the pronoun "we" instead of "I" when expressing the author's opinion. Furthermore, there is no reference to the primacy of Peter among the apostles, nor of Rome among the churches. In such a situation, one would think that the church of Rome would exercise it's authority by citing the fact that it had preeminence over the church of Corinth. What this letter does do is support the contention that all churches in the first century, including the church of Rome, were overseen by multiple presbyters/bishops, and each church was autonomous.
This is confirmed by Ignatius' letter to the Romans which was written at about the same time. Ignatius was a disciple of the Apostle John, and Bishop of the city of Antioch. As he was being led in chains to Rome to be martyred, he wrote to the church in Rome expressing his thoughts on being fed to the lions. He does not address his letter to any pope or bishop in the city of Rome, but to the church in general. He qualifies his address as being to "the church which is charge of the local affairs in Rome." It would appear that Ignatius is definitively stating that the church in Rome's authority extends only as far as Rome. Each church was responsible for it's own territory, without any one church having jurisdiction over it. Including Rome.
The idea of the primacy of Rome did not begin to appear in any substantial form until the third century. It was, of course, challenged by the Eastern and African churches. The rift caused by the Roman Councils attempting to subordinate the Eastern churches was the fissure that caused the break between the Latin and the Greek Orthodox rite of the Christian church, the first big schism. The churches in Antioch and Jerusalem could likewise claim they were founded by the apostles, and even that they were in existence before there were any Christians in Rome. The Eastern churches always struggled to maintain the autonomous status that all churches of Christ enjoyed, but Rome has only desired the subjugation of all other ecclesiastical bodies.
How was the papacy in Rome able to extend it's power throughout the
Dark Ages to be the most dominant force in Europe until after the reformation?
The Roman church employed two documents to maintain that Peter
was to have primacy above all other apostles, and that Rome was to be
the lead church of all of Christendom.
One was the letter of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248-258 A.D.)
entitled "On The Unity of The Catholic Church".
In the letter, Cyprian states that
This would have undoubtedly bolstered the church of Rome's claim to superiority during the middle ages. What is rarely mentioned is that the copy of this letter that contains this statement is of very late origin. There exists Latin manuscripts of this letter that predate the one mentioning the primacy of Peter. In the original manuscript, there is no mention of Peter being preeminent. The text says that "Certainly the other apostles were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship of both honor and power." Scholars admit that references to the primacy of Peter were a later addition, and can only be considered a forgery.
The other document that brought tremendous power to the Roman church is a document that was circulated in the ninth century. In 857 A.D., Pope Nicholas I began citing what are now called the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals to bolster the claims of the papacy. The Decretals were alleged to be documents written between the second and fourth centuries, all recognizing the Primacy of Peter, and one letter is purported to be from Constantine, donating all of Italy and the entire Western empire to the papacy forever! For centuries the popes cited the Decretals of proof of their right to rule much of Europe, as well as the other churches. In the early Fourteenth century, many scholars began to question the validity of the Decretals. After much research and investigation, it was discovered that all of the documents were forgeries, the earliest being from the eighth century. The whole event is appropriately considered the greatest literary fraud of all of history.
The existence of a priesthood is something which cannot be found in the early apostolic church. Many of us have just assumed that the church began with some men with clerical collars, properly addressed as "father". This is not the case. As a matter of fact, the whole concept of a priesthood would be almost impossible to justify in light of the New Testament writings and patristic writers. To understand the significance, one must first understand the Jewish culture that Christianity was birthed from. The Jewish people had a priesthood, whose existence revolved around a sacrificial system detailed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They were called to assist in the slaughter of the animals used in the sacrifices, for the purposes of reconciling the people of Israel to God. Priests offer sacrifices. That's what they do. When the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., and sacrifices could no longer be offered, the whole priesthood as a class was deprived of their primary function, and essentially ceased to exist. That is when "rabbis" became the dominant religious figures in Judaism, since they did not rely on the existence of the temple to discharge their duties. In Christianity, one of the primary tenets is that Jesus came as our high-priest, and offered the "once-and-for-all" sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world ( Hebrews 9:28, 10:10, 10:12, 18). That one sacrifice happened historically, and it is the one-time event that procured our salvation. With this fact in mind, we can see why none of the apostles ever referred to themselves as "priests". Where there is no sacrifice, there can be no priesthood. The only sacrifice that could be offered to remove sins was already offered.
Following the progression of the ministry, we see that the early Christian leaders were designated as presbyter, elder, bishop, or president to denote the positions most highly esteemed in church, with deacons and deaconesses serving in the more mundane matters. None of them were ever called priests. Existing concurrently with these, at least until the third century were apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers, who held a more "charismatic" style of ministry. The only mention of a priesthood in the New Testament is the reference of how we are all "a royal priesthood"(1 Peter 2:9) who offer the "sacrifices" of thanksgiving and praise. (Hebrews 13:15). That is a position for every Christian believer. It wasn't until the concept of the "sacrifice" of the Mass, that is, the ant-biblical belief that Christ was actually be offered up again during the Mass (4th century), that the priesthood concept was revived.
In the Roman Catholic church today there are seven recognized sacraments. Many are surprised to learn that it was not until the early twelfth century that a Bishop named Peter Lombard helped the Roman church settle on principle that there were seven and only seven sacraments. It was not until the Council of Florence in 1439 that the seven sacraments as we know them today was finally declared orthodox.
How does the understanding of the sacraments today compare with that of the apostolic church? The difference is substantial. For one example, there are only two ordinances that we have explicit biblical support as to being apostolic practices. One is baptism. The other is the Lord's Supper, commonly called the Eucharist. Although it is not significant as to how many "sacraments" there are (Augustine thought their was thirty), the understanding of their function is very important.
If we were to look at baptism, we would see that the apostolic understanding is very different from the modern interpretation. The Roman church today views baptism as the means that an individual is cleansed from original sin. It is thought that the effectiveness of the baptism is in no ways dependent upon the recipient of the sacrament. Therefore, it was considered expedient to baptize someone as soon as possible, namely, right after their birth. The Roman church teaches that if an infant dies without the benefit of baptism, the child will likely go into "limbo", a place that has defied reasonable explanation from Roman authorities (Although it is apparently a better abode than where Augustine confined unbaptized infants, which is eternal damnation in hell). This is quite different from the apostolic teaching, which is that baptism is the symbolic ordinance that typifies our identification with the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a death to our old life, and the beginning of our new life in Christ.
Some people have tried to find any reference to baptizing infants in the Bible, but there is no indication whatsoever that they did it. Why is it not part of the apostolic church? Because baptism is an ordinance that is entered into only when an individual has made the decision to fully believe in Jesus Christ. We see when the apostle Philip was to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch whom he had converted, the eunuch asked
is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip answered "If you believe
with your whole heart, it is permissible." (Acts 8:36,37)
"If you believe
with your whole heart, it is permissible." (Acts 8:36,37)
It is interesting that the critical part of verse 37, which clearly implies that one must fully believe in Jesus before being baptized, is missing from contemporary Roman Catholic Bibles, even though it is found in the majority of original Greek manuscripts. Is there any evidence that the original apostolic church baptized infants? As mentioned, there is no biblical inference. Examining the apostolic tradition that was passed on, we see great detail about baptism mentioned in the Didache (100 A.D.). In this early writing, the author states that the candidates for baptism should have public instruction on the ordinance, and that they should be told to fast for two or three days before the ceremony (7:1-4). Since it doesn't make any sense that one should be instructing an infant about the service, and telling them to fast, we can rest assured that infant baptism was not something that was even considered by the author. The other patristic authors also reflect this fact, that baptism was reserved for those who had made a personal confession of Christ. Tertullian argued that baptism should be put off for as long as possible, so that, in his reasoning, there would be less opportunity for one to spiritually "soil" themselves after they had been spiritually "washed." Although we may personally disagree with Tertullian's opinion, it still demonstrates that the infant baptism was not an accepted part of the church in the third century. (Note: even in the Fourth century this mindset was prevalent, witnessed by the fact that Constantine himself would not be baptized until he was on his deathbed). The earliest evidence we have that a child was baptized comes from an epitaph on a young boys tomb in the Lateran. The quote is from the fourth century and it reads:
Florentius set up this inscription
for his well deserving son Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months and five days.
Since he was truly beloved by his grandmother, and she saw that he was destined for death, she asked
of the church that he might depart a believer.
Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months and five days.
Since he was truly beloved by his grandmother, and she saw that
he was destined for death, she asked
of the church that he might
depart a believer.
Many who have pointed to this as evidence for infant baptism have missed the point of the epitaph altogether. It does not support the idea that infants were baptized. On the contrary. The boy was almost two, not yet baptized, and when it was apparent that he was not going to survive to a mature age, the grandmother made a special request (presumably to baptize him) before his death. This epitaph actually supports the view that infants were not baptized as a normal procedure, and that putting off the practice until later in life was still the most common opinion.
Regarding the other ordinance mentioned in the Bible, the Lord's Supper, I would like to refer the reader to our free publication The History of the Eucharist In The Church. The issue is dealt with in a comprehensive manner, detailing the historical understanding of the Eucharist, and detailing the reversal in doctrine that the church of Rome made on the issue in 1215 A.D., when it adopted a eucharistic doctrine that flatly contradicted all of the tradition of the early church fathers, as well as the Bible.
Other Doctrines New to the Church
It would be too lengthy to list all of the things that are common to some "traditional" churches today that were not part of the apostolic tradition. Just to list a few practices and beliefs:
Uses of images and icons: Any religious use of statues or images was universally rejected in the early church on the basis that the Lord prohibited their use in Leviticus 26:1. All evidence points to the fact the use of images and icons slowly began to rise in the fourth century, and was immediately recognized as idolatry. Augustine, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Epiphinaius, and Jerome all remark that the images that some used in worship were contrary to the scriptures and the church. When Leo I sought to remove the images, many people revolted. The adoration of images was restored in the east by the Empress Irene (842 A.D.). The church complied because of it's inability to withstand the political pressure from the empire.
Beliefs about Mary: There are two specific beliefs about Mary that are considered dogmatic in Roman Catholicism today. One is called the Immaculate Conception. Many Roman Catholics believe that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus who was without original sin. It is not. The Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. This belief finds no place in the church until a man named John Dun Scotus wrote of it in late 13th century. The idea had been rejected by popes and theologians alike before and after that time. It wasn't until 1854 that it was finally declared as being a dogmatic and infallible truth of the Roman Catholic church.
The other belief about Mary is her Assumption into heaven. In the Fourth century, there were some fables about her body being taken into heaven. Before then, the idea was unknown to the apostolic church. When did the Roman Catholic church declare that she indeed was assumed into heaven? The year 1950. This can hardly be considered an apostolic tradition.
The truly unfortunate thing about all this is that both doctrines were defined as infallible dogma. That is, the papacy is resting it's credibility on these two beliefs being fact. That would seem very unlikely since the bulk of church authorities over the centuries contradict them. Far from being an "unfolding" of doctrine that existed in the church, many have rightly pointed out that these doctrines were clearly decisive breaks with the Roman Catholic Church's tradition. Despite all this, the Roman Catholic Church claims that one must believe these two doctrines to be "Roman Catholic".
Purgatory: Gregory I (late 6th century) is considered the first Christian leader to have a fully developed concept of purgatory. Even then, it was not accepted by most in the church until a preacher named Peter Damian popularized it in the 11th century. The Roman church ratified the belief as orthodox in the 16th century at the Council of Trent. The early apostolic church did not know of such a place, since it was never mentioned by Jesus or the apostles and seems to be ruled out as a possibility by every statement about the afterlife that Jesus ever made. Furthermore, a place where Christians must go to "pay the temporal penalty of their sins" contradicts the fundamental belief that Jesus bore the penalty of our sins.
When we take a careful look at the early catholic church, we see a organization, founded by the Jesus and his apostles, committed to the truth of the gospel as revealed by God. Many churches claim to be the "true" church of Christianity, but how many actually have the same convictions and live by the same spirit of the apostolic church? The only thing that is separating Christians today is our adherence to man-made doctrines that have been created over the years, and are contrary to the tradition of the early apostolic catholic church. We must not be fooled by the claims of such organizations, who have increased their power by fraud and deceit and still claim to be the "mother church".
As St. Vincent said, the catholic church is that which holds to the beliefs that were believed by all, always, everywhere. If the fundamental beliefs of our church are not found in the early church, then our beliefs are not "catholic". For this reason, it is a misnomer to call the hierarchy based in Rome "catholic". As we have demonstrated, the beliefs and practices of the church at Rome are vastly different from the apostolic catholic church. It is the result of centuries of moral and spiritual disintegration, not representative of the early apostolic church. I, on the other hand, feel very comfortable with identifying myself as catholic. Not because I am in fellowship with the Roman Church (which I am not) but because I have sought to follow the teachings of the apostles, of Peter and Paul, and the rest. The Roman Catholic Church is not the catholic church of the apostle's successors. There is no doubt of this. When I was a Theology major at a Roman Catholic university, seeking to become a priest, I wrestled with the claims that the Roman church made regarding it's identity. When I realized that the Roman church could never back down from it's claim to hold the "fullness of truth" and it's conviction that all other churches must be subject to the Roman Pontiff, I realized there was no possibility for Rome to concede any of it's "non-catholic" dogma. It must defend itself as the only catholic and apostolic church, or admit that it is an impostor.
It is the unwillingness of the Roman Catholic Church to absolve itself of it's peculiar non-apostolic doctrine that prohibits it from being truly a part of the "catholic" church. Christians who love the truth, and desire to see the unity that Jesus desired for the church, recognize that they cannot agree with the Roman Catholic perspective of Christianity. That is why I am not Roman Catholic. I am too catholic to be Roman Catholic. If you believe in the essentials of the church that the apostles founded, which is unadulterated by the deceptive teachings of men, then you too are catholic. We may not be able to point to a visible organization today, and say that it is completely pure of any non-apostolic tradition, but we can strive together to participate in a fellowship that is as close to the apostolic model as possible.
calling us to return to the Way of the apostles. If that means leaving our man-made denomination, then that is not
to much sacrifice for the truth. Returning
to the apostolic catholic church doesn't necessarily mean we have to
become "protestant", but that we returning to the biblical
faith of the early church.