What is the Church?
A seemingly innocuous question and one that can either be unimportant or inexcusable depending on the virulence of the sect you’re dealing with. It can also land anywhere in between on the spectrum but most individuals fall sharply into one side of the spectrum and have equally sharp opinions about the other side. I also wouldn’t hesitate to say there are many, too who haven’t given this matter much, if any, thought or have erroneous concepts of the answer.
There are some in the spectrum of Protestantism who will hold and teach that their sect is the only valid one on the market and subscription to all other forms of Christianity is anywhere from lacking to heretical. I think to address this question as a Protestant is to get into a lot of very difficult and hairy explanations about exactly what constitutes the Church Proper, how the body of that church is somehow both indivisible and divisible, yet all equally valid without making the Holy Spirit divisive.
Protestantism claims there is only an invisible body of believers that constitutes the church because man can interpret the Bible for himself and understand for himself what it means, and yet this has created a myriad of denominations with men believing vastly different theologies. In other words, for the idea of a man to be able to interpret the Bible for himself to remain a valid concept and the fact that men interpret the Bible differently thus creating different denominations can only leave the option of stating that the church itself must be an invisible one because these two ideas are essentially at loggerheads with one another.
It complicates explaining the Bible where it says we’re all one body in Christ and one part of the body cannot say, I have no need of thee (1Cor 21:12-21) and the gates of hell will not overcome the Church (Matt 16:18) Not to mention what the foundations of the church are (1 Cor. 3:11, Eph. 2:20), the authority He bestows upon the apostles to teach everything He himself has taught (Matt. 28:20) and the fact that the Apostle John himself states it is not all contained in the Bible (John 21:25).
I believe the first thing to do is define exactly what the church is, what it constitutes, and what it can and cannot do and why it is important to establish those facts. Because if the Church is the ultimate authority and the foundation, as Christ and the epistles stated it was, then the Protestant belief of Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone, as the ultimate authority cannot be true. The importance of the issue surpasses all other divisive ideas.
Let’s take the definition of the Church and its boundaries and constitutions from the sole recognized authority for Protestants. The New Testament speaks of the foundation of the Church at least five different times in the New Testament. The Church itself was not built on Scripture. In fact, Scripture was not compiled into its current form until almost 400 years after the establishment of Christianity and was decided upon by the Catholic Church at the Council of Hippo. Jesus built the Church on his Apostles. Starting with His own words He tells Peter, “You are the rock on which I shall build my Church.” He further tells him, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). Christ also promised to be with it “always until the end of the age” (cf Matt 28:20) and He also promised to send the Holy Spirit to “lead them into all truth” (cf John 16:13). The Church will not fall because the gates of Hell won’t overpower it. To interpret these verses to merely be temporary means Christ really wouldn’t be there “always, until the end of the age” and that He would then allow the Church to fall prey to error and apostasy after He’d clearly made the promise in the Bible that “the gates of Hell would not overcome it”.
The Bible further enforces the view that the Church was built on the Apostles with Jesus as the cornerstone when Paul also says, “God’s household (the Church), [has] been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:19,20). Both Peter and John, (in 1 Peter 2:5 and Revelation 21:14 respectively) repeat this teaching and Paul again informs the Corinthians that he has laid the foundation and that this is continued by others “who are building it up” and that this foundation cannot be re-laid because the one already laid is on Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). So not only is the Church built on the Apostles, but the Apostles taught their disciples who continued to build upon the foundation which is further evidence that the promises of Christ extended to the future leaders of the Church. This also shows that the foundations for a different church cannot be laid because the one already existing is on Jesus Christ Himself. The author of Hebrews exhorts their reader to “obey [their] leaders and submit to their authority” because that authority “keeps watch over your souls and has to account for them” (Hebrews 13:17). Finally, it is the Church, not the Bible, as many Protestants will profess, that, “is the pillar and foundation of all truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15)
Therefore, under the conditions presented in the Bible, the Church is built upon the foundation of the teaching authority of the Apostles who handed the authority on to their disciples who became Bishops (presbýteros – presbyters) of that Church. Evil wouldn’t overcome it, the Holy Spirit would lead it into all Truth, and Christ would be with it always until the end of time. The people were to submit to the authority of the Church and obey them because, ultimately, the Church is “the foundation and pillar of all truth” and its foundations cannot be laid again because the ones that were laid down were on Christ Jesus. We also know that God’s covenants do not change without Divine Revelation revealed by His Prophets and Christian scholars agree that all Public Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle and there will be no new revelation.
The Protestant argument of adhering to the Bible alone as the only authority, necessitates the advance of the idea of an invisible Church. It’s easy at this point to slip into an argument concerning the “Bible alone vs Scripture and Tradition” or “Church Authority vs Biblical Authority”. However, in sticking with the exposition of a visible church, I’ll try to keep focused in on only touching, very briefly, on these issues inasmuch as it helps explain the idea of an invisible church concept.
First of all, I argue that the reason the idea of Sola Scriptura or the Bible alone necessitates the advance of an invisible church goes back to the fact I mentioned earlier. The Protestant Reformation coupled with the advance of the printing press impressed upon men that they could read and interpret the Bible for themselves without the need of the Authority of the Church. This then facilitated the idea that if man read the Bible the truths expressed therein would be made plain to him or that the Holy Spirit would reveal the truth to him. The problem in this concept is that it leads different men to different things. Let a thousand men read a passage and you’ll get a thousand different interpretations of its meaning. Therefore, either man, in using his own fallible interpretive mind, is in error on the meaning of Scripture, or the Holy Spirit is divisive not unifying. This, in turn, spurs men to disagree on all manner of theological doctrine.
This was so much the case that when the leaders of the Protestant Revolt met together in Whittenburg to decide a uniform belief, they could not agree on it. Many left adamant they were the ones who were right and left more divided than when they’d come together. The result is a myriad of different denominations emphasizing different doctrine that is completely at odds with another Protestants belief system. For example, a Lutheran believes in Consubstantiation. That is, Christ is present along with the bread and the wine in Communion. A Baptist doesn’t believe this at all. To them it is only a cracker and some grape juice but the thing it symbolizes is Christ.
This is a very serious disagreement in theology. These issues cannot be reconciled, and this issue, in particular, was the thrust of the meeting at Whittenburg.
The problem of reconciling the verses mentioned above, especially the one about the body of Christ being whole and undivided, can prove tricky since a Protestant has no right to call any other man’s (or group of men’s) private interpretation of the Bible error because the entire system of Protestantism is based on the idea that man has the right to interpret for himself what the Bible means. Therefore, all elements are equally valid, if vastly dissimilar, and wildly contradictory even to the point of offending one another’s theological sensibilities. They have to be considered equally valid regardless of these thing, otherwise one throws the entire system into question. Therefore, the qualitative ideas of other denominations as an equal (or near equal) Christian become quite sparse: Belief in the Trinity – God, Son, and Holy Spirit and a commitment to serve God. Sometimes this is also accompanied by public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, followed by the proclamation of Salvation and Baptism (the latter of which is just for show, of course.)
(This same level of acceptance of people as Christians is found in the Catholic Church as well toward what she refers to as ‘our separated brethren’. It is even enough, in the case in invincible ignorance, to ensure your place in Heaven. The Church and its members would just often say that Protestants do not enjoy the “fullness of faith” as expressed in the Catholic Church, but that does not necessarily mean they are excluded from the privileges of Salvation.)
Therefore, the only way to ensure that Protestants recognize all other Protestants or Christians as being members of the Body of Christ is to espouse that believers are a part of an invisible church simply made up of a body of believers.
A non-denominational website put up a standard form paragraph in its online ‘what we believe’ statement. It states, in part:
“We believe the Church is the family of God, the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and that it is expressed in local churches.” (emphasis mine)
This leaves a vacuum for the Protestant in where the authority lies. This is where the argument turns to the Bible alone. Most Protestants return to 2 Timothy 3:16 as the basis of their claim that the Bible alone, Scripture alone, is the only authority for teaching us and that no other outside source exists. This ignores many of the ideas presented earlier from the Bible and other ideas presented elsewhere in the Bible where it exhorts the readers to submit to the authority of the bishops (episkopos – ‘elders’ ) and priests (presbuteros – ‘presbyter’) of the Church. Also, Keep in mind that although “Scripture is profitable for teaching, that the man of God may be complete” (2 Tim. 3:16), it does not say that Scripture is the only thing to guide a person. Paul himself commends the church in Thessalonica for abiding by the traditions they were taught either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15) The Bible also demonstrates that guidance is needed to interpret the Scriptures. The Ethiopian himself attests to this in Acts when he says, “How can I understand the Scripture unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:26-35) Peter himself says that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of ones own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20) and that “the ignorant and unstable twist Scripture to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16)
Another excerpt from the website regarding the Bible states:
As the very word of God, it is without error in the original manuscripts and serves as our supreme and final authority in all matters about which it speaks. (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) – (emphasis mine. Notice the Scripture references? Although the second one seems a bit counter-productive to the cause doesn’t it?)
This creates the argument of whose interpretation of that Scripture is to be considered valid under the thousands of choices within Protestantism that a person has. Find someone with whom you share an intellectual accent about worship and Scripture and there you are. Ultimately, it seems, that Protestantism reverts to a general relativism – ‘Whatever works for you’ while maintaining the assent to equal validity for all.
Here is the path then that the Catholic Church follows in establishing its assertion of a visible Church founded on the teaching authority of the Apostles appointed by Christ, thus establishing the Catholic Church as being founded by Him in 33 AD and the only one that can make that claim.
First, we have the Bible verses mentioned at the beginning of this blog referring to what the definition of the Church is and its foundations. Very briefly though, Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus says He will build a church on ‘this rock’ which is the name he just gave to Simon. “You are Rock [in Aramaic Kepha or Cephas as it is anglicanized in Galatians 2:9] and on this Rock, I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. We then see throughout the Bible the demonstration that the Apostles laid the foundations for the church by doing what Christ had commissioned them to do which was to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the known world by preaching and teaching all that He had taught them. (Matthew 28:18-20) They are also called the foundation of the Church built on the foundation of Christ or built with Christ as the cornerstone. This leadership was passed down to their elected disciples, like Timothy, (who the Bible says the elders laid hands on him and imparted their authority on him) to continue to preach and teach all that they had been taught by the Apostles (2 Timothy 3:14).
We then move from the verses of the Bible into ancient Christian history. The early Church. It is recorded in the annals of Christian history about the established churches in the ancient world and the bishops who lead them and their successors. Take, for example, John the Apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved. He had a disciple called Polycarp and another man called Ignatius. Polycarp was converted to Christianity by the Apostles and was later consecrated as a Bishop. Ignatius was also consecrated as a Bishop of one of the early churches, it is said by Peter himself. Polycarp and Ignatius handed on the teachings that John the Apostle taught them. John would have corrected them had they taught error. Ignatius and Polycarp wrote letters both of which are extant today. Especially known is the work of Ignatius who was the first individual to use the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning “universal,” “complete” and “whole” to describe the church,
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans
This became the name for the Christian church which was “complete” and “whole” until the 16th century.
Irenaeus, in turn, was a disciple of Polycarp. Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyon. His writings are also extant, the most famous being ‘Against Heresies’. In the same way the disciple Clement, who is possible the same one mentioned in the Bible (Phillipians 4:2) was consecrated as a bishop of Rome by Peter himself. He is a contemporary of Ignatius who wrote that several churches would confer with Rome for instructions and that Clement succeeded Peter as the Bishop of Rome and wrote a letter of instruction to the Corinthians which is still extant.
These are the first examples of the leaders of the early and ancient Christian Church. They were truly catholic in the full sense of the word as they all believed and taught the exact the same thing across the board and it was the also the exact same teachings that are present in the Catholic Church today. The history shows us they deferred to Rome and the successors of Peter (like Clement) for a final say on spiritual matters. History also shows us an unbroken line of successors from the Apostles all the way throughout history of Church leaders. It shows a line of teachings from the disciples of the Apostles all the way down to the present that has not changed since Christianity began. This was the Catholic Church. This is the apostolic succession and the meaning of the final words in the Apostolic and Nicene Creed, ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.’
No church existed which called itself Christian that taught anything different from what the Catholic Church teaches today. Only when Martin Luther broke away from 1500 years of faith established by Jesus and His Apostles did so many of the ideas of theology take on different meanings which were held in faith as passed down in unbroken apostolic succession. Only then did the meaning of “The Church” become an invisible entity made up of the faithful believers.