One thing nearly all non-Catholic Christian faith traditions have in common is some sort of “apostasy narrative.” Whether explicit or implicit, this is their explanation of how the original Church went wrong, leading to the errors of Roman Catholicism and the need for their own group to come along and fix it.
Protestants believe that the Church needed reformation (which it got, at Trent!), but the idea that the Church needed a more thorough restoration is an even bolder claim.
Most “restorationists” do not claim that there was a complete apostasy of the Church (resulting in its disappearance from the earth, such as in the story of Mormonism’s foundation), but rather that there was a severe partial apostasy that necessitated abandoning the Catholic faith for some other group (e.g., Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ). Either way, these sorts of stories need to be answered. Although a comprehensive grasp of Church history is really necessary to overturn all the details of these apostasy narratives, there are some general errors that can debunked more simply.
The first thing to remember is that Scripture is against such restorationist theory. For most apostasy theories to work, the Church would’ve had to fail either almost immediately or before the Bible canon was even settled. However, when Jesus founded the Church on Peter, he said that it would not be overcome (Matt. 16:18); that it would be a kingdom that could not be shaken (Heb. 12:28).
Jesus also said that the Holy Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth and they would take his teachings to the end of the world (John. 14:16; Matt. 28:20; cf. Col. 1:23, Rom. 1:8), and that His Church would exist like a city set on a hill for all to see (Matt. 5:14). St. Paul called the Church the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
These descriptions do not fit the restorationist idea of a Church that went astray only a couple of generations later, necessitating a complete teardown and rebuild.
Sound logic and ecclesiology are also opposed to the idea of a Church apostasy. A common misstep groups make when constructing an apostasy narrative is using a circular standard for what constitutes biblical orthodoxy. This occurs when a group equates “biblical Christianity” with their own doctrine, then judges the Church based on their own private interpretations. This standard is clearly fallacious, but it is so common among many groups that it often goes unnoticed.
There is also a tendency to confuse apostasy from the Church (which is predicted by Scripture and evidenced in history) with the apostasy of the Church. The Bible records several examples of individuals or groups getting the Faith wrong—but none of these impugn the Church itself (without which the errors could not have been judged as errors in the first place; see Acts 15).
Often, this mistake arises from assuming a kind of congregational or democratic view of Church government that leads to equating some members’ beliefs with what Church teaches. But the ancient Church was identified by apostolic succession, not merely agreement with a given set of beliefs—so even the presence of a very large group of heretics would not have amounted to the Church’s apostasy.
Another strange feature of those who hold apostasy narratives is claiming past groups as forerunners of their own, to add the appearance of historical weight. They do this even though it usually requires them to cherry-pick the few beliefs they hold in common without embracing everything the older group represents. (This is a classic case of the fallacy of special pleading.)
Baptists, for example, sometimes list the Albigenses (neo-Gnostics who said Jesus was a created being with a phantom body and denied the Resurrection and the existence of hell), the Paulicans (dualists who believed in two gods and denied Jesus’ incarnation), and the Montantists (an egalitarian, proto-Pentecostal end-times cult) as examples of “faithful witnesses of the Lord Jesus.” Others were just Catholics who were eventually declared to be in error (e.g., Donatists, Novatians, or Waldensians). In fact, some of their errors included demanding overly strict observance of the Church’s teachings!
Finally, history is against the apostasy of the Church. This is such a problem for restorationist groups that they must often resort to alleging a Catholic conspiracy of silence for the lack of objective historical support for their apostasy narrative. We would know all about the apostasy, they say, if only the Roman Catholics didn’t cover up the facts. Oddly, though, whatever history they do point to in claimed support of their theories is only known because the Catholic Church recorded it! If the Church had been really bent on wiping evidence of early restorationists from human history, why are their teachings carefully preserved in the Church’s own documents?
Complaints against Emperor Constantine are also standard fare for these ecclesiastical conspiracy theorists. For example, concerning Constantine’s alleged influence on the Bible, claims range from his deciding what books would be in the canon to his ignoring Scripture completely. The truth is, none of the councils during Constantine’s time (and there others besides Nicaea—some even earlier!) concerned the canon of Scripture. In fact, the New Testament books were not determined with any finality until the Council of Rome in A.D. 381—long after Constantine had died.
Another oft-repeated historical myth concerns Constantine’s leading of the Nicene council, which allegedly made him head of the Church (thus leading to Catholicism’s fatal infection with Roman errors). The truth is, Constantine didn’t really seem to care one way or another how the Church ruled on orthodoxy (specifically, in the case of Nicaea, the Arian controversy)—he simply wanted the dispute settled for the sake of unifying the empire. (He didn’t even have a vote!) Constantine did not make himself head of the Church, and he did not, as another common myth goes, establish Christianity as the state religion. This did not occur until the Edict of Thessalonica, issued by Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 380 . . . more than forty years after Constantine’s death.
However much some Christian and quasi-Christian groups rely on apostasy theory as a basis for their own existence and authority, to that extent they are weakened by the facts. Neither Scripture, nor history, nor basic theology offers evidence of a great falling-away that destroyed or disoriented the Church to the point where it needed a ground-up restoration. Only repetition of bad history and fallacious reasoning give this idea a veneer of truth.