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On Sinners in the Church

Catholics believe in a visible, apostolic, institutional Church as well as a mystical body. Christ foresaw that there would be wheat and weeds in his Church, so the fact that it is so should not be surprising to anyone. Sin, even at high levels in the Church, should not shock anyone. One would be foolish to expect otherwise in any human institution.

This brings to mind the wry comment from the non-Catholic man who went to Rome. His Catholic friend was surprised when the man came back saying he was convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church. “How could that be?” asked his friend. The man answered, “God must be behind the Catholic Church, seeing the type of people who run it. Otherwise it would have died off hundreds of years ago.”

This story illustrates the Catholic attitude and approach. People will fail, but the Church will endure—not because Catholics are better than anyone else but because it is God’s will that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

We are responsible for our own spiritual development, including proper instruction. God gave us the ability to reason and separate the wheat from the chaff, doctrinally speaking. And he gave us the Holy Spirit. If anyone desires to know true Catholic teaching, it’s easy to obtain the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the documents of Vatican II, or browse the Internet, or watch EWTN.

It is a mistake is to think that the present crisis in the Church disproves that the Catholic Church is what it claims to be. God has only us sinful, rebellious humans to work with. Many bishops and priests have been lax in their duty (to put it mildly), but they will stand accountable before God. The Bible says, “Let not many of you become teachers” (Jas. 3:1).

One can never judge a communion by the views of its members, or by polls and sociological surveys. If this is the proper method, then there is no Church on the earth. One always will find heterodoxy (as internally or externally defined) among the masses, or the people in the pews, in every Christian group.

Jesus assumed this would be the case, and spoke of it frequently (cf. Matt. 3:12; 13:24–30, 47–50; 22:1–14; 24:1–13; 25:14–30). Paul concurs (cf. Acts 20:30; 2 Tim. 2:15–20). As usual, the biblical writers anticipate what would be a stumbling block throughout Church history.

Sinners (and dissenters) are in the true Church. Even Judas was regarded as a true apostle (cf. Matt. 10:4; Mark 3:19; John 6:70–71; Acts 1:17). Even though dissent and corruption are troubling and scandalous of their own accord, the attainment of moral purity is irrelevant with regard to the determination of which Church is divinely established by Christ.

In Paul’s mind, the Corinthian church did not cease to be part of the true universal Church even when he was rebuking its members for exceedingly serious and widespread sins (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; 3:1–4; 5:1–2; 6:1–8; 11:17–22; 2 Cor. 1:1; 11:2–4). Nor was it said that there was no institutional Church because of the early controversy over the Judaizers spoken of in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 15:5).

Given the reality of original sin, such problems cannot be avoided and always will be with us. Therefore, one can go only by the official teaching of any group and whether or not it institutionalizes and sanctions division and schism (not to mention various moral and doctrinal errors). The Catholic Church is criticized on the basis of dissent in practice within its ranks rather than by what it actually teaches, and has taught consistently, through the ages.

The biblical support for the concept of a Church containing sinners—yet remaining a true Church—is abundant. The parable of the wheat and weeds (cf. Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) reads as if the weeds are at least equal in number to the wheat. A moment’s reflection on the proliferation of uncontrolled weeds in any lawn will bring this point home. This is also apparent in the similar pronouncements about wheat and chaff (cf. Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17).

Since every wheat plant has chaff (i.e., the worthless part of the plant), it would seem that we are talking about a 50/50 proposition. I wouldn’t push the analogy too far, as the proportion is not the essential.aspect of it, but it does lend itself to an interpretation that the nonbelievers and dissenters mixed in with the elect and orthodox will be many, not few. After all, Matthew 24:10 states that “many will fall away.”

Matthew 7:21–23 implies that there are many counterfeit believers, since even some of those who prophesy, cast out demons, and “do many mighty works” in Jesus’ name will be cast from Christ’s presence at the Judgment, and he will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” Since most of us are doing far less than acts of this magnitude (which outwardly suggest a commitment to Christ), it stands to reason that there are many people who go to Mass, etc., who will not be saved, and hence are weeds (cf. Luke 13:25–28).

Jesus also asked, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). This doesn’t present a rosy picture about the great numbers of faithful. And again, “Some one said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able’” (Luke 13:23–24).

A straightforward reading of Paul’s chastisement of the Corinthians lends itself to the view that their problems were massive. His rebuke concerning their divisiveness (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1–4) seems directed at the group as a whole, not just a few. He speaks of the incest of one man, yet the whole body is rebuked for not having “mourned” that, and for failing to “remove” the incorrigible sinner (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1–2).

Finally, in 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul speaks of the church as a whole being prone to chasing after false teachers. This leads him into his famous “boasting” discourse. He is touting his own qualifications as an apostle so that they won’t go running after false apostles, and will keep to the true path (cf. 2 Cor. 12:20–21).

Jesus himself rebukes six of the seven churches of Asia he addresses. Most scholars think that the book of Revelation was written no later than A.D. 100. Yet look at all the serious problems we already observe in these apostolic churches even before the last apostle (John) died:

  • The church at Ephesus “abandoned the love [they] had at first” (Rev. 2:4) and is urged to repent corporately, lest its “lampstand” be removed.
  • Pergamum was accused of idolatry and fornication: “the teaching of Balaam” (2:14) and for allowing some of their ranks to adopt the Nicolaitan heresy (cf. 2:15). Nicolas is the Greek equivalent of Balaam.
  • Thyatira also is accused of idolatry and fornication (cf. 2:20–23).
  • Sardis is rebuked as spiritually dead (cf. 3:1–3), yet Jesus says, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4). Even so, he calls this group “the church in Sardis” (3:1), just as he refers to all seven as “churches.”
  • Philadelphia had “but little power” (3:8).
  • Laodicea “was lukewarm . . . wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:15–18).

Only Smyrna escapes a stern, sweeping rebuke from Jesus. It is not a pretty picture. But this is what God has to work with. The Church then, as now, was riddled with problems: hypocrisy, lukewarmness, heterodoxy, fornication, idolatry. Much was “pitiable.”

Nothing has changed. Sinners are in the Church because as fallen creatures we are prone to sin. This should surprise no one.

Paul has stern words for the Galatian church as well. None of these congregations had it all together spiritually—not even close—as many today seem to believe about their own particular fellowships. The Puritan notion of a “pure” church or denomination is not only a myth; it is unbiblical, if the examples of apostolic churches prove anything:

  • “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6).
  • “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? . . . Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?” (Gal. 3:1, 3–4).
  • “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? . . . I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:9, 11).
  • “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:1–2, 4).

The above view is anchored in reality: Scripture, Church history, and reason (as well as original sin and the resultant fallenness of mankind). God used Balaam’s ass to convey his truth; he made an eternal covenant with a murderer and adulterer (David); he chose another murderer to be the foremost apostle (Paul), and a wavering wimp to lead his Church (Peter). Of course, it would be preferable for the Catholic Church and all its members to be perfectly holy. But this is the real world. Sin does not rule out the possibility of a true Church. And no one needs to drive a wedge between Jesus and his ordained structure of the Church. The truth is to be believed even if one person in the world believes it.

The good things in Protestantism still can be (and are) affirmed by the Catholic Church. It’s not an either/or proposition when it comes to individual beneficial spiritual acts and beliefs. But when one discusses what the one “Church” is, we must draw the line and state that it is the Catholic Church—because of apostolic succession and because it is the only plausible choice that possesses the Nicene Creed’s four marks of the Church in their undiluted fullness.

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