If Protestants do not believe that Jesus Christ founded one of the denominations, what do they believe? Is there any alternative? It is hard to answer those questions simply because Protestants differ so much in what they believe, especially about the Church.
You may hear some of them saying that one religion is as good as another, that they all stress different aspects of Christ’s teaching and that it is for each individual to choose the Church which suits him. Others may say they have no time for organized religion and that it is how you live that counts.
The founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, taught that Christ’s Church consists of all those whom God has predestined to heaven.
More recently Adolf Harnack, a leading member of the so-called critical school of Protestants, maintained that the important thing was the spirit of Christ, the spirit of love for God and men. Those who feel in their hearts what he felt make up his Kingdom or his Church.
High Churchmen, Episcopalians, and the separated Eastern Churches admit that Christ set up a visible organized society, but the common Protestant view has been stated by Charles G. Morrison in a book called Can Protestantism Win America?:
“No denomination claims that Christ is the head of its denomination! It may claim that it has ‘the truth,’ that it is ‘the New Testament Church,’ that its creed is the true statement of the Christian faith, and that its practices and mode of organization conform strictly to the ‘pattern’ of the primitive church; but no denomination, or only a negligible few, has ever pretended that Christ is the head of its denomination. Such a claim would sound either ridiculous or blasphemous in the ear of any Protestant. Only Rome makes such a claim, and it was against this very pretension that Protestantism revolted.”
The main point we have to discuss, then, is not whether the Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Anglican or, Roman Catholic Church is the one Christ founded, but whether he did, in fact, found any organized church. Nine out of ten of the people who reject the Catholic Church do so not because they believe that Christ established some other church, but because they believe he established no organized church at all. They think of his church as a number of souls–how many God alone knows–who believe in Christ’s Kingdom and his message but do not necessarily belong to an organized body of his followers.
As Morrison writes, “Protestantism thus knows at least this much of the mind of Christ with respect to the differences which divide his church into ‘churches’: He totally disregards them as having no relevancy at all in the constitution of his church. Protestants confess that Christ and his church transcend their sectarian contentions and the sectarian ‘churches’ that are maintained upon them. The sheep of other sectarian folds belong to him no less than those of their own sectarian fold.”
It is sometimes maintained, indeed, that a particular denomination is endowed with a certain broad-mindedness which, in the providence of God, enables it to include as its members those whose beliefs or methods of worship differ in essentials. These contradictions, such as those which exist in the Church of England between the High Church party and the Evangelicals, are nowadays called “tensions.” They will be resolved, it is contended, in time by a normal development and evolution through which the truth will finally emerge.
“Holy Catholic Church”
When, therefore, a Protestant says in the Apostles’ Creed that he believes in the Holy Catholic Church, he may mean that he believes in following Christ in the great unorganized body of Christians, in acquiring Christ’s outlook and living up to his moral teaching in a way his private judgment dictates. He does not believe that his denomination is the Holy Catholic Church.
The denominations themselves are not the Holy Catholic Church of the Creed; they are to that church what clubs are to a city. One can be a perfectly good citizen without belonging to the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Rotarians, or the Buffaloes. The vital thing is to live in the city; it may or may not be useful to join a club.
Non-Catholics usually contend that all Christians belong to Christ’s holy Catholic Church, whether they are members of a denomination or not. So it may well be that one church is as good as another. Certainly few Protestants would believe that any church has God’s authority to teach men what they must believe or how they must live.
Outside the Church No Salvation
Most of them regard it as improper if not quite outrageous to claim to belong to the one and only organization Christ set up. Some of them still imagine, in spite of the persistency with which Catholics refute the idea, that we believe that all those outside the visible unity of the Church are going to hell.
Unless there are clear indications to the contrary, Catholics regard their separated brethren as being sincere people in good faith. Many of them have a deep, personal love of Christ and regulate their lives according to the highest ideals. God does not blame or punish anybody for what is not his own fault. Ignorance is only blameworthy when it is culpable. Here is what the highest authority in the Catholic Church has written:
“Those who are hampered by invincible ignorance about our holy religion, and live honorably and uprightly, keeping the natural law with its commands (which are written in every human heart by God), being ready to obey God, can attain eternal life with the help of the power of divine light and grace. God clearly sees, searches out and knows the minds, hearts, thoughts and dispositions of everyone; in his great goodness and mercy he will on no account permit a man to be punished with eternal torments, who is not guilty of voluntary sin.” (Pope Pius XI).
A man may never come into contact with the Catholic faith, or if he does it may be in such a way that it makes no real impact on him. Nothing impels him to study the Church’s claims or if he does study them sincerely according to his ability they do not convince him–such a man remains in good faith. On the other hand there is such a thing as intellectual laziness which masquerades as ignorance. It is expressed in sayings such as: “I am not qualified to settle the differences between the churches or to judge the claims of any one of them”; “There may be something in it but I prefer to stay as I am”; “I am afraid I might be converted and so have to change my life” or “I am too busy to bother about religion.” God alone knows and can judge the consciences of those who subscribe to statements like these; but they seem to express an attitude to God’s revelation which is highly suspect.
One Religion as Good as Another
The notion that all religions are equally good, be they pagan or Christian, is quite wrong, for, seeing that some of them were being practiced already, why did God become man, establish a new religion and tell his apostles to convert all men to it?
Nor is it true that all Christian religions are as good as one another. They contradict one another in three main and essential points—on what they believe, on how they worship, and on the authority they obey. Christ, being God, could not teach contradictories as true. The purpose of any Christian religion must be to teach the full, unaltered religion of Jesus Christ. Seeing that no two of all the Christian denominations agree exactly on doctrine, worship, and authority, no two can be teaching the integral, unchanged religion of Christ. It is no answer to say that each denomination stresses different.aspects of that religion. The fact remains that they do contradict one another in essentials. Some churches are ruled out of court immediately because the contradictions are to be found within themselves. Of the others, if one of, let us say, 250 Christian denominations is teaching just what Christ taught, worshiping in his way and recognizing the authority he established, all the others must be wrong, for all of them disagree in at least one of these three vital matters.
An Organized Society
The plain, simple truth is that Jesus Christ founded on earth directly and personally an organized religious society which he called his Church. A society is a number of people who work together under the same authority using the same means towards the same objective.
Jesus Christ selected certain men whom he personally trained to govern his Church under one whom he appointed its head. He told them what they were to aim at and how they were to do it, with his help. Years passed and that simple society grew; its organization became more complex, but we can trace its history through the centuries. To-day only the Catholic Church claims, and is able to prove her claim, to be that society.
Proved by the Councils
Before the sixteenth century the Church was always regarded as a highly organized institution. Its supreme ruler was known to be the pope. Under him were bishops, abbots, and priests. All this is clear from the general councils held from very early times. Bishops from all over the world attended them. They, the local rulers of the Church, assembled together to decide questions of faith and morals. Once the pope approved those decisions they were binding on Catholics everywhere.
What a contrast with, say, the Lambeth Conferences or the meetings of the World Council of the Churches, where representatives sit together under a chairman who has no jurisdiction over them. The general councils could, and sometimes did, cut off certain heretics from the Church.
The general Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 excommunicated the followers of Arius. Such a thing would have been impossible if all that was necessary to be a member of the Church was belief in Christ and willingness to follow him. The canons of the general councils–four of them were held in the fourth and fifth centuries, Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451)–demonstrate that the Church was regarded as an organization embracing rulers and subjects, teachers and taught, working together with the same means, with the same object in view.
The canons of the councils prove that the bishops had supreme authority in their own cities. A person had to obey his bishop if he wished to remain in the Church; disobedience meant expulsion. The bishops themselves, of course, had to obey the rulings of the Church.
One of the canons of the Council of Ephesus, for example, reads like this: “Similarly concerning all those who shall attempt to undo in any way any decision of this holy council of Ephesus, the holy council decides that if they be bishops or clerics, they are to be expelled from their ranks [deposed]; if laity, excommunicated.” All such decrees prove beyond doubt that the early Church was a well-organized society, strongly knit together by obedience to one authority.
The pope was the supreme authority. Six hundred and thirty bishops were present at Chalcedon, most of them from the Eastern Empire. In a letter to Pope Leo they wrote: “In your representatives you took the presidency over the members of the Synod, as the head over the members.” The fact was acknowledged by Pope Leo: “My legates have presided in my place over the Oriental Synod.”
At the first session of the Council the papal legate, Paschasinus, declared, “We have a commission from the most holy and most apostolic Bishop of Rome, who is head of all Churches, to see that Dioscorus shall have no seat in the Council, and if he shall venture upon this, that he be expelled.” Dioscorus was the Bishop of Alexandria to whom the Pope objected because he tried to hold a general council “without the consent of the Apostolic See, which had never been done before, and was never to be done.” No bishop questioned the fact that the Pope was the head of all the churches. It was taken for granted. Thus Dioscorus was denied a vote at Chalcedon.
An even clearer instance of proof that the bishops were present at a general council merely to confirm the decisions of the pope is the instruction of Pope Celestine to the Council of Ephesus: “The legates [of the Pope] are to be present at the transactions of the synod and will give effect to what the Pope has decided long ago about Nestorius, for he has no doubt that the assembled bishops will agree with this.” No bishop questioned the pope’s right to direct the Council.
In proof of this we quote from the declaration of the Archbishop of Caesarea, Firmus, one of the leading bishops at the Council: “The former letter of the Apostolic See [the Pope] to Cyril [Archbishop of Alexandria] had already contained the sentence and direction respecting the Nestorian question, and they [the assembled bishops] had . . . only fulfilled this direction and pronounced the canonical and apostolic condemnation of Nestorius.”
The Tome of Leo
The acclamations of the bishops assembled at Chalcedon are well known. After the reading of the Nicene Creeds they proclaimed: “That is the orthodox faith, that we all believe; into that we were baptized; into that we also baptize; thus Cyril taught; thus Pope Leo believes.”
Similarly, when another of Pope Leo’s letters was read the bishops declared: “That is the faith of the Fathers, that is the faith of the apostles! We all believe thus, the orthodox believe thus! Anathema to him who believes otherwise! Peter has spoken by Leo.” Later, Paschasinus, the Pope’s legate, spoke of Leo as the archbishop of all the churches, whose letter showed “quite clearly what is the true faith.”
The records of these and other Councils are facts of history which prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the Church of those days was regarded by all as a visible, organized society, a group of men, with the same objective, using the same means to attain it under the direction of an authority they all recognized. That it was a society bound together by authority is absolutely clear from all the records of the Church from those times.
Proved by the Fathers
Much information about the organization of the Church in the early centuries is to be gleaned from contemporary writings. There seems to be little point in giving here a list of quotations from the Fathers, emphasizing the point that it was essentially and by Christ’s will a visible organized society, because the fact is so very evident.
In his History of Dogma, Harnack, a Protestant, writes: “There can be no doubt that the Gnostic propaganda [of the second century] was seriously injured by that inability to organize and govern churches which is characteristic of all philosophical systems of religion. The Gnostic organization of schools and mysteries was not able to contend with the episcopal organization of the Churches”.
It will be of interest to mention just two of the Fathers of the Church, Irenaeus and Ignatius. The former had been a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John the apostle. He was martyred at Lyons in the year 202. His most famous work is called Adversus Haereses. Possibly it has been quoted more than any other work of the period as evidence of belief in the supremacy of the pope. Our present purpose is simply to show what a highly organized society the Catholic Church was at the end of the second century.
“In every church, all who wish to know the truth may study the traditions of the apostles that is known all over the world. In fact, we can tell you the names of those who were appointed bishops in the [various] churches by the apostles and trace their successors to our own times…And because the apostles were committing the government of the Church into their hands, they wanted these men, who were to take their places, to be perfect and blameless in every way.”
Elsewhere he wrote, “One should obey the presbyters who are the successors of the apostles….We should follow those who preserve the doctrine of the apostles and who are qualified, with the order of the priesthood, to instruct and correct others privately and publicly.”
Ignatius wrote his letters about a century earlier. He was on his way from Antioch, where he was bishop, to Rome where he was to be martyred in the year 107. To the Christian communities of the places through which he passed he wrote seven letters.
Here is a quotation from what he wrote to the Trallians:
“You must continue to do nothing apart from the bishop. Obey priests as apostles of Jesus Christ. Similarly, all should respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, just as they respect the bishop as representing the Father and the priests as the council of God and the college of the apostles. Apart from these there in nothing that can be called a church.”
The same lesson is repeated to the Ephesians and to the Smyrnaeans. To the former Ignatius wrote, “If the prayer of one or two men is so powerful, how much more so is that of the bishop and that of the whole Church. Anyone, therefore, who fails to assemble with the others has already displayed his pride and separated himself…Let us be careful not to oppose the bishop so that we may obey God.”
To the latter he wrote, “Shun schisms as the source of troubles. Follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father and the priests as you would the apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would God’s command. Apart from the bishop nobody must perform any of the functions that belong to the Church. The Eucharist must be considered valid when it is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has given this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there should the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
It hardly needs to be pointed out that in the year 107 this great martyr took it for granted that the Catholic Church existed as an organized society in all the towns through which he passed. In each place bishops and priests were necessary.
There was no government of the Church without them. They had to be obeyed if the faithful wished to be Catholics. They ruled as representatives of our Lord. Ignatius was the immediate successor of the apostles. He had known them. His idea of the constitution of the Church must have been theirs. It certainly did not change overnight.
All the evidence at our disposal–even though omitting, due to space, scriptural evidence–convinces us that Christ set up over nineteen hundred years ago a visible, organized society. Its objective was to make all men holy and save their souls. The means to that were belief in Christ, reception of the sacraments he instituted and obedience to the authority he established. The members were those who believed and were baptized. The authority was the apostles’ under the leadership of Peter, and their successors.
Not merely Christ’s followers
From the beginning Christ’s Church was a highly organized society. The organization of its earliest years was preserved and developed. Before the sixteenth century there is no reference anywhere to the notion that the Christian Church consists of all Christ’s followers, whether they are baptized or not, whether they believe in the sacraments or not, whether they accept orthodox teaching or not, whether they obey the successors of Peter and the apostles or not.
The idea that the denominations are to Christ’s Church as the clubs are to a city was unheard of for the first sixteen hundred years of the Church’s life. Not only was it unheard of, it was definitely contrary to the belief and practice of all the leaders and members of the Church.
That Christ established a visible organized Church is a truth clearly set forth in the New Testament, completely vindicated by the Church’s history and absolutely reasonable. We cannot be true followers of Christ unless we accept his Church. It is through that Church that he lives on in the world today. It is through that Church that his ministry continues. It lies at the very heart of his revelation to men. He said in his Sermon on the Mount, “He that shall break one of these least commandments and shall so teach men shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
What shall we say of those who, through culpable ignorance, intellectual indolence, or moral cowardice, reject the Church God came to earth to found?
I hope that now you know what sort of a Church Christ’s is; therefore, what sort of Church you must look for. It is the constitution of the Church that matters. Too much time is spent in bandying texts and arguing about scandals in history. God’s Church is human as well as divine; Christ told us in advance that scandals would come. He chose Peter, who had denied him, to be the first pope in preference to John, the beloved, to emphasize that we must always distinguish between the man and the office or, in other words, between the constitution of the Church and the men who make up the Church.
The short cut to the true following of Christ is to find out what kind of Church his is. We have described it in these pages. In the world today only one Church, the Catholic Church, with its center in Rome, fills the bill. The crucial question is that of authority. We have seen it at every stage of the Church’s history–in the councils, in the Fathers, in the Acts and the epistles, in the Gospels, where it was conferred by Christ himself. That same authority is in the world today vested in the Catholic bishops who are the successors of Peter. In a nutshell, the final answer is what you say to the question, Where on earth is Peter?