The largest Christian church doesn’t use the word “Christian”, rather it uses the word “Catholic”; the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic means “universal” or “everywhere” and so the meaning is that the Catholic church is the only true church and it is everywhere. This article looks at the significance and meaning of Catholicism, a movement that started within decades of the original, primitive church.
The first mention of the “Catholic Church” is in 110 AD when Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Smyrnaeans and said,
“You must all follow the Bishop as Jesus Christ follows the father, and the Presbyterian as you would the apostles. Reference the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the church without the Bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as where ever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church[emphasis added]. Nor is it permitted without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate the agape; but whatever he approve, this too is pleasing to God, so that whatever is done will be secure and valid.”
The context of this part of Ignatius’ message, found in earlier verses, is that there were divisions in the church, and some, in particular, had opinions that were “contrary to the mind of God”, and they taught against practicing the Eucharist. In particular, they said that the Eucharist was not “the Flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who denied the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.” Ignatius also says that neither did they care for the widow, the poor, the distressed, the hungry, thirsty, and so forth.
So it is apparent that this doctrine of Catholicism was in response to divisive elements that taught against what was considered true doctrine. The primary true doctrine here that was in dispute was that the Eucharist was the “Flesh of Jesus Christ.”
- The doctrine of Catholicism is built upon statements like the one above.
- The inference is that the Church is universally under the control of the bishops as
- The bishops replaced the apostles and prophets
- The inference is that there are no more apostles, prophets, or other gift ministries that God would call for any reason outside of the church organization.
- Thus there is a hierarchy of bishops, bishops over bishops over bishops and deacons etc, under which all must submit in order to be in the Church.
- Only those church activities sponsored by this hierarchy of bishops are valid.
- Thus communion, baptism, and all other things charged to the Church are to be done by this hierarchy, and any outside this hierarchy are not valid.
We do have writings previous to Ignatius, i.e., Clement, that lay the groundwork for this position (see Clement Used Apostolic Succession as the argument against replacing Presbyters in 1 Clement). Clement taught that apostolic succession established who were the genuine bishops, that the bishops ordained in this succession established the transfer of authority from the Apostles to the hierarchy of Bishops that oversees the true Church. It appears that Ignatius is just refining the position of Clement and giving it the label of “the Catholic Church”
This theme of the “Catholic Church” continued in future writings from this point. For example:
PolyCarp in The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp wrote
“The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church [emphasis added] in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.”
Justin Martyr in the Sole Government of God wrote:
“For the men of former generations, who instituted private and public rites in honour of such as were more powerful, caused forgetfulness of the Catholic [emphasis added] faith to take possession of their posterity;”
Irenaeus in Chapter X of Against Heresies wrote:
“while the Catholic Church [emphasis added] possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said”
Implications to Churches Using Other Forms of Church Government
Just as in the discussion of Clement we have doctrine being established that is beyond the scope of the New Testament writings. The doctrines being presented here especially present a challenge to anyone that that believes in congregational rule. There is a discussion of Church Government here. That discussion shows the Baptist Church’s reasoning to establishing congregational rule which, while it references the Bible, doesn’t show any Biblical precedent or model. Basically, the argument put forth is that
- Believers don’t need a priest because we all are a holy priesthood.
- Each believer has access to the spirit, and so is fully capable of being guided in decision making, including those of governing the church.
Purely on a logical basis this looks like a valid argument. Nevertheless, if the Bible is to be sole guide to faith, there is not a clear example of congregational government in the bible.
If the Cessationists are correct and there are no more apostles, prophets, and so forth then a Presbyterian system under perhaps a city wide overseer is the Biblical model.
However, if the Cessationists are not correct, then there are gift ministries today that function in whatever capacity the church needs to govern itself through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and under the headship of Jesus Christ.
A Challenge to the Catholic Ecclesiastical System
But, on the other hand, this Catholic Ecclesiastical System also seems to go beyond the loose structure of the model of leadership modeled in the Book of Acts. It was not the bishop of Jerusalem, but the Apostles that ordained bishops in every city, even one in Rome. There is no biblical verse that says that the bishop replaces the Apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, or evangelist. In fact, Jesus Christ, as head, communicating through the spirit, to those gifted in the spirit, is the true overseer. Now these ordained elders and bishops are charged to oversee the flock, to make sure everyone is taught the Apostle’s doctrine, that the widows are cared for, and are to reprove those who stray from the faith. But they are to be subject to the Apostles, Prophets and other gift ministries just like everyone else.
This system is different from Apostolic succession in that the holy spirit acts to ordain those who would be of the best service, and supplies that service to whatever congregation needs it. An apostle or prophet could go in and ordain the new overseer (bishop) of a community.
The model also in the books of Acts is that some who were considered disciples had churches in their homes. There is nothing that identifies Lydia or Aquila and Priscilla as bishops or apostles or prophets or pastors or evangelists or teachers. Yet they are described as “having churches.” If we accept that having a church is equivalent to overseeing a church then Lydia, Aquila and Priscilla would be considered overseers or bishops.
What is amazing is that Clement and Ignatius are writing a few decades after Peter and Paul departed this earth and their arguments go far beyond what the Apostles wrote. While it is understandable that these men would think that they needed as bishops to take full control of the Church to combat the divisive influences the sad truth appears to be that people stopped following the spirit. The ministries of Apostle, Prophet, Pastor, Evangelist, Teacher were all but discarded for the preeminence of the bishops.
That this kind of misunderstanding could develop in such a short time is not that unfathomable in history. Christ rose about 33 AD, and Peter and Paul departed in the mid 60’s AD. Ignatius is writing about 110 AD. That makes the time interval that has passed at say 45 – 78 years since Jesus, Peter, and Paul were around. Our current year is 2010. How many things are misunderstood from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s now? And we have things on media that didn’t exist 2000 years ago.
What is clear is that the Church by this time is already deviating from the model set forth some forty to sixty years earlier. If the writings of the New Testament are to be received as most reliably reflecting the Apostle’s doctrine that we are to adhere to, then the churches are under the headship of Christ and the guidance of the spirit through the offices of gift ministries such as Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Evangelists, and Teachers. Otherwise, the doctrines of Catholicism emphasizing that the bishops and deacons replaced the apostles and prophets, that only bishops and their charges can minister in communion, baptism, and other church events, and that this one church is everywhere bound under this one hierarchy of bishops that can only be passed on by apostolic succession must still be in effect. In other words, only the Roman Catholic Church is the true church. I think not.
 All quotes are from Letter to the Smyrnaeans, quoted from THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, Volume 1, William A Jurgens, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1970, p. 25
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