Let’s look a bit at the development of the church as seen in Scripture and history. Jesus died around 30 A.D. Starting about 30 years later, the Apostles and a few authors directly associated with them began writing what we know of as the New Testament. Their writings were circulated among the many fledgling churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean area. Copies were made. The early church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, largely met in people’s homes. A few got to use the facilities of Synagogues but Cathedrals and modern style church buildings were still centuries away. Scripture does not give us a blueprint for their gatherings. It only tells us what the major elements were. They sang hymns and spiritual songs, they prayed and worshipped, they were instructed from those early writings and the teaching of men who either were Apostles or trained by them. They also broke bread and remembered the Lord’s death and resurrection through communion.
There were no priests, choirs, mentions of incense, robes, specific prayers, the order of affairs, etc. No liturgy. Anything that was later added by churches as the “proper way to do things” was not described for us in the Bible. They are manmade traditions we’ve added and like all things must be judged by Scripture.
Scripture (the Bible) is the Word of God. It alone is God’s perfect revelation to man. While it was written by men, those men told us they were moved by the Holy Spirit to write what they wrote. It wasn’t something cultic like automatic writing but the Holy Spirit, using their vocabulary and writing style, guided them in writing each and every word. It’s true the formal declaration of what constituted the canon of Scripture (i.e. the official books) did not happen until much later, history tells us that the books chosen were universally recognized as meeting some important criteria. They had to be written by an Apostle or someone closely associated with an Apostle (e.g. Luke who traveled extensively with Paul). There had to be evidence they were widely accepted and changed lives. Through these and a few other criteria, it was obvious what belonged. This became the New Testament. Together with the Old Testament, It is our only source of revelation from God. It was understood that these writings were unique as were the men who wrote them. Future writings would have to be judged by these writings. They set the once and forever standard. No future writings or teachings could be added to them.
As the early church grew and spread, it continued to be guided by these early writings and Apostolic teaching. We have recorded one time when the Apostles met as a group with Paul to discuss a few matters Paul brought to them. Otherwise, the Apostles themselves eventually left Jerusalem and ministered in different places. There was no ongoing Apostolic council. There was no hierarchy, no single leader. The NT speaks of teachers, elders, and deacons. No mention is made of priests, bishops, cardinals, or a pope. No nuns or monks. No presbyteries, church committees, or denominations. There was no central authority except that of the Scriptures.
In the mid-300’s A.D., the Roman Emperor Charlemagne converted to Christianity. After centuries of persecution, Christianity finally had a patron in a position of power. The Emperor. This is when we start to see some formal organization beginning. Being Emperor of the vast Roman Empire required much delegation and organization. Charlemagne expected the same of the church. He wanted someone in Rome who could be his appointed head of the church so he had someone in a position of power to deal with. Thus was born the office of the Bishop of Rome. Prior to this, there were some learned teachers who were called Bishops in recognition of their gifts but not yet part of any larger organizational structure. It was more a title of honor.
We have some writings of these early church leaders that have survived. They are often collectively referred to as the Church Fathers. None of these men were Apostles or alive during the time of Christ. The earliest or their writings are from time after the Apostles were all gone. Much of their writings come hundreds of years later. While their writings are of great historical value to us, their writings are still the writings of men and not Scripture. Their writings were not chosen to be part of the NT. Jesus lived in an age where there were no recording devices. Spoken words had to be written down then copied. That is one of the reasons a criterion for writing to be part of the NT is that it had to be written by an Apostle or someone in direct contact with an Apostle. Any writing outside of that could not be trusted and had to be judged by those writings. Even today, with all our technology, we don’t have perfect or complete information about things that happened 100 – 200 years ago. There are elements of the story of the founding of the United States that are rumor and not verified fact. The Church Fathers were not writing Scripture. Their letters and other writings were their own thoughts and must be compared to Scripture. We are not free to consider their teachings on par with Scripture. Nothing is on par with Scripture. No subsequent teachings or writings. The Scriptures are the only revelation given by God for our instruction. All teachings must be based on them.
Over the centuries after Charlemagne this new Roman Church, led by the Bishop of Rome, began to expand its power and influence added many traditions and teachings not found in Scripture. While some were consistent with Scripture and allowable, others weren’t. Worse, some of these teachings and traditions were treated as equal to Scripture. Certain decisions and declarations made by this new Roman Church were considered church canon and carried the weight of the Scriptures. All the major teachings of the Roman Catholic church came into being after Charlemagne. Things like the mass, the office of the Pope, Papal infallibility, Mariology, etc. The seeds of some of these traditions may have existed earlier but were not practiced by the early church. Over centuries the Roman Catholic church claimed the authority to establish these things and declared them on par with Scripture but by what authority? They could not claim the authority of Scripture as they were adding to it. Their attempts to find support in Scripture have been contested by many and often are misinterpretations or insufficient. The fact that Peter made the summary statement when the Apostles met with Paul in Jerusalem is often cited as proof he was the early head of the church and thus the first Pope. Some claim Peter was the original organizer of the church in Jerusalem. Even if he was, that does not establish the office of the Pope. As the church scattered, some Apostles stayed primarily in Jerusalem while others made extensive missionary journeys. Naturally, they took on different roles. Paul was the leading missionary of the Apostles whereas Peter ministered more extensively in Jerusalem. Neither one was over the other. In fact, Paul later publicly called out Peter for his hypocritical behavior as recorded in Scripture. They were equals. The Apostles as a group were unique and never repeated but among them, there was no hierarchy. Scholars agree that for centuries the church had no overarching organization of leadership. No Pope can be found. It wasn’t for centuries that the Roman Catholic church sought to establish the office of the Pope and then tried to look back through history and claim a line of succession starting from Peter. Based on what? How good were their records to really know these men they were declaring Popes centuries later? Why is there no record of these men acting as some universal head of the church in their time?
We would do well at this juncture to remember what the “church” is. The church began on the day of Pentecost. Simply put, the church is the collection of believers across the world and throughout history. It is all those who have put their faith and trust in Jesus as their Lord in Savior. The church is not a building, an organization, or those who hold to certain interpretations of Scripture. While Charlemagne was establishing the Bishop of Rome (the forerunner to the Pope and one of the many titles for the Pope) the church already existed and had since the day of Pentecost. What we know as Roman Catholicism is a manmade institution created over time by those claiming authority and thereafter establishing their rule of what correct doctrine and practice should be. There has always been those outside of the Roman Catholic church that were still a part of the church. One did not have to come under the authority and practice of the Roman Catholic church to be a part of God’s church. Eventually, there was a great schism in the Roman Catholic church in 1054 which lead to the east-west split. Later, in the 15th century, the Protestant Reformation caused another schism. So which tradition is right? Is there an overall leader of the church? The answer is found in the Scriptures as it should be.
The church is all those who belong to Jesus. It is not a function of what local church or denomination they belong to. They are subject to no Pope or other ecclesiastical authority. Scripture only defines accountability to one another and to local elders. The Roman Catholic Church has priests leading their local churches across the world. Yet Biblically, Priests were unique to the OT and the Temple. They belonged to an era, pre-Christ, when man still needed representation before God in certain functions. The Book of Hebrews teaches that in Jesus the entire OT religious structure, including priests and the Temple, were done away with. Jesus became our new high priest. Scripture declares that there is now no intercessor between God and man except Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic function of the priest came about in the 2nd century when some churches began to formalize communion feeling it ought to be administered by those holding a priestly office. This is not found in Scripture. As Paul established churches, he appointed elders who were put in charge of the church but did not give any teaching as to how communion was to be celebrated. The early church met in people’s homes. There were no priests presiding over these meetings or the celebration of communion. If only a priest can preside over communion (later called by the Roman Catholic church the Eucharist) then was the early church’s practice of celebration communion invalid? Over time, the role of the priest expanded to hearing confessions and granting absolution. After Christ freed us from the need for representation, man was reinstituting it. When Jesus died on the cross, Scripture tells us the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. This was a very thick curtain made from sewing many layers of material together. Tearing such a curtain in half would be like trying to tear a phone book in half a feat very few can do. It happened in an instant and not by the hand of man. Scripture tells us that the renting of that curtain represented the removal of the veil between God and man. We no longer need sacrifices, a Temple, or priests. We have direct access to God through Jesus. We can confess our sins to Him in prayer. Why do we want to go back to the OT and have to have others ministering on our behalf when we have been given the great freedom and blessing to go directly to God! The Jews were afraid to even say the name of God. They took the vowels out of Yahweh and abbreviated it so they would not speak His name. God was always approached very formally. Yet in the NT we are told we can call God “Abba” which means father or more intimately, daddy. We have been given a great privilege, why do we reject it and feel we have to go through others? We are trying to overlay OT ritual over the NT freedom we have in Christ. Jesus described the OT law as a yoke too hard to bear. He’s freed us from that yoke! Why do we want to put it back on?
If you want to see the church that began on the day of Pentecost, read the Book of Acts but keep in mind that for the birth of the church age, God gave signs and wonders and appointed Apostles. We see them planting churches, spreading the Good News, appointment elders and deacons to carry on the work, performing signs and wonders to give testimony to the Gospel and to their unique office, and then they fade from history except through their writings. As they left us so did the signs and wonders that accompanied them and so did the office of Apostle. Their work complete, they joined their Lord in heaven. Their writings became the NT and their pattern of evangelism and church planting was left for us to carry on.
Centuries later men started to add to the church things that are not found in Scripture claiming an authority only the Apostles had. They claimed their teachings were equal to those of the Apostles. This is nothing but the work of man claiming to be the work of God. This is why our faith and our worship must be grounded on Scripture. Many have come forward in the centuries since claiming new revelations from God. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have received revelation from God to restore the “gospel.” With no proof the Gospel was ever lost, he preceded to offer new teaching that was not in agreement with Scripture. He set himself up as a prophet and claimed new revelations. Sadly, he deceived many and continues to today although the deception is from Satan with Joseph Smith only being Satan’s tool. Countless cults have come and gone some in bloody endings. The Roman Catholic church continues on yet has been racked in recent years with terrible revelations of child abuse often hidden by the very church that claims to be God’s true church on earth.
The church is not an organization, a denomination, a building, or a local gathering. The church is all who have put their faith in trust in Jesus Christ and who worship in spirit and in truth. It is built upon the Word of God and the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God who died for our sins and rose on the third day and will come again to judge the living and the dead. We have direct access to the Throne of Grace through Jesus Christ. We don’t need priests or prophets or those claiming special anointings. We are called the children of God and saints. Not saints as invented by the Roman Catholic church but true saints – disciples of Jesus.
Jesus had barely returned to heaven when false teachers arose. Paul wrote extensively about the Judaizers and Gnostics and other false teachers. Satan loves to counterfeit the things of God to mislead us. Church history is full of such counterfeits. Scripture must be our rock, our foundation against which all things are tested and judged. Any human organization that claims to be the true church or is headed by someone claiming to be God’s representative speaks falsehood. If we build on anything but the solid rock of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Scriptures, we build on shifting sand and what we build will not last.