The Visible, Hierarchical, Apostolic Church
Monday, January 23, 2006
[written in 1996]
[written in 1996]
In the Nicene Creed, which is accepted by most Christians, the Christian Church is described as being "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." These are known as the four marks of the Church. The notions of holiness and catholicity are not much in dispute. The mark of holiness may be defined as the possession, and dissemination of the sublime, holy, Christ-centered moral code of Christianity (as best exemplified by saints or otherwise great, godly figures). All parties - while disagreeing on many particulars - concur that this is a central function of the Church.Catholicity simply means universal. Here Protestants and Catholics disagree only on the nature of that Church which is to be considered universal and all-encompassing.
This brings us to the oneness and apostolicity of the Church, where the disagreements are great indeed. Most Protestants (especially evangelicals) see unity and oneness subsisting primarily or solely in the inner, invisible, spiritual unity of those who are in fact in Christ by virtue of being justified, or born again, or regenerated (with or without baptism, depending on denomination). For them, the church consists of the Spirit-filled, predestined elect, who will persevere and are saved, now and in eternity.
The Catholic Church has always proclaimed this unifying characteristic also, under the broad and rich concept of the
At this point in the discussion Catholics appeal to the hierarchical, or episcopal (that is, under the jurisdiction of bishops) nature of Church government. Furthermore, Catholics maintain that this form is divinely-instituted and biblical, therefore not optional or of secondary theological importance.
Finally, Catholics believe that bishops are - by the intention of Jesus Christ - the successors of the Apostles (the concept of apostolic succession). This is the methodology whereby the Catholic Church traces itself back historically in an unbroken succession to the Apostles and the early Church. Catholicism thus greatly emphasizes both historical and doctrinal continuity, whereas evangelical Protestants are more concerned with maintaining the passion and intense commitment and zeal of the Apostles and early Christians, and are less interested in governmental forms or doctrines which are now regarded as Catholic "distinctives." They tend to see clearly in the Bible and early Church those doctrines with which they agree, but overlook those which are more in accordance with Catholicism, such as the episcopacy, purgatory, and apostolicity.
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We shall examine the marks of the Church with which Protestants (despite many exceptions) largely disagree: its visibility, the hierarchy of bishops, apostolic succession, and related issues such as ordination, the duties of priests, and sectarianism. Most of these questions are concerned ultimately with authority per se. Protestants emphasize biblical authority, and Catholics ecclesiastical and episcopal leadership, and Tradition. But if the Bible points to and encourages submission to the latter, then the two types of authority cannot (biblically) be
One of the undeniable aspects of unity and oneness in the Bible is the constant warning (especially in the writings of St. Paul) against (and prohibition of) divisions, schism, and sectarianism, either by command, or by counter-example (Matthew 12:25, 16:18, John 10:16, 17:20-23, Acts 4:32, Romans 13:13, 16:17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:3-4, 10:17, 11:18-19, 12:12-27, 14:33, 2 Corinthians 12:20, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:3-6, Philippians 1:27, 2:2-3, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Titus 3:9-10, James 3:16, 2 Peter 2:1). This is clearly no trifling matter. Our Lord even makes unity a means by which the world might believe that the Father sent the Son (John 17:21,23), and prays that it will be as profound as the unity of the Trinity itself (John 17:21-22).
One of the sincere and seemingly reasonable grounds for forming a new sect is the desire to separate from sinners and sin, which may be infecting the group left. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that the Church (especially in its institutional sense) is comprised of both saints and sinners, good and bad. We see this most indisputably in several parables of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven (that is, the Church), such as the wheat and the weeds (or tares), where Jesus says that they will grow together until the final Judgment, or harvest time (Matthew 13:24-30; cf. Matthew 3:12). He compares the Church to a fishnet which draws good and bad fish, ultimately separated (Matthew 13:47-50), and a marriage banquet, from which one guest was cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). This parable ends with the famous phrase, "Many are called, but few are chosen," which may be interpreted as the distinction between lukewarm, or dead, or nominal Christians and the actual elect who will be saved in the end. Both are present in the Church, according to Jesus. A similar state of
affairs is seen in the parables of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). And Jesus' description of Christians and the Church as a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14; cf. 5:15-16), is an obvious reference to the visibility of the Church. In no way can this city be regarded as invisible.
Jesus chose Judas as His disciple, even though He knew the future, and he was truly an Apostle (Matthew 10:1,4, Mark 3:14, John 6:70-71, Acts 1:17). Likewise,
Protestants often cite Jesus' analogy of sheep and shepherd (John 10:1-16; cf. 2 Timothy 2:19, 1 John 2:19), who know each other (10:14), as evidence that the Church consists of the elect only. Yet the analogy breaks down when we find that Scripture also applies the term sheep to the unsaved reprobate (Psalm 74:1), the straying (Psalm 119:176),
Other passages which presuppose a visible, identifiable, "concrete" Church include Matthew 18:15-17, in which believers are exhorted by our Lord to take errant and obstinate brothers to the church, which will then determine the appropriate verdict. It would be contrary to the tenor of the New Testament if this were a reference to a local church alone - even apart from the utterly impractical consequences of such a scenario (where the sinner would simply attend another denomination and move on with his life, as is tragically all too often the case today).
It is also incorrect to regard
The New Testament refers basically to three types of permanent offices in the Church (Apostles and Prophets were to cease): bishops (episkopos), elders (presbyteros, from which are derived Presbyterian and priest), and deacons (diakonos). Bishops are mentioned in Acts 1:20, 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 2:25. Presbyteros (usually elder) appears in passages such as Acts 15:2-6, 21:18, Hebrews 11:2, 1 Peter 5:1, and 1 Timothy 5:17. Protestants view these leaders as analogous to current-day pastors, while Catholics regard them as priests. Deacons (often, minister in English translations) are mentioned in the same fashion as Christian elders with similar frequency (for example, 1 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
As is often the case in theology and practice among the earliest Christians, there is some fluidity and overlapping of these three vocations (for example, compare Acts 20:17 with 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with Titus 1:5-9). But this doesn't prove that three offices of ministry did not exist. For instance, St. Paul often referred to himself as a deacon or minister (1 Corinthians 3:5, 4:1, 2 Corinthians 3:6, 6:4, 11:23, Ephesians 3:7, Colossians1:23-25), yet no one would assert that he was merely a deacon, and nothing else. Likewise, St. Peter calls himself a fellow elder (1 Peter 5:1), whereas Jesus calls him the rock upon which He would build His Church, and gave him alone "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:18-19). These examples are usually indicative of a healthy humility, according to Christ's injunctions of servanthood (Matthew 23:11-12, Mark 10:43-44).
Upon closer observation, clear distinctions of office appear, and the hierarchical nature of Church government in the New Testament emerges. Bishops are always referred to in the singular, while elders are usually mentioned plurally. The primary controversy among Christians has to do with the nature and functions of both bishops and elders (deacons have largely the same duties among both Protestants and Catholics).
Catholics contend that the elders/presbyters in Scripture carry out all the functions of the Catholic priest:
1) Sent and Commissioned by Jesus (the notion of being called): Mark 6:7, John 15:5, 20:21, Romans 10:15, 2 Corinthians 5:20.
2) Representatives of Jesus: Luke 10:16, John 13:20.
3) Authority to "Bind" and "Loose" (Penance and Absolution): Matthew 18:18 (compare Matthew 16:19).
4) Power to Forgive Sins in Jesus' Name: Luke 24:47, John 20:21-23, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, James 5:15.
5) Authority to Administer Penance: Acts 5:2-11, 1 Corinthians 5:3-13, 2 Corinthians 5:18, 1 Timothy 1:18-20, Titus 3:10.
6) Power to Conduct the Eucharist: Luke 22:19, Acts 2:42 (compare Luke 24:35, Acts 2:46, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 10:16).
7) Dispense Sacraments: 1 Corinthians 4:1, James 5:13-15.
8) Perform Baptisms: Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38,41.
9) Ordained: Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:23.
10) Pastors (Shepherds): Acts 20:17,28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1-4.
11) Preach and Teach: 1 Timothy 3:1-2, 5:17.
12) Evangelize: Matthew 16:15, 28:19-20, Mark 3:14, Luke 9:2,6, 24:47, Acts 1:8.
13) Heal: Matthew 10:1, Luke 9:1-2,6.
14) Cast Out Demons: Matthew 10:1, Mark 3:15, Luke 9:1.
15) Hear Confessions: Acts 19:18 (compare Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5, James 5:16, 1 John 1:8-9; presupposed in John 20:23).
16) Celibacy for Those Called to it: Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:7-9,20,25-38 (especially 7:35).
17) Enjoy Christ's Perpetual Presence and Assistance in a
Protestants - following Luther - cite 1 Peter 2:5,9 (see also Revelation 1:6) in order to prove that all Christians are priests. But this doesn't exclude a specially-ordained, sacramental priesthood, since St. Peter was reflecting the language of Exodus 19:6, where the Jews were described in this fashion. Since the Jews had a separate Levitical priesthood, by analogy 1 Peter 2:9 cannot logically exclude a New Testament ordained priesthood. These texts are concerned with priestly holiness, as opposed to priestly function. The universal sense, for instance, never refers to the Eucharist or sacraments. Every Christian is a priest in terms of offering the sacrifices of prayer (Hebrews 13:15), almsgiving (Hebrews 13:16), and faith in
Jesus (Philippians 2:17).
Bishops (episkopos) possess all the powers, duties, and jurisdiction of priests, with the following important additional responsibilities:
1) Jurisdiction over Priests and
2) Special Responsibility to Defend the Faith: Acts 20:28-31, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Titus 1:9-10, 2 Peter 3:15-16.
3) Power to Rebuke False Doctrine and Excommunicate: Acts 8:14-24, 1 Corinthians 16:22, 1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:10-11.
4) Power to Bestow Confirmation (the Receiving of the Indwelling Holy Spirit): Acts 8:14-17, 19:5-6.
5) Management of Church Finances: 1 Timothy 3:3-4, 1 Peter 5:2.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), episkopos is used for overseer in various senses, for example: officers (Judges 9:28, Isaiah 60:17), supervisors of funds (2 Chronicles 34:12,17), overseers of priests and Levites (Nehemiah 11:9, 2 Kings 11:18), and of temple and tabernacle functions (Numbers 4:16). God is called episkopos at Job 20:29, referring to His role as Judge, and Christ is anepiskopos in 1 Peter 2:25 (RSV: "Shepherd and Guardian of your souls").
The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) bears witness to a definite hierarchical, episcopal structure of government in the early Church. St. Peter, the chief elder (the office of pope) of the entire Church (1 Peter 5:1; cf. John 21:15-17), presided and issued the authoritative pronouncement (15:7-11). Then James, bishop of
Much historical and patristic evidence also exists for the bishopric of St. Peter at
One may concede all the foregoing as true, yet deny apostolic succession, whereby these offices are passed down, or handed down, through the generations and centuries, much like Sacred Tradition. But this belief of the Catholic Church (along with Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) is also grounded in Scripture:
If the Apostles are bishops, and one of them was replaced by another, after the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, then we have an explicit example of apostolic succession in the Bible, taking place before 35 A.D. In like fashion,
All of this biblical data is harmonious with the ecclesiological views of the Catholic Church. There has been some development over the centuries, but in all essentials, the biblical Church and clergy and the Catholic Church and clergy are one and the same.
The historical evidence of the earliest Christians after the Apostles and the Church Fathers is quite compelling as well: there exists virtually unanimous consent as to the episcopal, hierarchical, visible nature of the Church, which proceeds authoritatively down through history by virtue of Apostolic Succession.
St. Clement, bishop of Rome (d.c.101), teaches apostolic succession, around 80 A.D. (Epistle to Corinthians, 42:4-5, 44:1-3), and St. Irenaeus is a very strong witness to, and advocate of this tradition in the last two decades of the 2nd century (Against Heresies, 3:3:1,4, 4:26:2, 5:20:1, 33:8). Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, in his History of the Church, c.325, begins by saying that one of the "chief matters" to be dealt with in his work is "the lines of succession from the holy apostles . . ." (tr. G.A. Williamson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, 31).
With regard to the threefold ministry of bishop, priest (elder/presbyteros), and deacon, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, offers remarkable testimony, around 110 (Letter to the Magnesians, 2, 6:1, 13:1-2, Letter to the Trallians, 2:1-3, 3:1-2, 7:2, Letter to the Philadelphians, 7:1-2,Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8:1-2 - the last also being the first reference to the "Catholic Church"). St. Clement of
Even John Calvin, contrary to many of his later followers, taught that the Church was visible and a "Mother" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV,1,1; IV,1,4; IV,1,13-14), the wrongness of sectarianism and schism (IV,1,5; IV,1,10-15), and that the Church includes sinners and "hypocrites" (IV,1,7; IV,1,13-15 - he cites Matthew 13:24-30,47-58). His difference with Catholics here is that he defines the visible Church as his own Reformed Church.