When the Savior began His earthly ministry, He entered the temple in Jerusalem and made an alarming pronouncement concerning the organized religion of the day:
John 2:13-16: 13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”
This sad diagnosis, made by the Great Physician Himself, tells us plainly that Judaism was a dead and lifeless business by the time the Savior walked this Earth. Now by all external appearances Judaism was a booming, bustling religious organization, under-girded by a highly developed hierarchy; regulated by mountains of legal structure and supported by a vast army of religious pilgrims who faithfully attended the annual feasts. In that day, anyone who would dare question the success of Judaism would surely be deemed as a madman or heretic – such a person might even run the risk of being persecuted and ultimately crucified…
This historic example should remind us that there is a great difference between the religious structures of men versus the true household of God’s people. What men may call a success may very well be, in the eyes of the all-seeing and all knowing God, an utter sham. Clearly, the Lord Himself is not deceived by the thin veneer of religiosity. I begin here with this biblical precedent in order to call attention to some interesting articles that have been published on the Internet recently. Let me begin with an article written by Catholic Answers entitled Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth. In this article it is argued that historic Catholicism is the one and only true church. This is nothing new, but it has generated some interesting discussion:
“Jesus said his Church would be ‘the light of the world.’ He then noted that ‘a city set on a hill cannot be hid’ (Matt. 5:14). This means his Church is a visible organization. It must have characteristics that clearly identify it and that distinguish it from other churches. Jesus promised, ‘I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). This means that his Church will never be destroyed and will never fall away from him. His Church will survive until his return. Jesus established only one Church, not a collection of differing churches (Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, and so on). The Bible says the Church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23–32). Jesus can have but one spouse, and his spouse is the Catholic Church.”
Rome has always maintained the idea that it is in fact the true and only church. Of course, here in America, such dogma isn’t always held so tightly, however, this is the official view of Rome – Roman Catholicism, they portend, is the only way – and they have a long history of organizational unity and doctrinal coherence to prove it. Or do they?
When reference is made to this idea of a visible organization, rather than to the spiritual household of God, then one must question the meaning and validity of such a thought. Without a doubt, the spiritual household of God does have a visible manifestation in the world – if it didn’t, then it could not be called a lampstand in this dark world (Matt. 5:14, Revelation 2-3). However, it must be understood that there is both a visible and invisible manifestation of the church in this world. Such a biblical distinction is needful for our understanding:
The Church Invisible: It is invisible in the sense that only God can infallibly know who are genuine possessors of faith, whether speaking of a local church or of all professing believers throughout the world (Matt. 13:18-30). It is invisible to the extent that only God perfectly knows, by His electing grace, those whose names are written in the book of life from all eternity (John 10:14-15, Acts 2:47).
The Church Visible: To say that the true church is principally invisible in no way denies that it has a visible manifestation in the world. The church is seen by the world within the realm of two ministerial realities: 1. The ministries of its individual members who serve as individual priests and ambassadors in this world (1 Peter 2:4-5, Eph. 4:12-13, John 17:18) and 2. The ministries of corporate assemblies (local churches) throughout the world (Eph. 1:1, Phil 1:1, Rom. 1:7, Gal. 1:1-2, 1 Peter 1:1-2, Col. 1:2, Rev. 2-3). As to this latter category, the local church, the Savior promised that there would always be a great struggle over the purity of membership within its organizational structure (Matt. 13:24-30).
In the article by Catholic Answers we noted their treatment of Matt. 5:14 where they say: “This means His Church is a visible organization.” Clearly, such a statement only affirms a small portion of truth concerning the church. Thus, a statement such as this is an oversimplification since the church has its visible and invisible aspects.
It is crucial to understand that the true universal church (worldwide) is ordained by God’s sovereign decree. Men may profess the Lordship of Christ, but this does not mean that they are His genuine disciples (Matt. 7:21-23). Therefore, local churches will always struggle with this matter of purity within their ranks (Matt. 13:24-30). All one has to do is examine the early church in order to comprehend that as soon as God’s wheat of the true church was planted (Acts 2), the enemy had already planted his tares of false brethren (Galatians 2:4, 2 Cor. 11:26) who were hidden reefs (Jude 12) and the disguised enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3). The N.T. epistles are dripping with reminders of this distinction between the visible and invisible manifestation of the church. Because of this, it is important that we consider some of the foundational realities that will be found within a true church (Ephesians 2:19).
1. The Gospel, the Holy Spirit and Regeneration: Simply put: God does not raise up new life out of corrupted seed. Instead, the Holy Spirit uses the seed of the Gospel message in order to beget new life in the sinner: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18 NIV). We see this so clearly displayed on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where the Apostle Peter was preaching the genuine Gospel and the Holy Spirit brought about the regeneration of some 3000 souls that day – here again we see the church’s threefold foundation in action – the Gospel, the Holy Spirit and regeneration (John 3:3–8). Clearly, where there is no Gospel preached or heard (Romans 10:14), there can be no fruit of salvation. Men can build their basilicas, inhabit them with tares, preach an alternate Gospel (Gal. 1:6-7) and call it the church all they want, but all that they produce in this is a man-made institution that is worthy of God’s eternal condemnation (Gal. 1:8-9). The fact that Rome proclaims a false Gospel is the clearest evidence that its organization is man-made, rather than it being the work of the Spirit through regeneration and truth. Ultimately, where the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness is replaced with a doctrine of infused righteousness – there is no true Gospel (Gal. 3); and where the finished work of the cross is added to in any way – there is no Gospel; and where the Lord’s table is made into a canabalistic mockery – there is no true Gospel. But where the genuine Gospel is proclaimed and where Spirit-born brethren assemble – there you will find the genuine church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Phil Johnson has a good article addressing this point (as it relates to denominationalism) – it is a profitable read.
2. The Supremacy of Christ: The genuine church will herald Christ as the Supreme “head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Contrary to this, Catholicism teaches that the Pope is the “Holy See” who presides as the “supreme pastor” of the church – thus endowing him with the title that is worthy of Christ alone who is, by name, The Chief Shepherd of the church (1 Peter 5:4). Historically, Catholic popery has been guilty not only of ascribing the title of Christ to mere men, but it has also been guilty of attempting to confer the Savior’s power and authority upon them as well. Martin Luther addressed this matter in his 95 Theses: “We assert…that the pope’s pardons are not able to remove the least venial of sins as far as their guilt is concerned.”
3. The Chief Priesthood of Christ: The genuine church will gladly confess that it has but one Priest who is seated at the Father’s right hand and who intercedes on our behalf – The Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:34). He is our “great priest over the house of God” (Heb. 10:21) whose intercessory ministry came at the cost of His own shed blood, for “through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). However, this clear doctrine of Scripture has been contradicted by Rome for centuries through the doctrine of penance and absolution: “Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same.”
4. The Sole Rule of Faith: The genuine church will defend the truth that she has but one foundation of authority. It is a foundation that is fixed, without variation or shifting shadow. It is the revelatory foundation that was once for all established by “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). Thus, the true church will recognize that she does not have the authority, by any tradition or human decree, to add to the completed canon of God’s Holy Writ. Anyone who adds to or takes away from this sure revelation of God will face His condemnation for doing so (Rev. 22:18-19), for all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. Despite the principle of Sola Scriptura, Rome continues to teach the doctrine of Ex Cathedra, asserting that when the Pope speaks “from the chair,” he speaks a dogma that is divinely revealed and is equally authoritative with Scripture itself.
5. The Priesthood of all Believers: The church of Jesus Christ will practice an ecclesiology which affirms that all who are in Christ are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and are called to serve as priests to our God, thus believers are “as living stones…being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:14-15). Above this priesthood presides only One who is called our Great High Priest – the Lord Jesus Christ who directly makes His intercession on behalf of all His children (Romans 8:1-17). Among believers, there is no distinction concerning this universal priesthood. Yet despite this reality, Rome has presented a fallacious view of the priestly office, as Luther says in his work, The Babylonian Captivity: “If they (the papists) were forced to grant that as many of us as have been baptized are all priests without distinction, as indeed we are, and that to them was committed the ministry only, yet with our consent, they would presently learn that they have no right to rule over us except in so far as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2:9, ‘Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and a priestly kingdom.’”
Just taking the question of organizational unity alone, we should observe the following.
1. Catholicism fails to give any proof that it is the product of any Gospel/Spiritual unity. Its repeated denials (without repentance) of the core tenants of the Gospel itself testifies to this fact.
2. Catholicism fails to establish a legitimate spiritual-hierarchial structure from the very top since they corrupt the true office and authority of Christ as the Head and Chief Priest of the Church. Simply put, Catholic popery is a derogation of Christ’s rule over the church.
3. It generates an unspiritual hierarchy and authority in the church via its teaching of church tradition. Rather than having a firm foundation of authority where Christ is the unwavering Cornerstone, the Catholic foundation of “truth” consists of the shifting sands of church tradition and Papal declarations.
4. It establishes an unspiritual hierarchy amidst the members of the church through a failure to understand the N.T. doctrine of the believer’s priesthood. Its advocacy of an exclusive and limited priesthood nullifies the blood-bought sufficiency of all genuine believers, thereby denying the proper participation of many in the work of the ministry.
All in all, Rome fails to affirm the true substance and structure of the church through an absence of Gospel preaching and a hierarchial structure that is defective from the its head down to its entire body. By this it should be obvious that when a Catholic speaks of organizational unity, they are not talking about an organizational unity of the true church; instead they are speaking of the organizational unity of a man-made organization.
It is clear that Rome’s vast religious empire is impressive – visibly speaking. Rome’s monetary vitality, its hierarchy, its legal and constitutional structure, along with its extensive array of traditions and culture, make it an amazing organization by the world’s standards; but not by the standards of God’s Word. As a business, it is indeed impressive, and it’s been around for a long, long time. But when we examine this empire in view of God’s Word we find that Roman Catholic unity is utterly bankrupt, such that those who come to saving faith from within such an organization do so despite the organization itself – as in the case of Martin Luther.
Finally, in my next post, I will expand upon this difference between the appearance of unity, versus the genuine unity of the true church which is scattered abroad throughout the earth. In particular, we will consider how church unity is to be seen amidst the contexts of denominationalism and persecution. Along with this we will examine this question concerning the continuity of Catholic doctrine throughout the centuries. Until then, some articles have been generated that you should look at: this article at PulpitLive and then this article by Dave Armstrong at Cor ad cor loquitur.