Thursday, October 18, 2012

RCIA: The Church

The Catholic Church has a very different view of "The Church" than most Protestants. Growing up I was taught that there are two meanings to the word "church." There is the local church, which is a body of believers that gather together in common faith. Then there is the universal, or invisible, Church, which is comprised of all truly saved individuals on the planet.

The implication of this of course was that the universal church, which is what the Bible refers to when it talks about the body of Christ, is only loosely coupled together though the common belief in Christ as our savior. Other than that and the most basic Christians beliefs, everything is sorta left up to local churches. Two local churches may disagree on most things, but so long as they both are comprised of people who have been "born again" then they are both part of the Body of Christ. Just don't expect them to work together, on anything.

(Finally figured out how to insert a break! Woo!)

The most grating example (to me) of this was when I was looking for a college during my senior year of High School. The church I went to at the time belonged to the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches or GARBC (if you have never heard of the GARBC count yourself blessed). The school that was initially my first pick was Cedarville University, and was endorsed by the GARBC. That is until the Southern Baptist Convention also decided to endorse Cedarville. That was when the national GARBC (but not the Ohio branch) decided to drop Cedarville because, as we all know, Southern Baptists are dirty apostates. As a result our church sided with the National GARBC and left the Ohio GARBC, and I being disillusioned and annoyed went to a Presbyterian school instead.

I tell that story to illustrate a point. If the Universal Church is indeed the Body of Christ, then either the Body is allergic to itself or we're doing it wrong. Every cell in a body works together to further the goals of the body. If this is true, then how come Protestants can't get along, even inside their own denominations!

So what is the Catholic view of the Church? To answer this we turn to the beginning of the Nicene Creed which declares the church to be: "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic." Let's address these one at a time.

The Church is one: Ephesians 4:4-6 states "There is one body and one spirit just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all." In John 10:16 Jesus promises that there will be "one sheepfold and one shepherd." Over and over in scripture we see that the Church is to be one.

The Church is holy: That is not to say the people of the Church are perfect, but that it's founder (Christ) was holy and its redemptive work in the world is holy.

The Church is Catholic: This does not mean Catholic in the "Roman Catholic Church" sense. It is not a denominational label. Catholic itself means "universal." So the Church is to be universal. The great commission has driven the Church to reach all peoples and all nations. It is not insignificant that Pentecost happened at a time where many people from many different nations were gathered in Jerusalem. Many accepted Christ there and presumably carried the "Catholic" faith back with them to their homes. The faith is for every people and every nation.

But here is the interesting thing, the Church is also one. If the church is to be both universal and one, then there has to be a certain level of organization, of coordination, doesn't there? How can it be unified if every congregation is doing their own thing? This brings us to the final point which is...

The Church is apostolic: The church is founded on The Twelve, the men that Jesus chose to train and prepare to carry on His work after He had returned to His Father. Jesus founded His Church on these men, and especially upon Peter. In growing up my church liked to gloss over Mathew 16:17-19, but this passage cannot be ignored:
"And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

In this passage Christ gives Peter great authority, "binding and loosing" is a Jewish phrase that meant "to forbid by an indisputable authority and to permit by an indisputable authority." In this passage Jesus declares that he will delegate his authority to Peter, I can find no other convincing interpretation of this passage. Besides, this is entirely necessary in order for the early church to function is it not? They had no New Testament, and the Old Testament while pointing towards the messiah is hardly sufficient to instruct one in the Christian life. Either the apostles had Christ's authority and they were to be obeyed, or they did not and were to be ignored.

The apostles exercising Christ's authority solves the problem of a universal church that is also one. The apostles could define doctrine, settle disputes, guide the Church, and ultimately guard the faith entrusted to them by Christ. Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13-14 "Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you." Again he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter."

The point being that the apostles were entrusted with the faith and had the authority (given to them by Jesus) to teach it and to speak on his behalf. This is the crucial linchpin that I believe the Protestant church has lost. When you believe that "Scripture Alone" is your highest authority, what you really believe is that your interpretation of scripture is your authority. I hear the term "living Scripture" a lot from Protestants, but that tends to imply that Scripture is a thing that can teach itself. It cannot. The words on the page of your Bible mean nothing until you read them and try to understand them.

The Bible does not exist in a vacuum, it MUST be interpreted. God is one God and there is one Truth so there must be one correct interpretation of the Bible. How then are we, the laymen, to find it? The Bible was written for us but it wasn't written to us! It was written to people living in cultures that are two millennia removed from us at best. Rightly discerning the scriptures is a arduous task that hardly any of us engage in. It is the height of arrogance to read the Bible for 5 minutes every morning and think that we know what it means.

"But Scott! I have the Holy Spirit! He'll guide me!"

Yes, and so do the millions of Protestant Christians whom have a different understanding of Scripture than you.

I have strayed far to far from my topic and so I will close with this: I do not know what the Truth is yet. But I am convinced that Protestantism on the whole is missing some crucial pieces of the puzzle. I cannot imagine a Triune God that approves of a system where Truth is left up to the individual interpretations of millions of people. I think that the Catholic Church is on to something when they say that the Church is (or should be) apostolic.

I've been lagging behind lately, but I do have two topics in the pipe: A fuller look at what's pushing me away from the Protestant church and an examination of the Catholic Marian doctrines. So stay tuned!


  1. But the alternative is that you have a Triune God who approved of a single person deciding what "truth" was back in the 1400's. That's somehow better?

    The idea is that no person, Protestant or Catholic, can truly know God's truth, and pretending that you do is arrogance on a massive scale. (such as the popes used to do.)

    And yes, Protestants often disagree. So did Catholics, back in the day. Luther was a Catholic, and he disagreed. And many others, some who remained in the Catholic church, agreed, and because of that the Catholic church itself is stronger (to say nothing of the Protestant church being formed). Disagreement happens, and in certain occasions can even be healthy. Just because Christians don't always get along is no reason to discount their message.

    1. John, you drastically misunderstand the role of the magisterium in the Catholic church. Not just you, but I hear that a lot (and used to believe it even)amongst the Protestants I've been around, hence I will not be addressing it here in the comments but plan to dedicate a blog post to the subject.

    2. Hi John,

      Actually, the alternative is that Christ, knowing He would shortly be leaving His Church, instituted the office of a steward in Matthew 16:17-19. The steward does not create new laws, but interprets and clarifies the existing law. This is in accord with what Catholics actually believe about the Church. Further, this ability to authoritatively clarify doctrine is limited to the pope, or the college of bishops acting together with the pope, when defining a doctrine. The ordinary teaching and preaching of the bishops and popes is held to be, well, ordinary.

      I think you're probably getting your information from some very anti-Catholic sources who have their facts wrong. What's this 1400s number? The first pope was St. Peter, the second one was named Linus, and he was executed by the Romans. The fourth pope, St. Clement, wrote a letter to church at Corinth sorting out a dispute. The papacy has been doing this job from the very beginning. And it would surely be arrogant had the popes authorized themselves to do this, but Christ commanded it.


    3. Kevin - I think this interpretation has the flaw that there is precisely no indication in Mt 16 either that (1) Peter's responsibility was to "interpret and clarify the law," or (2) that this position was an ongoing office. There are, so far as I'm aware, no contemporary sources (and, in particular, no Biblical ones) that indicate that Peter was ever anything like "first pope," or indeed anything other than a wise and well-regarded member of the apostles.

  2. I think the three paragraphs beginning with "The point being that the apostles..." paint Protestantism with too broad a brush. Not all of us think that a single individual's interpretation is supreme, that "Truth is left up to the individual interpretations of millions of people". That's why catechisms exist, even in Soli etc denominations like the Presbyterian church.

    1. I will grant you this point, I *am* using overly broad strokes here. However, on the whole I think this paints an accurate picture of the various Protestant denominations, especially the more theologically liberal ones. It certainly applies to Baptists (whom I am most familiar with).

      Presbyterians do indeed have their catechisms and confessions, which is better than nothing, yet even Presbyterian denominations such as the PCUSA have fallen away from their own creeds and confessions, clearly there is something missing.

      The apostolic nature of the Catholic Church is something I want to explore more fully at a later time. Conservative Presbyterian denominations would be a good counterpoint in such a blog post.

    2. It is my experience that most denominations have both a liberal and a conservative side. I do not think think that the presence of liberal variants of a denomination points to there being "something missing" in the creeds, confessions, and catechisms per se though. I'd encourage you to investigate theologically conservative protestant denominations as well, especially ones that have a governmental structure of their own which provides accountability (Presbyterian, Anglican, etc).

    3. Scott - I don't think it applies even to all Baptists. The SBC certainly has statements of belief at national, state, and church levels that members are expected to agree with.

  3. Good post (but) I do have some comments based on my own opinion for you to consider. I think that most Christians will agree with what the RCC defines as the Church. How or if they live it out is a completely different matter.
    I am on the same page with you on how frustrating it is for different Christian denominations to not get along. To not identify with one another that they are(should be) one "in Christ."
    Also along with the RCC definition of church, I personal like to define the Church (Local and Universal) as the expression of Christ. The analogy of the body expressing the brain. Undoubtedly God speaks to each member of His body (it is HIS after all), but it is through the Church that he can express himself more fully.
    Now the "but" I will stray off topic with you :D
    The Church is Apostolic: the Church is founded on the twelve. My opinion differs to the RCC on this. Here is what I believe: The rock(foundation) that Christ builds his Church on is the revelation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is called the "Revelation of Christ." Everything else must be built on this foundation. As I see it, the difference in what I believe and the RCC(and most denominations) is where they interpret the verse as to mean Peter(mainly) and the other disciples as the foundation of the church.
    People aren't perfect. Undoubtedly the twelve men that were Jesus' closest disciples(except Judas) became part of the first Church and were leaders there. Peter knew Christ's teaching well, but being human he still messed up. Paul, who wasn't one of the original twelve and was an apostle, called Peter out when he was off (Gal 2). Did Paul have a right to do this to God's chosen head of the church?
    Now don't get me wrong. I do believe in Apostolic authority, I just don't think it is the foundation that everything is based off of. The difference I have with the RCC may be our definition of what an apostle is, but that is another matter :)
    I apologize for rambling, this would be a great topic to study with a group (hin hint)

    1. Sir,

      I don't think Matthew 16:17-19 can be reasonably read as "the revelation of Christ" being the rock upon which the Church is built. "You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church." is pretty clear - if Christ had meant that 'the revelation of Christ' would be the rock upon which He built His Church, He would have said something else.

      'Head of the Church' doesn't mean 'cannot be questioned, ever' and the Church does not teach that. In fact, in his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas, the foremost theologian of the Church, answers affirmatively to the question of whether one may question or oppose an erring prelate. What it means is that Peter was the first steward of the Church, invested by Christ Himself with authority, and that Christ will specially protect his Church from having its earthly head ever pronounce an error is truth.

    2. This is the same "rock" that supported the Judaizers in Galatians, correct? And had to be called out by Paul and James in order to take the right side? Is that an instance of Christ specially protecting the head of his earthly church from pronouncing an error?


    3. John, you need to be more careful with your argument. I never said that the Pope's practice was infallible or perfect. It was exactly Peter's practice that Paul criticizes in Galatians, not his doctrine. He was not 'supporting' the Judaizers by affirming their doctrine, merely joining in their bad practice. And James did not call him out, he merely spoke at the Council of Jerusalem. A Council which, by the way, Paul came to for the resolution of his dispute with the Judaizers. A Council lead by and presided over by Peter, with a decision by Peter that was exactly guided by God.

    4. I looked through Acts, Kevin. There's no mention of Peter being any sort of important person at that assembly. Paul and Barnabas go to "the apostles and elders" in Jerusalem, and the end decision is handed down in a letter by "the apostles and elders." Peter is mentioned only as standing up and "addressing" the gathering, and he's not even the final word, James has to get up after to corroborate his statement. Presumably, this is AFTER Paul has called out Peter for his hypocritical actions.

      Does this sound like an ex Cathedra thing? Would Paul, a newcomer to the church, have dared to rebuke Paul if Paul was considered "infallible?" Can you picture anything like this happening to the Pope today?

      See, what I'm seeing is a group of equal church leaders reaching a decision through logic, common sense, and scriptural analysis. NOT just by Peter saying: "This is the way it is." It sounds, in fact, very like a synod or presbytery.

    5. Expanding on John's point a little: I think most Protestants would agree that Peter and, more broadly, the apostles as a whole, held positions of authority within the church. This authority did not convey infallibility, but it did indicate wisdom and, in general, a close understanding of Christ's nature and mission. This made listening to the apostles, in general, a very good idea.


      1) Since this authority *wasn't* infallible, it never trumps what one understand Scripture to say. (So, for instance, Paul - "Even if we or an angel from heaven should teach a different gospel...") If your interpretation of Scripture is wildly different from Peter's/Paul's/whoever's (in conversation, as opposed to in Scripture), that's a good reason to maybe re-evaluate... but it's not a reason to ditch logic and accept the apostle's view Just Because.

      2) The apostles are all dead, and there's nothing in Scripture to indicate that God is making any more. There is, in particular, no indication that whatever authority Peter may have had (as first among equals?) could be or was passed to anyone else. As a result, when we have disagreements as to what the apostles meant by this or that Scripture, there is no further court of apostolic appeal! There's just (1) our own readings, (2) the work of the Holy Spirit, and (3) the readings of other wise Christians - and (1) and (3) will vary.

    6. Kevin, I agree that in reading Matthew 16:17-19 you will not find what I’m talking about. In just reading those two verses you can’t really get anything other than “Peter is the Rock that Christ’s Church is built on.” My belief (interpretation) is based on a few more verses. I quoted vs16, but the thought here begins in vs13 and vs17 is critical.

      It isn’t about what Peter said, but that it was revealed to him by God. What Peter said isn’t very surprising to us; we have heard hear that “Jesus is the Son of God” often enough. What is important to see here is where Jesus says it came from. Peter’s answer came as a revelation from God and it must be that revelation from God that must be the foundation of everything. It wasn’t anything that Peter did or said; rather it was what God was doing in Peter.

      Peter ended up being a great man of God, but you don’t have to go far in scripture to see Peter fail. In the same chapter (Matt 16:23) Jesus calls Peter Satan. Now I don’t suppose that after reading that one verse you think that Peter was Satan, but I guess some people could though. This isn’t the only time recorded in scripture where Peter gets off, but being so close to the verse where Jesus “raises him up as the rock that He will build His Church on” call the idea into question for me. I don’t have a problem with Peter. He is one of my favorites, but let’s not put him (or anyone other than Christ) up on a pedestal.

  4. Protestants can get along, both within and between denominations-- though of course we're not perfect at doing so.
    I attend a church in the RPCNA denomination ("Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America"). My brother attends a church in the PCA denomination ("Presbyterian Church in America"). My parents attend a church in the OPC denomination (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). All three _denominations_ are in "ecclesiastical fellowship" with each other, which means, among other things, that they can recieve each other's members at communion and borrow each other's pastors. Thus once every two months, all three of our local congregations have a joint service, rotating through pastors and church buildings.

    The OPC has some info on ecclesiastical fellowship here:, and a list of the churches with which they are in fellowship here:

    Essentially, this is a group of churches which each differ in some nonessential way, and feel that their differences are significant enough to prevent them from joining into a single denomination. However, in the interest of the unity of the church, they tie themselves together in a way that allows them to continue to examine each other's doctrine, such that if there was a possibility for them to join they would be able to do so, and so that they can protect each other from errors.

    As for interpretation of scripture: The Bible must be interpreted, and though they have the help of the Holy Spirit, it must be interpreted by fallible men. This means that people will interpret scripture wrongly, constantly. However:

    1) I believe that even in the absence of guidance from the church or from history, the elect will be led to proper understanding of the bare essentials of salvation by the Holy Spirit.

    2) We have had literally two millennia of heresies and councils and reformers and theologians working out the finer points of the Bible. This is not to say that there are no more questions or that the correct teachings are immediately clear. What it does mean is that there is a massive amount of re-checking and refinement that has gone into the statements of doctrine that we hold to (eg the Westminster Confession).

    3) Presbyterian churches, at least, do not stand on their own. Members of churches are subject to correction and discipline from the session of their church. The session of a church is subject to the collective of all the sessions in its presbytery. The presbytery is subject to the synod (the collection of presbyteries). Thus if a member interprets scripture differently than his church government, they will attempt to correct him. If he is convinced that he is in the right, he can appeal to the presbytery, and then to the synod. (Failing that, he would presumably leave and join/start a different denomination if he felt strongly enough about his interpretation). Similarly, if a whole congregation errs, the presbytery would attempt to correct it, and so on. If, as was the case with the PCUS (now the PCUSA), the entire denomination errs, then churches may break off to form their own denomination (the PCA).

    Finally and facetiously, I point out that the Apostles are all dead now.

  5. Haha, wow guys. Now I know what it takes to get comments huh?

    You all raise some interesting points, and I could spend the next week going back and forth with you in the comments, however I think I'd rather just get on with this RCIA series. Next up will be Mary, so I'm sure you'll all have a lot to say about that.

    That being said, your comments have definitely given me things to post about in the future. So thanks for the inspiration, I'm definitely going to be exploring some of these questions later on!

    Feel free to continue commenting, though I will be working on my next post and will probably not reply.

  6. This post reminds me a little of a Dr. Schaefer lecture I attended while I was at GCC. He laid out a range of "standards of where interpretation comes from," with "handed to you by the church" on one extreme and "worked out entirely on your own, Sola Scriptura" at the other. He condemned both extremes in favor of a middling "your reading + traditions of the church as influences" view, in the process condemning both Catholics and Baptists.

    I remember being very angry at the time, and I didn't work out exactly why until later. What he was describing as the "Baptist" position is, in large part, mythical; very, very few churches, I think, actually teach that you should disregard, say, everything the church has ever taught on a particular verse just because you have a new "insight." Virtually everyone recognizes the importance of tradition, the value of wise Christians past, the utility of actual training in Biblical studies, and so on to at least some degree.

    I bring this up because it seems like this post is leveling basically the same "all or nothing" charge against Protestantism that he leveled against Baptists: yes, of course, "five minutes of Bible study a day," with no recourse to any outside source, is probably not optimal for really grokking what God says in Scripture. Who in Christendom would say otherwise? Some few, perhaps - but anything like a noteworthy fraction? (And in particular, does any actual denomination teach this - anything above the level of "this one crazy church I know?")

    The related issue, I think, is that you never ever get rid of personal interpretation as the final filter. Catholicism can tell you how they interpret the way their past leaders interpreted the way the apostles interpreted God - but at the end of the day, you still have to interpret *that*.