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!