The Catholic Church is the one and only “true” church, or so some believe. According to a July 10, 2007 article I stumbled across (see it here), “Pope Benedict XVI has reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches.” I’m so out of touch; this two year old article was news to me.
So I wanted to know why the protestant hang-out I frequent is not considered a true church. “Christ established here on earth only one church,” the Vatican document said. “The other communities cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense because they do not have apostolic succession — the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ’s original apostles.” Specifically, if a church cannot trace the succession of its leadership back to the apostle Peter, then it cannot be called a true church of Jesus Christ. Since the Catholics claim Peter as their first Pope, then that makes the Catholic Church the one and only “true” church.
You see, when Jesus stated that Peter was the rock on which He would build His church (Matthew 16:18), the Catholic Church took that to mean that Peter was the starting point, the true cornerstone of the foundation of Jesus’ church.
This got me thinking; are the Catholics correct? Was Jesus’ intention to have Peter as the one foundation from which He would build His united church? What is the truth here?
First of all, I don’t think the answer lies in one single verse, such as Matthew 16:18, where Jesus appears to refer to Peter as the rock. To know Jesus’ intention, I think we need to look at everything He taught us. Since that could take all day, I’ll just touch on a few noteworthy points.
At one time, Jesus sent out His 12 apostles to, “preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:1-9) Another time, He sent out 72 others to, “heal the sick and tell them the kingdom of God is near you.” (Luke 10:1-20) Does this sound like the act of someone who would place the responsibility for His church on the shoulders of just one man? It appears to me like Jesus intended to spread the responsibility around.
There was another time when the 12 apostles got rather ticked off when they discovered there was someone outside their inner circle who was doing their job. So they went to Jesus and blew the whistle on this guy… “‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’ ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.’” (Mark 9:38-40) Does this sound as if Jesus is trying to establish some kind of exclusive club? It sounds to me like Jesus doesn’t care who is doing the work, as long as they are doing it “in His name.”
And what about Paul, who was not one of the original apostles? The Catholic Church appears to ignore him. So the churches he started were “defective”, I suppose. I’m sure that would come as a surprise to Paul, especially since Jesus himself gave Paul the assignment. As evidenced by the calling of Paul, Jesus was not exclusive. Why would He be? Such an approach would limit the growth of “His” church. Why send the church off in one direction, with Peter as the lead runner, when you can start off in multiple directions?
Yet, the Catholic Church originally had worthy intentions. For a time, the Catholic Church was indeed the one true church, assuring and enabling the unity that Jesus prayed for (John 17:20-23). Their motives were noble. Jesus wanted unity, and the Catholic Church provided a way. Then, in the early 1500’s, the reformation happened and the church split into pieces; no more unity.
However, maybe having all believers belonging to the same organization is not what Jesus had in mind when He prayed for unity. Maybe he meant united in beliefs, rather than united in affiliation. Maybe it wasn’t that He wanted us all to belong to the same religious establishment, with the same human leader, but that we all look to Him and Him alone as our leader.
Jesus wasn’t praying for all believers to be united by manmade things, such as religious bureaucracies, ceremonies, traditions, and “holy” relics. Jesus was talking about being united by spiritual things, such as love for God and faith in the saving power and love of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus asked His Father God, “…that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:22). The unity that Jesus prayed for is modeled by His relationship with God.
Were God & Jesus unified by a common membership in some kind of organization? No, their unity was much higher than some human standard. The Catholic Church has set a human standard for unity; membership in their organization. But Jesus’ standard is a heavenly standard – a shared communion with the Holy Spirit of God. We are to be united as Jesus and God are united. How can a manmade religious establishment bring such a thing about?
I do not believe that Jesus intended for a manmade institution to bring about such spiritual unity, for I think that would be impossible. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, His presence in each of our lives, to manifest the spiritual unity of love and faith. By our mutual connection to the Holy Spirit, we are all connected to each other. We may all be one by our common bond to the Holy Spirit. We are all branches, and we are unified by our common bond to the vine, which is Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit (John 15:1-17).
By the way, Jesus never even mentioned a human-made and run organization as the foundation for our unity. In fact, setting the Catholic Church as the standard for unity is a distraction from our true foundation, our true cornerstone – Jesus Christ.
And another thing: Jesus was the origin of His church, not Peter. Jesus is the vine, not Peter. Jesus is the cornerstone, not Peter. Jesus is the one true church, not the Catholics.