What is the Church?
It is a sad fact that Christians are divided and do not share a common belief on several key issues. The division in doctrine is one of the great stumbling blocks that non-believers have to deal with when looking at Christianity. Our Lord did not mean it to be this way. The night before He died, Jesus prayed for the Church that they may be one, even as the Father and the Son are one, so that the world may know that the Father sent the Son. Since Christian unity is of the utmost concern to Our Lord, we should do all in our power to resolve those differences. One way to do so is to learn and share what is the Truth, and then pray that those who are in error have the courage and humility to submit to the Truth of Christ. So one of the purposes of this blog is to share what I have found to be the Truth in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the constant belief of Christianity. There are several differences between Catholics and Protestants, but one of the greatest is the difference in ecclesiology, that is the belief of what exactly is the Church.
Now I am a Catholic, and I hold that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded and that the fullness of the Truth can be found in the Catholic Church. So the answer to me is obvious, that Protestants should believe as Catholics believe. Protestants, however, would have to accept several doctrines that are foreign to them- teachings on contraception, the Virgin Mary, the Pope, the Sacraments, apostolic succession… and this can be a daunting task. The key to understanding all the things that Catholics believe is to understand what Catholics believe about the Church itself. If one finds the truth of the Catholic Church’s ecclesiology, what the Church is, then all the other objections give way and things begin to make sense. We must believe these teachings because Christ’s Church teaches them.
So what is the Church? Is it just the sum total of all Christians, an ‘invisible church’ whose members are known to God alone? Or is it a visible institution? Well, the Catholic faith teaches that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ (Ephesians 4; Mystici Corporis Christi). Saint Paul says that we are baptized into the Body of Christ: “For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The Church is the Body of Christ, not just symbolically, but so real that the Church acts as one organism and one that Jesus identifies Himself with. Again we read from Saint Paul, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28). Reminded of Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, we see that Jesus asks Paul “Why do you persecute me?” Paul was persecuting the Church… the Body of Christ!
Since the Church is a body, it must be visible. The New Testament shows that Christ founded a visible Church. It is evident that Our Lord intended a visible Church with authority. Only then can these words of Jesus make sense:
“If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between him and thee alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them, tell the Church. And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as a heathen and a publican.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
In the current Protestant model, it is impossible to tell the Church and for believers to hear the Church. Say, for example, that a Baptist and a Methodist get into a disagreement. Who would they go to for their conflict to be resolved? Also, let's think about the Bible. How did we get the list of the books for the New Testament? Obviously, there was no inspired list of books. Who would determine the requirements for a book to be considered canonical? Only a visible, institutional Church could decide what books were part of the New Testament and expect all Christians to believe them? Or consider the ecumenical councils. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 had to deal with Arianism. The Arians were a group of people who believed that the Son was not of the same substance as the Father, that there was a time that Jesus did not exist, therefore Jesus is inferior in some way to God the Father. Could we just use the Bible to defeat their heresy? That is what the Protestants would have us do, and it is a laudable attempt. The problem, however, is that the Arians used the Gospels to justify their position. They were lucky that they happened to agree on the 'canonicity' of the Gospels, but that wasn't a given either.. some people accepted less books and some accepted more than the 27 we have today that could clearly justify their beliefs.
There needed to be a definitive source of authority- the bishops, who had been given that authority by the men who ordained them. These men could trace their authority back to the apostles. When these bishops taught together, they formed the visible component of the teaching Church. The next question, then, is if these bishops had authority then... when did they lose that authority so the Protestant reformers could challenge them and break away?
Just some things to think about!