Christianity is unique because of the uniqueness of Christ our Lord. He alone is both God and man. He alone could, by His own death, pay the penalty for the sins of the world and thus fully satisfy the demands of divine justice. And in contrast to Buddha or Muhammad or other religious leaders, whose graves contain their decayed remains, the grave of Jesus is uniquely empty. He alone conquered death and promised His disciples, "Because I live, ye shall live also" (Jn:14:19). Everything we have is in Him and Him alone and thus depends entirely upon our relationship with Him.
And it is that personal relationship that each Christian has, and must have with the Lord in order to be a Christian, that constitutes the most wonderful uniqueness of Christianity. For a Buddhist to have a personal relationship with Buddha, for example, is neither possible nor necessary. It is no hindrance to the practice of Buddhism that the founder of that religion is dead and gone. Islam also works very well with Muhammad in the grave. Not so with Christianity. If Jesus Christ were not alive there would be no Christian faith because He is all that it offers. Christianity is not an impersonal religion but a personal relationship.
Unfortunately, very early in the history of the church this personal relationship with Christ was lost – in fact it was denied. A hierarchy of leaders with headquarters in Rome took unbiblical control of Christendom. Taking the place of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church claimed to provide the way to heaven. As The Convert's Catechism of Catholic Doctrine declares, the Catholic Church is "the gate to heaven for all of good will . . . the only church instituted by Christ for the salvation of mankind."
Christ says, "Come unto me . . . I am the door . . . the way, the truth, the life." The Roman Catholic Church, however, began to claim that it was the means of salvation and called the world to itself instead of to the One of whom Peter (supposedly the first pope) had said, "Neither is there salvation in any other" (Acts:4:12). A host of intermediaries – the Catholic priesthood and hierarchy and a pantheon of "saints" headed by Mary – had stepped between the Savior and those who would come to Him. That precious and essential personal relationship with Christ was denied to those who needed it by those who claimed to represent Him. The new way to "attain
life everlasting" was "to belong to the Church, which Christ established . . ." (p 25).
Joining the Roman Catholic Church became a substitute for the essential saving relationship with Christ. Cut off from Him who is the Living Word, those who became members of that Church were also effectively denied the written Word. The Church declared itself to be the sole interpreter of scripture. Catholic catechisms today make it clear that the individual cannot understand the Bible for himself; hence there is no point in reading the Bible, but only what the Church says about it.
Such is the official position of the Church. As The Convert's Catechism says, the Roman Catholic Church, as "the only true Church," is "the custodian and interpreter of Revelation. . . . Man can obtain a knowledge of God's word [only] from the Catholic Church and through its duly constituted channels.” The Catholic Church has been wielding this kind of control without apology for centuries: "When he has once mastered this principle of Divine Authority, the Inquirer is prepared to accept whatever the Divine Church teaches on Faith, Morals and the Means of Grace."
The Bereans had been highly commended for testing against Scripture what Paul
taught, but that practice was now conveniently forbidden by the Church. In his 1988 book Catholicism and Fundamentalism (written to refute "Bible Christians"), Catholic apologist Karl Keating declares that the Catholic Church, with its "papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, teaching authority, and . . . infallibility . . . tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church's word for it precisely because the Church is infallible. . . . Fundamentalists are quite right in believing the Bible is inspired, but their reasons for so believing are inadequate because knowledge of the inspiration of the Bible can be based only on an authority established by God to tell us the Bible is inspired, and that authority is the Church." In his recent appearance in New York to present the 1988 Erasmus Lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger, chief Vatican theologian, confirmed once again that the Catholic Church alone can interpret Scripture.
Even Augustine, great thinker that he was, succumbed to this deadly delusion. Keating quotes him as saying, "I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so." This explains, of course, why the Catholic Church has no Wesleys or Moodys or Billy Grahams or street evangelists
calling sinners to Christ. That would be a waste of time. Men must first of all acknowledge and join the true Church; and then, convinced of its infallibility, they will obey its rules, participate in its sacraments as the "means of grace," and through their relationship to that Church eventually (after possibly suffering in purgatory for their sins) enter the gates of heaven. One must therefore question the wisdom of Billy Graham in having Catholics counsel at his crusades and in referring "converts" back to Catholic churches. Even more urgently must we question huge charismatic conferences on the Holy Spirit and world evangelism where there are Catholic speakers, and half of the participants, while claiming to have been "baptized" in the Spirit," remain in this Church and continue to look to its sacraments for salvation.
The lie is so obvious that no one has any excuse for being deceived by it. Romans chapters 1 and 2 tell us clearly that all of mankind, through the witness of creation and conscience, recognize that the gospel is true. On the day of Pentecost, 3,000 Jews became Christians through Peter's preaching without any mention of a true church. He only preached Christ, who is "the true Light, which lighteth every man" (Jn:1:9); i.e., every person in his heart knows the truth when Christ is preached to
him. In the great outpouring of the Spirit in Samaria where thousands more became Christians, Philip the evangelist simply "preached Christ unto them" (Acts:8:5). There is not a hint that he first of all proved that a true church existed and, on the basis of its testimony, they then believed the gospel. And to the Ethiopian official who was reading Isaiah 53, Philip "began at the same scripture and preached unto him Jesus" (Acts:8:35). The Ethiopian believed not because he was convinced of the existence of an infallible Catholic Church but because of the convicting power of God's Word through the Holy Spirit. Shame on Augustine for denying this essential truth!
The apostles and first-century Christians "went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts:8:4) to those who had never heard of the church. Nor did they suggest that the gospel should be believed because the "true church" had endorsed it. The church exists because of and is subject to the Bible, not the other way around. Paul and his colleagues preached not a church but Christ crucified (1 Cor:2:2). In fact, the true gospel "whereby ye are saved" (1 Cor:15:1-4), which is "the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes [it]" (Rom:1:16), doesn't even contain the word
"church," much less anything about joining it. The lie about the authority of the Catholic Church denies the very basis upon which the gospel is to be received and thus destroys souls for whom Christ died.
Unfortunately, the above is relevant to today's Protestants. One of the chief accusations leveled against those who would be Bereans today is that their lack of theological degrees disqualifies them from testing the teachings of church leaders against Scripture. Of course the Bereans had not attended seminary either, and such Protestant elitism denies the indwelling Holy Spirit and priesthood of all believers. Similarly, Christian psychologists, like the Catholic hierarchy, claim immunity from challenge by "laymen" outside their ranks. We cannot judge their teachings by the Bible, because "all truth is God's truth," and some of that "truth" could be contained in the writings of godless humanists, which those without psychology degrees are presumably unable to understand. It is the old error of Catholic authoritarianism in a new Protestant form.
The scourge of false "shepherding" has not been purged from the church. It has merely changed its image and is now more widely practiced than ever. We continue
to receive a steady stream of calls from those who are being "discipled" by leaders who demand unquestioning submission to their "authority." That is, in fact, unbiblical authoritarianism. It is true that the Bible does say, "obey them that have the rule over you" (Heb:13:17). Such submission, however, is to Christ and God's Word through those in authority. Each member of the body of Christ has the responsibility to determine by the leading of the Holy Spirit and his own knowledge of the Bible whether what he is being asked to believe and do is of God or not, and must obey only what is right in his own conscience.
The abuses of shepherding are a two-way street. The fault is not only with the "shepherd" but with those who submit to unbiblical authority. There is the tendency in all of us to look to others as a way of escaping the responsibility of knowing the Word of God for ourselves and of maintaining a close walk with the Lord personally. Shepherding is one more subtle way of weakening that personal relationship with Christ that is the essence of Christianity. Too many Protestants, forgetting that sola scriptura and "the priesthood of all believers" was the cry of the Reformation, would rather let the pastor be a man of God and a deep student of the Word and merely
accept what he teaches instead of checking it out and living it for themselves. That unwillingness to accept one's personal responsibility before God opens the door to Protestant abuse of authority little different from that practiced by the Catholic Church.
The fact that each Christian must exercise his individual responsibility is clear from many scriptures. Paul's statement, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor:11:1), implied that those to whom he wrote were to follow Paul only to the extent that they, by their own judgment, believed he was following Christ. The same principle applies when it comes to following Christian leaders today. Earlier, Paul had written, "I beseech you, be ye followers of me" (1 Cor:4:16). The expression "I beseech you" is used by Paul eighteen times in his epistles and hardly seems compatible with the authoritarianism being practiced today, particularly among charismatics.
Peter says that church leaders are not to "lord it over God's heritage" but are to be "examples to the flock" (1 Pt 5:4). An "example" is a person or behavior that one follows willingly without coercion or authoritarian demands. Peter humbly declares
that the purpose for which he has written his epistles is "to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance" (2 Pt 3:11), which again implies voluntary compliance and only on the basis of a standard of purity known to all rather than some special revelation enforced by a "bishop," as some are now insisting. The writer to the Hebrews declares that we are each to "provoke [one another] unto love and good works" (Heb:10:24), which suggests the antithesis of authoritarian rule.
In fact, everything the prophets speak to the church is to be judged by those to whom they speak (1 Cor:14:29-30), indicating again that there is no special class of leaders who must be obeyed by those under them without question simply on the basis of their position of authority. Peter reinforces this when he says, "Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Pt 5:5); and Paul writes, "For ye may all prophesy, one by one, that all may learn [from one another]" (1 Cor:14:31). John confirms this teaching (1 Jn:2:21, 27).
There are to be no gurus in the church. Others must follow what I speak or live only to the extent that they are convinced of its validity by the leading of the Holy Spirit and their knowledge of God's Word. And I need your exhortation, correction,
encouragement, and godly example as much as you need mine. May the Lord help us to know and love Him and His truth and to enjoy the personal relationship He graciously enters into with us more deeply each day—and to not allow anyone or anything to come between us and Him.
Question: You claim that the Roman Catholic Church (and presumably the Eastern Orthodox Church as well) went into complete apostasy and became the whore of Revelation 17. If so, then Christ didn’t keep His promise that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against the church he founded, because for many centuries prior to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church was the only Christian church there was. I’ve heard this argument used by Catholic apologists such as Matatics and Hahn. It is also used by Ken Samples in his articles in the Christian Research Institute Journal. It seems to make sense. How do you respond?
Response: Very simply. The paganization of Christianity began under Constantine and the apostasy worsened for centuries. Eventually the mass of professing “Christians” were identified with what came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church. It claimed to be the one true Church and excommunicated, persecuted, killed, and even tried to destroy the records of all who would not bow to its supreme authority and embrace its antichrist heresies.
Nevertheless, there were always groups of simple Christians who attempted to follow the Bible according to their consciences and who met not in the cathedrals of the “official church” but in the forests or other secret meeting places. One of the best books tracing these groups is The Pilgrim Church, by Broadbent.
Yes, Roman Catholicism is in total apostasy and has been for many centuries. No, that does not mean that the entire church fell into apostasy and thus the gates of hell prevailed against it, for there were always multitudes who were not part of the “whore of Babylon” as John describes her in Revelation 17.
Question (composite of several similar questions): We can’t seem to find a church in our area that has godly leadership and biblical preaching. We feel so alone and now just read the Bible and pray at home. What should we do? And how do we find a “good” church?
Response: It is a sad commentary on the state of the church that we receive many
such queries. What marks a “healthy” church? Crucial to the answer is Matthew:18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst....” Christ himself must be the central focus—not a pastor, gripping sermons, a strong missionary emphasis, exciting youth programs, compatible fellow members, or even agreeable doctrines, important as all these factors are. A fervent love for Christ and a heartfelt corporate worship of His Person must be the primary mark of a healthy church.
The early church was thus characterized. It met regularly on the first day of the week in remembrance of His death. That weekly outpouring of praise, worship and thanksgiving had one purpose—to give God His due portion. It isn’t primarily a
matter of my need, my edification, my enjoyment or my spiritual satisfaction, but
of His worth in my eyes and the eyes of the church. As I see it, our secondary focus should be our opportunity for servanthood with a corporate body of believers. I give myself to a needy, imperfect people for whom I can pray, for whose needs I can concern myself in practical ways, to whom I can be an encourager and a minister of the Word, and among whom I can demonstrate and work out Christ’s desire that His own “might be one.” This fellowship is commanded: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb:10:25). Is it our joy to gather with God’s people in intercessory prayer and study of the Word, or is Sunday-morning-only quite enough? A healthy church will not only gather unto Him, but with each other.
Lastly, I need to assess my own spiritual needs. The shepherds must provide the spiritual food that will nurture the flock, that it might be “throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tm 3:17). That’s a big order and requires, of course, a teachable flock that loves the Word and is in willing subjection to it. The shepherds must also guard the flock of God by keeping out false and dangerous doctrines contrary to the truth. They must adhere to the pure Word of God as the only authority for faith and morals.
You say, “Wonderful! Lead me to such a church.” Remember, however, the order of priority: worship (do you worship sincerely, wholeheartedly, and in a manner satisfying to the object of that worship?); servanthood (do you serve, even as Christ gave us an example, with humility and with joy?); personal needs (are you growing, maturing, taking on Christ’s character?).
The final decision as to your church affiliation must be, prayerfully, yours. Is
your personal worship of the Savior so joyful and satisfying a thing both to you and to Him that it supersedes other considerations? Do your opportunities for
service render your fellowship sufficiently meaningful and significant? Or do
doctrinal concerns or lack of biblical preaching and teaching cancel out the
other two? You must seek the Lord for His answer. God’s comforting assurance
remains: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I
in the midst of them.”