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 which 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 (Tan Books, 1977, Imprimatur by Joseph E. Ritter, S.T.D., Archbishop of St. Louis) 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" (pp 24-25).
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" (pp 14,19, 27,34,36). 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" (p vi).
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" (pp 125,127). 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 1 and 2 tell us clearly that all 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 which 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.
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 18 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 not to allow anyone or anything to come between us and Him. TBC