The local church qualifies as the true church biblically, historically, and, above all, practically. The church cannot be an organization (and certainly not a building!).
There are some astonishing statements about the church in the Scripture that require those of us who are apostolic Christians (meaning followers of the apostles) to determine exactly what the church is.
These verses make it clear that the church is more than a passing thought to the Lord Jesus. Anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows that Scripture refers to the church as his bride and as his body. Here we see that the church is also the pillar and support of the truth and even the fulness that fills all in all!
I chose 1 John 2:26-27 because it talks about how the church is the pillar and support of the truth. When John wrote to a group of Christians about those who were trying to seduce them, he told them they wouldn't need teaching from anyone. Together—for all the "yous" are plural—the anointing would lead them into everything, and that leading would be true and not a lie.
This is an example of the church being the pillar and support of the truth.
Was it the pillar and support of the truth by John's apostolic decree? Was the church the pillar and support of the truth by some other decree of some central organization, perhaps at Jerusalem? Not at all! While it's clear from history that the early churches acknowledged the apostles as having supreme authority, nonetheless John expects them to trust "the anointing" together.
There may be some question about "the anointing" even though it's almost universally understood by Christians to refer to the Holy Spirit, and even though the Greek word is chrisma, a word closely related to Christ. So let's take a look at how Paul saw the church functioning as the pillar and support of the truth.
He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers to perfect the saints to do the work of service and to edify the body of Christ, until we all come to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to measure up to the stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
That's the goal. Jesus gave church leaders to perfect the saints so that they can do the work of service, edify the body of Christ, and bring it to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, and to a full-grown man, measuring up to Christ's stature.
How does that happen? In what way do the saints carry on this work of service and edify the body of Christ?
Paul goes on to explain:
So that we should no longer be children, tossed here and there and blown around by every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men skilled in methods of deception. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in everything into the one who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, accurately fitted and joined by what every joint provides, by the energy of each part's appropriate work, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)
So, according to Paul, we will avoid the trickery of men skilled in deception if each part of the body is doing what it's supposed to and if we're speaking the truth to one another in love.
How will that work?
Well, Paul tells us here that we're to be trained to do so by our leaders. But, like John, he has already told us that all this begins with the Holy Spirit. We are first to "give every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
Keep in mind that every Christian is supposed to have the Spirit of God. It's the very heart of what the New Testament is about. On the very first day of the church, on the day of Pentecost, when the crowds were commenting on what was happening with the apostles, Peter rose up to say:
This is what was spoken about by the prophet Joel: "'It shall come to pass in the last days,' says God, 'that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.'" (Acts 2:16-17)
Joel, and Peter quoting him, then goes on to emphasize that it's really everyone. Sons, daughters, old men, young men, servants, handmaidens—they're all going to have the Spirit of God. That's the promise of the New Testament!
That's how Peter's sermon began, and that's how it ended. When he was done proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah to the gathered Jews, they cried out, "What shall we do?" Peter's answer was one more promise of the Holy Spirit:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to everyone that is far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call. (Acts 2:38-39)
The New Testament centers on the church as the gathering of those who have the Holy Spirit.
That was not missed by any of the apostles. Paul writes:
If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him. (Romans 8:9)
Paul adds some admonition in Galatians that is impossible for those that do not have the Spirit of God:
The one that sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Galatians 6:8)
It's tempting to add verse after verse after verse to drive this point home, but due to space limitations, we will have to let these few suffice. The central theme of the New Testament is that the obedience to God which was not possible by fleshly humans under the Law is now possible for those who are born again by the Spirit of God.
Those people have the anointing. Those people can speak the truth to one another in love, and if they do so, they will not be blown about by every wind of teaching. They will have the guidance they need—without needing anyone outside to teach them—to overcome those who are trying to seduce them, even thought those seducers are skilled in methods of deception.
Practically, this is only possible in the local church. Were John and Paul speaking to hierarchies? Were they speaking to some organization somewhere to which every Christian must belong?
No, John and Paul expected Christians to be together locally, giving every effort to preserving the unity that is automatically there when those with the Spirit are together, and then to learn together under the guidance of the anointing of God.
In this way, the church—the household of God—is the pillar and support of the truth.
Is there any way at all to fit a hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Churches into what the New Testament describes above? Do the apostles really recommend that an organization decree doctrines to millions of members around the world, and this is the church functioning as the pillar and support of the truth?
I think the answer to that question is obvious.
The church that is the pillar and support of the truth is the local church, and as long as Christians refuse to diligently preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in their towns, suburbs, and communities, then we are going to continue to do without the pillar and support of the truth and argue about whether the Baptist hierarchy, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, the Pentecostal hierarchy, or the Eastern Orthodox hierarchy really holds the truth ... all the while completely missing the point, for the New Testament church has always been a spiritual people, not an earthly organization.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Eastern Orthodox hierarchies love to emphasize apostolic succession. Apostolic succession, they say, is proof that you need to belong to one of their churches.
I want to take a look at what the churches taught about apostolic succession prior to the Council of Nicea.
After the Council of Nicea, pretty much everyone was a Christian. The churches were no longer the collection of those who had the Spirit of God, they were the collection of everyone that wasn't brave enough to reject the national religion.
Besides that, the Council of Nicea occurred 300 years after Jesus died. If the church began to teach something different then—at a time when many, if not most, major bishops were appointed and removed by emperors—then it seems safe to ignore that new teaching as novel and the product of a much weakened, if not corrupt, church.
Prior to Nicea, there were three main writers who spoke extensively of apostolic succession: Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The latest of the three, Cyprian—bishop of Carthage from A.D. 249 to 258—did not speak directly of apostolic succession, but of subjects that pertain to apostolic succession.
There is a reason that Cyprian did not speak of apostolic succession directly, the way that Irenaeus and Tertullian did. As we shall see in a moment, apostolic succession was an argument, not a doctrine. And it was an argument that did not apply well to the conflicts in which Cyprian was involved.
For those that aspire to be apologists today, keep in mind that both Tertullian and Irenaeus were writing to Christians about gnostics, not arguing with the gnostics themselves. In fact, the entire point of Tertullian's Prescription Against Heretics is that Christians should never talk with gnostics about the Scriptures because the Scriptures were written by and belong to the churches formed by the apostles. They are the Christian's Scriptures, not the gnostics', and gnostics should not even be admitted to a discussion of them because the Christians already have Scriptural truth given to them by the apostles.
Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote against gnostics. Gnostics believed bizarre doctrines, far removed from anything we know as Christianity. In gnostic systems, the God of the Jews was a false god who was mistakenly created by an emanation (an "aeon") of the true God. The world we live in, according to the gnostics, is also a mistake, and thus nothing physical can be good. Their systems, then, never allowed that Jesus of Nazarath was really the Christ. Instead, one of the emanations from the true God had to be the Christ, resting upon him as a spirit. It followed as well, that Jesus never physically rose because nothing of the physical body can be good.
Irenaeus and Tertullian argued against the gnostics. One of their arguments, since the gnostics often used the Scriptures, or parts of the Scriptures, to justify their beliefs, was that the groups most likely to have accurate interpretations of the Scriptures were the churches formed by the apostles, who wrote the Scriptures.
This made perfect sense. If Paul and Peter started the church in Rome, and if they chose a leader or leaders to head up the church in Rome, and if those leaders chose other leaders, and that continued down to the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian, isn't it most likely that it is the church of Rome, and other churches similarly formed, who possesses the truth of God and the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures?
Irenaeus explains the argument exactly that way:
We have learned from no others the plan of salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they at one time proclaimed in public and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the pillar and support of our faith. ... But, when we refer [the gnostics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles and which is preserved by means of the succession of elders in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the elders, but even than the apostles. ...
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles displayed throughout the whole world. We are in a position to reckon up those who were instituted bishops in the churches by the apostles and the succession of those men to our time: those who neither taught nor knew anything like what [the gnostics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries , which they were in the habit of imparting to the "the perfect" apart and privately from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. ...
Since, however, it would be tedious ... to reckon up the succession of all the churches, we put those who assemble in unauthorized meetings to confusion ... by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. ...
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of bishop. ... To him succeeded Anacletus ... Eleutherius does now, in the 12th place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the bishop's office. In this order and by this succession the church tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
... Then again, the church in Ephesus, founded by Paul and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Against Heresies III:1:1 - III:3:4)
I don't think Irenaeus could have been any clearer that what mattered to him was the preservation of truth, not the promotion of a hierarchical organization that churches everywhere must belong to. All churches must agree to the truth, and where the truth is preserved, they ought to listen to it.
On the other hand, it is far easier to find a church in which the truth has been preserved 100 years after the apostles than 2,000 years after the apostles.
Tertullian speaks of apostolic succession in exactly the same way because he was arguing concerning the very same people, the gnostics.
"With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?" For wherever it shall be shown that the true Christian rule and faith are found, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions. (Prescription Against Heretics 19)
Tertullian cares about the "the true Christian rule and faith," not the right organization. And if that is not clear enough from chapter 19, consider these statements:
All doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of disagreement with the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours ... has its origin in the tradition of the apostles ... We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth. (ibid. 21, emphasis mine)
Tertullian, speaking as a member of the apostolic churches, says that he must demonstrate that the doctrine of the churches really has its origin in the tradition of the apostles. If that were true in the early third century, when the argument of apostolic succession had some power, how much more true is it today, when apostolic succession can be no proof of the preservation of truth at all. (It is impossible to argue that the passing of information from person to person for 2,000 years is reliable.)
... those churches which, although they do not derive their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. (ibid. 32, parentheses Tertullian's)
I'm really not sure in what way Tertullian could have been more clear that what mattered to him, and to the apostolic churches, was truth, not organization.
Cyprian is quoted often by Roman Catholic apologists because he regularly attributed the authority of the bishop's chair to Matthew 16:19, where Jesus gave the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" to Peter.
Of course, what Roman Catholics fail to point out is that Cyprian did not consider only the bishop of Rome to be the successor to Peter. They leave that for you to assume, but it's not true. Cyprian specifically says in his tract, On the Unity of the Church, that he is speaking of all bishops and that he considers the episcopate, the offices of the bishops, to be "one and undivided."
It is proof enough that he was not speaking of the bishop of Rome when we look at the conflict that Cyprian was addressing.
During Cyprian's time, an elder named Novatian was offended that he was passed over for bishop of Rome. He then split, forming his own church, which had but one difference from the apostolic churches. They would not admit a person who had lapsed during persecution no matter how deeply that lapsed person repented.
The Novatian heresy ("heresy" means he split the church more than it means that his doctrine was wrong) spread, and Novatianist churches popped up in many places where persecution had arisen.
Cyprian was horrified that someone would split the church like that, right or wrong. He vehemently opposed the schism, and he argued incessantly that the Novatianists had placed themselves outside the touch of God's grace.
Only a couple years after the Novatian split, Stephen became bishop of Rome. By then, some were responding to the arguments of Cyprian and others and were returning from the Novatianist churches to the apostolic churches. Some of those who returned had been baptized only by the Novatianists.
Stephen believed that because the Novatianists were not heretics in matters of doctrine, their baptism could be accepted. He had his elders lay hands on repentant Novatianists and admit them back into the church.
Cyprian was horrified. Accept the baptism of heretics? Never.
The churches would eventually come down on the side of Stephen, not Cyprian, but that is not the point of this discussion. To Cyprian, the Novatianists were heretics. They were to be rejected. Stephen, on the other hand, was a bishop in the church of God. Stephen and Cyprian could not reject one another.
There was an argument afoot. How would it be resolved?
Stephen chose the easy route. He declared that because he was the bishop of Rome, and because Carthage had traditionally been under the jurisdiction of Rome, Stephen's word should just be accepted as canon law.
Cyprian wasn't interested. Smaller churches and churches that were not founded by apostles did like to appeal to major churches that were started by apostles. Rome was one of the greatest because she was the capitol city of the empire and she could claim the founding authority of both Peter and Paul. It's hard to get better credentials than that!
But this did not make the bishop of Rome ruler over the faith of the churches!
Cyprian wasted no time in calling a council of 87 bishops of North Africa. Together they declared:
Neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience, since every bishop ... has his own proper right of judgment and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. ("The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian"; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
It has always struck me as odd—and dishonest, of course—that the Roman Catholic Church would quote Cyprian in support of papal primacy (the authority of the bishop of Rome over all other bishops) when he specifically called a council to refute it! Surely it is impossible to more egregiously misquote an ancient author!
To Cyprian, like Irenaeus and Tertullian before him, truth mattered. And as with the apostles, among the most important matters of truth was holiness of life.
Nor let the people flatter themselves that they can be free from the contagion of sin while communicating [breaking bread] with a priest who is a sinner and yielding their consent to the unjust and unlawful leadership of their bishop. ... A people obedient to the Lord's precepts, and fearing God, ought to separate themselves from a sinful prelate and not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy priests or of rejecting unworthy ones. ("To the Clergy and People Abiding in Spain"; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V, epistle 67)
A church is a church because it is holding to apostolic truth, not because its officers can claim to have a succession back to the apostles. Apostolic succession is an argument, not a doctrine.
The true church is the local church, and it is promised by God that it will be led into truth by the Holy Spirit as its members speak the truth in love to one another (see above).
An organization can never be the pillar and support of the truth because the truth cannot be crystalized into a set of doctrines. The truth is a person who leads men into holiness through obedience to his will.
Is it really conceivable that there is benefit to belonging to an organization that conducts the right rituals, when the apostle John has told us that anyone who claims to know God is a liar unless he obeys the commandments of God (1 John 2:3-4)? If that organization does not lead you into a life of obedience to God, something that is only possible through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, then that organization is doing you no good whatsoever. You can claim to be a Christian based on their rituals, but the apostle John believed that all who claim to know God without obeying his commandments are liars.
On the last day, according to many passages written by the apostles and just as many quoted from our Lord Jesus himself, we will be judged by our works. Jesus gives the longest description of this process in Matthew 25:31-46, explaining that at the judgment we will be asked about the way we treated the hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned. In John 5:29 he explains that it is those who have done good who will have a resurrection of life.
The apostles agree. Paul says that we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10). He adds that it is those who "patiently continue to do good" who will be rewarded with eternal life (Romans 2:6-7). Peter says that it is those who diligently add to their faith who will have "an abundant entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:5-11). He says we should fear because that judgment will be without partiality (1 Peter 1:17).
The point of there being a church at all is so that you can enter into the family of God and grow together into him who is the head, thus walking in the truth, honoring God in this life, and being prepared to face the judgment in the next.
That can only be done locally.
Unfortunately, today that necessitates a choice. In most western cities, there are dozens or even hundreds of churches, and they are focused on intellectual interpretations of Scripture and split over things they are not prepared to understand, much less take a stand on.
You will not solve that problem by joining a church that foolishly believes that apostolic succession—an ancient argument meant to establish truth—makes them the true church no matter that they believe.
The frightening truth is that the most successful thing the devil has ever done is to get Christians to be in fellowship with non-Christians.
Jesus said that no one can be his disciple who does not have a radical commitment to following him above everything else. Those words are a summation of Luke 14:26-33, but Jesus' words in that passage are even stronger than the ones I just summed his up with.
The church must begin with "Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).
No one is a Christian who does not have the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9). The very point of the New Testament was to bring together a people, all of whom had the Spirit of God (Acts 2:14-39). The reason the old covenant failed was because of "the weakness of the flesh," but what the Law could not do, God did. He did it by sending his Son to die for us "so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4).
When we establish churches that are focused on outreach, are full of nominal and half-hearted Christians, and are primarily marked by weekly meetings, we undermine everything that the church is supposed to be.
We saw above that the church, the true church, is the pillar and support of the truth because as they are taught by their leaders to minister to one another and build up the body of Christ, then the anointing of God will lead them into everything, be true and not a lie, and grow them up as one into a grown man measuring up to the stature of Christ himself.
We have completely replaced this process with "church"—weekly meetings consisting primarily of people who do not even qualify as Christians in any New Testament sense. These attendees of Christian meetings are not being taught to serve one another and build up the body of Christ. They are not speaking the truth in love to one another, and even if they tried they would not be able to because most of them are not really Christians.
This will not be resolved by joining the Orthodox Church and claiming that your bishop has a succession back to the apostles!
The situation is so terrible that I can only give you my advice. There is no New Testament advice for how to deal with the awful apostasy in which we live in the western world except "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not partake of her sins" (Revelation 18:4).
My advice is the advice Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:22 (easy verse to remember, huh?):
Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
I can tell you from experience that assailing the apostate system will not work. You must simply come out of her and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those that call on the Lord from a pure heart whether they come out of her or not.
You need the saints. You need to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit and build from there.
It's not impossible. It's been done. It simply requires "every effort" and some grace from God.
And get some perspective! Some of Paul's churches were very likely tiny as well. Partake of what God gives to you from the true fellowship of two or three, where he has promised to be. Let him teach you! You are probably so full of false doctrines, false ideas, and false righteousness from your time in the apostate churches that you need much training together, in the true church, however small it might be, before God is willing to add anyone to you, lest you destroy them by your false doctrine and false confidence in your interpretations of Scripture.
God can be trusted. Together, he will lead you into truth. He will not lead you into a lie.
It's your interpretations of Scripture that you ought to fear, for they will easily teach you not to trust God, nor to see him when he appears in your midst:
You search the Scriptures, for you think that in them you have eternal life. They are that which testifies of me! Yet you will not come to me so that you may have life! (John 5:39-40)