Who Is the True Church?

Who is the true Church? There is a sense in which the Roman Catholic Church is the descendant of the one true Church, but there are important ways in which it is not.

Pope Adrian I in ceremony
public domain image

Pope Adrian I in ceremony

There are two basic things we will cover:

  • The early churches had no overarching hierarchy, and thus no hierarchy can be the descendant of the apostolic churches.
  • Spiritual descent is spiritual, not physical. The words of the apostle Paul concerning Israel according to the flesh prove this.

Who Is the True Church?
The Early churches Had No Overarching Hierarchy

Both Irenaeus in A.D. 185 and Tertullian, about twenty years later, appeal to "apostolic succession"—the succession of bishops and elders from the apostles until their day—as proof that the early churches held to the original Gospel (and thus were true churches). Both appeal to varying churches as testimonies of apostolic truth, not to one collective administration.

Irenaeus:

To these things all the Asian churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp [bishop of Smyrna] down to the present time. … Then again, the church in Ephesus, founded by Paul and having John among them permanently until the times of Trajan [A.D. 98], is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Against Heresies III:2:2 and III:3:3)

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons
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Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons

Tertullian:

Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? Nothing spread among many men results in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, that is not a result of error, but tradition. (Prescription Against Heretics 28)

Tertullian's quote assumes that the true churches were not subject to one governing authority. Had they been, his argument would lose all its weight. Error could have become one and the same by the decree of Rome or by the decree of some other hierarchy, if one hierarchy ruled all the churches.

The assumption, then, in Tertullian's argument is that each true church freely preserved truth as it was given to them by the apostles over a century earlier.

Irenaeus goes on to state this even more clearly:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us. Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles had constant communication and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the question at issue? What would it be like if the apostles had not left us writings themselves? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches? (ibid. III:4:1)

Again, it is clear that he is saying that each individual church is preserving truth, while resorting to one another to solve disputes. He does not send them to a hierarchy, a pope, or to any other central authorities, but to multiple authorities united by their common fellowship and common descent from the apostles.

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To their testimony, we can add this early statement by the church of Rome in a letter to the Corinthians:

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ was therefore sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. … Having therefore received their orders … they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. Preaching in this way through countries and cities, they appointed the firstfruits—having first proven them by the Spirit—as overseers and deacons of those who would later believe. (First Clement 42)

Again, the emphasis is on a "they" that received the Gospel from the apostles and transmitted it faithfully to the true churches that they raised up. This explains why Jude tells us to "contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (v. 3). It is up to us to preserve it. There is no hierarchy, magisterium, or pope to do it for us.

Thus, while the Roman Catholic Church is in a sense the organizational descendant of the true apostolic churches, its hierarchy cannot be the true church because there was no early Church hierarchy to descend from.

Who Is the True Church?
Spiritual Descent Is Spiritual, Not Physical

To look further at who is the true Church, we will simply appeal to Scripture. Paul writes:

They are not all Israel who are of Israel. Nor are they all children of Abraham just because they descended from Abraham, but "in Isaac shall your descendants be called" [Gen. 21:12]. That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God. Instead, the children of promise are considered descendants. (Rom. 9:6-8)

Paul has a lot to add to this. "He is not a Jew who is one outwardly … but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, whose circumcision is of the heart, of the spirit, and not in the letter" (Rom. 2:28-29). He adds in Galatians, "Know therefore that those who are of faith, these are the children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7).

Wicked Popes

I said that the Roman Catholic Church is happy to admit that many popes were political appointees. They go further and have a whole list of wicked popes.

The Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.com writes of Pope Boniface VIII:

"Even modern Catholic writers, wrote Cardinal Wiseman in 1844, class him among the wicked popes, as an ambitious, haughty, and unrelenting man, deceitful also and treacherous, his whole pontificate one record of evil."

This is no less true of Roman Catholics. Just because Peter appointed Linus in Rome, and Linus Anacletus, and Anacletus Clement, etc.; it does not follow that these are the true descendants of the apostles. We have seen (e.g., in the Western Great Schism) that many popes were political appointees, as the Roman Catholic Church is happy to admit (see sidebar).

There is no way that the apostles would have seen these political appointees as true shepherds or representatives of who is the Church. These men did not even attempt to shepherd, protect, nor even find the flock of God.

Tertullian seals our point by emphasizing that it is not merely a succession of elders that proves true spiritual descent, but teaching that lines up with apostolic doctrine takes precedence. He writes:

Even if [the gnostic churches] should [produce a list of bishops back to the apostles], they will not advance a step. Their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare by its own dissimilarity and disagreement that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man. (Prescription Against Heretics 32)

And what of churches that do have apostolic doctrine, but who do not have a list of bishops going back to the apostles?

Since they agree in the same faith, they are considered not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. (ibid.)

Finally, what should we do with church leaders, like the wicked popes, who have been properly appointed in a succession of bishops, but whose lives are contrary to the Gospel?

Who Is the True Church?
Wicked Church Leaders Are Not to Be Followed

One of the most honored early Christian leaders, by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, is Cyprian of Carthage, bishop there from A.D. 249 - 258. Roman Catholics regularly quote him—out of context—to support the existence of a pope prior to Nicea.

Here's what Cyprian had to say about wicked bishops:

Nor let the people flatter themselves that they can be free from the contagion of sin while communicating [i.e., breaking bread in communion] with a priest who is a sinner and yielding their consent to the unjust and unlawful episcopacy [i.e., office of bishop] of their overseer. (Letters of Cyprian 67, par. 3, by the numbering of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)

What does he mean by the "unjust and unlawful" office of their overseer?

We ought, in the ordination of priests, to choose none but unstained and upright ministers, who offer holy and worthy sacrifices to God and may be heard in the prayers which they offer for the safety of God's people. (ibid., par. 2)

He adds again:

We see it to come from divine authority that a priest should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony. … For this reason [a reference to Scripture he just quoted] you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance … the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people who have most fully known the life of each one and have looked into the deeds of each one, as regards his habitual conduct. (ibid. par. 4-5)

Note that Cyprian says that it is "divine authority," "divine tradition" and "apostolic observance" that prompts him to say these things. In other parts of his letter he says that this practice of ordaining bishops with people present who can testify of their life is "maintained among us and observed throughout almost all provinces."

A Bold Conclusion

I make some very blunt and bold statements at the end of my conclusion on this page. This is supposed to be an unbiased, honest Christian history site. How can I make such statements?

The authority behind my statements is Christian history, both ancient and modern. This Christian history site is designed to let you learn from Christian history and thus prosper as a Christian.

There are very strong promises made to the Church. God promises through his apostles that the Church will be led into truth and that everyone who joins the Church will find the grace of God working on them (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Jn. 2:27; Eph. 4:11-16; Php. 1:6).

History testifies that this is true, but it is true for those that join themselves to God on his terms; not our own.

I'm just telling you what the early church said, what worked in the past, and what is still working today.

Even more pertinently, he refers to the deposition of an unrighteous bishop named Basilides as "an ordination rightly perfected." In fact, he adds that even though Basilides went to Rome, deceived Stephen—the bishop there and thus the supposed pope—and was reappointed by him, this did not rescind his removal from office.

Who Is the True Church?
Conclusion

Who is the true church cannot be based on physical descent or the laying on of hands from one church leader to another through the centuries; at least not if we are going to believe the early church leaders, who based their arguments on a host of Scriptures. All of the following are used by Cyprian in his argument:

  • Numbers 16:26, which says the people are to separate themselves from self-appointed leaders like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram
  • Isaiah 29:13, which speaks of Israel vainly worshipping God because they taught the commandments of men
  • Hosea 8:4: "They have set up a king, but not by [God]."
  • Hosea 9:4: "Their sacrifices shall be like the bread of mourning, and all who eat of them shall be polluted."
  • Mark 7:13, which says that the Pharisees had rejected the command of God in order to establish their own tradition

According to those in the apostles' churches during the early days when the true churches were still united without an overarching hierarchy, a true church is known first and foremost by its apostolic doctrine and the holy life of its leaders. Unholy leaders pollute both the spiritual sacrifices offered by God's people and the people themselves.

If any local Roman Catholic Church wishes to be considered a descendant of the apostles' churches, it will need to hold apostolic doctrine and appoint leaders who are qualified by their holy lives. This is the same thing that holds true for any church—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise—that wants to be recognized by God as who is the true church and thus inherit the promises God has given to the Church.

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