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by Moisés Pinedo
Often Catholics make two important assertions: (1) The Catholic Church is the oldest church. [Catholics are firmly convinced that the Catholic Church is much older than any Protestant group that exists today. Although this assertion is historically correct, is it true that the Catholic Church is the oldest church?] (2) The Catholic Church is the biblical church. [Catholics claim that their church is the one described in the Bible and, therefore, the church which God approves.]
These two claims bear some serious implications. First, if the Catholic Church is the oldest church, then: (a) there could not be any church prior to it; (b) the first church, which Christ promised He was going to establish, must be the Catholic Church; and (c) all biblical and/or historical record of the first church should point to Catholicism. Second, if the Catholic Church is the biblical church, then: (a) the Bible should have a record of this church; and (b) its teachings and practices should be approved by the Bible.
Origin of Christianity
To determine whether the Catholic Church is the oldest church, we must go to the Bible to find a record of the first church. The prophet Daniel said that
...the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever (2:44, emp. added).
God had a plan for the followers of His Son to be part of a kingdom different from any other, a spiritual kingdom that would stand forever: the church (cf. Colossians 1:13). But when did this divine institution begin?
Matthew 16:18 records the first time the term “church” is introduced in the New Testament. Jesus said: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (emp. added). The term “church,” from the Greek ekklesia, was generally used by the Greeks to refer to a political assembly (cf. Acts 19:41). This term is used for the first time to describe the followers of Christ in Matthew 16:18.
When Jesus spoke of His church in this verse, He declared three very important things. First, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The future tense of the verb indicates that the church was not yet established. It did not exist at that time. Second, Jesus said, “I will build,” indicating that Christ Himself would establish the church and be its foundation. Third, Jesus said, “My church,” indicating that the Church would belong to Him.
Notice again Jesus’ statement to Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). Using two Greek terms—petros and petra—the New Testament makes clear that this “rock” (petra) would be the foundation upon which Jesus would build His church. But to what or to whom does this “rock” refer? Matthew tells us that Jesus had asked His disciples who they thought He was. “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16). Because of this declaration, Jesus made the statement mentioned above (Matthew 16:18). Therefore, it can mean only one thing: Jesus was going to build His church on the confession that Peter had made about Him. In other words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” would be the foundation upon which the church was to be built. Jesus promised Peter that he would be the blessed person to open the doors of Christianity (or the church), but Peter (petros) would not be the rock (petra) of the church.
Although these verses in Matthew 16 do not give us the beginning of the first church, they do give us an exact prediction of its origin, including the following:
1. This church was not yet built at the time Jesus was speaking (vs. 18).
2. This church would be built by Christ, Who would also be its foundation (vs. 18).
3. This church would belong to Christ (vs. 18).
4. This church would be built on the confession that Jesus is Christ (vss. 16,18).
5. Peter would open (symbolically) the doors of this church (vs. 19).
So then, when did these things happen, and when did the first church come into existence?
Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2:41).
This verse, recorded by Luke, tells us the result of the sermon Peter and the other apostles preached on Pentecost. The Bible notes that the apostles had stayed in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, waiting for the promise of the Father (i.e., the arrival of the Holy Spirit; cf. Acts 1:4,12; 2:1). When the Holy Spirit was sent, the apostles began to speak in different languages (Acts 2:4-11). Many people believed, but there were also some who mocked (Acts 2:13). Then, Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and preached to those who were listening to him (Acts 2:14). After showing convincing evidence of the Messianic veracity of Jesus, Peter declared, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, emp. added).
Luke’s account takes our minds back to the words of Jesus. Jesus had predicted that Peter would open the doors of the church, and that the church would be built on his confession (Matthew 16:16-18). In Acts 2:36, Peter not only opened the doors of Christianity, but he also confessed once more that Jesus was the Lord and the Christ (i.e., the rock on which the church would be built). Therefore, it was on this exact day that the words of Jesus were fulfilled. Acts 2:41 indicates that those who believed “were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” The question then becomes, “To what were the people who believed and were baptized added?” Verse 47 gives us the answer: “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” [NOTE: The ASV omits the word “church” and notes “them,” but the idea is the same. Concerning this rendering, Boles stated that the meaning is that those who were baptized, “were by this process added together, and thus formed the church” (1941, p. 52)]. This is the first biblical text that speaks of the church as being in existence; it is at this exact moment in Scripture that the presence of the first church is noted. Peter had opened the doors of the church through the preaching of the Word. He had confessed once more the deity of Jesus. And the Lord had added to His church the people who obeyed.
Which church, then, is the oldest church? The answer is, of course, the church that Christ built in Acts 2. But what church was this? Was this the beginning of the Catholic Church (as Catholicism teaches)? Note that Christ said He was going to build His church (Matthew 16:18), not the Catholic Church.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. The churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:16, emp. added).
Although there were various congregations that praised God in many parts of the world when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, there was still a unique characteristic about them: all of them belonged to Christ (i.e., they were churches of Christ), for Christ said that He would build His church. Therefore, all of them honorably bore the name of their Founder—Christ.
Acts 2 informs us that the church of Christ was established in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (c. A.D. 30). It had a unique foundation, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). Christ, not Peter, was the cornerstone of the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8). The church was comprised of a group of believers who took the title “Christians” (not “Catholics”) by divine authority (Acts 11:26; cf. Isaiah 62:2). They made up the only body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). The church also was considered the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:24; Revelation 19:7). Christ was its authority and its Head (Colossians 1:18); it had no earthly head. In its organization, human names and divisions were condemned (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). This was the wonderful, divine institution that God established on Earth—the church of His Son, the church of Christ (see Miller, 2007).
The first Christian Church
The New Testament mentions at least two persons named James, probably at least three, and perhaps as many as eight. This is as good a place as any to sort them out.
1. James the Greater: James the son of Zebedee, called James the Greater or James Major or James the Elder, was one of the Twelve Apostles, and also, along with his brother John and with Peter, belonged to what seems to have been an inner circle of Three. He was killed by order of King Herod, as reported in Acts 12:2. (See Matthew 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; P 1:19,29; 3:17; 5:37; 9:2; 10:35,41; 13:3; 14:33; Luke 5:10; 6:14; 8:51; 9:28,54; Acts 11:13; 12:2)
2. James the Less: James the son of Alphaeus (Alpheus) appears on lists of the Twelve Apostles (usually in the ninth place), but is never mentioned otherwise. He is called James the Less, or James Minor, or James the Younger. (See Matthew 10:3; P 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13)
3. James the Just: James called "the brother of the Lord" appears in Acts 12:17 and thereafter (A 15:13; 21:18; 1C 15:17; Ga 1:19; 2:9,12) as the leader of the Jerusalem congregation. He is counted by later Church historians as the first bishop of Jerusalem, with Simeon (described as also a kinsman, something like a great-nephew of Joseph) as the second. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, James was put to death by order of the high priest during an interval between Roman governors, over the protests of the Pharisees, who thought him an upright man. He is known as James the Just or James of Jerusalem or James Protepiscopus (first bishop).
Origin of Catholicism
If the Catholic Church is not the oldest church, how and when did it become a historical entity? When the church of the Lord began in Acts 2, it grew rapidly. According to Acts 2:41, about 3,000 people believed the preaching of Peter and the other apostles, and were baptized. Acts 4:4 tells us that shortly thereafter the number of believers was at least 5,000, and Acts 6:7 informs us that “the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”
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Constantine, Emperor of Rome, assembled the first of these councils, the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). By the time of his reign, the Christian population had grown tremendously. In spite of constant persecution and the growing apostasy, many Christians had remained faithful to God, and their influence was growing. The faith, influence, and courage of these Christians (which led many to die for love of the truth) were obvious to Constantine. Christianity was thought to be, in some ways, a potential threat to the Empire if it continued to grow. Therefore, there were only two options: (1) try to eradicate Christianity from the Empire by increasing opposition to it (a tactic which had failed for almost three centuries), or (2) “go with the flow” so that Christianity would help unify and strengthen the Empire. Constantine decided not only to stop persecution against Christianity but to promote it. To help the church, Constantine ordered that 50 hand-written copies of the Bible be produced, and he placed some Christians in high positions in his government (Miller and Stevens, 1969, 5:48,51). Additionally, he restored places of worship to Christians without demanding payment (see “The Edict...,” n.d.).
Under Constantine’s direction, more changes were made—especially in the organization of the church. Since the end of persecution was something that Christians thought impossible, and since favoritism from the government seemed even less attainable, many Christians allowed themselves to be influenced by the government to the point that they deviated more and more from the truth. Under Constantine’s influence, a new ecclesiastical organization began to develop, modeled after the organization of the Roman government. Although “Christianity” thrived under his influence, it is ironic that Constantine himself was not a Christian. However, just before his death—and surely with the hope that his sins would be removed—he agreed to be baptized for the Christian cause (see Hutchinson and Garrison, 1959, p. 146).
Although Catholicism did not actually come into existence during the time of Constantine, certainly his influence and his legacy were fundamental stones upon which Catholicism soon built its power. As the church obtained benefits from the government, it became more and more similar to the government and moved further from the divine pattern. By the seventh century, many Christians, accepting the model of the Roman government, installed one man, the pope, in Rome to exercise universal ecclesiastical power. According to the model of the counselors for the Roman emperor, a group of cardinals was chosen to be advisors to the pope. According to the model of the Roman governors, bishops were appointed over dioceses. And, in accordance with the model of the Roman Universal (i.e., catholic) Empire, a new church—the Roman Catholic Church—was established. Consequently, the Catholic Church was established at the beginning of the seventh century, under the leadership of the first man to be called “pope” universally, Boniface III.