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Church History: A Biblical View
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Church History:
A Biblical View
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Part II - The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 8 - The "Catholic" Church

I. Introduction

A. Definition of terms.

The term "church" is used in two basic senses in the New Testament. Firstly, it refers to the "aggregate of those throughout the world who have been saved by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Mt. 16:18; Acts 2:47; Eph. 1:22). Secondly, it refers to "some such saved in a particular geographical area who band together for purposes of worship and spiritual work" (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1:4 , 11). These are usually referred to as the "universal" and "local" senses, respectively, of the term, "church."

The term "catholic" is derived from a Greek word which means "general" or "universal." As this term is applied to the first of the two above senses it is quite accurately applied, for the Lord certainly intended for His disciples to be parts of one, universal body (Jn. 17:20-23; Eph. 4:4). There are no parties, or branches, of disciples making up the universal church. However, what is it that makes the church "Catholic?" What is it that gives the church its "oneness?" The element which compacts all Christians into one body is their common faith in, and relationship with, Jesus Christ. Thus, the oneness of the church is doctrinal in nature. The universal church is not so much an organization as it is a relationship. One is a member of the universal church, and thus related to all the other members of that church, because he has formed a relationship with Jesus Christ. The components of the universal church are individual Christians, not local congregations (I Cor. 12:27).

However, it is easy for men to lose sight of these concepts, as they did in the Second Century. First, men begin to conceive of the universal church as being composed of the various local congregations rather than simply individual Christians. The brotherhood becomes a union of local churches ("church-hood"). From this point it is easy to conceive of the local congregations as having a collective work to perform. As such concepts gain headway, members of the church, and local congregations, begin to think of themselves as being organically tied to one another rather than simply having a common faith and relationship. Organic unity and collective work require inter-congregational coordination of efforts, which, in turn, requires inter-congregational leaders. In the Second Century the monarchical bishops began to move into the role of inter-congregational leaders. Thus, the church was becoming "catholic," not by virtue of a shared relationship, but by virtue of an organic unity of Christians epitomized in the authority of the bishops.

B. Rationale. Historians usually assert that it was the Gnostic and Montanist crises which led to, and necessitated, this "catholicizing" of the church. Some system was needed to define the true church and its faith and protect it against heretics and schismatics. However, the Lord made provisions for such protection in the Scriptures to define the faith and local elders to see that it is properly taught. As history will clearly show, tying local churches together and allowing inter-congregational leaders to define the faith for them only increases the possibility and rate of apostasy.

II. The Development and Traits of the "Catholic" Church

A. The "visible church" and "visible succession." This is essentially the idea that the true church may be identified by its visibility in society and that a continuous line of churches and church leaders may be traced in history. Implied in this view is the idea that the true church will always predominate in influence and numbers. No mere "sect" will be the true church. Of course, this concept tends to minimize the Scriptures. They themselves teach that the word of God is the truth (Jn. 17:17) and gives rise to the church (Lk. 8:11). It is thought by those who adhere to the Catholic concept of the church that the church defines truth. Truth then becomes what the church says it is.

B. Church the sole repository, possessor, and interpreter of the Scriptures. This thinking follows from the preceding concepts. Since the visible church will always be the true church, then it will always have the right view of the Scriptures. Thus, the individual Christian need not interpret the Scriptures for himself; he needs only to conform to what the church says the Scriptures say.

C. Expansion of the authority of the episcopate. (1) The monarchical bishops, especially those of "apostolic" churches (those established by, or during the days of, the apostles), were viewed as successors of the apostles. In arguing against the Gnostic idea that the apostles left a secret oral teaching to which Gnostics fell heir, Irenaeus (c. 142-200), bishop of Lyons, proposed that apostolic teaching was fully preserved in the churches of apostolic foundation, or, more particularly, in their bishops. Indeed. apostolic teaching is fully preserved, but in the Scriptures, not in any oral traditions entrusted to bishops.

(2) Since it was thought that the doctrines and authority of the apostles were perpetuated in the bishops, it was naturally thought that they should be the ones to define the faith. Hence, faithfulness was contingent upon agreement with the bishops. Those who did not agree with the faith as defined by the bishops were heretics and schismatics. Commensurate with this authority of bishops to define the faith was the authority to excommunicate any who did not agree with them.

III. The Rise of the Roman Church

A. An "apostolic" church. Rome was naturally prominent because Paul had twice graced it with his presence. It was even believed that Peter served as bishop of the Roman church in his latter years.

B. In capital city of the Empire. Attention and prestige also accrued to the Roman church since it was at the center of political activity in the Roman Empire.

C. Diminution of Eastern churches. Churches in the East, such as Ephesus, Antioch, and Jerusalem, were hurt by the Jewish-Roman war (135) and the Montanist struggle in Asia Minor. The decline of these churches left a vacuum which Rome began to fill. By 200 Rome was the most imminent and influential church. Rome's growing power is illustrated in the Easter controversy. In the West Easter was always celebrated on Sunday, while in Asia Minor it was celebrated on the fourteenth of Nisan, regardless of the day it was. The controversy became so acute that synods were held in Rome and Palestine on the matter. These synods decided in favor of the Roman practice, and when the churches of Asia Minor refused to conform, Victor, bishop of Rome (189-198), excommunicated them.

IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) The universal church is composed of all the local churches.

(2) (T or F) Local churches are to work in a collective fashion.

(3) (T or F) Apostolic teaching is fully preserved in the Scriptures.

(4) What is the unscriptural concept of the "catholic" church?

(5) What provisions did the Lord make to protect the doctrinal purity of the church?


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