With so many varieties of Christian churches to choose from we should strive to find one that matches the early church. We should emphasize the apostolic church but must also consider the post-apostolic church since we no longer have the apostles to guide us even in modern times. Also, we must consider how the canon of scripture came to be and what those same bishops who determined the canon of scripture taught about other things.
How should we decide what to believe? Do we accept everything the church taught up to 400 A.D. and reject the rest? Or do we reject everything not in the Bible (even though there was no Bible until 400 A.D.?) Or do we pick and choose? Or allow the bishops to be our infallible authority? (but how do we decide whether to follow east or west after 1054 A.D.?)
Some say the church went bad at some point in history. My approach is different: the church started out good (because it was apostolic) but over time it changed in various ways which made it less good or, is some cases, bad. The goal should be to make it good again by returning to apostolic principles. Meanwhile, what can we do today? Which church should we attend?
We should model our church life on the teachings of the apostles. Even the Catholic Church claims to teach those things that were passed-down from the apostles (but they have added and changed many things) and considers the time of the apostles as the basis of Christianity. The Bible contains some material describing the apostolic church but, sadly, leaves much unstated.
Ingredients of the One Apostolic Church:
(Acts 2:42) And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
The 4 ingredients to Christian living:
What happens once the congregation learns everything that the apostles have to teach? It seems like there is a time of freshness for new believers, but it fades. And what happens to us moderns when we begin to learn all the contradictory opinions about what the Bible teaches? And with all the contradictory claims about which church is the true church?
We should immerse ourselves in the apostles' teaching. A good way to do this is through Bible study. Sadly, it is hard to find a church that actually teaches the Bible without veering off into surfer drawl or talking about "blue ducks" or providing other forms of off-topic entertainment.
A Christian life without fellowship is dismal indeed.
Breaking of bread
(Acts 2:46) And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.
It appears that the apostles went to various homes to perform Eucharistic services.
The assumption is that the Christians who were praying together knew each other and had regular interaction with each other. The Catholic model of the congregation sitting in a room full of strangers listening to the priest or deacon pray for the whole wide world doesn't match this at all. Neither does prayer in a large group. Prayer meetings must be small and intimate.
The apostolic church had a strong emphasis on the leaders taking the gospel to people who hadn't heard it before. In studying church history we find that the later church seemed to focus instead on power politics and court intrigue. We should reject these aspects of Christianity.
Council of Jerusalem
In Acts 15 there were three groups: (1) the apostles and other leaders, (2) the Judaizers who were doctrinally in error as well as violent and angry, and (3) witnesses of the work the Holy Spirit was doing among the Gentiles.
The Catholic Church today rejects some of the conclusions of the Council of Jerusalem (abstain from food offered to idols, or from blood, or from meat of animals slaughtered via strangulation). How can they claim so much from that first council if they reject 3 out of 4 of its conclusions?
Even the apostle Paul rejected one of these decrees from the Council of Jerusalem. This doesn't bode well for those who claim that councils are infallible.
(1 Corinthians 8:4) As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
Ordination by the apostles was not via apostolic succession. Bishops and deacons were required to meet strict requirements to be ordained (1 Timothy 3:1-16; Titus 1:5-9). In my view, a church leader who does not meet these qualifications is not to be considered a church leader at alleven if they were ordained.
Sadly, the church soon began ignoring these qualifications. The Catholic Church claims it is the mere act of ordination (the sacrament of holy orders) that makes a person a church leader. This is absurd!
Just because the apostles ordained bishops doesn't prove the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession. It is to be expected that the same person who trains and mentors a future Christian leader is the same person who will ordain them. This says nothing about apostolic succession nor the sacrament of holy orders. We need better evidence for these Catholic claims, but the evidence is simply not there as I demonstrate later in this article.
There are many New Testament passages insisting that Christians must live holy lives. But throughout church history we find many examples of church leaders not doing this. We should rejectsuch unrighteous church leaders and we should reject their teachings.
Passed-down from the apostles
The Catholic Church claims that it teaches only what was passed-downfrom the apostles. This claim is wildly overstated. The only teachings that the apostles passed-down are teachings they actually taught. Finding an obscure seed in some biblical verse to base a doctrine on cannot be considered as merely "passing-down apostolic teaching" — rather, it must be considered doctrinal development.Perhaps the seed of the doctrine was passed-down. The following two verses are used to "prove" the doctrine of the treasury of merit but these verses do not prove any such thing at all:
(Colossians 1:24) Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church.
(1 Timothy 6:19) Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.
I don't think anyone would dispute the idea that the Christians at large in the apostolic church had a lively faith.
Leaders chosen by the congregation
When Paul traveled he encountered various Christian communities established by someone who had heard the gospel and who established a local Christian community.
Small local churches
Bishops had a similar role as a pastor in a small local Protestant denomination.
Trinity, resurrection, virgin birth, Christ is deity, salvation by faith, original sin, God's grace, Christians empowered by Holy Spirit, close-knit community.
Neither Jesus nor Paul tried to change the institution of slavery. They merely exhorted masters to treat their slaves kindly and slaves to obey their masters as if they were the Lord.
Obey secular rulers
Jesus and the Apostles taught the people to obey the secular rulers even implying that good would come from it. They seemed to ignore the issue of what to do if the secular rulers are corrupt.
Things Jesus taught
From the gospels:
The primary evidence for teachings and practices of the post-apostolic church is the writings of the early church fathers. In my opinion, the Catholic Church misinterprets many passages in supporting their distinctive Catholic doctrines.
A second trend is also at work in the post-apostolic church. Under the influence of Hellenism and Roman culture, the church began to change apostolic teaching in some key areas:
One way the Catholic Church validates whether a tradition is trustworthy is to consider whether every church father who wrote about it agrees. This is a dangerous procedure. If the early church fathers don't write about it but the later church fathers do, we should suspect that this tradition is not passed-down from the apostles but is, rather, a tradition of men. Just because all church fathers after a certain point agree with something doesn't mean it's true.
The main topics that all the church fathers seem to agree about after a certain point (but there is no hint of these from the apostles):
Topics about which the church fathers did not agree:
So how are we to know which of these early views and practices are of God and which were added by man? We must examine the spiritual fruits. Protestants claim we should use the Bible as the final authority but, sadly, this doesn't provide the answer for post-apostolic teachings and practices.
I limit my analysis below to those writings by well-respected church fathers who wrote before 200 A.D. After that time things begin to change significantly — they no longer faithfully present the teachings passed-down by the apostles.
Baptism — Creeds
There is plenty of evidence from the early church fathers that baptism remits sin and that Christians are to recite a creed as part of their baptism rite.
The church practiced the Eucharist from the very beginning and they believed that Christ was present in some way in the consecrated bread and wine.
Chapter 9 & 10
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.
Those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. 65
Why would they take a portion to people who were absent if they thought communion was merely symbolic? I have never heard of Protestants doing this.
And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. 66, "Of the Eucharist"
How can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life?
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chap. 43, Para. 5
Our physical body is spiritually nourished by the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. Communion is not merely symbolic.
The New Testament writers and early church fathers all insist that church leaders are to be spiritually qualified. Later this was ignored and bishops were ordained via so-called apostolic succession without regard for their qualifications.
(15:1) Elect, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not covetous, and true and approved, for they perform for you the service of prophets and teachers.
Bishops and deacons are elected by the local congregations. Notice that there is no reference to priests. Verse 15:1 mentions that they perform the service of prophets and teachers. Chapter 14 refers to their ministry of offering sacrifice — to their priestly ministry.
Appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons
It is always assumed that they are qualified
Those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church
It is always assumed that they are qualified. The church at large is to approve of their leaders
Follow the bishop
The assumption is that the bishops are qualified
Clergy vs. Laity
There is no evidence from the early church fathers that there should be a division between clergy and laity. That comes later.
The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.
Check the context carefully; Clement is not claiming that the church is to have a priesthood with a division between clergy and laity.
Just as the New Testament had prophets, so also the early church had prophets. There is no reason to believe that prophecy ended with the apostolic era. Perhaps the church went spiritually dry when the bishops usurped all leadership and ministerial roles.
Chapter 11 — 13
Christian congregations should have leaders; no one disputes this. The question is whether or not these leaders should be appraised based on certain qualifications.
Submit yourselves to the presbyters
The Roman Church is the head
The Catholic Church claims that the bishops of Rome were the head of the church from the very beginning, but the early church fathers don't support this.
You consulted us
We don't know why the Christians from the church in Corinth complained to the bishop of Rome. Perhaps it was merely because it was a bigger church. The apostles Peter and Paul were both martyred there.
It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [the one at Rome], on account of its pre-eminent authority.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chap. 3, Para. 2
Just because the Roman Church had pre-eminent authority doesn't mean that the bishop of Rome is to be the head of the whole church — the eastern churches never agreed with this. At this period in time it seems that the church in Rome had sound doctrine whereas other churches were influenced by all kinds of strange teachings. Again, this is not necessarily because the Roman bishops were to be the head of the whole church.
Reject bad leaders & teaching
If we are to reject bad leaders then what are we to do if we can't find a good local church that qualifies?
Obey God than to follow those who, through pride and sedition, have become the leaders of a detestable emulation [rivalry]
Rashly yield ourselves to the inclinations of men who aim at exciting strife and tumults, so as to draw us away from what is good
Adhere to those who cultivate peace, not to those who merely pretend to do so
We should reject teachers who teach falsehood and who are not holy, righteous, and otherwise qualified as shepherds of the flock. I am amazed at how common it was throughout church history to find church leaders who didn't measure up and who should have been rejected.
(11:2) But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine with a view to subvert you, hearken not to him; but if he come to add to your righteousness, and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.
Don't listen to false teachers who teach something different than what they were already taught. This doesn't bode well for the idea that doctrine was to develop as it has in the Catholic Church.
Not Sola Scriptura
It is obvious that the Bible could not have been the authority in the early church since there was no canon of scripture.
I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel
Ignatius is addressing those who claim they won't believe unless they find it in the scripture (Sola Scriptura). Notice he seems to believe that the faith (based on tradition) is sufficient proof.
There was to be some sort of institutional public confession, perhaps as part of the service (but the early church simply did not have confession to a priest as the Catholic Church does.)
(4:14) thou shalt confess thy transgressions in the Church, and shalt not come unto prayer with an evil conscience. This is the path of life.
We are to confess in church. There was some sort of institutional confession.
(14:1) But on the Lord's day, after that ye have assembled together, break bread and give thanks, having in addition confessed your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure.
Confession of sins done in church as a corporate activity. Presumably each person states their sins during a designated time during the church meeting.
Prayer and fasting
The early church practiced prayer and fasting.
(8:1) But as for your fasts, let them not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth days of the week, but do ye fast on the fourth and sixth days.
Fast on Wednesday and Friday.
(8:2) Neither pray ye as the hypocrites, but as the Lord hath commanded in his gospel so pray ye: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil: for thine is the power, and the glory, for ever.
(8:3) Thrice a day pray ye in this fashion.
Pray by reciting the "Our Father" three times a day. Some Protestants think we should not recite "canned" prayers such as the "Our Father" but the early church did this.
The only doctrine concerning Mary that was passed-down from the apostles is the virgin birth of Jesus. The other Catholic Marian doctrines were simply not passed-down by the apostles. (I happen to believe they are all true nonetheless, but they should be optional and de-emphasized.)
The only early writing about Marian doctrines was "The Protoevangelium of James" about 150 A.D. (plus or minus 30 years) which teaches of Mary's perpetual virginity. This writing is not trustworthy and has internal inconsistencies.
In understanding true Christianity we must track the early church from its beginning until about 400 A.D. since that was when the canon of scripture was finally settled. Unfortunately, the nature of the church changed drastically during this time. Such changes as:
The difficulty is in separating the good from the bad; the essential from the non-essential; those things intended by Jesus from those things added by flawed humans (and perhaps inspired by the spiritual powers of wickedness). It seems we must accept at a minimum the Nicene Creed and the Canon of Scripture.
So how are we to know which of these views are the correct ones? Ultimately, we must examine the spiritual fruits.
The circumstances surrounding the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople leave much to be desired. The emperor Constantine had a large role; there was political intrigue among the bishops; many bishops were Arian; the Roman bishop didn't attend; other suspicious canons were adopted at the same councils.
How can we accept the Nicene Creed in such circumstances? The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches regard these two councils as valid ecumenical councils and the Nicene Creed certainly represents true Christian doctrine.
Canon of Scripture
The key ingredients of determining the canon of scripture:
We must consider the spiritual fruits of the various doctrines and practices; whether they result in a lively faith life of Christians and encourage conversions.
Things having bad spiritual fruits:
Things having good spiritual fruits:
In my view, the development of the Catholic Church and of Catholic doctrine and practice has good spiritual fruit, even though not all church leaders were spiritually qualified to lead the church properly. Without a strong institutional basis, the church would not have survived and heresy would have prevailed — there would be no Christian faith today. While I accept much of the teaching of the idealized perfection of the Catholic Church, I reject the abuses, corruptions, and errors. I have great sympathy for those who can't see it this way (I've been in this predicament several times myself). It is for this reason that I offer my model of the One Apostolic Church.