“Catholic” and “Apostolic”…To some in our day these terms are used for describing any church that is a “true” church based on Bible doctrine, regardless of authority and posture they have toward the rest of the Church and her history. But if we look at the actual history of the Church we find that these terms are used exclusively to describe non-schismatic churches, that is, churches that have not divided themselves from the Church that originated from the Apostles.
A primary source for apostolic continuity through the early Church was the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, theological statements developed from the Apostles and then formalized at the Bishops’ council of Niceae in A.D. 325. The Christian faith is founded in the Creeds in that the Creed(s) protect the very nature of Christ and His Church, including the canon of Scripture. The heresies that the Creeds (Nicene, Apostles’) were created to protect us from are still prevalent in our day. The Creeds include the dogma of God as our Creator, The Trinity, the Virgin birth, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of believers and the return of Christ for His Church. Each of these dogmatic pronouncements within the Creeds have protected us from the modern heresies such as liberalism and cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. This of course is all done through the Holy Spirit, which is embodied within Christ’s body, the Church. Therefore, to be identified as one that belongs to the Church is to identify with Christ Himself. In the early Church, this identification became established by the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds! Let’s take a look at a vital section of the Apostles’ Creed that may help us understand the current crisis in Christianity.
“And we believe in one catholic and apostolic Church: we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins…”
The most obvious breach of today’s Protestant (Evangelical, Baptist, Charismatic, Non-denominational, etc.) churches is the fact that the Creed says “one baptism.” Most Protestant churches, including the modern movements such as Calvary Chapel and even the more Reformed such as Sovereign Grace, reject the baptisms of the traditional churches such as the Roman, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches. This rejection puts these Baptistic churches at odds with the Creed.
A more serious breach in the Creeds has to do with what we consider “catholic.” What was the understanding of the “catholic and apostolic Church” at the time the Creeds were constructed? You will find below a number of bishops from the early Church (pre and post Nicene) describing what is meant by the term catholic. Remember that the doctrine of the Trinity as well as other orthodox doctrines is not even discussed in these passages. The reason for this is that literal separation from the Church is enough to be heretical. To leave the Church is to divide Christ and the very calling one has to eternity.
Cyprian of Carthage
“You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishops; and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priest of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is one and catholic, is not split or divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere to one another” (Letters 66:8 [A.D. 253]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chap 8 [A.D. 110])
Augustine of Hippo
“We believe in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church; for heretics and schismatics call their own congregations churches. But heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God, and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor” (Faith and Creed 10:21 [A.D. 393]).
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).
A church does not succeed from the Creeds if they are not under apostolic succession, which is clearly proven in just how the term “catholic and apostolic Church” is patristically defined. “Apostolic” never meant to refer to churches that have similar doctrines as the Apostles, even the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, the term apostolic was used in patristic times when referring to proper apostolic succession of the Episcopate (bishop), since they created and protected the doctrines and since the very calling of the Gospel hinges on the unity of the Church.
We must believe that the very office of bishop was indeed ordained by God to be as St. Ignatius says, “the voice of God” (Philad 7:1-2). Here, St. Ignatius is presupposing an epistemological phenomenon. He is not saying that God actually has an audible voice for the New Testament prophet as He did with Moses. He is saying that the invisible becomes visible through the bishop. The New Testament voice of God must manifest itself somehow to a point of being passed on from generation to generation. This involves nature! The natural man must take his natural abilities and begin to proclaim what God is saying through the canon of Scripture. The bishopric has been doing this for the past 2,000 years.
Regarding the Church being a part of the bishop’s pronouncements, Cyprian declares that the bishop is to do nothing without the advice of his presbyters and the consent of the people. He writes, “as well as a rule of discipline and manner of (church) life, requires that we, the bishops, with the clergy, and in the presence of the steadfast laity, should settle all matters by piously consulting together.”
According to ancient church history, in the very beginnings the Church had already recognized a bishop as the first among equals in order to contain the unity of the Church (1Corinthians 1:12). In St. Jerome’s view, as the Apostles passed away and the heretics began to prevail against the Church, distinguishing the very name and call of the Episcopacy was completely necessary. Not that it had to be invented of sort, but what already had been practiced by the likes of Christ’s disciples and their disciples needed to take on theological meaning. St. Jerome writes, “When every man began to think those whom he had baptized to be his own, and not Christ’s, it was decreed throughout the world that one chosen out of the presbyters should be set above the rest, to whom the care of the whole Church should appertain, that thus the seeds of division might be rooted out.”
It is very important to note that there has been no known dissension about the Episcopal form of government by any of the early fathers. Certainly if the Episcopes was an unbiblical form of polity there would have been a council to meet over such a thing, or at the very least, rebukes made! The early Church grappled over the most detailed of doctrines, and they held to an extremely high level of intelligence. It is simply an unintelligible ascertain to state that the immediate succession of Church government from the Apostles was meant to be anything else.
Modern forms of church leadership have proven themselves not to work and have only caused radical departures from the faith. The Roman Catholics have swung one way with the papacy; to which a small percentage of the Roman Catholic Church actually adhere to, and Protestants have swung to the other extreme by giving complete autonomy to churches, which has given rights to heretics.
To follow the ancient faith of Jesus is to follow what He has ordained through the Apostles and their successors, the early fathers. It’s proven itself for nearly 2,000 years! It’s called the Orthodox Church, a church not without dispute, but certainly a church without a terminal illness. Study her history. Talk with her people. Experience her worship. It is the apostolic Church!