One Wednesday night, during an innocent-enough Bible-Study, I lodged myself into debate with a Pastor.
A preacher of the Restoration Movement, he was asked whether the original Christians were something like Catholics and vehemently insisted that “No Catholic Church even existed before the 500’s AD”. According to his reasoning, neither did popes exist before this time. My ill-fated debate got nowhere yet I recalled a few points made. One look at any book on Christian History will remarkably contradict these claims (unless it is a Restorationist book).
Here is some of my research: The first time the term “Catholic” is actually used to describe the Christian community appears in 150 AD, within a letter by none other than Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius, for those who don’t know him, was a Christian bishop or elder that preached on themes of unity, obedience, and Christ-like sacrifice. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, he states: “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is; there is the Catholic Church.” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 8:2).
The word catholic derives from Greek, “katolikos” meaning “universal”. Ignatius meant to describe a church across national boundaries and holding a unified body of doctrine. This is rooted in Biblical exhortations for Christ’s followers to be “one in body and spirit” (see Ephesians 4:4-6) Evidently, a church that was “catholic” in body, doctrine and spirit existed since the 1st century AD. Ignatius and those coming after him merely articulated widely-accepted Christian belief.
Same is in the case with popes. There’s evidence that from very early on, a visible head of the Church existed. They were not always called “popes” as the word “pope” comes from an Italian name, “papa” for “father”. Allow me to state the obvious: that claiming popes never existed because the Bible addresses no one as pope is akin to saying there is no Trinitarian Godhead, for in Scripture, no mention appears of a “Trinity”. If the good Pastor would only pry, he’d see that the ministry of the pope as Bishop of Rome traces itself back to Scripture. Soon as the Gospel of Jesus reached Rome, a church-elder was planted there.
Consequently, the only bishop presiding in Rome that’s implied by Scripture is the apostle, Simon Peter- the very man many Christians deny ever set foot in Rome. This denial is mistaken- not Scriptural, for in his letter, Peter himself tells us he’s writing from the church in Babylon. Because long ago, Babylonians took the Jewish people into captivity and forced their culture upon them, Jews in New Testament times referred to the occupying, Roman Empire as “Babylon”. Also, the Book of Revelations calls Rome: “Babylon the Great” referring to its all-powerful, pagan culture of Emperor-worship. (chapters 17 and 18).
Maybe the Pastor didn’t clearly understand what a “pope” does anyhow? In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope’s job is to guide the universal congregation, preside over councils and teach truth on issues regarding faith and morality. According to this definition, the apostle Peter in Scripture certainly has what one could describe as a “pope-like” role.
First, he receives from Jesus, the name “Kephas” meaning “rock” (Matthew 16:18) and is told by the Messiah: “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
The apostle then plays a dominant role, being told to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32) and feed Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-17).
Peter preaches the first sermon in Acts 1:14-36, presides over the replacement of Judas (Acts 1:22) and proclaims that Christian faith is opened to the Gentiles in Acts, chapter 10.
If Peter wasn’t a pope, he surely behaved like one to the newborn, Christian church.
Because Restorationists, like other Christian denominations, do not want to accept a central authority in the church, nether less to agree with Catholics, they claim that no one apostle held primacy. In their view, if Peter seems head-of-church in the book of Acts, it’s because the Bible has been misinterpreted. Early Christian writers mention Peter as the main pillar of the church, along with apostle, Paul (Letter to Corinth, Clement 5:1-5). Both apostles are documented by historians to have died in Rome. Writing at about 256 AD, Cyprian, an elder from Carthage, calls “The seat of Peter” the place from which “apostolic faith derived.” (Epistle 59:14) Augustine, perhaps the most famed Christian writer of all, claims that Rome always gets the last-word. (Sermones 131).
Were early Christians in error? Does the Restorationist Pastor interpret Scripture perfectly? If so, why do his beliefs clash so badly with documented beliefs of the Early Church? In order to accept some doctrines, one must conclude the early church was deeply mistaken. Whose testimony should you trust, that of men instructed by Christ’s own apostles or that from a modern, breakaway sect? Knowing that Christ promised his infant church, “the Spirit to guide in all truth,” (John 16:13) do you want to risk it?