[written in 1996]
In the Nicene Creed, which is accepted by most Christians, the Christian Church is described as being "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." These are known as the four marks of the Church. The notions of holiness and catholicity are not much in dispute. The mark of holiness may be defined as the possession, and dissemination of the sublime, holy, Christ-centered moral code of Christianity (as best exemplified by saints or otherwise great, godly figures). All parties - while disagreeing on many particulars - concur that this is a central function of the Church. Catholicity simply means universal. Here Protestants and Catholics disagree only on the nature of that Church which is to be considered universal and all-encompassing.
This brings us to the oneness and apostolicity of the Church, where the disagreements are great indeed. Most Protestants (especially evangelicals) see unity and oneness subsisting primarily or solely in the inner, invisible, spiritual unity of those who are in fact in Christ by virtue of being justified, or born again, or regenerated (with or without baptism, depending on denomination). For them, the church consists of the Spirit-filled, predestined elect, who will persevere and are saved, now and in eternity.
The Catholic Church has always proclaimed this unifying characteristic also, under the broad and rich concept of the Mystical Church (under which it acknowledges Protestantism), yet it doesn't pit the Mystical Church against the institutional, or visible Church, as most evangelicals do. For Catholics, then, the issue of oneness is substantially related to organizational and practical aspects of ecclesiology. Catholics believe that the Church is both organism and organization, not merely the former. The Mystical and visible "churches" are like two circles which largely intersect, but which are not synonymous. They exist together - somewhat paradoxically and with tension - until the "end of the age." But what kind of organization is this Church, which includes within itself these two aspects (as well as many others)?
At this point in the discussion Catholics appeal to the hierarchical, or episcopal (that is, under the jurisdiction of bishops) nature of Church government. Furthermore, Catholics maintain that this form is divinely-instituted and biblical, therefore not optional or of secondary theological importance.
Finally, Catholics believe that bishops are - by the intention of Jesus Christ - the successors of the Apostles (the concept of apostolic succession). This is the methodology whereby the Catholic Church traces itself back historically in an unbroken succession to the Apostles and the early Church. Catholicism thus greatly emphasizes both historical and doctrinal continuity, whereas evangelical Protestants are more concerned with maintaining the passion and intense commitment and zeal of the Apostles and early Christians, and are less interested in governmental forms or doctrines which are now regarded as Catholic "distinctives." They tend to see clearly in the Bible and early Church those doctrines with which they agree, but overlook those which are more in accordance with Catholicism, such as the episcopacy, purgatory, and apostolicity.
We shall examine the marks of the Church with which Protestants (despite many exceptions) largely disagree: its visibility, the hierarchy of bishops, apostolic succession, and related issues such as ordination, the duties of priests, and sectarianism. Most of these questions are concerned ultimately with authority per se. Protestants emphasize biblical authority, and Catholics ecclesiastical and episcopal leadership, and Tradition. But if the Bible points to and encourages submission to the latter, then the two types of authority cannot (biblically) be opposed.
One of the undeniable aspects of unity and oneness in the Bible is the constant warning (especially in the writings of St. Paul) against (and prohibition of) divisions, schism, and sectarianism, either by command, or by counter-example (Matthew 12:25, 16:18, John 10:16, 17:20-23, Acts 4:32, Romans 13:13, 16:17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:3-4, 10:17, 11:18-19, 12:12-27, 14:33, 2 Corinthians 12:20, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:3-6, Philippians 1:27, 2:2-3, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Titus 3:9-10, James 3:16, 2 Peter 2:1). This is clearly no trifling matter. Our Lord even makes unity a means by which the world might believe that the Father sent the Son (John 17:21,23), and prays that it will be as profound as the unity of the Trinity itself (John 17:21-22). St. Paul makes stirring up division a grounds for virtual exclusion from the Christian community (Romans 16:17), and says that divisions (in effect) divide Christ (1 Corinthians 1:13). This has always been one of the strengths of the Catholic position over against Protestantism, and Protestants are themselves increasingly alarmed over what they consider to be a scandalous concurrence between denominationalism and sectarianism, which all agree is condemned in Scripture.
One of the sincere and seemingly reasonable grounds for forming a new sect is the desire to separate from sinners and sin, which may be infecting the group left. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that the Church (especially in its institutional sense) is comprised of both saints and sinners, good and bad. We see this most indisputably in several parables of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven (that is, the Church), such as the wheat and the weeds (or tares), where Jesus says that they will grow together until the final Judgment, or harvest time (Matthew 13:24-30; cf. Matthew 3:12). He compares the Church to a fishnet which draws good and bad fish, ultimately separated (Matthew 13:47-50), and a marriage banquet, from which one guest was cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). This parable ends with the famous phrase, "Many are called, but few are chosen," which may be interpreted as the distinction between lukewarm, or dead, or nominal Christians and the actual elect who will be saved in the end. Both are present in the Church, according to Jesus. A similar state of affairs is seen in the parables of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). And Jesus' description of Christians and the Church as a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14; cf. 5:15-16), is an obvious reference to the visibility of the Church. In no way can this city be regarded as invisible.
Jesus chose Judas as His disciple, even though He knew the future, and he was truly an Apostle (Matthew 10:1,4, Mark 3:14, John 6:70-71, Acts 1:17). Likewise, St. Paul, in addressing elders (Acts 20:17) states that the Holy Spirit Himself has made them bishops (RSV, guardians, Greek, episkopos - Acts 20:28), yet from among these very same men, heretics and schismatics would arise (Acts 20:30). He echoes this thought in the parable-like verse 2 Timothy 2:20 (see also 2:15-19).
Protestants often cite Jesus' analogy of sheep and shepherd (John 10:1-16; cf. 2 Timothy 2:19, 1 John 2:19), who know each other (10:14), as evidence that the Church consists of the elect only. Yet the analogy breaks down when we find that Scripture also applies the term sheep to the unsaved reprobate (Psalm 74:1), the straying (Psalm 119:176), Israel as a nation (Ezekiel 34:2-3,13,23,30), and, indeed, all men (Isaiah 53:6).
Other passages which presuppose a visible, identifiable, "concrete" Church include Matthew 18:15-17, in which believers are exhorted by our Lord to take errant and obstinate brothers to the church, which will then determine the appropriate verdict. It would be contrary to the tenor of the New Testament if this were a reference to a local church alone - even apart from the utterly impractical consequences of such a scenario (where the sinner would simply attend another denomination and move on with his life, as is tragically all too often the case today).
And St. Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:15, describes the "church of the living God" as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." This statement is similarly almost nonsensical in the context of competing and often contradictory denominations. Where would a sincere, uninformed, unsophisticated religious seeker go to find this certain truth? Only within the sphere of a serious attempt at actual visible oneness of doctrine can this verse attain any pragmatic possibility.
It is also incorrect to regard St. Paul as some kind of spiritual "lone ranger," on his own with no particular ecclesiastical allegiance, since he was commissioned by Jesus Himself as an Apostle. In his very conversion experience, Jesus informed Paul that he would be told what to do (Acts 9:6; cf. 9:17). He went to see St. Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days in order to be confirmed in his calling (Galatians 1:18), and fourteen years later was commissioned by Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:1-2,9). He was also sent out by the Church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-4), which was in contact with the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:19-27). Later on, Paul reported back to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28).
The New Testament refers basically to three types of permanent offices in the Church (Apostles and Prophets were to cease): bishops (episkopos), elders (presbyteros, from which are derived Presbyterian and priest), and deacons (diakonos). Bishops are mentioned in Acts 1:20, 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 2:25. Presbyteros (usually elder) appears in passages such as Acts 15:2-6, 21:18, Hebrews 11:2, 1 Peter 5:1, and 1 Timothy 5:17. Protestants view these leaders as analogous to current-day pastors, while Catholics regard them as priests. Deacons (often, minister in English translations) are mentioned in the same fashion as Christian elders with similar frequency (for example, 1 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
As is often the case in theology and practice among the earliest Christians, there is some fluidity and overlapping of these three vocations (for example, compare Acts 20:17 with 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with Titus 1:5-9). But this doesn't prove that three offices of ministry did not exist. For instance, St. Paul often referred to himself as a deacon or minister (1 Corinthians 3:5, 4:1, 2 Corinthians 3:6, 6:4, 11:23, Ephesians 3:7, Colossians1:23-25), yet no one would assert that he was merely a deacon, and nothing else. Likewise, St. Peter calls himself a fellow elder (1 Peter 5:1), whereas Jesus calls him the rock upon which He would build His Church, and gave him alone "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:18-19). These examples are usually indicative of a healthy humility, according to Christ's injunctions of servanthood (Matthew 23:11-12, Mark 10:43-44).
Upon closer observation, clear distinctions of office appear, and the hierarchical nature of Church government in the New Testament emerges. Bishops are always referred to in the singular, while elders are usually mentioned plurally. The primary controversy among Christians has to do with the nature and functions of both bishops and elders (deacons have largely the same duties among both Protestants and Catholics).
Catholics contend that the elders/presbyters in Scripture carry out all the functions of the Catholic priest:
1) Sent and Commissioned by Jesus (the notion of being called): Mark 6:7, John 15:5, 20:21, Romans 10:15, 2 Corinthians 5:20.
2) Representatives of Jesus: Luke 10:16, John 13:20.
3) Authority to "Bind" and "Loose" (Penance and Absolution): Matthew 18:18 (compare Matthew 16:19).
4) Power to Forgive Sins in Jesus' Name: Luke 24:47, John 20:21-23, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, James 5:15.
5) Authority to Administer Penance: Acts 5:2-11, 1 Corinthians 5:3-13, 2 Corinthians 5:18, 1 Timothy 1:18-20, Titus 3:10.
6) Power to Conduct the Eucharist: Luke 22:19, Acts 2:42 (compare Luke 24:35, Acts 2:46, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 10:16).
7) Dispense Sacraments: 1 Corinthians 4:1, James 5:13-15.
8) Perform Baptisms: Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38,41.
9) Ordained: Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:23.
10) Pastors (Shepherds): Acts 20:17,28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1-4.
11) Preach and Teach: 1 Timothy 3:1-2, 5:17.
12) Evangelize: Matthew 16:15, 28:19-20, Mark 3:14, Luke 9:2,6, 24:47, Acts 1:8.
13) Heal: Matthew 10:1, Luke 9:1-2,6.
14) Cast Out Demons: Matthew 10:1, Mark 3:15, Luke 9:1.
15) Hear Confessions: Acts 19:18 (compare Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5, James 5:16, 1 John 1:8-9; presupposed in John 20:23).
16) Celibacy for Those Called to it: Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:7-9,20,25-38 (especially 7:35).
17) Enjoy Christ's Perpetual Presence and Assistance in a Special Way: Matthew 28:20.
Protestants - following Luther - cite 1 Peter 2:5,9 (see also Revelation 1:6) in order to prove that all Christians are priests. But this doesn't exclude a specially-ordained, sacramental priesthood, since St. Peter was reflecting the language of Exodus 19:6, where the Jews were described in this fashion. Since the Jews had a separate Levitical priesthood, by analogy 1 Peter 2:9 cannot logically exclude a New Testament ordained priesthood. These texts are concerned with priestly holiness, as opposed to priestly function. The universal sense, for instance, never refers to the Eucharist or sacraments. Every Christian is a priest in terms of offering the sacrifices of prayer (Hebrews 13:15), almsgiving (Hebrews 13:16), and faith in Jesus (Philippians 2:17).
Bishops (episkopos) possess all the powers, duties, and jurisdiction of priests, with the following important additional responsibilities:
1) Jurisdiction over Priests and Local Churches, and the Power to Ordain Priests: Acts 14:22, 1 Timothy 5:22, 2 Timothy 1:6, Titus 1:5.
2) Special Responsibility to Defend the Faith: Acts 20:28-31, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Titus 1:9-10, 2 Peter 3:15-16.
3) Power to Rebuke False Doctrine and Excommunicate: Acts 8:14-24, 1 Corinthians 16:22, 1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:10-11.
4) Power to Bestow Confirmation (the Receiving of the Indwelling Holy Spirit): Acts 8:14-17, 19:5-6.
5) Management of Church Finances: 1 Timothy 3:3-4, 1 Peter 5:2.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), episkopos is used for overseer in various senses, for example: officers (Judges 9:28, Isaiah 60:17), supervisors of funds (2 Chronicles 34:12,17), overseers of priests and Levites (Nehemiah 11:9, 2 Kings 11:18), and of temple and tabernacle functions (Numbers 4:16). God is called episkopos at Job 20:29, referring to His role as Judge, and Christ is an episkopos in 1 Peter 2:25 (RSV: "Shepherd and Guardian of your souls").
The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) bears witness to a definite hierarchical, episcopal structure of government in the early Church. St. Peter, the chief elder (the office of pope) of the entire Church (1 Peter 5:1; cf. John 21:15-17), presided and issued the authoritative pronouncement (15:7-11). Then James, bishop of Jerusalem (kind of like the host-mayor of a conference) gives a concurring (Acts 15:14), concluding statement (15:13-29). That James was the sole, "monarchical" bishop of Jerusalem is fairly apparent from Scripture (Acts 12:17, 15:13,19, 21:18, Galatians 1:19, 2:12). This fact is also attested by the first Christian historian, Eusebius (History of the Church, 7:19).
Much historical and patristic evidence also exists for the bishopric of St. Peter at Rome. No one disputes the fact that St. Clement (d.c.101) was the sole bishop of Rome a little later, or that St. Ignatius (d.c.110) was the bishop at Antioch, starting around 69 A.D. Thus, the "monarchical" bishop is both a biblical concept and an unarguable fact of the early Church. By the time we get to the mid-second century, virtually all historians hold that single bishops led each Christian community. This was to be the case in all Christendom, east and west, until Luther transferred this power to the secular princes in the 16th century, and the Anabaptist tradition eschewed ecclesiastical office either altogether or in large part. Today many denominations have no bishops whatsoever.
One may concede all the foregoing as true, yet deny apostolic succession, whereby these offices are passed down, or handed down, through the generations and centuries, much like Sacred Tradition. But this belief of the Catholic Church (along with Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) is also grounded in Scripture:
St. Paul teaches us (Ephesians 2:20) that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles, whom Christ Himself chose (John 6:70, Acts 1:2,13; cf. Matthew 16:18). In Mark 6:30 the twelve original disciples of Jesus are called apostles, and Matthew 10:1-5 and Revelation 21:14 speak of the twelve apostles. After Judas defected, the remaining eleven Apostles appointed his successor, Matthias (Acts 1:20-26). Since Judas is called a bishop (episkopos) in this passage (1:20), then by logical extension all the Apostles can be considered bishops (albeit of an extraordinary sort).
If the Apostles are bishops, and one of them was replaced by another, after the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, then we have an explicit example of apostolic succession in the Bible, taking place before 35 A.D. In like fashion, St. Paul appears to be passing on his office to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1-6), shortly before his death, around 65 A.D. This succession shows an authoritative equivalency between Apostles and bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles. As a corollary, we are also informed in Scripture that the Church itself is perpetual, infallible, and indefectible (Matthew 16:18, John 14:26, 16:18). Why should the early Church be set up in one form and the later Church in another?
All of this biblical data is harmonious with the ecclesiological views of the Catholic Church. There has been some development over the centuries, but in all essentials, the biblical Church and clergy and the Catholic Church and clergy are one and the same.
The historical evidence of the earliest Christians after the Apostles and the Church Fathers is quite compelling as well: there exists virtually unanimous consent as to the episcopal, hierarchical, visible nature of the Church, which proceeds authoritatively down through history by virtue of Apostolic Succession.
St. Clement, bishop of Rome (d.c.101), teaches apostolic succession, around 80 A.D. (Epistle to Corinthians, 42:4-5, 44:1-3), and St. Irenaeus is a very strong witness to, and advocate of this tradition in the last two decades of the 2nd century (Against Heresies, 3:3:1,4, 4:26:2, 5:20:1, 33:8). Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, in his History of the Church, c.325, begins by saying that one of the "chief matters" to be dealt with in his work is "the lines of succession from the holy apostles . . ." (tr. G.A. Williamson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, 31).
With regard to the threefold ministry of bishop, priest (elder/presbyteros), and deacon, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, offers remarkable testimony, around 110 (Letter to the Magnesians, 2, 6:1, 13:1-2, Letter to the Trallians, 2:1-3, 3:1-2, 7:2, Letter to the Philadelphians, 7:1-2, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8:1-2 - the last also being the first reference to the "Catholic Church"). St. Clement of Rome refers to the "high priest" and "priests" of Christians around 96 (1 Clement, 40). Other prominent early witnesses include St. Hippolytus (Apostolic Tradition, 9) and St. Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis, 6:13:107:2), both in the early third century.
Even John Calvin, contrary to many of his later followers, taught that the Church was visible and a "Mother" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV,1,1; IV,1,4; IV,1,13-14), the wrongness of sectarianism and schism (IV,1,5; IV,1,10-15), and that the Church includes sinners and "hypocrites" (IV,1,7; IV,1,13-15 - he cites Matthew 13:24-30,47-58). His difference with Catholics here is that he defines the visible Church as his own Reformed Church.