The Catholic Church: A Friendly Discussion with Our Catholic Friends (Part 1b)

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church

A Friendly Discussion with Our Catholic Friends

(Part 1b)

  • What are the most important things
    that a Catholic needs to know?
  • What truths will a Catholic priest never tell you?
  • What are the amazing origins of the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrines?


You are about to read an unusual and enlightening presentation of the truth of God in a way that you may never have seen before.  Many people go through life, entirely oblivious to the many Scriptural truths that you will find discussed on the following pages.   We encourage you to read with an open mind, a receptive heart, and an honest spirit.

The Bible says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  Be willing to expose yourself to that divine light and walk in it.  Scripture says, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (v. 130).  Be willing to receive this spiritual light and seek the understanding it can give you.

We have attempted to be amicable in our presentation of truth in this book, showing a friendly attitude toward our Catholic acquaintances.  This is the way I would wish to be approached if I were in their spiritual shoes.  At the same time, we have attempted to be clear and forthright so that the Word of God may shine forth plainly before religious falsehood.

If you are a sincere Catholic seeker of truth, we welcome you to these pages.  God delights in the “honest and good heart” that seeks to know and do the will of God, regardless of the cost, and all for the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

–Richard Hollerman


A Brief Outline of History:

A Falling Away from the Truth of Christ


The foregoing account sounds very simple and even perfect, doesn’t it!  But sinful man was not content to allow Christ’s words and the apostles’ teachings to direct their life and belief.  Before long, many false teachings entered into the early community of believers.  Jesus had prophesied that false teachers would be like wolves and devour the flock of God by their false ways (Matthew 7:13-23).  Paul told the Ephesian leaders, “After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves [elders or overseers] men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).  This shows us that even among the Lord’s leadership (the elders or overseers), some would depart from the truth and lead some of the saints astray.  Not all of the body would apostatize but large numbers would depart from the faith.

Just as Jesus and Paul foretold, these false teachers did enter the people of God and began to teach false ways that corrupted the way of truth that God originally wanted.  Paul writes, “Keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.  For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:17-18).  Another prophecy of the coming apostasy is found in 1 Timothy 4:1-3: “The Spirit explicitly says that in latter times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.”

There are many other mentions of this coming falling away from the truth and from the original faith that was given by Jesus and the apostles (see 2 Corinthians 11:3-15; Galatians 1:7-9; Philippians 3:17-19; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:2-4; Titus 3:9-11; Hebrews 13:9; 2 Peter 3:17; 1 John 2:21-24; 4:1-6; 2 John 7, 9-11).  These verses warn us of the extensive false teaching that would assault the truth of God and lead massive numbers of the early Christians astray.  Jesus said, “At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another.  Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.  Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:10-13).  Jesus meant what He said when He warned of this coming apostasy (falling away) from the truth of Christ.

Just as Jesus and the apostles warned, false teaching came into the community of God in the first century and proliferated.  Various false teachings and apostate movements led people astray beginning in the first century and continuing in the following centuries.  This included Montanism, Ebionism, Adoptionism, Monarchianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, and other heresies.  In addition to these threats to the integrity of the people of God, there was an even more insidious danger—a corrupting influence within the main body of professing Christians!

We must not think that these false ways and false systems just went away and had nothing more to do with Christianity.  No, they claimed to be true Christians, sometimes affirming that they represented some of Christ’s own esoteric teachings that only they knew and could teach.  Sometimes there were movements in competition with the main body that claimed to be genuine Christian while accusing others of not being true to God’s will.  In fact, there were sometimes competing groups, each vying for dominance and sometimes achieving the favor of the state, thereby advancing their agenda.  With all of this discord and widespread apostasy and false teaching, along with moral compromise and extensive worldliness, we can see the need for a solid foundation—that which the original “apostles and prophets” lay and which was reflected in the inspired New Covenant writings.

Small step by small step, this internal corrupting began; then large step by large step, this process continued.  Small departures from the truth of God and from the original practice of the apostles can easily be documented in the early writings of the second, third, fourth, and later centuries.  This history makes very depressing reading!  Paul had said that false teachings had their origin in the demonic realm, that which Satan controls, and this is just what our spiritual enemy did (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:2-4; 1 John 4:1-6).  This spiritual enemy corrupted the good work of God in the lives of men and women.  He was responsible for a counterfeit “Church” that arose in the early centuries of this Christian era.  It used some of the same words used by Christ and the apostles, but this corrupting movement employed these terms with a different meaning.

Several of the early departures from the teaching and practice of Christ and the apostles are important for us to discover.  In brief, we may mention:

  1. Very early men changed the government of the church. 

At first, the arrangement of the early Christian communities was very simple.  Small groups of disciples met in private homes, considering themselves as brothers and sisters in the family of God (James 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:15).  These small assemblies that met in homes (cf. Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2), were organized very simply.  If there were qualified men in the group, they were appointed to be elders, overseers, or shepherds (these terms were used interchangeably) (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-8; 1 Peter 5:1-3).  In addition to these male leaders, there were teachers, servants (deacons), evangelists, and other workers in the body of Christ, each one serving according to the gifts that God had given them (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:8-13; 2 Timothy 4:5; Romans 12:3-8).

The distinction between the “bishop” (overseer) and the “elder” (whom they called the presbyter) occurred as early as Ignatius (cf. AD 110), whereas in the New Testament they were the same position.  “By Ignatius’s time churches in Asia Minor were ruled by the ‘three-fold ministry.’  This consisted of a single bishop (Ignatius links this authority to that of the single God), a body of presbyters (patterned on the band of apostles) and several deacons (who ‘served’ as Christ did).  This pattern became universal before the third century, though the churches of Rome and Greece had no single bishop in Ignatius’s day, nor did Alexandria until about AD 180.”[1]

By the second century, certain men began to be leaders over the local elders or overseers, calling themselves “overseers” (or bishops).  In other words, one man from among the local elders (called a “Bishop”) arose and became what might be called a “chief elder” or “chief bishop” over the others.  “The number of bishoprics varied considerably from region to region.  Numerous small communities in Asia Minor and Africa acquired their own bishops; elsewhere, for example in Gaul, the bishop of a large town would supervise the surrounding congregations.  About AD 250 the church at Rome still had only one bishop, together with forty-six presbyters, seven deacons and seven sub-deacons, as well as forty-two ‘acolytes,’ or attendants and fifty-two exorcists, readers and door-keepers.”[2]  As we can see, step by step there was a departure from the New Testament arrangement of local autonomy and simple congregational leadership shared by qualified spiritual men who were on the same level.

The Didache describes the time of transition from an itinerant, inspired ministry of apostles (missionaries?), prophets, and teachers to a local ministry, chosen by the community, of bishops and deacons. . . . The terms bishop and elder appear to have been used interchangeably in early post-apostolic Christianity, even as they appear in the New Testament.  Several sources indicate the existence of a plurality in a local church, which was also true of the elders in Jewish communities in New Testament times.[3]

We may think that the change in “church government” was of little consequence; however, this change had far-reaching consequences on the organization of the local assemblies and resulted in a hierarchical arrangement in the coming centuries that had a disastrous effect on “Christianity” as a whole.  Historian Ferguson helps to make sense of the early literature:

Ignatius appears to make exalted claims for the episcopal office.  The bishop is in the place of God, but this seems to be a matter of symbolism and should not be pressed too far.  There is no word about apostolic institution or apostolic succession for the position of the one bishop.  Ignatius’ bishop is a congregational bishop or pastor.  He functions as president or the presbytery.  What is new is Ignatius’ restriction of the word bishop to a single member of the presbytery.  This person has an identifiable distinctness which sets him apart from the presbyters with whom he works cooperatively.[4]

This change of “church government” spread rapidly:

The Ignatian pattern of one bishop and a plurality of elders and deacons spread over the churches and became the normal church order by the later second century.  Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria recognize the sole bishop in a church; nevertheless they continue to call the bishop an elder.  Evidently the bishop was still a “chief elder” or “president of the presbytery” and not a wholly distinct order.[5]

In the following decades this continued to advance.  “All aspects of leadership which belonged to the college of elders soon were exercised by the bishops.  Second-century bishops presided at worship (especially the Lord’s Supper), gave the public teaching, administered the church’s funds (especially in benevolence and hospitality), and represented the church in correspondcnce.”[6]

What of the situation in the third century?  Ferguson explains:

By the time of Origen in the third century the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons was everywhere accepted.  One statement from him suggests how monepiscopacy may have arisen: the locating of an evangelist in a given community.[7]

In the mid-second century, Hegesippus traveled from Palestine to Rome and visited various churches along the way.

[Hegesippus] associated with numerous bishops, and heard the same teaching from all.  ‘In every succession and city, what the law and the prophets and the Lord preached is faithfully followed.’ He drew up succession-lists of bishops, at least for Corinth and Rome. . . . Irenaeus, Tertullian and others in the West followed in the anti-Gnostic path mapped out by Hegesippus.  They held that the succession of bishops stemming from the apostles guaranteed, and was a guarantee of, the unbroken handing-on of the apostles’ doctrine.  Irenaeus still felt close to living tradition; only the generations of Polycarp and John separated him from Jesus.  But in fact the apostles had not appointed bishops in every church, and succession-lists of bishops were seriously unreliable.[8]

Cyprian (about AD 250) did much to advance the growing hierarchy and ecclesiasticism noticed above.  “Apostolic succession was given a new lease of life, chiefly by Cyprian.  Now the bishop became the basis and criterion of the church’s life.  Being in the church was made dependent on communion with the bishop.  Now the apostles were seen as the first bishops, and bishops were called apostles.  Succession assumed a more mechanical character.”[9]

Cyprian’s theory prevailed in the medieval West; but the East was never sold on the idea.   For Cyprian, the “one and undivided episcopate” was embodied in the provincial or pan-African councils he frequently called and presided over.  In Africa and elsewhere the provinces of the Roman Empire supplied the basis for the regions of the church.  The provincial capital normally became the ecclesiastical centre and its bishop enjoyed special status as metropolitan bishop.[10]

As we proceed with this short survey of early church history, we can see clearly the very early stages of organization that later could be seen in the Roman Catholic system, but in a much more advanced form.  In time, these “metropolitan bishops” not only ruled over one congregation, but over multiple congregations, and eventually these leaders boasted that they were chief leaders over the principle cities of the Roman Empire (such as Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus and Constantinople).

Rome came to have a leading place in early Christianity.  We know that Paul visited the city and probably died there.  Tradition also says that Peter was crucified in this capital city.  Let’s notice further why Rome came to have a prominent role and why eventually the Roman Catholic Church came to believe God’s hand was in the selection of the city as the capital of Christianity in the world.

When Irenaeus presented his succession-list for the church of Rome, he described it as: ‘the very great, very ancient and universally known church, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.’ Because Christians from all parts were found there, it was a microcosm of the whole Christian world.[11]

The words of Irenaeus are not entirely accurate since we know that the body of Christ in Rome began probably long before Paul reached there in about AD 60 or 61.  In fact, the gospel may have been established there as early as AD 30, from visitors to Jerusalem from Rome who may have returned to the Capitol city of the Empire (Acts 2:10).  Peter also probably didn’t visit the city until the AD 60s where he may have been martyred.  Thus, neither Peter nor Paul was responsible for founding the community of Christ in this city.  Yet we can see that by the time of Irenaeus (ca. AD 185-190), Rome had a special place and importance.

A remarkable number of prominent Christians made their way to Rome: Ignatius, Polycarp, Marcion, Valentinus, Tatian, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Praxeas and other Monarchians and Origen—as well as peter and Paul in the sixties. . . . Nothing boosted the prestige of Christian Rome so much as the fact that the two chief apostles were martyred there under Nero.[12]

Many of these men are even considered false teachers and heretics today, even by the Catholic Church, but the fact that so many leading people visited or had their home there did raise the importance of the city in the minds of many.  Some of the bishops of Rome came to have important positions.  In the second century, the African bishop of Rome, Victor, threatened to excommunicate the churches of Asia because they celebrated Easter on a different date than did Rome.  “The first bishop to claim a special authority derived from Peter by appealing to Matthew 16:18-19, was Stephen in his dispute with Cyprian” which was about AD 250.[13]  Although Cyprian surely didn’t regard the Roman bishop as the universal “pope,” he did see Rome as very important.  “Cyprian regarded every bishop’s seat as the ‘see of Peter,’ although he admitted that the Roman church had a special importance because it had been founded so early.”[14]  At this time, the “bishop” or Rome was certainly not considered the successor of Peter, something that came to be the bedrock of the later Roman Catholic Church.

About the time of Ambrose (ca. AD 380), his contemporary Damascus took the step toward the papacy even further:

[He] made the theory about Peter an essential part of papal doctrine.  He was the first pope to refer consistently to the church of Rome as the ‘apostolic see’ and to address bishops of other churches as ‘sons’ rather than as ‘brothers.’ Damasus’ successor, Siricius (384-99) was the first to use the ‘decretal,’ a letter of instruction modeled on the Emperor’s decree sent to provincial governors.  In using this kind of letter the pope was claiming the same kind of binding authority for himself in the church as the Emperor had in secular affairs.[15]

The successors of Siricus, Innocent I (401-17), Zosimus (417-18) and Boniface I (418-22), continued and built on the claim  to Peter’s authority, although they often ran ahead of practice.  Innocent claimed universal authority for the bishop of Rome by declaring that nothing done in the provinces could be regarded as finished until it had come to his knowledge, and that the pope’s decisions affected ‘all the churches of the world.’[16]

We can see that the position of the Bishop of Rome taking the authority over other churches and bishops arose in the latter 300s and into the 400s.  “Popes Leo I (440-61) and Gelasius I (492-96) were undoubtedly the most significant of the fifth century.”[17]

Leo set out more clearly than any before him the concept that the papacy was Peter’s own office, not only as founder but also as present ruler of the church through his servant, the pope.  Leo claimed it did not matter how unworthy any particular pope might be, as long as he was the successor of Peter and was acting according to canon law.  Gelasius I completed the papal theory of the Middle Ages.  He insisted that the emperor must guard the church but submit himself to the guidance of the pope, who was himself guided by God and St. Peter.

It followed that churchmen should not be judged in secular courts and that the pope himself could not be judged by any man.  As Gelasius put it, ‘Nobody at any time and for whatever human pretext may haughtily set himself above the office of the pope who by Christ’s order was set above all and everyone and whom the universal church has always recognized as its head.’[18]

This brings us to AD 500 and it may be said that the Roman “pope” had established himself as the successor of Peter the apostle and the head over all Christians everywhere.  Perhaps Gregory the Great, about AD 600, should be considered the height of the papacy in the early Middle Ages:

Of the approximately 180 bishops of Rome between Constantine the Great and the Reformation, none was more influential than Gregory the Great.   Indeed, the medieval papacy clearly makes its appearance with the career of this remarkable able churchman. . . . Gregory marked his period as pope by his claim to ‘universal’ jurisdiction over Christendom, notably in a controversy with the Patriarch of Constantinople over the latter’s right to use the title of ‘Ecumenical Patriarch,’ and in Gregory’s efforts to cultivate the rulers of Germanic kingdoms in western Europe. . . .

Gregory’s prolific writing resulted in the production of a basic textbook for training the medieval clergy, and increased the popularity of allegorical interpretations of the Bible, and interest in saints’ lives—the truly popular Christian literature of the Middle Ages.  He gave to early medieval Catholicism its distinctive character, stressing the cult of saints and relics, demonology, and ascetic virtues.  Finally, Gregory confirmed the authority and hierarchy of the papacy and the church, and he proclaimed the ‘Christian Commonwealth’ in which the pope and the clergy were to be responsible for ordering society.[19]

We can see that in only 300 to 400 years after the apostolic period of the first century, a dramatic change had occurred in the organization and ordering of the established “Catholic” church.  Little resemblance can be noted between the simplicity of the early house assemblies overseen by a plurality of overseers or shepherds and the highly-structured church of AD 600, in which one lone man, the Bishop of Rome, claimed universal authority over all churches and all peoples, including the Emperor.

We have seen that by the third to seventh centuries, the “Bishop” of Rome came to be looked upon as the successor of the apostle Peter and was thought to be the “Universal Bishop” by the Church in the western part of the Empire, while the “Bishop” in Constantinople came to be looked on as the chief leader in the eastern part of the empire.  What began as a very simple arrangement of local mature and spiritual men, evolved into a highly hierarchical arrangement of proud and power-hungry men who claimed the right to rule over the entire Church.  A disastrous transformation had occurred in a mere several centuries.  Thus was born the Roman Catholic Church.

  1. A radical change occurred when there was a union of Church and State

One of the departures from primitive New Testament Christianity occurred as the established church became worldly and wealthy in the third century.  As more and more “converts” were added to the church, they brought with them their former conceptions and lifestyle.

Then an amazing thing occurred.  Emperor Constantine claimed to accept Jesus as Messiah.  In 311 he and the eastern rulers Galerius and Licinius issued the Edict of Toleration, granting Christianity freedom from persecution.  In 312, Constantine claimed to win a crucial victory that convinced him to become a “Christian.”  Then, in 313, both Constantine and Emperor Licinius granted full toleration to Christianity with the Edict of Milan.  Finally, after years of severe persecution and countless deaths, Christianity was given state approval.  Constantine then defeated Licinius in 323 and became the sole ruler in the empire.[20]  In 325, Constantine—an unbaptized compromiser—called for the first ecumenical council in Nicaea.  Imagine—an unconverted, unbaptized, violent, Sun-worshiping Roman Emperor presiding over several hundred Catholic bishops!  That same year, he issued an encouragement for citizens to become Christians (or Catholics).[21]

Robert Baker describes Constantine’s influence on the persecuted church of his day:

Constantine’s adoption of Christianity was more of a political than a religious decision.  The Roman Empire was declining fast.  Its greatest need was a strong internal unity that could engender loyalty and beat off attacks from without.  Constantine proposed to achieve this unity by making Christianity the cement of the empire. . . . Constantine did not divorce himself from religious support of the pagan devotees; he retained the title of chief priest of their system and became one of the deities after his death in 337.  Some question whether Constantine truly became a Christian.  His considerable crimes, including murder, long after his alleged vision, seem hardly the acts of a Christian.

The effect of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity on the movement has been widely debated.  It led directly to the official declaration that Christianity was the state religion at the time of Emperor Theodosius (378-95).  Constantine was not responsible for all of the corruptions of Christianity from the New Testament pattern, for these had developed long before his day.  He did, however, introduce many new elements of corruption and greatly contributed to the rise of the Roman Catholic Church.[22]

It is safe to say that Constantine led the way for the great downfall or apostasy of the professing “Christian” church of the fourth century and was used to begin the disastrous wedding of church and state later in the century.  This opened the door for a myriad of corruptions that came flooding into the professing church to the point that it was far different from the “little flock” of Christ’s followers several centuries earlier (Luke 12:32).

Catholicism actually had a later beginning, in the fourth century, when Constantine unified the Roman Empire by merging paganism with Christianity.  Declaring himself Vicar of Christ, he elevated “converts” to positions of influence and authority.  These professing Christians brought their pagan rites and their gods and goddesses into the church.  In time, church councils began to exalt their traditions above Scripture and condemn their opponents, and many devout men were labeled heretics and persecuted for defending the Bible’s authority.[23]

  1. The simplicity of the early body of Christ was replaced with high organization, great affluence, elaborate ritual, human traditions, and many other corruptions. 

As we’ve said before, reading church history can be a very depressing activity.  I’ve taken a number of courses of this nature in my life and, while they can be interesting and enlightening, they also bring grief as we see how one false teaching led to another, how one corruption led to another, and how one unbiblical innovation led to even greater innovations.  If this false teaching, false practice, and false organization had been immediately condemned and excluded from the body of Christ, this history could have been a record of the triumph of right over wrong and truth over error.  Instead, in many cases, church history is the account of defeat, of accommodation, and of corruption.

The fourth century was the century of apostasy.  Although many departures from the truth of God and the will of Christ had occurred earlier—even in the first century and increasingly in the second and third centuries—it was the fourth century, at the time of Constantine, that pagan influences came flooding into the established institutional church.

The Christian church took over main pagan ideas and images.  From sun-worship, for example, came the celebration of Christ’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December, the birthday of the Sun.  Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival of 17-21 of December, provided the merriment, gift-giving and candles typical of later Christmas holidays.  Sun-worship hung on in Roman Christianity and Pope Leo I, in the middle of the fifth century, rebuked worshippers who turned round to bow to the sun before entering St. Peter’s basilica.  Some pagan customs which were later Christianized, for example the use of candles, incense and garlands, were at first avoided by the church because they symbolized paganism.

The veneration of the Virgin Mary was probably stimulated by parallels in pagan religion.  Some scholars believe that the worship of Artemis (Diana) was transferred to Mary. . . . Many people connect Mary with Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose worship had spread throughout the Empire in the Christian era.  Isis in her travels became identified with many other goddesses, including Artemis, and was the “universal mother” of later pagan religion.  The devotees of Isis, herself called “the Great Virgin” and “Mother of the God,” naturally tended to look to Mary for comfort when paganism was outlawed and their temples destroyed at the end of the fourth century.  Some of the surviving images of Isis holding the child Horus are in a pose remarkably similar to that of some early Christian madonnas. . . .[24]

The cult of saints and martyrs grew rapidly in the fourth century, another example of the blending of the old paganism with Christianity.  Chapels and even churches began to be built over the tombs of martyrs, a practice which influenced church architecture.  Competition for saintly corpses soon degenerated into a superstitious search for relics.  In parts of the East it sometimes became a fight for the bodies of saintly hermits, still alive but expected to expire shortly.  The cult arose among the people, but was approved and encouraged by the great Christian leaders of the age—Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine.  Ambrose, for instance, discovered the bodies of several forgotten saints.  The Christian historian Theodoret boasts that in many places saints and martyrs took the place of pagan gods, and their shrines the place of pagan temples.  Some saints were claimed to cure barrenness, others protected travelers, detected perjury, foretold the future, and many healed the sick.[25]

As years passed by, fleshly and pagan attitudes and policies began to prevail.  History tells us that “a dispute over the election of the bishop of Rome in the reign of Valentinian scandalized the pagan Ammianus [a pagan historian].   A bloody battle between the followers of Damascus and Ursinus left, at the end of the day’s strife, one hundred and thirty-seven dead in the basilica of Sicininus which, Ammianus noted, ‘is a Christian church.’  The historian concluded that the Roman bishopric had become a prize worth fighting for, and described the luxury of the Roman clergy: ‘enriched by offerings from women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets.’”[26]  The world had invaded the church which, by that time, was an empty shell that lacked the genuine life of Christ within.  Greed, violence, pride, and all kinds of fleshly attitudes began to prevail.  God’s desire for a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) had degenerated to the point that unholiness was the rule.

The degenerated state of the established church was reflected in the leadership.  One of the leaders of the fourth century was the renowned Ambrose.  This man was the new governor of Milan and when Auxentius, the bishop died in 373, Ambrose went to the cathedral where the people were to elect a new bishop to replace the previous one.

Suddenly a voice was heard (a child’s voice, it is said), ‘Ambrose, bishop!’   The congregation took up the cry and Ambrose found himself elected bishop, much to his surprise and against his will, for he was unbaptized and had had no church training. . . . Ambrose became bishop at the age of thirty-four and held the position for twenty-three years. He was particularly influential because Milan, rather than Rome, was at the time the Emperor’s residence in the West.[27]

In the section above, we notice how the early arrangement of individual congregations changed from a plurality of elders or overseers in each fully-developed assembly (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17) to one overseer (or bishop, to use the ecclesiastical term) over multiple congregations, then a bishop over a larger territory, and eventually an arch-bishop over still larger areas, until one man arrogated to himself the title of Universal Bishop and “Vicar of Christ on earth”!  Generally, the person who held this office has been called the “Pope” (Father) or “Holy Father.”  He had such power that he claimed the right to enthrone and dethrone secular kings in the Holy Roman Empire in Europe.  Some of these exalted religious rulers had their own mistresses and fathered children, bought and sold church offices, and lived in regal earthly splendor while their subjects were groveling in abject poverty!

The Council of Constantinople in 381 recognized the primacy of the Roman see.  The patriarch of Constantinople was given “the primacy of honor next after the Bishop of Rome,” according to the third canon of the Council of Constantinople.  This was a practical recognition of the primacy of the Roman bishop by a group of leading clerics of the church.  Emperor Valentinian III, in an edict in AD 445, recognized the supremacy of the bishop of Rome in spiritual affairs.  What the bishop would enact was to be ‘law for all.’  Thus both ecclesiastical and temporal authorities in the fourth and fifth centuries recognized the claims of the bishop of Rome to primacy in the church.[28]

We can see how this arrangement differed markedly from the simplicity of the New Testament body of believers.

Numerous foreign elements entered the main religious body that claimed to be Christian, which came to be called the “Catholic” or universal Church.  Monasticism developed in the third through sixth centuries, eventually becoming widespread during the medieval period.  This violated Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20) and it also violated His demand that Christians live in the world while remaining distinct from the world (cf. John 17:14-18; 1 Corinthians 5:9-10).  During this time, liturgy was introduced and flourished, which was very different from the common, simple, and spontaneous gatherings of Christians in the first century for worship and edification (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 12-14).

Within several centuries after the time of Christ and the apostles, the elevation of Mary grew into something very different from Biblical times.  The last time that Mary, the pure mother of Jesus, is mentioned in the canonical Scripture is in Acts 1:14, which was before the first Pentecost and the preaching of the gospel by the apostles (Acts 2).  Alan Cairns, the church historian, comments, “The veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, developed rapidly by 590 and led to the adoption of the doctrines of her immaculate conception in 1854 and her miraculous assumption to heaven in 1950.  The false interpretation of Scripture and the mass of miracles associated with Mary in the apocryphal gospels created great reverence for her.  The Nestorian and other Christological controversies of the fourth century resulted in the acceptance of her as the ‘Mother of God’ and entitled her to special honors in the liturgy.”[29]

During the period after the death of the apostles of Christ, the act of baptism quickly was changed from a simple personal expression of faith in Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12) and demonstration of repentance of sin (Acts 2:38) into an ecclesiastical ritual that was performed on a tiny infant soon after birth.  By the third century, Cyprian testifies that babies, as soon as possible, must be “baptized” to remove impurity and make them fit for heaven.  Vast changes were made in this simple act that was commanded of the Lord.  Instead of giving baptism to believing and repenting adults, baptism was given to unconscious infants.  Instead of baptism demonstrating faith and one’s commitment to Jesus as Lord and to a life of discipleship (Matt. 28:18-20; Romans 6:1-5; Colossians 2:11-13), baptism became almost a magical ceremony that miraculously saved, forgave, and regenerated a baby who had not even requested the act.

By AD 400, Augustine affirmed that unbaptized babies who died would be consigned to hell and eternal punishment.  This gave the impetus to continue this paganistic view of baptismal regeneration.  Eventually, it came to be thought that unbaptized infants would not be sent to hell, but to an imaginary place called limbo, where they would eternally be prevented from seeing the “beatific vision” of God or be in His presence.  Even the act of baptism itself changed during the period after the apostles.  By the second and third century, allowance was made to simply profusely pour water on the person rather than actually baptize (immerse or dip) the convert.  By 1311, a Catholic council stated that pouring was equal to immersion, as long as actual water was employed in the act.

As for the baptism of adults after the apostolic period, an elaborate period of instruction came to be required.  Instead of baptism occurring immediately at the time one had faith and exercised repentance, as was the case in the New Testament period (see Acts 2:38-41; 8:35-39; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 30-34; 22:16), a long period of waiting was imposed.  This period could extend to three full years, with the preferred times for the ceremony being Easter or Pentecost.  Great ritual and ceremony surrounded this act.

In the first century, the early disciples participated in a simple breaking of bread and drinking of the cup in commemoration of the body and blood in the redemptive death of Jesus, and this was called “breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42), “the Lord’s table” (1 Corinthians 10:21), or “communion” or “sharing” of the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).  Evidently, this simple remembrance of the Lord was done each Lord’s day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34).  This was a very simple and uncomplicated but significant time of remembrance for the early followers of Jesus, but eventually it was drastically changed.  One early (so-called) church father called it “the medicine of immortality,” and it came to have a mystical atmosphere surrounding it.  By the second century, it was called the Eucharist (thanksgiving).  Eventually the Church came to believe that the elements of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine actually were transformed into the literal body and blood of the Savior, a doctrine that took the name, transubstantiation.


After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, it was a part of Roman Catholic dogma that the priest’s words of consecration changed the bread and the wine into the actual body and blood of Christ.  Christ was sacrificed afresh by the priest for the benefit of the believers.  It did not matter that the cup was withheld from the believer after the twelfth century, for the body and blood were, according to Roman dogma, in each element.[30]

One of the major changes had far-reaching effects on what was once the simple body of believers in the first century.  In the early community of Christ, every Christian was looked upon as a “priest” since all believers were part of “a holy priesthood” or “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).  All true Christians were priests because they were able to approach God directly, through Jesus Christ the Mediator (Ephesians 2:18; 1 Timothy 2:5), instead of going to God through a human priest, similar to the Levitical priests under the Law of Moses.  All true believers could offer their bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), could “offer up a sacrifice of praise,” as well as participating in the sacrifice of sharing and doing good to others (Hebrews 13:15, 16).

However, probably through both Jewish influence as well as pagan influence, the Church authorities began to act like they alone had special privileges with God that the common believer didn’t have.  Eventually, only the “priest” could perform baptisms, officiated at the “mass,” conduct a marriage and funeral, and do other sacerdotal activities.  In the Catholic system that was in the process of developing, “grace is conveyed sacramentally, opus operatum, and the sacraments demand the service of a priest.  It is strictly a system of priestcraft that brings its followers under bondage and denies them the essential rights and privileges all the members of the New Testament church enjoyed.”[31]

Other innovations were introduced and grew over the early centuries of the present era.  Veneration of Catholic “saints” grew greater.  “Up to the year 300, celebrations at the grave involved only prayers for the repose of the soul of the saint; but by 590 prayer for them had become prayer to God through them.  This was accepted at the Second Council of Nicaea.”[32]  In the first century, every single true Christian was considered a “saint,” a term that meant, “separated one” or “one set apart” by God from the world to do God’s holy will (cf. Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 15:25, 26, 31).

Even church music changed during this time.  At first, “Christian music was vocal and monadic.  References to Christians singing abound in patristic literature. . . . The earliest references to Christian services mention singing but are silent about instruments.  In the fourth century, some writers took note of the difference between the non-use of instruments among Christians and their prominence in pagan sacrifices and in the Jewish temple.”[33]  “The Christian heritage of vocal music was transmitted to the Middle Ages in the west by the Gregorian chant, or plainsong.”[34]  However, instruments eventually did enter the worship.  “The organ appears to have moved from the court ceremony of the emperor to the church, but only in the west, and it is debated whether this occurred in the seventh century or the tenth.”[35]

As one reads widely in the writings of the “fathers” of the early church, then proceeds through the massive writings of the fully-developed Catholic Church, he is struck with a significant but ironic point.  In the second century, various innovations were introduced that differed from the teaching and practice of the first century body of Christ.  In the third century, we see a continuing change of doctrine and life, and by the fourth century, a further corrupting of doctrine and practice took place.  After the time of Constantine (280?-337), who professed to be a “Christian,” but whose doctrine and life denied this profession, a massive departure of the truth occurred and this multiplied even more at the time of Augustine (354-430).  From the fifth to the sixteenth century enormous numbers of false teachings, paganistic practices, human traditions, and ecclesiastical departures entirely changed “Christianity” from what Christ and the apostles taught and maintained in the first century.

These departures were sometimes based on tradition, that which was handed down from previous generations, from previous rulings of councils, and from previous writings and decrees.  “Tradition” is from the Greek paradosis (“a handing down or on”), from paradidomi (“to hand over, deliver”).[36]  In the New Testament period, “tradition” was used in both a positive and negative way.  In a positive way, Paul writes, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).  In the next chapter, Paul again uses the term: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (3:6; see 1 Corinthians 11:2).  In this case, the apostle commends and commands the believers, saying that they should accept and enforce the teachings, faith, and practices that had been “handed down” from Jesus, the apostles, and himself to the body of Christ.  This was reflected in the inspired new covenant writings, our New Testament documents.

As the centuries passed by, tradition came to have a broader meaning.  According to the Catholic Church, tradition “includes Scripture, the essential doctrines of the church, the major writings and teaching of the Fathers, the liturgical life of the church, and the living and lived faith of the whole church down through the centuries.”[37] This enabled the professing “Christian” Church through the middle ages to accept many doctrines and practices that could not be substantiated by the words of Christ or the apostles.

Some of the authorities claimed that Jesus and the apostles gave certain oral teachings that had been passed on through the centuries, while others claimed to have the Holy Spirit’s direction in understanding earlier teachings and developing them even further.  The practical problem with this procedure was that this understanding accommodated many unscriptural teachings, even doctrines that radically differed from the faith espoused by the early Christians or, to use Jude’s thought, “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).  It placed a “stamp of approval” and note of authority on these false teachings and practices that differed radically from Biblical teaching.

Our Lord warned against traditions that differed from the truth found in the Law of Moses.  When confronting the Pharisees, the Jewish religious teachers of His day, Jesus charged them: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. . . . You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9).  These scribes could cite many former teachers to substantiate their practices, but Jesus insisted that they return to God’s Law as given to Israel through Moses and the prophets.  These Pharisees were willing to accept their own human traditions more than they were willing to submit to the will of God revealed in the Word of God.  Jesus said that they were guilty of “invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (v. 13; cf. Matthew 15:6).

Before conversion, Paul (then Saul) had been “extremely zealous” for his “ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:14).  About thirty years later, Paul the apostle warned the Colossians against accepting human religious traditions: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (2:8).

This shows that Christ places the priority of His Word and His will over tradition.  The practical problem with tradition is that changes do occur over the years, and these changes tend to increase more and more as the years and centuries come and go.  It is a very complex process but the era after the apostles witnesses to the massive dependence on church tradition while a neglect of the established teaching of Christ and the apostles, reflected in the writings of the New Testament.  The apostate and compromising Church of the Middle Ages was willing to give its allegiance to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of traditions that differed markedly with the truth of Scripture.  This led to even more apostasy from the true faith of the Lord.

  1. The Middle Ages brought even greater false ways and accommodation to the world

As we proceed through the medieval period, sometimes called “the dark ages,” we see a dramatic change of focus among those claiming to be Christians.  In the first century, we know that Jesus Christ did not come to bring a worldly, political kingdom, but He stated that His was a spiritual kingdom that ruled in the hearts of His followers.  He declared, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).  By means of repentance and true salvation, people in the first century became part of the Kingdom of God: “He [God] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).  John the apostle added, “He [Christ] has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6).

The world itself was under Satan’s control!  Jesus called this spiritual enemy “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and Paul calls him “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), for “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).  The early body of Christ was in the world but not part of it; they were a counter-cultural movement of holy (separated) people whose homeland was heaven (Philippians 3:20).  As the apostate Church gained influence in the world, the leaders had visions of world domination and absolute control over earthly society.

By the time of Charlemagne (742-814), the Catholic Church held sway over the entire western empire.  “When Pope Leo III was set upon by a faction in Rome and nearly killed, he left Rome for the court of Charlemagne.  Charlemagne went back to Rome with him, and at a council the pope was cleared of the charges against him.  At a holy mass in the cathedral on Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt before the altar, the pope put the crown on Charlemagne’s head and declared that he was the emperor of the Romans.  Thus was the Roman Empire revived in the West; and new Rome, led by a Teuton, took the place of the old Roman Empire.  A universal empire existed beside a universal church.  The classical and Christian heritage was now linked in a Christian empire.”[38]

The human dream of unity of men seemed again to be realized, for Charlemagne had the largest territory under his control that any man held since the fall of the empire.  The universal spiritual empire of the papacy over men’s souls now had its counterpart in the revived Roman Empire—the empire that Charlemagne had over the physical aspect of people’s lives.  The kingdom of God was thought to have two arms: the spiritual, presided over by the pope, was to have responsibility for men’s souls; the temporal was to have responsibility for the physical well-being of man.[39]

A century later, another event expanded the Holy Roman Empire even greater.  Otto (912-73), king of the Germans, went to Rome and “Pope John XII crowned him as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 962.  Once again there was a Roman emperor to claim jurisdiction over the people of Europe as Charlemagne and the Roman emperors had done earlier.  All central Europe from the North Sea to the Adriatic was united under the German Roman Empire, which was to last until Napoleon brought about its dissolution in 1806.”[40]

The Middle Ages have been called the “Dark Ages” for a reason.  Although the Enlightenment may have been ashamed of the Middle Ages for one reason, the Christian who looks back to those centuries recognizes an abysmal spiritual darkness that covered Europe and the world.  In the first century, Paul characterized society of his day: “Walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Ephesians 4:17-19).  This is an apt description of the darkness that characterized the centuries following the apostolic and early post-apostolic eras.

However, this is flatly denied by Catholics who see the rise of Catholicism as a good thing and may lament the passing of the Holy Roman Empire, when the Roman Catholic Church held absolute control over the European nations.  The Catholic response has been: “Catholics refuse to concede that their Church became doctrinally corrupt in the Middle Ages, necessitating the Protestant Reformation.”[41]  Whitcomb says that if the Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt in doctrine, “it would mean that the gates of Hell had prevailed against it—it would mean that Christ had deceived His followers.”[42]  He goes on to justify the “worldly popes” of the Dark Ages: “The so-called worldly Popes of the Middle Ages—three in number—were certainly guilty of extravagant pomposity, nepotism and other indiscretions and sins which were not in keeping with the dignity of their high church office.”  This author goes on to reason:

The Catholic Church did NOT fall into error during the Middle Ages as some people allege, for if she had, she could not have produced those hundreds of medieval saints—saints the caliber of St. Francis, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Clare, St. Anthony, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Elizabeth and St. Vincent Ferrer (who performed an estimated 40,000 miracles).

But these claimed “saints” were not as saintly as we might imagine.  Bernard was a leading proponent of the infamous Crusades that were so misguided.  Thomas Aquinas was responsible for many definitions of doctrines that deviated from Scripture.  We also know that claimed miracles and good deeds are not ultimate gauges of God’s approval.  Only truth and righteousness can give evidence of His working in our lives.  Christ will utterly reject “many” who call Jesus Lord and who profess to have done good deeds, but Jesus will say, “Depart from Me” (Matthew 7:21-23).  Indeed, there was a massive departure from the truth of God after the apostolic period, but the people of God must have continued in hidden places within Europe and in other countries and nations to the north and south and east of Rome.  The Body of Christ continued as a small flock, often persecuted, but true to the Lord of truth.

Please check all of the articles in this series on the Catholic Church:

Part 1a

Part 1b

Part 1c

Part 2a

Part 2b

Part 2c

Part 3a

Part 3b

Part 3c

Part 4a

Part 4b

Part 4c



[1] Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 117.

[2] Ibid., p. 119.

[3] Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, Third Edition, p. 167.

[4] Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, p. 170.

[5] Ibid., p. 171.

[6] Ibid., p. 173.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Ibid., p. 118.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 119.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 192.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 193.

[18] Ibid., p. 193-194.

[19] Ibid., p. 220.

[20] Robert A. Baker, A Summary of Christian History, p. 24.

[21] The Roman Catholic Church was not fully in existence at this time, but the groundwork had been laid in the previous century or earlier for the eventual emerging of the established Catholic Church.

[22] A Summary of Christian History, p. 25.

[23] Ray Comfort, World Religions in a Nutshell, pp. 90-91.

[24] Ibid., pp. 131-132.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., pp. 138-139.

[27] Ibid., p. 139.

[28] Alan Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 151.

[29] Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 153.

[30] Alan Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 236.

[31] Alan Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 278.

[32] Ibid., p. 154.

[33] Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, pp. 630-631.

[34] Ibid., p. 632.

[35] Ibid.

[36] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

[37] R. P. McBrien, Catholicism,  p. 1258.

[38] Alan Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 181.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 190.

[41] Paul Whitcomb, The Catholic Church has the Answer, p. 8.

[42] Ibid., p. 9.

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