The Early Church—Catholic Church Connection


The Early Church—Catholic Church Connection

Is it Really True?

Richard Hollerman

Modern Catholicism of the twenty-first century makes the claim that the same church about which Jesus spoke is the very church we know as the Roman Catholic Church. Is this true?

We know that you may be a devoted Catholic, observing all of its precepts and loyal to the Roman bishop. Maybe you attended Catholic schools through high school, have read Catholic literature, and gone on Catholic retreats. All of this time, you were told and assumed to be true that the Catholic religion is indeed the Church that Christ established 1,000 years ago. You have been told that there is a clear line of succession through the Roman bishop (pope), from the first century until the present day. Thus there is no doubt in your mind about the Catholic claim to be Christ’s church on earth. But is all of this true? Or are we dealing with ideas that constitute a foundation on the sand? Let’s explore this idea and see what God’s truth says about it.

On a superficial level, we can understand why a belief that the Catholic Church is Christ’s church can be made. Commonly, Catholic historians, theologians, and churchmen say that there is a clear and unbroken connection between the first century church and the Roman church today. They say that this is elementary and self-evident to any unbiased observer. They cite a list of bishops that extends back to Peter himself that seems to verify their assertion. Could it be that this belief is fool-proof, one that exalts the Roman Catholic Church as Christ’s own church?

The Lord Jesus asked several of His disciples (apostles), “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered the Lord, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). Christ then went on to explain: “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (vv. 17-19).

Jesus said that God had revealed to Peter the fact of the Lord’s deity (that He was the Christ, the Son of God). The next verse is quite controversial but it is one of the foundational beliefs of Catholicism—that Jesus built His church on Peter, the Rock. Some of the early “fathers” (early church writers) did think that Jesus had reference to Peter, while others rejected such an idea.

On the other hand, evidently the “rock” to which Jesus referred could very well refer to the bed rock (according to the Greek) foundation of what Peter had confessed (that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, Matthew 16:16) or perhaps to Christ Himself (also known as the rock—1 Corinthians10:4; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:6-8).

The “gates of Hades” would not prevail over Christ’s church (assembly or community). “The entrance into Hades, which is physical death, i.e., the physical death of Christ (mentioned immediately in v. 21) will not impede the progress of the church simply because He would be raised from the dead” (NASB Study Bible note)  In other words, Jesus would overcome death (hades) and go on to begin and sustain His body—beginning at Pentecost and on through time.

We might also notice that Peter did use the “keys” of the kingdom (that which opens) in order to “open” the kingdom to Jews on Pentecost (Acts 2) and to Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10-11). While Peter in the future would “bind” and “loose” what God had already bound and loosed (Matthew 16:19), but this same privilege was given to others two chapters later (Matthew 18:18).

It would appear that the main support for the idea that the church was founded by Peter in Rome is not really saying what Catholicism would like for it so say—or mean. The Catholic Church further reasons that Peter appointed another man to be bishop before he died, and this person appointed another one, and so forth down to the present day (this is technically called “apostolic succession”).

This false idea is promulgated in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church: “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority.’ Indeed, ‘the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time’” (p. 25). We can see how this unrealistic and false view led to the deceptive and misleading belief that if a church can trace it’s “ancestry” back to the apostles (Peter in particular), that guarantees its present status as Christ’s Church!

The problem with this (and there are many problems) is that there is no indication that any of the apostles were to appoint another person to “fill the shoes” of the original apostles (see Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). In fact, there are many reasons why  bishops were not successors to the apostles (cf. Acts 1:21-26). The apostles (Greek, “messengers sent forth”) were a unique group of men specifically chosen (John 15:16) to be part of the foundation of God’s people. After the foundation was laid in about AD 30 on Pentecost, there was no more reason to have additional apostles. Only one apostle was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1).

By the way, all of the apostles were married (1 Corinthians 9:5) and bishops were required to be married (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Further, “Bishop” actually means “overseer” and those who filled this position were limited to one single congregation—not a group of them, much less a worldwide super-church!  It is also noteworthy that in the primitive assembly the “overseer” is the same as the “shepherd” (or “pastor”) or the “elder” (presbyter) (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-2; Titus 1:5, 7).

As part of this problem with succession, the Catholic Church says that the Roman bishop (the “pope”) is the universal head of the church! “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 234). If the single Roman “pope” has such undisputed and universal authority, what about those bishops around him? “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff. Peter’s successor, as its head.” As such, this college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.” (Ibid.).

This is far, far removed from the New Testament plan, as interested Bible scholars can plainly see. The early overseers (bishops, shepherds/pastors, elders) were always in the plurality and limited to a single house assembly. They met specific qualifications and were not succeeded by any other. Rather, these leaders were appointed according to the need, location, and qualifications (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Ephesians 2:20; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-3). There was (and is) only one “head” of the church, not two (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; 5:22-23).

Thus, as preposterous as this false teaching and practice of succession is, over one billion Catholics in the world today follow a religious man (who claims to be a chief bishop, called the “pope”) and assume that this is something that Christ Himself ordained 2,000 years ago. Can we understand now how this idea has been perpetuated through the years without Biblical support! Today the Roman simply assumes that this is true, without first-century apostolic teaching to this effect.

The question that we must ask now is this: Didn’t Christ’s “church” continue on and on through the centuries, from the time of Pentecost until today? This belief has always seemed strange to me for there are elements of this that are patently false.

While Catholic historians and theologians may produce a list of official “bishops” (originally compiled by Irenaeus of France), beginning with Peter until modern times, what does such a compilation prove?  Even if the names of the first two centuries were correct (and this is problematic), it doesn’t really prove anything. It just shows that there is a descent from the first century to the twenty-first century. Does this establish the belief that modern Catholicism is identical to the body of Christ in the first century? It surely doesn’t.

Yet the Roman Church asserts that it “perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is and all that she believes” (according to Vatican II, Encyclopedia of Catholicism, p. 77). This is basic to Catholic understanding: “The Church is also apostolic in that she preserves and teaches the Deposit of Faith which was Christ’s gift to His disciples” (Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 89).

Several of the official “Marks of the Church” (Catholic Source Book, p. 215) further explain the problem here:

  • Antiquity, tracing ancestry directly to Christ
  • Duration, lasting substantially unchanged for centuries
  • Episcopal succession, from the twelve apostles to the current hierarchy
  • Doctrinal agreement between current teaching and apostolic Church


You see, there is a disconnect here. Modern Catholicism is so different, so utterly unlike the early Christians (in belief and practice) that contemporary Catholicism is unrecognizable! We acknowledge that there is a line of leaders that goes back to the second century (not the first). However, the doctrines of the Roman Church have certainly not been “substantially unchanged for centuries.”  The doctrine of “apostolic succession” is not founded on the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. And there is a vast difference between Rome’s “current teaching” and the “apostolic Church” of the first century. Such “marks of the church” are misleading and utterly faulty.

Consider this illustration. Suppose that a person had a 1915 Ford automobile parked on his driveway and beside it was a 2015 model.  One could theoretically say that the 2015 Ford is identical to the 1915 one, but everyone would know that those cars are not the same. While they have the same name, they are not the same The Fort Motor Company has changed their models year by year, adding and discontinuing many features, so that there are no parallels between them—other than the fact that both cars have wheels, seats, and a steering wheel. Thus, there are massive differences! They are not the same car!

Similarly, although one could give names and dates of certain early church leaders or “bishops, we see an unbridgeable gulf between the current “reigning pope” and the early humble apostles and overseers in Christ’s body. A connection is clear, but modern Catholicism is utterly unlike the small home groups of saints of the first century. When one compares the vast false teachings of medieval and contemporary Catholicism with the truth Jesus gave to His body in the first century, we see a enormous difference that cannot be ignored.

How does the Roman Catholic Church support such a strange and unreasonable doctrine and practice that is essential to its ecclesiastical system?  If modern Catholicism is not the body of Christ and is very far from it, how did the authentic body of Christ (or assembly of God) of the first century transform into the hierarchical, ostentatious, and doctrinally unsound super-church of today that we know as the Catholic Church?  Just as the 1915 Ford was changed into the 2015 Ford through continual, small, yearly changes, in a similar manner theological and doctrinal changes began and continued in the body of Christ from the first century to the twenty-first century. Along the way, the reality was changed into a counterfeit.

For instance, by Augustine’s day (ca AD 400), he and others taught that an unbaptized baby would go to hell. But even earlier, Cyprian (ca AD 250) taught that a baby should be baptized by the third day after birth. There are also indications that by Origin’s day (ca AD 240), Tertullian’s day (ca AD 200), and possibly even Irenaeus‘ day (ca. AD 190) baby baptism was introduced into the existing church!  This changed a significant and meaningful act of repentant faith of the first century (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5), into a religious ceremony performed for the benefit of an unconscious infant!

What we have said about this false teaching and practice could be said about dozens of other innovations and digressions, such as purgatory, prayer to the dead, prayer on behalf of the dead, Mariolatry, the bishop system, the office of “pope,” monasteries, celibacy for the clergy, the clergy-laity distinction, confirmation, holy orders, and numerous others! Some suggest that by the time of Constantine (AD 325) the church as a whole had apostatized, but we do see signs of this as early as the second century, where false beliefs, false practices, false teachings began and eventually prevailed. Something unrecognizable had occurred in only a few centuries after Christ.

While Catholicism may be able to trace certain of their doctrines to the first several centuries and the teachings of some of the early church “fathers,” we can’t overlook the fact that many of these were blatantly opposed to the clear teaching and practice of the early believers.

Here is another point we must keep in mind. There have been about 265 “popes” according to Rome’s reckoning. (We realize that the first ones listed were not really “popes” in the modern day sense.) Catholics will admit that some of these have been violent, deceptive, immoral, and utterly unchristian in belief and character. But suppose that one of these bishops proved false, the succession line would be broken! Further, if one of these was an imposter and not truly Christian (which we know to be a fact), how could he pass on the succession from Peter?

As a matter of fact, since infant baptism is unfounded in Scripture (nearly everyone will admit that the New Testament is silent on the practice), and since the Roman Church claims that one is forgiven, saved, born again, and becomes a member of the Church in baptism, this would say that the vast majority of the men on the official succession list, especially after about AD 200, were not even genuine Christians! How could these unsaved men pass on the “Deposit of Faith” unchanged? How could the very foundation of Catholicism stand?

We know that countless warnings were given by Christ and His apostles that false teachers would appear and lead many astray. “See to it that no one misleads you” Matthew 24:4). “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many” (v. 11). Later, Paul warned his converts from Ephesus, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

Paul concludes his letter to the Romans with another warning: “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” (16:17-18). The apostle writes to the Corinthians that “your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). He said that a false teacher might preach “another Jesus” and they might receive “a different spirit” or “a different gospel” (v. 4). Some “false apostles” and “deceitful workers” even went so far as to  disguise themselves as “apostles of Christ” (vv. 13-15). Paul said that in Galatia some were “disturbing” the saints and “want to distort the gospel of Christ,” and such people are to be accursed (Galatians 1:7-8). The apostle likewise warned of false teachers in Philippi (Philippians 3:17-18), and he warns the saints in Colossae that “no one will delude you with persuasive argument” (Colossians 2:4; cf. v, 8).

Several years later, Paul wrote, “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-3). He said that some men had accepted false doctrines and “thus gone astray from the faith” (6:20-21). He further tells us that some “will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Some will hold to “a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (3:5). The Hebrew writer says, “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings” (13:9). John the apostle also warned his readers: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-6).

In an amazingly clear warning, Peter says, “False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you; who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1-3). Jude then speaks of such teachers who had already entered the assemblies: “Certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Mater and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

As you can see, the inspired Word of God is replete with warnings that false teachers, false prophets, deceivers, and counterfeits would lead many astray and corrupt the simplicity of Scriptural truth, thereby changing the beliefs and practices of God’s people. Some would date this at about AD 325 (the Nicean Council), while others would point to great apostasy a century or more earlier.

We acknowledge that many of these warnings and statements must refer to false teachers and teachings that were entering the believing community of the first century and this continued for the following centuries. Gnosticism was an amalgamation of various strands (Jewish, pagan, etc.) that became a great competitor of true Christianity in the second and third centuries. Thanks to some of the early leaders in the church, they were able to stem the tide of this false teaching. A number of other false ways arose in the first, second, third, and fourth centuries, and evidently the apostles and Jesus Himself had reference to some of these.

However, subtle changes were occurring in the established churches of the first century, and this accelerated into the first and second halves of the second century. It continued unabated into the third century, and by the time of Augustine false teachings and false ways had virtually swallowed up the original faith of Christ. We must remember that Satan was not able to destroy God’s people, for they continued on and on, here and there, underground, in various countries on earth, away from the mainstream church that was becoming more and more corrupt and more and more removed from the original simplicity of the first century, when the body was under the direct supervision of the original apostles.

The apostles were the foundation of the household of God (Ephesians 2:20) and Christ used them in a special way to communicate truth (Ephesians 3:5; Cf. John 14:26; 16:12-14), When they passed from the scene, Satan made every effort to lead God’s people astray by turning them away from the pure and simple Word of God that presented truth itself (John 17:17).

Can we now see how the early church was corrupted and changed before many generations passed after the time of the apostles? This is why our Lord and His apostles warned again and again of the coming danger and threat of apostasy. This shows that even though certain people had the truth in the first century, it was increasingly lost in the second, third, and fourth centuries. This continued without cessation so that by the seventh, tenth, twelfth, and fifteenth centuries, massive changes had occurred in the “church” so that what claimed to be the “church” of the Lord in the year 1500 was unrecognizable as compared to the body of Christ in the first century.

The European “Reformation” attempted to reform the Catholic Church but failed to completely rid the church of the dozens and dozens of false teachings and aberrant theology that had come to permeate the existing church. The Protestant movement had limited (and only limited) success for Protestants  perpetuated many of the same ideas that were extant in the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century.

And this brings us to the present day. We know that the Council of Trent (AD 1545-63) solidified many of the false ways in the sixteenth century, and the Second Vatican Council (AD 1962-65) attempted to make more positive changes. Some of these changes did make minor improvements while in other ways that Council went further astray. Today, Roman Catholicism, with its more than one billion members, has been called the greatest “cult” that the world has ever known. We don’t wish to enflame feelings, but we must speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) for only those who love the truth can be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). The falsehood that has permeated Roman Catholicism for more than fifteen centuries (and to a lesser extent, much of Protestantism), must be rejected in favor of the truth that can lead us out of bondage and into the freedom of the Lord (John 8:31-32).

Are you a Roman Catholic? Perhaps your parents and all of your ancestors were members of this Church. Maybe your relatives and most of your friends are members. You have been devoted to Rome’s doctrines and have delighted in her time-enduring practices. You have defended Catholic beliefs and have shared them with others. Maybe you have found a comfortable home and a feeling of spiritual security in thinking that you were in Christ’s church that will eventually be taken to heaven. You have just assumed that what you have always been taught and believed is correct and pleasing to God. And now maybe you are questioning this assumption.

Catholic friend, we love you and want you to come to the truth.  The Lord Jesus said that only the truth can set you free. Only the truth can give us salvation in Christ, and if we fail to love the truth, we cannot enter heaven (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). We realize that we have not covered many of the elements of this huge religious institution that is so filled with colorful history and pagentry, but we have helped you to see that this idea of a continuation of the early church until the modern Roman Catholic Church is unreasonable and clearly false. On this crumbled foundation, you should not take a stand. Rather, stand with Jesus Christ, our Lord, for “no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Take your stand with Christ the Head and not a religious counterfeit institution.





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