Was the Early Church Catholic?

Not too long ago, I was asked some provocative questions concerning the early church, Roman Catholicism and my own beliefs.

THE QUESTIONS: You suggested that the further one goes back into the history of Christianity, the less and less Catholic it is. You claimed that when one arrives back at the apostolic age, it isn't Catholic at all. I am interested to know what specific writings have led you to believe this. Specifically, what types of writings have explicitly taught that the doctrine and practice of Confession and the Eucharist are false.

As a former Catholic, and one who tells us that he has spent a lot of time studying Christian history and Catholic doctrine, I am curious to know how you have formed some of your conclusions; again based on study of early church history and writings that deal with two key sacraments of the Catholic faith. Particularly, in light of the scriptural support and large number of writings that actually validate these doctrines from the first century on up.

MY RESPONSE: I believe that the earliest Christian church was rather different from what I see today in the Roman Catholic Church. For that matter, some of the practices and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church of today are rather different from those of my own experiences of the RCC, when services were conducted in Latin and the dogma of Mary's Assumption had not been 'infallibly' defined. I hasten to add that I see differences between the doctrine and practices of many non-Catholic churches and the earliest Christian church, but that subject is not appropriate to this board.

The word "catholic" is from the Greek meaning "universal," and the earliest surviving reference to the "Catholic Church" appears in a letter from Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, to Christians in Smyrna (AD 107). In context, Ignatius used the term to reference the whole Christian Church. [Note: Ignatius' letter may be read here.]

The early church was very decentralized, and was lead by elders and bishops (synonymous with elders). But regional church bodies formed, the most dominant being that of Rome.

In AD 380, the term "Catholic" was defined under Roman Imperial law by Emperor Theodosius in an edict declaring Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire -- what many theologians would argue was an unfortunate wedding of church and state. - Mark Alexander, Catholic v. catholic: Christian unity?, "The Patriot," © 1981-2007 Publius Press, Inc.

As to what specific writings led me these conclusions, that's a tough one. I have read a pretty good pile of books and I reckon a truckload of studies, papers, etc., in the years since Christ came into my life. Many of those works were borrowed and since have been returned. Others languish, untouched for years, on the shelves of my bookcases. Some, I refer to frequently. I did not keep a list of every book, article and theological study I have been exposed to over the years, though the contents of many continue to shape my systematic theology and appreciation of church history. Numbered among my favorites are Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, Alfred Edersheim's series on Jewish culture and religious practice at the time of Christ's earthly ministry, the 38 volumes of the Early Church Fathers, Will Durant's magnificent series on the History of Western Civilization, C.H. Spurgeon's Treasury of David, A.T. Robertson's series Word Pictures in the New Testament, Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion, a number of commentaries, Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, several Catholic catechisms – particularly the CCC and the Baltimore, the Code of Canon Law, innumerable RCC documents, from popes, councils and congregations.

You asked specifically concerning the doctrines of Confession and Eucharist. I fear you are asking me to approach this from the viewpoint of a Catholic believer. Please bear in mind that, for 34 years or so, I held no religion and bore a quite active hatred for those divine beings religious people worshipped. During that period, I believed that every doctrine was false, be it Catholic, evangelical, Hindu or whatever. After Christ took charge of my life, I developed a voracious appetite for theology. The pastor of the church I joined took me under his wing and provided an hour or two of private instruction almost every day for well over a year – even after I had enrolled in Bible college. The upshot of all this was that I did not first believe that auricular confession and the Eucharist were legitimate religious practice and then was convinced otherwise. Quite the contrary, my studies and the teachings of my pastor and later the professors in Bible college simply convinced me that the orthodox (evangelical) understanding of these practices was the correct one.

Those are the short answers. For details, read on.

The issue of religious mutation is complex and does not lend itself to resolution by supplying a laundry list of differences. As some on this board and elsewhere have rightly declared, my posts do tend to be a bit long. To spare those who may read this, I shall examine but a few salient differences I see between the Apostolic church and today's Roman Catholic church, among them auricular confession and the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

I believe it important to bear in mind that the visible church, founded on that wonderful Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago, was a Jewish church. The Apostles and the earliest converts were observant Jews, who continued to worship in the Temple. Even the Pharisees considered the followers of Christ to be a sect within Judaism.

And herein lies the seed of one of the difficulties involved in studying the ancient church. Contrary to popular beliefs, 1st Century Judaism was not monolithic, but rather existed in a variety of forms throughout the Greco-Roman world. There were significant differences between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism. Even within the borders of Palestine, it was diverse and complex. Recent studies have shown the invalidity of George Foot Moore's characterization of 'normative Judaism,' by which he meant that Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism was the dominant and legitimate expression against which all others were judged to be aberrant or variants. Another false understanding was that of 'late Judaism,' which branded Judaism in the Greco-Roman period as legalistic degeneration of the earlier prophetic religion. The current understanding is that there were a multitude of Judaisms--distinct Jewish religious systems--yet with connecting threads and a common legacy. What all this means is that it is difficult to develop a coherent picture of Judaism in Christ's time. Yet it is important to try, for the earliest practice of the Christian church was overlaid upon the Jewish system.

These early believers, first under the instruction of the apostles and later under elders and overseers named from within their local assemblies, gathered daily in their homes or in the Temple to talk of Christ, sing hymns etc. (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:42; 19:9). As the church spread, those who lived outside Jerusalem, continued to meet in homes, but gathered in their local synagogues, rather than the Temple.

If we are to compare the worship of the earliest Christian church with that of today's RCC, it is appropriate that we first gain an understanding of what Jewish synagogue worship was like.

We know that, in every town, Jews had a synagogue, or at least some place in a private home or outdoors, where they might gather for prayer. (Acts 15:21). The interiors of the synagogues were set up in a way that called to mind the Tabernacle and the Temple. There were benches along the sides of the interior, a pulpit, and a wooden cabinet for storing the scrolls of Scripture. This cabinet was called “the Mercy Seat,” and corresponded to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Within the synagogue (as in the Temple), a sacred light perpetually burned -- symbolizing Divine Law. Near the door, there were two 'collection boxes,' one for local poor and one for the poor in Jerusalem. In the synagogues, the sexes were seated separately, with a low wall or screen between them.

Synagogues usually were built on the highest ground around. If that were not possible, a tall pole would be erected on the roof to help people spot the building. Just like a church steeple or bell tower.

The organization of the congregation was quite formal. There was a leader, several elders who shared his rank, a reader, one or more clerks, a sexton to take care of housekeeping chores, deacons to take up offerings and a body of ten or more prominent men who represented the congregation at every service. In addition to being places of worship, synagogues also functioned as civil and religious courts. They had the power to excommunicate and even to exact corporal punishment (scourging).

The days of public worship in the synagogues were the Sabbath, Monday and Thursday. Hours of prayer were 9 A.M., noon and 3 P.M.

Worship services in the synagogue were simple, but did tend to be a bit long. They included prayer, song, reading, exposition of Scripture, the rite of circumcision and ceremonial washings. The prayers and songs were primarily taken from the Psalter, which rightly might be called the first liturgy.

The opening prayer had two parts: a reading of the Decalog and three passages from the Torah. After that, there was a series of 18 prayers and benedictions. The congregation stood during prayer, facing Jerusalem. Then followed a lesson from the Law and another from the Prophets. These lessons were read straight from the Hebrew Scriptures and followed by a paraphrase and a homily (Midrash) in the vernacular. After that, a benediction and an “amen” from the congregation ended the service.

The didactic nature of Jewish worship is what made it so different from pagan worship. It familiarized Jews in all levels of their society with every facet of their religion.

Since there was no priesthood outside of Jerusalem, any Jew who had attained the age of accountability might stand up to read the lessons, offer prayers or address the congregation. It was this custom that made it possible for Jesus and the apostles to preach the Gospel as a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. (Luke 4:17-20; 13:54; John 18:20; Acts 13:5, 15, 44; 14:1)

In the earliest days of the Christian church, at least in Palestine, worshipers conformed as closely as possible to the forms used by their Jewish fathers. As far as we know, they continued to observe the Sabbath, the annual Jewish feasts, the hours of daily prayer and all of the Mosaic ritual. In addition, they celebrated the Christian Sunday, the death and resurrection of the Savior and the Lord's Supper. It was not long before the efforts of Judaizers began to weaken the union between Jewish orthodoxy and the followers of Christ. With the destruction of the Temple, the groups separated completely, except among Ebionites and Nazarenes.

From the very beginning, the Gentile congregations Paul founded worshipped in a more independent form. They retained elements of the Old Testament service, but stripped them of their nationalistic legal nature. Before long, the Jewish Sabbath morphed into the Christian Sunday. Passover and Pentecost were transformed into feasts celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Gentile church soon appropriated Christ's one-time, all-sufficient and eternal sacrifice; the bloody sacrifices of the Law were replaced by thankful remembrance. Rather than offering bloody sacrifices, the Gentile Christians offered prayers, intercession and personal consecration to the service of Christ. By the close of the Apostolic age, the free and spiritual worship of the Gentile Christians had become virtually universal, though some Jewish elements remain to this day.

In the time of the Apostles, public Christian worship consisted of preaching of the Gospel, readings from the Scriptures, prayer, singing, and a confession of faith. Initially, it appears preaching of the Gospel amounted to little more than missionary preaching to the unsaved. It apparently included highlights of Christ's life and an exhortation to repentance and conversion. Examples of this preaching by Peter and Paul are salted throughout the Book of Acts. The Epistles, which came later, might be regarded as sermons intended to edify the redeemed.

The readings from the Tanakh, which were followed by exposition and application, transferred directly from the synagogue into the Christian church (cf. Acts 13:15, 15:21). As they became available, lessons from what came to be known as the New Testament were added. These were the writings we now know as the four canonical Gospels and the apostolic epistles – most of which were addressed to whole congregations and originally intended for public use. When the Apostles had died, their writings became even more important, for they substituted for their oral instruction and exhortation. These writings came to be used much more than were those of the Tanakh.

Prayer, in all its forms, was also incorporated from Judaism, but it is fair to say that virtually all religions included some form of prayer. What made the Christian prayers different was that they were now offered in the name of Jesus to God, to whom they had been reconciled. The Christians prayed freely and from the heart -- even for their enemies and persecutors -- as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4).

The beautifully worded songs, together with the Psalms, were a form of prayer imported from Jewish Temple and synagogue worship. It should be noted that Christ Himself introduced psalmody into the New Covenant when He instituted the Lord's Supper. (Matthew 26:30) Paul called for the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as a means of edifying the church. (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

In addition to the foregoing acts of faith, there was a public confession of faith. The first such confession we have record of was Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ (Matthew 16:16), though the Christian church had not yet been instituted. I believe it would be correct to say that the first public confession of faith in the Christian church was incorporated into the Trinitarian baptismal formula.

The administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper usually concluded the Christian meeting. Baptism, instituted by Christ Himself shortly before His ascension, replaced circumcision as a sign and seal of church membership. As such, it is the rite of initiation into the Covenant of Grace. Some have inferred, from Mark 16:16 and John 3:5, that baptism is a requirement for salvation. However, Scriptures clearly teach that salvation is the result of God's grace, received by faith. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

I do not doubt that Jews at that time understood John's baptism for what it was, a call to repentance and a return to godly living. That they did not comprehend the difference between John's baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit is illustrated by Nicodemus' question to Jesus (John 3:4). Christian baptism is preceded by conversion, turning away from sin and toward God in repentance and faith, which is followed by regeneration. In regeneration, the believer is forgiven his sins, inwardly cleansed and spiritually renewed.

Jewish zealots were not at all happy with worship in the new Christian church. Some of them, now referred to as Judaizers, apparently made it their practice to go around making trouble in the new church. The word 'Judaizers' is derived from the Greek word IOUDAIZO, translated as “to live like Jews” in Galatians 2:14 (RSV). It was the Judaizers who were behind the movement to compel the Galatian Christians to be circumcised. They considered themselves to be better Christians than the uncircumcised members of the Gentile church.

Paul would not permit any appeal to human authority where the “truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:14) that he had received from Christ and had passed on to the Galatians was at stake. This same disdain for human opinion (verse 10) was not held by the Judaizers, whose activities at least partly were motivated by their desire to avoid persecution. Apparently, Jewish persecution at the time was directed only against Christians whose understanding of faith in Christ threatened their adherence to the Law (Galatians 6:12).

Paul frequently confronted the efforts of the Judaizers. In Corinth, one of their points of contention had to do with the authority of the Jerusalem apostles ( 2 Corinthians 11:4-5; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:21-23). It appears that, in Philippi, he addressed a campaign to circumcise Gentile Christians (Philippians 3:2-3). In his letter to believers in Rome, Paul expands on his teaching in Galatians, indicating that perhaps a similar problem was developing there. At Colossae, circumcision, observance of food laws, feast days, new moons and Sabbaths were aspects of a heresy being urged on the Colossian Christians. (Colossians 2:8, 11, 16-23). We see in the Pastoral Epistles concern for heresies involving the law, circumcision and other aspects of Judaism (1 Timothy 1:7; Titus 1:10, 14; 3:9).

As all the above shows, the earliest Christian church existed in many forms, even as the contemporary Christian church does today. There is no Bible record that I am aware of that clearly shows the Christian church overlaid on the conservative Judaism of Jerusalem was any better or worse than the Christian church established by Paul among the Gentiles. Their worship differed in some ways, but the object always was to glorify God through Christ.

I cannot point to the exact moment within the churches planted by the Apostles and their successors when they began to break away from the simple worship of the first believers. What I can do is declare the moment when the church in Rome gained power over the Christian world. Until Emperor Constantine issued his Decree of Milan in 317 AD, the church, at Rome, though accorded some precedence among the various episcopates, was not the central authority for Christianity. Prior to that time, a few of the Roman bishops had attempted to exert control over their brother bishops, but these efforts were universally rejected – at times scornfully. It was the Edict of Milan and Constantine's patronage and personal involvement that made it possible for the Roman bishop to claim authority over all the Christian church, though it would be some time before that claim was universally accepted by Christian bishops. It was at this time, IMO, that the Roman Catholic Church came into existence.

With the Edict of Milan, Christianity became the de facto state religion of the Roman Empire. This meant that a great number of pagan religions no longer were to be tolerated, with the result their temples, doctrines and religious were “available.” Some were absorbed by the Roman church, principle among them the powerful and widespread cult of Mithras. It was about this time, I suppose, that the Roman church began her precipitous slide into apostasy.

About auricular confession: In this, the Roman Catholic Church certainly differs from the earliest Christian church, Jewish or Gentile. In the first place, neither church had a priesthood, so there were no priests to whom the sinner might confess his sins, or who was thought to be empowered to forgive those sins.

The foregoing should not be construed as a declaration that the early Christians did not practice public confession. Certainly, there is reason to believe the earliest Christians routinely confessed their sins, openly to those against whom they had trespassed, and privately to the Lord God. A genuine Christian habitually walks in the light (truth and holiness), not darkness (lies and sin). Continual confession of sin is an indication of genuine salvation. The false teachers, of whom John warns us in his three letters, would not admit their sin. On the other hand, the true believer acknowledges his sin and forsakes it (Psalm 32:3-5; Proverbs 28:13). The word translated as 'confess' in 1 John 1:9 (HOMOLOGEO) usually is understood to mean 'to say the same thing as another, i.e., to agree with or assent' (Thayer). In other words, to agree with God's perspective concerning sin. Confession of sin characterizes genuine Christians, and God continually cleanses those who are confessing (1 John 1:7). In 1 John 1:9, the Apostle is not declaring that every single sin must be confessed, but rather he is focusing on a settled recognition and acknowledgment that one is a sinner in need of cleansing and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13).

It is important to note that it is God Who is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” These words do not point to the act of forgiveness, in that God, acting upon the shed blood and sacrifice of Christ, already has forgiven the redeemed of all sin; past, present and future. Rather, it refers to the application of pardoning grace to a poor sinner, humbled by guilt and confessing it before the Lord. Such confession of sin is neither the cause nor a required condition of pardon, nor even a manifestation of such, but is descriptive of one to whom God makes known His forgiving love. Scripture is clear: to whomever He grants repentance, He gives remission of sin, and in so doing he is 'faithful' to His promise (cf. Psalm 28:13; Isaiah 55:7) and 'just' to His word.

Within the early church, even as in today's church, confessing one's weaknesses and failings to other believers surely would have prompted them to come to the sinner's aid with prayer and other support.

I believe it a misinterpretation of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 that forms the foundation of the RCC sacrament of Confession (as I was taught to call it), or Reconciliation or Penance. Confession to a priest goes back much farther than Callistus' (217-22 AD) announcement that he and his clergy could forgive, following confession, even the most serious sins committed after baptism. Such confession to priests was a routine part of temple life in ancient Babylon. This was because all afflictions were then thought to be godly punishments for transgressions. Archeologists have provided us lists Babylonian priests would read to the penitent to help him recognize and confess his sins and receive absolution.

Within the Roman Catholic church, the practice of confession and absolution became increasingly widespread over the centuries until, in 1215 AD, the 4th Lateran Council made confession mandatory at least once a year, under pain of mortal sin ('Constitution' 21, 4th Lateran Council, 1915). After Innocent III had made annual confession compulsory for all, the scholars and spin doctors of the RCC set to work to come up with doctrinal justification. Thus, the Council of Trent was able present to the church the 'Sacrament of Penance.' (Council of Trent, 6th Session, Decree Concerning Justification, Chapter 14, The Fallen and Their Restoration, January 14, 1547)

Those who may wish to read more on this subject might wish to visit their local library to read H. C. Lea's 3-volume study, History of Auricular Confession.

Concerning the Lord's Supper: Christ instituted the ordinance of the Lord's Supper when He celebrated the Passover seder with His disciples just prior to His crucifixion. The Magisterium has determined Christ's reference to His body and blood in Luke 22:18,19 are to be taken literally and that, following consecration, the species are transubstantiated into His actual body and blood. (Logia 1353, CCC). Personally, I find it interesting that the RCC takes these symbolic references literally, when she seems to understand His use of metaphor in such passages as John 15:1 and John 10:7. It seems to me the disciples, accustomed to their Master's linguistic usage, would clearly have picked up on the metaphors, given that He was standing before them, holding up a piece of bread and telling them it was His body.

As an evangelical, I believe the Lord's Supper was instituted for the continual remembrance of the atoning sacrificial death of Christ and of the eternal benefits believers enjoy as a consequence. The bread, which is broken, given and eaten, reminds us of Christ's body, broken on the cross for our sins. The wine that is poured out and received reminds us of Christ's blood, shed for us. Eating the bread and drinking the cup forcefully brings home to us the remembrance of all Christ has obtained for us and of Christ's death, which is the basis of those benefits.

Rome's view of the Lord's Supper (Eucharist) differs from that of evangelicals. Whereas evangelicals consider Christ to be present spiritually during the Lord's Supper, Roman Catholics believe His body and blood, soul and divinity are really and substantially present in the elements and are literally consumed by the communicant. (Logia 1374, CCC)

The 21st 'Constitution' of the 4th Lateran Council made it mandatory for Catholics to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, at Easter, under pain of lifelong banishment from the church and denial of a Christian burial. And that is, I believe, another major different between today's RCC and the earliest Christian churches, in which I can find no record that participation in the Lord's Supper was a requirement for continuing admittance to the church or for a Christian burial.

As I stated earlier, these are quite deep subjects, worthy of far more attention. However, these answers will have to suffice. I hope they have been of some small help to you.

"Hoc quia de Scripturis non habent auctoritatem, eadem facilitate contemnitur, qua probatur"

"That which does not have authority from the Scriptures, we can as easily despise, condemn or approve." (Jerome, Commentariorum in Evangelium Matthaei [MPL 26:180]).

Home | More Apologetics | Catholic Stuff | PTG Forum