The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica has many things to catch the eye… gold, marble, mosaics, Michelangelo’s renowned pietà, the high altar, monuments to former popes, the play of light, the colorful dome… but what held my attention the first time we visited was the line of people walking past a statue of Peter, sitting on an alabaster throne, his feet worn down from centuries of pilgrims kissing and rubbing them. I thought solemnly to myself, “How would Peter, a commercial fisherman turned preacher, respond to this veneration if he were alive today?”
If one reads the Bible it isn’t too difficult to imagine his response. In Acts chapter 10 there was a devout Italian soldier that met Peter and “fell down at his feet, and worshipped him” (vs. 25). What was Peter’s response? “But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man” (vs. 26). Peter refused his worship and went on to preach the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This is just one instance of Christianity as found in the New Testament being in stark contrast with that which is portrayed by Roman Catholicism.
Not once does the New Testament imply the reality of a political hierarchy run by popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, along with “priests”. In the New Testament the church has no novenas, no abbots, no monks, no nuns, no sacraments, no beads, no candles, no prayers for the dead, no reverence shown to Mary, and no statues as “aids to worship”. Moreover, no local church in the New Testament practiced water baptism as a “sacrament.” To teach otherwise is to teach fiction, not history. Where a church historian ignores the basic, primitive, Bible definition of what a New Testament church is, there will be no end of confusion and misrepresentation in their research work.
The word “church” is the Western designation for the Koine Greek word “ecclesia” meaning a called-out assembly. Although the word is occasionally a reference to the living organism of Christ’s spiritual body (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22), it is much more frequently used to indicate a local congregation of believers who have been called “out” of the world system for purposes of assembly (Acts 2), worship and prayer (Acts 4), mutual aid and assistance (Acts 11), teaching and preaching the Bible (Acts 13), missionary endeavors (Acts 16) and as a testimony for Jesus Christ to the pagan population among whom they dwell. The local assembly is to worship, live, and serve according to the instructions given orally by Jesus Christ and finally written down by the apostles.
The New Testament church was an independent body of baptized believers. Not one of them in the New Testament baptizes infants, and not one of them would ever confuse regeneration of the sinner by the Holy Spirit with water baptism. The local assembly met on the first day of the week and they operated as individual entities without supervision from any area or territorial bishop. The local New Testament church was self-governing, self-propagating, and self-sustaining, with Acts chapter 15 producing a set of recommendations (not orders) and suggestions.
The local church observed two ordinances (1 Cor. 10-11; Matt. 28:19) and no sacraments; it had two offices, and only two, requiring ordination (1 Tim. 3:1-8). It supported its own widows (1 Tim. 5:9-10). Its main job was maintaining purity of life, thought, fellowship, and doctrine; and its outward relationship to the world was that of a separated group of nonconformists (Rom. 12:1-2) who were considered to be a heretical sect (Acts 9; 24:14). The church considered its job to be the evangelization of unsaved sinners (Acts 1:8) and its blessed hope was to be found busy at the coming of its Lord (Lk. 19:13). The church was waiting for the Rapture as a cure for its own evils (1 Cor. 15; 1 Thes. 4; 1 Jn. 3; Phil. 2) and the Second Advent as a cure for the evils of Roman civilization (2 Thes. 2; Rev. 1; 14; 19; Isa. 2). It was a praying, worshipping, rejoicing, witnessing, testifying, persecuted, called-out “assembly” and its history cannot be documented intelligently or understood without accepting the biblical definitions of its origins, nature, character, calling and work.
Any teaching or practice that does not run contrary to the scripture may be accepted to cover “doubtful cases.” For example, one cannot condemn church buildings and Sunday School simply because they are not in the scriptures. However when a clear case of violating or contradicting scripture arises – a “repeated sacrifice” (Heb. 10:8-14) or the calling of a religious leader “father” (Matt. 23:9) or praying to more than one Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) or saying that Mary was sinless (Lk. 2:22) – then we have a different situation.
The Roman Catholic Church professes to be the church that Christ founded (paragraph 816, Catechism of the Catholic Church) and claims that there is an uninterrupted and continuous line of succession extending from the twelve apostles to the present day pope (paragraph 77, Catechism of the Catholic Church). Closely connected to this idea of apostolic succession is the transmission from generation to generation of the “Tradition.” By tradition, Catholics refer to that part of the church’s “doctrine, life, and worship” that is distinct from scripture (paragraph 78, Catechism of the Catholic Church). Catholics argue this tradition does not contradict scripture, and they claim maintains faithfully the unwritten teachings and traditions of the apostles and early church fathers. However, as has once been aptly stated… “the supreme judge by which all religious controversies are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
It is the appeal to tradition that has made possible many doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism that have no basis in scripture. These include (to name only a handful) the papacy, papal infallibility, purgatory, indulgences, the mass, the immaculate conception, and the assumption of Mary. No matter what evidence to the contrary is produced in regard to the manner and the nature of worship in the local assemblies after AD 90, what is an honest man to say of them where they clearly contradict the truth as given by the Author of all truth, who promised to guide an honest man into “all truth” (Jn. 16:13) as found in the truth of the word of God (Jn. 17:17).