Biblical Authority — What the Bible Teaches About The Church

Jesus begins his public ministry in Mark’s Gospel with the pronouncement “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”  (Mark 1:15).  He then calls the twelve apostles into ministry with him.  The “kingdom of God” is not a future concept in the mind of Christ, but one that comes with him into the world.  From the Catholic perspective, the “kingdom of God” is the Church Christ brings to both guard the faith and spread it throughout the world:

CCC567 The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth by Christ.  “This kingdom shone out before men in the word, in the works and in the presence of Christ”.  The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom.  Its keys are entrusted to Peter.

 CCC551 From the beginning of his public life Jesus chose certain men, twelve in number, to be with him and to participate in his mission.  He gives the Twelve a share in his authority and ‘sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal.’ They remain associated for ever with Christ’s kingdom, for through them he directs the Church.

Just as Christ has both a human and divine nature, as Catholics we believe the Church does as well.  The founding of the Church is rooted in the very mystery of the incarnation of Christ, who chose to unite his divine nature with our humanity.  So his kingdom on earth has both a visible, human face as well as a divine, spiritual life. 

CCC771 “The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men.”The Church is at the same time:

– a “society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ;

– the visible society and the spiritual community;

– the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches.“

These dimensions together constitute “one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element“

In general Protestants view the Church as being only a spiritual community, not a visible institution, although some of the more mainline Protestants can have a different view.  From the Westminster Catechism (Presbyterian):

Q.  61.  Are all they saved who hear the gospel, and live in the church?  A.  All that hear the gospel, and live in the visible church, are not saved; but they only who are true members of the church invisible.

Catholics would agree with the Presbyterian view that just because someone is in the visible church it does not mean they are saved.  They have to be united with Christ as a member of his body in faith.  This is why we believe while some professed Catholics may not be saved, many in other Christian faiths will be because they are part of the Church “invisible” – the mystical body of Christ.  That topic was covered in more depth here

And if you think about it, an understanding of the Church as both a visible institution and a spiritual communion is the only way the parable Christ told about the “wheat and weeds” makes sense:

“‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-30)

If the only dimension of the Church is the spiritual body of Christ united to him in faith, how can there be weeds that have been sown into the kingdom?  But Christ prepared us to know within the visible, institutional Church the enemy would indeed sow weeds that would persist until harvest, the end of time.

Sacred Scripture refers to both the “churches” (plural) and the “church” (singular).  When referring to local congregations, Scripture will often refer to them as “churches” (Acts 15:41, 16:5, Romans 16:4, 1 Corinthians 14:33, 16:9, 2 Corinthians 8:18, 11:8), or the “church” at a specific location, like “the church at Corinth.”  (2 Corinthians 1:1-2) When referring to simply “the church,” Scripture is referring to the one, unified Church of Jesus Christ.  An example of this is when St. Paul refers to himself as having persecuted “the church” (1 Corinthians 15:9) or when Christ tells Peter “on this rock I will build my church.”  (Matthew 16:18)

Scripture teaches us many thing about the Church Christ established.  To begin with, it is one flock with one shepherd (John 10:16).  In the view of Christ, the Church is to be “one” as he prayed at the Last Supper – “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”  (John 17:20-23)

St. Paul echoes this when he writes to the Corinthians “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”  (1 Corinthians 1:10)  He writes to the Ephesians “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6) and to the Philippians they should “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”  (Philippians 2:2)

We know while there will be many assaults against the Church and many battles, it will never fail because Christ promised Peter “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”  (Matthew 16:18)  And the Church will be universal – “And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 13:29) I always have an image of Eucharist happening around the world when I read that verse.

Christ sees the Church as the final deciding point in resolving conflict – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  (Matthew 18:15-17) In order for the Church to be in this role, it has to be both known and visible, and something more than a group of believers spiritually joined together.  We see this play out in Sacred Scripture when the apostles face one of the first conflicts in the early Church – whether the Gentile converts entering the Church needed to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law.  This becomes primarily a disagreement between St. Paul and St. James.  Rather than causing a schism within the Church however, they follow Christ’s instruction and “take it to the Church” to be resolved.  Thus we see the first Church council convened in Acts 15 to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into a unified decision, and to remain as “one.” 

We should expect the Church to grow and develop over time.  Christ teaches “What is the kingdom of God like?  And to what shall I compare it?  It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”  (Luke 13:18-19) While a mustard seed may bear little visible resemblance to the tree that develops, organically they are the same thing.  And Christ tells his apostles when the Holy Spirit comes to them, he will guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

We know the foundation of the Church is the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:19-20), and God uses the Church to make his wisdom known to the world – “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages inGod who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.  This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.”  (Ephesians 3:8-12)

One of the strongest statements made about the Church in Scripture is St. Paul writing to Timothy – “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 3:14-15) A pillar is defined as a “firm upright support for a superstructure” and bulwark is defined as “a solid wall-like structure raised for defense: a strong support or protection.”  The Church is the guardian of the truth.  There is a passage about this verse in Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s book “Rome Sweet Home.”  Many Catholics are familiar with their conversion story and how they met when they were both in seminary.  Kimberly was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and in marrying Scott saw her future in ministry as the wife of a Presbyterian minister.  Her entire world was shaken when Scott began to explore the Catholic faith and converted.  One day he asked her “What is the pillar and foundation of the truth?”  Her response was the Bible.  He responded, “then why does St. Paul say it’s the Church?”  and her response was “That’s just in your Catholic Bible Scott.”  It is a very good example of how someone can be extremely well trained in Scripture yet can still “miss something” because it doesn’t align with what they’ve been taught Scripture means.  Marcus Grodi also identifies this as the second of the “ten verses I never saw” when he was a Protestant minister, beginning at 11:53 to 15:48 in this clip.  A good watch if you have a few minutes.

Protestantism in general holds to a doctrine of sola-Scriptura and professes Sacred Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith.  As Catholics, we can point out the Church in Sacred Scripture is also known as “the word of God,” as Scripture speaks to the growth of the Church as “the word of God grew and multiplied.”  (Acts 12:24) It also says “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  (Acts 6:7)

Protestants are also quick to point out Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).  As Catholics we would whole-heartedly agree with that.  But we would also point out the Church is also “God-breathed.”  After the resurrection, John’s Gospel records “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22) The Church is literally “God-breathed.”  And if we accept what Scripture says and the Church is indeed the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), then we can understand why Catholics believe is it not Scripture-alone that can claim to be both God-breathed and inerrant.

My next post will take a look at what Scripture teaches about the structure of the Church, and why as Catholics our pastors are appointed and not hired by the congregation. 

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