Origin and History of Catholicism [Part I]
Often Catholics make two important assertions: (1) The Catholic Church is the oldest church. [Catholics are firmly convinced that the Catholic Church is much older than any Protestant group that exists today. Although this assertion is historically correct, is it true that the Catholic Church is the oldest church?] (2) The Catholic Church is the biblical church. [Catholics claim that their church is the one described in the Bible and, therefore, the church which God approves.]
These two claims bear some serious implications. First, if the Catholic Church is the oldest church, then: (a) there could not be any church prior to it; (b) the first church, which Christ promised He was going to establish, must be the Catholic Church; and (c) all biblical and/or historical record of the first church should point to Catholicism. Second, if the Catholic Church is the biblical church, then: (a) the Bible should have a record of this church; and (b) its teachings and practices should be approved by the Bible.
ORIGIN OF CHRISTIANITY
To determine whether the Catholic Church is the oldest church, we must go to the Bible to find a record of the first church. The prophet Daniel said that
…the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever (2:44, emp. added).
God had a plan for the followers of His Son to be part of a kingdom different from any other, a spiritual kingdom that would stand forever: the church (cf. Colossians 1:13). But when did this divine institution begin?
Matthew 16:18 records the first time the term “church” is introduced in the New Testament. Jesus said: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (emp. added). The term “church,” from the Greek ekklesia, was generally used by the Greeks to refer to a political assembly (cf. Acts 19:41). This term is used for the first time to describe the followers of Christ in Matthew 16:18.
When Jesus spoke of His church in this verse, He declared three very important things. First, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The future tense of the verb indicates that the church was not yet established. It did not exist at that time. Second, Jesus said, “I will build,” indicating that Christ Himself would establish the church and be its foundation. Third, Jesus said, “My church,” indicating that the Church would belong to Him.
Notice again Jesus’ statement to Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). Using two Greek terms—petros and petra—the New Testament makes clear that this “rock” (petra) would be the foundation upon which Jesus would build His church. But to what or to whom does this “rock” refer? Matthew tells us that Jesus had asked His disciples who they thought He was. “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16). Because of this declaration, Jesus made the statement mentioned above (Matthew 16:18). Therefore, it can mean only one thing: Jesus was going to build His church on the confession that Peter had made about Him. In other words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” would be the foundation upon which the church was to be built. Jesus promised Peter that he would be the blessed person to open the doors of Christianity (or the church), but Peter (petros) would not be the rock (petra) of the church.
Although these verses in Matthew 16 do not give us the beginning of the first church, they do give us an exact prediction of its origin, including the following:
This church was not yet built at the time Jesus was speaking (vs. 18).
This church would be built by Christ, Who would also be its foundation (vs. 18).
This church would belong to Christ (vs. 18).
This church would be built on the confession that Jesus is Christ (vss. 16,18).
Peter would open (symbolically) the doors of this church (vs. 19).
So then, when did these things happen, and when did the first church come into existence?
Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2:41).
This verse, recorded by Luke, tells us the result of the sermon Peter and the other apostles preached on Pentecost. The Bible notes that the apostles had stayed in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, waiting for the promise of the Father (i.e., the arrival of the Holy Spirit; cf. Acts 1:4,12; 2:1). When the Holy Spirit was sent, the apostles began to speak in different languages (Acts 2:4-11). Many people believed, but there were also some who mocked (Acts 2:13). Then, Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and preached to those who were listening to him (Acts 2:14). After showing convincing evidence of the Messianic veracity of Jesus, Peter declared, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, emp. added).
Luke’s account takes our minds back to the words of Jesus. Jesus had predicted that Peter would open the doors of the church, and that the church would be built on his confession (Matthew 16:16-18). In Acts 2:36, Peter not only opened the doors of Christianity, but he also confessed once more that Jesus was the Lord and the Christ (i.e., the rock on which the church would be built). Therefore, it was on this exact day that the words of Jesus were fulfilled. Acts 2:41 indicates that those who believed “were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” The question then becomes, “To what were the people who believed and were baptized added?” Verse 47 gives us the answer: “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” [NOTE: The ASV omits the word “church” and notes “them,” but the idea is the same. Concerning this rendering, Boles stated that the meaning is that those who were baptized, “were by this process added together, and thus formed the church” (1941, p. 52)]. This is the first biblical text that speaks of the church as being in existence; it is at this exact moment in Scripture that the presence of the first church is noted. Peter had opened the doors of the church through the preaching of the Word. He had confessed once more the deity of Jesus. And the Lord had added to His church the people who obeyed.
Which church, then, is the oldest church? The answer is, of course, the church that Christ built in Acts 2. But what church was this? Was this the beginning of the Catholic Church (as Catholicism teaches)? Note that Christ said He was going to build His church (Matthew 16:18), not the Catholic Church.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. The churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:16, emp. added).
Although there were various congregations that praised God in many parts of the world when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, there was still a unique characteristic about them: all of them belonged to Christ (i.e., they were churches of Christ), for Christ said that He would build His church. Therefore, all of them honorably bore the name of their Founder—Christ.
Acts 2 informs us that the church of Christ was established in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (c. A.D. 30). It had a unique foundation, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). Christ, not Peter, was the cornerstone of the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8). The church was comprised of a group of believers who took the title “Christians” (not “Catholics”) by divine authority (Acts 11:26; cf. Isaiah 62:2). They made up the only body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). The church also was considered the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:24; Revelation 19:7). Christ was its authority and its Head (Colossians 1:18); it had no earthly head. In its organization, human names and divisions were condemned (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). This was the wonderful, divine institution that God established on Earth—the church of His Son, the church of Christ (see Miller, 2007).
ORIGIN OF CATHOLICISM
If the Catholic Church is not the oldest church, how and when did it become a historical entity? When the church of the Lord began in Acts 2, it grew rapidly. According to Acts 2:41, about 3,000 people believed the preaching of Peter and the other apostles, and were baptized. Acts 4:4 tells us that shortly thereafter the number of believers was at least 5,000, and Acts 6:7 informs us that “the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”
At the beginning, the Roman government considered Christians to be one of several insignificant Jewish sects. The book of Acts concludes by noting that even in Roman custody, Paul continued preaching and teaching “with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:31). The Romans underestimated the power and influence of Christianity, allowing the church time and opportunities to grow in its early years (Acts 18:12-16; 23:23-29). However, there was always great opposition from the orthodox Jewish leaders of that time who intellectually, psychologically, and physically persecuted the apostles and other Christians (e.g., Acts 4:1-3,18; 5:17-18; 9:1-2,22-24; 13:45,50; 17:4-5,13; 21:27-31; 23:12-22).
Although persecution was a terrible scourge for Christians, they had been warned about it and knew how they should react. Jesus had warned His disciples on different occasions about the coming persecutions for His name’s sake (Matthew 10:22). He told them that they would be persecuted in the same ways He was persecuted (John 15:19-20). In fact, persecution from the Jews became a reality shortly after the church began (Acts 8:1). Because of their hypocrisy and ignorance of the Scriptures, the hard-hearted Jews hated the Gospel message.
Jesus also had advised His disciples to escape to other cities when they were persecuted (Matthew 10:23). He wanted them not only to seek safety but also to preach the Gospel in other places. At first, Christians did not want to leave the safety and security of their homelands, but persecution forced their departure (Acts 8:1; 11:19; etc.). As they scattered, Christians began to obey the Great Commission given by the Lord to “go into all the world and preach the gospel,” announcing the arrival of the kingdom of heaven (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19; cf. Acts 8:4; 14:4-7; et al.).
As a result of their worldwide efforts to teach and the jealousy of Jews in many of the places to which Christians traveled, Christianity gained not only religious interest but also political attention. The Roman government began to pay more attention to this “new religion” which frequently was accused of being troublesome and blasphemous toward the government (cf. Acts 17:6-9; 19:23-27).
Suetonius, a Roman historian, seems to confirm this fact by writing the following about Claudius Caesar: “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (1890, p. 318). Clearly, by the time of the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), efforts to intimidate and discredit Christians were already a serious matter (cf. Acts 18:2). When Claudius died, the infamous Nero took over. He had grand dreams of building a magnificent Rome to satisfy his own pleasures. Many historians believe that Nero was responsible for the great fire that consumed Rome in A.D. 64 and killed many of its inhabitants (e.g., Suetonius, Dio Cassius, et al.; cf. Nelson, 1985, p. 450). Many of his contemporaries also believed Nero was responsible. To suppress these rumors, Nero unfairly charged Christians with the crime and punished them in unbelievably horrible ways. His actions encouraged hatred toward Christians (cf. Tacitus, 1836, pp. 287-288). Christians never had enjoyed the approval of the Roman Empire, but Nero was the first emperor to instigate an intense persecution against them. Excessive, intense persecution continued for centuries. As James Baird wrote, “In actuality, Christianity was opposed more vigorously than any other religion in the long history of Rome” (1978, p. 29).
But beside the misfortunes brought upon Christians by the opponents of divine justice, there was another danger on the horizon, a danger even worse than the persecution itself: the predicted apostasy. In His earthly ministry, Jesus taught His disciples to live for the truth, to teach the truth, and even to die for the truth. The truth of His Word (John 17:17) was an invaluable treasure. Jesus knew that after His ascension, the truth would be challenged, and many would depart from it. On one occasion, Jesus warned His disciples, “Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Paul confirmed what Jesus said when he wrote, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). The apostle John wrote about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy as a present reality (1 John 4:1). The apostasy which Jesus predicted existed then, and many already had left the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:10).
However, the influence of the apostles still was strong and they guarded the purity of the truth. Many of the apostolic writings preserved in the New Testament were directed toward correcting false teachings, defending the faith, and warning new Christians of dangerous theological doctrines that would arise (cf. Galatians 1:6-10; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John). To set in order some things that were lacking in some congregations and to defend “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), God commanded (through the apostles) that a plurality of elders (also called “bishops” or “pastors”—Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Peter 5:1-4) be appointed in each congregation of the church (Titus 1:5-9; cf. Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). The elders were in charge of guiding and feeding the Lord’s flock (Acts 20:28). It was their responsibility to watch over the church which Christ bought with His own blood (Ephesians 5:25; Hebrews 7:26-27).
Upon the death of the apostles (who left no apostolic successors), the elders, along with the deacons, evangelists, and teachers, took total responsibility of defending the faith. Many of them had been instructed directly by the apostles, and thus they were a fundamental part of the spiritual development of the church. [NOTE: Some of these men sometimes are called the “church fathers” or “apostolic fathers.”] In his book, The Eternal Kingdom, F.W. Mattox wrote:
During the first fifty years after the death of the Apostle John, the church struggled to maintain Apostolic purity. The literature of this period, written by men who are commonly called the “Apostolic Fathers” and “Apologists,” shows clearly the efforts made to maintain the New Testament pattern and the trends that later brought on apostasy (1961, p. 107).
Although monumental, many of these early apologists’ efforts to unify the church were based erroneously upon mere human rationality. Little by little, new ideas began to be accepted, which instigated changes in the church. The first main change had to do with the organization of the church, specifically with the authority of the elders. As we have noted, in the early days of the church each congregation had a plurality of elders who simultaneously watched over it. Nevertheless, many began to consider one elder as greater than the others, and eventually he alone was given the title of “bishop.” Disputes and contentions for power began. Later, “bishops” began to preside individually over various congregations in a city, which they called a “diocese” (Latourette, 1965, p. 67).
One of the people who strove to unify the church under only one man (i.e., “the Bishop”) was Ignatius of Antioch. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop—I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature—how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity!… Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God (Roberts and Donaldson, 1973, 1:51).
This new structure (i.e., one bishop having authority over others) began as a call to defend the truth, but it caused such a departure from the divine pattern that by A.D. 150, the government of many local congregations differed completely from the simple organization outlined in the New Testament. This “innocent” change in the organization of the church was the seed which preceded the germination of the Catholic movement many years later.
In time, the bishops who exercised authority in certain regions began to meet together to discuss matters that concerned all of them. Eventually these meetings became councils where creeds and new ideas were declared formally binding on all Christians, and alleged heretics were condemned.
Constantine, Emperor of Rome, assembled the first of these councils, the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). By the time of his reign, the Christian population had grown tremendously. In spite of constant persecution and the growing apostasy, many Christians had remained faithful to God, and their influence was growing. The faith, influence, and courage of these Christians (which led many to die for love of the truth) were obvious to Constantine. Christianity was thought to be, in some ways, a potential threat to the Empire if it continued to grow. Therefore, there were only two options: (1) try to eradicate Christianity from the Empire by increasing opposition to it (a tactic which had failed for almost three centuries), or (2) “go with the flow” so that Christianity would help unify and strengthen the Empire. Constantine decided not only to stop persecution against Christianity but to promote it. To help the church, Constantine ordered that 50 hand-written copies of the Bible be produced, and he placed some Christians in high positions in his government (Miller and Stevens, 1969, 5:48,51). Additionally, he restored places of worship to Christians without demanding payment (see “The Edict…,” n.d.).
Under Constantine’s direction, more changes were made—especially in the organization of the church. Since the end of persecution was something that Christians thought impossible, and since favoritism from the government seemed even less attainable, many Christians allowed themselves to be influenced by the government to the point that they deviated more and more from the truth. Under Constantine’s influence, a new ecclesiastical organization began to develop, modeled after the organization of the Roman government. Although “Christianity” thrived under his influence, it is ironic that Constantine himself was not a Christian. However, just before his death—and surely with the hope that his sins would be removed—he agreed to be baptized for the Christian cause (see Hutchinson and Garrison, 1959, p. 146).
Although Catholicism did not actually come into existence during the time of Constantine, certainly his influence and his legacy were fundamental stones upon which Catholicism soon built its power. As the church obtained benefits from the government, it became more and more similar to the government and moved further from the divine pattern. By the seventh century, many Christians, accepting the model of the Roman government, installed one man, the pope, in Rome to exercise universal ecclesiastical power. According to the model of the counselors for the Roman emperor, a group of cardinals was chosen to be advisors to the pope. According to the model of the Roman governors, bishops were appointed over dioceses. And, in accordance with the model of the Roman Universal (i.e., catholic) Empire, a new church—the Roman Catholic Church—was established. Consequently, the Catholic Church was established at the beginning of the seventh century, under the leadership of the first man to be called “pope” universally, Boniface III.
Baird, James O. (1978), “The Trials and Tribulations of the Church from the Beginning,” The Future of the Church, ed. William Woodson (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College).
Boles, H. Leo (1941), A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
“The Edict of Milan” (no date), [On-line], URL: http://home.inreach.com/bstanley/edict.htm.
Hutchinson, Paul and Winfred Garrison (1959), 20 Centuries of Christianity (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.).
Latourette, Kenneth S. (1965), Christianity through the Ages (New York: Harper & Row)
Mattox, F.W. (1961), The Eternal Kingdom (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).
Miller, Dave (2007), What the Bible Says about the Church of Christ (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Miller, Jule and Texas Stevens (1969), Visualized Bible Study Series: History of the Lord’s Church (Houston, TX: Gospel Services).
Nelson, Wilton M., ed. (1985), Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible [Diccionario Ilustrado de la Biblia] (Miami, FL: Editorial Caribe), fourteenth edition.
Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. (1973 reprint), Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Suetonius Tranquillus (1890), The Lives of the Twelve Cæsars, trans. Alexander Thomson (London: George Bell and Sons).
Tacitus, Cornelius (1836), The Works of Cornelius Tacitus (Philadelphia, PA: Thomas Wardle).
REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.