This post is in response to a comment I received from a man named Austin here. His criticisms are ones frequently heard by Evangelicals, so Catholics and Evangelicals might both do well to read on.
First off, thanks for following up, and proving me too much a cynic. I think your second comment crystallizes quite well the areas upon which we disagree: rituals, teaching authority, and how to understand the Church.
A. Weekly Mass-Going
The two “rituals” you cite to, weekly Mass-going and annual confession, are both Scriptural. The notion of a weekly Sabbath is obviously Scriptural (Exodus 20:8-10), and in the New Covenant, this was transferred to Sunday to honor Jesus’ Resurrection (John 20:1). This is to be group worship, not the sort of private prayer we’re called to offer up constantly (1 Thes 5:16-18). For this reason, Hebrews warns us not to forsake the Assembly (Hebrews 10:23-25). I had a post on this very subject, if you’re interested.
So the Book of Hebrews views it as a sin to miss church. What’s not said is how frequently or infrequently one should go. How often should the church assembly meet, at what time, etc.? Scripture doesn’t provide a clear answer that, but someone has to. There are three principles at work within the Catholic Church – weekly Mass (the fulfillment of the Sabbath), the minimum; daily Mass (the fulfillment of the daily Manna), the ideal; and holy days (the fulfillment of the Jewish liturgical celebrations). So the norm in Catholicism is weekly Mass attendance (unless that’s impractical), and those holy days set by the Church in that area, while Catholics are encouraged (but not required) to go as frequently as possible, even daily.
So the practice of communal worship is Scriptural, the timing of that worship is Scriptural, and the condemnation of abstaining from that communal worship is Scriptural. In addition, I suppose it’s worth noting that we know historically that the earliest Christians had liturgies. They transitioned from Jewish liturgy to Christian liturgy — we even see this transition happening in places like Acts 2:42, Acts 2:46, and Acts 18:7. The Christians go to synagogue, then go to one of the Christian’s houses where the celebrate “the breaking of the Bread.” This is a Eucharistic reference, and of course, it’s only Passover bread which is broken, instead of torn (more on that here). In particular, the fact that, in Acts 20:6-11, hours into the “Breaking of the Bread” there’s been no Bread broken yet shows pretty plainly that this is a reference for something more than a meal.
As for confession, that’s James 5:16, plain and simple. The next question is always, “why to priests?” And the answer is that’s who Jesus gave the powers to forgive sins in John 20:21-23, and “sends” them. We know John 20:21-23 doesn’t apply to all Christians, because not all Christians are sent (Acts 15:24, Romans 10:15). St. Francis De Sales has a great Scriptural exegesis on who is sent, and how, in Scripture, in his “On the Mission of the Church.” So this is also very clearly Scriptural. For Protestants to deny confession requires, in my opinion, a bit of twisting of the plain words of Scripture.
Towards the end of this argument, you suggest that these rituals substitute for the place of God. On the contrary, the “rituals” only have any worth if you have a right heart. Look at Psalm 51. David sings, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Psalm 51:16), but keep reading. Next, we hear, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). This sounds like David’s saying rituals stand in the way of a right relationship with God, which is what’s really important. But he’s not, because he notes that once his heart is right with God, “Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (Psalm 51:19). So David’s actually saying that these sacrifices and offerings are good, but that they can’t replace a contrite heart. The Catholic sacraments and the Mass are the same way. Confession is good, and commanded by God through Scripture, but it’s only got value if you’re truly contrite for your sins. If you’re not, and are just going through the motions, you’re not going to get anything out of it.
For your second argument, you say:
And it seems to me that Protestants are in a bit of a catch 22 when it comes to the authority issue. On the one hand, if they did claim to be the holders of truth, then it seems that Christ rebuked them for aggrandizing to this position. And so it would be anomalous for Catholics to do the exact same thing.
But, if “the Pharisees never taught that they were the only ones with the truth”, then God didn’t think a teaching authority was necessary for thousands of years. And then all of a sudden implements one and barely mentions it except in a couple ambiguous statements? That doesn’t stand to reason.
Let’s address these in reverse order. Your second argument in this section is that if the Pharisees weren’t infallible, then no teaching authority was necessary. That doesn’t follow at all. The Pharisees weren’t infallible, but Jews were still to follow them, because they were in charge (Matthew 23:1-3). Likewise, we’re to obey our parents, even though they’re fallible. But you’re right that if there’s to be One True Church, it has to be infallible, or the Church will eventually teach heresy.
I agree on the first paragraph, about the catch-22. Protestants don’t dare to claim to be the One True Church, so they’re left in a position not far removed from moral relativism — we think this is right, but we could all be wrong. Worse still, to be Protestant, you effectively have to conclude that over a millennium’s worth of Christians were wrong on really fundamental doctrines like justification, the canon of Scripture, the priesthood, the Liturgy, etc. I outline this at length here, All of the Apostolic Churches — the Catholics, Orthodox, and Coptics — disagree with the Protestant answers on every one of these issues, and many more. All of us have more than 66 books, believe that justification is synegistic, that Christ established a priesthood through His Apostles, and all of us have epic Liturgies (called the Mass, Divine Liturgy, or Holy Qurbana, depending on who you’re asking). If every Christian everywhere was wrong from, say, 500 – 1500, who’s to say that every Christian now isn’t wrong, and that the right answer is some not-yet-made-up denomination? So yeah, it really does put you in a catch-22 where you can’t condemn error on anything greater than your own reading of Scripture or history.
You’ll note that the Church Christ established did not find Herself in this position. Look at Acts 15. Despite no new revelations being given at the Council, She speaks on behalf of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28) in condemning the errors of the Judaizers (v. 28-29), and in condemning those who preach without prior Church approval (Acts 15:24). So you have not just a logical problem, but a Scriptural problem.
The Church readily claims to be the holder of the entire Truth. She even calls Herself “the Way” (Acts 24:14, 24:22), a title for Christ (John 14:6). And Christ promises Her all the Truth, explicitly, in John 16:13. This promise is meaningless if He means only that the whole Truth will be “out there” somewhere. It’s a promise to the visible Church, or it’s nothing.
When St. Paul persecutes this Church (Acts 8:3), Jesus accuses him of persecuting Himself (Acts 9:4-5). Paul will later write that the Church is the Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5) and the Holy and Blameless Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-32). He even describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “profound Mystery” (Ephesians 5:30) — and this Greek word, Mysterion, is the root of the Latin word meaning Sacrament. Christ sets up this Church as the court of last resort for disputes against Christians. In Matthew 18:17-18, we hear Jesus instruct us how to deal with unrepentant sinners:
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the Church; and if they refuse to listen even to the Church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
As you’ve noted, Protestantism can’t do this. What one church disagrees with, another agrees with. If you find your theology doesn’t agree with your pastor’s, you just get a new pastor. Christ promises that this isn’t how His House will operate, since “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). Instead, His prayer is for absolute unity within the Church (John 17:20-23):
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Rather what makes more sense is the Protestant understanding of Paul in 1 Tim 3:15: That the “church” means Christians in general just as Israel meant the Jews in general in the OT. Yes there are a few stragglers who preach false doctrines, but those who seek after the truth honestly find it. Mt. 7:7 This is just like it was in the OT. There God would speak of Israel doing right, finding the truth, etc. That is, He spoke of Israel in general, even though, surely, there were some Jews who weren’t doing the things He said were happening. And this is what Paul meant when he said that the church was the pillar of truth. Not that a hierarchical structure was the infallible pillar of truth, but that those who seek the truth find it. Mt. 7:7.
The Catholic Church, like you, apparently, thinks that the New Testament Church is a fulfillment of OT Israel. But the Old Testament clearly depicts Israel as a visible society with borders (Numbers 32:1-12, Ezekiel 47:13-23), censuses to count the exact number of people (Exodus 30:12, Numbers 1, Numbers 26:2, 2 Samuel 24, 2 Chronicles 2:17, etc.), elders (Exodus 3:16, Exodus 4:29, Exodus 24:9, Leviticus 9:1, Deuteronomy 31:9), priests (Exodus 28, Numbers 3:32, 2 Kings 16:10), a high priest (Leviticus 16:32, 2 Kings 12:10, 2 Kings 22:4), officials and judges (Joshua 8:33, Joshua 23:2), kings (Deuteronomy 17:15, 1 Samuel 8, 1 Samuel 15:17, 2 Samuel 5:12, 2 Kings 18:1) and lots of governors, bureaucrats and governmental officials (1 Kings 4:1-19 is a perfect example of this, because it lists who’s got which jobs under King Saul). It couldn’t get much more hierarchical. The Jews are those who either live in the nation of Israel, or are spiritually connected with that nation. Saying “all Israel” is a reference to the people, but so is “all Catholics.” Neither phrase refutes the idea of a visible structured institution. In another post, I graphically compared the three tiers of the religious hierarchy between Israel:
… and the Church:
In fact, Korah decries this hierarchy and tries to go it alone in Numbers 16, arguing against the consecrated priesthood, “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3). God answers this (Numbers 16:31-32).
There was no question in the early Church that it was hierarchical. The New Testament describes bishops, presbyters (who were quickly called “priests,” to reflect that they were the lowest rank capable of serving the priestly function), and deacons, and no early Christian source argues against them. You don’t get another Korah until the Reformation.
But let’s just consider the thing practically. Certainly, there are times when “the Church” means “everyone in the Institution.” This is true of both the New Testament, and a lot of Catholic writings today. We believe that all the saved are part of the Church, so describing the totality of the saved as “the Church” is accurate. It’s just not the only way of speaking of the Church, since it’s also that Institution, that Structure, that Body, which supports us. For example, look at the following passages:
- Matthew 16:17-19, “Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.”” What does it mean to build “a Church” upon Peter, if there’s no structure?
- Ephesians 2:19-20, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His Household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone.” Look at the reverse-hierarchy here. Christ, the Head, is at the bottom, supporting everyone else. The Apostles and prophets then serve in a middle tier, supported by Christ, and supporting the flock. This is the same pyramid I described above, just upside-down, in keeping with Luke 22:24-32. Note that in Luke 22, He also describes the Apostles in a position of authority even in Heaven, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
- With that in mind, go back to 1 Timothy 3:15. The Church is the “pillar and foundation of Truth.” This is an obvious reference to those in authority. Otherwise, it’s telling us to either listen to whatever we happen to think, or listen to popular opinion within the Church.
- Matthew 18:17-18 (quoted above). Without a hierarchy, how can “the Church” serve as the court of last resort? The same could be asked of 1 Corinthians 6:1-5.
- Hebrews 13:17 (I know I used it above, but it’s worth repeating): “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” This is explicitly hierarchical. There are leaders and followers, and the followers have to obey and submit, while the leaders have authority.
- Peter even condemns those who despise authority (2 Peter 2:10). Jude 1:8 explains what Peter’s talking about: those within the Church who reject Church authority because of dreams or visions they’ve been having. Jude compares them to Korah, who rejected the authority of the OT hierarchy (Jude 1:11).
- 1 Timothy 5:17 says that the presbytery is put in place to run the affairs of the Church, and they’re even described as “ruling” within the Church. Acts 20:28 says it’s the Holy Spirit who puts these men in place. And 2 Corinthians 10:8 explains that God gave the hierarchy authority, that they may build up His people.