At or near the heart of the Reformation is a debate over Saint Paul, and how we should understand his writings, particularly his statements about justification in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. This is an interesting exegetical question, but in my opinion, it overlooks an obvious reality: St. Paul would never have been a Protestant. His views on the Church simply wouldn’t permit such a thing.
|Vincenzo Gemito, The Philosopher [Saint Paul], (1917)
I’ve discussed St. Paul’s views on the Church in the past, but I wanted to focus on a specific passage from Ephesians 4:11-14, in which he writes:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but here are six major points that you should take away from the above:
- Jesus Christ personally created the Church, which is His Body;
- The Church is Apostolic, since Christ Himself gave the Church the Apostles;
- This Apostolic Church is structured with various offices and ministries;
- These various offices and ministries are all built towards the same end: building up the Body;
- We’re all called to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God,” which St. Paul equates with spiritual maturity, and having the fullness of Christ;
- When we don’t have have this spiritual maturity, we get “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
|Pietro De Cortana,
Ananias Restoring the Sight of Saint Paul (1631)
Those first five points lay out a positive case for the Church. The Church isn’t just the set of all believers, however assembled. It’s a structured Body, and this structure isn’t accident. Rather, it was put in place by Jesus Christ Himself.
And we, as Christians, are called to total unity in the faith. That’s a tall order, since it necessarily requires doctrinal unity: if we can’t even agree on the doctrines surrounding Baptism, Communion, justification, and the rest, we’re failing to “reach unity in the faith.” Granted, unity in the faith is much more than doctrinal unity, but it’s certainly not less.
Next, Paul suggests that it’s through reaching unity in the faith that we attain “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ
.” That’s a surprising statement: that you can only have Christ fully if you have the Church fully. But earlier in his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul made this exact point more bluntly, saying that “God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be Head over everything for the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22-23) If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then to accept or reject the Church is to accept or reject Jesus Christ. To have a strained relationship with the Church, then, is a big deal. Given that, total Church unity isn’t just an ideal, but an imperative for anyone who wants union with Christ.
After this, St. Paul suggests what happens when we neglect total union with Christ and the Church.
|Map of St. Paul’s third voyage,
showing a Church that was not just “local.”
Specifically, if we reject spiritual maturity and total unity, we end up as spiritual “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
If the earlier points provided a positive case for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, this last point serves as a devastating indictment of Protestantism. Paul’s point is elegantly simple: if you’re not rallied around the visible Church, you end up following after (a) charlatans and (b) every new doctrinal fad.
One of the things that I’ve noticed over the past few years of speaking with Protestants about various doctrinal issues is how frequently they disagree, not just with the Catholic Church, but with one another. It’s not as if there’s fundamental agreement between Calvinists and Arminians, or Evangelicals and mainliners, or Anglicans and Pentecostals and Independent Baptists.
|Laurent de La Hyre, Saint Paul Shipwrecked on Malta (1630)
Part of the reason for the deep doctrinal divisions within Protestantism is that all manner of strange new doctrines have arisen, the very blowing winds that St. Paul warned against. You can see these winds blowing in discussions on the state of Israel
, or the end times
, or the Sabbath
, or the Prosperity Gospel
, or dispensationalism
, or the “secret rapture
,” or double predestination, or the verbal dictation theory of Biblical inspiration, or countless other issues. Positions that the early Church had never even heard of are held as not only true, but the only acceptable position. But it’s not just on the fringes, either: some 44% of Americans switch denominations at some point in their lives. This is exactly what Paul warned would happen if we turned our backs on the Apostolic Church.
Paul really does present us two paths, which he describes as spiritual infancy and spiritual maturity. The path of spiritual infancy involves every Christian functionally going it alone, serving as their own pope and Magisterium, seeking to individually figure out the answers to every problem facing the Church. Almost invariably, they get swept up in doctrinal fads or getting duped by persuasive preachers. The path of spiritual maturity takes the emphasis off of you, and places it on the Body of Christ, where it belongs. Here, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into total unity of the faith, within the visible, Apostolic Church. And in doing so, we grasp Jesus Christ more fully than we would if we were left to ourselves.
Given these two paths, it’s clear to me which one St. Paul would take if he were alive today — the same one that he took in his own life. After all, Acts 15:24-25 distinguishes between Paul and Barnabas, who are chosen and sent by the Church, and the Judaizers, who “went out from us without our authorization.” So my first question for readers (both Catholic and Protestant) is, which are you? Are you following the path of spiritual maturity, or infancy? And for Protestant readers, do you really think that Saint Paul would be a Protestant if he were alive today?