Old Covenant Judaism, by the time of Christ, was riddled with various sects. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the close of the first century, describes five major factions: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Sicarii. Other factions existed as well, like the Herodians, the mortal enemies of the Sicarii. And of course, there are the Samaritans, who weren’t recognized as Jews by most of the Jewish sects. Again, these are just the divisions within ancient Judaism: it doesn’t include the disunity between Jews and Gentiles.
Into this divided and disorganized world comes Christ, who forms a new and united Church. In John 10:14-16, Jesus says,
“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.
Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.”
Passages like these suggest that the Church is to be One. But Catholics and Protestants typically understand these passages differently. Catholics understand that there’s to be a single Church, and see the rise of denominationalism to be a gross scandal, and a grave wound to the Body of Christ. In contrast, from what I can tell, most Protestants read these passages to simply mean that, whatever else may divide us, we’re at least united by our shared love of Christ.
|This chart gets some of the details wrong,
but it helps show the scandal of denominationalism
While it’s true that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants are united in some way by our shared Baptism and our shared love of Christ, this particular reading of the passage strikes me as rather flat. The Oneness of the New Testament Church described in Scripture certainly seems to include doctrinal unity. In Acts 4:32, we’re told that “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” So they shared a common love for Christ and common beliefs. And in 2 Corinthians 13:11, St. Paul writes, “Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
In treating the Gentile Christians like they were unclean, and inferior to the Jewish Christians, St. Peter refused to eat dinner with them. That was scandalous and sinful. But how much larger of a scandal is it that Protestant and Catholic Christians can’t share the sacred meal of Holy Communion together?
So no, denominationalism is a terrible scandal. Jesus Christ calls us to more, and He’s prayed for more. It’s a serious and ugly problem that needs to be solved. I see essentially three ways that this scandal can be cured:
This is the real danger of much of ecumenism. Representatives of two (or more) denominations will sit down together, and squabble of how much of their statement of beliefs can be sacrificed for the sake of forced unity. You’ll give up your beliefs forbidding infant Baptism, and in exchange, we’ll stop affirming that the pope is head of the Church on Earth — that sort of thing. That’s a dishonest approach towards theology. If Christianity is a religion of what’s true, and what’s revealed by God, we don’t have the leeway to compromise some of His revelation for convenience.
Contrast this approach with St. Paul’s instructions to his disciple Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5,
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
The problem with this first approach is that it does the exact opposite: once the Truth is out of season, we stop preaching it, and stop rebuking error, sacrificing sound teaching for the sake of those myths and false teachings promulgated by the popular teachers sought out by the flock. St. Paul’s charge to Timothy invokes Christ, “who is to judge the living and the dead.” We don’t want to show up to the Last Judgment having violated this charge.
This is another trap that much of the modern ecumenical effort risks falling into. In it, we try to put a band-aid over the wound in the Body of Christ, and pretend it’s not there. Maybe we’ll want to offer open Communion to groups that we think are dangerously wrong with their theology, and who have a very different view of the Eucharist and the Church than we do. This is another form of dishonesty, and it’s directly condemned in Scripture (Jeremiah 3:13-15):
“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the LORD.
So this second option is also condemned in some pretty strong language, this time by God Himself directly.
This leaves one option, and it’s not one that Protestants are going to want to hear. The Scriptural evidence points to the idea that God Himself will lead the Church. Consider the Scriptural evidence:
- Christ built the Church Himself (Matthew 16:17-19);
- The Church is the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:23-32);
- The Body of Christ is to be without division (1 Corinthians 12:25);
- Christ gave Peter (individually) the power to bind and loosen, and the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:17-19);
- He likewise gave the Church (collectively) the power to bind and loosen (Matthew 18:18),
- Peter was given a special commission to care for the other Apostles (Luke 22:32), and was given a special commission in caring for all of Christ’s flock (John 21:15-17);
- Peter later went to Rome, referred to by the Jews as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13);
- The Church established by Christ included hand-picked Apostles (Mark 3:14)
- The men picked by God then appointed another generation of Church leaders (e.g., Acts 1:23-25; Acts 6:3-6; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
- The men they appointed were to continue this chain of Apostolic succession (2 Tim. 2:2)
- Christ protects the Church always (Matthew 28:20);
- Christ promised not to leave us orphans — which precludes the possibility of an Apostasy wiping the true Church off the map (John 14:18);
- The Holy Spirit protects the Church always (John 14:16);
- The Holy Spirit leads the Church into all truth (John 16:13; John 14:26);
- We, the laity, aren’t supposed to seek out whichever denomination suits us best (2 Timothy 4:3-4);
- Instead, we’re supposed to obey Church leaders (Hebrews 13:17-18), and look to them for the truth (1 Timothy 3:15);
- This Church was prophesied in the Old Testament as starting in time of the Roman Empire, and lasting forever (Daniel 2:44-45). It was also prophesied to include a sacrificial priesthood similar to the Levitical priesthood of old (Isaiah 66:18-21).
All of that points towards the Catholic Church. Many more passages could be marshaled in support as well, as well as the testimony of the earliest Christians.
Now, if the Catholic Church is Who She claims to be (the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, imparted with the ongoing protection of the Holy Spirit), the problem is solved quite neatly. If all Christians unite under the Catholic Church, and listen to St. Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 3:15, rather than acting like those he criticizes in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, we get both unity and Truth.
One of the points that Christians often make in Christian-Jewish dialogues is that if Christ isn’t the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies, no one is. The Tanakh contains a long list of Messianic prophesies that created a specific timeline. For example, Daniel 2 is pretty clear that the Advent of the Messiah will occur three regime changes after the fall of the Babylonian Empire: that is, during the time of the Roman Empire. Jesus Christ fits the timeline: no other contender does. So it’s Jesus or nobody.
We have a similar situation here. If Jesus called for total adherence to the Truth and a Oneness of the Church, Protestantism can’t be correct. At its heart, it preaches that the Reformation was necessary: that Oneness of the Church had to be broken out of adherence to the Truth. That’s the inherent catch-22 of Protesantism in a nutshell. It’s Catholicism or nobody.