A frequent critique of the Roman Catholic Church is that it doesn’t look very much like the early Church. The popular image of the ragtag gang of early Christians doesn’t sit well with the popular image of a stuffy and hierarchical Church. So what can be said to this objection?
Part of the answer is that it is a twofold exaggeration. The early Church was much more hierarchical and institutional than modern Christians give it credit for; simultaneously, the modern Church is far less hierarchical and institutional than is often imagined. As a result, you can easily end up contrasting a mostly-imaginary early Church from a mostly-imaginary modern Church. Perhaps the best remedy is to simply read the writings of the earliest Christians directly. You can find a wealth of resources at New Advent, CCEL, and elsewhere. It should quickly dispel the notion that the early Church was a sort of early commune, or that its theology, ecclesiology or worship were closer to modern Protestantism than to modern Catholicism. Meanwhile, exploring the modern Catholic Church with an open heart should do volumes for the idea that it’s hyper-hierarchical and authoritarian.
Nevertheless, there’s a kernel of truth. The modern Church really does look different from the Church of the first few centuries. You’ll search in vain to find a first-century “Cardinal,” much less a “music director” or “web development team.” So should we turn back the clock, and jettison the changes and developments of the intervening two millennia? Hardly.
Instead, here are five Scriptural bases for why we should thank God that the Church of today looks differently than she did yesterday:
(1) The Parable of the Mustard Seed
In Matthew 13, Jesus provides a series of parables to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the most famous is the parable of the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31-32):
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
That’s a pretty clear message. Jesus is “planting” His Church with a small group of disciples, so small that they initially go largely unnoticed by the outside world. And yet, He’s letting them know that it won’t always be that way: that because it’s His Kingdom, they’ll go from the smallest to the largest. And that’s exactly what has happened. There are roughly a 1.25 billion Catholics right now, along with about 900 million Protestants and 225-300 million Orthodox. We’re the largest shrub on earth, and we’re still not done growing.
But ask yourself this: how much does a fully-grown mustard tree look like it did when it was a seed? How much should it look like it’s still a seed?
(2) The Parable of the Leaven
Immediately after the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus offers a more domestic parable to make the same point (Matthew 13:33): “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.” Again, we see that the Kingdom is initially so small that it’s “hidden” in the surrounding world. And yet it leavens the whole world. The yeast, at first, is imperceptible. But quickly, that’s no longer the case. It makes its presence felt, growing and transforming, just as it transforms its environment. That’s the story of Christianity: from a small, persecuted sect within the Roman Empire to the religion of the Empire to the largest religion on Earth.
(3) The Universal Commission
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives His Apostles some crucial instructions (Mt. 28:18-20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
At the time He’s giving this commission, the Church is made up entirely of Jews from a tiny corner of the Roman Empire. In order to be faithful to Christ, the Apostles can’t try to freeze the Church at that moment in history. Indeed, Scripture doesn’t look favorably upon the Judaizers who resisted letting Gentiles into the Church – even though they, like modern critics of the Church, could legitimately say that it would make the Church look different than it did the day before.
This universal commission revolutionizes the way the Church looks from day 1 (literally). On Pentecost, St. Peter preaches to a group of “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11). That day, 3000 of these listeners get baptized (Acts 2:41) into a Church that only had 120 members that morning (Acts 1:15).
(4) “All Things to All People”
One of the challenges of the universal commission, of course, is how to present the Gospel in radically different cultural contexts. St. Paul discussed this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
The presentation of the Gospel is going to look different to one group than to another. And Paul doesn’t tell the Jews and Gentiles to totally abandon their cultures for the sake of some homogenous Christian culture. Rather, he adapts to them, as much as he is able. This is the Church’s standard practice: and indeed, in places where missionaries have attempted to impose European culture alongside of Christianity, the results have often been disastrous. But as you might imagine, Indian Christianity might not look like Congolese Christianity, which might not look like Swedish Christianity, and all of them are going to look different (in at least some externals) from what the Apostles experienced.
Once again, this isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. Christianity is a universal message of salvation for all peoples. All nations are called to be Christian, after all.
(5) The Parable of the Talents
As a final Scriptural basis to examine, consider the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The Master gives 5 talents to one servant, 3 talents to a second, and one talent to the third. The first two faithfully invest their talents and produce enormous returns: in both cases, their investments are doubled. The Master responds to each of these men, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:21, 23). But the third buries his talent. He makes sure that the talent doesn’t grow or change in any way, and gives it back to the Master unchanged, saying, “Here you have what is yours” (Mt. 25:25). The Master responds, “you wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Mt. 25:26-28).
Ultimately, this is a question for the Church. Are we going to bury our talents, to try to ensure that the Church looks the same a century from now as she did a century ago? Or are we going to be faithful to the Commission we’ve been by Jesus Christ?
I’m reminded of Apple Computers. Depending on who you believe, Apple was started in either Steve Wozniak’s bedroom or Steve Jobs’ garage. But either way, it started tiny. But they didn’t start that small for the sake of staying in the garage forever. They started that small for the sake of revolutionizing the industry and changing the world. Faithfulness to that mission meant that their company would dramatically grow and change: how could it not? Nobody would seriously suggest that Apple ought to still be run entirely out of a bedroom or a garage.
So it is with the Church: Jesus founded an extremely-tiny Church, but He sends that Church to go out and transform the world, promising that the Church will dramatically expand (like a rapidly-growing plant or leaven in bread) into the largest religion on Earth. The Apostles weren’t told to stand in one place and stare at the sky until Christ’s return (Acts 1:10-11). They were told to get busy. And they did. That’s why the Church looks different today than she did yesterday.
No Church or denomination on earth today looks like the Apostolic Church looked in the first century. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s great. If we looked the same today as we did then, it would mean that Christianity had completely flatlined and the Gospel had failed to leaven the world.
Instead, we’re promised something better. We’re not promised a Church that looks like the first-century Church. We’re promised a Church that is the first-century Church, all grown up. If you don’t mind, you’re my last example. Twenty or thirty years from now, you might not look very much like you do today. You might even have a son or daughter who ends up looking more like 2016 you than 2036 you does. But that doesn’t change anything. Your son or daughter isn’t you. You are. You’re just all grown up.
So it is here: certain Evangelical and nondenominational groups strive to imitate the early Church, to make themselves look like the first-century Church. We Catholics don’t bother, both because those weren’t the instructions, and because we already are that Church.