I’ve constructed a short thought experiment to explain why “cafeteria-Catholicism” isnt’ a possible option for those wishing to follow Christ:
I. The King’s Messenger: The Thought Experiment
Imagine that it’s the Middle Ages, and you’ve just learned that your King has sent you official notice via a messenger with detailed instructions on what you are to do. Of course, you set out to determine who this Messenger is. You quickly discover:
(1) a number of people claiming, not to be the Messenger, but to know the King well, yet who differ quite seriously on what his message is; and
(2) a handful of people claiming to be the actual Messenger.
Within this second group, all but one are transparently crackpots. One in particular stands out as being recognized by many others as the King’s Messenger, and who can point to his own history of having accurately and faithfully delivered the King’s messages in the past. Given this wealth of external indications, you conclude that this is the King’s Messenger, and that what he’s holding in his hand is actually from the King. Once you accept this, you open the letter, and you’re not thrilled with parts of what you read. Can you then choose to disregard part of the letter, on the basis that the King’s Messenger might not be who he says he is? Obviously not. If you conclude that this is the true Messenger, you must obey the entire letter, or you’re not disobeying the messenger: you’re disobeying the King. The time for your own judgment has concluded, and it’s time to obey a higher Authority.
II. The Church as Messenger
The parallel to Catholicism is not particularly subtle, nor is it intended to be. God is King, yet He is no longer present in the flesh for us to talk with directly (John 16:16). He explicitly made provisions that in His local absence, He is sending the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) who will guide the Church into “all Truth” (John 16:13). Now, a Messenger must be (1) given a message, and (2) sent to deliver that message. The Church fits both of these uniquely. First, She’s been given the entire Message in a totally unique way. Jesus makes this quite clear, at some length, in John’s Gospel. In John 14:15-21, Jesus makes it clear that the Holy Spirit will be present with us forever so that we may know with certainty what Christ commands. He does so to avoid us becoming “orphans”:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
So if we love Christ, we’ll desire to obey Him; but to obey Him, we need a way of knowing what He is and isn’t commanding. John 14:25-26 tells us a bit more about the Holy Spirit’s incredible role:
“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
That’s a huge promise: that the Holy Spirit will make sure the Church knows 100% of what we’ll need to know. But Jesus makes this promise again, two chapters later, in John 16:12-13,
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
Finally, setting aside for a moment the unique role of the papacy, everyone should be able to agree that Matthew 16:17-19 makes clear that Christ set up His Church — that it isn’t just whoever happened to show up, and that the Church isn’t of human origin. So Christ created the Church, and left specific instructions for the Holy Spirit to leave the whole message with the Church.
And this Messenger, the Church, was commissioned – sent out to the world. The very last words Jesus says before His Ascension also make clear that the Church is His global Messenger: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8). But this promise isn’t just to the Apostles. Matthew ends his Gospel on a note similar to the note Christ ended His time on Earth, quoting Jesus for the proposition that the Church has a global commission, and is under Christ’s protection “until the end of the Age,” that is, until the Second Coming (Matthew 28:18-20).
III. Who’s the Messenger? How to Know Which Church to Choose.
Given all this, we know that Christ sent a Messenger, the Church. But there’s no shortage of denominations claiming to be the best embodiment of that Message. So what should we look for? Well, we know that the Church will be One and indissoluble. We know this for at least five reasons, given the above evidence:
- Jesus built the Church Himself, and promised the Church’s perseverance (Matthew 16:17-19).
- It’s Christ who says that a Kingdom divided against Itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25). Surely, this means that the Kingdom of God isn’t divided against Itself.
- Jesus promised He’d be with the Church until the end of the Age (Matthew 28:20). So it isn’t like things got out of hand while He’d stepped outside for a moment.
- The Holy Spirit is the eternal Advocate of the Church (John 14:16, John 16:7), and one of the marks of the Spirit is unity (Ephesians 4:3).
- The Holy Spirit will lead the Church into “all Truth” (John 16:13). This necessarily requires a Single, Visible Body, or the promise isn’t worth much.
#5 is the least obvious, so let me explain it briefly. There are three ways in which Christians understand this promise from John 16:13 and John 14:26. The first (which Calvin advocated) is that this was fulfilled in the writing of Scripture. But, of course, that can’t be right. If “all truth” is contained in the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t include (a) the teaching of sola Scriptura or (b) the canon of Scripture, then either those things aren’t true, or this interpretation is wrong — either way, it’s self-refuting. The second interpretation is that 100% of Christian Truth is out there, but that no one denomination has a “monopoly on the truth.” And the third, the Catholic view, is that the Holy Spirit keeps the Church from erring, that the Truth of Christ is kept whole and inviolate.
Think of it this way. The classic Protestant version views the different denominations like students taking a very hard test: none will get all the answers, but some are certainly closer than others. Each question was accurately answered by at least one student, so in that sense, the students had “all truth” invisibly intermixed with their numerous errors. But the second vision is the one affirmed by Catholicism: She claims not simply to be more right than other Christian churches and denominations, but to possess a bulletproof, 100% right “Answer Sheet” from the Teacher Himself.
Now with the Protestant version, “the Truth is out there,” but nobody’s been “lead” “into all Truth.” Even if all the students compared papers, they wouldn’t know for sure who was right and who was wrong on the issues on which they disagreed. But in the Catholic version, there’s the Holy Spirit leading the Church, and into possession “once for all” (Jude 1:3) of all Truth. Finally, of course, “all Truth” can’t be in contradiction with anything True.
So, if we’ve established their is one Messenger who has the entire Truth, the entire Message, protected by the Spirit Himself, let’s look around a bit. Are there even any rival claimants to the title One True Church?
(1) No major Protestant denomination claims to be the Church Jesus Christ founded. They claim to have and understand most of His message, but not to be the Messenger he appointed and sent out. So if we’re looking for the Messenger, we need to keep looking.
(2) A few cults and fringe groups do claim to be the One True Church, but they’re obviously loony. For one thing, these groups are all young. And the Messenger sent by Christ is, by definition, nearly 2000 years old, because know when He sent the Spirit at Pentecost! Remember that the Church must be One and indissoluble, and these jokers fail the second prong for sure.
(3) …And then there’s the Catholic Church. She can provide evidence tracing Her lineage to the Aposotlic age, and for centuries was the only Church around.
So if Christ sent a Messenger (which He did), and if He entrusted that Messenger with all Truth, via the Spirit (which He did), then we can know for certain that the Messenger is the Catholic Church, if only because there are no other options, and because She so neatly fits the bill. If all this is true, you can’t pick and choose which Church teachings to follow. Whether you like the Message or not, your true beef (if you have one) isn’t with the Messenger, but with the King.
IV. The Unique Papal Role
There was one option I didn’t discuss above: the role of the Orthodox. This is because it’s complex, and goes beyond the scope of the analogy. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church are One Church, who acknowledge the validity of each other’s sacraments. They’re also in schism – the Orthodox claim we split from them, and we believe they split from us. Much (although by no means all) of the dispute is over the authority of the pope. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to show that the pope serves in a unique was a Messenger of the King.
In Matthew 16:17-19, in which Christ makes clear He’s establishing a single Church, His blessing to Peter promises him the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” This image of the keys echoes Isaiah 22:22, in which the King of Israel gives the keys to the House of David to his servant Eliakim, to signal that he’s replacing Shebna as Palace Administrator. Now, the Administrator had two tasks: one, he was “in charge of the palace” (Isaiah 22:15), and two, he was a representative of the King. For example, in 2 King 18:17-18, we read:
The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. They came up to Jerusalem and stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman’s Field. They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them.
They called for the King, and Eliakim shows up: not as the King himself, but as the King’s Messenger; or, if you prefer, his Vicar (and just to be clear, Eliakim is the ranking authority here – Shebna is the disgraced former Administrator from Isaiah 22, reduced to the rank of secretary, while Joah is just taking notes). Peter has the same two jobs. Since the keys he’s been given are “the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” and in the particular context of the establishment of the Church, we know that he’s in charge of the Church, just as the Administrator was in charge of the Palace during the Davidic rule of Israel. Second, he’s the Vicar of Christ — just as King Hezekiah commissioned Eliakim and those working in union with him (Shebna and Joah, in 2 Kings 18) to speak on his (Hezekiah’s) behalf, so too does Christ send forth Peter and those in union with Him to speak on His behalf. You call for Christ, and the pope shows up as his Vicar.