The Protestant Church of Christ also calls itself the Churches of Christ. The utilization of both names grants the group flexibility: the word “Church” (singular) communicates unity, and the word “Churches” (plural) communicates the autonomous nature of each local congregation. It makes sense; the Catholic Church has used the same names for centuries, but the Catholic Church’s use of the words do not indicate autonomy, but rather, unity.
“Autonomy” is a goal and mark of the Protestant Church of Christ, whereas “Catholicity” is a goal and mark of the Catholic Church of Christ; and even into the local congregations the Catholic Church remains united. And she, the real Church of Christ, remains united because she is hierarchical, as I will illustrate throughout this essay.
One Protestant Church of Christ writer, Edward C. Wharton, describes his group’s position well, and he provides insight into your group’s collective mind. He introduces the subject of autonomy in his book, The Church of Christ, by writing:
Contrary to the complex hierarchical system of one ruling bishop over many churches, the New Testament presents the autonomy of each local church, whether or not they have elders. Local church autonomy means that each local church is self-governing.1
It is expected and clear that Wharton begins to establish his group by comparing it to the Catholic Church: “Contrary to a complex hierarchical system … .” It is reasonable for a Comparative Religion book, such as the one in your hands, to compare religions; but Wharton’s book is intended to describe “The Distinctive Nature of the New Testament Church” (Wharton’s subtitle), yet it, like nearly all apologetics material provided by the group, is an attempt to establish its Restoration tradition by comparing it to a competing tradition—it is an indication that his position antagonistically relies on a pre-existing platform. Imagine the surprise if the Catechism of the Catholic Church (an exegesis of the Scriptures) established the Catholic Church by disestablishing any Protestant sect!
Is not the Protestant Church of Christ’s readiness to discredit a competing paradigm in order to establish its own credibility an indication that it is only reactionary—not leading, secondary—not primary? Is heresy not in the hands of those who protest a pre-existing paradigm? Nobody knows what is “complex” about a hierarchy; autonomy, and its provable and inevitable breakdown into disunity, is a much more complex option. But as an indicative apologia for the Protestant Church of Christ’s position, please consider the illogic of Wharton’s sect-wide accepted introduction.
Is not the fact that he refers to the New Testament Scriptures an acknowledgement that a hierarchy of some sort existed to create the New Testament? Could he argue that autonomous churches autonomously created the canon of Scripture? The Protestant group takes what a hierarchy already produced, and then presents history as if that hierarchy had never existed—the group has no memory because it is new.
Autonomy is a founding tenet of the Protestant Church of Christ, it is a granted premise, and it is necessary for the group’s survival. If autonomy is shown to be wrong, then of course, the group is wrong; and the Catholic Church of Christ’s legitimacy is strengthened. I will show you how the Old Testament provides the model of how the Church is structured, that the Christian kingdom has a prime minister (a pope), how the New Testament reflects the already-present hierarchy, how important a prime minister is for maintaining orthodoxy, and of course, how the Catholic Church’s hierarchy throughout history is Jesus’ intent.
St. Peter Was First
St. Peter’s position and importance is clearer than any other Apostle. Every major group of New Testament texts is acquainted with the subject of St. Peter—illuminating his universal (catholic) significance. St. Peter’s marathon lists of “firsts” overflow the New Testament, not because of chance, but deliberate choosing. St. Peter is given Christ’s flock to shepherd (cf. John 21:17), headed the meeting to appoint the first apostolic successor (cf. Acts 1:13-26), preached at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:14), received the first converts (cf. Acts 2:41), performed the first miracle after Pentecost (cf. Acts 3:6,7), presided over the first ecclesial punishment (cf. Acts 5:1-11), excommunicated the first heretic (cf. Acts 8:21), presided over the first council (cf. Acts 15:7-12), and it is St. Peter who spoke for the Apostles (cf. Matthew 18:21, Mark 8:29, John, 6:69). This is not an exhaustive summary, but it does raise some questions: Why was so much responsibility and authority given to one person? And why did his duties, as presented in these passages, provide a rough job description of every pope throughout history, yet attract reflexive repugnance from the Catholic Church’s Protestants today?
Within the New Testament Scriptures, St. Peter’s authority among Jesus’ disciples and Apostles is unmatched. St. Paul ranked his own status as the least of the apostles and St. Peter’s as …[the first] then to the twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-9). Within the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Paul repeated the name that Jesus gave to St. Peter, the Aramaic word for rock (Cephas). St. Paul acknowledged St. Peter as first, then the twelve, then himself. In parallel fashion, every list of the Apostles within the New Testament lists St. Peter as first (cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13).2
Concerning the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Peter was the first Apostle to witness the risen Christ—juxtaposed with St. Paul as the last Apostle to witness the risen Christ. Similarly, St. Peter was the first Apostle to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and St. Paul, again, was the last Apostle to confess. It is clear to Catholic Christians of every generation, including St. Paul and his, that St. Peter was not a random member of the twelve. The evidence provides an ancient pre-Pauline formula and insight into the Sacred Tradition of the practicing (and real) Church of Christ.
St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, consisting of an internal chiastic-like hierarchical theology of the office of Apostle, reveal his own acceptance of St. Peter’s supremacy. Further texts, even within the Pauline corpus, reveal more than what could be construed, at least in an accusatory manner by Protestants, as mere Catholic theory. St. Paul’s actions admit that a supreme authority existed within the Church. By his own hand, we know that St. Paul traveled to Jerusalem, not to teach or exercise his authority as an autonomous equal, but to meet Cephas (Galatians 1:18). He only saw one other Apostle, but his reason for going was explicitly recorded.
The Protestant groups, in an effort to disestablish St. Peter’s primacy, focus on a specific verse within the Galatian passage: I [St. Paul] opposed him [St. Peter] to his face … (2:11); but the context is more important than the proof-text. It is interesting to note that St. Paul’s Galatian audience had a foreknowledge of who Cephas was—again revealing the catholicity of St. Peter’s position, a position that existed prior to any New Testament text. Had St. Paul not defended his new position within the fledgling hierarchy—by appealing to his communion with St. Peter—the gospel he preached might have been suspect of being a tradition of men: Of which I am writing to you, I do not lie! (Galatians 1:20).
St. Paul introduced his letter by establishing his credibility and authority by emphasizing his association with St. Peter, which is a practice that is internally present here in the New Testament, and externally portrayed by all the successors of the Apostles (the bishops) throughout the remainder of Christian history. After fourteen years, St. Paul again submitted his message to the leadership of the Church for approval—so that he was not running or had run in vain (Galatians 2:2). It is within this context that the Apostles’ disagreement in Galatians 2:11 is shown to be a preview of how the papacy would operate throughout history—welcoming the consult of its bishops, and an acceptance by even the least of the Apostles to recognize the supreme leadership of Christ’s Church on earth.
The Protestant Church of Christ presumes that the Galatian passage emphasizes an autonomous plane between the Apostles and creates an ecclesiological pattern that allows for the undermining of the Catholic Church of Christ’s hierarchy. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the greater context of cherry picked anecdotes includes more than what all of Protestantism, including your newer form, wishes to acknowledge; and admit that St. Paul apparently recognized that Christ the King had appointed ministers and a type of prime minister for His kingdom, and that he, himself, was the least of the upper ring (1 Corinthians 15:9). Should a passage that illustrates a disagreement within the hierarchy be used to disprove the hierarchy?
The New Testament, as a unit, is a witness to St. Peter’s primacy. And for the Bible to become a witness of St. Peter’s primacy, the a priori requirement for the material is another witness—a living Church—from which the Bible came. The Old Testament is a third witness. It provides the typology from which historical Christianity understands the stewardship and power of a prime minister.
Regarding the Old Testament, both the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ believe that God used prophets to communicate in various ways to His people. Catholics also believe that God used “types” to aid people in understanding His perfect plan. A “type” is a shadow of a person, thing, or action that precedes a greater person, thing or action. Examples of these are: Adam was a type of Christ, Eve was a type of Mary, Noah’s ark was a type of the Church, and manna was a type of the Eucharist. An internal affirmation of typology is presented by St. John the Baptist’s fulfillment of Elijah’s type (cf. Mark 11:9-13). Typology brings us back to Jesus’ words when he spoke to St. Peter. In the previous essay, I showed you how the Catholic Church of Christ is built on Rock. I also showed you how Jesus gave that Rock keys, and I now ask you to read Jesus’ words once again.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).
Have you ever been curious as to where, specifically, Jesus’ terminology came from? Have you ever heard a Protestant Church of Christ preacher explain it to you? Have you attended a Bible study that examined the passage? Have you wondered why the Protestant Church of Christ might offer personal interpretations of the passage, yet rarely, if ever, refer to the specific Old Testament passage that Jesus was citing—a passage that presents the typology and power that a Davidic kingdom’s prime minister is vested with?
What Are the Keys?
The most powerful position under the king was that of the Royal Steward—the prime minister. King Solomon instituted the office in 1 Kings 4:6 when he appointed Ahi’shar (Ahi’shar was in charge of the palace), and Isaiah provides a more thorough description of the office. Now that you have re-read Matthew 16:19, please read what Jesus was referencing, and what Jesus’ audience would have recognized as the structural paradigm of the new kingdom—of the true Church of Christ:
And I will place on his [Eli’akim’s] shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Isaiah 22:22).
Eli’akim was a type of St. Peter—his position was a type of the papacy. As shown in Isaiah, Eli’akim was given the key to the kingdom and was promoted to the most prestigious office in the kingdom—the master of the palace (Isaiah 22:15 New American Bible). Eli’akim’s position was that of prime minister; sharing in the king’s authority, governing in the king’s name, and acting for him in the king’s absence. Keys are a symbol of power, granting or denying admittance to the royal presence.
Matthew 16:19 shares a royal context provided by the Old Testament Scriptures, and supported by a cultural context that acknowledged how kingdoms are governed. Jesus was saying that St. Peter would be the new master of the palace in His kingdom. Since the keys symbolized how the Davidic king vested his prime minister with his very authority, Jesus was vesting St. Peter the keys to His kingdom, essentially; “You, Peter, will be the prime minister in my kingdom.”
The office of prime minister is pre-supposed, and Jesus chose to utilize that pre-supposed hierarchical paradigm when He assigned the keys to St. Peter. This might be the first time you have seen this connection; can you ignore the similar language and parallel structure of the passages found in Matthew and Isaiah? Did Jesus intend to create an autonomous ecclesial structure when he chose to utilize a hierarchical Davidic paradigm when he called St. Peter to office? St. Peter seems to have understood that the Steward would be set over Christ’s household, because Jesus asked him, Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them the portion of food at the proper time? (Luke 12:42 emphasis added).
However, many non-Catholic Christians prefer a more cryptic and docetized interpretation of Jesus’ words form Matthew 16—a preference to deny a practical existence of the Old Testament types; resulting in a theory that Jesus did not realize the confusion he would create by quoting Isaiah when calling St. Peter to office. But nobody in the historical Church of Christ was confused. Even the secular world throughout history has recognized that St. Peter and his office held authority over the worldwide Church; the theory of Church-wide ecclesial autonomy is no older than Protestantism itself, yet the drive for personal promotion is as ancient as the fall of man.
Keys are Forgiveness
As shown, Christ Jesus is our Messianic King, and He is at the top of the Church’s hierarchy. The King chose St. Peter to be the Royal Steward. The other Apostles, including St. Paul, were subordinate to St. Peter, yet held authority within the Church (cf. Matthew 18:17-20). This primitive hierarchy is reflected in the Scriptures, and as a reflection, it represents what was already present: the hierarchical structure that in fact created the Bible, which is the product that your community parses to argue against the hierarchy.
That early structure was perpetuated into all generations, which I show you in other essays (here, here, here, here, here, and here); but for now, it is important for you to understand why the hierarchy is important to recognize: it not only safeguards orthodoxy, but it establishes the conduit back to Jesus, the Savior who forgives sins.
The passage from Isaiah, I have found, is one that is new to most members of the Protestant Church of Christ—it does not fit into its accepted narrative, and therefore, it is not acknowledged. There is another passage from the New Testament that is often overlooked as well:
As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:21-23).
It is important to acknowledge Jesus’ audience. He was speaking to the Apostles, which renders the meaning of the text as, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you [clergy priests] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you [clergy priests] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus, again, reminded the twelve that they are sent just as the Father sent Him. All authority was given to Jesus, and He then gave His authority to the twelve. The power of the keys recalls the role of Eli’akim from Isaiah 22:22. Eli’akim was granted dominion and control over the dynasty of the descendants of David. St. Peter and his office, the fulfillment of Eli’akim’s type, illuminates how keys allow entrance into Christ the King’s court.
In comparison to those who shut the door (Matthew 23:13), St. Peter would be the one who would open the door to the kingdom of heaven. St. Peter, as prime minister, shares the King’s authority and possesses/shares the keys of admission and of rejection (cf. Revelation 3:7). When the full context of Scripture is viewed, the words of Jesus to St. Peter, … whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, embody the truth of what the keys are: keys are forgiveness! Binding and loosing are the acts of forgiving sins—and only properly ordained priests—ordained through the proper manner and in communion with the authority of St. Peter’s office, and therefore, Christ, have them.
But this is a hard teaching for you because you have come to the understanding that there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). The passage, of course, is correct; but heresy is not in the Scripture—heresy is in the interpretation of Scripture. Your group teaches that the passage is an indication that any ecclesial hierarchy is a barrier to the one mediator, and your group has accepted the myth of “Jesus-only and me Christianity”. Jesus is indeed our one mediator to the Father—And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12); but that one fact does not disqualify other facts—that Jesus intended for other lesser mediators to act as directional conduits or vehicles to gather people to Him. Are not the Apostles mediators? Was Mary not the mediatrix that allowed Jesus to become our Mediator—the deliverer of our Deliverer? Were not the writers of the Holy Scriptures mediators? Were not the men (bishops) who collected the New Testament writings and discerned the canon of Scripture mediators? Is not their final product, the Bible, a mediator? Are not your loved ones who pray for you mediators? The Church is Jesus’ intended ordinary means for people to access the sacraments. The sacraments, including Confession to a priest for the forgiveness of sins, are instituted by Jesus—the priest is a lesser mediator to Jesus: our One Mediator to the Father.
And so the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ have different interpretations of the passage, and you must make a wise decision on which is most reasonable. Either Jesus intended for his clergy to share in the dispensing of grace and forgiveness (If you forgive … I will forgive …), or he intended for your proof-text to somehow override all of the holly passages that demand a harmonizing theology.
John 20:21-23 cannot harmonize with the Protestant Church of Christ’s needed interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5; there is no wriggle room to rationalize a theology that does not include the clergy’s participation in Jesus’ mediation and intention of vesting His clergy with such powers. Catholics call the exercise of such powers acting in persona Christi,6 or, “in the person of Christ.” By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.7 When Catholics receive forgiveness for sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), the priest is not forgiving sins; it is God who is forgiving sins.
The priest, given authority by the successors of the Apostles who were given authority by Christ Jesus, forgives sins in Jesus’s name. The harmonizing theology regarding the Catholic Church of Christ’s stance could be stated as:
• Jesus was given all authority by the Father,8
• was sent by the Father to offer forgiveness of sins,9
• gave His authority to the Apostles,10
• to forgive sins by the authority given to them.11
Ergo, a conduit of mediation offering forgiveness of sins by virtue of a legitimately ordained priest acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ)—a theology in perfect harmony with 1 Timothy 2:5,6; completely faithful to the meaning of the text:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
Throughout this book, a theme continues to surface: the New Testament is a reflection of the living Tradition of the Church. The acts of binding and loosing are older than the New Testament Scriptures, and Jesus’ words instructing the clergy to hear and forgive sins are older than the New Testament Scriptures as well.
The Johannine passage that so clearly displays the words of Jesus granting authority to the New Covenant priests as mediators of forgiveness would not have received residence in the Bible if the Catholic Church, at the time of the Bible’s compilation (Council of Hippo in A.D. 393 and Council of Carthage in A.D. 397), disagreed with the passage—it would not have reflected and supported the Faith of the Apostles nor the Faith of the successors (bishops) present at the councils. Put another way, the New Testament, by means of its origination, as a product of the apostolic tradition, must be a thoroughly Catholic book. And as such, any interpretation that appears to contradict what the Catholic Church teaches is an incorrect interpretation—a tradition of men.
It therefore becomes clear that the early Church did in fact recognize the role of the keys, that the Church at the time that St. John’s Gospel was written and at the time St. John’s Gospel was included in the canon of Scripture accepted and practiced a form of sacramental mediation, which included a physical apostolic element—an element that does not claim a new authority to forgive sins and communicate grace, but is the humble agent in which Christ chose to transmit his own authority and communicate grace.
Local Churches Were Planted by, and Obedient to, the Hierarchy
The Christian ecclesial hierarchy is found even within the smallest local church (parish); every properly ordained priest (elder) is able to trace his pedigree back to the Apostles, and therefore Christ. Priests are ordained by their bishops (apostolic succession and the priesthood will be addressed later in this book); not all priests are bishops, but all bishops are priests—just as it is reflected in the New Testament.
Every detailed ecclesial (governmental) description in the New Testament reflects the already existing Catholic paradigm, and I will show you how your group’s best arguments fail to prove autonomous local church structures because they all presuppose the Catholic hierarchy. Your arguments are few, and so your best arguments are fewer. Edward Wharton’s book, The Church of Christ, with one and a half pages, presents what I have found to be your group’s most-used (indicative) and best arguments,12 all of which I will present to you, and I will show how a reasonable reading of the arguments’ scriptural material undermines your group’s forced conclusion.
#1: The Protestant Church of Christ presents St. Paul’s address to the elders of the church at Ephesus as proof for local church autonomy—in essence, proof that there is no Christian hierarchy; that all churches are local, and therefore, all churches are autonomous and without external influence. Wharton quotes Scripture to suggest that the scope of an elder’s oversight is limited to his local church: … he [St. Paul] called to him the elders of the church (Acts 20:17), and said, Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son (v. 28).
Representative of the group, Wharton presents a scriptural example that, as he suggests, provides an example of the limited scope of an elder’s responsibility, but a reasonable view of its scriptural context reveals a hierarchical, not autonomous, world-wide ecclesial structure; and the precise wording within the passage fails to support his group’s theory (the text itself does not impose local-only restrictions: all the flock). In other words, Wharton presents his scriptural proof for “local church autonomy” by A) failing to address that an authority over the local church at Ephesus called to him [St. Paul] the local church’s leadership, and B) implying that an example of a local church’s scope of authority somehow indicates that no local churches are subject to a higher authority.
As stated, this proof is among your group’s best arguments, yet there is nothing within the utilized scriptural material that suggests local church autonomy (it addresses the local church’s lack of authority over other local churches; it does not address who has authority over local churches). The passage is read by your group as an indication that all elders were responsible for only their local flock, but the text clearly reveals that an elder (St. Paul) held an authoritative position over the elders at Ephesus. Are not the elders at Ephesus subordinate to St. Paul? Should any elder or layperson in Ephesus, then, disregard St. Paul’s epistle written specifically to them? Was St. Paul usurping the local elders’ authority? Should any modern local assembly not, then, disregard Acts 20, disregard his letter to the Ephesians, and disregard any of his other letters or instructions as extra-congregational non-Scripture?
True, the local church elders at the end of the hierarchy have no authority over other local churches, but that fact does not mean that there is no authority over the local churches, which is the conclusion (and premise) of your group’s arguments. In other words, St. Paul’s leadership and the elder’s at Ephesus who submitted to his leadership, portray a model that is foreign to yours; and all the clergy within the passage present an example of apostolic, directional, and ordered governance.
Is anything other than a hierarchy of sorts reflected within this example? Does the passage not portray a dynamic of a practicing hierarchical structure? The context of the scriptural material taken for your group’s proof includes an apostolic conduit, and when read within the scriptural context, it begins to reflect a model that is thoroughly hierarchical:
Christ Jesus > St. Peter > St. Paul > Elders
Christ Jesus (King)
Pope (Prime minister, successor of St. Peter)
Bishops (Successors of the Apostles, elders)
Priests (Local elders)
The biblical model that your group refers to does not resemble your group; it resembles the Catholic Church, which has remained faithful to the order (pattern) that Jesus created, and which includes an apostolic conduit that links Christ Jesus’ creation of the Church with each and every legitimately ordained priest. You should also note that this very passage (Acts 20:17-28) hints at who, and what, precisely planted the church at Ephesus. It was St. Paul who said, You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials … and teaching you in public and from house to house … (v.18-20). St. Paul was not only in obedience to the hierarchy; he was within it, and was vested with the authority that the hierarchy (Holy Orders), granted him.
In contrast, your group’s theory of local church autonomy is presented as a proof for world-wide church autonomy (that all churches are local, and therefore, all are autonomous and with no authority over them) and is used as a foundational defense for autonomous church plantings. After all, as your planters would argue, who is anyone, and by whose authority, can anyone protest their planting of any local assembly and assuming the name “Church of Christ”?
#2: Protestant Church of Christ teachers assert, by quoting 1 Peter 5:1,2: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder … Tend the flock of God that is in your charge … , that St. Peter lays a limitation on the oversight of elders.
The Protestant Church of Christ prefers to focus on the words Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, and suggests that St. Peter was teaching that all local churches (local elders) should refrain from mingling with other assemblies. However, the words, So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder, are dismissed. In other words, your group’s proof for local church autonomy uses a passage that illustrates how a fellow [external] elder is instructing a local church on how to behave. How then, are the local churches “autonomous” when they are dependent on an external elder for instruction? And how, of course, are your modern congregations “autonomous” when they too rely on external elders for their instructions—their letters that the hierarchy stamped as Scripture and provide the material for your group to argue against the hierarchy? Again the Catholic model is reflected in the passage:
Christ Jesus > Apostles, bishops > Elders
Wharton notes that the passage does in fact teach that local church assemblies are entrusted to the local elders, but he fails to connect the course of how, specifically, elders are entrusted with their flocks; possibly because every example of an elder taking charge of his flock in the New Testament was orchestrated by the hierarchy, as the next proof illustrates.
#3: Representative of how the Protestant Church of Christ utilizes Scripture to argue for its positions, Wharton referred to a Bible passage to prove strict local church autonomy without supplying its actual corresponding text (more examples forthcoming). He wrote, “The local church selected her own ministers (Acts 6:1-6).” The practice is common; Protestant Church of Christ ministers posit a preference/theory, allude to a passage from the Bible, and the act of referencing a passage somehow provides ample credibility for the preference, or the citation is intended to imply that the text reads as such, when, really, it does not. If a writer summarizes her belief of what a Bible passage means, then the reference should include “cf.” (confer/compare); it is less than forthright to provide a citation to Scripture when it is not Scripture that is quoted. The passage at hand, which is a product of the hierarchy, of course, supports its creator, and not a model that in fact teaches, “The local church selected her own ministers.” The passage, not the commentary, reads:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch’orus, and Nica’nor, and Ti’mon, and Par’menas, and Nicola’us, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
Wharton carefully crafted his sentence. The local churches did “select their own ministers” (Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men …), but not in any self-governing capacity that his carefully crafted sentence suggests (the passage itself is quoting an extra-congregational authority). The careful reader will notice the Catholicity of the passage, because the sentence that the Protestant Church of Christ focuses on is couched between And the twelve summoned the body of disciples and said, and These they [the disciples] set before the apostles, and they [the Apostles] prayed and laid their hands upon them [the ministers].
What the passage reveals is Catholic, not Protestant. The Apostles (who are also elders) commanded a local church to nominate godly men for Holy Orders. Once chosen, those men were ordained (they prayed and laid their hands upon them) not by the local church leaders, but by the Apostles (the hierarchy).
Does your congregation, or any Restoration sect similar to yours, choose its ministers under the direction of the hierarchy, and does the hierarchy ordain your men? Or does your group choose its own ministers under its own direction, and then install them by the authority it has granted itself? The biblical pattern, again, emerges as a reflection of the Catholic Church of Christ:
Christ Jesus > Apostles, bishops > Elders
There are other passages of Scripture that reflect the nascent Church’s behavior that your group rarely draws attention to, such as Titus 1:5: Appoint elders in every town as I [St. Paul] directed you … . Surely, the sixth verse is used to argue against the Catholic Church (bishops: … husband of one wife; which will be addressed later in this book), but your group divides the passage, blinds itself to the fifth verse, which reveals the rogue nature of Protestant Church of Christ’s paradigm. When read in full, it is clear that the hierarchy directed the installation of the elders; the local Church was not authorized to create its own leadership.
Acts 14:23, again, reflects how the nascent church selected its elders. St. Paul and St. Barnabas appointed elders for them [the churches of Derbe, Lystra, Ico’nium, and Antioch]. This example does not include any congregational input; the elders were selected and ordained by extra-congregational elders, and therefore, does not rise to the rank of a Protestant Church of Christ proof text.
#4 (and following): The remaining lesser proofs that Wharton and the Protestant Church of Christ provide are presented in the same manner as #3, which is a posited theory followed by a referenced verse without text. In other words, commentary is presented as the word of God, such as (in Wharton’s words):
• “The local church chose its own missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).”
• “The local church was instructed to judge and discipline her own members (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).”
• “The local church was to settle her own internal problems (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).”
• “Each local church was responsible to respond to the Lord’s instruction (Revelation 2:1-3:22).”
And as with #3, a complete reading of each passage pre-suppose the Catholic hierarchy. The object of your group’s theory (not self-autonomy, but the eradication of the Catholic model) is its goal, yet your group’s supportive proofs are straw men; they do not reduce the Catholic paradigm, but rather, support it, because the Catholic Church agrees with the actual content (not Protestant commentary) of each passage (she agrees with what she wrote and stamped as Sacred Scripture).
The Catholic Church’s hierarchy does not micro-manage the daily functions of each parish, nor instruct who, among her parishes’ members, might become missionaries, and she does not deny the local church the ability to form any decision or judgment; but rather, she grants each local church the freedom for such activities. In other words, the very fact that each local church is free to manage her own affairs in any regard is a result of the hierarchy’s authority, and freedom in some cases does not translate to parish self-rule in all cases.
Furthermore, and as with every scriptural proof that might be drawn by your group, these supportive texts, internally, historically, and logically pre-suppose the object that they are designed to eliminate: the Sacred Magisterium of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—the real Church of Christ.
Where does the Protestant Church of Christ’s wish for local church autonomy (which, of course, translates to world-wide congregational autonomy) come from? Does it come from Scripture? Which Scripture? Not one scriptural passage that your group produces supports its theory. What the Scriptures reveal, however, is thoroughly Catholic. Properly ordained ministers were called; they did not grab what should be handed, they did not appoint themselves, nor were they appointed by a community outside the communion of St. Peter and the Apostles. The Apostle John reminds his audience that legitimate Church authority rests in the Apostles, and he condemned specific people who like to put himself first … [and] … does not acknowledge … authority (3 John 9). Catholics believe that God, through his Church, calls men to ministry and that self-ordained ministers, or ministers ordained by communities that are not in communion with the nascent Church, are false Apostles, possibly putting themselves first. But still, the Protestant Church of Christ demands that its model is “biblical”.
The historical reality of your group’s birth in 19th century Kentucky sheds light into the mystery. Protestant Church of Christ preacher Leroy Brownlow, from one of his 1974 sermons (with more than one million copies distributed, as claimed), offered insight into your group’s Americanism and kingdom-shaped expectation by likening its ecclesiological preference for self-rule with a political model:
Autonomy is defined as “right of self-government; a self-governing state; an independent body.” In the first century each congregation was such … . There was no tyranny of one church over another. The church in Rome or Jerusalem had no authority over the churches in other communities. Men outside the congregation had no right to exercise authority and power within the congregation. The elders and deacons in one congregation had no authority to exercise despotic rule or any other kind of rule over the elders and deacons in another congregation. Each church was free and independent … .13
Words like “tyranny” and “despotic” reveal a bias that reveal a foundational starting point for the Protestant Church of Christ’s ecclesiological model. The Catholic Church of Christ is a different kind of kingdom, it is Christ’s kingdom, and proper followers of Christ do not compare Christ’s bride to tyrants or despots; nor do they build their own communities out of fear of tyranny or build for themselves a model that history has proved to simply not work.
Both Wharton and Brownlow conclude their arguments for church autonomy by reiterating their group’s founding (reincarnational) premise: apostasy. Concluding Wharton’s one and one half pages of proofs for local church autonomy, he wrote, “Local church autonomy is the safety valve against full-scale apostasy.”14 Brownlow wrote, “The wisdom of God is seen in such an arrangement for his churches … . If one became affected by evil practices, other churches would not be so affected.”15 But is the “wisdom of God” found within so many contradicting Protestant communities who have adopted the premises of autonomy and private-interpretation, who argue among themselves, cannot find communion with each other, teach vastly different doctrines, have exploded into thousands of denominations and groups that refuse to be called denominations? Is Jesus’ prayer for unity found within the broad umbrella of non-Catholic Christianity detectable? Is it not obvious that in order for a man to raise his Bible overhead and plant a congregation that believes just as he believes, he must first insist and persuade others that the hierarchy is a hoax? One model is apostolic; the other is entrepreneurial. One is reflected in the Scriptures; the other is not. One is Jesus’ intent; the other is represented by groups that believe their that model is true simply because they want it to be true.
If the “Bible only” provides a command, example, or inference for the Protestant Church of Christ’s model, the group has not yet presented it in any manner that its shoppers can discover. What your shoppers are able to find, however, is an oft-repeated preference, a theory, lots of rationalizations for self-called positions, but no scriptural support. If the Scriptures support your model, then the passage(s) have evaded all of Christianity for centuries until your group discovered it, yet refuses to share it or direct anyone to it.
Response to an Anticipated Objection
Your ministers argue against the Catholic Church’s powers of binding and loosing by teaching that the local congregation contains some form of power (“marking”, banishing, excommunicating; any term that is used to dispel a member from fellowship). Your group’s primary scriptural support is derived from Matthew 18:15-18, which reads:
If your brother sins against you … tell it to the church; … whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:15-18).
Disciplinary performance within the Protestant Churches of Christ differs from congregation to congregation, but when the rubber meets the road, disciplinary power is most often exercised by the local leadership and not the congregation—an authoritative voice within your assemblies declares disciplinary action, however, the congregation at large might be present while the leadership reports the fallen member’s sins and then delivers the man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh … (1 Corinthians 5:5). Is the Protestant Church of Christ not more similar to what it argues against than it can admit? In other words, if your ministers must argue against Catholic ecclesial authority (binding and loosing), then it is awkward to denounce clerical powers of binding and loosing (using different terms) while its own disciplinary powers rest, of course, within its own local ecclesial authorities; and it is most awkward to use Matthew’s eighteenth chapter as support, because the chapter is prefaced by earlier chapters.
As I have already shown, and will continue to establish throughout this book, it is incontestable to deny the supremacy of the Petrine Ministry over the worldwide Church, but the other Apostles were given power to bind and loose—they had a subordinate position, yet authentic power. Matthew 18:18 illustrates the local church’s exercise of its binding and loosing powers—an exercise of the local authority that all bishops in communion with St. Peter, and therefore Christ, keep.
Restoration Christians argue that “binding” and “loosing” are congregational (or individual) powers that are not related to the keys from chapter 16,16 and not powers that are granted though the apostolic hierarchy. Instead, your group’s perceived powers are thoroughly democratic: if a congregation’s input does not declare judgments, it is the congregation’s elected leadership that declares judgments. Its perceived power is not acquired through the apostolic conduit; its perceived power is acquired through the congregational conduit, even if it is an “elder” or “plurality of elders” who exercise any such perceived power.
When isolated as a solitary biblical insight, such an interpretation of Matthew 18 would be understandable and support your group’s objection (thus is the peril of proof-texting and preferring one holy passage over another), especially if a predetermined theology of either congregational or other-than-Catholic powers supported the theory. Difficult passages are better understood when scriptural witnesses are consulted. In other words, a theology (interpretation) should not be deemed orthodox by the presence of a single verse when that single verse is at odds with neighboring verses—a more proper meaning needs to be discovered. Therefore, a harmonizing theology that unites the entirety of Scripture should be sought, including passages just two chapters earlier from the same book.
As constructed, the Protestant objection to the Catholic Church’s possession of the keys—the power of binding and loosing—dismisses the words directed towards St. Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18-19), dismisses the intended reference to the power of prime minister (cf. Isaiah 22:22), and Jesus’ specific words to the Apostles (cf. John 20:21-23). In other words, Christians who prefer a more thorough understanding of the keys come to learn that the only examples of Jesus granting such power—the power to forgive in God’s name (and, sadly, excommunicate)—is to St. Peter and to those who were clerically subordinate to St. Peter. Nonetheless, Protestantism in general prefers the less descriptive biblical reference from Matthew 18 and omits St. Matthew’s preface of the keys from chapter 16; a preface, when denied, allows Protestants sufficient room to squeeze in the belief that “the church (congregation)” (cf. v. 18) has the power to bind and loose, and that “the church (leadership)” being given the authority to bind and loose is, allegedly, only a Catholic invention (unless we, non-Catholic ecclesial leaders, ourselves, wish to banish a member from fellowship). The interpretation would absolutely support a dueling Protestant desire (to scandalize the Catholic understanding of the keys, yet imitate the Church’s power), but it would undermine the remainder of Scripture. The only reasonable conclusion, if Matthew 18:15-18 remains within its biblical context, if the entirety of Scripture is regarded as God-breathed, is to accept that the Catholic Church’s clergy, not the congregation, nor congregationally elected leaders, nor any Protestant body, has the power to bind and loose—the power to forgive in Jesus’ name.
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1 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1997), 85.
2 The Greek word protos, used in the book of Matthew when describing St. Peter, has a spectrum of meaning that includes: leading, most important, and chief. Nearly all ancient texts list St. Peter as first. When St. Peter is not listed as first within partial lists, reasonable textual criticism is able to reconcile the anomaly. In every case, theological status is always given to St. Peter, and only St. Peter. The particularity of St. Peter’s ministry is always set apart from the general ministry of remaining Apostles.
6 The term “acting in persona Christi” is derived from 2 Corinthians 2:10. Many Bible translations have changed the reading to undermine the historical meaning of the text; they typically read, “I [Paul] have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake” (italics mine) instead of “in the person of Christ.” With such nebulous translations, no modern reader could guess the meaning of the text. The Latin of this verse, as translated from Greek by contemporaries who spoke Greek (= pre-Protestant scholars), understood and then translated the verse into Latin as, “… in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ). The term came from Greek drama where actors would represent characters by use of masks (mask/face = prosopo in Greek); understood as “acting” in the person of Christ. Voilà! Acting in Persona Christi.
7 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1548.
8 cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20-22; Catechism of the Catholic Church #553, 1444.
9 cf. Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1441.
10 cf. John 13:20; 17:18; 20:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #852-62.
11 cf. John 20:23, Matthew 16:19; 2 Corinthians 2:10; Catechism of the Catholic Church #553, 730.
12 Wharton, 85-87.
13 Leroy Brownlow, Why I am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2004), 39,40.
14 Wharton, 87.
15 Brownlow, 40.
16 There is no sect-wide argument/stance because the group does not recognize any concrete concept of “keys” and “binding and loosing”—such words are nebulous and unidentified. The goal of the group’s objection is not to establish orthodoxy, but to show that the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the keys, as they are intrinsically connected with whom Jesus gave them, St. Peter, is misguided; that the keys are with anyone or anything that does not resemble the Catholic paradigm: that the keys are any combination of A) St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon, B) congregational powers, or C) non-Catholic leaders’ powers.