Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church



Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 3)

When discussing false teaching in Christianity, it is common to hear evangelicals blame the early church fathers for wandering from the gospel and accepting false teaching early on. This is really not much more than an example of Catholiphobia. You have seen Catholiphobia. That is what is going on when you hear someone say, “That seems sort of…you know…Catholic.” Which is code for, “If a Catholic does it, it must be wrong.” Dropping the Eucharist as the normative weekly worship for Christians, clergy dressing like clergy so that non-Christians know a clergyperson when they see one, and full-body worship (like marking oneself with the sign of the cross) all come to mind as examples.[1] Perhaps the biggest mistake of Catholi-phobia: dropping bishops as leaders of churches.[2]

One seminary professor of mine expressed the Protestant anti-bishop bias like this, “The problem was bishops…a problem we solved by giving the church to teams of elders in the Reformation.” For some reason intelligent, God-fearing people don’t hear the implied heresy in the accusation. What my professor was really saying is that Jesus was wrong – that the “gates of hell” did prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18) for some 1400 years until the Reformation…or some other restoration movement of the 19th century (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, LDS) or the 20th century (Pentecostalism). It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

This will take a bit of setup, but it is necessary to get to our final installments on apostolic succession: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church. And, Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disagreements.

Organization in the Early Church

Early Christianity is a study in organic organization. In the gospels we read of Jesus of Nazareth, a compelling and unique itinerant rabbi who spends three years going from town to town with a core-group of followers. Like the rest of the public, the disciples are fascinated by Jesus’ public teaching and healing. They, however, were given private instruction into the meaning behind his teaching and miracle working…that he was ushering in a new kingdom through a new kind of king: “God with us,” a fulfillment of the meaning behind their scriptures. Jesus did this in the ultimate of informal environments: Three years around a fire with him.

After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the spreading of the message of Jesus by those apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. As Acts opens, we see the Jewish disciples of the Jewish rabbi leading in predictably Jewish ways. Change begins in Acts 8, when persecution forced many to leave Jerusalem. It took nearly a decade, but the scattered disciples finally begin to consistently extend the story of Jesus to non-Jews in Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). In Acts 11, the Jewish Christians were confronted with what to do with the increasing number of gentile converts. By the end of Acts (Chapters 20 and 24) we see the beginnings of formal organization: bishops (usually translated as “overseers” by modern Protestant translators) and deacons (usually left untranslated) appointed as leaders of local churches. Another word “presbyter” (usually translated “elder”) is sometimes used synonymously. Since churches met in households you would have multiple presbyters or “elders” in a town, and a single bishop (overseer), that would “oversee” them. It was a model co-opted from Roman government. The early Christians faced other core decisions besides organizational and leadership ones, of course. Questions like: What specifically would Christian’s believe? (A question they would solve with creeds)? And what books would comprise the Scriptures? (A question they would solve with canon-which books would be included in the New Testament.)[3] But in the book of Acts, we see the earliest church engaged, not with the story of the creation of the scriptures, but in living the faith out by the human successors to the Jesus story taking the message of faith to the next generation.

The Rise of Heresy

Very quickly, “strange ideas”[4] also reared their head. These were predictable: First, as I just pointed out, the young Christian church was still organizing itself. There were no New Testament scriptures.  The urban, diverse and, early on, rather under-educated Christians had no written source of authority to which to appeal.[5] Second, the witnesses to Jesus left a degree of vagueness about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (was Jesus God “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” or was it, as Jesus also said, “The father is greater than I.”) Belief had yet to be systematized. Third, Christians had opened the door to increased confusion by our evangelism methods. We were using Greek and Roman philosophers to explain and validate the new Christian faith to the Greco-Roman world.[6] Some folks took this too far and moved from explanation to syncretism-melding the two. Fourth, surely some were intentional false teachers, unscrupulously and opportunistically taking advantage of Christians’ reputation for generosity.[7] But mostly there was a lack of discipleship due to Christianity’s rapid spread. Evangelistic success led to a shortage of mature Christians to see to the training of new converts in the faith. The earliest of the “strange ideas,” Gnosticism, held that it was necessary to learn the “secret knowledge of their spiritual essence” in order to receive salvation.[8] The big question was: How would an emerging movement face conflict? And to what source would they make their appeal?

The answer will surprise you.

Next up: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church.

[1] I am not critiquing the actual theological problems with Rome, such as allowing the tradition to actively overrule scripture through modern dogmas such as papal infallibility (1869), or the Immaculate Conception (1854) or the over-reactions of the later meetings of the council of Trent against the very reactive Protestants (1550s-1560s).

[2]This is an area that most Protestants, steeped in a materialistic worldview, generally don’t see as anything near a central issue. For sacramental Christians, touch and teaching both are quite important.

[3] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. (London, Penguin Books, 1967), 41-44.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1. Book one lists the bizarre beliefs of many heretical teachers.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Mass, Prince Press, 2008. 50-51.

[6] Starting with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) Christians struggled with the question of how to communicate faith to people who don’t accept the authority of the Scriptures.

[7] Gonzalez, 51.

[8] Robinson, B.A., “Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern Beliefs & Practices”,


12 thoughts on “Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church

  1. As one of those who belongs to “some other restoration movement of the 19th century,” I wish to commend you on this post. Where would any of us be without the Fathers, Bishops, etc., over these past many centuries? I know my particular “Restoration Movement” fellowship has great difficulty seeing the obvious, but many, many of us hold dear the faithfulness of the church catholic throughout the ages.

    Dr. Wes Wright,
    Sr. Minister
    Santa Clara Church, Eugene, Oregon

    • Hi Dr. Wes,

      Thank you for commenting.

      I too have been blessed by godly, faithful restorationist Christians and the movement (with the exception of the non-trinitarian excesses like the LDS are problematic).

      I am curious as to what your take will be at the end of the next two.

  2. I agree that the idea of bishops is often dismissed out of hand when (even if the term wasn’t present) the office and function is quite biblical. The fact is that a bishop implies authority…and we evangelicals don’t like authority, in general. To be fair, we’ve seen our share of the abuse of church authority (beginning with the issues that propelled the Reformation), so while the pendulum swing isn’t exactly justified, it is understandable.

    • Good point on abuse of power, Nathan. Almost anyone who has had a job has watched power abused.

      The pendulum was quite predictable. Pendulums are what we humans do so well. Trent was Rome’s pendulum to the Reformation…which was a pendulum to Medieval overreach in the over definition of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, indulgences, etc.

      In truth, most churches have authority structures. It is hard to do much without structure.

      A lot is packed into your few words. 🙂

  3. Hi Matt-another good post! although the Episcopal Church is not perfect, it feels a lot more balanced than non denominational churches or something like the Acts29 churches (would they qualify to be a denomination?) The Pastor appoints the Elders (and it’s likely they are people who the Pastor feels will be mostly on his side) because that’s how they did it in the NT churches, so that’s how it should be done. They become a world unto themselves.

    • Hi Gale,

      I once heard that any church with 5 branches counts as a denomination. So, by that definition, Acts 29 probably would. In fact, more than a few Acts 29 churches probably count as denominations on their own.

  4. Hello again,

    Hmmmmm…don’t know what to think about this one. I do know; however, that I will not submit the final responsibility for my Christian life to any human. So, while I am a member of the Episcopal Church, I am also very willing to tell my bishop where to put it if I feel I need to.

    I suppose it all comes down to what to do with the very human organization that we call “church.” I am not convinced that they really need to exist-but, they are convenient if you wish to organize your Christian life in some way. Christ has said that he will build his church…
    There is a lot to think about here.

    • Hi Drew,

      I am smiling at your comment!

      The whole point of bishops is to “guard the faith, unity and discipline of the church” not to be responsible for our walk with Jesus, but to be a model and shepherd of the flock.

      In the Examination during the ordination ceremony a bishop commits to: “proclaiming Christ’s resurrection, interpreting the Gospel, and testifying to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.”

      I find the most helpful thing about bishops is that I know that I have authority problems. I regularly have to submit to things I would rather not, and that is good for me.

      For what it is worth, my bishop once told me: “If I ever tell you to do something that is unscriptural or immoral, ignore me.”

      I am still smiling at your comment, though. 🙂

  5. This is the best piece you have written. It’s an excellent defense of the importance of bishops. Unfortunately, many bishops have squandered their office in these latter days, and the reaction against episcopal and other heirarchical forms of church governance or any kind of authoritarianism (real or suspected) is predictable — especially in the West in general and the U.S. in particular. RCism, for example, has suffered for its bishops’ neglect of the priestly sex abuse scandals, and so, as another example, has your own (and my former) church suffered as it has embraced enthusiasm, pragmatism and the topsy-turvy confusion of law and gospel, often propelled by its bishops. I still think (although my church body does not embrace it confessionally) that episcopacy, especially an evangelical episcopacy of godly example, missionary fervor and truly learned (graduate-level? truly, deeply theological?) teaching is the best way of ordering the church. (Pope Francis is in many ways a cipher, but his combination of Jesuit learning and discipline combined with the humble piety of the streets would appear to be a good example; certainly his behavior as pope is consistent with the kind of ministry he exercised in Argentina so he’s probably the real deal.) I look forward to your further examination of the place of the episcopate as the office that holds the church militant together by guarding its deposit of faith. I have developed great respect for your apologetics, especially since it comes from within a church — with bishops, no less, and with “Episcopal” as its chief identifier — that seems to me (and I’m hardly alone) to have gone off the rails. Who knows? Maybe God is calling you to be among those who might reform and revive the episcopate in your own church as the model of godly life and steadfast teaching that I think it once was and what it again should be. May God continue to bless your ministry.

    P.S. I agree with one of your commenters — “Ain’t no bishop going to tell me what to do” — as well as with your response: It should not be the habit of a bishop to throw his weight around but to be a servant leader and a faithful teacher. But that commenter did get at least one thing right: The church might have had a divine institution and it continues with a divine protection, but it is a human (my church would call it a “left hand”) institution which must employ the law even while its sole mission in to proclaim the gospel. It is sad when we overspiritualize the church and become disillusioned when its behavior is less than holy. I pray for humble bishops who can hold the tensions of law and gospel.

    P.P.S. Sorry I got carried away with writing.Keep up the good work.

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