Suppose that the previous articles in this series give you assurance that God exists, that God cares for the welfare of humans and has revealed something of himself and his plans for us by becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. Suppose further, that you have surrendered to the claims of Jesus - you believe in him - and want to be one of his followers.
You know enough about him to know that he established a Church, a group of humans, to transmit his message and to guide you and others in leading the life of a disciple. But you also know that there are many groups claiming to be that Church. Further, they do not always agree on what Jesus revealed. You would very much like to know which of the many claimants is the one he authorised, so you start examining their histories in search of an answer.
You begin the inquiry with the certainty that Jesus did not establish a group of disputing factions, for he has guaranteed that it will teach with his authority. So there is only one Church which is his and it is that which goes back to the time when he commissioned it.
Were I to adopt the teachings of Jesus and decide to set up my own Church to propagate them, my Church would not be his. Even if the Mobbs Church were a look-alike of that of Jesus, it would not be his, for it would lack his authorisation. So I am looking for the one he authorised.
What follows is a series of summaries of the histories of some of the main claimants to being that Church which Jesus commanded, 'Go teach all nations and I am with you'. The series is offered as assistance in your quest for an answer to: Which Church did Jesus establish with his authority?
The Catholic Church
Suppose I am living in the year AD 200. It is about 170 years since Jesus founded his Church. I cannot choose to leave the Catholic Church and join one of the Orthodox Churches. Nor can I join the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, nor the Baptist, Assemblies of God and Seventh Day Adventist Churches. There are no groups bearing those names.
I can leave the Catholic Church and join some group which is partly Christian in belief and practice. For example, I can join the Gnostics, who believe they possess a set of secret doctrines left by Jesus and not available to others: weird doctrines, to say the least. I can join the Ebionites who insist on Jewish practices, have a written Gospel of their own, and celebrate the eucharist without wine.
This requirement to observe Jewish law will occur repeatedly in partly-Christian sects over the centuries. Seventh Day Adventists are an instance with their requirement of worship on the Sabbath (Saturday).
I may consider crossing over to the Marcionites, followers of Marcion whose Bible consists of 11 books only (including a Gospel of Marcion). In fact, there is no shortage of quasi- Christian groups to join.
At this point you may be tempted to think the Lord Jesus must have been incompetent, in that he established a Church yet was unable to guarantee that it would be distinguishable from any other group claiming his authority.
But there is a group which calls itself 'the Catholic Church'. The first use of this name is in a document written before AD 115 by St Ignatius of Antioch, his Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Polycarp, who died in AD 155, also uses the name 'the Catholic Church' to distinguish it from heretics. According to the later historian, Eusebius, Polycarp was acquainted with 'those who had seen the Lord', including St John, so his testimony is valuable.
The name alone does not show that it is Christ's Church. New Churches come into existence every few years calling themselves 'Catholic Church', such as the Old Catholic Church and the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church founded by a former Catholic bishop in 1945. Today there are even about 17 men who claim to be Pope, with their own teams of cardinals and bishops.
However it does show that the Catholic (Universal or Whole) Church was conscious of its being distinct from the breakaway groups who retained only parts of the tradition handed on as the Master's message.
What marked the Catholic Church as being the one founded by Christ Jesus? It was always there after Pentecost. At times I have been asked, 'What is the Catholic Church?' My reply goes thus: 'Jesus of Nazareth wandered the roads of Palestine acting as if he were authorised by God. He taught that all must believe that he is from God - indeed, share's mysteriously in God's nature - and that he brings God's message of salvation. Some believed his claims and surrendered their lives to him. He commissioned them to teach and direct coming disciples. That group (Greek ekklesia) has continued as a body ever since. Early in its history it was called 'the Catholic Ekklesia.'
It was marked by apostolic succession, that is, leaders whom we call 'bishops' who had been authorised by the apostles at first and who passed on their authority to successors. These taught and governed groups of Christians and met together from time to time to unite in teaching and policy. They understood that they were commissioned to pass on what they had learned from those leaders who preceded them. They were the guarantors of tradition going back to the earliest Christians.
However, at times bishops disagreed, sometimes very seriously. Was there no one authorised by Christ the Lord to decide? John Henry (Cardinal) Newman summarised the problem and the solution: 'The common sense of mankind ... feels that the idea of revelation implies a present informant and guide, and that an infallible one ... A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given' (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine). That infallible authority is the successor of St Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
In the early centuries of the Church, disagreements among the bishops brought to consciousness the promises, the guarantees, the Lord made to Peter. Appeals were often made to Rome to decide cases, accompanied by declarations of belief that communion with the Bishop of Rome was essential to being a member of Christ's Church. His authority answered to a desperate need.
We must keep in mind that Christians were few, scattered in small communities, and frequently weakened by persecution. Communications were poor. Today a Pope lives in a setting, Vatican City, which declares his authority. There was no such thing in the first three centuries. Yet the promises of the Lord recorded in the Gospels were remembered.
Christ established only one Church. That Church has been kept as one by Peter's successor. Its 1.2 billion members remains in unity, despite powerful forces amongst its members always tending to break into sects.
The Orthodox Churches
The Orthodox Churches present a strong claim to be Christ's Church. They recite the same creed as Catholics and celebrate much the same sacraments. They count thousands of martyrs and missionaries. After all, they were parts of the Catholic Church: the members were the majority of Catholics for the first 1,000 years of Christianity. Moreover, they were also the most learned and civilised and their history stretched back to the apostles.
St Paul wrote letters to Thessalonika, Ephesus, Corinth etc - all Greek cities. Once I studied in a Greek Orthodox seminary. My classmates were Greeks, descendants of almost the earliest Christians (the first being Palestinians). My guess is that my ancestors were not converted until about AD 1000.
Today there are 15 autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox Churches, e.g., of Constantinople, Alexandria, Greece, Russia, Georgia.
Each Church does not take orders from any other and guards jealously its independence. Most identify with a nation, e.g. Russia. All acknowledge the Patriarch of Constantinople as having a primacy of honour. He lacks, however, jurisdiction over them, so his position is similar to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Anglican Communion.
The Orthodox Churches are a different group from the six Oriental Orthodox Churches, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church. Tracing the relationships of all these Churches is a daunting task.
The word 'Orthodox' literally means right teaching or right worship, being derived from two Greek words: orthos (right) and doxa (teaching or worship).
It came into widespread use after the Pope's legates excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople in AD 1054. Popes were using the name 'Catholic Church' to designate Churches obedient to them, so Eastern Churches began calling themselves 'Orthodox' to distinguish themselves. In their view, it was the Catholic Church loyal to Rome which was heretical.
The Western or Latin part of the Church and the Eastern part had been drifting apart for centuries before the schism of 1054. The separation followed a common pattern of divorce - the parties became strangers to each other. The two parts used different languages in correspondence, Latin for the Westerners, mostly Greek for the Easterners. The Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria despised the culturally backward Latins. Remember Easterners included the Christians of places as remote from Rome as Ethiopia and Armenia and Arabia.
Whilst their creeds remained much the same, the two areas developed different liturgies and devotions, different customs, so mis- understandings became common.
Particularly significant was the Eastern rejection of the papacy as having authority over the whole Church. Deference had always been paid to the Bishop of Rome as successor to the apostle Peter, and as bishop of the city wherein were martyred Peter and Paul. That respect diminished after AD 330 when the capital of the Roman Empire was usually Constantinople.
The emperors were very powerful and closely controlled much of the Eastern part of the Church. Easterners became subservient to emperors and other rulers in return for valuable support and favours. After the Muslim conquests ending about the year 700, the Eastern Patriarchs and bishops outside the remaining Byzantine Empire were crippled by Muslim restrictions and cut off from Western influences and contacts.
Heresies and schisms tend to survive. No one in 1054 suspected that the rupture would remain for the next 1000 years. It is a sad fact.
The Orthodox Churches are not fully united. They claim to be united in doctrine but that is not an accurate assessment. They say only an ecumenical council can define doctrine. Fine. But many questions on Christian teachings have arisen in the past millennium which require an answer, just as they did during the first millennium. For instance, what is the number of the sacraments? The Orthodox recognise no ecumenical council since that of AD 787, yet it is hard to believe that all important theological questions ceased in 787. The reason for no further councils is that no one in Orthodoxy has authority to summon one. The Orthodox are frozen in the thinking and customs of the first Christian millennium. They cannot move forward because of their disunity.
They are divided also by nationalism. The Greek Orthodox Church identifies with the nation of Greece: a Greek who is not Orthodox may be viewed as a traitor. The Serbian Orthodox is similar in regard to Serbia (with recent painful results); and the Russian Orthodox Church can be strongly nationalistic.
One Orthodox Church will forbid the giving of Communion to members of another Orthodox Church. They excommunicate each other, while there is no authority to keep the peace as in the Catholic Church. Seeing the need for such authority, the Lord answered that need by authorising Peter and his successors to act as a rock, a foundation of unity.
One Church did Christ establish but the Orthodox Churches are a collection of Churches. No one can deny their riches of devotion and faith but they are not Christ's one Church.
Future articles in this series will examine the claims of the Churches of the Reformation and those of the quasi-Christian Churches to have any authority from Christ the Lord.
Dr Frank Mobbs is a former seminary and university lecturer in philosophy and theology with many publications to his name. (firstname.lastname@example.org)