When Peter knew that he was about to fold up his earthly tent and go home, he did not commend the sheep of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1) to his ‘successor’ in Rome. He commended them to their local congregations where they would be fed (1 Peter 5:1-3), and to the Bishop of Souls (1 Peter 2:25), for they were “kept by the power of God,” not by the power of Rome, “through faith unto salvation” (1 Peter 1:5). It was the “chief Shepherd,” Jesus Christ, to Whom the local shepherds would be accountable on the Last Day (1 Peter 5:4). The sheep were to submit to the local shepherds (1 Peter 5:5), knowing that the local shepherds would one day answer to the Chief, “for He careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Whatever trials might arise, they were not to be dismayed, for they were not alone — “the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Peter 5:9). The sheep were to press on in faith, entrusting “the keeping of their souls” to God, “as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19), for their incorruptible inheritance was “reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4), and it was in their local congregations that God would preserve them.
But the sheep were to apply these instructions soberly and vigilantly, “because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about” (1 Peter 5:8). The local congregation was to be the place of the caring and feeding of the flock, but neither the local congregation nor the local bishop was to be the object of their faith, for the local congregation could be infiltrated not only by evildoers but by evil teachers:
“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies.” (2 Peter 2:1).
But if the shepherds themselves could teach error, and false prophets could enter in among the sheep, what was the recourse of the sheep? To Whom could they turn? They were not left defenseless. The had the Spirit of God (1 Peter 4:14), and they had His Word (2 Peter 3:2).
When Peter was ready to go home, it was to the Word that he entrusted the flock, knowing that their Chief Shepherd could not fail to protect them. His last task before departing was “to stir you up by putting you in remembrance” of the “sure word of prophecy” from the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:13-21), which is to say, the words of the prophets and the words of the apostles:
“This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour:” (2 Peter 3:1-2)
Peter had committed the sheep to the care of the Chief Shepherd, Who Himself had committed their instruction to the Spirit Who would “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). The local shepherds were to instruct the sheep, for Jesus had given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers for this purpose (Ephesians 4:11). But the sheep were to be on guard against error, and the only way they could do that was to measure the teachings of the shepherds by the Word of God.
We are not surprised to find that Paul said much the same thing when he met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus before departing for Rome.
“And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” (Acts 20:25-32)
Knowing that he was leaving and could be no further aid to them, Paul commended the sheep and the shepherds “to God, and to the Word of His grace,” just as Peter had the sheep of Asia Minor. The Scriptures tell us that Paul’s instruction to them bore fruit: Jesus later commended the Ephesian church because “thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (Revelation 2:2).
Paul had not told them that he and Peter would be setting up a universal bishopric in Rome whence cometh their help. He had not told them that Mary, the “mother of the church,” would be watching over them from heaven. He had not told them that the administration of a global denomination required a strong central episcopate from which would emanate the radiant beams of infallible instructions from God’s mouthpiece on earth. Peter and Paul had not directed the elders of Asia Minor to render their abject submission and obeisance to the city of Rome which was about to transfer its empire to the Church. They commended them to the ministry of the Holy Spirit and to the Word. There would be “grievous wolves” entering among the sheep, there would be “false prophets” among the people, and “false teachers” among the shepherds, but “the Lord knoweth” how to administer His Church, and He would preserve them:
“The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.” (2 Peter 2:9)
The Shepherding of the universal church would be conducted from on high. Our Shepherd had ascended into heaven (1 Peter 3:22), had sent the Holy Spirit down from heaven (John 14:26), and in heaven our salvation is preserved (1 Peter 1:4). The kingdom Jesus had established was of heaven, heavenly. It was not of earth, earthly, for a heavenly kingdom is administered from heaven.
To no one’s surprise, the early church understood this to be the case—to no one’s but Roman Catholicism’s, that is. The early church was comprised of congregations scattered throughout the known world, knit together in love, bound by the apostolicity of their common faith, and protected from predators by the Shepherd from on high through His Spirit and by His Word. There were occasional disagreements, just as there were in the apostolic era. There were occasional schisms, just as there were in the apostolic era. There was occasional immorality, just like there was in the apostolic era. The early church was not, and never had been, comprised of the morally perfect.
The difference in the post-apostolic era was that instead of turning to the apostles for help, the churches turned to each other and to the Word of God. When one congregation was struggling, it would turn to others for help, often appealing to those congregations most closely linked to the ministries of the apostles themselves, and Rome was not alone in this distinction.
Roman Catholic apologists love to highlight the fact that Clement of Rome (d. 99 A.D.) wrote a letter to the Corinthian Church in the first century, as if Clement’s communication to Corinth was an exercise of papal primacy. For example, Pedro Rodriguez writes at EWTN,
“From the time when St. Clement of Rome intervened in the affairs of the church of Corinth to reestablish peace in that troubled community down to our own days with its contemporary methods for governing the universal Church, the Roman Pontiffs have been the instruments willed by Christ for maintaining unity among the bishops and for keeping the multitude of the faithful, that is to say, the Church, in a unity of faith and communion.” (Pedro Rodriguez, The Nature of Papal Primacy)
But Clement’s admonition to the church of Corinth was simply the common practice of the post-apostolic church. They would write to each other to encourage one another, and particularly to exhort fellow believers to attend to the teachings of the apostles. When Clement was writing to Corinth, both churches—of Rome and of Corinth—had recently experienced such division (Clement, To the Corinthians, chapter 7), and Clement recommended that they go back to the writings of the apostles for a solution:
“Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles.” (Clement, to the Corinthians, chapter 5).
“Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached?” (Clement, To the Corinthians, chapter 47)
That this was common practice is evidenced by Polycarp’s exhortation to the Church at Philippi (2nd century):
“Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us].” (Polycarp, to the Philippians, chapter 6)
“Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” (Polycarp, to the Philippians, chapter 7)
“I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles.” (Polycarp, to the Philippians, chapters 9)
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (d. 107 A.D.), too, who wrote letters to the surrounding churches: to the Church at Ephesus, at Magnesia, at Tralles, at Rome, at Philadelphia and at Smyrna. His letters are full of admonition and exhortations, particularly that his readers attend to the teachings of the apostles and the prophets:
“…that I may be found in the lot of the Christians of Ephesus, who have always been of the same mind with the apostles through the power of Jesus Christ.” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Ephesians, chapter 11)
“Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever you do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end;” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Magnesians, chapter 13)
“Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles.” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Trallians, chapter 7)
“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles;” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Romans, chapter 4)
“I flee to the Gospel as to the flesh of Jesus, and to the apostles as to the presbytery of the Church. And let us also love the prophets, because they too have proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; … The priests indeed are good, but the High Priest is better; to whom the holy of holies has been committed, and who alone has been trusted with the secrets of God. He is the door of the Father, by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church.” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Philadelphians, chapters 5 & 9)
“… give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us … See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Smyrnæans, chapters 7 & 8)
Roman Catholics read these epistles and can see only submission to the bishop and the presbytery as if the church, the bishop and the presbytery were the cause of our unity, rather than the effect of a unity of which Christ, His Spirit and the Word are the cause. Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp were exhorting the sheep to stay in union with those shepherds who adhered to the teachings of the apostles, and to be on guard against those who did not, just as the Church of Ephesus had done. The unity of the church was “through the power of Jesus Christ” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Ephesians, chapter 11), and the basis for the unity was the prophets and “the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles.” The reason the sheep were to “[s]tudy, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles,” was so that “there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual” (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Magnesians, chapter 13). It was not the church, but the teachings of the apostles, that caused spiritual unity, and the spiritual unity of faith yielded that “fleshly” unity of which the assembly of believers was the public expression. The two were not to be mistaken for each other. Ephesus, after all, had maintained its unity by rejecting false apostles, not by submitting to them.
Clement’s criticism of the church at Corinth, for example, was not that they had lost their unity by separating from the presbyters, but that they had lost their unity by separating from presbyters who adhered to the teaching of the apostles:
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.” (Clement of Rome, to the Corinthians, chapter 42)
The apostles “appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe” (Clement of Rome, to the Corinthians, chapter 42), and those who abide by the doctrines of the apostles “cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry” (Clement of Rome, to the Corinthians, chapter 44). Whence this division?, asks Clement. It is because they had lost the unity that comes from the Father, the Son, the Spirit through careful attendance to the Word of God. Where there is adherence to the teachings of the apostles, there is unity with the bishop who adheres to the teachings of the apostles. Where the word of God is forsaken by either party, the unity is lost as well. There was a time, Clement reminded them, that the church at Corinth had unity, and it was not a unity that they obtained by adhering to their bishops, but a unity that was granted to them from heaven by adhering to God’s Word:
“Moreover, you were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive. Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, you were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes. Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and you had an insatiable desire for doing good, while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all. … Adorned by a thoroughly virtuous and religious life, you did all things in the fear of God. The commandments and ordinances of the Lord were written upon the tablets of your hearts.” (Clement of Rome, to the Corinthians, chapter 2)
Here we may see the difference between reading the Early Church Fathers through the lens of Rome, and reading them through the lens of Scripture. Papists read “follow the bishop” and “yielded obedience,” and presume that obedience to the bishop is the cause of the unity of the church, and therefore look for a visible supreme bishop on earth. When they find one, they think they have found the Church. Christians read “follow the bishop,” and “yielded obedience” and see that the patristic appeals for unity with the bishop are conditioned upon a presumption of apostolicity. The apostles instructed us that our Chief Shepherd is in heaven, and that He administers His flock from heaven by His Spirit and by His Word. Christians therefore understand that the Supreme Bishop is invisible to us, and join themselves to a local congregation that adheres to the teachings of the apostles, trusting the protection of their souls to the Bishop of Souls. And just as Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp exhorted, Christians attend soberly to the Word of God, lest they be led astray by bishops who presume to speak for God, but do not adhere to the teachings of the apostles.
Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, of course, were not the first to say that we should find a local congregation that adheres to the Word of God, and submit to the elders there. Nor were they the first to insist that we should also attend carefully to the Word of God, lest a deceiver enter in and lead the flock astray. Peter taught this long before Clement or Ignatius or Polycarp did:
“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:1-5)
These instructions from Peter are to the churches in Asia Minor. Peter does not admonish his audience to submit to elders who are in union with a chief shepherd in Rome, but to those who are in union with the Chief Shepherd in heaven. The reason we do not seek the cause of our unity in an earthly bishop is because earthly bishops can and do introduce error:
“…there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1)
“…after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:25-32)
There is no better way for false teachers to introduce “damnable heresies,” and for grievous wolves to introduce “perverse things,” than for them first to insist that unity with the bishop is the cause of apostolic purity, rather than insisting that apostolic purity be the condition of unity with the bishop.
Yet this is precisely what we see in Rome’s apologists. Any who desire apostolicity are told by her apologists that they first must join themselves to a visible chief shepherd on earth. But the Scriptures do not teach this. Bishops who want Christians to submit to them must rather demonstrate their apostolicity—something that Rome and her popes simply cannot do. Consider, for example, the observation of Roman Catholic apologist, Rev. John Morris, upon the realization that he could find no evidence of Marian devotion in the early Church. The practice, he said, must have been invisible in the early Church and therefore its apostolicity simply had to be presumed:
“[I]f there are early traces of identity of belief, they may be invisible, except to the eye of a Catholic, but perfectly clear to him. For an immense number of minute expressions, observations, and practices prove to him, that the genius of his faith is what it always was. … What is intended is, not to assert that the present devotion to Mary existed in the early ages; that may be so or not: but that the principle on which it is based naturally led to it, and may be assumed to have been intended by God to lead to it.” (Jesus, the Son of Mary, by the Rev. John Brande Morris, M.A., 1851, pp. 25-33.)
That dogmatic leap from an apostolic Church which knew nothing of Marian devotion, to the Roman Catholic church which is rife with Marian devotion but cannot prove its apostolicity, is the heart and soul of Roman Catholicism. Where the apostolicity of a doctrine cannot be seen, it is to be assumed based on the apostolic pretenses of a visible pope. Here Rev. Morris has accepted an invisible apostolicity in Roman Catholicism based on the visibility of a chief shepherd. As we noted in “A Significant Turning Point”, our Roman Catholic historians accept the same invisible apostolicity when they submit to Pope Pius IX’s Immaculate Conception dogma, even though the apostolicity of the dogma is completely lacking:
“The extant evidence, there… does not justify us … in picturing them [the Early Church Fathers] as carriers of an historical tradition, or in attributing to them a formal belief in an Immaculate Conception.” (Evangelical Catholic Apologetics, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God)
In fact, as we showed in the same post, the Early Church Fathers spoke volumes about the sinfulness and vaingloriousness of Mary, and her need to be corrected by her Son for her sins and her moral failings. The early church fathers made these claims based on the writings of the apostles. But this did not prevent Pope Pius IX from proclaiming that the Immaculate Conception of Mary has “always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). The apostolicity of the Immaculate Conception had to be presumed in order for Rome’s bishop to maintain his facade of apostolicity. Rome’s galactic lapse in apostolicity on Mary is brushed aside in haste by the Catholic Encyclopedia which has no other option than to designate the Early Church’s position on Mary as a gigantic aggregation of stray individual opinions that can be ignored:
“But these stray private opinions merely serve to show that theology is a progressive science.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Immaculate Conception).
Accept a visible chief shepherd of the Church, and what you will get for your trouble is an invisible apostolicity for which no evidence can be produced. As we demonstrated in The Rise of Roman Catholicism, and our series Their Praise was their Sacrifice, we are expected by Rome to accept the same invisible apostolicity on the perpetual virginity of Mary, Mary as “Mother of the Church,” the assumption of Mary, invocation of the saints, veneration of relics, veneration of images, votive candles, Roman primacy, papal primacy, eucharistic adoration, the sacrifice of the mass, and Peter as the first bishop of Rome. No evidence from the apostolic era can be produced for these, and a great deal of countervailing evidence exists in the early church, yet we are expected to receive them on the authority of a visible chief shepherd who can trace them back no further than the late 4th century.
But the early church would accept no such exchange. Our Chief Shepherd is in heaven and is invisible, but the apostolicity of the church must be visible indeed, and it is in the adherence to the teachings of the apostles that the apostolicity of church may be measured and known. It is this visible apostolicity that was the central focus of the early church in their letters.
We will pick up on this theme next week when we see how the early church rejoiced in the purity and unanimity of an apostolic church that had no earthly city as its capital, and no earthly shepherd to guide them.