Lots of Little Churches?

It is commonplace within Protestant circles to believe that the early church was similar to the church today with its proliferation of different denominations, and that just as Protestants today say, “It doesn’t really matter what church you go to, as long as you love Jesus”–so it was in the early church.

So were there lots of different churches in the first couple of centuries? Yes, there were actually lots of different groups. The uncomfortable problem for the Protestants is that these different sects were identified by the apostolic church as heretics and schismatics.

In his famous work Against the Heresies Irenaeus–the saintly Bishop of Lyon wrote about all the different little groups who made claims to authenticity and gave them a sure fire way of knowing the truth:

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. 
“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” 

Those who say there were lots of little churches around in the early days have a point. It’s not much different now I guess–except in scale. The principles are the same, and Irenaeus’ words still ring true.

When a Catholic like myself asserts this truth it makes many Protestants howl with rage. I understand. They look at the Catholic Church and they see her human failings. They see her seeming arrogance and her apparent sinfulness. They also see the genuine goodness and love and faith of themselves and those in their churches and compare it to Catholicism and often it seems like the Catholics they know and the Catholic Church they experience doesn’t match up.
How on earth can it be that the Catholics are ‘right’ after all? It just seems too crazy from their point of view. I understand. I used to be there. And yet, and yet, when those who look more deeply into it open their minds and hearts in a genuine search for the truth other mysteries open up, and other ways of seeing are given, and these new ways of knowing and seeing are not opened up merely by apologetical arguments.
People ask why I converted to the Catholic faith, and it was the quote from Irenaeus above as well as a multitude of other factors great and small which brought me to the banks of the Tiber and made me swim.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03888735902551578171 Andrew

    Fr. – - Interesting post! My question to you – in light of an article at the Weekly Standard about a possible pending schism of the Anglican communion and the gravitational shift of the remnant to Africa, how is it that African Anglicans may come to the same conclusion you reached and swim the Tiber? Do you forsee that as a possibility or is African Anglicanism too strongly Reformed to make a major shift within one generation?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    The Epistles and first bits of Revelations show that a living authority who could separate error from orthodoxy was essential to those churches' survival.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10102416427157404108 Wild Bill

    Anyone who has ever gone through a "church split" will know the uncomfortable truth. Once the personal resentments have erupted and run their course, what is left is an underlying rebellion against authority. Then it's easy to see that rebellion as an inkling of the rebellion against the authority of the Magesterium and the Pope.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    From South Carolina it looks like AMiA is already in schism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16914455567953306044 Dismas

    It seems to me that much of the contradiction and divisiveness found in Protestantism is rooted in a profound rejection of the example found in the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat:He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. Lk 1:51

  • http://openid.aol.com/jllfolarin Joe

    Just as a baby prefers to nurse from its own mother, but will opt for another that actually produces milk when its mother doesn't, so Christians will eventually opt for a church that feeds, nourishes, and loves them from the foundation of "mere Christianity." Ideally that would be your local Catholic parish, but so often the parishes are hardly more than "clouds without water." Intellectually and on paper the Catholic institution has the most validity as a religious construct. But we don't live on a piece of paper or in ivory towers, and in the real world authentic believers will opt for a Christian community makes them grow in their walk. That's why the key to Catholic success is not intellectual correctness (which it already possesses) but renewal and "living epistles."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Joe, all of the good things you mention are available within the Catholic Church. Its just that they do not always exist at the parish level. We find these things within apostolic ministries, religious orders, Catholic Bible study groups, Cursillo, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03271388607886738576 BHG

    Forgive me a bit of spleen here but I am so sick of the "I'm not being fed" comment. Catholics receive Christ HIMSELF in the Eucharist, pray tell, what other food do you need? It is up to us to then take that food and be the living epistles Joe speaks of–not to take it and whine because the parish in its present form doesn't meet our every whim. What good is the "food" given elsewhere if it incomplete or even toxic to one's life in Christ–even when it "tastes" good? Joe, go be the "food" you want to receive…IN YOUR PARISH. Amazing things will happen…..

  • Todd

    The key is to establish perpetual adoration at a given parish if at all possible. If you can get a lapse Catholic/Protestant into an adoration chapel, Eucharistic Jesus will take care of the rest :)