What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, April 10, with the Catholic Church, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church makes up the largest group of Christians in the world — over one billion people, as many as all Protestants and Orthodox Christians combined. In the United States, Protestants outnumber Catholics two to one; but Catholics are still twenty-three percent of the population, four times more than the next-largest denomination.
In the first century of Christianity, there were no denominations as we now know them. The major division in the church was between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. There were no Catholics as we think of them today, no Orthodox, and no Protestants. There were only followers of the Way, as they were called, believers in Jesus Christ. Over time, as the church developed, the word catholic, which means “universal,” was used to describe the church. It was not the name of a denomination.
When it came to early church history, all roads led to Rome. By the end of the first century, Rome was the center of the church. Peter and Paul were both put to death there. Rome was the power center of the empire and likely had the largest number of Christians of any city in the empire by the beginning of the second century. Over time, Latin came to be the dominant language of the western half of the Roman Empire; and although the New Testament was written in Greek, Latin soon came to be the language of the Western church as well.
Because of all those factors, the bishop of Rome came to be regarded as the most influential of bishops. This is similar to the way that pastors of large and influential churches among, say, Southern Baptists tend to be highly regarded by others even though these pastors have no technical authority over other churches. In the same way, the bishop of Rome came to have influence over other churches. It was not until the end of the fourth century that the bishop of Rome came to be known as “pope,” a term that simply meant “father.” More telling was the fact that the bishop of Rome called the other bishops “sons.” Not all of them appreciated this, but by the early fifth century, the authority of the pope was generally accepted among the Western churches and grudgingly accepted by most in the Eastern churches.
Similarities and Differences in Belief
As United Methodists (a Protestant denomination), we agree with the essentials of the faith as articulated by our Catholic friends. Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are a part of our worship tradition. The differences between Catholics and Protestants arise from the traditions of the church and the doctrines that spring from them.
Most Protestants look to the Scriptures as the primary source of faith and practice and require that any doctrine or required practice of the faith be closely related to the text of Scripture. Catholics also look to the Bible as the source of faith and practice, but they hold that the Holy Spirit did not cease to guide the church into truth with the death of the apostles. Like the Orthodox, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit continued to reveal truth and doctrine through the bishops, theologians, and councils of the church as they reflected on the Scriptures. Hence, there are some practices and doctrines dear to Catholics that are difficult for Protestants to see plainly in the Scriptures — generally the more obscure these “seeds,” the less likely Protestants are to accept them.
“One example of the different ways Protestants and Catholics look at sources for faith and practice is the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about Mary.”
However, it’s important to remember that many Christian traditions and doctrines were passed along orally before being written into the New Testament, whose canon was not even finally defined until the Council of Rome in 382. Catholics note that the idea that the Bible — apart from the tradition of the church, such as the pronouncements of councils and bishops and theologians — should be the only source of the doctrines of the faith ignores the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit would guide the church. And it ignores the fact that there would be no New Testament as we have it were it not for the work of the bishops and councils!
One example of the different ways Protestants and Catholics look at sources for faith and practice is the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about Mary. Protestants affirm all that is found in the New Testament regarding Mary and honor her as the mother of our Lord. Catholics start with the Scriptures, but they also look to the traditions and theological arguments that developed around Mary through the centuries to affirm doctrines that Protestants do not accept; namely, that she was immaculately conceived [born free of original sin], was perpetually a virgin, and was assumed into heaven at her death (her body not being subject to decay). The difference here is that Protestants do not find sufficient support in Scriptures for these doctrines, while Catholics find seeds of the doctrines in the New Testament and cite what they believe to be Holy Spirit-led traditions and teachings of the church through the centuries as pointing toward the truth of these doctrines.