I heard a striking story once that nailed the continuity of Christianity to a T. Tim Staples was on a place once seated next to a young, polite mormon man who had just finished his two years of missionary service. One of the stances of the Mormon Church is that Christianity started in its pristine shape but then became apostate. Along came the prophet Joseph Smith who restored what was dead.
On this theme, Staples had some follow up questions on that point. He asked him “Is ‘all scripture God-breathed’ and is ‘useful’ like it says in 2 Timothy 3:16?”. He answered yes. Then he took him to the following passage that most people do not think about.
“If your brother[l] sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).
His wise follow ups after the young man said this passage were: Is this also applicable? “Yes!” Was it applicable 5 years ago? 50? Yes. Yes. In 1790?
Then the young man’s face was downcast. 1790 was thirty years before his beloved prophet had his revelation. So before that, even if one could say there could be more than one valid Christian, there would be nowhere to settle disputes. The young man was discouraged and a seed was planted that there had to be some kind of Christian community that was both visible and authoritative from Jesus’ passion until now.
And that is the crux of how that argument comes down to: the reliability of Jesus depends in part on a continuity of an institution that keeps existing and has authority in faith and morals. This is why Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Apostasy? No match unless one believes that Jesus was a liar, lunatic or combination of that with legend.
There is more to this ongoing church. It is to carry on the proper glory given in worship to God. “Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21). So, how can an apostate church bring glory to God?
The other mission of the church that is meant to keep going is being a witness to the grace of God.
that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them (Ephesians 2:7-10).
Notice those words “might show” and “we should live in them” are to be ongoing and not just for Paul’s day. The context is set up as “the ages to come”. So God does not get what he wants? Or, again, does God do this through an apostate church?
And then there is the matter of Mary. According to scripture there has to be some level of veneration of Mary through all the generations. “And Mary said: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed’ “ (Luke 1:46-48).
So in every generation there needs to be a people who are giving some reverence to Mary the mother of Jesus. We have this recorded in the word of God in her conversation with an angel. If this was conceit on her part about “all ages” then surely Gabriel would have set her straight to make sure no one would worship her. But yet one can find veneration to her among the Anglicans, Catholics, Coptics and Eastern Orthodox.
Next, there needs to be a perpetual teaching office for any kingdom to continue that is rooted in a spiritual line. We learn from the Old Testament that there was a teaching office in the magisterium, scriptures and tradition. Jesus gave us the apostles who carried on the Old Testament and had tradition that would pass on something orally “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). This includes the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11) that is what we know through the early church fathers as the Eucharist. When Jesus said in the gospels that his blood is true drink and his flesh is true food (John 6) and that “This is my body” he meant it and commissioned a church government to regulate the distribution of himself in the Eucharist.
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.” —Letter to the Smyrnans, Ch 6. 107 AD.
He was on his way to be martyred when he wrote this. He was the third bishop of Antioch. The first city where the word Christian was used.
But the teaching office? We have the word of God! Scripture alone! Nor really. If you look at Acts 1 the apostles replace Judas with Mathias. He never wrote an epistle just like most of the apostles but in that chapter they quote the psalms about another taking his office. In quoting the Greek translation of the Old Testament the word for office is where we get episcopate as in that which a bishop holds. You then see that Paul later tells Timothy to set up bishops who would guard the deposit of faith and would spread that to still more people setting the stage for four generations alone (2 Timothy 2:2).
Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. Ignatius Letter to the Smyrnans. 107 AD.
In fact, it was bishops that organized the final canon of scripture even more generations later in the late 300’s. Bishops of that confederation belonged to lines of apostolic succession that are now called Catholic, Coptic and Eastern Orthodox.
But in that council, not the first of its kind, the organized canon was not official without Pope Damasus I presiding over it in 382 and Pope Innocent I finalizing in 405. Even then the historical residence of the Pope was in Rome (look further back to the 90’s with I Clement the letter). The bishops could not have anything officially infallible without the say so of the Bishop of Rome.
At this point I would like to get back to the rock and church reference in a fuller context.
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you [singular], Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16: 16-19).
Peter would be a new royal steward and chief of the new magisterium of the New Israel. Anyone else that would come up as a new bishop for centuries to come would be defaulted to be approved by Peter or whoever would take also his office with the same logic as Matthias replacing Judas. In other words, papal succession went with apostolic succession.
“ ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.’ “(Luke 22:31-33). The word here for strengthen is not just a pep talk. He would confirm them. As much as I appreciate the janitor staff of where I went to school, for them to confer on my parchment at graduation would be inappropriate. Someone of a higher standing than me in that university handed that to me. In this era, it is common to lift high the banner of “spiritual but not religious” but make no mistake: Jesus is religious, he founded a church and it is hierarchical. I have been the chief of the supposed “spiritual” argument. But as you can see in what I have outlined above, I believe I have encountered Christ in the context of a a 2,000 year old, Marian spirituality, Petrine governing, authoritative, transcendent called out community. I am home.