Is the Catholic Church a "man-made Religion?"

We got an email that said:

"Jesus calls us to be the light of the world and follow Him, not to serve under any man-made religious denomination, including Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc."

I was at Kingdom Bound (a big Evangelical music festival) where the "Newsboys" played. They are the best known band in Christian rock. The Evangelical lead singer Peter Furler said something very profound. He said we should not have "lone wolf" Christians evangelizing. He said it creates chaos. He said every person should be under the authority of a pastor and every pastor under the authority of other pastors. He said there should be a structure of authority. This just about floored me because here was a non-denominational Christian basically describing the structure of the Catholic Church as a model for Evangelization.

After the crucifixion, the apostles passed to the Early Church Fathers, the Faith. Later emperors and monarchs accepted the Creed; their subjects followed. That's how it started.

Jesus said "You are Peter and upon this rock 'I' will build 'my' Church." (Mat 16:19) He did not say "you will build your Church."  Jesus said "I will build my Church."  Jesus founded his Church at the Pentecost. (Acts 2:14) He blew the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on that first day. The Church was conceived that day. Catholics believe the Holy Spirit has remained upon the Church from then until now. This was to be true to his promise to Peter that the "Gates of Hell will not prevail against it." (Mat 16:19) At the birth of the Church at the Pentecost, Peter stood up to lead the apostles as Jesus commanded him. (Acts 1:15) Jesus founded his Church upon people, not principles. Jesus did not say "You are the Bible and upon this book I will build my Church." There was no Bible in the room that day. The Church was born 400 years before the Church pieced together the Bible out of hundreds of letters. We know that shocks some of my Evangelical friends.  

Isn't the Bible the Authority?

The Catholic Church loves the Bible. The Church protected the Bible across the ages until the Gutenberg press was invented. Century after century, monks in monasteries faithfully copied Scripture. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible and thousands of faithful Catholics dedicated their lives to this work. Catholics protected the Bible over the centuries of wars, famines, plaques, the fall of Rome, fires, and threats from all sides. This was long before any other denomination existed. And the Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). We love the Bible. Honest!

The Bible is the Truth and no Catholic Dogma or tradition will contradict it, but Catholics do not believe that it is the authority. Otherwise there would have been no authority for the first 400 years of the Church.

In an email discussion with an Evangelical, I pointed out that many "born again spirit filled" Evangelical Bible scholars can't agree on the interpretation of Scripture (e.g., post vs. pre tribulation Rapture). This was the response I received:

... evangelical Christians argue about post or pre-tribulation things...but does that change our salvation? No...we must make sure that we are ready for it either way!

It is a very slippery slope to suggest that it is not important to agree on the interpretation of Scripture. We suggest that that makes for sloppy theology which eventually leads to sloppy faith. For instance many Christian denominations hold no opinion on abortion while their congregation members fall into this horrific soul trap.

Catholics think it is curious that Evangelicals cannot agree on the interpretation of the thing that they say God has given them as their authority (the Bible). Every Evangelical would agree that there is only one Truth and that it is not subjective. Yet they cannot agree on what much of what Scripture is saying. This does not sound consistent with Jesus' prayer for unity. (Jn 17:21) Catholics think God gave us a structure of authority for that reason.

Hierarchical authority

Authority and hierarchy are hard concepts to sell these days. Businesses are adopting horizontal organizational charts. Kids are swearing at their school teaches and beating them up. The public is pulling apart politicians. Perhaps these are all progressive ideas, but Catholics think this age has authority-phobia.

I heard a sermon on the radio by a gifted Evangelical minister Dr. Tony Evans. He took us on a biblical tour of the hierarchical and structural authority in the heavens among the angels and heavenly creatures (Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim, etc). He quoted the Bible chapter and verse to show that Angels only activate under authority, when they are told what to do by their superior. (Job, 38:7, Gen 3:24, 19, 21:17, 22:11, Acts 7:53, Ex 23:20-23, Judg 13, 6:11-24, Isa 6:5, 1 Kgs 19:5, Jude 1:9, Rev 12:7 etc.) I found Dr. Evans' had a powerful testimony to the Catholic approach to Church, although he perhaps didn't intend it. Dr. Evans showed that God is not at all afraid of structural authority. Angels have an intense personal relationship with God but they are totally into hierarchy. Catholics think the Hierarchical Structure of the Church was divinely inspired by God and revealed to those who formed it in the early centuries of Christianity.

Isn't Jesus all about the heart - isn't the intellect useless?

I often hear from Evangelicals that a personal relationship with Jesus as "all about the heart" and has nothing to do with the intellect. However, when of the most influential "born again" Christian in history, I have to question that position. The Apostle Paul was authentically "born again" on the road to Damascus. Jesus could have chosen anybody. He chose a supreme intellect. Even secular scholars would agree that Paul was one of the greatest intellects in the history of mankind.

Paul did not throw out his intellect after his encounter with Jesus. He used it. He went to Athens to dispute with the Greeks in Greek. He went to Rome and argued with the Romans in Latin as a Roman citizen. He always spoke with groups in the context of their socio/political framework. He used his intellect to win souls. He used his supreme knowledge of the law. We don't believe it was "all about the heart" for him. He used his powers of reasoning to convert pagans and to lay down the foundation of our Faith. 

It is true that he let Jesus speak through him. But Jesus chose one of the greatest intellects of all time through which to speak. God is not at all afraid of the intellect. The Bible is full of powerful demonstrations of how God uses human intellect to win souls. The Catholic Church places value on the human reasoning that was given to us by God. God invented the intellect. It plays a role in our surrender to God. There are many circumstances where an intellectual argument is presented to a non-believer. Their intellectual defenses drop and they surrender to Jesus.  Paul used human intellect to help build the kingdom. Let's not throw theological scholarship away. We don't think Paul would want us to do that, nor does God.

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Isn't a religious system man-made?

The dictionary says religion is a "belief or a particular system of religious belief and worship." The offending term to some Evangelicals is the word "system." They feel that any system of belief is man-made. Catholics think God is a God of order and therefore is capable of giving us a system of belief. Catholics believe God created the solar "system." God created the "eco-system."  He created the human immune "system."  Catholics don't think that God is afraid of organization and systemization. Catholics think this is how God is unfolding his plan that is laid out in his Holy Word, the Bible. Catholics think this "system" is how he guards against thousands of conflicting interpretations of Scripture.

Another complaint against Catholicism is that it is a complicated system. Catholics don't think God is afraid of complex systems. If I watch a dragonfly, I'll soon see how awesomely complicated God is. A quick read through the book of Revelation will also spin my head around. God is wonderfully complex. The fact that the Church is a "complicated system" is not a testimony against it. Catholics believe the complexity is a testimony for in favour of it. The eco-system is complicated and it is totally of God. (Gen 1:1). This complexity could be translated to "rich in depth and width, time and space." The Catholic Church stretches across the entire world and reaches back to the time of Christ.

Yet a Catholic's relationship with Jesus is intensely simple. This is a great paradox of Catholicism. For the lay person, the Catholic faith is easy to access:  surrender and pray to Jesus, read the Bible, go to Mass, and follow the directions of the Church. Evangelicals would say "pray to Jesus, read the Bible, meet with other Christians, and join a body of like minded Christians."

Evangelical book stores have thousands of books written about Jesus, the faith, relationships and every other topic under the sun. We like many of the books but some of them conflict with each other. In reading all these books I have trouble understanding the Evangelical claim that Catholics are too complicated. Some of this stuff is just as "deep, heady, and complicated."  Evangelicals have quite long preaching sessions at most worship services. These are often quite complicated, and sometimes quite systematic also. Evangelical universities are full of complexity, history, tradition and academia. This is also religion.

What about "Rote" prayer

Some Evangelicals feel that because the Catholic Church has specific actions like genuflecting, making a sign of the cross, and saying specific prayers in Church that it is purely by "rote" that we do these things. Certainly some Catholics will genuflect by rote, or may not be praying from the heart at any given time. However, this is true in any denomination. Many people in Evangelical churches raise their hands by rote, others speak in tongues by rote, others sing a worship song by rote. The well known Evangelical speaker Joyce Meyer criticizes many Evangelicals:

"... we have to be very careful my Charismatic friends that we don't just become like a bunch of parrots... only two lights were on [in a congregation of thousands]" A popup mp3 excerpt of the talk is here.

It is not the actions we do that dictate whether or not we are doing something by rote. It is the state of our heart as we do those actions. The good Catholics that I know love to genuflect because they are honouring the real presence of God who is present before them. When they make the Sign of the Cross they are joining with the early apostles who did this, and they feel the protection of our Lord on their minds, hearts and mouths. When they say the "Our Father" they are praying the way Jesus instructed us to pray, and they feel his presence.

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Hey, didn't Constantine invent Catholicism?

Some Evangelicals have suggested that Constantine invented the Church. But We don't think that that theory reflects sound historical scholarship. Susan Fortin explains that the word Catholic was used before the end of the first century. She writes:

St. Ignatius of Antioch, apostolic Father and bishop. He was a disciple of St. John, along with St. Polycarp. Theodoret, the Church historian says he was consecrated bishop by St. Peter, who was at first bishop of Antioch before going to Rome. Ignatius was martyred in Rome under Emperor Trajan's rule. It was during the journey to Rome that he wrote his famous letters that contain invaluable information about the early Church. He was the first to use the term "Catholic" to describe the Church.

Constantine did not invent Catholicism, he simply recognized it and let people legally be Christian. History bears out that Christians were having "Catholic" Masses long before this "legalization" of Christianity. Three hundred years before Constantine, Christians believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, honoured Mary, had elaborate ceremonies, believed in Purgatory, respected the Church hierarchy, baptized babies, recognized Peter as the Rock, built the Church upon him with successors and followed a rich tradition of Christianity. That was the Christianity of the early days of Christianity and that is the Catholic Church of today. Catholic means "universal." Constantine did not invent the Church any more than a modern day leader who would legalize Christian practices in China would invent Christianity. Constantine brought the Church out from under the yoke of oppression so that Jesus' prophetic words that the Gospel be "yelled from the housetops" would be fulfilled. (Lk 12:3-4). Before Constantine the Church was in hiding. This was not what Jesus wanted.

A timeline of the Catholic Church from 1-500 A.D. is here.

Sometimes Evangelicals look at beautiful Catholic Churches that Constantine built and ask "why didn't the Church continue to worship in peoples' homes." These Evangelicals point out that in the first years of Christianity the places of assembly were peoples' homes. This is true. They were also sometimes in Catacombs. But Catholics don't think this was God's plan for "Church." It was a result of persecution. If homes were the ideal spot for assembly then they wouldn't have had services in Catacombs. More on Constantine here.

When Jesus saw money changers in the temple, He didn't say, "hey guys, it's only a building, we can worship anywhere, let's go down the street to the community centre." No, He chased them out. (Lk 19:45) He had a passion for the Temple. He called it "my Father's House." (Lk 2:49, 16:27, Jn 2:16)

Church buildings began in the latter half of the second century during lulls in persecution, long before Constantine. They became widespread after the Enactment of Milan in 313 AD when it finally became possible for the Church to emerge completely from the underground.

Today there are huge Evangelical Churches springing up all over the world. When I was in Guatemala there was a beautiful 7,000 seat Evangelical Church being built. The "Dream Center" in Los Angeles is another example. Evangelicals are building big beautiful Churches as fast as they can get the money to build them. Catholics just have a 1700 year head start :-)

Our experiences in the Evangelical community is that most Churches have a "Mission Statement" or "Statement of Belief." Some people would say "my Church is just about the Bible and Jesus and nothing else." That may be true until someone comes in and says they interpret the Bible in a way that conflicts with the rest of the people in the Church. In fact most Evangelicals I know have left a few Evangelical fellowships for that very reason.

We encourage anyone who thinks their Church has no Mission Statement to ask their pastor. They may be surprised. Any Evangelical church (or brethren) that has a mission statement has, in a sense, accepted a system of belief - a religion. We expect if we asked them where the Mission Statement came from, they would say "God." So they are saying God gave them a system of belief and a plan to carry that belief into the world. That is religion. And that is what the Catholic Church has done under God's grace. It doesn't mean that there is no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is simply an action plan, revealed by God. Catholics who "get it" have an intense personal relationship with Jesus and hand their lives over to this King of kings.

If I wanted to be in relationship with a great artist, I would not only spend time with him, I would also study some of the beautiful works of art he has done. Catholics believe Jesus is a great artist and one of his greatest works of art is the historical body of Christ - the Church.

See also "Are Catholics Born Again?"

 

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen