Will the real Church please stand up? Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering. Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed! How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?
One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors. This is the argument from similarity. I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning. It was not the first time. I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity. I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present. I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. There are many ways one can compare churches, including leadership structure, worship services, theology, architecture, spiritual gifts, and devotional practices.
The church at Jerusalem started out as a group of apostles among a larger group of other “followers of the Way,” (Acts 1) of whom Peter was (at least) the most prominent spokesman (Acts 2). Within a few years they ordained seven deacons to assist with some practical matters (Acts 6). By the time of the famine in the 40s, during the reign of Claudius, the church of Jerusalem was being led by a group of elders (presbyters, the common Greek word for Christian “priests” as opposed to Jewish “priests”), with a prominent role for James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 11:30; 12:17; 15:13-21).
Meanwhile, churches were being founded elsewhere. We’re not told anything about the structure of the early Samaritan churches (Acts 8). At Antioch the church seems to be led by a group of “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1). Paul and Barnabas were traveling around (as were others) founding churches and appointing elders to lead them (Acts 14:23). At this early time, the term ἐπίσκοπος (“overseer,” the root of the English term “bishop”) seems to be used interchangeably with “elder” and “shepherd” (compare Acts 20:17 and 20:28; also Titus 1:6-7). Whatever the term, there were several of them in Ephesus (Acts 20:17) and in Philippi (Phil 1:1; as noted already by Jerome c. 400). In Rome, before Paul arrived there, the Christians seem to be arranged in multiple congregations, several of which are identified by household (Romans 16).
Among non-biblical early Christian texts, the Didache (15) and Clement of Rome (42) likewise refer to two orders of clergy, “bishops/overseers” and deacons, the latter author seeming to identify the “bishops/overseers” with “priests” in chapter 44. Shortly after the year 100, Ignatius of Antioch is the earliest known Christian author to distinguish between “bishops” and “priests/elders,” putting the former in “God’s place” and the latter “as the college of apostles” (Ig.Magn. 6:1; cf. Ig.Tral. 3:1; 7:2; Ig.Eph. 2:2). It is often stated that Ignatius argued for the necessity of having only a single bishop; as I reviewed his letters for this post, I find no evidence for such an argument. Rather, he identifies a single bishop in each town, though he writes to the local church as a whole. The curious exception is Rome, whose letter from Ignatius mentions no bishop. And the bishops of the various cities he wrote to apparently met him in Smyrna and carried their letters back; it is unclear the degree to which his identification of single bishops is due to his own Syrian usage, rather than the usage of Asia Minor.
Nor is the absence of a mention of a bishop of Rome entirely unique. The letter ascribed to Clement of Rome never names Clement, despite the fact that letters typically begin by naming their author, nor does the letter refer to an ecclesiastical authority in Rome. It was instead addressed from “the Church of God which is inhabiting Rome” to “the Church of God which is inhabiting Corinth.” Later tradition ascribed the letter to Clement of Rome, who is likewise only known from later tradition. (He was subsequently identified with the Clement mentioned by Paul in Phil. 4:3, who is not in any way linked to Rome in Paul’s letter.) Nor could subsequent tradition agree on how many bishops of Rome there were between the apostle Peter and Clement, suggesting zero, one, or two. Indeed, in the time of the Shepherd of Hermas (date disputed, but probably mid-2nd century), the author still referred to “the presbyters who lead the church” in the city of Rome (Vision 2.4.3). Later authors committed the almost unavoidable mental error of anachronism by reading into early Christianity in Rome the presence of a single bishop, which had become (nearly?) universal by the late second century.
So which modern denomination do these data most resemble? The tidy hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which deacons and priests all answering to bishops, who in turn answer to the Pope in Rome, is foreign to this context. Indeed, it appears that there was no single bishop in Rome within a century of the apostle Peter. This also does not look much like the Chalcedonian insistence on the pentarchy, which only attained five patriarchates after the elevation of Jerusalem to a patriarchate in 451; indeed, in the second century, only three of the later five had any prominence. Protestants are divided among those who have bishops, those who have presbyteries, those who have elder boards, and those who claim to be led by prophets or even apostles. Protestant bishops also look little like the multiple “overseer/bishops” of a single city, while Presbyterians presume a regional authority structure (the presbytery) for which no evidence exists in the early church. Baptists have multiple “elders” in their churches, but they usually don’t preach or perform the Eucharist, as they did in the earliest churches, and those who claim to be led by apostles don’t send them packing often enough; apostles were mainly migratory birds. Those who claim to be led by prophets should have those prophets’ words judged for exactitude (Deuteronomy 18), and do not adhere to the instructions to appoint “elders/presbyters/priests” in every city (Titus 1:5). Most non-episcopal and non-presbyterian churches are also intensely congregationalist, rejecting “outside interference” in their affairs of exactly the sort contained in 1 Clement and in all the letters of Paul.
To sum up, the earliest Churches were somewhat diverse in their leadership structures, which changed over time, and they do not closely resemble any existing denomination.
What about the worship? Perhaps one denomination worships God exactly as Christians always have. (Indeed, I saw this claimed by an Antiochian Orthodox church website a few evenings ago, and they are not unique in the claim.) The difficulty, of course, is identifying from the hints available what can be said of the worship of the earliest churches. They certainly did not recite the Nicene Creed, or even the Apostles’ Creed, as neither had been composed before 200. The Eucharist was evidently a big portion of the gathering, which may be implicit in Acts 2:42, 46, though Paul speaks of the bread preceding the cup (1 Cor 11:23-25) and the Didache speaks of the cup preceding the bread (9:2-3). Paul also speaks of prophesying, revelation, and speaking in tongues in the communal worship, and that multiple people should contribute elements to it (1 Cor 14:26-33). Paul elsewhere speaks of men praying with their hands raised up (1 Tim 2:8). The Didache gives a post-Eucharistic prayer which is, to my knowledge, no longer used in any denomination (10), though prophets are expressly permitted to pray longer. Pliny’s letter to Trajan offers a meeting time of pre-dawn and responsive singing, as well as some sort of oath not to commit crimes, followed by an adjournment and then coming together for a meal, which is plausibly the Eucharist. Justin Martyr (1 Apology 67) gives the most detailed consecutive account of a Christian worship service in the mid-2nd century which specifies reading scripture for as long as available, followed by a sermon or homily of exhortation to imitate these things, evidently while the congregation is seated. This is followed by standing and congregational prayer, then communion with bread, water, and wine, followed by taking a collection. Justin completes his description with an explanation of why the worship must be on Sunday.
So which denomination worships in this way? Well, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox recite the “new” creeds, and no one reads scripture for “as long as time allows.” Most scripture readings are all too brief, in fact, although in this regard the liturgical Christians often excel the “Bible-only” Protestants. But those same liturgical Christians do not generally allow prophesying or speaking in tongues in their liturgies, unlike the apostle Paul, who to our modern ears almost sounds like a charismatic or Pentecostal in his preferred worship style. The liturgical Christians also sit and stand (not to mention kneel) at the wrong times, according to Justin. And the Roman Catholic Many Protestants do not celebrate the Eucharist every week, an odd relic of the fact that in medieval Europe it was customary for the laity not to partake of the Eucharist except once per year, which is far removed from earliest Christian practice. With the second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church changed their dominant practice and permitted the laity once more to receive the cup which had previously been partaken of by all Christians. Most Christians worship on Sundays, except for the Seventh-Day Adventists, and recently the Roman Catholic Church has started offering “Sunday Mass” from mid-afternoon on Saturday. But I don’t know of any denomination outside of the illegal churches of China that habitually meets in the pre-dawn to sing and take an oath not to commit crimes. I also don’t know of any denomination today that takes the collection after the communion, and of course no denomination both partakes of the Eucharistic bread before the cup and the cup before the bread.
In short, early Christian worship practice varied, and resembles different modern worship services in different ways, to different degrees, but no modern denomination worships “in the same way” as the earliest Christians, at least judging by externals.
This is a highly contentious issue, of course, but I can make short work of it without saying anything very contentious. The earliest Christians everywhere taught that salvation is by grace, and everywhere emphasized the importance of faith, and nowhere described it as “by faith alone.” As one Roman Catholic friend of mine liked to remind me, “the only time ‘faith’ and ‘alone’ occurred together in the Bible is when James wrote that justification is ‘not by faith alone’ (James 2:24).” They also nowhere taught that scripture alone is the only basis for belief. On the other hand, the earliest Christians (before c.200) nowhere taught the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and indeed Tertullian rejected the theory of her perpetual virginity, a theory whose main earlier advocate is the bizarre Protoevangelium of James. (It is often asserted, without citation of his works, that Irenaeus taught Mary’s perpetual virginity, but this Roman Catholic site rejects that assertion.) The doctrine of purgatory is not to be found in the earliest Christian texts, and Augustine frankly declares himself uncertain on the subject. Regarding the doctrine of transubstantiation, its specificity is often misunderstood by lay Roman Catholics: the notion that the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ is everywhere witnessed by the earliest Christians, and this formulation is shared with Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants; the notion that this identity is accomplished according to Aristotle’s theory of substance and accidents is attested nowhere among the earliest Christians. With regard to Chalcedonian Orthodox distinctives, the distinction between divine essences and energies is absent from the earliest writings. Nor in fact did the earliest Christian authors specify how many natures (whether 1 or 2) are found in the incarnate Christ; here again we must distinguish between the primitive Christian assertion that Jesus was both God and human from the various expressions of that idea using Aristotelian metaphysics from the fifth century onward.
What does this show? All branches of Christianity believe things which were not taught by the earliest Christians. As Newman argued, doctrine develops, and it has developed in all of the branches of Christianity. Christians of various branches will contend that their direction of development was more consistent with the theology of the earliest churches, and not all such cases are equally valid, but the fact that doctrinal development is universal means that no denomination today teaches exactly and only what the earliest Christians believed. The argument from similarity, on the question of theology, has no modern winners (though it has a few modern losers, who clearly teach less and not more than the earliest Christians believed).
This is even briefer: the earliest Christians met in houses. Only later did they meet in public buildings, but Roman basilicas don’t look much like modern churches (usually too many open columns, not enough wall space). Lest some of our “house church Protestant” friends claim that therefore they have the similarity market cornered on this dimension, I would point out that modern houses do not look much like 1st-2nd C houses (no electricity back then, for starters, and much worse insulation). No one today worships in buildings used by or resembling buildings used by the earliest Christians.
Jesus worked miracles. The apostles worked miracles. Other Christians at the time of the apostles worked miracles. Most modern denominations (other than the charismatics and Pentecostals) don’t work miracles in the same ways. Not all spiritual gifts are showy or miraculous, of course (see 1 Cor 12:28), and so most modern Christian denominations emphasize the non-miraculous gifts (especially the gift of committee work). But while there are spiritual gifts at play in these denominations, the balance of spiritual gifts is very visibly different than among the earliest Christians. Augustine already noticed this, and had an explanation for it. But to the degree that charismatic and Pentecostal prophets are not simply frauds, they alone can claim to resemble the earliest Christians in this domain.
Here we can say the least, as we know basically nothing about the earliest Christian devotional practices. All that we can say is that all devotional practices popular today have a history. Icons, and the modes of venerating them, were developed over time, and the earliest Christian images (such as the frescoes of Dura Europos) don’t even qualify as icons according to the strict later Orthodox view that they must be painted on wood panels. The Rosary was invented in the past millennium, as was Eucharistic adoration, as was hesychasm. Speaking in “my personal prayer language” is even more recent. Most early Christians were unable to manage the individual “devotional time” of Bible reading which is the mainstay of most Protestant devotions. Other Protestant devotional practices such as fasting and prayer are idiorrhythmic, which has a long history in Christian asceticism, but already the Didache enjoins fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays rather than on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:1). So whatever else may be said, no modern denomination’s devotional practices mirror those of the earliest Christians.
From the various things that have been said, it is clear that no single denomination or church organization visibly mirrors the earliest Christian Church in all particulars. The argument from similarity fails. Where does that leave us? There are various options, not all of them equally good.
1. The Church is inherently defined by unchanging visible features, and has now ended. Despite the Lord’s promise in Matthew 16:18 that the Church would never be overcome, if all of these visible features are essential to the definition of the Church, then the Church exists no longer. This seems silly to me, and I don’t really know anyone who believes this, despite occasional sede-vacantist whingeing that it’s on the verge of happening.
2. The Church is inherently defined by some unchanging visible features but not others. Since no denomination mirrors the earliest Christians in all visible features, perhaps some of these are cosmetic while others are essential. This is an attractive position, but notice that the areas which most churches want to claim as unchanging have in fact changed. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are going to have a hard time making good on their claim that their leadership structures are the same as those of the earliest Christians. Since there was no singular Roman bishop after Peter and before Hermas in the mid-2nd century, submission to the Roman pontiff could not be necessary for salvation, as was later taught by the medieval Pope Boniface VIII in his bull Unam Sanctam. On the other hand, Protestants and Pentecostals will not find that the ways in which they resemble the early Church were preserved continuously in the intervening periods. So I also think this position untenable.
3. Certain visible features which have not always defined the Church now necessarily do. This view would assert that, though God was content to have an “irregular” Church early on, nevertheless through the guidance of the Holy Spirit certain changes took place which are now mandatory. What were once structural and liturgical possibilities for the Church of God are no longer. This is a tenable position, although the current lack of visible unity among Christian denominations makes it difficult to convince others that any particular tradition is normative. That is why apologists out to steal sheep from other denominations do not adopt this position, but rather appeal to the fallacious argument from similarity.
If those three were the only possibilities, then #3 would be the only reasonable option. But there is another option:
4. The visible characteristics of the Church are not its defining marks. Instead, the defining features of the Church of Christ now, as always, are invisible. The earliest Christians were diverse as to their leadership structures and worship styles; those aspects were not fixed and uniform for all Christians then, and they never have been. What characterized the Church of Christ then were invisible qualities which continue to characterize the Church of Christ to this day. I might appeal to the “new command” of Jesus in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that, just as I have loved you, you may love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or Paul’s list of the “fruits of the Spirit” from Gal. 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Irenaeus, at the close of the period of “earliest Christians” discussed here, seemed to take this view of the defining nature of the Church: “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth” (AH III.24.1).
I think #4 is the most defensible option. The argument from dissimilarity indicates that the spiritual essence of the Church cannot be delineated visibly. But let me anticipate one last objection, by way of clarification: it is often objected that the Church founded by Christ must be visible, based on various reasons, some more plausible than others. There is a difference between saying a Church is visible and saying it may be precisely delineated by visible features, as there is a difference between saying the essence of the Church is invisible and saying that the Church itself is invisible. If there are human beings as part of the Church, the Church is visible in part. No one, not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, believe the Church is wholly visible, for that would be to exclude those in heaven now. What #4 above says is that the essence of the Church, what makes the Church the Church, is not visible; the Church itself is very visible in its members who are worshiping and serving Christ. The Church itself has various organizational structures, and always has, which change over time, but that does not make the Church less visible. It is not the organizational structures which define the Church, but the Church which defines various structures for its own uses. Option #4 probably does imply that the precise boundaries of the Church are not knowable to us before our glorification, but that is hardly surprising: the Lord taught in parables that the visible Church would always be mixed between those being saved and those not (see Matt 13:24-30 and 36-43; 25:1-10), and Paul’s response to the issue of false teachers within the Church is that “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim 2:19). Eastern Orthodox Christians of an ecumenical mind have recently (in Orthodox terms) offset the traditional statement that “outside of the Church there is no salvation” with the assertion, “We can say where the Church is; we cannot say where the Church is not.” And, in fact, breaking with Pope Boniface VIII, the Roman Catholic Church also now teaches that those who are saved may be found outside the Roman Catholic denomination, although they refrain from equating “the collection of those who are saved” with “the Church of Christ,” which for them still connotes an ecclesiastical hierarchy in communion with the Roman papacy.
By way of conclusion, then, the argument from similarity is fallacious because no modern Christian group “looks like” the earliest Christians, especially in those ways which distinguish them from other modern Christian groups. Apart from a few positions which no one I’ve ever met actually holds, we are either left asserting that the essentially visible nature of the Church has changed since the apostles, or that the essential nature of the Church is not visible (though much of the Church itself is visible). I think the weight of evidence is in favor of the latter option, and regardless of my opinion, “the Lord knows those who are His.”