The Church Before the Protestant Reformation
Question: Christ said that he would be with his church forever, and promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. So where was the church for fifteen hundred years before Protestantism came into the picture, since you claim that the Catholic Church had fallen into error?
Answer: Christ certainly fulfills His promises and protects His church to the very end. This blessed truth is often twisted to glorify the Roman Catholic Church as if it is the only, infallible and constant church of Christ since the days of the apostles. The argument is misleading because it falsely assumes that:
All three propositions are false.
1. The Roman Catholic Church was not the only church before the reformation.
The Lord preserved His people before the Reformation. The early catholic churches were neither Roman nor Greek; the division into the western and eastern churches was not complete until in the eleventh century. Yet Catholic apologists conveniently forget the Greek Orthodox Church. They too claim a succession of bishops going back to the apostolic era. Moreover, there were other Christian churches such as the Donatists, Novatians, Waldenses, the Lollards and the Hussites, who were bitterly persecuted by Catholics.
Roman theology claims that the Church is composed of those churches in submission to the bishop of Rome. However this is not the mark of a true church of Jesus Christ. As a matter of historical fact, the catholic churches in the first centuries did not recognize the bishop of Rome as the universal and infallible leader of all churches. The churches in the east, of course, never accepted the papal claim. The church of Jesus Christ is composed of all those who are faithful to Him and His Word; any local assembly is a genuine Christian church as long as it remains loyal to the teaching of the Lord and abounds in love and good works.
It is wrong to equate 'the church of Christ' (which is made up of all true believers in the different churches) with a particular institution (the Church of Rome). The two are not the same. While some Catholics are genuinely saved and are true members of Jesus' church, yet the church of Christ is not limited by the boundaries of the Roman institution. All Christians in the various churches and movements form the body of Christ. Jesus' promise to build and protect His church refers to these dear people for whom He shed His blood, and not an institution which at times descended to the very pit of hell in corruption, greed, superstition, arrogance and crass immorality.
2. The Catholic Church had fallen into serious doctrinal error.
The promise of Jesus to build and protect His church cannot be used to cover up the mistakes and false doctrines that creep into the organized church. We cannot say that since this church is a true church of Christ, all its teaching must be correct. It is enough to look at some legitimate churches in the New Testament - Corinth and the churches in the region of Galatia for instance - to see that serious errors may creep into the church. These were not sectarian or heretical; these churches were genuinely Christian, and yet the apostle Paul wrote to them to correct their doctrinal and practical errors. So, in principle, it's perfectly acceptable to say that the Catholic Church before the Reformation included a large number of genuine Christians, but that does not mean that there weren't serious doctrinal errors in the church. The Reformation was, if you like, a spring cleaning of the house of God from some of the abuses and heresies that crept in during the centuries. It was not a starting from scratch. What was good and biblical was retained, what was in error was swept away.
“Where was the church before the Reformation?” is akin to asking, “Where were you before you took a bath?” Sadly most of the Roman authorities did not repent of their erroneous ways. They lost a golden opportunity at the Council of Trent, and ended up cursing those who believe the biblical Gospel. The modern Roman church remains obstinate to this day.
3. The teaching of the modern Catholic Church is different from that of the old Catholic church.
It is easy to be deceived by words. “The Catholic Church was the church before the Reformation..." is misleading because the doctrinal character of the modern Catholic Church is altogether different from the teaching of the old Catholic churches. We can mention the evolution of the hierarchy, papal supremacy and papal infallibility, the veneration of statues and praying to the saints, purgatory, the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, transubstantiation, auricular confession, the rosary, the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. These doctrines and practices originated sooner or later in the history of the Catholic Church, but they were absent in apostolic churches and the early post-apostolic era. Rome’s latest theological novelty is the assurance that members of other religions can be saved - a theory that was flatly denied by previous popes and councils.
Things which were unknown and even condemned in the old Catholic churches are now essential and characteristic features of the modern Roman Catholic Church. There is historical continuity, of course, and the name is the same. But the substance is different!
The church can be compared to a vine. There are many branches connected to the main trunk, just as there are many local churches spiritually united to their head, Jesus. Over the years some branches have withered and were cut off - some churches have fallen in apostasy, just as Christ warned: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp-stand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). Other churches were largely destroyed by persecution. Christ promises them, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). In either case, although these churches do not exist any longer, we would be wrong to say that they weren’t living branches of the vine. Moreover, when the vine is dressed, and branches are cut off, new branches sprout forth, and the vine remains alive. Though these branches are relatively new, they are nonetheless vitally united to the vine. The churches that arose at a later date in history are also churches of Christ if they are spiritually united to Him by the Spirit. Their vitality is shown by their faith in Christ, obedience to His Word and love for one another. On the other hand, an old branch may boast about its longevity, and yet it may be withering and produces little or no fruit. After all, there are some genuine Christians in Babylon (whom the Lord calls to come out of her), and yet Babylon itself will remain to the end until it is judged and destroyed by the Lord.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi