This position, although not the most ancient, is that of the Roman Catholic Church. By the very name “Catholic” the nature of the church in their view is defined. The word “catholic” is derived from the Greek kata (meaning “according to”) and holos (meaning “the entirety”); the combination means “according to the entirety” and fits into the language as “Church of the Society.” To them this “Society” includes all in a given locality. In other words, all people living under their dominion or jurisdiction are members of the church regardless of their spiritual condition. It is Universal and Visible. Catholic doctrine concerning the church is that they alone constitute the New Testament church, and all who are not a part of them have no redemption (salvation), and are eternally damned. Further, they claim that they possess the “Keys to the Kingdom,” based on Matt. 16:18, which they interpret as Jesus delivering the church into the hands of Peter, their first pope. Further, salvation is only possible by the seven Sacraments of the Church: ordination, confirmation, matrimony, extreme unction, penance, baptism, and the Eucharist. Further, the Roman Catholic Church is the Kingdom of God and by marriage to the state it is a kingdom of the world. This has the effect of institutional salvation, and only by allegiance and obedience to the Catholic Church and its canons of law is there forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven.
Salvation only in the Church
In the Catholic Encyclopedia under the heading “Church” part VI “The Necessary Means of Salvation,” we read the following. “Incorporation with the Church [Catholic] can alone unite us to the family of the second Adam, and alone can engraft us into the true Vine.” Further, “In the order of Divine Providence, salvation is given to man in the Church: membership in the Church Triumphant [the Church in Heaven] is given through membership in the Church Militant [the Church on Earth -my emphasis].* Sanctifying grace, the title to salvation, is peculiarly the grace of those who are united to Christ in the Church: it is the birthright of the children of God.” They then quote Origen: “Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house [outside their Church] none is saved” and then St. Cyprian: “He cannot have God for his father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
*Catholicism has the church existing in three different forms: The Church Triumph, all those saved now in heaven; The Church Suffering, those destined to heaven but who are still in the cleansing fires of purgatory; and The Church Militant, the visible church on earth conquering through force and violence if necessary. (These are neither idle terms nor idle threats.)
Their stance is that since only Roman Catholics can be saved then the church is universal, i.e. contains all the saved on earth. The fact that she also holds the lost within her bosom is of no concern; purgatory is the filtering agent. Since they are visible, that is, they assemble and conduct business, the church is visible by nature. Because of their belief that they are the one and only true church whatever can be said about them constitutes the nature of the church. Thus there is only the single Church and not plural churches.
But why? Why did this doctrinal position of the “Church” come about? The answer lies with two men, Constantine and Augustine. Augustine is well considered as the Father of Catholicism. His writings are the basis for many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and Reformers such as Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. It is Constantine who really framed the Catholic Church, and brought it to its deplorable condition, “The Fallen Church.”
By the time Constantine became Emperor of the Roman Empire it was in a state of rapid erosion. It was figuratively coming apart at the seams. He had to do something to hold it together and increase its (and his) strength and power. On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine had a dream to place the sign of a cross on the shields of his soldiers. The more fanciful version is that Constantine saw a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor," (some say, "in this sign conquer") and Christ appeared and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. Regardless of which story is true the battle was a vital victory and he attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians." This set the course of the union of the “church” and the Empire.
The matrimony was not that of love or religion, but purely political. Constantine saw that by making Christianity a part, or rather the official state religion of the Empire, it would solidify both his status and the government’s. By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the church an agency of the imperial government. In the years 325-337 Constantine continued his support of the church even more vigorously than before, both by generous gifts of money and lands, and by specific legislation. In the Eastern Orthodox churches Constantine is regarded a saint; he shares a feast day, May 21, with his mother, and additionally has a feast day of his own, September 3.
The effects of this union were immediate and disastrous. There now existed little difference between the church and the state; they in effect became one. This resulted in the development of local and independent churches being considered as treasonous and subversive to the government and could not be tolerated. It had the result of destroying all semblance of church discipline, for the church now being equal to the citizenship of the state, contained both un-regenerated and regenerated. There was no requirement of repentance for admission into the state church for it included all within the state. This made it truly a “Universal,” Catholic Church.
The Catholic Encyclopedia under State Church article IV states: “The essential idea of such union is a condition of affairs where a State recognizes its natural and supernatural relation to the Church, professes the Faith, and practices the worship of the Church, protects it, enacts no laws to its hurt, while, in case of necessity and at its instance taking all just and requisite civil measures to forward the Divinely appointed purpose of the Church--in so far as all these make for the State's own essential purpose, the temporal happiness of its citizens.” All hope of checks and balances disappear under such governments. The state is the servant of the church and ultimately gives its obedience to the head of that church. This theme of guardianship is found in the ancient and current title of the English monarchy as: "Defender of the Faith."
In July, 1884, a Cuban archbishop declared in the Spanish Cortes that "the rights of the Roman pontiff, including the rights of temporal power over the States, were inalienable and cannot be restricted; and were before superior to the so-called new rights of cosmopolitan revolution and the barbarous law of force." (Armitage XIL)
Church Discipline Sacrificed for Unity
Once church discipline was cast aside the conditions of the church began a downward spiral of decadence from which there was no return, for to exclude anyone from the church meant that they would have to be excluded from the state. This developed a problem, which later plagued the Reformers. The early answer was that excommunication had to be in the form of banishment or execution. The only ground of this type of discipline was not over morality, but rather that of doctrine. Doctrine is divisive; it is the same cry of ecumenicalism today, that it disrupts harmony and unity among Christianity. All who disagreed with the universal doctrine were labeled “heretics.” Quickly the Roman clergy was taken over by men who were given to the most carnal lusts of the flesh. Augustine, in his persecution against the Donatists, justified killings and confiscation of properties by this charge of rebellion against the Church and Empire. The heretics refused to be controlled by Rome; they insisted on purity in the church, hence the nickname of Cathar (Cathari), a word meaning, “cleansed.” For in the Catholic Church there was no difference between the church and the world in morals and godly (or godless) conduct, they both behaved the same.
Verduin wrote, “When Constantine came into the Church, he did not check his imperial equipment at the door. No indeed, he came in with all the accoutrements that pertained to the secular regime. He was not just a Roman who had learned to bow to Christ; he had been pontifex maximus hitherto, the High Priest of the Roman State religion, and he entered the Church with the understanding that he would be pontifex maximus there too. And just as his sword had flashed in defense of the old religion so would it now flash in defense of the new.” 1 The Vicar of Christ, the pope, is today’s pontifex maximus. No longer was Christ the head of this church, but Constantine and later the pontiff. This replacing of Christ over that body meant that no longer was the Word of God the rule of authority. Scripture was now simply a source to justify the commandments of men, and not the source of righteousness and holiness. Augustine wrote, “The issue between us and the Donatists is about the question where the body is to be located, that is, what and where is the Church?” And joined with that is the question, whose word has the final say on the matters of faith? Where is The Rule of faith and conduct, with the pope or with Christ?
Once this marriage took place the two bodies became one flesh. You cannot separate the two. To this day the Roman Empire lives on in the Roman Catholic Church. They have never divorced. They both have the same love; power over men, wealth, carnal gratification, adoration, pompous fineries, pageantry, ceremonies, and yes, sadly, brutality. The implication of the Roman Empire still in existence is a tremendous concern for The Great Tribulation Period (Ref. Book of Daniel and the great image).
Such became the Roman Catholic Church. Thus is the Universal, Visible Church birthed. However, not all churches fell in with the Catholic Church.* There were those who refused the hierarchy of the clergy. They remained steadfast for church independence and a democratic government, but now independence took on the additional meaning of separation from both the new church and the state, for the church-state denies all forms of democracy and freedom of conscience. Forced religion is the backbone of Catholicism. To the dissenters the nature of the church was local, visible, as they had always understood it from the days of the New Testament era. They brought about nothing new, but reaffirmed what already existed from the days of Christ. They refused to accept the baptism administered by those whom they considered as morally and spiritually ruined. Hence they re-baptized those coming to them with Catholic baptism. This practice produced the epithet “anabaptist.”
* Montanus (135 – 160 A. D.) separated himself from the following practices: (1) Bishop rule and the elevation of the title of Bishop; (2) the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration; (3) the churches conforming to the customs of the world; and (4) those who had become criminally lax in Christian discipline. It is from Montanus that the Montanists derived their name. Tertullian later became an outstanding leader among them. This was the first major split among the churches. This split was away from doctrines and practices rather than from any particular group of churches.
The Early Reformers, Luther and Zwingli.
Luther's break from the Roman Catholic Church was only partial. He preserved much of his Catholicism in his movement of reformation. This included infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, salvation in the church (now his), confession of sins to men for absolution, and the Mass. But the most heinous tradition he retained was that of church-state union. When it was eventually offered to Luther, a man on the run, it must have seemed as a godsend. Now he could have protection from the sentence of death placed upon him by the Roman Catholic Church. Now he had the State militant sword* at his side.
* A footnote about the Sword. These men, these churches, and those who later followed their example now believed they had two swords for the furtherance of "Christianity;" the Sword of the Spirit (the Word of God), and the Militant Sword of the State. As a justification of this they point to Peter in the Garden when he proclaimed, "here are two swords," (Luke 22:38). Little use was made of the first sword, but the second, the militant, was wielded without mercy!
Just as the Catholic Church had done he followed in step. Those who initially flocked to him believing in him to restore the pure gospel were soon disappointed. The cry of "scripture only" soon changed. When they saw the union of Luther and the State they understood there was not going to be a sweeping away of the old dictatorial demands of loyalty, obedience and unity with this new church society. The Anabaptist had sent an envoy to Luther to learn of his intentions. They returned to their churches and proclaimed, We have as much to fear from Luther as we have from the Catholics. The exodus from Luther happened in earnest. Now Luther had more "heretics" than just the Anabaptists. The answer: use the sword; and use it he did. By control of the magistrates he had many put to death, banished, property confiscated, etc. Innocent blood was on the sword and on his hands.
Why was it all so horribly wrong, what was at the heart of the problem? Luther just could not bring himself to let go of the precept of "Christendom," which is the church embracing the whole society within its territorial realm. When it came to the Church he was every bit catholic as the Catholics. Those who left Luther could not stand for his concept of the church. For them the Church was a society within a society; a body of regenerated, born again Christians within the greater community of men. There was no one single universal church, but churches. They believed in the “Local Visible Church.”
Zwingli, who was contemporary with Luther, was a leader of the Swiss Reformation. His story runs much along the same lines as Luther. Under his reformation, Zurich became a theocracy ruled by Zwingli and the “Christian” magistrate.
A radical group called Anabaptists challenged Zwingli's rule. In a debate held before the ruling secular body of Zurich the Anabaptist’s challenge lost. On January 2, 1525 Zwingli then promptly banished the Anabaptist from those Swiss cantons which were under his control. A canton is a political-religious division of a country. Today Switzerland has 22 cantons. Fifteen days later Zwingli had the city council of Zurich order all un-baptized children to be presented for baptism within eight days. This gave rise to a set of dissenters on January 21 of that same year. They were to become known as the Swiss Brethren, they were also called Anabaptists. They, along with other dissenters, came under the sword of Zwingli and suffered persecution, cruelties, and death.
As mentioned, Zwingli’s record was pretty much a parallel of Luther’s history, but with an odd twist at the end. Zwingli gained control over six of the eleven Swiss cantons. In 1529 the hostility between the cantons flared into open civil war. On October 10, 1531, Zwingli, acting as chaplain and standard-bearer for the Protestant forces, was wounded at Kappel am Albis and later put to death by the victorious Catholic troops of the Forest Cantons. After Zwingli's death the Reformation made no further headway in Switzerland; the country is still half Catholic, half Protestant.
It is clear that Zwingli held to the universal church dogma. Just as with the Catholic Church, Luther and all other later state-churches, Zwingli’s reign with church-state authority granted no freedom of religion, thought, or liberty of will for the individual. None were allowed to follow their convictions of conscience without fear of persecution. These were dangerous, treasonous heresies.
The dissenters held widely different theological views on doctrines and practices, but they all had this one thing in common: a desire of freedom. They simply wanted to worship God in their own way in peace, to congregate in peace, to read their Bibles in peace, do evangelism in peace, and to preach in peace. These were not possible with the Universal State Church!
None of this terror could have been possible without the rise of “Bishop” rule in the second century.2 Later, in 250 A. D., the elevation of church leaders according to position occurred, with "higher" Bishops presiding over other churches. The offices of Archbishops, Archdeacons, Elders, Priests, and Presbyters are now seen in the churches. Confederations were soon formed; first in Greece and then spread throughout the Roman Empire (No resemblance to present associations). This lust for power, wealth, and prestige led to the hierarchy being set in motion. With the passage of time this drift of heresy became anchored in the churches that tolerated this error. It was simply one small step to unify these segments into the whole, thus bringing about the emergence of the Catholic (Universal) Church, making all churches into one. In the meanwhile the Montanists, Novatians, and Donatists stood firm against these practices, which were leading the churches into paganism and carnality. For there is no other viable outcome when men and not God dictate to the church.
Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren page 42.
2 Bishop rule was not yet extended to being overlords of other churches but rather the dictatorial rule of the Bishop over the local church. They were claiming for themselves to be the unchallenged authority in the church. This was to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit leadership in the church. They elevated the office and title of bishop to usurp Christ as the head of the Church. The clergy became ambitious for power and trampled upon the independence of the churches. Members were expected to give their allegiance and to subjugate themselves to their Bishop.