Ministers and laypeople of the Protestant Church of Christ,
Can you not acknowledge that any “Bible-only” community cannot be the true Church of Christ? Can you not understand that the ontological priority of a sacred library of books must be a sacred body with the authority to have recognized it as such and to have labeled it as such, that an inerrant text requires an inerrant author, that the Spirit that aided the writing is the same Spirit that interprets—that you would have no reason to believe that the books that comprise the New Testament are inspired if it were not for the authority of a Sacred Tradition?
Absolutely, a Church existed before the first character of St. Matthew’s Gospel was written, and was St. Matthew not a Christian—a citizen of the real Church of Christ? Was St. Matthew a “Bible-only” believer, or did he believe the Word to be Christ Jesus? The kingdom is at hand, it is where Christ is, and Christ is with His Holy Bride. Jesus was tented in Mary’s womb, thus she was the first Christian, but was she a believer in Protestant-styled sola Scriptura as members of the Protestant Church of Christ are at this late time?
We know Jesus could write (cf. John 8:6), but He did not write a book; He allowed His Church to manage the writing. Yet with no writings of ecclesial matters from our Lord, the Apostles managed to create and perpetuate proper ecclesial governance, and that proper ecclesial governance existed before the New Testament Scriptures existed in any fetal form. If “Bible-only” Christianity is true, should we not, then, assume the nascent Church, with its fledgling ecclesial structure, was illegitimate and with no authority at all—that the structure the Apostles created was not Jesus’ intention simply because there was no detailed New Testament scriptural mandate? Are we to believe that if the primitive Church leaders had never decided to write the New Testament—if doing so was not good to the Holy Spirit and to them—that there would be no true Church today?
Was St. Paul a “Bible-only” Christian? Did he refer to the Old Testament or New Testament for every authoritative teaching? What St. Paul did was acknowledge that the Church, not the Bible, is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), that through the Church, not the Bible, the manifold wisdom of God might be known (Ephesians 3:10), and that the [Old Testament] Scriptures are inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16); but a reasonable argument cannot be made to support any theory that St. Paul supplanted the authority of the Church with what that Church would write and then label as inspired at some point in the future. The pattern of apostolic ecclesiology is foreign to the modern theory that the Book is the sole authority in matters of religion, usurping the pillar and foundation of truth; but detecting uncomfortable patterns is not what the Protestant Church of Christ is inclined to do.
With no doubt, the real Church of Christ existed before the Bible. And with no doubt, the Catholic Church of Christ continues to recognize the body through which proper ecclesial governance is maintained, which constitutes the embodiment of authentic Christian doctrine and unity. (I will heavily address Holy Orders and Hierarchy in future essays.) That embodiment is precisely the institution that, after she came into existence, began to write letters, evangelistic pleas, and historical accounts—the New Testament. Was that Church designing its own undoing by creating the Bible? Would its authority and status as the pillar and foundation of truth cease because it would create New Testament Scripture? Was the pattern usurped? If so, and if “Bible-only” Christianity or sola Scriptura is true (Jesus’ intent) then should we not expect such an important truth regarding the Faith to be presented somewhere within the actual Scriptura?
Can an honest student argue that St. Peter and St. Paul would find communion with the Protestant Church of Christ—a collection of communities that originated in 19th century Kentucky, who were not called, but rather, promoted themselves as inerrant interpreters of another Faith’s book? Your Church was designed by men who took a product that was already in existence (the Bible), which was created by a body that was already in existence (the Catholic Church). Instead of allowing the Bible to reflect what was already alive, the Protestant Church of Christ uses the Sacred Scriptures to kill what it wishes dead, and then uses the deceased’s Scriptures as a template to construct new ecclesial communities and read itself into God’s written word—it cannot create, it cannot maintain; it imitates.
Your group’s ecclesiology and practices are based on patternistic theology (biblical precedents and commands). The patterns you select are arbitrary, and you have neither the authority nor charism of infallibility to rightly divide them; admitting to your use of pattern theology is a self-attestation as to how your group is not the nascent Church. Has your group ever provided any reason why anyone should believe your patternistic theories and conclusions? Why are your group’s patternistic insights correct? Who in your midst has the extra-biblical authority to provide such a stamp? Why is your model more reliable than the sect next door? Moreover, how is it that you have somehow determined the proper pattern from which to imitate and bind your fellow believers? You must admit that sincere men and women of opposing Protestant sects have attempted to discern, divide, and decode the Scriptures with vastly different conclusions than yours. In other words, as affectionately as I know how to ask, who do you think you are?
Can you not realize that a pattern presupposes a Church that was already in existence—that an actress is self-evidently not who she is pretending to be? Does “X” become “Y” by imitation? The Catholic Church of Christ does not search the Scriptures for clues as to how proper governance should be constructed, which is exactly what your restorers did. No, the Catholic Church’s Book belongs to her, is a mirror that reflects the beauty of who wrote it.
Together, the authority and teachings of that real Church of Christ (Sacred Magisterium, Sacred Tradition), along with her inspired writings that she produced as carried along by the Holy Spirit and the full Old Testament (Sacred Scripture), comprise the double-edged sword of the word of God. The Protestant Church of Christ possesses less than half of it (abridged versions of the Bible only), and no reliable means of properly interpreting it—every interpretation you develop is a guess, whether you admit it or not.
Responses to Anticipated Objections
(1) Defense of pattern theology
The Protestant Church of Christ’s defense of pattern theology is incapable of satisfying any query as to its communion with the early Church; patternism presupposes a body (not a collection of books) that established a perceived pattern. So instead of providing evidence for its presence through history, scriptural verses removed from their ecclesial context are instead presented as red herrings to defend a pragmatic use of your theory (that patternism conjures authenticity), and not the facts of the topic at hand (origins).
Members of your group present verses that both Catholics and Protestants can agree upon to support some practicalities of particular nuances (discipleship / holy living) of pattern theology (i.e. Beloved, do not imitate evil, but imitate good . . . 3 John 11a); and they find apparent patterns where they want to find them, such as by discovering how the word “elder” appears in the Bible and that its presence somehow justifies the ordination / installment of congregationally elected shepherds (men who are not approved by apostolic leadership), as only one example.
Of course, Christians should maintain good conduct (1 Peter 2:12), and St. Paul taught we should be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1-2), but St. Paul also submitted to a greater pastor to ensure that his message of salvation was orthodox—that he was not running in vain (cf. Galatians 1-2); a pattern that the Protestant Church of Christ tends to wriggle around. When critically considered, the ecclesiological premise of Restorationist patternism is selective and self-defeating; it omits overt patterns that undermine the purpose (the eradication of Catholic authority), and it shines a light on its very definition: impersonation. After all, if your leaders accepted the pattern of St. Paul’s installment as an elder, they too would seek the already-established Church, would understand that the Church ordains its leaders, and would not create new and detached ecclesial communities.
Pattern theology, though beneficial in some instances, is wholly insufficient in defending the origin of either the authentic or impostor Church. And as such, because the Protestant Church of Christ has no other option, it is incapable of using its own foundational principles to support its claimed ancient existence. In other words, sola Scriptura and patternism fail to establish your communities’ legitimacy; the true Church of Christ existed before it created the Bible—the raw material needed before Americans could begin the impersonation process.
(2) Defense by syllogism
You believe your community is the true Church, so therefore, your Church is the first Church; or, the true (and therefore first) Church exists where the pattern is practiced, and since you practice the pattern, you are the true (and therefore first) Church.
As with the first objection, the syllogism continues to rely on the perils of selective enforcement of sola Scriptura; your use of the syllogism abuses the Bible as a costume to mask latter-day bodies from their utter absence throughout the first eighteen centuries of Christian history. Additionally, any person within your group who, by her own private interpretation of the Scriptures, proclaims she is practicing the proper pattern implicates herself as an extra-biblical voice of truth—is relying on a fallible opinion on most important matters, which again raises the question: Who dose she think she is? Does stumbling upon a proper invisible interpretation of a book somehow create the visible structure established by Christ Jesus?
(3) Defense by Apostasy theory
The Protestant Church of Christ is a product, of which are many, of the American Restoration period (2nd Great Awakening). Although your group’s identifiers (theological, historical, archaeological, etc.) are present only at this relatively late time, you maintain your group somehow existed prior to the Catholic Church of Christ. In other words, you assert the true Church ceased to exist, was smothered by Catholicism, and then restored by men who, after many centuries, properly cracked the Bible code and practiced the proper pattern—a pattern determined by the only means available to them: private interpretation of the Scriptures.
Rather than derailment by topics of apostasy (I will heavily address Apostasy and Restoration in future essays), I ask that you focus on an important ramification that a conjoined “Bible-only” and Apostasy theory might cause. For if the Scriptures are indeed required for the true Church’s latter-day incarnation (the logical mandate of any such “Great” or “Near-Great” Apostasy theory), then truly the Church cannot precede the Scriptures. But if your group’s latter-day incarnation is based solely on Scripture while its former life was not, then the inconsistency reveals a most self-evident conclusion: the Protestant Church of Christ is not the same Church to which Jesus promised, I am with you always (Matthew 28:20), and to which St. Paul offered: to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever (Ephesians 3:21).
And to your posits, may I suggest a truism that all the Restoration communities should consider: If your church would not exist if the New Testament were never written, then your church did not exist before the New Testament was written.