Members of the Protestant Churches of Christ,
Your ministers counter the overflowing character of the gospel not with the “Bible only”, but with an anti-Catholic agenda, and then distort a passage to justify their theology, and then gather portions of other passages to prove a seemingly thought-out theology—a seemingly “biblical” apologia for the Great Apostasy (or near-Great Apostasy) theory. The Protestant Church of Christ’s objections begin by quoting 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The passage reads:
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition . . . (New King James Version).
It is important to reiterate; the day of the Lord, which is the subject St. Paul was addressing, is not yet here, and we know that His coming is the subject because the context of the passage is clear: Now Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 1). It is important because your group has a tendency to conflate different Bible passages within its apologetics materials—it insists that St. Paul’s “final” end-times falling away (apostasy), as illustrated within this passage, is also portrayed by St. Paul’s use of the words later times in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 (which I will address later) when he addresses the subject of heresy within his own time. In other words, your group presents St. Paul’s use of the words falling away and later times as referring to the same abominable creature and event: the Catholic Church and her supposed post-apostolic birth and continued existence. Your group’s conflation adds to its confusion, because St. Paul in this passage was speaking of the end-times (the day of the Lord), and not describing how false teachers have gone out into the world in the later times (within St. Paul’s own day).
Let us be honest, and admit that St. Paul’s passage is confusing, and any person’s definitive interpretation should be scrutinized. But are some people’s interpretations more credible? Is your group’s interpretation more credible than the Catholic Church’s? I will illustrate how the primary passage that your group chooses to undermine the Catholic Church does not prove in any way that “apostasy”, as you understand it (complete or near-complete falling away), is prophesied and fulfilled by the Catholic Church’s presence; and that the most sober understanding of the passage actually adds credibility to the Catholic Church of Christ.
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), a bishop and doctor of the Catholic Church, responded to Geneva’s Calvinists who too hoped that St. Paul was illustrating an apostate Catholic Church. At great risk (contrary to Protestant propaganda, Catholics were not safe from Reformation Protestants), he went to a Protestant stronghold and explained to 72,000 Calvinists, who then became Catholic, that the passage most reasonably refers to the three and one half years that Antichrist will reign, but even then, the Church will be fed and preserved.2 In fact, the best minds in Christian history have examined St. Paul’s words from his letter to the Thessalonians and have not conclusively formed an interpretation of the passage—thus is the nature of prophecy that has yet to unfold, and the Catholic Church of Christ does not force unholy preferences onto the Holy Scriptures.
Is your group, somehow, more credible than St. Francis—a man with an apostolic pedigree, properly chosen through a conduit founded by Jesus Himself? Is your private interpretation of St. Paul’s cryptic passage addressed to people other than yourselves enough of an indictment for you to disregard the multitude of clear texts that I have already shared with you and that are so contrary to your wish? Can you not consider that somebody might have a better grasp of the text than a body that matter-of-factly took it from the Catholic Church, or took it from bodies that took it from the Catholic Church?
Since your ministers cannot decide when (nor how) the Great (nor near-Great) Apostasy occurred, some of them might consider St. Jerome (A.D. 347-420) as having served before the great falling away—nobody knows, because your group refuses to elaborate. Is the power your group vests itself with more credible than his—a man who too carried a pedigree that is traced back to Jesus Himself? For what reason are your restorers or current ministers and elders more credible? St. Jerome believed that the “falling away” was a falling off of other kingdoms that were once subject to the Roman empire, but he was clearly mistaken because Antichrist has not surfaced—unless Antichrist is forced to be defined by a theory that any Catholic pope is retroactively slandered as the end-times monster, and if the “end times” consists of a block of centuries that span all of Christian history; for if the presence of a “pope” is your defining mark of the Apostasy, then Jesus’s Church failed with St. Peter. Other great Christian minds from ages past such as Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Chrysostom have pondered what St. Paul meant, but there is no definitive apostolic tradition (interpretation), and St. Augustine (A.D. 345-430) seems to provide a most lucid opinion of his systematic study of the passage: “I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”3
And so your group would have the world believe that the very real servants who devoted their lives to prayer and study through the centuries were less credible than your restorers who claim that they are not ignorant of some things, but perfectly reliable—reliable enough to damn most of Christian history and build on its hopeful ruin a divine theory of Apostasy, and therefore, a Restoration—a Restoration that is found within, of course, its own walls and not within other modern sects that claim with just as much authority and certainty that their theories are “true” and “biblical”.
Apostasy, to some degree, occurs in every generation, but “the apostasy”, in today’s use of the term, usually refers to the end-times apostasy under Antichrist. St. Paul’s use of the words falling away are recognized by the Catholic Church and your group differently, and each body’s use reveals its perspective on historical Christianity. The Catholic Church does not know the details because the end-times apostasy has not occurred, and your group cannot elaborate on any details of its anti-Catholic insistence because, likewise, the great end-times apostasy has not occurred, yet it teaches that is has! As such, your group is responsible for proving its case, yet it is utterly unable to do so. Instead of recognizing the difficulty of St. Paul’s words, your group claims to rely on “the Bible only” to have deciphered his words, which of course, support your preferred outcome—supports your agenda to disestablish the established Church and replace it with your latter-day form of Christianity.
Our differences are illustrated by the Catholic Church’s placement within history (reality), and the Catholic Church’s position is supported by the progression of time; and the Protestant Church of Christ’s use of St. Paul’s words falling away has proved to undermine your own theory—has led your group’s preference to time itself out, because the ancient Catholic Church is still very much alive in the visible form the Bible reflects (and history attests); and your group is one that was born at a much later time, and therefore, is a much more likely candidate for the embodiment of any end-times monster or “doctrine of demons”, boogeyman character.
The real Church of Christ does not deny that an end-times falling away of sorts will occur, but the event has not yet happened, and the remainder of Scripture makes clear the Church’s presence cannot be erased from the planet. Can you not understand how transparent a group (such as yours) is when it claims God’s Church left the earth simply because they have determined that history has not aligned itself with its modern-day revelation or private interpretation of the Bible? Can you not acknowledge how any cult might establish itself as “true” in the same way? Can you not question first your own worldview? And can you not realize that your theoretical apocalyptic end-times is lasting a really, really long time?
The rebellion (“falling away” in the Revised Standard Version), as described by St. Paul is the prophesied end-times apostasy the Protestant Church of Christ associates with the prevalence of Catholicism—a prevalence, however, that your group portrays as lacking any early (apostolic) presence, but is born at an undetermined moment in history sometime after the death of the Apostles. But it is clear St. Paul envisioned an end-times apostasy that has not yet come to fruition, because he described that time with a few details. We do not know all the details because he explained them in person to people who did not record them: Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? (2:5). What we know is that the apostasy (the rebellion) will be characterized by the man of lawlessness (2:3), who is also called the son of perdition, or the figure that is commonly identified as the Antichrist, the figure that the Protestant traditions of the sixteenth century identified (and many Fundamentalists still identify) as the (or any) pope.4
So was the man of lawlessness the pope or not? Which pope? If the man of lawlessness is the pope, and if the mystery of lawlessness is [in St. Paul’s day] already at work (v. 7), then would you admit that a pope existed in St. Paul’s day—was already at work? And if you are able to admit it, then who was that evil pope? Are you, then, able to admit that St. Peter must have been that evil Pope—the evil Pope that you, of course, would not be in communion with! Has your group decided when to retroactively damn Christ’s Bride? Would you agree with the Calvinists who reached back 1,000 years into their collective fantasy and decided that St. Gregory of the sixth century was the Antichrist? Would you consider every pope after St. Gregory to be the Antichrist? Would you be willing to change the Holy Scripture to read, “men (not man) of lawlessness?” Has Antichrist’s supposedly shortened (Matthew 24:22) reign continued through to this day, passing through the supposed Restoration / reincarnation of God’s true Church? Can you isolate some bit of Scripture that identifies the Church’s reincarnation as a body that would build itself out of ashes, or out of its own self-given authority, out of its own self-supporting theory or interpretation? Does it not challenge your group’s collective intellectual and moral dignity to use the Catholic Church’s Scriptures to argue against the Catholic Church, and to use them to prop up a community that is founded only on an ecclesiological theory? Would you accuse any other autobiographer of misinterpreting her own writing? Is it not obvious, as it is with other Restorationist communities such as the Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists, that your group is using the Catholic Church’s Scriptures in an effort to perpetrate identity theft? Is it not possible that God has sent your members a powerful delusion to make them believe what is false (2 Thessalonians 2:11)?
In the Jewish mind, the “end times” typically referred to the destruction of the Jewish Temple (their “world”) in A.D. 70 (Greek = oikoumene = civilization), which included its own “apostasy”; not the final “end times” of the “universe” (Greek = kosmos = world).5 And every generation has its destruction, and every generation has its own group of heretics who go out from the Church (1 John 2:19), and thus, by their own choosing, apostasize themselves from the existing Church—which of course is Catholic; a person cannot leave a new (Protestant) body to create an old (Catholic) body. Did Protestants not go out from the Catholic Church? And did your group not go out from the original Protestants? Is your family tree not self-evidently entropic?
St. Paul’s description of the apostasy and its resemblance to the falling away that the Protestant rebellion of the 16th century birthed into the world, with its exponential growth of chaos found within its subsequent divisions and sects that has blossomed into hundreds of denominations (and sects that refuse to call themselves denominations), is unnoticed by your group’s members—they choose to hammer on the ancient Church. But an acknowledgement of reality—that the Catholic Church pre-dates any Protestant assembly—does not suggest schismatics and false teachers are Catholic, but rather, are non-Catholic. They go out from the real Church, they were among the people [of God], but secretly brought in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). They create dissensions and difficulties in opposition to the doctrine that was taught (Romans 16:17). Is it not obvious how your group adds to the Protestant resemblance?
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths (2 Timothy 4:3,4).
Consider St. Paul’s details, how they resemble your paradigm: entrepreneurial, without an apostolic pedigree, accumulating flattering talkers, refusal to listen to the established voice, and of course, a reliance on anti-Catholic propaganda and myths. Consider how chronological reasoning indicates that the ancient Catholic Church is not the body that has since accumulated teachers to suit new likings.
And from those early days, those who have wandered into myths have mocked the Catholic Church of Christ, but she has not disappeared. The Church, the household of God was built by a competent Carpenter who taught:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish’ . . . (Luke 14:28-30).
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2 St. Francis de Sales, Rev. Mackey, Henry B., (Ed.) The Catholic Controversy (Charlotte: Tan Books, 2011), 40.
3 City of God, Book 20, Chapter 19.
4 Nearly all original Protestant groups referred to the pope as the Antichrist. Today, most Protestant communities continue to bear such witness. See Westminster Confession, chapter 25 and London Baptist Confession, chapter 26 (or simply browse a Protestant bookstore, or listen to Fundamentalist radio).
5 For a reasonable exegesis of the Olivet Discourse, see David B. Currie’s book What Jesus Really Said About the End of the World.