Restorationist Church of Christers,
With mouth-watering tastiness, the Protestant Church of Christ frequently presents 1 Timothy 4:1-3 as proof that the Catholic Church is apostate—that St. Paul was describing the apostate Catholic Church. The passage reads:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Your group focuses on a few words: forbid marriage and abstinence from foods. It works those words into a pre-conceived misunderstanding of the Catholic Church, and then proceeds to conclude that St. Paul was referring to the apostate (and “future”) Catholic Church.
Scriptural, theological, and historical context is important; the Bible was not created so that future sects could mine it for juicy fragments that could be presented in a less-than-honest sales pitch in order to undermine the body that matter-of-factly produced it. The question, then, is will you choose to fall back on St. Paul’s alleged prophecy of the future apostate Catholic Church as your group teaches, or will you consider the reasonableness of the next thousand words? Instead of reading a predetermined conclusion into the passage, let us insert reason into our religion.
The first part of the passage reads: Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons . . . . Please note a pattern that is thoroughly Catholic: St. Paul was speaking of what the Spirit expressly says. St. Paul was not quoting “the Bible”, but communicating what the Spirit has communicated to the nascent Christian leadership. Also note that those who depart from the faith, also depart from the pattern, and develop doctrines that are foreign to the Faith.
Your group is unable to state when the Apostasy occurred, and determining a rough date is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, which is a clever strategy on your group’s part because, like Jell-O, it can wriggle out of a corner. Did the Apostasy begin in St. Paul’s day, or did it happen decades or centuries later? You need to firmly decide so that your arguments might make any sense, because your group has largely adopted the modern myth that the Catholic Church is a product or “tradition of men” that was created centuries after Jesus’ resurrection. And so the problem for your group’s hope that St. Paul was speaking of the apostate Catholic Church is thwarted by the fact that the later times he was speaking of were already at hand. (Read that sentence again!) We know this because the context of the passage shows that the purpose of his words was to teach St. Timothy how to notice apostate teachers. In other words, the later times were already occurring, people who departed from the faith were giving heed to deceitful spirits, and St. Paul wrote such instructions to St. Timothy so that he could know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (3:14,15).
If your group were consistent with its interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:1-3, then it must at least admit that the Catholic Church was present during St. Paul’s life—which of course it was; St. Paul was a Catholic and not a proto-Protestant member of your modern tradition, for a Catholic would claim that the Church (not the Bible) is the pillar and bulwark of truth. And as such, the most reasonable interpretation of the passage is not any indictment on the Catholic Church, but a warning to a fellow Catholic and apostolic successor that deceitful heretics attempt to muddy the household of God with false teachings—teachings that were being formed into what would be actualized by the Gnostics.
The second part of the passage reads: . . . through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared . . . . Surely you can recognize the “I know you are but what am I” characteristic of your group’s projection! The Protestant Church of Christ views the Catholic Church of Christ as liars with seared consciences, but the table can be turned—and turned with a much more accurate spin. No, Catholicism does not consider St. Paul’s words to be a prophecy of your 19th century sect, per se, but he was warning about false teachers who are outside the communion of the early Church. Of course, your group would insist St. Paul was not Catholic, but rather, a member of your not-yet existing group, but from a Catholic perspective, your claim is pretension—a result of a seared conscience.
The third part of the passage reads: . . . who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. And is not this part of the passage the big “gotcha”? After all, the Catholic Church forbids Marriage and foods, right? Wrong.
The seedling theologies that formed the early heresies were the subjects of St. Paul’s warning to his successor. The Encratites (the “abstainers”), the Marcionites, and the Manicheans all condemned Marriages as evil; and indulging in the material pleasures of some foods and drink were forbidden as well. The heretics believed in a god who was the author of good things, and another god who was the author of evil; and the material world was intrinsically evil (a belief that is still popular in many Protestant communities). St. Paul countered the heresies again in the very next verse by reminding St. Timothy that every creature of God is good. In other words, an informed Catholic is not shaken by the big gotcha, and an informed Protestant would not embarrass herself by broaching the allegation.
Without any understanding of the historical context, some of you are simply confused—not malicious. You are armed with a single proof-text and a misunderstanding of the Catholic Church and history, and your interpretation supports your community’s preference; you are doing your best, but I ask you to do better. Let me help.
Unlike the early heretics who viewed all Marriages as evil, the Catholic Church of Christ does not view any Marriage as evil. She views Marriage as honorable and a sacrament of divine institution. The Catholic Church does not forbid Marriage—no matter how badly your group wants to believe it. Men who have become priests were not forbidden to marry, but the Church forbids them to break their vows. Vows are voluntary, and she condemns those who break them, as St. Paul condemned vow-breakers in the very next chapter: they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge (5:12).
And there are times when married leaders of Protestant communities convert to the ancient Church and become priests, and they remain faithful to their Marriage vows even as they enter into Holy Orders (as with St. Peter); the Church celebrates their Marriage, and as with priests who accept the discipline, she forbids people from breaking their Marriage vows. Put differently, to use the language of the passage at hand, it is a lie to describe St. Paul’s warning as an indictment against the Catholic Church.
It should not be a surprise to you that the Christian Church has come to recognize the discipline (not doctrine) of celibacy for some of its members because both Jesus and St. Paul accepted the discipline. Is your group willing to label both Jesus and St. Paul as apostates? Were the Christians who heeded Jesus’ warning about the destruction of the Temple and instructions to flee Jerusalem apostate (cf. Matthew 24:16-20)?6 Were those who were able to heed St. Paul’s lesson to remain unmarried so that they could better serve the Church apostate (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:25-34)?7 Can you not recognize how your group’s zeal to condemn the Catholic Church has clouded your respect for the pattern the Bible clearly reflects—how your group has apostasized itself from the nascent Church?
The Protestant Church of Christ’s use of the passage against the Catholic Church of Christ’s practice of fasting is equally ill-focused, and again reveals your group’s desire to attack the ancient Church while ignoring the fact that the New Testament itself reflects a Church that fasts. Of course the Catholic Church knows that God created foods to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth, for it was the first Pope, St. Peter, who received that revelation, as St. Luke recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts; and as St. Paul reiterated in verse four of the chapter at hand. So your group’s allegation that the Catholic Church forces abstinence from foods in a manner that might represent an apostate group is not accurate—it is projection at best. Does your group not fast? Does your group not abstain from foods that God has created to be received with thanksgiving during times of your own selection? Is your group not hypocritical when this passage is forced to condemn the Catholic Church and not your own community, which fasts as well, which abstains from foods as well, and which abstains from alcohol nearly as much as the heretics that St. Paul was in fact describing?
The heretical groups that abstained from Marriage are the same heretical groups that abstained from some foods and wine. The early Church fathers wrote about the heretics and how they pretended that Marriage, meats, and wine were evil. Those groups were real, and a Church that is able to entertain the reality of the Bible’s historical context is not guilty of modern myths developed by people who force passages to be interpreted outside of their historical contexts—forced to support their group’s zeal to slander the Church that has lasted nearly two thousand years, and thereby slander, over the course of time, billions of their brothers and sisters.
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6 “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers” (Matthew 24:19 New International Version).
7 “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32b-34a).