Ecclesiology, Part 5. The Church of Christ Is Hierarchical


The Protestant Church of Christ also calls itself the Churches (or “churches”; lowercase “c”) of Christ. The utilization of both names grants the group flexibility: the word “Church” (singular) communicates unity, and the word “Churches” (plural) communicates the autonomous nature of each local congregation. It makes sense; the Catholic Church has used the same names for centuries, but the Catholic Church’s use of the words do not indicate autonomy, but rather, unity even amongst its individual assemblies.

“Autonomy” is a goal and mark of the Protestant Church of Christ, whereas unity (catholicity) is a goal and mark of the Catholic Church of Christ; and even into the local congregations the Catholic Church remains united—remains one. And she, the real Church of Christ, remains united because of (not despite of) her hierarchical structure—her guarding of the Deposit of Faith: orthodoxy.

One Protestant Church of Christ writer, Edward C. Wharton, describes his group’s position well, and he provides insight into your group’s collective mind. He introduces the subject of autonomy in his book, The Church of Christ, by writing:

Contrary to the complex hierarchical system of one ruling bishop over many churches, the New Testament presents the autonomy of each local church, whether or not they have elders. Local church autonomy means that each local church is self-governing.1

It is expected and clear that Wharton begins to establish his group by comparing it to the Catholic Church (that is how Protestants protest): “Contrary to a complex hierarchical system . . . .” It is reasonable for a Comparative Religion book, such as the one in your hands, to compare religions; but Wharton’s book is intended to describe “The Distinctive Nature of the New Testament Church” (Wharton’s subtitle), yet it, like nearly all apologetics material provided by your group, is an attempt to establish its Restoration tradition by comparing it to a competing tradition—it is an indication that his position antagonistically relies on a foreign and pre-existing ecclesial existence. Imagine the surprise if the Catechism of the Catholic Church (an exegesis of the Scriptures) established the Catholic Church by disestablishing any Protestant sect!

Is not the Protestant Church of Christ’s readiness to discredit a competing paradigm in order to establish its own credibility an indication that it is only reactionary—not leading, secondary—not primary? Is heresy not in the hands of those who protest a pre-existing paradigm? I suspect Wharton does not know what is “complex” about a hierarchy; autonomy, and its provable and inevitable breakdown into disunity, is a much more complex option. But as an indicative apologia for the Protestant Church of Christ’s position, please consider the illogic of Wharton’s sect-wide accepted introduction.

Is not the fact that he refers to the New Testament Scriptures an acknowledgement that a hierarchy of some sort existed to create the New Testament? Could he argue that autonomous churches autonomously created the canon of Scripture? The Protestant group takes what a hierarchy already produced, and then presents history as if that hierarchy had never existed—the group has no memory because it is new.

Autonomy is a founding tenet of the Protestant Church of Christ, it is a granted premise, and it is necessary for the group’s survival. If autonomy is shown to be wrong, then of course, the group is wrong; and the Catholic Church of Christ’s legitimacy appears plausibly true. And for this reason, I will continue where my previous post ended. I will show you (in this post and the remainder of this series) how the Old Testament provides the model of how the Church is structured, that the Christian kingdom has a prime minister (a pope), how the New Testament reflects the already-present Catholic Christian hierarchy, how important a prime minister is for maintaining orthodoxy, and of course, how the Catholic Church’s hierarchy throughout history is Jesus’ intent.

St. Peter Was First

St. Peter’s position and importance is clearer than any other Apostle. Every major group of New Testament texts is acquainted with the subject of St. Peter—illuminating his universal (catholic) significance. St. Peter’s marathon lists of “firsts” overflow the New Testament, not because of random chance by several writers, but deliberate choosing. St. Peter is given Christ’s flock to shepherd (cf. John 21:17), headed the meeting to appoint the first apostolic successor (cf. Acts 1:13-26), preached at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:14), received the first converts (cf. Acts 2:41), performed the first miracle after Pentecost (cf. Acts 3:6,7), presided over the first ecclesial punishment (cf. Acts 5:1-11), excommunicated the first heretic (cf. Acts 8:21), presided over the first council (cf. Acts 15:7-12), and it is St. Peter who spoke for the Apostles (cf. Matthew 18:21, Mark 8:29, John, 6:68-69). This is not an exhaustive summary, but it does raise some questions: Why was so much responsibility and authority given to one person? And why did his duties, as presented in these passages, provide a rough job description of every pope throughout history, yet attract reflexive repugnance from the Catholic Church’s Protestants today?

Within the New Testament Scriptures, St. Peter’s authority among Jesus’ disciples and Apostles is unmatched. St. Paul ranked his own status as the least of the apostles and St. Peter’s as . . . [the first] then to the twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-9). Within the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Paul repeated the name Jesus gave to St. Peter, the Aramaic word for rock (Cephas). St. Paul acknowledged St. Peter as first, then the twelve, then himself. In parallel fashion, every list of the Apostles within the New Testament lists St. Peter as first (cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13).2

Concerning the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Peter was the first Apostle to witness the risen Christ—juxtaposed with St. Paul as the last Apostle to witness the risen Christ. Similarly, St. Peter was the first Apostle to acknowledge Jesus is the Christ, and St. Paul, again, was the last Apostle to confess. It is clear to Catholic Christians of every generation, including St. Paul and his, that St. Peter was not a random member of the twelve. The evidence provides an ancient pre-Pauline formula and insight into the Sacred Tradition of the practicing and real Church of Christ.

St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, consisting of an internal chiastic-like hierarchical theology of the office of Apostle, reveal his own acceptance of St. Peter’s supremacy. Further texts, even within the Pauline corpus, reveal more than what could be construed, at least in an accusatory manner by Protestants, as mere Catholic theory. St. Paul’s actions admit that a supreme authority existed within the Church on earth. By his own hand, we know St. Paul traveled to Jerusalem, not to teach nor exercise his authority as an autonomous equal, but to meet Cephas (Galatians 1:18). He only saw one other Apostle, but his reason for going is explicitly recorded.

The Protestant groups, in an effort to disestablish St. Peter’s primacy, focus on a specific verse within the Galatian passage: I [St. Paul] opposed him [St. Peter] to his face . . . (2:11); but the context is more important than the proof-text. It is interesting to note St. Paul’s Galatian audience had a foreknowledge of who Cephas was—again revealing the catholicity of St. Peter’s position, a position that existed prior to any New Testament text. Had St. Paul not defended his new position within the fledgling hierarchy—by appealing to his communion with St. Peter—the gospel he preached might have been suspect of being a tradition of men: Of which I am writing to you, I do not lie! (Galatians 1:20).

St. Paul introduced his Letter by establishing his credibility and authority by emphasizing his association with St. Peter, which is a practice that is internally present here in the New Testament, and externally portrayed by all the successors of the Apostles (the bishops) throughout the remainder of Christian history. After fourteen years, St. Paul again submitted his message to the leadership of the Church for approval—so that he was not running or had run in vain (Galatians 2:2). It is within this context that the Apostles’ disagreement in Galatians 2:11 is shown to be a preview of how the papacy would operate throughout history—welcoming the consult of its bishops, and an acceptance by even the least of the Apostles to recognize the supreme leadership of Christ’s Church on earth.

The Protestant Church of Christ presumes the Galatian passage emphasizes an autonomous plane between the Apostles and creates an ecclesiological pattern that allows for the undermining of the Catholic Church of Christ’s hierarchy. Therefore, it is important to recognize how the greater context of cherry picked anecdotes includes more than what all of Protestantism, including your newer form, wishes to acknowledge; and admit St. Paul apparently recognized that Christ the King had appointed ministers and a type of prime minister for His kingdom, and that he, himself, was the least of the upper ring (1 Corinthians 15:9). Should a passage that illustrates a disagreement within the hierarchy be used to disprove the hierarchy? Even in this century, do bishops somehow disprove the papacy when they confront the pope?

The New Testament, as a unit, is a witness to St. Peter’s primacy. And for the Bible to become a witness of St. Peter’s primacy, the a priori requirement for the material would be another witness—a living Church—from which the Bible came. The Old Testament is a third witness; it provides the typology from which historical Christianity understands the stewardship and power of a prime minister.

Regarding the Old Testament, both the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ believe God used prophets to communicate in various ways to His people. Catholics also believe God used “types” to aid people in understanding His plan. A “type” is a shadow of a person, thing, or action that precedes a greater person, thing or action. Examples of these are: Adam was a type of Christ, Eve was a type of Mary, Noah’s ark was a type of the Church, and manna was a type of the Eucharist. An internal affirmation of typology is presented by St. John the Baptist’s fulfillment of Elijah’s type (cf. Mark 11:9-13). Typology brings us back to Jesus’ words when He spoke to St. Peter. In the previous post, I showed you how the Catholic Church of Christ is built on Rock. I also showed you how Jesus gave that Rock keys, and I now ask you to read Jesus’ words once again.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).

Have you ever been curious as to where, specifically, Jesus’ terminology came from? Have you ever heard a Protestant Church of Christ preacher explain it to you? Have you attended a Bible study that examined the passage? Have you wondered why the Protestant Church of Christ might offer personal interpretations of the passage, yet rarely, if ever, refer to the specific Old Testament passage Jesus was citing—a passage that presents the typology and power that a Davidic kingdom’s prime minister is vested with?


© Copyright. All written material is property of Patrick Vandapool. All rights reserved.
If this sort of stuff interests you then please help me via Patreon!

1 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1997), 85.

2 The Greek word protos, used in the book of Matthew when describing St. Peter, has a spectrum of meaning that includes: leading, most important, and chief. Nearly all ancient texts list St. Peter as first. When St. Peter is not listed as first within partial lists, reasonable textual criticism is able to reconcile the anomaly. In every case, theological status is always given to St. Peter, and only St. Peter. The particularity of St. Peter’s ministry is always set apart from the general ministry of remaining Apostles.

This entry was posted in catholicism, churches of christ and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.