Does Diversity in Protestantism Support
the Roman Catholic Position to be the one true Church?
Norman L. Geisler
Roman Catholic apologists have long argued that the vast diversity among churches is evidence of the need for the Roman Catholic authority in the church over against all the non-Catholic splinter groups including evangelical Protestants of various varieties. On the surface, there is a certain plausibility in their complaint that behooves further scrutiny. However, before one swims the Tiber, several things should be taken into consideration.
First, there is an important difference between true spiritual unity and organizational uniformity. The Roman Catholic Church is an organization—a large and world-wide organization to be sure. Nevertheless, it is an organization, with a headquarters, a charter, and a hierarchy of officials. However, all of this would be possible without a true doctrinal, ethical, and spiritual unity. So, even if the Roman organization is a descendent of the one Christ started, this would not prove in itself that it has preserved the truth and spiritual heritage which Christ had initiated.
For example, the present United States government is the organizational descendent of the First Continental Congress, but knowledgeable people recognized that it has come a long way from the founders in many of its beliefs. The permission of slavery and forbidding of women to vote are only two such differences. So, even if there was an organizational identity between the New Testament Church and the present Roman Catholic Church, it would not prove there was a doctrinal, moral, and spiritual unity between them.
Second, even in New Testament times, the split between Peter and Paul reveals that opposition to Peter—heralded by Rome as the first pope—was an important element in the development of the catholicity (universality) of the church. As noted church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, put it, “to become catholic [universal] the church had to oppose Peter” (The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, 24). For Christ command to disciple “all nations’’ (Mt. 28:18-20), and the vision of Pentecost (Acts 2), involving the outpouring of the Spirit on people from all nations, was hindered by Peter’s reluctance to see the spiritual equality of Jew and Gentile (Acts 10). This came to a climax in Acts 15 when at what has been called “the first church council” the matter of the catholicity of the church, with Jew and Gentile, was pronounced by the apostles and leaders of the church. So, if anything, the first alleged Pope of the Catholic Church (Peter) had to be rebuked by the apostle Paul (Gal. 1), divinely prodded by three visions, and overruled by the first New Testament church gathering (Acts 15) opposed to make the church truly catholic.
Third, there is no evidence of an organization continuity between the Church at Rome and the current Roman Catholic Church. The first church was not in Rome; it was in Jerusalem (Act 2). In fact there was a church in Antioch (Acts 13:1) before there was one in Rome (Romans 1:1; 16:23). So, if antiquity counts for continuity, then there was a church in the East before there was one in the West. By this reasoning, priority would be given the Eastern Orthodoxy, not Roman Catholicity. The dominance of Rome was political, not biblical. So, if anything Rome was a branch from the church in the East , not the reverse.
Fourth, the biggest splits in Christendom happened under the domination of the Roman Church. The split with Eastern orthodoxy in the 11th century occurred as a result of Rome’s action, not a break off from the East. Pope Nicolas I (d. 867) deposed the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius (d. 891). Later in 1204 a Latin Patriarch was established in Constantinople.
So, if having an infallible head, as Rome claims, should protect against splinters, then the first and biggest one happened on Rome’s watch—and largely as a result of their actions. Likewise, the second biggest split in Christendom—the Protestant Reformation—also occurred while Rome was in charge of most of Christendom in the 16th century. History records that Luther’s desire was not to start another church. He wanted to purify the one that was there, namely, the Roman Catholic Church. And Luther did not leave the Catholic Church. Rather, he was excommunicated from it. So even a church united under a Roman Pope in the West could not stop the second biggest split in Christendom.
Fifth, numerous splits in Christendom occurred under Roman Popes, showing they were no guarantee against fragmentation in the church. Indeed, theOxford Dictionary of the Christian Church lists over 35 anti-popes which means there were two infallible popes at the same time! Sometimes one would infallibly excommunicate the other! This is historic proof that shelter under the Roman umbrella was no guarantee against the storms of disunity. On one occasion there were three popes—the two who were feuding and the one which the Council of Constance (1413-1418) had to set up over them to resolve the conflict.
Sixth, even Rome, with its alleged infallible leadership, could not avert schisms or even heretical Popes. Numerous cults and breakoffs from Rome occurred under the Roman reign. The Arians and Donatists were notable among them. And at one time the Arian Cult encompassed a large section of Christendom. Pope Honorius was a heretic condemned by later ecclesiastic authorities. Certainly none of this was due to the Protestant Reformation. And not all of it was due to the lack of a papal authority. For, as just shown, much of it involved popes, anti-popes, and heretical popes. One thing is certain, having an infallible pope was not a guarantee against theological splintering. This is to say nothing of the thousands Christians Rome pronounced heretics and were martyred in the Inquisition!—one of the tragic events possible only in a totalitarian regime like Roman Catholicism.
Seventh, other than groups that are considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants, there is doctrinal unity on all essential teachings among all the diverse orthodox churches in Protestant Christendom. This unity is manifest in the first four centuries. As it has been aptly codified: “One Bible; Two Testaments; Three Creeds: Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed; Four Councils: Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcendon; this doctrinal unity is truly evangelical. The diversity of doctrines are largely on the non-essentials. So, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or whatever, there is an essential doctrinal unity, despite all the non-essential differences.
Diversity within unity is not necessarily bad. Even Roman Catholicism itself has many diverse orders, some of which strongly opposed beliefs and practices of the other orders. These bear some similarity to denominational difference among evangelical Christians. Opposing all diversity is as boring as having only one make of cars or one brand of tooth paste. Even the rainbow has many colors. The important thing was captured by Repertus Meldinius (d. 1651) when he wrote: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things charity (love).”
Eighth, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples “that they all may be one” (Jn. 17:21) was clearly not a prayer for organizational uniformity. Rather, it was forspiritual unity (“Just as you Father are in me, and I in You”—v. 21), such as there is in the Godhead. Of course, Jesus wished that this relationship be visible to the world (v. 21) so that they would see the love of God and come to Christ (v. 23). Indeed, the true unity is one body of Christ and it is made by God (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:4-5). The church on earth is to be patterned after this and should endeavor to “maintain” a visible manifestation of it (Eph. 4:3). So, His prayer was not ecumenical but practical. It was not for a union of churches with each other, but a unity of individuals with each other in Christ.
In summation, neither the New Testament no church history supports the Roman Catholic claim that the Roman Church, with its hierarchical structure, is the better guarantor of true spiritual unity. While church splintering since the Reformation is far from commendable, neither is the larger and more serious divisions in and splits from the Roman Catholic Church on their watch. However, organizational uniformity offered by Rome is not the true spiritual unity for which Christ prayed.
Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit http://normangeisler.com/rcc/.