By K. Albert Little, Patheos, May 16, 2019
Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to chat with Rod Bennett, author of The Apostasy That Wasn’t.
Every Christian church that isn’t Catholic, said Rod in our hour-plus interview, has an apostasy theory.
Every Christian church that isn’t Catholic has to have picked a time, in history, when the Church that Jesus founded went off the rails.
Was hopelessly corrupt.
Strayed from the simple faith that Christ established and had to be inevitably rescued somewhere later down the line.
This is the working hypothesis of all Christians that aren’t Catholic, says Rod. The Church that Jesus clearly founded in the Bible with Peter and the apostles in charge, somehow became so terribly unhinged from Christ’s original plan.
Here’s how it often goes.
Jesus, as pictured in the New Testament, appointed twelve apostles to help establish his Church. After his death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, Christ trusted these apostles—11 plus the newly-appointed Matthias—to plant churches, to establish communities, and to spread the message of Christianity across the world.
As the story goes, the apostles started out well. The Church was growing but mostly in secret; mostly sequestered in upper rooms or hidden below the ground. The Church was spreading incognito.
But, at some point in history, the Church began to become more popular. It began to Romanize as the Roman Empire adopted it as its official religion. Politics, war, economics began to mingle with pious religion which quickly began to look more and more like the condemnable “religion” of Pharisees than the simple “faith” of the apostles.
At this point, or sometimes later, an apostasy took place.
That is, the Church which Jesus established was so far off the rails that the Holy Spirit called it quits and left the building.
(No tips for the waitresses either.)
But, says Rod, it simply ain’t so.
For one thing, the myth of the simple faith of the Early Church is, just that, a myth. From the very beginning, the earliest Christians began to define substantial doctrine, mark out holy places with shrines and cathedrals, and were very much active and involved in public life—even while Christianity wasn’t officially recognized by the Roman authorities.
While scores of the first Christians were martyred and persecuted for their faith, the church continued by appointing successors to the apostles and successors to their successors and so on and so forth. The Church, far from being a disorganized band of Christians cowering in private homes, was a hierarchically structured, doctrined and disciplined, visible body of believers with a clear chain of authority, from the very beginning.
If the Church somehow jettisoned the simple faith of the apostles it did so immediately after beginning.
But what about later?
Most non-Catholic Christians will point to Constantine and the AD 300-400’s as the time when the Early Church most definitely lost its way. As Christianity became “legal” it also began to mix with politics; it became a secular, paganized religion. And, again, that simple faith of the apostles was lost.
It wouldn’t be until the Reformation, 1,200 years later, that it was finally restored.
Rod says that this, too, is bunk.
If you read the Early Church Fathers the disciples of Jesus writing directly after the time of the apostles, you will see that the teaching of the Church is the same before, during, and after the so-called reign of the Christian Constantine.
In other words, the teaching and practice of the Church did not change even after it’s “legalization.”
The Early Church Fathers, Christians in places of authority, some of whom were direct disciples of the apostles appointed by Jesus, write clearly of an early Christian church which had an authority structure, clear doctrine, and beliefs that remain the same even after Constantine and the Roman Empire get involved.
While the Christian Church may have gotten cozy with the authorities, and while some popes are evil, the fundamental teaching of the Church—the one founded by Christ which continued to march on—was not altered.
There was no apostasy here.
But, what about later?
The challenge of it all, says Rod, is that every non-Catholic Christian must hold to some kind of apostasy theory. And every theory is different.
If you don’t accept that the Catholic Church, with its historical succession of bishops traced back to the apostles themselves, is still the Church that Christ founded then you have to develop some kind of theory of what happened.
What happened to that Church?
And whether or not you know it, you’ve got an apostasy theory.
Whether or not you know it, if you aren’t Catholic you are holding to a position that the Church founded by Christ was somehow lost in the mists of time and history. And, somehow, it was found again. Whether it was Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or some other priest of prophet, if you believe that you’re in Christ’s Christian Church, you had to have found it again… after it was lost.
And how did that happen?
The ancient Church was Catholic. This is, from a historical perspective, impossible to dispute. With its succession of bishops, with its teaching on the Eucharist, baptism, and the sacraments. With the pope as its head, traceable through the veil of history up to today, the Church founded by Christ is what we today call the Catholic Church.
Maybe, you’d say, what is today’s Catholic church somehow went off the rails. Maybe it was the Church founded by Christ but it stumbled. When and where is a matter of, you’d say… opinion? Somehow that doesn’t seem good enough.
But if you aren’t Catholic, says Rod Bennett, you need to know why. You need a better answer.
When do you think the Church went wrong? Where? And when was it brought back under the harness of the Holy Spirit once again? These are fundamental questions, which demand satisfying answers.
Or, maybe, there wasn’t an apostasy after all. Maybe when Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not overcome His Church, he meant it. Maybe the Catholic Church that marches on today—that holds to the same ancient beliefs, practices, and doctrines of the very first Christians—is still the Church that Jesus made.
I think so.