Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

The beginning of a series: “How do I know the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded?”

It is a commonplace of Catholic apologetics that we claim that “the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded.” On the other hand, opponents charge that the Catholic Church was in fact founded at some later date, often said to be the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine is a usual suspect for some charge of “invention” or another, or some other arbitrary date. Both these claims are empty without evidence. What is the evidence for the Catholic claim and how can we evaluate it?

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), Paul Preaching in the Areopagus (BBC).

In a world with so many churches, how can we know which is the one Jesus actually founded? Can we even know? Is it even a valid claim at all to say that Jesus founded one Church?

Examining Scripture, Protestants tend to emphasize the apparent independence of the churches in the New Testament: The various apostles fanning out across the world founded churches, not one Church, they say:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

And [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. … So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 15:41, 16:5)

But is it truly good ecclesiology to claim that each individual church was independent of one another? Is this assumption consistent with the rest of the New Testament — or are there assumptions being overlooked by this very premise? I would argue that the very fact of the collective plural — the churches referred to as a group — betrays a unity that countermands this whole argument.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:16)

All the churches greet the church of Rome with one voice — and one man, Paul, has the authority to speak for them.

Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

Likewise, Paul has the same, singular, recognized authority over all the churches. Does their unitary submission to the same leaders not contradict any notion of “independence”?

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622) (WikiArt).

Does anything at all in the New Testament really suggest that these individual churches were truly independent of one another? On the contrary, the very fact that we have a unified collection of Christian documents known as the New Testament attests that all the churches were, in the beginning and for some time thence, unified in the same mind and purpose.

In fact, that is exactly what St. Paul admonishes again and again:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:1–2)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Being of one mind, in full accord, of the same judgment and same love: this requires a constant, conscious, and active agreement, both within churches and without: a guiding of one church to another, a submission of one’s independence and a commitment to communion.

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

11 thoughts on “Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

  1. The churches founded by Paul were certainly under his authority (and he despised other people messing with “his” churches). But the reality and circumstances of the times meant that the churches, in the day to day, operated fairly independently, given the great distance between some of them and the time it took people to travel and bring letters. They were as united as they could be in teaching, given that, at the time, people were still figuring out what that teaching was. Plus, the Council of Jerusalem as depicted in Acts certainly suggests that there was an intentional focus on the unity of the churches.

    I think the model as presented in the New Testament is closer to the Eastern Orthodox model than the Roman Catholic model, though.

    Not sure about the canon argument. We know that one of the reasons it took so long to really solidify the canon was because different churches and different communitites were reading different letters and different Gospels (once those were written). It wasn’t until the time you mentioned, the 3rd/4th century, that the canon truly solidified.

    • Thanks, Ken. You have some good points.

      Yes, it’s understandable that “Paul’s churches” would unitarily recognize his authority. But we have at least one example of his writing to a church that was not “his,” the Church of Rome. Per his own testimony, we know that that church was founded by “another man” (Romans 15:20), possibly Peter, and that Paul had never been there at all. Yet Paul had clearly had contact with Roman Christians and had amicable relations with them; and when he did go to Rome, they received him as an Apostle (Romans 1:1). The supposed contention between Peter and Paul (though there was certainly initial friction between them, as related by the letter to the Galatians), I think, is overstated. Though faction is a human tendency (especially for Corinthians, apparently), there is no reason to think that in the minds of the Apostles, there were “Paul’s churches” or “Peter’s churches” or “Apollos’s churches”: Paul himself urges just explicitly the opposite (1 Corinthians 1:12–13).

      Yes, distance and communication were problems with regard to any sort of unified authority, and continued to be throughout all of history, up until the modern era. But you yourself nail the important point: an intentional focus on unity. Paul spent his life to the very last breath scurrying from one of Europe to the other and writing letters, at every step urging the flock to unity. Why? Because that is exactly what Jesus desired and prayed for (John 17:21).

      I would agree that the New Testament churches, and the churches seen in the earliest centuries of Christianity, do resemble the “Eastern Orthodox model”: that is, local churches each under the authority of their bishop or patriarch; but each, still, not independent, but striving intentionally for unity, and by and large succeeding. But one should take a closer look at why they succeeded: when there were questions or disputes, they turned not to Scripture, not to personal interpretation, but to communion, seeking consultation with neighboring bishops in local councils, and, by the all the evidence, recognizing one bishop as the first among equals, he in Rome.

      It is an anachronism to seek to apply “the Roman Catholic model” — that is, the hierarchy of the modern Latin Church — to the New Testament Church or to the churches of the first centuries. But the important thing to note is that not even the Eastern Orthodox truly follow the “Eastern Orthodox model” anymore. Rather than bishops being over their local churches, we have disparate Orthodox factions with global communions of their own, with the patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Moscow, and others having authority over bodies in America and Britain and scattered all throughout the world.

      I would, and do, argue that while the hierarchy of the modern Catholic Church is a development, the Catholic Church alone preserves the intentional unity urged by Christ and the Apostles, and preserves the deference of the earliest bishops of the Church to the bishop of Rome.

      The “Roman Catholic model” you name is not as rigid as you think: The churches of the West are, with good historical precedent, under the authority of the patriarchate of Rome; but there are other churches who have submitted to that same authority whose relation to Rome is not the same: compare the Eastern Catholic Churches, who much more greatly resemble the churches of the first century in their relation to the bishop of Rome. This is entirely acceptable, and those churches are considered in full communion with the rest of the Catholic Church.

      Regarding the canon: I’ve seen no convincing evidence (in fact, convincing evidence to the contrary) that “different churches and different communitites were reading different letters and different Gospels.” Everything I have read suggests that the majority of the documents that now make up the New Testament were accepted almost universally and unanimously from the time they were distributed. There were doubts and disputes about the canonicity of only a few documents (especially 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation). No “other” documents (certainly not any of the later, Gnostic Gospels) ever gained wide acceptance anywhere or was ever a serious candidate for inclusion in the New Testament canon. It’s true that it wasn’t until the third or fourth century that the “canon” as a fixed list was formally codified. But as with most everything else in doctrine, such codification was only then made to authoritatively settle dispute and confusion — “different” Gospels and letters possibly then being circulated, in support of one heresy or another. The collection of documents we now call the New Testament appears to have been, for the greater part, already formed and accepted by the second century.

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  3. It is easy for the world to see divisions in the church. What is a shame is when we, as Christians, see divisions. Part of the divisiveness, in the United States, is the ascendance of individualism to the point where so many churches emphasize a unique and personal contact that manifests itself in a one-of-a-kind revelation such that each Christian is sufficient as the church unto himself.

    We see this when charismatics “pray in the spirit” and speak gibberish as “tongues” – a language between the person and God which cannot be rightly interpreted in any true sense. We also see this in church shopping – “is this church for me?” At that level, the focus of church is not Christ but the individual.

    There is also an insistence on the part of many churches that form, tradition, and ritual must be in concord for the church to exist. Nothing could be less true. The power of the Holy Spirit reaches across these man-made structures and calls us to the One Body. It does not mean we leave our denominational distinctions behind – those exist as part growth in scripture, they challenge our interpretations, and aid us in holding to the truth. what this does, however, is establish Christ as the center across these distinctions.

    We, in our community, have a Faith in Action Sunday, each May. We go out into the community and do things for the community and for people – everything from painting someone’s house, to planting flower beds in parks, to cleaning storefront windows, visiting the elderly and sick, free concerts, picnics, picking up trash, food drives for people and for the animal shelter, cleaning the kennels, anything that needs to be done and ought to be done. This amounts to anywhere from 350 – 500 Christians out in the open, doing good things. We cross denominational lines and work together, we celebrate and pray together, sing together, eat together – it is actively building up faith, building fellowship with other Christians, and building friendship with our community – a living Gospel – an expression of love.

    For all involved, the day begins with an abbreviated worship (after all, you go to church to be edified and strengthened for work in the world – the least and the lost are not in the pews.)

    We draw from Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, and some non-denoms. To date, the largest pool of Christians in the local area, those in RC parishes have declined participation. Christ for them appears to be stuck inside the church and can’t seem to get out into the world.

    They should listen to Pope Francis:

    “In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter, but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out,” .

    “The self-referential church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out,”

    “Put simply, there are two images of the church: a church which evangelizes and comes out of herself” by hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith; and “the worldly church, living within herself, of herself, for herself.”

    The church is not divided, never has been, but some Christians segregate themselves from others and from the world and so convey a false witness that the church is not One Body.

    • Harold, thanks again for the comment. I do not wish to offend — but I think you are in denial. Yes, it’s true that in very recent decades, many diverse groups of Christians can gather together, love one another, even worship the Lord together and serve alongside one another. But many Christian groups still cannot. Many Protestant groups still maintain that the Catholic Church is the “synagogue of Satan”; many still will not even meet or cooperate with other Protestant groups. Can you really affirm that your church is of “the same mind and judgment” as the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches — just because you can meet once a year to serve the community together? This is certainly a good and praiseworthy service and a bringing of Christ to the world. But is this really the extent of the unity, the being “One, just as the Father and the Son are One,” that Jesus prayed for and Paul exhorted us to maintain?

      You suggest that “the Church is not divided, [and] never has been” — but I do not think you could have defended such a proposition even less than a century ago. Only mere centuries before, Catholics and Protestants were still murdering one another for little more than their differences of belief. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have also come closer together — again, only in recent decades — but it would be foolish to suggest that the division between them is only illusory. There are still very serious differences of doctrine and belief — not mere “form, tradition, and ritual” — that separate Christians, that prevent them from being “of the same mind and judgment.” (And in fact, ritual and form do not “make the Church exist” in the Catholic understanding: there is a great diversity of “form, tradition, and ritual” within the Catholic Church.)

      I wrote a lot more, but the Internet ate my comment. I’ll try to pick up some of the rest on the reply, if you have more to say.

      • Hello, Dear Mr. Richardson, After reading and reading “The Lonely Pilgrim”, I finally came to what I was after. That was a modern view of Jesus Christ´s words which sounded revolting to the Jewish people of his day and even today. He did not feel the need to apologize for His words, which had a cannabilistic ring to them. You wrote about attitudes toward the bread and wine of Eternal Life.Why should Jesus apologise? The mind of God can never be understood by us human beings which is why it is called the Mystery of the Cross. We should never stop seeking, though, and trying to understand the “face” of God, though! Jesus Christ was accused of everything from being an local upstart making Himself into a false god to being a demon! We are all struggling to follow Jesus Christ, if we love and believe in His teachings, whether we follow any of the over 1,000 denominations of Protestant Churches or stick to the original: the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic,
        which seem to be the larger institutions. All the other churches ( after the invention of the printing press came along and made of us bible readers,of what had been the previously, the exclusive property of the monks until about 1492, has made today, our own interpretations of the words and sayings of Jesus Christ ,major; and the most meaningful to us,and our main goal is still today, to save our own souls, and those of our family, friends and other beloved ; and be pleasing to God and to serve God first and foremost, in our lives. It is truly shocking at the response of so many Roman Catholics who say they are Catholic and Christians and laugh while admitting they don´t actually believe in God! This is apparently possible and there are many thousands who love ritual and music and the ancient culture with the music and art work and this could be also because the Roman Catholic Church is very structured. The main lines of divisiveness,today, though ,it seems to me, are truly BELIEVING Christians who accept Jesus Christ as : Our Lord and Savior verses AGNOSTICS and ATHEISTS and , of course, all those who betray their own consciences,in which are, laid down ,by God in us, the very fundamental prohibitions against hatred of our fellow beings: this hatred, in the form theft, murder and covetousness,and fornication, etc. How the Roman Catholic Church is governed and administered is important, but, it is its carrying out the will and the service to Jesus Christ which is the most important and should be more a center for personal love and development for one another, rather than a ritualistic concept to other bible-believing or evangelistic Christians. It becomes so terribly dead as a platform of worship! There is no perfect church because there are no perfect people, except: Jesus Christ. He said “No one is “good” except the Father .The Catholic clergy still do and have always believed in the Bible, but, it is much “played down” in the Roman Catholic Church, today, and power politics and socialistic values at state level are very much emphasized, taking away from the emphasis of power and authority of God.
        An impersonal papal moral leader by the very fact of distance, cannot be strong. A Church without our God, is just a high-minded, humanistic club!
        Luckily , though,our battles on earth are within us, within our own conscience and in our courage to live up to the principles of the teachings laid down by Jesus Christ . There is only ONE Church and that is the one started by Jesus Christ, Himself, on earth, with His apostles. He is still guiding His people and they are not found in any ONE special denomination! His example and HIs Word, and the Scriptures are His guidance for us. . . and the guidance we get from the Holy Spirit in prayer and our own consciences.

        • Hi June. Thanks so much for the kind comment. There is a lot to digest here so let me try to address your main points:

          I agree that it is deeply sad and troubling the number of Catholics — “cultural Catholics,” I might call them — who claim to belong to the Church yet deny the truth of Christ and His Church’s teaching. But this is really not all that surprising to me, growing up in the Southern United States where very many people claim to be Evangelical Christians yet denied it with the way they lived their lives. The fact is that the Church has always held both the saved and the unsaved. We can only pray that Christ’s truth will reach the unsaved! I think, as the modern secular culture becomes increasingly antagonistic to the Gospel, we will see more and more “cultural Christians” abandon the pretense.

          I agree that the most important thing in life is to belong to Christ, and I do not dismiss or deny the faith of my brethren in Protestant churches. But I would not go so far as to argue that “it doesn’t matter” what church you belong to. If we believe the truth of the doctrines we teach in our churches, then surely any one of us believes that his own church approaches the closest to the whole truth of Christ and the Gospel while others miss the mark; and I truly believe that Protestant doctrine deprives Christians of many important and beneficial elements, especially the Sacraments. Rather than merely a “ritualistic concept,” these are the great gifts God gave to work His grace in our lives tangibly.

          Many of the complaints you have toward the Catholic Church were ones I held myself before I discovered the Church for myself. I will respond to some of them briefly:

          It is its carrying out the will and the service to Jesus Christ which is the most important and should be more a center for personal love and development for one another … [The ritualistic concept] becomes so terribly dead as a platform of worship!

          I once thought, too, that Catholicism was too caught up in “empty ritual” to be truly vibrant in worship, in the love of the people for God or for their neighbor. But I’ve found completely the opposite to true. I have found in the Catholic Church a greater and more consistent devotion to service to one’s neighbor, both within the Church and without, than I ever knew before: a missional love that encompasses the whole lives of those who serve the Gospel: in priests, deacons, men and women religious, and very many devoted laypeople. True, there are many laypeople who don’t live the Gospel in this way — but this is certainly true of many Protestants also.

          The Catholic clergy still do and have always believed in the Bible, but, it is much “played down” in the Roman Catholic Church, today, and power politics and socialistic values at state level are very much emphasized, taking away from the emphasis of power and authority of God.

          I have again found quite the opposite to be true, in every priest and deacon I have had the pleasure to know: Holy Scripture is not “played down” at all, but emphasized and exposited with joy and wisdom. Second to only Jesus Himself in the Eucharist, the Word of God in Scripture is an essential focus of every Mass. I have heard more Scripture read and preached on in the Catholic Church than I ever heard in my years growing up Evangelical — where preaching tending to focus on the same verses again and again, and very often was reduced to therapeutic pep talks rather than real exegesis of the Gospel. (Certainly this isn’t the case for all Evangelicals, but it was my experience.) It has not been my experience at all that “power politics” or “socialistic values” have so much as even made an appearance at the ambo, let alone have detracted from the power of God.

          An impersonal papal moral leader by the very fact of distance, cannot be strong.

          Numerous examples from history, and the examples of popes both of recent memory and of the present, have demonstrated this statement to be completely untrue. There have been no greater, more visible witnesses to the faith and love of the Gospel than Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, or Pope Francis. They are the Christians most visible to anyone and the world, the Christians more non-Christians could name than any other, certainly more than any Protestant. Neither was any of them “impersonal” — least of all Pope Francis, who is connecting with more people on a personal level than any world leader in recent history. The moral witness of these popes, far from being impotent, is felt around the world every day.

          There is only ONE Church and that is the one started by Jesus Christ, Himself, on earth, with His apostles. He is still guiding His people and they are not found in any ONE special denomination!

          Though there is only One Christ and only one Body of Christ, in the largest sense — and though there are true Christians being used in many different churches — is it is a fact that we have created human divisions in the Body, and that we are not all living in “one mind and judgment” as Scripture commands. This is our failure. Jesus founded only One Church, and only One Church continued united for at least five centuries. We as Westerners have done far more damage to the unity of the Body of Christ in the past 500 years than the whole of Christendom did in the first 1,000. Again, I would challenge you not to gloss over these divisions. We are not united in the fullness which Christ prayed for us (John 17:21). That is what we should be striving for; we should not be content with the reality of Christian disunity.

          The peace of the Lord be with you.

          • Dear Mr. Richardson,
            Thank you so much for your comments. You have a wonderful analytical style of thinking and an orderly way of disposing of , and expressing your main points of focus.
            I must confess to having been mildly irritated, at first, yesterday, morning, though, by what I mistakenly thought to be: the eccentric memoirs of an aging religious cleric!
            You refer often with sympathy that you “used to be” at a point of view or perspective at which, I NOW stand, but , that you have since passed on to progress furthur up the mountain of your quest in your search to find the Lord.
            Your title of “The Lonely Pilgrim ” is a bit bleak and , perhaps, slightly deceptive, since you seem very easy on your fellowman in your opinions.
            I have misunderstood you and, also, I have to admit that you are by no means either eccentric or self-indulgent. Your comments are very tactful, generous and to the point.
            Your pilgrimage seems very successful and I wish you every bit of deserved success.
            On a more personal note, I have spent the last years of my life as a Catholic in Norway. I married a Lutheran and humanist who had a doctorate in organic chemistry. We raised four children together in the Catholic faith. My husband died twelve years ago, but, I have remained in Norway. He converted to Catholicism.
            Experiencing the Catholic liturgy and prayers in another tongue than one´s mother tongue can be disconcerting and “leave one a bit cold”. (This is a hurdle to cross in devotions. This has one looking for the essence of meanings, more than is usual.)
            In spite of the word: “catholic” which as you know means, “universal”, the original early Church has an intriguing history in both the Middle-east, Africa and Europe. The Catholic Church in Norway has a unique history and profile all its own ! After the Hanseatic League took over, here, and Protestantism took root (There were only 2 young farmers who bravely protested against this take-over, and paid with their lives ), The Catholic Church was exiled from Norway, but allowed to return following WWI, as a missionary church.
            As a youthful idealist from Alabama, you may or may not be interested in knowing about Norway and Europe and my perspective on the spirit of our Church , today, in Europe, counter to that of the Catholic Church in the United States. I was raised a Catholic in Marlboro, Massachusetts, USA, by “les soeurs de Ste. Anne”, a French-Canadian, order of nuns from Lachine, Canada. . . who taught both boarders and day students from New England as part of the Franco-American society´s program.
            Believe me, when I say that there is nothing “gloss over” about me or my personality. Quite the opposite.
            Your written closing or leave taking : “peace of the Lord” was very kind and is what I live for moment for moment.
            Keeping calm amid life´s turbulence is an art worth cultivating !
            If you have access to UTUBE, search out/ google: the name of AKSEL RYKVINN, a twelve-year-old Norwegian chorister whose treble voice is gaining world- wide recognition for its amazingly high quality ! and tonal clarity. Perhaps, hopefully, you will enjoy it !

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