Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 8, 1961
NUMBER 6, PAGE 4,12-13a

Errors And Dangers Of Roman Catholicism

Frank Van Dyke, Henderson, Tennessee

(Editor's note: In this issue we begin a series of lessons dealing with the errors and dangers of Roman Catholicism. These lessons were delivered by brother Frank Van Dyke during a gospel meeting at Greenville, Texas, and were recorded on tape by brother H. Osby Weaver who was preaching at Greenville at the time. The lessons were transcribed from the tape by brother Weaver and published in "Spiritual Life," from which journal we take them for issuance here.)

This lesson today will be purely historical. That is, we are going to trace the development of the Roman Catholic hierarchy from the very earliest departures from the New Testament order to the climax of that ecclesiasticism in the year 606 A. D. Then after that, we shall trace the development of the temporal powers of the papacy. We have given as the title to these lessons ERRORS AND DANGERS OF ROMAN CATHOLICISM.

Today you may wonder what particular error is involved in the things that we will be relating. It has to do with one of their prominent claims that the Roman Bishop has always been the head of the universal church. Is this true? If we can marshal such historical evidence as to show that such is not true, we will have shown one of their major claims to be false and will have dealt with one of the outstanding errors of Roman Catholicism.

I want to give you the claim of the Roman Catholic Church about the primacy of Peter and the superiority of the Roman Bishopric in their own words. Here is a decree that was passed by the Council of Florence in 1439. This statement is quoted in a book called NOVELTIES OF ROMANISM by Colette, pages 251 and 252. Here is the decree: "Also we decree that the Holy Apostolical See and the Roman Pontiff has a primacy over the whole world, and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of Saint Peter the prince of the apostles and the true vicar of Christ and the head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him in the person of the blessed Peter, our Lord Jesus Christ has committed full power to feed, rule and govern the universal church according as it is contained in the acts of general councils and in the holy canons." I have thus given to you their doctrine in the words of one of their own universal councils of the church. You can see that the substance of that decree is simply this: that the bishop who resides and presides in Rome is looked upon as the successor of Peter who was the prince iof the apostles, the first head of the church, and that by virtue of that succession, the bishop in Rome is now the universal head of the church and that the Roman See or Bishopric now has full authority over the whole church. Now then, the question before us is this: Are the facts of history such as will substantiate that claim?

Is it true that the bishop of Rome was always considered head of the church, and that the Roman See was considered as having absolute power over all the church? To trace the development of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, we will need to notice the organization of the New Testament church and will do it just briefly.

Every New Testament student is familiar with the fact that in New Testament times congregations were organized with each one having a plurality of elders or bishops with the deacons serving under and with them. In Acts 4:23, when Paul was returning from his first missionary journey, it is said that he "ordained elders in every church." Then in Phil. 1:1, Paul addressed himself "to the church at Philippi with the bishops and deacons." Now to show you that there was no distinction between the bishop and an elder in New Testament times, Paul told Titus in Tit. 1:5-7 that he left him in Crete "to set in order the things that were wanting and ordain elders in every city." Now notice he said, "Titus, I left you in Crete to ordain elders," then he starts out with a list of qualifications of those elders whom Titus was to ordain and said, "for the bishop must be blameless, etc." Don't you see, he said he left Titus there to ordain elders and these elders were to have certain qualifications, then he started out telling what a bishop must be. That shows you that the term "elder" and the term "bishop" refers to the same person or persons in the New Testament church. That is significant because we shall come in just a moment to the first step of departure from that arrangement. Let us emphasize the fact now that as the church came from the hand of the Lord, ordained of Him and arranged for the plan and mission that He intended for it to perform on earth, that every congregation was autonomous, independent, a unit within itself with the elders or bishops as overseers or shepherds of the flock, subject only and always to Christ as the head of the whole church.

When we say that every congregation was autonomous or self-governing, we have no reference whatever to its relationship with the Lord, but rather to its relationship to sister congregations. No congregation was ever autonomous or self-governing in the sense of having the right to legislate or pass its own laws. It never had the right to decide what it would teach or how it would worship God. When it comes to the relationship with the Lord, every congregation is subject always to the authority of Christ as the head of the church. But when we are thinking of its relationship with other congregations, then every congregation is a unit itself, autonomous, independent, free under God and the authority of Christ to conduct her own affairs in keeping with the authority of Him who is the head of the church. Such was the organization of the New Testament church.

But even before the days of the apostles were over, there was evidence of departure from that arrangement. Paul said the mystery of iniquity was already working and warned the Ephesian elders that "from among themselves men would arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them." History bears out the fact that the first step of departure did actually begin in the eldership. That first step of departure was composed of a distinction being made between the elders and the bishops. This occurred in the second century. We have already seen that the elders and bishops were the same ones — the same officers in the church. A man who was in the position as one of the overseers of the flock, was a bishop, an elder, a shepherd. All of the elders were bishops, but in the second century a distinction was made between the bishop of a congregation and the elders of that congregation. One elder became a little more influential than the others. Maybe he was more aggressive and with a little more ability as a leader; therefore, he was given a position of authority or higher honor than the other elders. They simply said, "We will distinguish him from the other elders by calling him the bishop of the congregation, whereas the others are just plain elders." Right there was the first step away from the New Testament order in the organization of the New Testament church.

At first the bishop had no power beyond that local church in which he was a bishop but was looked upon as having more power in that local church than the other elders. Then it was not long until the bishop's influence spread beyond the local congregation and over an entire area or diocese; hence, there came into existence the "diocesan bishop."

During the latter part of the second century, they began to have "church councils." These were not yet ecumenical or universal assemblies of the church but were provincial councils — territorial meetings. Well, somebody had to preside over the meetings and normally it was the bishop of the area in which the meeting was held, usually in the larger cities. From this came the "metropolitan bishop" — a great city bishop. Finally a few of these great city bishops were honored with the title of "patriarch" — those that reigned in the five greatest cities of that time and area. There was one down in Alexandria in Egypt; one in Jerusalem in Palestine; there was one up in Antioch of Syria; another in Constantinople which city was considered the heart or seat of the eastern part of the Roman Empire; and there was one in Rome which was considered the seat of the western part of the Roman Empire. Notice now the stair-step like progression from one to the other, ascending gradually to a higher position of authority all along the way, starting back yonder with that distinction that was made between elders and one who was called the bishop in the local congregation. Now I want you to notice, friends, how far the development has gone. A great departure from the New Testament order, but notice please that not yet is one of these bishops considered the head of the church. We are away along now in the fourth and fifth centuries, yet not one of those bishops is looked upon as the supreme head of the church, and not one of those bishoprics is considered as having all authority over the entire church.

Now to show you that this is not merely an assertion of our own, the council of Nice that met in, 325 A. D. passed a decree that all of the bishops would be on an equal level; that each one would have the right to conduct his own affairs without any interference or without any subjection whatsoever to any other bishop. Mind you, that was the first ecumenical or general council of the church. in the city of Nice from which the council gets its name, in 325 A. D., they decreed that all bishops were equal and at liberty to conduct their own affairs, that is, the different bishops in the various provinces. Of course, by that time they recognized this progressive ascendency in the scale of prominence among the bishops, but they decreed that the bishops in the various provinces would be independent one of another. Does that sound like the church at that time looked upon any particular "see" or a particular bishop as the supreme head or ruler of the church? Certainly not!

More, than that, the council of Chalcedon that met in the year 451 A. D. passed a decree to the effect that Constantinople should be given equal rank of glory and honor with Rome. Now we need to understand what we are talking about. Constantinople, as I said awhile ago, was considered the center of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Rome, of course, remained the heart of the western part. These matters would be much more vivid to you if would check up on your geography and see the relative locations of these two cities. Away back in the early part of the fourth century when old Constantine had come to the throne, he recognized the Christian religion and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople which was given that name in honor of Constantine. Now in this council of Chalcedon in 451 the great "divines" of the church said, "Now the capital of the Roman Empire has been moved to the east and certainly that city that is now the capital of the empire should now share the honors that have heretofore been bestowed upon Rome." Don't you see that they were acknowledging that whatever honor, whatever precedence, whatever superiority that had been attached to Rome up until this time was purely a matter of sentiment because it was the seat of government, and they did not look upon Rome as having superiority by divine right. It was purely because Rome was the seat of the government and since the capital had been moved to another city, they said that city ought to have the honor. That is a way down in the middle part of the 5th century, and they did not look upon Rome as being the supreme bishopric and the bishop of Rome as being the supreme head of the church by divine right.

But did you know that the decree of Chalcedon touched off a controversy, clash, and struggle between Rome and Constantinople that lasted for more than a 100 years with Rome finally winning out by having her bishop declared the supreme head of the church. Now, I have stopped to relate facts about the council of Nice and the council of Chalcedon to emphasize the fact that through these first centuries they did not look upon Rome as the supreme bishopric nor upon the bishop of Rome as the universal head of the church. Those are facts of history taken from the decrees and actions of their own church councils. Using them then as witnesses and of course giving credit for knowing the conditions of the times and the attitudes and sentiments of the age, we must come to the conclusion that Rome at that time had not ,come to be looked upon as supreme.

Now time went on and this struggle between Rome and Constantinople continued. It became rather keen and sometime even bitter until 588 A. D., John the Faster who was at that time bishop over Constantinople assumed the title of universal head of the church. The bishop in Rome at that time was Pelagius II, and he was astonished at the boldness of old John the Faster and spoke out vigorously against him. Pelagius said: "Regard not the name of universality which John has unlawfully usurped to himself, for let none of the patriarchs ever use this so profane appellation. You may well estimate what mischief may be expected rapidly to follow whenever among priests such perverted beginnings break forth, for he is near respecting whom it is written, 'he himself is king over all the sons of pride'." That was the strong, pointed language that was used by Pelagius toward a fellow bishop in Constantinople.