A friend of mine recently commented that one of his Catholic relatives refused to listen to the gospel, saying, “All you Protestants are always fighting with each other and starting a new denomination. How can you claim that any one of them is correct?” While this sounds like a good argument, it’s based on a false understanding of church history.
In the years following Jesus’ death, local churches were formed in the cities to which the gospel message spread. With the exception of their deference to the Apostles in the very early years, these churches had no common leadership, hierarchy, or organizational structure. Each was independent, and each considered its sister churches in other cities to be a part of the larger “body of Christ” on Earth.
Over 200 years after the death of the last of the Apostles, a Roman emperor with Christian and pagan roots brought together hundreds of church leaders from throughout the Roman Empire and began a process that would result in the formation of the Roman Catholic Church.
By adopting a central leadership and placing the opinions of its bishops over the authority of God’s Word, Catholicism separated itself from orthodox Christianity. Catholicism was the first successful “denomination” that split from Christianity in those early years.
In the early 1500’s, a group of Catholics grew dissatisfied with the rituals and doctrines of their church. They split from the Catholic Church, which labeled them “Protestants” because of their protest.
Protestants, argued by my friend’s relative to just be a bunch of disagreeable folks who can’t figure out what they believe, are disgruntled Catholics, not disgruntled Christians. When Protestants (disgruntled Catholics) split from each other, they become yet another group of disgruntled Catholics.
Throughout history — before and during the rise of Catholicism — there have been churches that held to the fundamental doctrines of Jesus and the Apostles. They may have varied on some points, but they retained their independence from hierarchy, their congregational polity, their reliance on the Bible as their sole authority on matters of faith and practice, their commitment to evangelism, and their belief in salvation by faith apart from baptism or other “sacraments”. These churches were severely persecuted by the nascent Catholic Church and continue to be opposed by the Catholic Church and its Protestant brothers and sisters.
So despite my friend’s relative’s claims, it is the Catholic Church that split from Truth, and it is the Catholic Church that is fraught with schisms that manifest themselves as Protestant denominations. Meanwhile Christ’s true church continues undeterred; persecuted but prevailing; united under the umbrella of fundamental doctrines that are unchanged from the first century. It can do this because Christianity isn’t a local church, it isn’t a denomination, it isn’t a bishop, and it isn’t a hierarchy. It is a personal relationship with God through the finished work of Jesus Christ, entirely separate from any organization or ritual. The true church is the universal collection of such people. It is undivided and indivisible, as opposed to Catholicism, which was founded in division and whose history — often incorrectly identified as the “history of Christianity” — is marked by and moves forward through division.