“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Peter (translated from Cephas) means “rock”. Some have tried to argue that Jesus did not mean that his Church would be built on Peter but on something else. The debate goes back and forth. Let’s look at it from a common sense perspective:
We DO know for sure that Jesus did set up a Church built on the 12 Apostles:
There are countless passages referring to the Church being built on the foundation of the 12 Apostles with Jesus as the Cornerstone. This is something that is not disputed. What is disputed is this passage about “The Rock” – “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Again, the debate goes back and forth based on semantic twists and turns. Let’s not even worry about that right now. Let’s just think about this “Church” that the New Testament describes. If it’s not the Catholic Church, then what happened to it?
The first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants.
Apostolic succession is the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles. All over the world, all Catholic bishops are part of a lineage that goes back to the time of the apostles, something that is impossible in Protestant denominations (most of which do not even claim to have bishops).
The role of apostolic succession in preserving true doctrine is illustrated in the Bible. To make sure that the apostles’ teachings would be passed down after the deaths of the apostles, Paul told Timothy, “[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). In this passage he refers to the first three generations of apostolic succession—his own generation, Timothy’s generation, and the generation Timothy will teach.
The Church Fathers, who were links in that chain of succession, regularly appealed to apostolic succession as a test for whether Catholics or heretics had correct doctrine. This was necessary because heretics simply put their own interpretations, even bizarre ones, on Scripture. Clearly, something other than Scripture had to be used as an ultimate test of doctrine in these cases.
The Protestant’s dilemma – so, what happened to the Church?
The biggest argument I hear on this matter is that the Church instituted by Jesus fell into error. But that would mean that the Gates of Hell did in fact prevail – and that Jesus was wrong. How does one make this fit the Protestant Theology? Start twisting – to make it fit, semantics…
Let’s step back and imagine that Jesus didn’t set up a Church at all (similar to today’s outbreak of denominations). Jesus’ Apostles and many Disciples would simply concoct their own version of what Jesus said or what they heard He had said. Remember, Jesus never wrote anything down that we know of and the Bible as we know it was not put together until the 300’s AD. There would be all sorts of Chaos! There would be no official Bible, no Doctrine of the Trinity, probably no official Eucharist, and the Early Christians probably wouldn’t die for a Faith that was so wishy-washy. Does this sound familiar?
We desperately need to work toward Unity; as the world that looks at us does not know what to believe.
Now Imagine, what would have happened if Jesus did not institute the Church with a leader (Matt. 16:18). Imagine if the United States didn’t have a President. Congress and the House of Representatives are often in gridlock where they cannot agree on something. The President often speaks with authority and makes Executive Decisions. Perhaps it would be like the English Parliament or something similar. This gets into many Eastern Orthodox churches – back in the early days of the Church it was hard to get the Encyclicals from the Pope, communications from Bishops, and decisions from various Church Councils to every area. Some churches and areas inadvertently got left out and had to form their own leadership. The Vatican has long been working on bringing back unity in these churches. They have Apostolic Succession – unbroken continuation from the Apostles, which gives them a line of authority; but some differ on a few key points of doctrine. Without one leader, it is very hard to agree on everything, making Unity very hard to accomplish. Plus, those in power may not want to give up that honor or title – they may not want to unite with Rome and give up that power.
We can pray with Christ (the “Agony in the Garden”) – that “they all become one.”