What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian? Being Roman Catholic? Pretending to be Roman Catholic? Wearing fancy (and/or weird) clothes in worship? “Doing Communion” every Sunday? Living in the past? These are some stereotypes that I hear around the block.
Sometimes it helps to look at the origin of a word to bring to light its true meaning. The first known use of the word Catholic to describe the Church is found in a letter written in roughly the year 110AD. The author was Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle St. Peter. So he knew his stuff. Towards the end of his letter to the church in Smyrnea he wrote:
Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your priests too as you would the apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command of God. Make sure that no step affecting the Church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop’s sanction. The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorized by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church.
(Letter to the Smyrneans 8:1-2)
Let’s break this down, shall we?
- The people are obedient to the ordained clergy (like in 1 Peter 5, Hebrews 13:13, etc.).
- Ordained clergy include bishops, priests, and deacons (also scattered throughout the New Testament).
- Decisions affecting the whole church must go through the Bishop (like James’ role in Acts 15).
- Presiding at Communion (or rather, the Eucharist) is the role of the Bishop, and whomever else he ordains to celebrate it (shedding light on the many “breaking bread” references in the New Testament).
- The Bishop is male, for that matter (also described in 1 Timothy).
- The Bishop is the center of the visible church, or in other words, an instrument of Church unity (just like how the Apostles constantly did follow-up work after the front-line evangelists in the book of Acts).
Reading this letter (and Ignatius’ other letters) in seminary was one of the big ingredients that pushed me towards the Anglican tradition. Being Catholic was already important to me, and looking back at the Apostolic age to see what Catholic meant in the 1st and 2nd centuries helped give me a more concrete idea of what I was looking for. It sure narrowed my choices down a lot – it’s what ultimately chased me away from Protestantism. Rather than repeat things I’ve said before, I’ll link you back to a previous post that explains my position: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/why-am-i-an-anglican/
Finally, the big question – but this isn’t scripture, so what’s the big deal? Yes, this letter to the Smyrneans is not in the Bible. But the Bible was written to reveal God to us and show us the way to Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a complete manual to how the Church works, or how the universe works, or what happened in history. Therefore, if a non-biblical document written by the Apostles or one of their disciples helps shed light on some of the more “technical” aspects of the New Testament, such as how the Church works, it’s perfectly reasonable (and in fact responsible!) to pay heed to the additional information. Ignatius of Antioch helps us understand the ecclesiology – the doctrine of the Church – in the New Testament. And we don’t just have his word for it, but the continuous witness of many other Christians throughout history who have carried on the same teachings about Bishops, other clergy, obedience, order, and the Eucharist. All until the Protestant Reformation, that is, when various other “church government” ideas suddenly became “biblical.” Tsk.