I have always acknowledged that Catholics and Protestants alike can be true Christians, though salvation does not come automatically by being either Catholic or Protestant. I do think that the more aligned with truth we can be, the more genuine liberty in Christ will be ours. So it does make a difference what we believe.
As I read the Gospels, I do not find a portrait of Christ that suggests He had any interest in starting a new religious system. If this was on His mind, He never mentioned it, nor did He make any attempts to accomplish any such thing. The one mission that Jesus and the apostles were upon was the establishing of a new kingdom—the kingdom of God. None of Christ's parables have anything to say about a religion, but they were all about the kingdom of God. When Jesus talked about religion, He spoke of the Jewish religious system, its corruption and its failure to recognize what God really cared about—namely right living according to the principles of justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).
Humans, in their carnality, institutionalize spiritual phenomena, transforming them into “religions.” One should not doubt that such elements could have come into Christ's movement as early as the second century, after the apostles were no longer around to bring correction. In the writings of Ignatius (AD 115), we see that the church had already morphed from being a family with "older men" (presbuteroi) as "overseers" (episcopoi), into a politically-organized religion, with each church dominated by an individual, monarchial episcopos.
From that point, the movement became more and more liturgical, like Judaism was—refocused upon things in which Jesus and the apostles never expressed any interest. As had happened with the rabbis and Pharisees, the traditions of men reshaped the simple faith of the apostles into a more and more elaborate religious system, drowning out the concepts taught by Jesus about His kingdom. Thus, the "church" became a sacerdotal religion, rather than a community of disciples knowing and following Jesus. Even before the churches had any concept of the bishop of Rome having authority over other bishops, the church had become nationalized in Rome so that it was no longer necessary for the members (or even the leaders) to be genuine followers of Christ. It became simply another religion among many, arguably taking the name of the Lord in vain by calling itself the Christian church. This is even before the first actual "pope" (Gregory, circa. 600) arose.
We might think it safe to assume the early church fathers would be very faithful to the original intentions of Christ and the apostles. Why would we assume this? The Bible itself records that the churches in Galatia (only months after Paul left them) had already embraced "a different gospel" (Gal.1:6), had become "estranged from Christ," and had "fallen from grace" (Gal.5:4). How did they do this? By embracing a legalistic religious mindset (Gal.4:9-11), in place of the simplicity of merely loving the brethren and following Christ.
I am not identifying this particular heresy with either Catholicism nor Protestantism. I am only pointing out that it does not take long for carnal men to turn a spiritual phenomenon into a religious system. If this happened only months after Paul left the region, how can we doubt that the same influences could creep into the churches after the apostles were no longer around to personally intervene and correct them? To know whether this has happened or not, we need only to compare the religious teachings and practices of our churches with those given to us by Jesus and the apostles in the Bible.
Every generation is responsible for its own obedience to Christ, and must preserve the legitimate gains of the previous generations, to the best of its ability. It is not ours to follow blindly such speculations of earlier Christians as were not based on the teachings of Christ and the apostles. We cannot let former generations dictate how Christ must be interpreted or followed, since every generation is capable of introducing its own errors, and we must not allow them to get past us to the next generation. This is why it is so important that we have an unchanging Bible by which every generation can check the errors of the previous ones. This allows each generation to make its own contribution to the church's increasing understanding of Christ, without passing along harmful mutations.
Jesus did not speak to theologians, but to regular men. It does not take a theologian to understand His commands—it only takes an obedient disciple. "But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him." (1 John 2:27). If we are merely being taught by men, and not by the anointing (the Holy Spirit in us), then there is no promise from God that we will remain in Christ.
There are many wonderful teachings in the writings of the church fathers, but they were men as susceptible to error as were the Galatians or ourselves, and we must test all things by scripture before we can know to hold fast to what is good (1 Thes.5:21). For example, for the first two centuries, all of the church fathers whose writings have survived were premillennial. Yet, the Catholic Church is amillennial. Apparently even the Catholic church does not think the fathers were uniformly reliable theologians!
It was not only the Galatians who tended to stray. We are specifically informed by Paul that the churches in Colosse, Ephesus (seen in the letters to Timothy), and Crete (seen in the letter to Titus) were infested with false teachers. The only way we know about them is from Paul's writings, so it is clear that we must use his writings (and those of the other apostles) to test and recognize false teachings that have remained in the churches. These errors were already creeping into the church while Paul was alive! What if they had come after his death? How would we recognize them?
Some errors did come into the churches after Paul's death. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus Himself identifies false teachers seeking to corrupt five of the seven churches addressed. If Jesus had not sent these rebukes to them, we have every reason to believe that such errors would have become permanently institutionalized in these churches (by the way, Jesus did not tell them to have the church in Rome bring correction or discipline to them. Like all churches and all Christians, they were obviously answerable directly to Christ).
As for the church in Rome itself—there were problems of division and legalism there which Paul had to address in his epistle to them. According to Catholic teaching, Peter was overseeing the church in Rome at that time. It is interesting that Peter did not address the issues in that church. By writing to correct the Roman church, was Paul overstepping his sphere and intruding into that of Peter?
For that matter, when Paul greeted by name almost thirty of the people in the Roman church (Romans 16), why didn't he say "hello" to the church's alleged "bishop" Peter? Paul was writing about AD 57-58, so, if Peter founded and led the church in Rome (as Catholic tradition suggests) then Peter should have been there for at least a decade prior to Paul writing. Paul greeted the bishops of Philippi (Phil.1:1)—why not Greet the bishop of Rome?
The idea of the primacy of Rome is unknown in the apostolic writings (or in the teachings of Jesus). It is a human tradition that took the focus of the church off of simple love for Christ, and personal discipleship, and placed the focus elsewhere—with religious ordinances in a liturgical system resembling nothing Jesus nor the apostles taught. Paul's fears had now been realized, which he had expressed to the Corinthians: "But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!" (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Apparently, Paul did not hold the view that the true church would automatically be preserved from serious error—or even from the complete exchange of the true gospel for another. If Paul had held such a doctrine, he would never have expressed such a fear.
The church fathers, esteemed especially by the Catholic church, taught that, when the Roman Empire would fall, then the "Man of Lawlessness" would rise to power in Rome. This was their understanding of Daniel 7 and of 2 Thessalonians 2. They taught that, in their day, the Man of Sin was being withheld by the presence of the Caesars, and that the fall of that empire would leave a vacuum to be filled by a corrupt antichristian power. Consider these statements:
Tertullian (AD 160-230):
“What Is the restraining power? What but the Roman State, the breaking up of which…shall introduce Antichrist upon [its own ruins]?”
Lactantius (AD 250-325):
“Beseech the God of heaven that the Roman State might be preserved, lest, more speedily than we suppose, that hateful tyrant should come.”
Ambrose (AD 340–397):
“…after the failing or decay of the Roman Empire, Antichrist would appear.”
Chrysostom (AD 347-407):
“One may naturally inquire, What is that which withholdeth?…when the Roman Empire is taken out of the way, then he [the Man of Lawlessness] shall come. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exalt himself, but when that is dissolved. He will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God.”
[Rome fell and the last emperor was deposed, in AD 476]Jerome (AD 347-420):
“[Paul] shows that that which restrains is the Roman Empire; for unless it shall have been destroyed, and taken out of the midst, according to the prophet Daniel, Antichrist will not come before that…Let us therefore say what all ecclesiastical writers have delivered to us, that when the Roman Empire is destroyed…then will be revealed the man of sin.”
Catholics should find this united testimony very disconcerting, since it is obvious that the power that replaced the pagan Roman Empire in the West was the papacy. Were the church fathers right or wrong in their unanimous interpretation of Daniel and Paul?
• If they were wrong, then why should we place so much confidence in their views?
• If they were right, then, if they had lived long enough to see the fall of Rome, whom, do you suppose, would they have recognized as the Man of Lawlessness? This is no trifle to consider.
By the way, it was precisely because the reformers interpreted these passages in the same way as the church fathers did, that they all identified the papacy with the Antichrist. Were they wrong to follow the fathers in this matter?
Back in 1998, I heard a series of talks by Scott Hahn on Catholic apologetics, including his testimony, given on the first tape. As God is my witness, my honest thoughts while listening to each of his arguments was, how could a man, who claims to have been a Presbyterian theologian, have had such a shallow understanding of the scriptures that were used to persuade him? From that day, I have wished for the opportunity to debate/discuss our differences, but have never had the pleasure of meeting him.
Later, in 2003, I heard Tim Staples give his testimony at a Catholic Church. I had exactly the same Impression: How could an Assembly of God youth pastor have had such poor grasp of scripture as to have been convinced by these arguments?
In the years since then, I have had five debate/discussions with Tim Staples on my radio program, and five with Presbyterian-turned Catholic, Jimmy Aiken, on Catholic Answers radio. I'm sure those can be heard at their website.
The main difference between myself and these men, before they became Catholics, was our respective understandings of what it means to be a Christian. All of these men, as Protestants, already had an institutional model of Christianity which the Reformers had borrowed and retained from Roman Catholicism. My understanding of being a Christian is based upon the biblical definition: "The disciples were first called Christians..." (Acts 11:26). In other words, the biblical definition of a Christian is "a disciple" of Jesus. Jesus said that a true disciple is one who continues in His words (John 8:31)—not one who continues in some institutional religious system. God is not seeking religious people, but righteous citizens of His kingdom: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33).
I do hope you will reconsider your move "across the Tiber" and return to the biblical New Jerusalem. I’m pretty sure I have heard every reason given by Scott Hahn, Tim Staples and Jimmy Aiken, for their conversions. I have had occasion to assess the validity of their choices to move the direction they have gone. As long as Christians continue to think of Christianity as an institutional religion—the choice of a right “church” among many options—rather than as following Christ, I believe many other biblically-weak evangelicals will be susceptible to the process these men have undergone.
God bless you on your spiritual quest. I hope it continues until you find satisfaction in Christ Himself alone.