Many churches of today that are thought of as local churches are not such in the New Testament sense. The local assemblies of the New Testament times were independent, self-governing bodies. They had bishops and deacons, but the bishops were simply pastors and preachers. Their ministry extended over one church, and they did not boss other preachers and other churches. How different the function of the bishop today from the function of those of New Testament times. Of course the most bloated of all the bishops is the Pope of Rome, who claims to be the vice-gerent of Christ, and who likewise claims that when he speaks "ex-cathedra," or for the church, he speaks with absolute infallibility. He is the big boss of the whole world wide Universal, Visible Church. Other bishops of that church are big men, and are ecclesiastical bosses, but they are topped by the pope, who has no equal.
Various protestant groups or churches, have their bishops occupying exalted positions. Their churches are not self-governing. Really, the Church is the big, over all organization, and the church at any given place is just a small, subservient unit. Nothing could be more contrary to the New Testament church pattern than this sort of thing. Big dignitaries, wearing "vestments" and growling ritual were totally unknown to New Testament times. The terms bishop, elder, pastor or shepherd, related to the same office, and that office was that of one who served - not one who bossed.
In reading the writings of the church fathers, as they are called - men who lived in the early days of Christianity, we can trace the gradual rise of the errors that eventually produced the Roman Catholic Church. Many persons have carelessly supposed that the Catholic Church was the original church - the church from which the others have sprung. This is indeed careless thinking, and unaccompanied by any study or investigation. Any one who will take a good look at the simply organized local assemblies of the New Testament times, and then a look at the complex, hierarchical, tradition burdened Catholic Church of today, will be bound to see such a shocking contrast that they cannot possibly identify the two. Unfortunately, when the Protestant Reformation took place, that reformation was not based upon the New Testament church pattern. The Protestant groups retained many of the things that characterized Catholicism.
Take for instance, the Church of England, or Episcopal Church. It was formed by 'old wicked adulterous Henry VIII, who had his Parliament to pass the Acts of Supremacy which made him head of the Church, rather than the pope. Who will say that the Church was any better under the head ship of Henry VIII? As time went on, the Church of England did make some changes that were for the better, but let us remember that it is still a state church, with the reigning Monarch of England as head. Of course there is no more Scripture for such a visible state Church than there is for the Universal, Invisible Church.
Other Protestant Churches have been state churches, deriving authority and financial support from the state. Religious freedom in the true sense vanishes when religion is identified with the state government, and often dissenting groups are persecuted when such is the case. The evils of a state church hookup are without number. We look at communist Russia today and we see an atheistic state - one violently set against religion in all of its forms. This atheistic attitude is in large part due to the corruption and abuses of the Russian Catholic Church of days gone by.
In England the state church is deemed to be the one and only church, and other religious groups are not allowed to call themselves churches. That is why no Baptist assembly in England bears the name church. They have to use such terms as "tabernacle," "chapel," etc.
The inspired John who wrote Revelation, knew the history of the Catholic Church and her daughters. That history was revealed to him before the events ever came to pass. He fore tells the corrupt association of the old Mother Church with rulers and governments of this earth. For a long period in the past that Church crowned the kings, and involved herself in all the graft and corruption of unholy governments. But the worst is ahead. According to the prophetic Scriptures, there is to arise at the end of this age a great dictator - the greatest the world has ever known. He will be a veritable incarnation of Satan, and the cruelest monster of all time. He will gain ascendancy partly through the influence of a great religious power. Personally, I believe that we are seeing Anti-Christ's Church in the building right now. I believe that the ecumenical movement is laying the foundation for this. We have a host of churches of the various denominations united in the National and World Council of Churches. Some of the leaders of these organizations are little better than infidels. They have discarded the gospel of salvation in favor of what they call "The Social Gospel." ("Another gospel, which is not another" - Paul). The Roman Catholic Church is not identified as yet with the World Council, but some changes have been taking place in that Church. These changes do not involve the supremacy of the pope, nor the hierarchical government of the Church. Modern Protestantism under the ecumenical leaders is willing to make most any concessions to Rome, whereas Rome will not go beyond a certain limit to affect a union. My own prediction is that a huge church union will eventually take place, with the Roman Catholic Church furnishing the framework. Protestant ecumenical leaders are ready right now to make virtually any concessions to Rome for the sake of affecting a world church.
Seemingly we have a picture of Anti-Christ's Church in Revelation 17. The time for the judgment of this evil and monstrous thing has arrived, and the angel says to John:
"Come hither, I will show thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication ..."Most conservative scholars of the Bible have been in agreement that the Roman Catholic Church is here designated. (Together with those of the ecumenical movement who have been absorbed by her). No other great religious power is fittingly described - especially as "drunken with the blood of the saints and martyrs." The historical claim has been made over and over again, that among Baptists alone, fifty million have been martyred for their faith.
"And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy ... and the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color . and upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATION OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus."
Anti-Christ and his False Prophet will welcome the help of this great religious world power, as they gain ascendancy over the world, but the time will come after that power is gained that Anti-Christ will want to be worshipped, and he will neither need or want this bloated caricature of a Church. He and his associated rulers are described in Revelation 17:16 in these words: "These shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate ... for God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will ... and the woman that thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth." In this last expression Rome is clearly indicated.
DON'T BLAME ME ... THEY ARE NOT MY WORDS!
I am not trying to give a commentary on Revelation, and perhaps some reader is saying, "What has all this to do with the question as to the true church?" It has a great deal. What is the great Roman Catholic Church that has steeped herself in the blood of martyrs called? She is called a WHORE. This vile name comes from her illicit association with rulers and governments through the centuries. That is not a name that I have given her - that is God's name for her! But let us go further - and this is something to arouse the indignation of some, but remember you will have to take this matter up with God; they are His words, not mine.
What does it say about the whore? It calls her "THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS." A mother is one who has produced offspring. God says here in His word that this mother harlot has produced a family of harlots. WHO ARE THE HARLOT DAUGHTERS OF THE OLD ROMAN CHURCH? Like it or not, there can be only one answer to this question. THEY ARE THE PROTESTANT DAUGHTERS WHO HAVE SPRUNG FROM THE ROMAN CHURCH!
I am dealing with the question as to which church that is local and visible can be the true church the one Jesus started. IT CAN'T POSSIBLY BE ANY OF THE PROTESTANT GROUPS THAT HAVE COME OUT OF ROME.
It is true, however, that we have dozens of religious groups who call themselves churches, who are not Protestants in the historical sense. They have come into existence long after the Protestant Reformation. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM? Several things:
1- They were started by some man or woman, and not by Christ.
2 - They didn't exist for centuries after Christ started His church, so they could not possibly be identified with the church He started. Such so-called churches have no valid reason for their existence. The only thing that excuses the existence of such churches is the theory of the Universal Church, for they claim to belong to that. And after all - so they reason - the real Church is the one that all believers are added to, the Great Universal Invisible "Body."
3 - They are rivals to the church that Jesus started. If He started a church, and if that church has continued to exist through the centuries, then Why should someone - anyone - start a new church? If one person has a right to start a church then any person has the same right. The situation has resulted in scores of churches of almost every kind and description.
4 - Christ promised that His church would never be prevailed against - would never be put out of existence. The forming of a new church, centuries after Jesus made that promise, indicates that those starting the new church don't believe that He has kept His word.
Many do not seem to realize the preciousness to Christ of the church He started. "Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it," we read in the Scriptures. Reference there is to the church He started - not some figment of the imagination that is Universal and Invisible. He loves this church He started and gave His very life for it. If that is true, then it is an inconsiderate and unholy thing to try to palm off a man- founded church - a counterfeit - in the place of the church that Christ started. It is equally wicked to try to palm off an anti Scriptural monstrosity under the guise of the Universal Invisible Church. Let it be remembered that Jesus used the word church as recorded in the Scriptures 21 times in addition to Matthew 16:18. In these 21 instances, beyond question or argument, He meant the local assembly. Isn't it strange that people can hold that He meant something different in Matthew 16:18 than in all of these other instances? As some one has so aptly said, "The probabilities are 21 to nothing that He meant local assembly in Matthew 16:18. A probability of 21 to nothing is a certainty."