One True Christian Faith—A Reality
JESUS CHRIST set up just one church, or congregation. That congregation was a spiritual body, a spiritual family. By this we mean that it was a gathering together of people chosen by God’s holy spirit—all recognized by God to be his “children.”—Romans 8:16, 17; Galatians 3:26.
Jesus taught that only one way was used by God to direct people to the truth and to life. To illustrate that important truth, Jesus compared the way to everlasting life to a road. He said: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.”—Matthew 7:13, 14; John 14:6; Acts 4:11, 12.
A Unified Congregation
We should not think of that first-century congregation as “a world-wide, universal, organized society such as we mean nowadays when we talk about the catholic church,” says The New Dictionary of Theology. Why not? “For the simple reason,” it says, “that such an organized, universal society scarcely existed.”
No one can rightly disagree with the fact that the early Christian congregation bore no resemblance to the institutionalized church systems we see today. But it was organized. Individual congregations did not operate independently of one another. They all recognized the authority of a governing body in Jerusalem. That body—consisting of the apostles and older men of the Jerusalem congregation—helped to preserve the unity of the congregation as the “one body” of Christ.—Ephesians 4:4, 11-16; Acts 15:22-31; 16:4, 5.
What happened to that one true congregation? Did it become the mighty Catholic Church? Did it evolve into the denominational, fragmented Protestant church system that we see today? Or did something else happen?
“Wheat” and “Weeds”
To find the answers, let us carefully consider what Jesus Christ himself said would happen. You may be surprised to learn that Jesus expected his congregation to disappear from view and that he would allow such a sad situation to continue for centuries.
Identifying his congregation with “the kingdom of the heavens,” he said: “The kingdom of the heavens has become like a man that sowed fine seed in his field. While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat, and left. When the blade sprouted and produced fruit, then the weeds appeared also. So the slaves of the householder came up and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow fine seed in your field? How, then, does it come to have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy, a man, did this.’ They said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go out and collect them?’ He said, ‘No; that by no chance, while collecting the weeds, you uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the harvest season I will tell the reapers, First collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up, then go to gathering the wheat into my storehouse.’”—Matthew 13:24-30.
Jesus explained that he was “the sower.” “The fine seed” pictured his genuine disciples. His “enemy” was Satan the Devil. “The weeds” were counterfeit Christians who infiltrated the early Christian congregation. He said that he would let “the wheat” and “the weeds” grow together until “the harvest,” which would come at “a conclusion of a system of things.” (Matthew 13:37-43) What did all of this mean?
The Christian Congregation Corrupted
Soon after the death of the apostles, apostate teachers from within the congregation began to take control of it. They spoke “twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) As a result, many Christians ‘fell away from the faith.’ They were “turned aside to false stories.”—1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:3, 4.
By the fourth century C.E., says The New Dictionary of Theology, “Catholic Christianity had become the official . . . religion of the Roman Empire.” There was a “coalescence of ecclesial and civil society”—a merging of Church and State that was diametrically opposed to the beliefs of the early Christians. (John 17:16; James 4:4) The same source states that in time, the whole structure and nature of the church, as well as many of its fundamental beliefs, was changed radically “under the influence of a curious and thoroughly unhealthy combination of O[ld] T[estament] and neoplatonic models.” As predicted by Jesus Christ, his genuine disciples were hidden from sight as counterfeit Christians flourished.
Jesus’ listeners knew how difficult it was to tell genuine wheat from weeds, such as poisonous bearded darnel, which during the growing season has an appearance much like that of wheat. So Jesus was illustrating that for a while, it would be difficult to distinguish true Christians from the counterfeit variety. This does not mean that the Christian congregation ceased to exist, for Jesus promised to continue to guide his spiritual brothers “all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus said that the wheat would continue to grow. Even so, through the ages, genuine Christians—individually or in groups—no doubt did their best to adhere to Christ’s teachings. But they no longer made up a clearly identifiable, visible body, or organization. They were certainly not identical with the visible apostate religious system that throughout history brought nothing but disgrace and dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ.—2 Peter 2:1, 2.
“The Man of Lawlessness Gets Revealed”
The apostle Paul foretold something else that would mark this counterfeit religious system. He wrote: “Let no one seduce you in any manner, because [Jehovah’s day] will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness gets revealed.” (2 Thessalonians 2:2-4) This “man of lawlessness” is none other than the clergy class that exalted itself into a ruling position over the “Christian” congregation.*
The apostasy started in the apostle Paul’s day. It accelerated once the apostles died and their restraining influence disappeared. It would be marked, said Paul, by “the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs and portents and with every unrighteous deception.” (2 Thessalonians 2:6-12) How accurately that describes the activities of so many religious leaders throughout history!
In support of their claim that Roman Catholicism is the one true church, Catholic leaders say that their bishops have “a life-giving contact with the original apostles by a current of succession which goes back to the beginning.” In truth, this claim of apostolic succession has no historical or Scriptural basis. There is no credible evidence that the church system that arose following the death of Jesus’ apostles was ever directed by God’s holy spirit.—Romans 8:9; Galatians 5:19-21.
And what of the other churches that sprang up following the so-called Reformation? Did they return to the model of the early Christian congregation? Did they restore the purity of the original Christian congregation? It is true that following the Reformation, the Bible became available to many of the common people in their own language. Yet, history shows that these churches continued to teach erroneous doctrines.*—Matthew 15:7-9.
Note this, however. Jesus Christ definitely foretold that his one true congregation would be restored during what he called a conclusion of a system of things. (Matthew 13:30, 39) The fulfillment of Bible prophecies shows that we are now living in that time. (Matthew 24:3-35) That being true, each of us needs to ask, ‘Where is that one true church?’ It ought to become more and more clearly identifiable.
Maybe you feel that you have already found that church, or congregation. It is important that you make sure. Why? Because as in the first century, there can be only one true church. Have you taken the time to make sure that your church closely conforms to the pattern set by the first-century Christian congregation and that it loyally adheres to the teachings of Jesus Christ? Why not examine this now? Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to help you to do just that.—Acts 17:11.
Further information regarding the identity of “the man of lawlessness” can be found in The Watchtower, February 1, 1990, pages 10-14.
See the chapter “The Reformation—The Search Took a New Turn” in the book Mankind’s Search for God, pages 306-28, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Pictures on page 5]
What does Jesus’ illustration of the wheat and the weeds teach us about the true congregation?
[Pictures on page 7]
Does your church reflect the pattern set by first-century Christians in preaching and studying?