Can the Church You Attend Trace Back to the Apostles?

Copyright © 2003, David A. Duncan

An oft-made claim by Catholics is that the Catholic Church is the only church that can trace its history back to the Apostles.  This claim is combined with the statement of Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church, in order to argue that the Catholic Church must be the true church since any other church must confess that there must surely have been a time when they did not exist, and therefore it would be an admission that the Gates of Hades has prevailed against them.

The Universal Church

What is the Church of Christ?  Is it an organization set up by men, or is it a universal group of believers, whose only head is Christ?  If it is an hierarchy set up by men, then the claim of the Catholic Church would have some validity, but it is described in the Bible as an organization set up by God (Christ said He would build His Church, Mt. 16:18), and it is God who adds men to it (Acts 2:47).  For the gates of Hades to prevail against the Church, the worldwide Kingdom of God would have to be conquered – not a particular group in a particular place, or a particular group using a particular name, but universally.

The Pedigree

The Pedigree of an animal is dependent on its breeding (parentage), and so for an animal to be a pure breed requires certification of the parents.  Some view the church in the same way – In order for one to know whether a church is the true church, you must examine its heritage (i.e. line of Bishops) to see if it has come in a direct lineage from the one true church set up on the day of Pentecost.  The argument is made that Peter was the rock on which Christ built his church (Mt. 16:18) and therefore the true church can trace the line of bishops or popes back to Peter. However, this is an argument of men that is not substantiated from the Bible.  The relationship of a Christian to God is not determined by who baptized him, who taught him, or  who the Elders of the church are where he attends but is solely determined by obedience.  This principle is of long-standing as is demonstrated by Ezekiel 18 where a man’s standing before God is not determined by his physical father:

(Ezekiel 18:20) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.

Furthermore, in the N.T. the Christian’s relationship with God is not determined by his physical lineage (i.e. who taught him, who baptized him, what congregation he was baptized in, etc.) as is evident from Paul’s discourse in 1 Cor. 1:12-14 where he is thankful that he did not baptize many lest they think that their salvation is somehow different by being baptized by an Apostle.  Christ is not divided.  Those who are Christ’s are those who abide in Him:

John 8:31 “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.

Now, a Christian’s heritage is only important by being a disciple and being born of the Spirit (since it is in this way that he enters the Kingdom):

John 3:5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Thus, all in the Kingdom of God have the same spiritual birth, and thus the same heritage from God.  Therefore, since the Church is made up of those who have been saved (Acts 2:47), then attempting to identify the “true” church by tracing physical lineage is fruitless.  Those who are abiding in Christ make up the true church.

The Root Stock

The very act of tracing the lineage of the church is to identify the “root stock” of the branches of the Vine (Jesus said, “ye are the branches,” and therefore collectively the branches are the church).  Jesus spoke of a figure of a vine (John 15:1ff):

John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. {6} If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned

It is important to observe that even the branches which are “cast out” could trace their lineage back to the “true” root stock.  What distinguishes a false branch from a true branch is whether it abides in Christ.  But first, one must be “in Christ” – not by any decision of man, but baptized “into” Christ (Gal 3:27).

Abiding in Christ

What does it mean to abide in Christ? According to Christ, to abide in Him is to be obedient:

(John 15:10) If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, …

What is important then is being able to trace the Doctrines (commandments) that are kept back to Christ and his approved teachers (Apostles directed by the Holy Spirit – John 16:13).  For if we abide in the commandments of Christ, then we are abiding in Him and therefore a true branch and thus a part of the true Church (body of Christ).

Doctrines of Men

The opposite of abiding in Christ is to keep the commandments of men instead of the commandments of Christ.  Christ himself taught that this would produce vain worship:

(Matthew 15:9) And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

We must ask ourselves this important question – What is the source of our doctrine in the Church?  Can it be traced to Christ and his Apostles, or can it be traced to men and synods/councils of men?  The writings of the Anti-Nicene fathers often expressed the Biblical attitude that all authority must be traced back to the Christ and His Apostles.  For example:

Justin Martyr: … on the day called Sunday, … the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read,…(First Apology, chapter 67)

Polycarp: “Let us then serve Him … even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord…” (Chapter 6)

Clement: The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God.  Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. … Having therefore received their orders, .. and established in the word of God, … (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 42)

The uniform testimony of the early church writers is that men could know the word of God by the words of Christ, His Apostles, and the prophets.  This is consistent with what the Apostles wrote concerning the word of God, even as Paul wrote:

(2 Timothy 3:16) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, {17} that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Seed

Many have used the figure of a seed with reference to the parable of the Sower.  When the Gospel is preached, the seed (the word of God) is sown (John 8:11), and what grows from the seed is a believer – born of God.

(John 1:12) Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— {13} children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Thus, those who accept the word of God, believe in Jesus, and obey His commandments are thus “born of God”.  This is the true lineage of the believer.  Those who are baptized into Christ have thus put on Christ and are a part of the body of Christ:

(1 Cor. 12:27, NKJV) Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.

(1 Cor. 12:27, NIV) Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it

We are not members of Christ because of local church affiliation, but each person is a member of the body of Christ by being born of God.  No earthly organization has the right to say that a person who has obeyed Christ cannot be saved or be a member of the body of Christ except by being a part of that organization.  God has spoken on the matter (John 1:12) – it is not of “human decision”. Salvation is from God, and membership in the body of Christ does not depend on man, but God adds to the Church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).


What is the true Church and what is its lineage?  The true church is the body of Christ, and made up of those who have been born of God.  A local congregation consists of those in the body of Christ who assemble – these are the “called out” of God.  The church of Christ as described in the Bible has no earthly headquarters, and no synods/councils in order to determine what to believe.  Just as the early church did, the Christian depends on the teachings of God, and His Apostles as they were led by the Spirit of God.  While the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (i.e. a group dedicated to upholding the truth), they are not the ones who determine truth and decide what the doctrine should be – God has already done this – the Church is simply dedicated to upholding the decisions and judgments of God.