Was the Early Church local and independent?

When I was going to a fundamental Baptist church I was taught that there was never a united Church, that the apostles all set up different “local” churches. Modern Protestants, I was told, were part of this system and created denominations that were not independent. They insisted the early church was local and independent.
What is a proper way of answering this?

The early Church, I am sure, was similar to the way the modern Catholic Church is in which some Apostles governed different areas and were all united under St. Peter. I recall reading in the Acts of the Apostles how the Apostles met to discuss the matter of circumcision in chapter xv:

  1. And some coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved. 2. And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem about this question…

But there arose some of the sect of the Pharisees that believed, saying: They must be circumcised, and be commanded to observe the law of Moses. And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us; 9. And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10. Now therefore, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

  1. But by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we believe to be saved, in like manner as they also. 12. And all the multitude held their peace…

If they were separate and independent, they wouldn’t have met together to discuss the matter but would have decided on it individually.

The letters of Paul suggest that Christians communicated over long distances, helped each other, and to some extent depended on each other.

There are elements of both truth and untruth in this. The early church involved much more local independence than within any major denomination today, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc. For example, local churches would elect their bishops, a practice of which the Pope’s election by the College of Cardinals and some ancient European sees’ election of bishops by cathedral chapters are vestigial remains.

Yet it would be wrong to think of the early church as being made up of independent churches like modern day non-denominational groups. There were ties between the local early churches, and they were at least semi-institutional. To stay with the example of choosing bishops, while the local church would usually select its own leader, his consecration to the episcopate would require the consent and physical involvement of neighbouring bishops. In time this would be codified in canon, with an evolving hierarchy, so that bishops would be consecrated by their local metropolitan.

Catholics, Orthodox and traditional Protestants will disagree as to the exact relationship between the local churches, and particularly with regard to Rome’s role in the development of the worldwide Church, but the basic picture is pretty much agreed on.

Please ask your Baptist friends if they believe Jesus when He established His Church. The reason I suggest this is there is a disagreement with some Christian denominations that Christ did so and that they believe Christ established the concept of “His church” so that anyone could establish their own church in His Name.

Of course, we Catholics believe Jesus DID establish His church on earth and appointed Peter as the head of His church. Although there is no direct mention of “Pope Peter”, it is understood by the Catholic Church that Peter was indeed the first Pope in action if not in title. All other Apostles deferred to Peter in church matters. Even the great evangelist St. Paul deferred to St. Peter and was called back to defend his actions. After satisfying Peter’s questions, Paul resumed his work spreading the Gospel. This is the key to the “one church” belief (other than Jesus told us so - see John 10:16): the message and doctrine was unified under a hierarchy led by “Pope” Peter.

To address the primacy of the Pope argument, you might want to point out Peter heard the suggestions of the other Apostles (bishops) and took that in consideration prior to rendering a decision guided by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the early churches established by the early Christians, generally followed the Jewish faith. Some converted and believed. Others converted then changed the Word and fell into heresy. Some converted and reverted back to Judaism. In the end, for 1,400 years, there was one belief and one church. Then came the Reformation and schisms that continue to wound the Body of Christ to this day.

SAint Paul wrote to the churches under his control, he even tells the Corinthians to get the money they promised together so that it might be given to the church members in Jeruselum. The Apostles gathered in council in the book of acts and their decisions were authoritative for the entire church and the gentiles who had been converted were relieved at their decision (if the gentiles were totally independent of other churches they would not feel relief or the need to even listen to the apostles).

We can go on to the second century as well. Ignatius wrote to several churches, he addressed them as Brothers and Sisters, though he did not command them he did warn them, he did teach them what they ought to do. He felt he could have some influence over them and he was greeted by their representatives and helped. He had to warn the Roman Christians not to help him. Saint Clement of Rome rebukes the Corinthians for unfairly dismissing their Elders.

Going further we can see the Council of NIcaea and how the whole church was grappling with the nature of Christ.

I don’t think one can make the case that the early churches were like the situation we see today in various Protestant circles where communion is clearly non existent though assumed. They were much more intimately unified.

I’d add Matthew 18:17 to the other good responses, ‘and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican’. While there might have been more independence in the early days there was always a hierarchy. There was always one institution, in some sense, that you could be a part of or could be put out of. If there was not this verse would be meaningless. If all it means is that you are out of the local church and can go start your own down the street then the verse has no teeth.

The bible has a clear structure of Paul looking to Peter for authority Timothy looking to Paul and then Peter. There is even the council of Jerusalem in acts. Read acts and you will the see the structure of the Catholic Church

This was a very common POV when I was fundie. It’s based on the Trail of Blood philosophy that teaches Baptists were the original Christians. Nice revisionist history, but even revisionists cite SOME type of historical record, which they do not have.
It lacks logic. If indeed the early Church was ‘local’ and ‘independent’, the Roman Empire would have had no problem crushing it.

Hey IGotQuestions! UGotComments? Or JustChummingTheWaters?


Right now I am just sifting through the many answers I have received.
Thanks. :thumbsup:

Jesus intended that and prayed that His flock be one.

it is in a sense scandalous that Christianity is so divided.

to this day however, bishops who are ordinaries are virtually independent unless they present or are confronted with a challenge to RC orthodoxy. in no sense, does this independence of each of the apostles’ successors diminish the unity created and represented by their allegiance to the See of Peter. not to mention, the workings of the Holy Spirit within the united faithful.

Are you from the anti-catholic web site that lies about our faith called Got Questions???

He answered this once before. Just because he chose the username doesn’t mean he is part of some anti-Catholic website. His posts give no indication of that.

He asks good questions, and this is Catholic Answers, so his member name is apt

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