Some people contend that, unless the Lord's church can be traced from the first Pentecost after Jesus crucifixion until now, then it cannot be the true church. Thus they also contend that the Roman Catholic Church has to be the true church. Let us engage in a search to see if these things are true.
First, in order for their claim to be sound, there must have been a continuous succession of apostles. There was never any intention of such. There is not one word concerning additional apostles after Jesus chose Saul of Tarsus as one 'out of season'. It is a fact that a replacement for Judas Iscariot was chosen after he betrayed Jesus and then killed himself. But this was before the church was established and was done with the Lord's blessings that there be twelve.
There is no biblical evidence that Peter, whom they contend was a bishop (elder) there and then became the first pope, was ever even in Rome. And there is strong evidence that there was no intention that the apostles would be succeeded by another. By reading Acts chapter 20, particularly the verses 17 through 38, you will see an emotional scene of the apostle Paul leaving the church at Troas and explaining that he would see them no more. Paul warns them to beware, that some would enter in among the elders and lead them astray. But no mention that there should be an apostle to succeed him. (Acts 20:17-38 ASV)
One of the easiest ways to determine that the Roman Catholic Church is not the original spiritual kingdom that was bought by Jesus blood and established by his chosen apostles, is that his church never had a proper name. It was not given a name. It is referred to throughout the Bible, both in prophecy and in reference after its establishment, as the church of God, the church of Christ, the kingdom of Christ, the church of the First-Born, the body, the body of Christ and several other terms, none of which is a name. Those terms were always used as a descriptive term, showing whose children the church consisted of. Often it was called simply 'the church'. The church at Corinth, the church at Laodicea and so on. It was not a formal organization, only a spiritual kingdom whereby obedient people were added to it by the Lord himself. In fact, members of the Godhead are the only entities who know those who are members of that kingdom. You don't know, I don't know. Only God knows since He is the only one who can add to it and who can remove from it.
Read these verses which tell us those things. After the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and they preached the first gospel sermons, we are told that over 3,000 souls were added to them that first day. Added by whom? This first quote tells us exactly who it was:
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.” (Acts 2:42-47 ASV) (emphasis added)
And this next quote can tell us exactly who can separate us from the kingdom, or the love of God:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 ASV)
So you see, what was originally the church at Rome...the true church which had no proper name but simply consisted of those who had obeyed from the heart, that form of doctrine taught by the apostles, after having altered the church offices from simply being deacons, elders and evangelist. They placed one elder over the others and referred to him as Bishop (which biblically refers to the same office, but not one in charge of the others), and further added Cardinals to be over several congregations' Bishops and then to complete their apostasy, they eventually named one to be over all their congregations, and referred to him as the Pope (Papa). The apostasy was complete and they named their organization the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Their organization was totally different than that authorized in the Bible, the name was certainly unauthorized and the positioning of one as the vicar of Christ, is certainly not authorized and is presumptuous beyond words.
So, as they completely left the fold of Christ and became totally an apostate church, where then was the true church that Christ had bought and established through the apostles? No, it was not eradicated. Some were able to recognize the error which had engulfed the church, and continued to follow the dictates of the New Testament.
So, the true church...where did it go and what happened to it? There were small groups who refused to leave the strict observance of the apostles doctrine and simply continued meeting and working together as they had been instructed from the beginning. The Christians spoke out and were teaching the things which showed the points where the apostate church was astray.
Since the Roman Church had become closely entwined with government, they began persecuting the true followers of Christ and labeled them as heretics. Those who refused to change began to be arrested and punished, even to being sentenced to death. Many were burned at the stake, thrown to the lions and tortured in many ways. So great was the persecution that these determined groups had to flee and isolate themselves from the populace.
The government assigned forces to hunt them down and the groups virtually disappeared. There is strong evidence that some of these groups survived and were known to exist as the non-denominational church of our Lord even until the Church of Rome finally lost their hold over government. An Englishman, Keith Sisman, has produced an extensively researched website concerning the survival of the Lord's church through the ages. It is an amazing site and interested readers are encouraged to go and study the site well. It is titled, 'Traces of the Kingdom'.
As certain amounts of freedom of religion took hold, these small surviving groups began again to teach the true biblical church of Jesus Christ. After the new land of America was settled, Thomas Campbell and his son came here and began to preach the pure gospel and established a number of congregations of the Lords church in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other neighboring states. And in other parts of the U.S., others began the same teaching. Soon the churches of Christ were flourishing.
Many of the denominational groups soon began to ridicule the teachings and began calling those who were striving to follow the pure New Testament doctrines, Campbellites because of the strong influence of Thomas and Alexander Campbell in the spread of the church. It was a title of disparagement and has largely been discontinued since it has been shown that the Campbells were not the originators of the doctrines.
Much misunderstanding still exists concerning the description of the true church. The doctrine of the New Testament includes no authorization or inferences that organized religious groups founded by men are acceptable methods of accessing the Lord's kingdom. New Testament writers explain the method of becoming a Christian and thereby being accepted into the kingdom of Christ, his body, or his church...all having reference to the same things. Most of
those people who belong to some man made denomination, will be quick to tell you that you do not have to be a member of their denomination to be saved. And how true it is. To be saved, one must be in the kingdom of Christ. And he must be added to it by Jesus himself...not by man. The thing which causes confusion is that the non-denominational churches of Christ are simply that. Not members of any denomination whatsoever. Only having rendered obedience to the gospel plan of salvation and we know that those which did that were added to the church, by Jesus himself. Acts 2:47
This kingdom of Jesus Christ has no earthly headquarters, no earthly leader, no by-laws, no manuals or discipline except the Holy Bible. Our leader, or head, is in heaven ruling His kingdom. Each congregation of the Lord's church is independent...no ties with each other whatsoever except the spiritual brotherhood of being in Christ.
The authorized government of each congregation consists of an evangelist (preacher), elders (whenever there are qualified men for the office. There must be 2 or more such) and deacons, (same conditions as those for elders) and members of the congregation. In the event there are no men qualified for the offices of elders or deacons, the men of the congregation make the decisions together. As stated above, there is no headquarters to consult, only the written word of God.
Jesus told his apostles, after Peter had confessed that he was the "Son of the living God."
“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Acts 16:17--18 KJV)
So, although Jesus was slain, all the apostles except one, were slain for Jesus' sake, and many persecutions and slaughter were put upon the new church, it survived through the ages and will survive eternally. All physical matter will cease, all man made organizations will cease, but the spiritual kingdom will survive forever.
"God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24 ASV)