EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an extract from
Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim, by Norman L. Geisler and Joshua M. Betancourt (Crossway).

CHAPTER 1:  The Roman Claim to Be the True Church

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the only true church and the only infallible interpreter of Christ’s teaching. What do these unique claims mean? The answer can come only after looking at the historical development that led to the papal claims to exclusivity and infallibility.

The Historical Development of the Roman Claim to Papal Authority

As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day,” and neither was the Roman Catholic Church. The belief in both the primacy of Rome and in its exclusivity did not come about overnight. As will be demonstrated, it developed gradually, step-by-step, over centuries of time. And like other gradual changes some doctrinal changes seemed imperceptible to the observer at any given time; but among the radical ones, e.g., papal primacy and infallibility, they became more perceptible with time, as we shall see.

These two Catholic claims—to papal authority and exclusivity—go hand in hand. Understanding the basis for Rome’s claim of being the only true church begins with examining the history of the church, particularly as it relates to the development of the Roman Catholic authoritative structure headed up by an infallible bishop of Rome.

The Development of the Authoritarian Structure of the Roman Church

It took many centuries for the Catholic authoritarian episcopal (bishop dominated) form of government to emerge from the simple, self-governing, independent New Testament churches1 to the authoritarian papal hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Along with this development came the evolution of the Roman claim to being the only true church of Christ on earth. The evolution may be attributed to the following seven factors.

First, the seeds of an episcopal form of government were found in New Testament times when John the apostle spoke of it in his third epistle and warned: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us” (3 John 9 NKJV). Even in apostolic times, a false tradition began based on a misinterpretation of some disciples about one of Jesus’ statements, which had to be corrected by the apostle John (see John 21:22–23).

Second, if false traditions could spring up even during the time of the apostles, it is easy to see how quickly they could spread once there was no apostle to squelch them. Tradition, as such, is neither authoritative nor reliable, except insofar as it is accurately transmitted. And written transmission, such as exists in Scripture and other writings based on it, is the only reliable source we have of apostolic teaching. Indeed, even Cyprian, (d. AD 258), who later failed to heed his own wisdom, said, “Hence, it is in vain that some who are overcome by reason oppose to us custom, as if custom were greater than truth” (Epistles, 72.13). He added, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error” (73.80).

Third, by the mid-second century, almost a century after most apostles had died—the very time that even apocryphal gospels were emerging—the church embraced a more unorthodox authoritarian structure. Indeed, Irenaeus, writing decades after the time of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (c. AD 140), spoke of an emerging episcopal form of government. So there was plenty of time for false views to emerge, even among those who were otherwise orthodox.

Fourth, considering the attacks on Christianity at the time, there was strong motivation to develop an ecclesiology that would provide a united front against the divergent heretical groups emerging. This motivation is reflected in Irenaeus’s emerging episcopal view of church government, a view that, ironically, did achieve a more mature form in Cyprian who himself warned against basing something on tradition, not truth.