It's a scorching hot Saturday afternoon in early September. Your wife has taken the little ones to the pool. It's just you and your oldest, ten-year-old Matthew, staying in to watch the big game. Mark McGuire has now hit 59 home runs! And the way he's been connecting, he could catch Roger Maris' thirty-seven year old record of 61 homers in today's game. Your son is decked out in his "McGuire" jersey and you've just poured ice-cold drinks for the start of the game when the doorbell rings. You hurry to the door, thinking of ways to get rid of whoever it is as quickly as possible. Opening it, however, you discover two sweat-drenched young men wearing white shirts and ties. With beaming smiles, they introduce themselves as Elders Joseph McCarthy and Leonard Smith. "We're from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We'd like to offer you some free literature and talk to you about the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
For a moment you freeze, thinking to yourself, "Why now, Lord? What about the game?" Quickly, you come to your senses. "Which is more important, Maris' record being broken or the salvation of two immortal souls?" So you invite them in. As you ask them to be seated in the living room where your son is engrossed in the game, you wonder if he'll see things the way you do.
Matthew winces a bit when you tell him you must turn the game off while you talk with these young Mormons. You're delighted, however, when his disappointment changes to excitement. (All that home schooling is paying off.) Matthew wants to talk about the Faith!
Rather than wait for their scripted presentation, you decide to cut to the chase and begin the dialogue. You start by complimenting the Mormon Church on its belief in an authoritative, hierarchical church. You comment that of all the sects that have begun in the last 480 years, only theirs even claims to have apostolic authority. According to Ephesians 4:11-15, St. Paul tells us the true Church of Jesus Christ must have "apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. . ." This leads you to the big question. "Why would I ever leave the Catholic Church which was founded by Jesus Christ and received apostolic authority directly from Him and the Apostles? This is so clearly attested to by both Scripture and many early Christian writers like St. Clement of Rome (A.D. 90), St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 107), St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 180), St. Hippolytus (A.D. 200), St. Cyprian (A.D. 250), Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 330), St. Ambrose (A.D. 390), St. Augustine (A.D. 410), St. Jerome (A.D. 410), etc. The bishops in the Catholic Church are the successors of the Apostles and have true apostolic authority."
Elder Smith responds, "We believe the Church Jesus established fell into apostasy after the death of the last Apostle, as was foretold in the Bible in both Amos 8:11-14 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4. It has been re-established through another Testament given to Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
You respond with a challenge. "Let's get out a Bible and look at those two texts you just mentioned. We'll begin with Amos. Amos prophesied around 780 B.C. Among other things, he warned of the coming destruction of Israel that would, in fact, occur in 721 B.C. (because of her idolatry — cf. chapters six and seven)." The passage Elder Smith cited reads: "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord God, 'when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. . .'"
"This text speaks of an apostasy in ancient Israel, not after the death of the last apostle in New Testament times. But even this apostasy was not total. In the very next chapter (9:8-10), Amos makes this very clear: "'Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground; except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,' says the Lord. 'For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, 'Evil shall not overtake or meet us.'
"There were many incidents in Old Testament salvation history when priests and prophets were corrupt (Lam. 4:13, Ezek. 22:22-26, Zeph. 1:4, Mic. 3:5), prophets had no vision from the Lord, prophesied falsely (Lam. 2:14, Jer. 23:26-31), or at times, there were no prophets at all (Psalm 74:9). Apostasies were frequent in the Old Testament, but never total. There was always a faithful remnant."
Now you move to a crucial point concerning Old Testament hierarchy. In the midst of good times and bad, there was one constant in all of Old Covenant salvation history: the existence of the High Priesthood and the Levitical Priesthood as they are detailed in Exodus 28 and Deuteronomy 17. God established and gave authority to them to guide the children of Israel. The High Priest, or those to whom the High Priest delegated authority, had the power to deliver the oracle of God to His people.
Deuteronomy 17:8-12 is an example of this historical fact: "If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another any case. . . which is too difficult for you, then you shall. . . go up to. . . the Levitical priests, and to the judge who is in office in those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare. . . you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. . . The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge. . . shall die."
According to Exodus 28:30, the High Priest had what was called the "Urim and the Thummim" on the breastplate of his vestments whereby he would bear the sins of the people of Israel when he went before the Lord in the temple. Through this gift of God, the High Priest would also hear the Word of God and proclaim divine oracles from God.
Even during such a corrupt time as the time of the Judges, we see this gift in operation in Israel. This was a time when "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6). Yet, even then, this gift of "the Urim and the Thummim" was alive and well. And when the Israelites consulted God through "Phineas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron," who was High Priest at the time (cf. Judges 20:18-28), they received the oracle of God through him. They may not have always consulted the Lord or obeyed Him, but He was always there for them.
In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself acknowledges the existence of this hierarchy and its authority in His time. In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus says to his disciples, "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice." Even the Apostles must obey the scribes and Pharisees who speak in an official capacity with delegated authority from the High Priest. Note: they must do so even if the legitimate authority may be personally corrupt (see also John 11:47-52).
Elder Smith responds, "Even if the Old Testament people of God never completely apostatized, St. Paul prophesied the New Covenant people of God would in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4. He even used the word apostasia in verse 3 to describe it. He declared this apostasy must occur before Jesus would come again. And after all, didn't the Jews themselves reject the Messiah and apostatize? Doesn't this at least demonstrate that an apostasy is possible?"
You respond, "First of all, not all of Israel apostatized. The Apostles, Mary and the earliest disciples were mostly Jews! And remember, the Church is 'the Israel of God' (Gal. 6:16). And 'he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart. . .' (Rom. 2:28). St. Paul describes the relationship between Jews and Christians in Romans 11:18-29, but once again, I emphasize the fact that a total apostasy simply did not occur. There isn't one shred of biblical evidence that says otherwise. And to put it frankly, a total apostasy, as you describe it, is impossible in the New Testament. There are three reasons for this:
"First, the Old Testament prophecies concerning the New Covenant describe it as perpetual and indefectible. For example, Daniel 7:13-14:
'I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man [Jesus], and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.' (See also Isaiah 9:6-7 and Daniel 2:44.)
"Second, the New Testament also describes the Church as indefectible. Yes, there will be apostasies. That is what St. Paul is referring to in 2 Thessalonians. In fact, there will be a major apostasy before the Second Coming according to 2 Thessalonians 2, but never does it say a total apostasy. According to the New Testament, this is impossible! Matt. 28:19-20 says, 'And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.' A similar thought can be found in Luke 1:33, where the Angel Gabriel says of Jesus, 'And of his kingdom there will be no end.'"
Just as you finish quoting this last verse, your son says, "Daddy, what about when Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter? Didn't Jesus say the gates of hell would never overcome the Church?" (Cf. Matt. 16:15-19) You feel so proud, you want to jump through the roof. "Yes, son, that's an excellent point!"
Elder Joseph then responds, "Those verses merely speak of the ultimate triumph of the Church. We agree with that. But that doesn't mean there would not be an apostasy in the centuries between the time of the Apostles and now."
"I'm glad you bring that up, because that leads me to the third reason why a total apostasy is impossible," you retort. "Matthew 28:20 says the Lord will be with us, pasas tas hemaras, or 'all the days'! So there's no room for total apostasy. Christ will be teaching via his apostles and their successors all days even until the end of time!
"In Ephesians, St. Paul explicitly tells us the Church will be with us until the end of time. Ephesians 1:22 describes the Church as '[Christ's] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.' This Church is 'built upon the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone' (2:20). She is described as being so awesome, St. Paul can say 'through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places' (3:10). The Church teaches angels!
As we saw before, this true Church must have apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists and teachers (cf. 4:11). And why, you ask? 'For the equipment of the saints. . . for building up the body of Christ. . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine. . .' (4:12,14).
"So, God gave us the Church that we may know with certainty the truths of the Faith. That's not the only reason, but it is a central reason. But maybe the most important passage for us in Ephesians is 3:20-21:
'Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.'
"This Church that St. Paul is describing in Ephesians will be here to all generations (pasas tas geneas, 'all the generations') forever and ever. This eliminates the possibility of a total apostasy for even one generation!"
At this point, Elder Smith says it's time for them to get going, but that they'd like to come back with someone who would be better able to respond to what you're saying. You realize you may well be making progress, so you agree and you give them one last thing to think about. As you all say your good-byes, you ask them this question:
"According to Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gives us a commandment. He says if we have a difficulty with a brother, we try and settle the difficulty with him personally. If we can't settle it, we take two or three with us and try to work it out then. Let's say the difficulty we have with our brother is over the nature of God. The question is whether or not God is a Trinity. If we still cannot settle the difficulty, we 'tell it to the Church.' If he fails to listen to the Church, he is to be excommunicated. The question is, what Church is being referred to here?"
Elder Smith responds without pause, "Jesus is talking about the true Church, which I testify to you is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
You answer, "But what if you're living in 1785, and you have this same difficulty? In obedience to Jesus, where do you go then? Your church doesn't exist yet."
There is silence. After an awkward moment, you calmly say, "Fellas, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He would never lead us astray or command us to follow error. If the true Church didn't exist on this earth for 1,700 years, then Jesus misguided millions into obeying error-filled churches with no apostolic authority. And that's ridiculous."
As you shake hands, you invite them to return anytime. Then, as they turn to leave, little Matthew says, "I hope you guys become Catholic — that would be really cool." Matthew closes the door. Looking at him with pride you say, "Yeah, that would be really cool. Now, let's go see what McGuire did!"
Tim Staples is the director of evangelization for the Catholic Resource Center in West Covina, CA.