In dialogues with Non-Catholics, most of the subjects you discuss won’t get you that far. Instead, they will frequently tell you something along these lines. ”Jesus Christ didn’t found a religion, he founded a Church. That Church is based upon confessing Christ as your Savior. Catholics add to this and to the Bible with their extra-biblical traditions such as the Rosary, the Mass, indulgences, etc. They added a religion on top of the Gospel, and corrupted it in the process.” This line of thinking has influenced a lot of outreach to Non-Catholics, as things such as “Evangelical Catholicism” (which emphasizes “personal friendship” with Christ above religious institutions) have become the latest buzzwords in Evangelization today. Before we engage in such approaches, we should instead ask ourselves something: what do the Scriptures say about this matter?
While our Non-Catholic friends would think differently, the word for religion (threskeia) appears five times in the New Testament, and most of the instances in which it appears view religion as something holy and positive. (1 Tim 2:10, 2 Tim 3:5, James 1:27) What is religion in the eyes of the New Testament. The Apostle James provides a clear and concise answer: ”to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27) The Prophet Micah gives us a good rule for how to keep ourselves unstained from the world: to do justice (what is right), love kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
When you consider these truths, one thing becomes clear. Non-Catholics are entirely right when they profess that Jesus Christ did not found a religion. That religion existed long before He walked this earth! To walk humbly with God has been the goal of humanity ever since our expulsion from Eden due to the sin of our parents. They walked side by side with God. We currently do not. Yet God has promised that one day, we will. It is against this backdrop that Jesus of Nazareth walks the earth, and states he is founding a Church. That Church is founded upon the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16-18) In this, Catholics should acknowledge that our Protestant friends are absolutely correct: Christ founded a Church based on the confession of the Messiah.
Yet as with so many things of our non-Catholic brethren, the issue is seldom what they are saying is outright wrong. The issue is that they seldom tell the full story. The Acts of the Apostles provides us with the best understanding of life in the Early Church, because in many instances it was an eyewitness account. The early Church is summed up in the following ways: Preaching the Gospel (2:14-36, 3:12-26, 5:21, 5:29-32, 7:2-53. Acts 8:32-35) and public acts to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel (2:4, 3:4-6, 5:4-1, 5:15, 9:32-41). With these things our Protestant brethren would be in agreement. Yet The Church also placed an emphasis on baptism as being required for membership (2:38-41, 8:36-39, 9:18-19, 10:48, 15:33), and disciplinary practices that all Christians were expected to commit to in public. (2:43-47, 4:32-37, 6:1-7, 11:29-30, 15:23-29) One of the things that I feel is interesting is that when these acts of discipline are announced, it is done as something which is “good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (15:28) All of this was done in the service of the religion that man has striven for since the beginning of time, to walk with God.
According to the Scriptures, you cannot have the true religion without a Church. We also know from the Scriptures that such a Church is visible and has conditions her members are expected to live up to, with consequences (sometimes deadly!) if they do not. These conditions, far from being rules and regulations for the sake of rules and regulations, are meant to point people towards the Gospel, and are an attempt in a systematic way to live out the Gospel in the world. If your Church lacks these things: congratulations! You are not the Church of the Bible. From there, one can compare among Churches which do these things who has kept the truth of the Gospel for almost 2,000 years and counting, and one finds that only the Catholic Church can make these claims.