Also See Reaching Catholics With The Gospel
"A wise man scales the city of the mighty, and brings down the stronghold in which they trust." - Proverbs 21:22
The Roman Catholic Church has existed for hundreds of years. It has about a billion followers and thousands of apologists. Groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses, with only a small portion of the Catholic Church's resources, are able to deceive millions of people. Anybody who tries to refute a religion as old and as popular as Roman Catholicism without being well prepared is going to do the opposite of what he intended. Catholic apologists are able to fill books with examples of people who criticize Catholicism without understanding it, an example being Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1988). The scriptures tell us to refute false teachers and false doctrines, but we're to do so with the right preparation and with the right weapons (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, Titus 1:9).
It seems that most professing evangelicals don't know much about the differences between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. Evangelicals who are concerned with the errors of Catholicism are often poorly equipped by books, tracts, and other material that either misrepresent the Catholic Church or use weak arguments against it. How many books on Catholicism address development of doctrine and the philosophical preferences that lead people to become Catholics, for example? These things are important in understanding and refuting Roman Catholicism, yet so many evangelical responses to Catholicism fail to address such issues.
In this article, I want to prepare people with a basic understanding of what to look for in Catholic apologetics and how to respond to it. To that end, I want to address the following subjects:
· Minimizing Problems
· Misdefining Terms
· Philosophical Preferences
· Speculation and Reading Into the Text
· Quoting Out of Context
· Defending Something Other than Roman Catholicism
· Viewing All of Church History as a History of the Roman Catholic Church
· Drawing a Connection Between Previous Roman Churches and the Roman Catholic Church of Today
· Equating References to Tradition with Roman Catholic Doctrine
· Cut-and-Paste History
· Dismissing All Early Opposition to the Roman Church as Exceptions to the Rule
· Appealing to Other Interpretations of Scripture When There are None
· Defending Doctrines on the Basis That They Don't Contradict Scripture
· Unverifiable Typology
· Claiming That the Roman Catholic Church has Been Doctrinally Consistent
· Asking for an Alternative Where There Shouldn't be One
· Development of Doctrine
Discussions between evangelicals and Catholics often begin by analyzing passages like Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17. But why do Catholic apologists have to resort to passages such as these? Why can't they find any passages in the New Testament that specifically teach the papacy, the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, etc.? Why do we find no reference to a papacy in the pastoral epistles and other portions of scripture that address church government at length? Why are we told to look, instead, to passages like Matthew 16 and John 21? Why is it that you can explain to a Catholic apologist that the Assumption of Mary doctrine first appeared in an apocryphal document that postdates the apostles by hundreds of years, and the Catholic apologist will respond as though this poses no significant problem for the doctrine's credibility? Why is it that you can explain that the concept of numbering the sacraments at seven didn't become popular until several hundred years after the apostles died, and the Catholic apologist will respond as though the doctrine is credible anyway? Look for Catholic apologists to try to make molehills out of mountains. Before you enter a discussion over the meaning of Matthew 16, ask the Catholic why he has to resort to such a passage to begin with. If you can get Catholic apologists to think through the implications of what they've already admitted before the debate even began, that can go a long way in showing them just how indefensible Roman Catholicism is.
Two examples of terms that are misdefined by Catholic apologists are the words "church" and "grace". Christ and the apostles defined the church as either a local assembly (1 Corinthians 16:19, Revelation 2-3) or the spiritual entity consisting of all believers (Ephesians 5:23-32, Revelation 19:7-9), for example, but never as a worldwide denomination, much less a worldwide denomination centered in Rome and led by a Pope. The apostles taught that saving grace isn't based on works (Acts 15:9-11, Romans 4:4-16, 11:6, Ephesians 2:8-9), while the Roman Catholic Church speaks of people meriting grace through works. Just because Catholic apologists use words like "church" and "grace", usage of such terms doesn't mean they're defining those terms correctly. Using the right terminology with the wrong definitions deceives a lot of people. If a Catholic says that "the church did this" or "the church did that", ask them where Jesus and the apostles defined the church as they're defining the term.
Even though there's no evidence that Christ and the apostles wanted a worldwide denomination to govern all churches, settle all doctrinal disputes, interpret scripture for every Christian, etc., Catholic apologists argue that we should have such an institution for its practical benefits. Of course, there are bad consequences to having such an entity, as the history of the Roman Catholic Church has proven, but Catholic apologists tend to focus only on the benefits. Not only is there no evidence that Christ and the apostles wanted there to be a worldwide denomination that does all that the Roman Catholic denomination claims to be able to do, but the evidence actually contradicts these claims of the Catholic Church. Arguments from practicality should be rejected if they conflict with what Christ and the apostles taught. The apostles never established a worldwide denomination centered in Rome, with all of the authority the Roman Catholic Church claims to have, no matter how practical the Catholic form of church government may seem to be.
Catholics often argue that Catholicism must be true because it seems reasonable that God would use an institution like the Roman Catholic Church to fulfill His promises to the Christian church. After all, how could a passage like Matthew 16:18 or 1 Timothy 3:15 be fulfilled without a continually existing, infallible institution like the Catholic Church? The answer is that God can fulfill His promises however He wants to fulfill them, and the Catholic view of how He should fulfill His promises isn't the only possibility. During the Old Testament era, when God made promises to Israel similar to those made to the Christian church, He didn't fulfill those promises by means of a continually existing, infallible hierarchy in Jerusalem. Instead, He sometimes used patriarchs, sometimes used judges, sometimes used prophets, sometimes used a small remnant (Romans 11:2-5), etc. There was no infallible magisterium in Jerusalem. There was no Vicar of Yahweh. What God did during the Old Testament era runs contrary to what Catholic apologists claim He must do during this New Testament era.
It's important to understand that a lot of Catholics accept Roman Catholicism not so much because of the evidence as much as because of their philosophical preferences. They want there to be an institution with all of the attributes the Catholic Church claims to have. This is why so many Catholics can see the doctrines of their denomination refuted, yet remain Catholics anyway. They're placing philosophical preferences ahead of truth (Colossians 2:8). If you meet a Catholic who doesn't seem to be affected much by the evidence against Catholicism, no matter how much of it you present him with, you may want to change your approach. Discuss his philosophical preferences and assumptions. Tell him to compare his assumptions about how God will fulfill His promises to the church with how God fulfilled His promises to Israel. Ask him whether he's even considered the possibility that God could fulfill His promises to the church by some means other than the Roman Catholic Church.
Speculation and Reading Into the Text
Many arguments for Catholicism rely on reading assumptions into the scriptures and other documents. For example, Peter being referred to first in lists of the disciples (Acts 1:13) is assumed to be evidence that Peter was a Pope, the leader of the other apostles. All other possible explanations are ignored. It's just assumed that the only reason Peter would be listed first would be that he was a Pope. Even though the apostles denied the concept that Peter was their ruler (Luke 22:24, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 2 Corinthians 12:11, Galatians 2:6-9), any passage in which Peter seems to have any leadership role in any way is assumed to be evidence of a papacy. But when other passages say similar things about Paul, John, or some other person, no such assumptions are read into the text. It's important to constantly ask whether the text Catholic apologists are citing actually says what they claim the text says.
When a Catholic cites Luke 1:28 as evidence of the Immaculate Conception, does the passage actually say anything about sinlessness? Does it say anything about how long this alleged sinlessness has lasted, namely since the time Mary was conceived? Or are Catholic apologists reading things into the text that aren't part of the text itself?
Quoting Out of Context
Since the earliest post-apostolic writers who commented on passages like Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17 interpreted those passages in non-papal ways, Catholic apologists often attempt to overcome this problem by citing any interpretation that even resembles the papal view of the passage. It's not that these church fathers interpreted these passages in non-papal ways in addition to interpreting them as references to a papacy on other occasions. They didn't interpret these passages as references to a papacy at all.
What the Catholic apologist will do is quote somebody like Origen, Cyprian, or Augustine saying that Peter is the rock of Matthew 16:18. What they don't mention is that these men went on to explain that they viewed all Christians (Origen) or all bishops (Cyprian, Augustine) as the successors of Peter. They didn't view the bishops of Rome as Peter's only successors, nor did they identify the Roman bishop's relationship with Peter as being one of inherited universal jurisdiction. It's misleading to quote people who only agree with part of the Roman Catholic interpretation of a passage like Matthew 16 (that Peter is the rock) without mentioning that they also disagreed with other parts of the Catholic interpretation. That some church fathers viewed Peter as the rock of Matthew 16 doesn't prove that they believed in a papacy. To the contrary, these church fathers prove that even the people in the early church who saw Peter as the rock didn't necessarily see any connection between that interpretation of Matthew 16 and the bishop of Rome having universal jurisdiction. In other words, these church fathers saw Peter as the rock, but they didn't see Matthew 16:18 as a reference to a papacy.
James White explains that Catholic apologists often fall into "The Peter Syndrome":
"The Peter Syndrome." This refers to the propensity on the part of many Roman Catholic apologists to find any statement about Peter in the writings of an early Father and apply this to the Bishop of Rome. There are many exalted statements made about Peter by men such as Cyprian or Chrysostom. However, it does not follow that these statements about Peter have anything at all to do with the bishop of Rome. The Roman apologist must demonstrate that for such statements to be meaningful that the Father under discussion believed that the bishop of Rome alone is the sole, unique successor of Peter, so that any such exalted language about Peter is to be applied in that Father's thinking to the bishop of Rome alone. If such a basis is not provided, references to Peter are irrelevant.
Look for Catholic apologists to quote the scriptures and post-apostolic documents out of context. [Also See Context is Crucial]
Defending Something Other than Roman Catholicism
Ask yourself whether what Catholic apologists are defending is actually what the Catholic Church teaches. A lot of Catholic apologists try to appear to be defending Catholicism when they're actually defending something else. Why? Because what the Catholic Church actually teaches is indefensible. For example, the Council of Trent claimed that transubstantiation was the view of the eucharist always held by the Christian church. Yet, the truth is that the Bible contradicts transubstantiation, and the church fathers held a wide variety of eucharistic views. Catholic apologists often choose to discuss a vague concept of "real presence" rather than defending transubstantiation. Similarly, instead of defending the concept that there are no less and no more than seven sacraments, as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, Catholic apologists will just argue that various church fathers believed in each of the individual seven sacraments or something like them. Obviously, though, somebody can believe in each of the individual seven sacraments, or something similar to them, without believing that there are no less and no more than those seven sacraments. Watch for Catholic apologists to defend something other than what their denomination actually teaches, since what it actually teaches can't be defended.
Viewing All of Church History as a History of the Roman Catholic Church
One of the most popular arguments Catholic apologists use against evangelicalism is to claim that since some of the earliest lists of the New Testament canon come from councils, and those councils were held by Roman Catholic church leaders, then evangelicals must rely on Roman Catholic councils in order to know the canon of scripture. This argument, though popular, is highly problematic.
To begin with, the scriptures are self-witnessing (John 10:4, 1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 4:12), meaning that people can be convicted of their truthfulness apart from the ruling of a church hierarchy. Even from a historical perspective, do evangelicals need to rely on Roman Catholic councils in order to know the canon? No, they don't. Many people recognized the Divine inspiration of the New Testament books before any of the fourth century councils cited by Catholic apologists. The church father Athanasius listed the entire New Testament canon, as we have it today, about 30 years before the council of Carthage, which is so often said to have established the canon. It's important to realize that these councils, which had only regional authority, didn't determine the canon. Instead, they reflect a consensus that existed before the councils were held. The councils reflected a consensus rather than creating one. And the councils weren't even Roman Catholic anyway. It was after these councils that such influential men as Augustine and Rufinus were still referring to the regional authority of the Roman church even in the West. And the canon of the council of Carthage isn't the same as that of Roman Catholicism. Apparently, the council accepted the Septuagint version of 1 Esdras, which is a different book than the Vulgate book of the same name, and it was the Vulgate version of 1 Esdras that was canonized by Roman Catholicism.
The first councils to list the New Testament canon as we have it today were regional, were not Roman Catholic, and reflected a consensus that already existed rather than creating a consensus with their rulings. It's common for Catholic apologists to refer to a council as something that represents the authority of Roman Catholicism and to refer to a decision of a bishop of Rome as though it was something that every church worldwide obeyed. Councils that were convened by a Roman emperor or somebody else outside of the Roman church are portrayed as Roman Catholic councils that were led by a Pope. Decrees issued by a Roman bishop, which had only regional authority, are portrayed as decrees issued to and obeyed by every church worldwide. Don't be deceived by such revisionism. The churches of the earliest centuries didn't operate as the Roman Catholic Church operates today. Catholic apologists just assume that something a bishop or council did in the past is an example of the Roman Catholic Church doing something. But it's fallacious to assume that every one of these bishops or councils of the past was Roman Catholic.
Drawing a Connection Between Previous Roman Churches and the Roman Catholic Church of
It's even incorrect to assume that the early Christians in Rome were Roman Catholic. Catholic apologists refer to past churches in the city of Rome as though they were all representative of Roman Catholicism. The truth is that the earliest Roman churches were vastly different from today's Roman Catholic Church. Paul's epistle to the Romans, which we can reasonably assume to reflect beliefs that the Roman church would have accepted at that time, contradicts Roman Catholicism on numerous issues. For example, Paul refers to people being saved eternally (Romans 5:9, 8:30-39) while ungodly and not working, on the basis of an imputed righteousness (Romans 4:5-6), a concept the Catholic Church rejects. The earliest post-apostolic document written by the Roman church, First Clement, also contradicts the teachings of today's Roman Catholic Church. It teaches salvation through faith alone, for example (First Clement, 32). The Shepherd of Hermas, an early post-apostolic document written by a member of the Roman church, teaches the doctrine of limited penance, which Catholics reject. Some of the early Roman bishops, such as Leo I, denied that Mary was immaculately conceived. The earliest generations of Roman Christians were not Roman Catholics. When Catholic apologists speak of a succession of the Roman Catholic Church going back to the time of Peter, they're misrepresenting church history. Not every church of Rome has been the Roman Catholic Church.
Equating References to Tradition with Roman Catholic Doctrine
Though many of the references to tradition in the New Testament are negative (Matthew 15:1-14, Galatians 1:14, Colossians 2:8), there are some positive references (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and many of the church fathers referred to tradition in a positive way. Catholic apologists often quote these passages from the scriptures and the writings of the church fathers. They claim that these positive references to tradition are referring to Roman Catholic doctrine. Since doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, indulgences, and priestly confession aren't in the scriptures or the earliest post-apostolic documents, Catholic apologists argue that such doctrines were unwritten traditions of the earliest Christians. However, the truth is that not all references to tradition can be equated with Roman Catholic tradition. There's no evidence that Paul was referring in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to doctrines like papal infallibility, the Assumption of Mary, and indulgences. For all we know, what Paul spoke to the Thessalonians could have been written elsewhere. There's no reason to assume that what Paul referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 was a separate body of doctrines not written down anywhere else, which would be entrusted to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. [Also See Sola Scriptura]
Church fathers like Irenaeus and Basil did refer to tradition, but they defined that tradition for us, and it wasn't Roman Catholic. Many of these church fathers viewed tradition as something of secondary authority, below the authority of scripture. Nobody in the earliest centuries of Christianity defined tradition as the Roman Catholic Church does. Always ask how the tradition in question is being defined.
Catholic apologists often quote one church father on topic A, quote another church father on topic B, and quote another church father on topic C, then suggest that all of these quotes be combined in order to reach the conclusion that the early church was Roman Catholic. The problem is that many of the church fathers agreed with the Roman Catholic Church on some issues while disagreeing on other issues. While Irenaeus may be quoted advocating baptismal regeneration, Catholic apologists don't quote him advocating false views of the atonement, nor do they quote him advocating premillennialism, a doctrine the Catholic Church rejects. While Jerome may be quoted advocating the perpetual virginity of Mary, Catholic apologists don't quote him denying the concept of a papacy, nor do they quote him denying the canonicity of the Apocrypha. While Augustine may be quoted advocating salvation through sacraments, Catholic apologists don't quote him denying the Roman Catholic interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19, John 6, and John 21:15-17.
If there had always been a hierarchy in Rome that governed all churches worldwide, settled doctrinal disputes, interpreted scripture, etc., there shouldn't have been so many examples of the church fathers disagreeing with each other and contradicting Roman Catholic doctrine. It's not just that an occasional disagreement arose and there was an occasional contradiction of Roman Catholic teaching. For generation after generation, the early church said nothing of doctrines like the papacy, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary, but instead contradicted those doctrines. Entire treatises were written on Christian doctrine and church government, and a papacy wasn't even mentioned.
Catholic apologists can't prove that the early church was Roman Catholic by using cut-and-paste history. While some church fathers, especially church fathers of later centuries, did advocate doctrines that evangelicals reject and Catholics embrace, quoting such examples doesn't prove that the early church as a whole was Roman Catholic.
Dismissing All Early Opposition to the Roman Church as Exceptions to the Rule
Since there are so many examples of early Christians disagreeing with the Roman church or denying that the Roman church had universal authority, Catholic apologists suggest that such things were just exceptions to the rule. The problem is that there's no evidence that the alleged rule existed. We have example after example of early Christians denying the concept of a papacy, but nobody in the earliest centuries supported the concept. Denials of the papacy aren't exceptions to the rule in the early church. They are the rule. There's no evidence of a papacy existing in the earliest centuries, because there was no papacy at the time. To just assume that men like Polycarp, Cyprian, and Augustine must have been going against an established rule when they parted ways with the Roman church only begs the question.
Appealing to Other Interpretations of Scripture When There are None
There are passages of scripture that undeniably conflict with Roman Catholic doctrine. Isaiah 8:19 condemns attempts to contact the dead, which would include Roman Catholic prayers to the deceased. Romans 4:4-16 denies Roman Catholic teaching about salvation. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 denies the Roman Catholic concept that a bishop of Rome can be a murderer, rapist, fornicator, etc., yet still be a legitimate bishop. Since Catholics can't rationally reconcile these passages of scripture with Roman Catholic doctrine, they often say something like "We interpret those passages differently.", without any further explanation. The question, of course, is how you interpret those passages differently. Just saying that you do interpret them differently isn't enough if you don't explain how you do so. Catholics often avoid giving other interpretations to passages such as the ones I just mentioned, because they can't give other interpretations. These passages undeniably contradict Roman Catholicism. There are no other interpretations that are reasonable.
Defending Doctrines on the Basis That They Don't Contradict Scripture
Though many Roman Catholic doctrines contradict the scriptures, some don't. The Assumption of Mary, for example, isn't contradicted by any passage of scripture. The scriptures leave open the possibility that Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven. Of course, they also leave open the possibility that Joseph, John, and other people were bodily assumed. Obviously, the question is whether these people actually were assumed into Heaven. We shouldn't accept a doctrine just because it doesn't contradict scripture. Catholic apologists often think they've sufficiently defended a Catholic doctrine if they just present an argument that the doctrine isn't in conflict with scripture. Obviously, though, arguing that a doctrine doesn't contradict scripture is only the first step in establishing that the doctrine should be accepted. Catholics can't prove doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary merely by arguing that those doctrines don't contradict the Bible. As the church father Tertullian explained:
But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things, suppose that He has actually done what He has not done. But we must inquire whether He has really done it (Against Praxeas, 10)
Catholics often appeal to typology. They argue, for example, that the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament is a type of Mary, who was the bearer of the Messiah who would bring the New Covenant. As a result, Mary would have to be immaculate in the sense of sinlessness, just as the Ark of the Covenant was immaculate in another sense. Obviously, there are some problems with that argument. For example, Jesus isn't a covenant, so Mary wouldn't be a carrier, or ark, of any new covenant. James White wrote the following in response to the Catholic appeal to typology with regard to the Immaculate Conception:
While we admit the force such things carry with those who already accept these doctrine, we point out that there is no way to test the interpretation. We can easily point out absurdities to which the parallel can be pushed--for example, must Mary have been stolen by God's enemies for a time, so that she could be brought back to the people of God with great rejoicing? Who was Mary's Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:3-8)? Madrid draws a further parallel between the three months the ark was with Obededom and the three months Mary was with Elizabeth. What, then, is the parallel with David's action of sacrificing a bull and a fattened calf when those who were carrying the ark had taken six steps (2 Samuel 6:13)? See, Mr. Madrid feels free to pick and choose what aspects of Mary's life he wishes to parallel in the ark, and which he does not--there are no rules in this kind of interpretation, and it can lead to just about any conclusion.
Another popular misuse of typology is to cite passages from the Old Testament that refer to a king's mother as the "queen mother", then conclude that Mary, as the mother of Christ, would be the Queen of Heaven, which is one of the titles the Roman Catholic Church has bestowed upon her. There's no evidence, though, that every king was to have a queen mother or that this aspect of the monarchy would be paralleled in the Messiah's life. Should I cite the passages in Jeremiah about a queen of heaven that the Israelites were condemned for venerating (Jeremiah 7:18), then conclude that this queen of heaven is a type of the Roman Catholic Mary, who is also a false goddess? Or, since Asa is described as a king "wholly devoted to the Lord all his days", and he removed his mother from her position as queen, should we conclude that Jesus, as another King "wholly devoted to the Lord all his days", also removed His mother from her position as queen (1 Kings 15:9-14)? Perhaps this is why Jesus responds to Mary so austerely in passages like Matthew 12:46-50 and John 2:3-4. Obviously, such speculation isn't worth much, and is a really weak foundation upon which to build doctrine.
There are legitimate forms of typology, but to build doctrines on unverifiable claims of typology, typology that wasn't endorsed by Christ and the apostles, is unwise. Typology can easily be abused, and it is abused by a lot of Catholic apologists. [Also See Understanding Prophecy and Typology]
Claiming That the Roman Catholic Church has Been Doctrinally Consistent
Catholics often argue that the Roman Catholic Church has never erred on doctrinal issues, and that such consistency is evidence of the Catholic Church's authenticity. The truth, however, is that Roman Catholicism has repeatedly erred in its doctrinal teachings. Catholicism can be portrayed as doctrinally correct and doctrinally consistent only by irrationally framing the argument in such a way that any error or inconsistency is barred from discussion from the outset. If the papal decrees and councils that erred and contradicted each other are arbitrarily, unverifiably, and inconsistently dismissed as unofficial, then what's the use of claiming correctness and consistency? Any organization can claim to have a perfect record in the same sense that the Roman Catholic Church makes that claim for itself. If we can irrationally bar every mistake as unofficial from the outset, then the argument will have been framed in such a way that nobody will be able to prove an error or inconsistency.
What about the many Roman bishops who have embraced false doctrine, such as Liberius' signing of an Arianizing creed and Honorius teaching monothelitism? What about the many papal decrees that offered indulgences, claimed that the Pope has authority over world governments, accused non-Catholics of having sex with demons, etc.? What about the Fourth Lateran Council offering indulgences to those who would persecute non-Catholics and contribute to a Crusade? What about the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century claiming that nobody could be saved outside of the ecclesiastical Catholic Church, while the twentieth century Second Vatican Council said that people can be saved outside of the ecclesiastical Catholic Church? What about the Roman Catholic Church claiming that everything from obeying the Pope to attending mass to not eating meat on Fridays was required for salvation? Is the Catholic Church able to make all of these mistakes and retractions, yet still claim inerrancy and consistency? If so, how much are the alleged inerrancy and consistency worth?
Asking for an Alternative Where There Shouldn't be One
When confronted with the evidence against Roman Catholicism, Catholic apologists often ask what the alternative to Catholicism would be. There's nothing wrong with asking for an alternative, as long as the person is looking for an alternative where there should be one. For example, many Catholics ask what the church established by Christ and the apostles would be if it isn't the Roman Catholic Church. What organization would have been that church before the Reformation, for example? The problem with looking for an alternative to Catholicism in this case is that Christ and the apostles didn't say that the church would be a denomination that would continually exist until Christ's return. The church is either a local assembly (1 Corinthians 16:19, 1 Timothy 3:15, Revelation 2-3) or the spiritual entity consisting of all believers (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 5:23-32, Revelation 19:7-9), for example, but it's not a worldwide denomination. The church that Christ promised to protect is the spiritual entity consisting of all believers. It's that church that will return triumphantly with Christ (Revelation 19:7-14).
Before the Reformation, the church would have consisted of every individual believer, whether he was an Eastern Orthodox, a Roman Catholic, a Lollard, a Waldensian, a member of some other group, or a member of no visible group at all. And we don't even need to have records of these people's existence. During the Old Testament era, hundreds of years went by without any record, available to us today, of people who were following God. Does that mean that God's promises to Israel failed, just because there were times in history when true believers were either a small minority or didn't exist in the records available to us today? Of course not. We see God fulfilling promises to Israel even today, after the Jews had spent nearly two thousand years scattered among the nations of the world. God hasn't fulfilled His promises to Israel through a continually existing hierarchy in Jerusalem, and He's not fulfilling His promises to the Christian church through a continually existing hierarchy in Rome.
Keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church can't really trace itself back to the apostles, so it can't be the church established by Christ, even if we define the church the way Roman Catholicism wants us to. The Catholic Church is older than individual evangelical churches and denominations, but not old enough to accurately be considered apostolic. Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches also claim to be apostolic, yet they disagree with each other and with the Roman Catholic Church on a lot of issues. If all of these churches that claim to have apostolic successors were really who they claimed to be, there wouldn't be so many disagreements among them. There can be only one true church, yet a lot of groups claim that title. The true church is a spiritual entity consisting of all believers, not a worldwide denomination. When Catholic apologists ask for an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church, an alternative that would be a worldwide denomination, that could trace itself back to the apostles through successors, etc., they're asking for an alternative where there shouldn't be one.
Development of Doctrine
Many Catholic apologists, in light of the historical evidence against the teachings of Roman Catholicism, argue that Roman Catholic doctrine developed over time, yet should be accepted as apostolic anyway. In other words, they argue that it doesn't matter that the earliest Christians didn't teach doctrines like the papacy and the Assumption of Mary, because those doctrines hadn't developed yet. Often, the Catholic apologist will compare such development to how Trinitarian doctrine, for example, supposedly developed over time.
I have another article at this web site that refutes the Catholic appeal to development of doctrine . Basically, there are two problems with this Catholic argument.
For one thing, the Catholic Church has denied development on some issues. On subjects such as the papacy, transubstantiation, and the Immaculate Conception, Roman Catholicism has denied the sort of development that modern Catholics advocate, as I document in my article on development of doctrine.
Secondly, even if the Catholic Church hadn't denied development, what reason would we have to accept Roman Catholic developments to begin with? Any group can teach something that wasn't taught by the apostles, then appeal to development of doctrine to defend it. The question is whether there's evidence that the development has Divine approval. When we examine doctrines such as the papacy and the Immaculate Conception, we find that not only is there no evidence for the Divine approval of the doctrine, but the evidence is actually against it. When the Bible, church fathers, and Roman bishops for hundreds of years refer to Mary as a sinner, while no Christian refers to her as sinless, the doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary isn't a development of what those earlier Christians believed. It's a contradiction.
By no means is the material above a refutation of every possible argument a Catholic apologist could use. And not all of the arguments addressed are used by all Catholics. But I think that familiarity with what I've explained above will go a long way in helping you to understand and respond to Roman Catholicism.
"always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you...Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." - 1 Peter 3:15, 5:8