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Is the Catholic Church the mother church?

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The Roman Catholic Church claims to have originated with Christ and the apostles and is therefore the oldest church and “mother” or head of all other churches, especially those in the Protestant tradition. Sometimes Roman Catholics refer to their church as the “Holy Mother Church” or, in Latin, “Sancta Mater Ecclesia.” In fact, Catholics pinpoint the Diocese of Rome, specifically the Basilica of the Savior or St. John Lateran, as the official “mother church.” Protestants and others are seen as children who have “strayed” from their mother and are admonished to return “home” to Catholicism.

The term Holy Mother Church refers to the Roman Catholic Church in many places in literature. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (Chapter XXVII), Scott’s Ivanhoe (Chapter II), Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Chapter XXV), and Shakespeare’s King John (Act III, Scene 1) all contain instances of the Catholic Church being called the “mother church.”

In order to be the “mother church,” Roman Catholicism must be the original form of Christianity. And that’s exactly what Catholics teach concerning their history. One of the dogmas of the Roman Church is that Jesus appointed Peter as His vicar (representative) over the church (Matthew 16:17–19). This teaching presumes that the “rock” Jesus said He would build His church on was Peter and that Peter was the first pope.

There is another, slightly different sense in which Catholics use the term mother church. It is a term of endearment, as faithful Catholics view their church as an entity that nurtures, cares for, and guides the family of God in all things. They give honor to their ecclesiastical “mother” as children give honor to their real mothers (Ephesians 6:2). Just as Catholics see Mary as the Theotókos or “God-bearer,” so they see their “mother church” as today’s “God-bearer”—the means by which God is brought into the world.

There are historical and theological problems with calling the Roman Catholic Church the “mother church.” Historically, Catholicism has its origins in the time of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The bishop of Rome did not begin calling himself the “pope” until Siricius did it late in the fourth century. Theologically, there is no biblical evidence for apostolic succession or that Peter was the “prince of apostles”; in fact, there is no clear biblical case to be made that Peter even visited Rome, and he certainly never claimed authority over the other apostles.

Biblically speaking, the true “mother church” is the church that is described in the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles. In the biblical mother church, you will find no mention of priests, cardinals, or popes. Nowhere will you find Mary being adored or saints being venerated. In the biblical descriptions of the true mother church, there are no infants being baptized or elements of the Lord’s Supper being transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. So, very clearly no, the Catholic Church is not the mother church.

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Is the Catholic Church the mother church?
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This page last updated: February 16, 2022