Indefectible. It’s a big word that you don’t hear very often. In fact, it seems that the only time you hear of the word, it is almost exclusively used by Catholics in referring to their church. Here are a few examples of Catholic sources speaking of their Church’s supposed indefectibility:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“…The most intimate cooperation of the Holy Spirit and the Church is achieved in the liturgy. The Spirit, who is the Spirit of communion, abides indefectibly in the Church…” (CCC #1108)
The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church said that the Church is “indefectibly holy” (Lumen Gentium 39)
The Vatican document Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past (International Theological Commission, December 1999) speaks of the “indefectible fidelity” of the Church.
Also, according to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (online):
“The gift of indefectibility is expressly promised to the Church by Christ, in the words in which He declares that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Under “The Church”)
Note that the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia references Matthew 16:18 here (“the gates of hell will not prevail”). We plan to deal with Matthew 16 in next month’s article.
But what does the term “indefectible” actually mean, and why does the Catholic Church use this particular word? According to these popular dictionaries, this is the definition of “indefectible”:
1) not subject to failure or decay: lasting
2) free of faults: flawless
1) not defectible; not liable to defect or failure
2) not liable to fault or imperfection; faultless
1 1) not liable to fail, end, or decay
2) having no defects; perfect
Ok, so the word means perfect, having no defects and no end, flawless, free of faults, not subject to failure, etc. It’s interesting that Catholics don’t seem to have a problem attaching a word with such a weighty meaning to their beloved church. But does this really define the Catholic Church? Is this word a fair description of it? Seriously, does the Catholic Church really expect us to believe that any of its people, individually or corporately, are “flawless,” “not subject to failure,” or “perfect”? History and Scripture would surely disagree with this conclusion. Obviously, there is no church that is perfect.
But in what sense do Catholics believe their Church is indefectible? In basically two ways. They believe that not only will the Catholic Church remain and live on forever, but that it also can never teach error.
But the first problem we have with this is that the Catholic Church sees ITSELF as the true church, the one Jesus said of whom the gates of hell would not prevail, and that they ALONE are the ones who have received this promise. No, the Catholic Church is not the true church, as is painfully evident throughout this blog. Not only is it not the true church of Jesus Christ, but it is very unbiblical in many of its teachings. The true church is made up of individual believers worldwide, in many different places, who believe, trust in, and are committed to serving Jesus Christ and are following His Word.
Concerning the permanence of the church, we don’t have an issue with the belief that the true church will endure to the end. That is certainly a biblical idea. We agree that Matthew 16:18 does indeed address that concept. But the church will not be flawless in its teachings or its behavior, as the word “indefectible” would demand. By definition, any less-than-perfect behavior would negate (cancel) this claim to indefectibility.
But Catholics will say that the Church’s indefectibility does not apply to its behavior. But remember, the official Catholic statement above (Lumen Gentium, paragraph 39) calls the Catholic Church “indefectibly holy.” And notice that the context of paragraph 39 deals with the Church’s sanctification, and therefore, its morals and behavior. Therefore, this “gift” of indefectibility must necessarily also refer to the Catholic Church’s morals and behavior. You can’t have indefectible holiness and less-than-perfect behavior at the same time.
In the other quote above about the Catholic Church’s “indefectible fidelity,” the document says that, “the [Catholic] Church is at the same time holy [indefectibly so] and always in need of purification…” But this is a blatant contradiction! Again, you can’t say that it is both indefectible in its holiness and at the same time, needing purification in its behavior! This destroys the very definition of the word “indefectible.” So, if the term doesn’t really apply to the Catholic Church (which it doesn’t), then DON’T CALL IT INDEFECTIBLE! Use another word. Using this term is dishonest and arrogant.
Notice that the apostle Paul does not tell Timothy, “Hey, just kick back and relax,Timothy, since the leadership of the church has this special gift of indefectibility. All your teachings will automatically be true and will come out perfectly, no matter what, so you don’t ever have to worry about teaching error!” No, he tells Timothy to guard his teaching (1 Timothy 4:16; 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14) and fight to maintain it. This doesn’t sound like a gift of indefectibility in which Timothy couldn’t preach error, even if he tried. Why should it be guarded if it was never in danger? It’s a great exaggeration to attach the word “indefectible” to any earthly person or group after the apostolic era. God alone has that perfection, that flawlessness.
The true church is made up of godly, but imperfect, humans. We can indeed have assurance that the true church will prevail, but only because of the power and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Himself. The bottom line is, the Catholic Church is wrong: an “indefectible” church simply does not exist.