Premise: There are no original, universal or authoritative churches. There have only ever been indigenous culturally unique churches. Anyone who has moved from one church to another on the understanding that they have now found the one true church has been mistaken or worse, swindled.
Support for this view of Church history is comparatively easy to find. There are two such churches reported in the book of Acts, namely the Jewish church of Jerusalem, and the much larger Graeco-Roman (or simply Roman) Gentile church of the rest of the known world. From the beginning, these churches were equal but different. And the leaders at Jerusalem seemed to grasp this intuitively. When presented with the issue of Gentile believers, they did not talk as overlords with new subjects but as a first daughter, who has discovered she has a sister -- "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also." When asked for a ruling on whether the Gentiles were to be subjected to strict Jewish observances, the answer was a simple "No: why should they be subject to our laws?"
Over time it's evident that this collegiality between indigenous churches was forgotten. The Roman church started to view itself as Mother (note the capital M) instead of second sister. It's a cultural thing. Rome was big and pervasive. It was only natural that her indigenous church should think of herself the same way.
But she soon was not so universal anymore -- although she kept up the illusion to herself. Sure, her elder sister, the indigenous Jewish church, the same that had welcomed her as an equal, died off so she was able to claim successor-ship to her with no dissenting voices. But her Roman-ness, which drove her to organize and legislate and rule so assiduously, managed at length to alienate and spin off two other indigenous churches, namely the Assyrians and the Egyptians (Coptics) which are here to this day. And finally there was a territorial split so even the great Roman church became two. East and West.
Still, ironically, to this day both of the branches of the Roman Church maintain the idea that they are the true Mother Church and all true followers of Christ will be brought into their fold.
You'd think someone might have listened after the so-called Reformation. It wasn't a reformation really, it was a re-indigenization. Germans now had a German church, Scots had a Scottish church, the Swiss had a Swiss church, etc. Most of Europe, coming out into self-awareness from under the pervasive influence of the Roman universal ideal (kept alive by the Western Roman church) decided it was time to make their own choices about how and why to worship.
Unfortunately the Roman Church did not follow the same model as was laid out for them by their late sister. The Jewish Church had acknowledged the second sister as originating from God --"God has granted..." The Roman Church had a different idea, namely Succession: "If you aren't authorized by us who have been authorized by those in the past, you are not connected with the original church and therefore not really a church." So there was no welcoming of the new sisters, but condemnation for leaving the "original" church. Funny thing is, they had never been the original church.
Which brings us to the title of the post. What's the "smoking gun?" Quite simply, I'm looking for evidence that the Roman church is not the original church as they claim. And I believe that I have found it. Woven into the fabric of their teaching is something so ethnically Roman, so orthogonal to the general message of the Gospel, that they are exposed as just another sister or rather two sisters among many. All of us have cultural foibles which don't translate well into other cultures. To cling to such foibles marks you out as indigenous, not universal. And both branches of the Roman church have at least one such foible. The smoking gun to which I refer is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.
Forget the argument over proof texts (Jesus had "brothers" -- no, the word is broad enough to mean "cousins," etc.). The burden of proof lies with the barest plausibility that a Jewish woman would even engage in virginal celibacy for the whole of her married existence. And there isn't any. Virginity and celibacy linked with religious observance just isn't a Jewish ideal. But it is a Roman ideal. The Romans had an priestly order of virgins guarding the flame of the goddess Vesta in Rome. And on the Greek side, there was a view that sex itself was evil, that necessary though it is, the act itself debases us. Put those together and you have a need to keep this emerging demi-goddess (I admit that's a worst-case version of sainthood) from ever having been stained herself this way-- a need to stretch the story past the unique birth of Jesus to lift her preternaturally high above the ordinary.
But even the maturing Roman church couldn't square the idea that Mary would, all on her own, have chosen this un-Jewish mode of being, so with all the industriousness of a Marvel screenwriter they created a backstory (it's called the Proto-Evangelium of James) to include the existence of an order of virgins at the Temple in Jerusalem, of which Mary was some time part. But it's a pure invention (actually, I am told the current word is retcon -- Retroactive Continuity). Ask any Rabbi; I've followed several such conversations on the web. There was no such order. It is precisely what it looks like. A order of quasi-vestals at the Jerusalem Temple fulfils a purely cultural need to impute perpetual virginity to Mary. And I submit to you that any church that entrenches such a mono-cultural need is not, and cannot be, the Mother of us all. Entrenching culture in your worship of God is an indigenous thing, not a universal thing. We all do it and so do you. You (actually both of you) are our sister not our Mother. Welcome home, to the sisterhood of indigenous churches.
I could leave it right there, but I won't. There are critiques arising from this paradigm of church history that need to be voiced. One, I've already alluded to. Namely if you have joined the Catholics or the Orthodox because they are the original church, you have erred. The original church worshipped in synagogues and did and believed things very different than you do. You joined your church, hopefully, because something about them appealed to you. You wanted to join-- you were not forced by realizing the truth of their claims. Unfortunately, to join, you had to also agree with them that they are Mother Church and so semi-shut the door on the rest of us.
Secondly, adopting all the early writings of the early Roman Church, and giving them a semi-authoritative place, calling them Patristic and viewing them as seminal for all churches is questionable. Returning to them as more true to the original design and appealing to them for support for your paradigm is not as valid as it is advertised to be. If you think they said something better, quote it and agree with it. But don't lean on it, saying that your view is more Patristic and therefore better. We're all seeking for the truth together and time and space don't matter. These are the writings of one of many equal sisters. Others have found different solutions to the same problems and though you may not like their solutions, don't play one sister against another.
Finally, presently, we are seeing tectonic shifts in how we view the Bible and the Atonement, and seemingly a host of other issues. I submit to you, though, that these shifts are not a final revelation of the truth or any such thing. They are simply a new culture asserting itself in the church and asking questions that didn't occur to other earlier cultures and getting answers that those earlier cultures don't like. The fact that both sides of an issue don't like each others' conclusions is more a comment on their starting place, which in each case is very different. Speaking as one who is sometimes of the former set, I'll try not to point fingers at you and say that you've strayed if you agree not to point fingers back at us and say how wrong we've always been. There are questions arising from my culture that are answered better by my conclusions, questions that are apparently not as important to you in your culture. Given enough time, there'll be other shifts that will bug you just as much.