Time and time again I hear Christians say, “My church is the true church, your church is not!” This claim is often made by conservative Catholics and some conservative Protestants. The word true is in quotations marks in my title today because this is the problematic idea here. If we hold to true, in distinction from false or everything else not true, then we are in fact very close to sectarianism, if we are not already embracing the bitter fruit of this error.

The Orthodox Church has a lovely phrase that both Catholics and Protestants could learn from here. They say, “We know where the church is but this does not mean that we always know where it is not.” I think that embraces much more of the mystery than standard polemics often allows for in our consideration of the nature and importance of the church.

For evangelicals there is an even greater problem here. For many modern evangelicals the church is a contingency, something that comes about as a consequence of personal faith in Jesus as one’s Savior. The church, in this view, is not essential at all. It is an appendage to one’s personal confession of faith. It is not the visible presence of Christ in the world. But this idea can never become a basis for rigorous and serious ecumenism.

If the church has no historical (real) existence beyond a spiritually invisible reality then what is the church? This is why we can speak about an evangelical Catholic but find it far more challenging, if not impossible, to speak of a catholic (or Catholic) evangelical. Read that sentence several times if you want to consider a very real problem.

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  1. Bryan Cross September 13, 2010 at 7:53 am

    You assert that the concept of “the true Church” is “problematic” because it is “secatarian.” But, if you were in fact incorrect on this point, how would you know? In other words, if there really were a true visible catholic Church (i.e. the one that Christ founded, and promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against, etc.) and it was therefore not sectarian to speak of “the true Church,” what would be different when you look around?
    I agree with you that it would be wrong to speak of a *particular* Church as such as “the true Church” or as “the Church that Christ founded.” That’s because the Church that Christ founded is catholic, not a particular (i.e. local) Church. Catholicity is one of the four marks of the Church in the Creed.
    But, it is not “pride” to claim to be the visible catholic Church Christ founded, *if* in fact there is such a thing. So your comment (in the video) about this being inherently prideful seems to beg the question, by assuming that there is no such thing as a visible catholic Church that Christ founded, and which it is possible to be separated from in various degrees. If you are only speaking of *particular* Churches, then I agree, but still, then in that case [in the video] you are overlooking the possibility of a visible catholic Church that is the “true Church”.
    Yes, when the Catholic Church speaks of Protestants as “separated brothers” this means that Protestants are not entirely separated from the Church. From the Catholic point of view, by [Trinitarian] baptism a Protestant is put in an imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. But, from a Catholic point of view, because Protestants do not share the same Catholic faith and all Catholic sacraments and the same Catholic ecclesial government, Protestants are in less than full communion with the true Church Christ founded, and therefore do not have all the means of grace Christ established in His Church for salvation.
    The term “sister Churches” does not refer to Protestants. See the 2007 document “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.” The term ‘sister Churches’ is referring to particular Churches that retain apostolic succession, such as the Orthodox Churches. They are sisters not of the universal Church governed by the Pope, but of other *particular* Churches, including the *particular* Church at Rome. (See paragraph 11 of the “Note on the Expression ‘Sister Churches,'” which disallows calling the Catholic Church governed by the Pope a sister church.) And from a Catholic point of view, those sister Churches, insofar as they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church governed by the Pope, are in schism from the true Church, though again, because they retain all the sacraments, are inherently closer to full communion with the Catholic Church than are Protestants.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. Chris Criminger September 13, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Hi John,
    I find it interesting that some Protestants offer the Eucharist to Catholics but Catholics are not allowed to patake of it. Then Catholics allow Eastern Orthodox the Eucharist but many of them refuse to partake of it either. The problem with schism and division is even when a group is trying to model catholicity, others often refuse and remain separated (typically not even recognizing Christ in the Eucharist of the one who is offering participation in the medicine of immmortailty).
    My experience with some Orthodox is when they say they do not say where the church is not, they really don’t have a problem saying that anyone who is not Eastern Orthodox is not in ‘the church.’ Even more strange, is often I find Eastern Orthodox will say that some Protestants are Christians but not a part of God’s church on earth. I really don’t know what it means biblically or logically to say that a person is individually a Christian but not part of God’s church or the graces that extend from God’s church do not function at all?
    Lastly, another irony for me is when Baptism and the Eucharist, two signs of the unity and catholicity of the church, Trinitarian baptism functions as the sign for unity among Catholics and Protestants showing they are brothers and sisters in Christ (of the same spiritual family) and then the Eucharist functions as a sign of separation and disunity where they are not allowed to partake together as a family in Christ. I know there are various theological reasons and rationale for this being the case but it’s still a functional theological conundrum from my perspective as well as some ecumenical Catholics.

  3. Nick Morgan September 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    As always, very good and thought provoking post here.
    Bryan, no offence brother, but I think you misunderstood what John was saying. He was simply stating that even our Roman Catholic Church, in recognizing Protestants as true brothers and sisters in Christ in virtue of their baptism, are thus members of the “visible” and historic Catholic Church due to their shared union with Christ, even though that membership in the Catholic Church is “imperfect” for all of the reasons stated elsewhere. I like to joke with my evangelical friends, who have a sense of humor, by reminding them that they are members of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet in reality, since they ARE members of the Body of Christ through their union with Christ, then it only logically makes sense that we ALL are members (perfectly or imperfectly) of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I think that’s where the emphasis needs to be focused. John does this. I would rather see you respond to some of the anti-catholic critics that commented on the recent posts about “Catholics and Evangelicals”.
    John writes as a true friend of the Roman Catholic Church, even though we don’t agree on everything.
    Chris, great comments. I wrestle with those same issues myself. I believe it’s going to take time, much prayer, and the grace of the Holy Spirit to continue to deconstruct those barriers erected since the East-West schism and the Reformation. I pray that God will continue to guide the Church and give her wisdom to know how to address these issues as theological dialogue, reconciliation, and ecumenical endeavors continue to gain momentum and recognition in the Church.
    God bless!

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