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.