What Is the Church? Is There One True Church?

A lot of churches say that they are the One True Church. Each of these churches believes that it alone was founded by Jesus Christ and keeps the Christian faith today. Each believes that all true Christians are (or at least should be) part of their church.

This is a big deal. If it’s true that Jesus founded a particular church institution, and if that church continues to have apostolic authority, then we should all join that church. So is one of these churches actually the One True Church? In this post, I’ll show the problems with this view.

Several One True Churches

Some of the groups that have a One True Church doctrine are the ancient churches, like the Roman Catholics. I call them the ancient churches because they’re ruled by a line of bishops that goes back to the first century. There are some Protestant and non-traditional groups who also claim to be the One True Church, but I won’t be focusing on them. Perhaps I can respond to their claims in future posts.

There are four churches that descend from the leadership of the ancient churches, and each has claimed to be the One True Church. They don’t actually have apostolic succession, as I show in this article. However, their church government structures go back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. These churches are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Communion, and the Assyrian Church (Church of the East).

These churches all have basically the same church government structure. They also have the same views about the Trinity. In fact, their doctrines are virtually identical. The Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox were excommunicated over technicalities on Jesus’ divine and human natures—though it turns out that the schisms were more about leadership politics. The difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church is pretty much confined to whether the bishop of Rome has special authority over all the other bishops.

However, these differences, which seem so small, are enough to drive wedges between each of these churches. They are not in communion with each other, and each believes their church to be the One True Church. Roman Catholics, for example, believe that the Roman Catholic Church “is the only visible institution founded by Jesus Christ and that full unity with Christ’s Church is attained only in communion with the pope of Rome.”1from this article However, they believe Protestants and Eastern Orthodox can be saved. In their official teachings, the Eastern Orthodox don’t return the favor. I’m not sure where the other two churches stand on this issue.

So the question arises, “Which of these One True Churches is the one that Jesus actually founded?” Fortunately, we don’t need to try to figure out the answer. As I’ll show in this post, no one denomination is the One True Church.

What Is “Church”?

The first question will be what we mean by “church” when we speak of the church that Jesus founded. Depending on the way you were raised, you’ll mean different things by that term, because different Christian groups use the word in different ways. Many use the word to describe a large-scale organization, and many use it to refer to all Christians, no matter what denomination they belong to. Some people talk about a distinction between the “visible church” vs. “invisible church” ecclesiology. But I think that designation is misguided, as I’ll explain later.

The question that’s relevant to the One True Church question is the question of whether the church is necessarily a single institution with a single leadership hierarchy, to which all Christians must belong. To answer this question, we’ll first look at the way Jesus and the apostles used the word “church” in Scripture.

Jesus and the apostles often speak of the church, but they never give us a definition of that word. However, the way they refer to the church can tell us quite a few things about what they meant.

First, the word for “church” in Greek is ekklesia. It’s a word that means “assembly; congregation.” It’s a word that’s not used for an edifice (by which I mean either a church building or a church organization, both of which are, in a sense, structures).2Interestingly, William Tyndale’s insistence on translating ekklesia as “congregation” (which means assembly) rather than “church” (which, etymologically, denotes a church building) in his English translation was one of the alleged mistranslations that cost him his life. This doesn’t prove or disprove anything; it just suggests that the church is fundamentally people rather than fundamentally an institution.

The way the New Testament speaks of the ekklesia is very consistent with this observation. I made a survey of every time the New Testament uses the word ekklesia, and what each use of the word indicates. Here is how the New Testament writers used the term:

  • They use ekklesia to refer to a local church assembly that meets in someone’s house.3Romans 16:5, 23, Col 4:15, Philemon 1:2
  • They talk about times when someone spoke to a local church or when the church spoke.4Matt 18:17, Acts 11:22, 26, Acts 15:3-4, Acts 15:22, Acts 18:22, Romans 16:4, Romans 16:16, 1 Cor 4:17, 1 Cor 16:1, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Cor 8:18-19, 2 Cor 8:23-24, Gal 1:22, Col 4:16, 2 Thes 1:4, 3 John 1:6 Given the typical meaning of ekklesia, this indicates that they equate the church with the assembled individuals who can be spoken to or who can speak and make decisions as a group.
  • Similarly, they write to the church.52 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, 1 Thes 1:1, 2 Thes 1:1, 3 John 9, Rev 1:4, 11
  • In some cases, they speak of the church a group of individuals. In other cases, they list the church with, or compare it to, groups of individuals. This indicates that they believe the church is a group of individuals.61 Cor 1:2, 1 Cor 6:4, 1 Cor 10:32, 1 Cor 11:22, 1 Tim 3:5, 1 Tim 3:15, 3 John 10
  • They speak of the church as group of people who act as individuals.7Acts 5:11, Acts 9:31, Acts 12:5, 1 Cor 11:18, 1 Cor 14:19, 23, 28, 33-35, Rev 2-3
  • They indicate that the church is composed of saved individuals.8Acts 16:5, 1 Cor 7:17, Heb 12:23, Rev 2-3
  • In some cases, they speak of the church in the plural, indicating that it is composed of individuals.9Acts 11:22, 1 Thes 2:14, Heb 12:23
  • When they say that the church is persecuted, the writers presumably mean that the individuals who make up the church are being mistreated for what makes them the church—their faith in Christ.10Acts 8:1-3, 1 Cor 15:9, Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6, 1 Thes 2:14

There are also a few cases where the apostles speak of the church in ways that it’s not primarily a group of individuals.

  • For example, two passages speak of the church as being “built.”11Matt 16:18, 1 Cor 14:4-5, 12 So though the church is fundamentally an assembly, the church is in a secondary sense an edifice.
  • Several passages speak of the church as a mystical entity, such as calling it the body of Christ.12Acts 20:28, Eph 1:22, Eph 3:10, Eph 5:23-32, Col 1:18, 24

Note: While the New Testament places the most emphasis on the church as a group of individuals coming together in unity, the Roman Catholic Church seems to see the church primarily as a mystical thing, though people can be part of it.13See Lumen Gentium I think this is indicative of the difference between the Reformation view and the Catholic view.

For your interest, you can find the rest of the occurrences of the word ekklesia in the New Testament, categorized, by clicking this footnote.14These are verses where the immediate context doesn’t help us see what the church is: Acts 12:1, 2 Cor 11:28, 1 Tim 5:16, Jam 5:14, Rev 22:16, 2 Cor 11:8, Eph 3:21, Acts 15:41, Acts 20:17, Romans 16:1, 1 Cor 11:16, 2 Cor 8:1, 2 Cor 11:28, 2 Cor 12:13, Phil 4:15, Rev 1:20. These are verses where the ekklesia is a group other than the church: Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 40, Heb 2:12

Evidence Against the Ancient Churches’ View

So the way the New Testament uses the word ekklesia doesn’t say definitively whose view of the church is right. However, the apostolic writings indicate that the church is fundamentally composed of local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ. The evidence doesn’t indicate that the church is primarily an organization, that it is defined by its hierarchical government, or that it is necessarily ruled by centers of authority located in particular cities.

So that tends to be evidence for the Protestant and Anabaptist view of the church rather than for the ancient churches’ view of the church. The New Testament shows that the church is fundamentally composed of local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ. It is not fundamentally an institution to which all Christians must belong.

A further evidence is that the New Testament does not condemn anyone who gives all the indications of believing in Christ, yet who is not part of the institutional church. In fact, Jesus himself gives us a principle for relating to those who are “not following us”:

John said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40 ESV)

It’s hard to see how this passage squares with the One True Church doctrine. Jesus tells the apostles not to be divisive by expecting everyone to follow them, but instead to respect those who do good works in the name of Jesus. So even if churches claim to have apostolic succession or to have the authority of the apostle Peter, they should consider that Jesus told the apostles not to use their authority for division.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles do give us guidance for how to tell whether someone is of the Kingdom or not. But the only indications that they give have to do with people’s actions, not with what church the people belong to. Thus, if someone gives every indication of being filled by God’s Spirit and is bearing good fruit, we can’t reject them just because they don’t belong to our church.

Visible vs. Invisible

Typically, people speak of the different views of the church as the “visible” and “invisible” views. The idea is that the ancient churches believe that it is clear who is the church and who isn’t (the church’s boundaries are the same as their institution’s boundaries), while the Protestants believe that Christians (those who belong to God’s church) are found in all sorts of groups, yet not everybody in every group is a Christian (so they don’t all belong to God’s church).

However, I think that’s a problematic designation, for a few reasons. First, it makes it sound like the “visible church” people are more present in God’s Kingdom in some way, and that “invisible church” people are somewhere off in left field. Nobody knows exactly who or where they are; they just can’t be fully trusted. This distinction allows the “visible church” people to strawman everyone else’s position, as in this quote:

[T]o understand the Church as having no visibility at all—and, as a consequence, no authority at all—conjures up a Church as tenuous as feathers in the wind. It’s almost as if Jesus, in setting up his Church, didn’t quite know what he was doing.15From this article

Protestants don’t typically believe that the church is invisible in this way, but you can see how the use of terms gives the one side an edge in the argument.

But more significantly, neither view happens to be correct. Instead, let me suggest an Anabaptist view of the church. (Some Protestants might also agree with this view.)

If the church is fundamentally composed of local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ, then it’s in a sense visible. It’s clear who is the church, because they are believers who assemble with other believers to worship and serve Christ. Yet the boundary of the church is not the same as any individual institution, so it’s not visible in the sense that the ancient churches would say it is.

However, the eschatological church, the church that will exist after the final judgment and is Christ’s bride, is in a sense invisible. There are people in the church today who are not serving God and will be cast out on the day of judgment. So we don’t actually know which people in which groups will continue to be joined to Christ in the final day. Yet we can’t just say that those who will not be saved are not really in the Kingdom, because Jesus speaks of them as being in the Kingdom until the final judgment.16Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50

Thus, neither view is really correct. The church is made up of local groups of individuals, of many different denominations, who have put their faith in Jesus. The church does all sorts of things that are visible—worshiping together, holding councils, evangelizing to the world, and ministering to the needy. But that doesn’t constitute evidence that one of the four ancient churches is the One True Church.

Early Church Beliefs

My view of the One True Church doctine is basically the only area where, on this website, I’ll differ with the consensus of the early church fathers. Typically, when the entire early Christian church taught a doctrine as true, we can be confident that the apostles were also preaching that doctrine. However, I believe that the early Christians’ understanding should lead us to come to different conclusions about our situation than the conclusions that they reached about their situation. Let me explain what I mean.

In the second and third centuries, Christians taught that there was only one institutional church. For example, Cyprian wrote this of Novatian, who broke off from the church:

[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honour of the priesthood, the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way. (Letter 75:3)

Ignatius (an earlier writer), agreed that there was only one apostolic church. But he also gives us the reasons behind his belief—he stresses that all Christians should follow their bishops, so as not to be led astray by heretics:

For as many as are of Christ are also with the bishop; but as many as fall away from him, and embrace communion with the accursed, these shall be cut off along with them. For they are not Christ’s husbandry, but the seed of the enemy . . . If any man follows him that separates from the truth, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God; and if any man does not stand aloof from the preacher of falsehood, he shall be condemned to hell. (To Philadelphia 3)

That was definitely true in the days of Ignatius. Virtually all Christians who had correct doctrine and practice were to be found in churches that were all in communion with each other. Many excommunicated groups of heretics and schismatics sought the attention of Christians, and yet the teachings of the apostles were still found in the institutional church (if it could be called an institution in those days).

However, note that Ignatius says that Christians should follow the bishop, because “If any man follows him that separates from the truth, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” In the last 1700 years, the situation has changed. The institutional churches have separated from the truth, and thus Ignatius’s words should warn us against following them.

Ultimately, the One True Church argument was, to the early Christians, a means to an end. The end goal was to conserve the faith that the apostles had taught. (Note that this was also the goal of apostolic succession to the early Christians.) To stick to the One True Church doctrine after it has lost its function of preserving the faith is like insisting on driving your car after its engine has fallen out. Just like your car no longer has power to move, the One True Church doctrine no longer preserves the faith. What is the point in staying with an “apostolic” church that is no longer teaching the apostolic faith?

The ancient churches would probably criticize Anabaptists for not accepting the dominant view among the early Christians in this area. However, I think there’s good reason not to believe that their vew is true of our situation today. On the other hand, there is not good reason for the ancient churches to hold up the early Christians as the ultimate standard in this area; yet to reject the lifestyle and teachings of the historic faith in the other areas where Anabaptists have uniquely held to the clear teachings of Scripture.

So I believe that we can be truest to the faith of the early Christians when we follow their foundational teachings whenever their derivational teachings no longer hold true for our day. However, in the next section, I’ll offer several other reasons for not holding to a One True Church doctrine.

The Absurdity of the One True Church Doctrine

In this section, I’ll point out some of the improbable things one has to believe if one holds that one of the ancient churches is the One True Church. I think these absurdities provide good reasons not to accept their claims.

  1. Only one of these four ancient churches is the One True Church, and the other three, which are otherwise nearly identical in doctrine, practice, and history, are just not the true church.
  2. Whenever there was a schism, and the two halves of a church excommunicated each other, one of these remained the One True Church, and all the members of the other church were suddenly outside of Christ’s church and technically damned. This is true even for those members who were from remote areas, and, never even having heard of the schism, continued to practice the apostolic faith without any changes. These individuals were all damned without any difference in their own belief or practice.
  3. Or, for the Roman Catholic Church, which later recognized that not all Protestants and Orthodox are damned (even though they are still considered to be outside of the One True Church), then the other churches came back out of damnation without any significant changes other than the passage of time and the cooling of emotions.
  4. The church that the early Christians called the One True Church when it was still following the apostolic faith is the same church that should be followed even now, when it is no longer following the apostolic faith (having introduced changes such as veneration of icons and going to war).
  5. This is not a logical consequence, but seems to be a practical consequence of the One True Church doctrine: Whichever church happens to be the One True Church can use the writings of the early church fathers as evidence for the One True Church view, even though the whole point of the church fathers’ belief was to preserve apostolic doctrines, some of which the ancient churches have ceased to follow (as mentioned above).
  6. In order to be reconciled with God, Christians who don’t belong to the One True Church must be reconciled with man (that church’s leaders).
  7. Somehow after the unholy political issue or power struggle that separated the two halves of a church, in which the worst sides of human nature appeared on both sides, the one side is now the One True Church.
  8. Somehow the leadership hierarchy makes it one unified church. But . . . the Roman Catholics are under one leadership hierarchy, yet they are allowed to kill each other in war, something that the church didn’t use to do even to non-Christians! How can we speak of a unified One True Church when two factions within it are killing each other? The Eastern Orthodox say they are united because most of them are in communion with most of the rest of them. But what does it matter if someone takes communion with his brother and then goes to war to kill him? As Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”17Matthew 23:23 Anabaptists don’t kill each other—just saying.
  9. Plenty of Christians who give every indication of being filled by God’s Spirit and are bearing good fruit are just not in the church, and are perhaps damned, depending on which One True Church you ask.
  10. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often characterize groups like the Protestants and Anabaptists as having an extreme individualism, where it’s up to each person to decide what’s true. They say that if you follow their church, you can know what’s true. However, now it is up to each person to decide which One True Church is the One True Church! To find that out, one needs to study deep into church history. Must one have all sorts of historical knowledge in order to be saved? Point taken from this video.

These absurd beliefs, as far as I can see, are entailed by the One True Church view that the ancient churches hold. If not, please let me know what I’m misunderstanding about your church’s doctrine. So why not just give up this situation-specific doctrine that is no longer relevant, instead of needing to hold to these absurdities?

Summary

By holding to this doctrine, these churches intentionally separate themselves from the rest of God’s church. Catholic and Orthodox apologists often say that we, the spiritual descendants of the Reformation, have broken the unity of the church. Yet they are the ones who have dogmatically declared us to be out of the church, and possibly even damned as well. I long for a day when all Christians can be reconciled, and for that to happen, One True Church doctrines are something we need to put behind us. Let’s lay this idea to rest in the fifth century, when it died at the Council of Ephesus.

Note: On this website, I typically call the Roman Catholic Church by that name, and the Eastern Orthodox Church by that name. I don’t tend to call them simply “Catholic” and “Orthodox,” because I don’t believe that they are simply catholic or orthodox. Since they say that other Christians, for whom Christ died, do not belong to the catholic church, they are dividing Christ’s church and therefore aren’t fully catholic. Since they are no longer teaching all the doctrines and practices of the apostles, and since they teach things as infallible that aren’t apostolic, they aren’t fully orthodox.

I mean no disrespect by not using their preferred terminology, but I cordially decline to let these churches frontload the terminology in such a way as to render their conclusions certain.

A Suggestion for Seekers

If you are seeking the apostolic church, I ask you to consider this. Even if, despite the arguments in this post, there might be One True Church that alone is apostolic, you still have to choose between multiple different churches that claim to be the One True Church. So choose your church based on the judgment that the apostles gave (by their fruit and by their teachings). One True Church proponents typically try to convince us of their apostolicity with other reasons, like the Papacy, their worship styles, or the way their leaders were ordained. But these aren’t the criteria the apostles used. And if a church is truly apostolic, they will teach what the apostles taught. Please consider the arguments offered on this site when you’re assessing the claims of the ancient churches. And if all the One True Churches have departed from apostolic teaching, you might consider looking into groups who don’t claim to be the One True Church, to evaluate them against the teachings and lifestyle of the apostles.

  • 1
  • 2
    Interestingly, William Tyndale’s insistence on translating ekklesia as “congregation” (which means assembly) rather than “church” (which, etymologically, denotes a church building) in his English translation was one of the alleged mistranslations that cost him his life.
  • 3
    Romans 16:5, 23, Col 4:15, Philemon 1:2
  • 4
    Matt 18:17, Acts 11:22, 26, Acts 15:3-4, Acts 15:22, Acts 18:22, Romans 16:4, Romans 16:16, 1 Cor 4:17, 1 Cor 16:1, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Cor 8:18-19, 2 Cor 8:23-24, Gal 1:22, Col 4:16, 2 Thes 1:4, 3 John 1:6
  • 5
    2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, 1 Thes 1:1, 2 Thes 1:1, 3 John 9, Rev 1:4, 11
  • 6
    1 Cor 1:2, 1 Cor 6:4, 1 Cor 10:32, 1 Cor 11:22, 1 Tim 3:5, 1 Tim 3:15, 3 John 10
  • 7
    Acts 5:11, Acts 9:31, Acts 12:5, 1 Cor 11:18, 1 Cor 14:19, 23, 28, 33-35, Rev 2-3
  • 8
    Acts 16:5, 1 Cor 7:17, Heb 12:23, Rev 2-3
  • 9
    Acts 11:22, 1 Thes 2:14, Heb 12:23
  • 10
    Acts 8:1-3, 1 Cor 15:9, Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6, 1 Thes 2:14
  • 11
    Matt 16:18, 1 Cor 14:4-5, 12
  • 12
    Acts 20:28, Eph 1:22, Eph 3:10, Eph 5:23-32, Col 1:18, 24
  • 13
  • 14
    These are verses where the immediate context doesn’t help us see what the church is: Acts 12:1, 2 Cor 11:28, 1 Tim 5:16, Jam 5:14, Rev 22:16, 2 Cor 11:8, Eph 3:21, Acts 15:41, Acts 20:17, Romans 16:1, 1 Cor 11:16, 2 Cor 8:1, 2 Cor 11:28, 2 Cor 12:13, Phil 4:15, Rev 1:20. These are verses where the ekklesia is a group other than the church: Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 40, Heb 2:12
  • 15
  • 16
    Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50
  • 17
    Matthew 23:23

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