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.
Hate All Divisions
Even though we don’t believe that there’s One True Church, we recognize that divisions between Christians are a terrible thing. They should not be. If we followed Christ, every church today would be in communion with and at peace with every other church today.
Anabaptism did not begin because of proud people who wanted to start their own church, or because of people who refused to work for peace. Instead, Anabaptism began when individuals saw that their church wasn’t following Christ in every way. They tried to reform the church, but their leaders refused. There were false teachers and immoral people in leadership, and the church hierarchy would do nothing about them. Could they have stayed?
With great sadness, we left the Roman Catholic Church and still remain separate from it. Yet, for many of us, the barrier to reuniting is not on our side. We are ready to be in communion with the Roman Catholic Church whenever they return to the apostolic faith.
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. In fact, Ignatius exhorted Christians in another letter,
that ye give heed to the doctrine of the apostles, and believe both the law and the prophets: that ye reject every Jewish and Gentile error, and neither introduce a multiplicity of gods, nor yet deny Christ under the pretence of [maintaining] the unity of God. (Ignatius to Antioch 1)
So he recognized that there could be situations where the pretense of maintaining unity would cause some to deny Christ.
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 view 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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. At that council, the church split for the first time because of nothing more than politics and the technicalities of a doctrine that the apostles didn’t feel was necessary to define with precision. Neither of the two halves of the church had any better claim to being the One True Church.
A Note on “Catholic” and “Orthodox”
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, are not fully members of 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.
- 1from this article
- 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.
- 3Romans 16:5, 23, Col 4:15, Philemon 1:2
- 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
- 52 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, 1 Thes 1:1, 2 Thes 1:1, 3 John 9, Rev 1:4, 11
- 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
- 7Acts 5:11, Acts 9:31, Acts 12:5, 1 Cor 11:18, 1 Cor 14:19, 23, 28, 33-35, Rev 2-3
- 8Acts 16:5, 1 Cor 7:17, Heb 12:23, Rev 2-3
- 9Acts 11:22, 1 Thes 2:14, Heb 12:23
- 10Acts 8:1-3, 1 Cor 15:9, Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6, 1 Thes 2:14
- 11Matt 16:18, 1 Cor 14:4-5, 12
- 12Acts 20:28, Eph 1:22, Eph 3:10, Eph 5:23-32, Col 1:18, 24
- 13See Lumen Gentium
- 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
- 15From this article
- 16Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50
- 17Matthew 23:23
34 thoughts on “What Is the Church? Is There One True Church?”
It’s not immediately made clear in this post why the idea of a one true church was negated in the 5th century at the council of ephesus.
Thanks for pointing that out! That’s when the Church of the East split with the church in the West. Since neither of them had any better claim to being the One True Church, it just makes more sense that they were both real churches. I updated the article to clarify that.
A lot of ink has been split over the issue of ‘church’ but I have a few observations.
First is the common misunderstanding by Reformation types of the word ‘ekklesia’. It has a long pedigree in Greek. Many city-state citizen assemblies were called the ekklesia like that of Athens. If you know anything about Athenian democracy you would know that citizenship was highly valued and clearly defined.
Interestingly enough the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses ekklesia to describe the congregation of Israel, particularly in the Pentateuch. These secular examples show that ekklesia is not simply a random assembly but an assembly of citizens with clear delineation. The consensus of the Church Fathers (which you casually disagree with) takes the visible/concrete view because that is what the word means. The best translation of ekklesia into modern English would be ‘citizen body’ or ‘citizen assembly’ or ‘members assembly.’
The Reformation was terrified of authority because the movement was a reaction against the dictatorship of Rome so they twisted the meaning of ekklesia.
The issue of the One True Church isn’t a big problem any more than rival ‘Sola Scriptura’ groups from the Reformation onwards all claiming to be the ones who really understand the Bible, while similaniously disparaging the other groups. A lot of these groups also claim to be the true ‘New Testament’ Christianity. The only difference is that there are thousands of these groups not four.
As for me. I am Eastern Orthodox. I don’t usually use this term as I just say ‘Orthodox’. Eastern isn’t part of our name. I recognise the Orthodox Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The ‘Church of the East’ and the Oriental Orthodox broke off in the 5th century and the Roman Catholics in the 10th/11th from our perspective. I won’t go into the reasons why the Orthodox Church thinks these other groups are in error but I found it interesting that you noted how similar in many ways we are. We are all ancient churches and have our differences but we all draw from the some tradition. I might dare to say that the differences between Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are much narrower than rival Anabaptist groups.
Thanks for the comment, Stefano, and thanks for pointing out the Septuagint’s usage of ekklesia. I hadn’t thought to check there, but I’ll be sure to review its usage of the word. I was aware of the political implications of the word, which I think are fascinating and help us understand the meaning of the Kingdom of God. I do believe in a visible church, as I tried to clarify. I belong to a visible church that is part of the worldwide visible church. Anabaptists are a little more visible than many other parts of the church, because we strive to follow Scripture’s countercultural commands in our daily lives.
The difference between the ancient churches and Protestant or Anabaptist groups is that we don’t have to call ourselves the One True Church. We may disagree with many other churches’ doctrines, but we are free to consider them to be part of the body of Christ on earth. The Orthodox don’t have this freedom. Of course, many groups anathematize each other anyway, but that’s their (sadly wrong) choice. My church recognizes the validity of many other churches, regardless of our doctrinal disagreements.
And this is not because of a casual disagreement. I offered reasons for disagreeing with them. The main reason is that I cannot honestly agree with them on this point while still believing the essentials of the faith that they taught to be true. Times have changed, and what was true of the church then is no longer true. However, the doctrines have not changed. But this has a lot to do with our conversation on the other post, which I’ll go to next.
The Orthodox Church recognises truth in Non-Orthodox churches. That is why we accept the validity of some Non-Orthodox baptisms.
If Anabaptists consider their version ‘true’ then they are doing the same thing anyway. What I want to know is why Anabaptists keep breaking up and having so many schisms if they don’t consider them essential. The more I read about Anabaptists the more I find squabbling groups over minor issues like beards, property, hair coverings and mode of baptism . It makes the 5th century christolological controversies look reasonable.
That’s a very valid question. Unfortunately, many Anabaptists have not followed the peacemaking example of Jesus and the apostles. Sadly, this leads to tragic squabbling and schisms, as you pointed out. That is to our shame.
However, many of us are working toward church unity. We believe the Anabaptist doctrines to be true, so we remain in imperfect congregations and strive to bring reconciliation.
I don’t hold up the Anabaptists as a perfect example of how to do church. In fact, I wouldn’t hold up most churches, including the Orthodox, as such an example. However, I do generally agree with the Anabaptist doctrines, while I disagree with a number of the Orthodox doctrines. That’s why I’ve chosen to be part of this imperfect group rather than another imperfect group.
I’m just saying that the way the Orthodox Church interacts with other groups is not so different from you.
I agree with your criticism of the Orthodox Church regarding our internal conflicts. Christ promised the Holy Spirit would guide as to truth – not perfection, even though that is what we strive for.
Tell me, do Anabaptists accept the infant baptism of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Oriental Orthodox or Orthodox? How about between rival Anabaptist groups?
Yes, unfortunately we Christians haven’t followed our Lord’s command to unity very well. I hope we can all work to help change that.
Just to clarify, my opinions on this blog, unless I’m specifically describing Anabaptists in general, are mine. They are, however, in line with my church’s beliefs (I belong to an Anabaptist church that values the historic faith). In most places, they are consistent with historic Anabaptism as well, and in most places (not always the same places), they are consistent with contemporary Anabaptism. So not all Anabaptists will agree with everything I say.
My church accepts anyone’s baptism if they were baptized on confession of their faith in Christ. We rebaptize those who were baptized without believing in Christ (such as infants). Most other Anabaptist groups do the same. My church does recognize that there were some pre-Nicene Christians who practiced infant baptism, and some who didn’t. We also recognize that many worthy Christians received only an infant baptism. So while we practice the baptism that seems to us to best fit the totality of the faith described in Scripture and the early church, we don’t condemn those who practice differently.
“We rebaptize those who were baptized without believing in Christ (such as infants). Most other Anabaptist groups do the same. ”
That means you reject the baptism of one billion Christians. It’s very generous of your group to say some of them are still worthy!
I found these kind words from Menno Simons about those who practice infant baptism.
“How awful it is thus to sin against God, and so lamentably to pervert his holy and precious word! Yea, they shall be severely punished of the Lord with heavy judgments, they shall not escape the ire of his fierce wrath, if they do not repent and reform; for God is an enemy to all liars. They have neither part nor lot in his kingdom; but their portion is eternal destruction, in the lake of fire, 2 Thes. 2:8; Rev. 20:10; 19:20.”
Hi Stefano, you may be able to better understand Menno’s concern when you realize that many people he knew had been tortured and killed by the paedobaptists. In fact, he was being hunted down to be tortured and killed himself. It was a capital offense to receive an adult baptism. Note that Menno would speak with great concern, condemning what he saw as sinfulness, but he would not under any circumstances kill those who wanted so badly to kill him. I would say that that shows more love for them than they had for him.
And to clarify, we don’t reject your baptism. We leave that judgment to Christ. If you became an Anabaptist, however, we would want you to receive an adult baptism, out of a desire to ensure that we’re fully obeying Jesus and the apostles.
Oh yes, I should also say that Ecumenical Councils condemn heresiarchs and not random ordinary people. The Fathers make it clear that God judges our salvation. The announcements are about truth and falsehood not salvation.
I should also add that false belief often leads down a terrible path. Just take a look at the weirdness of modern Pentecostals just because they misunderstand the Holy Spirit. Money and success are their God. Of course, they are a reaction because the Reformation ignored the Holy Spirit.
But when the Church of the East was condemned, the Council of Ephesus specifically condemned Nestorius and a number of bishops who refused to condemn Nestorius. It claimed to strip them of their rank, but they continued to serve their people as clerics, so the council was in effect saying that all Christians under them were under false bishops and therefore not in the church. So their entire churches were excommunicated, even though the lay people had done nothing at all.
All they needed to do was make an Orthodox declaration of faith to be back in communion. No Re-Baptism. No Chrismation. No declaration of their eternal damnation. There’s lots of evidence of continued interaction and arguing but no violence or killing. Most Nestorians eventually returned to Orthodoxy. The only reason the dispute continued was that the Persian Kings wanted to create a wedge between the Christians in his realm and the Roman Empire so he made them adopt ‘Nestorian’ Christology. Later Islam created a barrier to interaction. However, the Orthodox Church has always been sympathetic to the common people.
I would think the Anabaptist ban/shunning is worse because it prevents social interaction, which excommunication doesn’t.
So in the case of a lay Christian who wasn’t familiar with the controversy and stayed with their “Nestorian” bishop, you’d say that the Orthodox Church at that time would have considered that Christian to be saved? I’m skeptical.
Just so you know, most Anabaptists don’t shun or prevent social interaction. It’s mainly the Amish who shun. Even in their case, not all groups will shun people who move to other Christian groups. My church, which is in the Mennonite tradition, doesn’t shun.
I have attached links on Rabban bar Sauma and Ibn Bultan. They visited Byzantine territory in different centuries. They were Nestorians. Have a read how they were treated by the Orthodox.
Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Stefano. I’ll try to research this further.
Do you ban? Why has shunning been sidelined?
Do you have closed communion?
I’m learning a lot about Anabaptists so thanks for bearing with me.
As for the Menno Simons quote, it seems to me that Anabaptists brought the wrath of the government on themselves due to their apocalyptic aggression at Munster. My reading of events is that Menno’s belief in absolute pacifism is a reaction to Munster.
Even if Menno is angry he is making a statement that covers all simple Christians who were baptised as infants (like all those Greek, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian Orthodox who were living under the repression of the Ottoman Empire. Menno could have easily just condemned his persecutors. You’re making excuses for Menno – his comments show he wishes that all his theological opponents be condemned to hell.
No, we don’t practice the ban. If I understand right, it wasn’t the original Anabaptist practice. We do have a closed communion, similar to what the Orthodox have. Our church normally only gives communion to our members, although we also give communion to people in good standing in likeminded congregations in some cases.
One thing that would probably help you understand the Anabaptist mentality is that we don’t feel constrained to agree with the founders of Anabaptism. It doesn’t trouble us if former Anabaptists held wrong beliefs, because we follow them in spirit, not in letter. We follow them by basing our teachings on Scripture, like they did. We do honor them and gain inspiration from their writings, but we don’t treat them as theological authorities, as you do the church fathers and as the Protestants do the Reformers. So it’s quite possible that Menno was wrong in saying this, but we don’t base our faith on Menno, so that doesn’t trouble us.
Nonresistance existed among the Swiss Brethren before the Munster Rebellion took place. Though we are called Mennonites, most of us actually have Swiss-German roots rather than Dutch roots. However, it’s certainly possible that some Anabaptists were influenced by the Munster Rebellion to become nonresistant; I believe some scholars have made that argument. However, I’d point out that “Anabaptist” was a derisive name applied to anyone who practiced adult baptism. There were many different strains of Anabaptists. The strain that Anabaptists today descend from is the “defenseless Anabaptists.”
It’s hard to know how related the Munster group was with the defenseless Anabaptists. However, typically, we accept the worst case scenario. We look at the violence that occurred then with sadness and we accept their folly as part of our heritage as well as those who were nonresistant. However, we commit to following the commands of Jesus, as many defenseless Anabaptists did, like Dirk Willems, who even saved the life of one of his persecutors.
let me go back to an earlier point about the church. Clearly Anabaptists are doing the same thing as Orthodox but use different terminology and aren’t as blunt as Orthodox. What we do is stick to the actual meaning of Ekklesia. The word denotes a cohesive body with clear structure and membership – not a loose collection of groups with only broad agreement.
I would avoid the implications of the word ekklesia if my church was founded by angry Germans only 400 years ago.
You seem to recognise that the Pre-Nicene church had a different concept of church than you but you seem to brush it aside very quickly even though you claim to use the Pre-Nicene Church as a touchstone.
For me Anabaptists comes across as too theologically slippery to me. I found this interesting article on the Waterlanders. I thought it interesting that they quickly began to support the state with money when it was at war, started accepting magistracies and even serving on worships. Were they Anabaptists?
Early Rome and Late antiquity were such an intellectual ferment that if the way the Anabaptists do things existed then it would have collapsed in on itself with thousands of rival (but also true) groups.
I agree that the word ekklesia actually denotes a cohesive body with clear structure and membership. I belong to one such ekklesia, a local church. Note that the New Testament mainly uses the word to refer to local assemblies. More broadly, the word ekklesia is used in the New Testament to refer to all the ekklesias (pardon the English plural). I belong to that ekklesia as well, because I belong to an individual ekklesia.
Eventually, ekklesia began to be used of a hierarchical structure rather than an assembly of Christians. This worked just fine, for a while. Back in the day of the pre-Nicene church, it was (basically) true that the whole ekklesia was part of one organization (not as yet hierarchical as your church is today). However, the whole ekklesia is no longer part of one organization, and hasn’t been for more than a thousand years, as these arguments above show. I hold to the pre-Nicene view in that I agree with them that there was one true church back then. However, I don’t think there is one true church now.
And for my view of the Waterlanders and others who don’t follow the faith as I’m describing it, you can see the comment I made on your next comment. I’d like to stress that I’m not defending any individual Anabaptists. I’m defending the faith laid out on this website.
I was just reading about the Mennonite Church in the Netherlands.
They practice same-sex marriage and have female ministers. Apparently they don’t do military service but allow members to serve in fire brigades and town councils.
They are part of the Mennonite World Conference.
I’m seeing a lot of disturbing variety in Mennonite practices from group to group. If Saint Paul was around he would have written them a stern letter.
Hi Stefano, I don’t think you’re engaging with the claims my website is making. Let me try to help clarify the position I take.
It is undoubtedly true that there are many people throughout Anabaptist history and many people considered “Anabaptist” today who are sinful, disobedient, and don’t live up to the faith taught by the early church. In fact, you’ve only scratched the surface. In fact, I could tell you of many worse wrongs that have been done by Anabaptists and churches that are historically Anabaptist.
But I am not writing in defense of a church, or people, or even a movement. I am writing in defense of a view of the faith. This view of the faith has been held by many people, whether Anabaptist or not. You wouldn’t need to leave your Orthodox church in order to follow the faith that we believe is true.
However, the largest movement today that has historically held to the faith we believe is the Anabaptist movement. For many people, this makes “Anabaptist” a handy word to describe this faith. But what we care about is the faith, not the name or the movement. The name and the movement need to be brought into line with the faith, not the other way around. So feel free to research the Anabaptists, but you aren’t addressing this faith by responding to random Anabaptist people.
For more information on my approach, see this article, where I explain in what sense I’m using the term Anabaptist. I also mention the “Liberal Mennonites,” who are a liberal strain of Anabaptist who have left most of the distinctive teachings of Anabaptism. Mennonite World Conference, which you’ve found, is one such group. One reason we use the term “Anabaptist” rather than “Mennonite” is so that people don’t confuse us with them as much. This page explains what value the Anabaptist movement has for this project.
I repeat that I’m defending a faith, not a people. I would never defend the many wrong things that many Anabaptists have done. I will defend the faith which they should be following, and which many Anabaptists have historically followed.
I’ve always felt that ‘sola scriptura’ and its corollaries was a failed methodology. It seems reasonable on the surface (after all, it is just showing love and respect for the Bible) but quickly becomes a free for all the more detached groups become for the Tradition of the Church.
For me, I was interested how this affected Anabaptists as a theological ‘trend’ and I see that it’s experiencing the same issues that Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc are experiencing. I should point out that Orthodoxy doesn’t have ‘liberals’ like the division in between liberals and conservatives in modern Protestant groups.
I’ve been to Orthodox liturgies in a dozen counties and on four continents and it gives me satisfaction that we share a united faith. I don’t know how I’d cope if I didn’t know what people believed from one church to the next.
Happy Thanksgiving, Stefano, in case you’re in a part of the world that celebrates it. I want to reiterate that I’m supporting a view of the faith, not a specific set of churches. Even if it’s true that Anabaptists are highly subject to theological trends, that doesn’t mean that the arguments on this website are incorrect. I’m searching for truth, not for longevity.
However, I do want to correct a misapprehension. I can see how you’d get the impression of Anabaptist differences that you have, but it’s actually pretty inaccurate (through no fault of yours, since there’s no way you could know). It would take a long article to explain why, but I’ll try to give you an idea in this comment.
There are three basic groups of Anabaptists: Liberal (also called mainline), Conservative, and Old Order. (See this scholarly article discussing some of the differences.) Within each group, most congregations hold very similar beliefs and practice. I’m in the “Conservative” group, and no churches in that group allow same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, military service, etc. Same with the “Old Order” group. In fact, both Conservative and Old Order groups hold to basically the same beliefs and practices. They differ mainly in sociology and culture, and their liturgies are structured slightly differently.
If I go to another Conservative Anabaptist service (no matter what continent), the liturgy is virtually identical with mine, though there are minor cultural differences. The biggest difference is that we celebrate communion weekly, while most groups celebrate it less often. The beliefs and practices are very close, typically, as well, although there’s probably the same range of beliefs among conservative AB individuals as there is among Eastern Orthodox individuals.
The “liberal” group shares the same name as we do, but we don’t typically think of each other as holding the same view of the faith. They differ from us in similar ways as the “Old Catholic Church” differs from the Catholic Church. We politely differ as to who is more representative of the Anabaptist tradition, just as you differ with the True Orthodox as to who the real Orthodox are.
It looks to you like there is such a range of belief because you don’t have any way to tell which websites are describing which groups. In practice, there’s no confusion, because the Liberal churches don’t tend to associate much with the Conservative and Old Order ones, although those two groups have some interrelation.
That we believe basically the same is pretty amazing, actually, given that most Anabaptists hold to less informed types of Sola Scriptura, rather than the historically-informed view that I lay out on this website. Sola Scriptura has served them very well, though I have reservations about it.
I hope this helps clarify some things. I get that the terminologies and the sociology can be confusing.
I don’t live in North America so I don’t do Thanksgiving but thanks for the thought.
Interesting that you mention the ‘True Orthodox.’ They are a tiny but vocal group of schismatics. Their presence on the internet is a disproportionate to their size. I would think they are less than 1% of World Orthodoxy. They are obsessed with calendar issues and in rejecting any dialogue with Non-Orthodox. However, I appreciate their conservatism. They are a living example that nothing can change in Orthodoxy without a reaction, even something as unimportant as the Julian Calendar. Many groups went into schism over the Church’s (such as ROCOR) relations to Communism but renounced their schism when Communism collapsed and tempers cooled.
The existence of these schismatic groups is one of the reasons I reject the idea that the Pre-Nicene Church was different from the Post-Nicene Church. How could it happen without there being a protest?
I think you mentioned that your church is not part of the Mennonite World Conference. The MWC claims to represent 70% of those in the Mennonite tradition. Does that mean your ‘conservative’ views are a minority?
We seem to have strayed pretty far from the subject at hand. I understand your interest in Anabaptist history and culture, but the question is whether the beliefs I’m putting forward on this website are right or wrong. I haven’t heard a good argument against my criticism of the One True Church doctrine.
I don’t believe doctrines based on whether they are minority or majority views, or based on whether the church that holds them tends to be doctrinally conservative today. I’m trying to base my beliefs on the best understanding of the apostolic teaching.
Before I went on your blog I had never met or talked to an Anabaptists. I have learned a lot in our dialogue. Thanks.
One of the greatest stumbling blocks I have with Anabaptism is the ‘gap’ between the New Testament and the Swiss Brethren in 1525. Even in the best case scenario the Pre-Nicene Church is not nearly close enough to the way Anabaptists do things for there to be a link or any continuity. You simply aren’t the same.
For me the Anabaptists seem like a bunch of well meaning ‘Restorationist’ types who tried to go back to the New Testament Church but weren’t too sure so they filled in the gaps with their 16th century suppositions. In many ways you are like all those other Restorationist types like the JWs or the Seventh Day Adventists or Pentecostals but you all can’t quite decide what exactly the NT church was like despite all having the same New Testament and using the same methodology.
Can I ask a question? Do Anabaptists believe in spiritual gifts or miracles? Do you have prophets? Healers?
I’m glad this blog has been helpful in your historical inquiry, Stefano. My goal is not to convince you to become Anabaptist, but to follow the apostolic faith. If we were to base our faith on the Anabaptists as authorities, it would be a worthless faith. If we were to base our faith on the Pope or the Ecumenical Councils as authorities, it would be a worthless faith. Instead, our job is to learn what the apostolic teachings are, and to follow them.
The reason I’m an Anabaptist is not because the Anabaptists are exactly like the pre-Nicene church. It’s because the Anabaptists keep the main focuses that the pre-Nicene church kept—living out a Christianity focused on an obedient love–faith relationship with Christ, obeying the New Testament commands. Where the Anabaptists differ from the pre-Nicene church is in small areas that can easily be remedied within Anabaptism (such as specific beliefs about the sacraments). My church has remedied these things, and we believe as the pre-Nicene church believed. So do a growing number of other Anabaptist-type groups.
The reason I’m not Orthodox is that though you retain many aspects of the pre-Nicene faith, the Orthodox have added and changed doctrines. That wouldn’t be a problem—after all, there are no significant Christian movements that exactly teach the pre-Nicene faith, so we all need to be part of a tradition that needs to be fixed. Except that the Orthodox claim that their church decisions are infallible and cannot be changed. So there seems to be no way to fix Orthodoxy, while there is a way of fixing Anabaptism. That’s what keeps me Anabaptist.
However, if any Orthodox person who returns to the apostolic faith wants to live out that faith within Orthodoxy, that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of believing other than what my church officially taught, but many are comfortable with that. So there is no need for you to leave Orthodoxy—only a need to come to apostolicity.
Note: We don’t use quite the same methodology as the Protestants or Restorationists. We have a different hermeneutic. Interestingly, virtually all Conservative Anabaptist and Old Order Anabaptist groups are virtually identical in theology and very similar in practice.
To answer your question, Anabaptists largely don’t have a theology of spiritual gifts or miracles. We believe they exist, but we focus on obedience to the New Testament commands, rather than on showy demonstrations of the Spirit. Miracles and healings happen within our groups, but very few groups make them a focus.
“Where the Anabaptists differ from the pre-Nicene church is in small areas that can easily be remedied within Anabaptism (such as specific beliefs about the sacraments).”
Sorry to say you aren’t even close to the Pre-Nicene Church. As much as you don’t like it, many of your emphases are straight out of the Reformation not the New Testament.
As for the Orthodox Church changing or adding, well I’ve heard lots of assertions. You have a few hard questions on war and art but not much else. Even your idea of what constitutes ‘apostolicity’ is artificial and contrived. I see continuity and change even in Acts and that process has continued in the Orthodox Church through its long history.
Great to hear that your church has come to a realisation that sacraments are important. Do I take it that one day you didn’t think they were import and weren’t in the Bible and the next day you came to the realisation that were?
I don’t think Orthodoxy needs to fix anything. We are the only church true to the Apostolic faith. However, Anabaptism is too slippery and undefined to withstand the pressure of the modern world. Some of might very well ‘fix’ things for the better but I think most will ‘fix’ things for the worse. My research has shown me that your ‘conservative’ groups are small and even these have huge issues.
Articles like this show me you guys have issues!
Thanks for the clarification on spiritual gifts and miracles.
Just to remind you, I’m not defending Anabaptist churches any more than I’m attacking the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m simply going to the earliest sources and understanding Christianity from there. And I believe that one of the best ways to live it is within the Anabaptist tradition. You will never need to answer to the Anabaptists, nor do we need to answer to you. We all will need to answer to God, who delivered the faith to the apostles.
I get that you give your own view the benefit of the doubt. That’s only natural. However, in order to claim that your church hasn’t changed from the apostles, you have to rely heavily on church leaders from 200 years or more after the apostles’ deaths, after I’m suggesting the changes started to begin. It shouldn’t be surprising that I don’t find later evidence as convincing. When you are unable to point me to any Christian leader within 200 years of the apostles who believed as you do on veneration of images, development of doctrine, and permissible violence, doesn’t it cause you any concern whatsoever? It seems that you would prefer to interpret the earlier evidence in light of the later evidence. But since I am committed to the faith believed everywhere, always, and by all, before any changes were made, I can’t do that. I must read later evidence in light of earlier evidence. That seems to be the difference between our approaches.
Where Anabaptists are wrong, we are able to fix it. It’s not shameful to us to admit minor mistakes within our movement. Because your church claims infallibility, it seems the option of being honestly mistaken isn’t on the table for you. How, then, can you be open to the truth?
I’ve just come across this interesting article that I’d like to share.
You have a lot of confidence that your interpretations of the Bible are right but I can’t work out why you are so confident? You admit you were mistaken about sacraments. What else have you got wrong?
Even the Evangelicals who should be your natural allies think you have got some pretty basic things wrong.
The reason I believe my interpretations to be correct is that they agree with the way church leaders interpreted Scripture for nearly three hundred years of Christianity. If I were only interpreting it myself, I would have much less reason to be confident. As I’ve pointed out, some traditional Anabaptist interpretations don’t agree with the historic interpretation. Since my commitment is to the historic interpretation, that’s what I default to. That’s why, when the traditional Anabaptist interpretation differs from what is historic, I don’t hold to the traditional Anabaptist interpretation. And where the Eastern Orthodox interpretation differs from what is historic, I don’t hold to the Eastern Orthodox interpretation. It seems like a fairly straightforward method, and I don’t know why Eastern Orthodox aren’t willing to do that as well.
A note on the article you shared–it’s very true that many Mennonites were influenced by Fundamentalism. However, many of those are making a shift back toward their Anabaptist roots. I’ve always been part of circles that have pushed back against Fundamentalism.