The Fallacy of the One True Church™

Recently a sincere and well intentioned person approached me on social media with a raft of questions about the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in general. This questioner is seeking to convert, and one question above all dominated his concerns: Which is the One True Church™ that he should convert to? After all, as he put it, the Church was “united” for the first millennium, so one of those churches that split off must be the One True Church™. Which one is it?

The search for the One True Church™ is one which consumed me for around a decade. But I have come to see it, and the concern behind it, as a distraction from following Christ (at best), and a deception to separate us from Christ (at worst). 

First off, the idea of the One True Church™ subtly undermines and subverts the primacy of Christ, and replaces it with the primacy of finding that ONE group of people who have everything uniform, and universal, and correct, and right. But this makes no sense of the key Biblical teachings which describe the relation of Christian communities to their common Source in Christ. 

The key metaphors Jesus and Paul use to describe the community formed around Christ implies strongly ONE common SOURCE (Christ) which supplies and inspires DIVERSE communities and gifts. In John 15 Jesus speaks of Himself as the Vine (One Source) and his followers as the Branches (Diverse communities). To make the point even clearer, Jesus ordained as Apostles a very diverse group of men from all backgrounds who agreed on very little save their common experience of Christ. And this diversity got even more bewildering when the Risen Lord Jesus made Paul an Apostle too (cf. Galatians 2). Then in Romans 12 and 1Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of Christ as the Head (One Source) from which grow diverse members with different gifts. So obviously both Jesus and Paul presuppose that there will be different communities which implement the life we have in Christ in different ways, according to the gifts and talents and cultures and perspectives of those in those communities. 

So instead of asking to find the One True Church™, we should seek to be connected to the one true Source. In being connected to that true Source, we can ask whether this or that community exhibits the fruit of being connected to Christ (Galatians 5.22-23), and whether that community's strengths and weaknesses, gifts and needs, align well with our own gifts and needs. We can ask if they administer the “sacred acts” which Christ gave us— such as prayer and worship, preaching and serving, baptism and the Lord’s Supper— in such a way that it empowers us to live a Christlike life in the world. If they bear the fruit of Christlike character, and it is a place where we can serve Christ and be ministered to, then it is a good Church for us. Regardless of its label or brand name. 

In addition the concern to be in the One True Church™ can indicate a desire to have everything all figured out, to stop seeking, to be comfortable, and to have everything settled. This seems to me to be precisely the opposite of the dynamic and messy journey of discipleship that Jesus calls us to: A very subtle kind of idolatry that puts our community first instead of Christ. This world offers us no guarantees and no certainties, save that Christ journeys with us through these uncertainties and will lead us to life eternal beyond the gate of death. 

Now, I understand this criteria may feel very “wishy washy” and overly subjective. But that is part of the point. Living as the Church is much more about maintaining a vibrant relationship with the Risen Christ than it is about fulfilling the terms of a contract. Thus, for the spiritual health of any sincere seeker after Christ, I think the above criteria is sufficient identify a Church community that is connected to the one true Source, Jesus Christ. This criteria works to find a Church which nourishes the soul and empowers them to live Christ’s mission in the world. 

However, for those of us who need something more concrete and definitive, I do think a basic framework exists to help guide us to identify Church communities which are structurally sufficient to keep us fully connected with our one true Source. This framework is implicit in many historic discussions about Church unity across Christian History. But it is explicitly spelled out in the “Lambeth Quadrilateral”, which was developed by Ecumenically-focused and Missionary-minded Bishops in the Worldwide Anglican Communion in 1888. For over a century, it has helped the various Anglican Churches around the world not only maintain unity with each other, but restore unity with various other Protestant and Catholic Church bodies.

The Structural Outline suggested by the Lambeth Quadrilateral, as the name suggests, is fourfold:

  1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God.
  2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
  3. The two Sacraments, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate [system of government with bishops, priests, and deacons], locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church. (BCP, p. 877)

Within this very broad fourfold structure, much diversity and cultural adaptability can flourish, as we are guided by Bishops who trace their lineage back to the diverse Apostles Jesus Himself ordained and sent out on mission. But as soon as one proposes this fourfold structure for the visible unity of the Church, the pushback begins “But WHICH bishops are legitimate?” My short answer is: “Well, all of them, of course!”

But, there is a longer answer as well. This answer begins with one of the standard early Church Fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, who is invoked to describe what the legitimate leadership of the Church looks like structurally. Ignatius was an early second century bishop and martyr, and predictably, he thought bishops were important. Really important. In one of his letter he says “Where the bishop is, there is the church”. In another place he elaborates:

“Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic group he will not inherit God’s Kingdom. If anyone walks in the way of heresy, he is out of sympathy with the Passion. Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. In that way whatever you do is in line with God’s will.” [Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians]

This idea of a single united order of ministry by bishops which unifies the Church is seized upon by certain groups to say “Our group has bishops, therefore our group alone is the One True Church™!” Here is an example of a Traditionalist Catholic Blogger who tries to make precisely this case about the Roman Catholic Church (although many Roman Catholics would not make this case).

But the truth is, Ignatius' description fits ANY church which has bishops who can show their succession from, and connection with, the diverse Apostles who Jesus ordained. And Ignatius was from Antioch, which, last time I checked was part of the Eastern Orthodox, not Roman, succession of bishops. And historically, Christian Theologians have viewed the ordination for presbyter (priest) and Episcopos (bishop) not as different kinds of ordination, but rather the same kind of ordination, with different gradations. Hence in most theologies of ordination, one is ordained a priest, and then is consecrated (or elevated a grade) to be a bishop. 

This was the theology that led John Wesley to say (and I paraphrase) “Since the Church of England won't ordain leaders for my Methodist followers, I will go ahead and do it anyway, since I already am ordained as a presbyter". So, this opens the door to the idea that anyone who has been ordained as a priest by another priest or bishop meets Ignatius' standards. In fact this very argument is used by many Reformed Churches to argue that they are still in historic succession alongside churches that have bishops. So, at a minimum, Ignatius's rule includes all "episcopal" churches led by bishops: Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, Lutheran, Coptic, etc. At a maximum, Ignatius' rule may include every church in which presbyters ordain other presbyters with the laying on of hands in historic succession, which would include most Protestant churches as well.

The only way out of this expansive interpretation is for the interpreter to assume what they are trying to "prove" by quoting Ignatius: Only Roman Catholics (or Orthodox, or Insert-brand-name) have validly ordained bishops so therefore Ignatius MUST be referring to the their Church! Never mind that the succession of Roman bishops was very sketchy when Ignatius wrote in 107 CE, AND in his letter to the Romans Ignatius does not even mention the bishop of Rome, AND Ignatius himself was from the heartland of what would become EASTERN Orthodoxy. So, while I venerate Ignatius and value his letters, this pro-Roman spin on Ignatius is fallacious and schismatic.  

All of which brings us back to the question: Wasn’t the Church united for the first 10 centuries? What has become of that One True Church™ with all of her bishops and traditions, which meets the criteria of Ignatius?

In all of my searching and reading of the Church Fathers, and Church Historians ancient and modern, and the more modern apologists who try to defend the idea THIER Church is the One True Church™ (and thus all other “churches” are fakes and imposters) I have found this: It is only a whitewashed history of the early church which says it was completely unified for the first 3 centuries or 5 centuries or 7 centuries or 10 centuries (depending on which whitewashed history you choose). 

Go back to the source documents. They are filled with Church Fathers making claims that one bishop is right, and the other is wrong; One has denied the faith and the other has upheld it. Many of the Desert Fathers in Egypt and people like Benedict in Italy opted out of the whole mess, and withdrew into the wilderness to start monastic movements. Some Christian Churches went their own way and were not heard of again for centuries, such as the Mar Thoma churches originally planted in India by Thomas the Apostle. In fact, the whole Church was ALREADY so riven with diversity and disagreement that the Emperor Constantine felt compelled to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to bring order and uniformity to his new Religion of Empire. 

Or another way of saying it is this: While the Church was illegal, it was much harder to see its diversity and disagreement, because everything they did had to be out of sight of the general public. But when we finally "open the lid" to look into the Church, after Constantine legalized it in 313 CE, we immediately see such a bewildering diversity that Constantine himself feels the need to stop the Bishops from squabbling. And even after that Council, there was a running argument which lasts to this day as to which Archbishop should have primacy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, etc) or whether it should be the whole college of diverse Bishops who collectively exercise final authority. This diversity did not just create itself in 313 when the Church became legal. It had ALWAYS been there. From the very moment Jesus had ordained 12 very diverse Apostles to lead his scattered people. 

So I don't think any genuine assessment of Church history yields the "one true Church" at any time or any place, but it can show us how diverse Churches, through baptism and ordination, have maintained their connection with the One True Source, who is Jesus our Lord. If you want a good genuine history of the Christian Churches, in all their messiness and diversity, I would heartily recommend Diarmaid MacCulloch's 1500 page History of Christianity. In my opinion, it's the best one volume treatment available. Also instructive to open our eyes to the variety and diversity of the ancient Christian movement is historian Philip Jenkins’ “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died”. These sources, and sources like them, can help rid us of the idea we will be complete and fulfilled when we find the One True Church™, and cure the myopia that our Church is it. 

So which is the One True Church™? None of them are, insofar as they remain inwardly focused on their own badges of merit, and pride of Brand Name identity, to the exclusion of others who are united to Christ. But they all are the "One True Church", insofar as they are connected with the "One True Source", who is Jesus Christ. Do they baptize people into Christ using the Triune Name? Then they are the part of Christ's Church. Do they perform the sacred acts Christ has given his Church to reconnect them with him, such as Eucharist and Ordination, Healing Prayer and Reconciliation? Then they are the part of Christ's Church. Do they encourage people to pursue union with Christ, and empower them to live that union by manifesting the fruit of Christ's Spirit? Then they are the part of Christ's Church.  

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.