The One True Church: Yes and No

Edward Fudge

What would you think if someone knocked on your door One afternoon to say that he was canvassing homes in your neighborhood with an offer to conduct Bible studies, free of charge, with families in their own house? You ask what his basic message might be, and he respond, something like this:

"Most religious people don't think about it. but in the beginning Jesus established h s one, true church. As time passed, that church became different from the way Jesus style= "FONT-SIZE:17pt">intended it and. by a couple of hundred years, had turned into something the Lord never envisioned and did not approve. About 100 years ago, God moves some human instruments to lead a restoration of the original church. The way to restoration is to reinstate the important "marks" of the church as they were in the beginning. This is what we have done, as is illustrated in the pamphlets and charts before you. You may examine the checklist for yourself and see that we indeed represent the one true church which Jesus established."

The first time I heard this tale I was amazed - not because it was a new story to me, but because it came from a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). I thought that was our story! Then I picked up a tract at a hospital one day and found the same story this time put out by an obscure group affiliated with a splinter branch of one of the Church of God movements. These people even proved their authenticity by the fact that Isaiah prophesied God's kingdom was to be set up in mountains, and their group had begun in the tops of the the Appalachian highlands of North Carolina. (We could claim Bethany, West Virginia, home of Alexander Campbell, I suppose, but somehow none of our folks ever thought that "mark" was important.)

I mention these two examples (and there are many more which could be cited) only to point out that the claim of being the true church restored is anything but unique. It goes all the way back to the Roman Catholic Church, and probably to the "I am-of Christ" sectarians rebuked by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. There are at least 25 different "restoration" groups in America today with origins from roughly the same time period of the early-to-mid 19th century. That was a time ripe for visionaries and preachers of utopian plans, not only religious, but economic (Karl Marx), psychological (S. Freud), biological (Charles Darwin), health-and-lifestyle (Ellen G. White) and so forth.

It is not surprising that those who have been around react with some reservation when we announce to them that Jesus has one true church and we are it. They have heard this story before, and some of them have learned the bard way of the dangers of belonging to something that makes such exclusive claims.

Please do not misunderstand. There is no question in Scripture but that Jesus established one true church. There is one body - and only one. The church is the body. In this sense, there is but one true church. No quarrel. The problem comes when some historical movement, which ob­viously began on a particular day of a particular year long centuries after Christianity got its start, decides that it - and it alone - is justly entitled to claim identification with that church. Not that that has ever stopped various groups from doing just that, by the dozens.

A better New Testament understanding would be to say that there is but one true church - the body of' Christ - and that it is made up of all those in every place who know and follow Jesus Christ. This way, one call have the joy of identifying, with Christ's body in all those passages of Scripture which speak of it, while also avoiding the jejune and fanciful arrogance of claiming to have a corner on the market.

This also has something to do with the difference between "denomination," "sectarian," or "Christian only." There are other ways to define the first two terms, but in this context, they take on special meaning. We might think of each professing Christian as possessing a flagpole, up which he/she runs the banners that tell who she/he is. The "sectarian" runs up a flag that says "I am a Christian - and no one else is who is not in my group." The "denominationalist" hoists a flag reading "Christian," and another one that tells the particular label. The "Christian only" has a flag which says "Christian" (he cares to use no other), but he never thinks or says that other people are not equally welcome to use the same flag as he.

In our history of the past 75 years, we have, as a group of people, fit the various categories listed above. In the early l900s, many of our people (F .D. Srygley was one and David Lipscomb was another) were content to be Christians onlyˇ That is the way most of the 19th century pioneers also thought. But there seem always to have been some "sectarians" among us, and, from about 1930 or so, they often became the prominent voice. Most other people, by 1950, thought of us as the folks who thought we were the only ones going to heaven. Most of our members didn't really believe that, and most preachers wouldn't admit it, but that was the message we generally sent out, loud and clear.

From the 1960s, due partly to a realization that sectarianism was a work of the flesh and condemned by God, and a better understanding of the way of salvation as by grace through faith, and in part by a bad kind of tolerance which relied less on Bible teaching than on a desire to con form, many of our churches took on a different color and began to slide into the self-image of a denomination. And there have always been some who contended for the "Christian only" view, while denouncing the notion that we were the only Christians.

Which is better? Or worse? It is clear that sectarianism is a work of the flesh ("heresies' or "factions" in Gal. 5:20), and that denominationalism comes short of the goal the New Testament presentsˇ It is equally evident that to be "Christians only" is a burden heavier than many people have been able to bear. Not that God makes it weighty. People do - beginning with the person who takes it up - because it strips one of any pretense at being anything in himself, of having any exclusive claim to truth or right standing with God, and gives all the glory and attention to Jesus Christ. Most of the time, we would prefer to have our cake and eat it too.

So what about the question this article's title raises? Can we say "we" are the one, true church? The sectarian will immediately say, "Of course - and no one else." The denominationalist will say, "Yes, I hope to be a part of that - but also wish to be identified in this other subcategory." The "Christian Only" will say, "Yes, I am part of the one, true church," and stop at that. Can we see the difference? It lies in the second part of the statement: (1) "and no one else;" (2)"but also wish to be identified as follows;" and (3) "I have nothing else to say."

Is it possible to truly be "Christian only" while always identifying ourselves as "Church(es) of Christ?" (or by any other denominator?) Is it possible to avoid sectarianism and denominationalism in a world and time when people know practically- nothing else? Is it progress to move from "sectarian to denominational in the sense of this article? Is "Christian only" a final step we can take? A beginning point to which we should return? Do we really want that? Are we willing to pay the price of our pride, our "marks," our proof-texts and charts and sermons and tracts that center on everything in the world except what is central in the Bible, namely Jesus Christ and God's saving work in Him on behalf of lost sinners everywhere? Is it too late to change? Does anybody care enough to do it? I had the great privilege, a few years back, of helping form and lead a little band of Christians who tried very hard to be "Christians only." Our meeting place said: "Elm Street Church: A Meeting Place for Christians." Some day, perhaps, you would like to hear some of that story. It would be a thrill to tell it.