This past week’s “On Faith” web panel offers a variety of perspectives on the Pope’s recent declaration that the Catholic Church is the “fullest” embodiment of the true church. One of the persons who wrote in to comment on my contribution to that panel quoted Mark Twain’s great line: “Man is the only animal that has the one, true religion. Several of them.”
That reminded me of the time when I was serving on the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. The Council had created spots on the commission for churches that were not members of the NCC, and I represented the Christian Reformed Church. It just so happened that one day the delegates of non-member churches were all sitting in the same row. I had come in to the meeting a little late, and sat down next to the Greek Orthodox representative. Beyond him in that row were the delegates from the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church. My Orthodox friend whispered to me: “I’m glad you made it. Now we have all the representatives of the one true church in the same row. Now, if only we could figure out which one of us deserves the title!”
It’s healthy to joke about it, but we also have to recognize that this is a tough topic to talk about ecumenically. The “one true church” motif runs deep, and is explicitly encoded in several confessional tradtions.
My theological hero, Abraham Kuyper–himself no wuss when it came to fights about the “purity” of the church–firmly rejected the “one true church” approach. He argued for a legitimate “multiformity,” or “pluriformity,” of the church, recognizing “differences of climate and of nation, of historical past, and of disposition of mind”–thus acknowledging a reality that “annihilates the absolute character of every visible church, and places them all side by side, as differing in degrees of purity, but always remaining in some way or other a manifestation of one holy and catholic Church of Christ in Heaven.” The providential development of church life has led, he said, to “national differences of morals, differences of disposition and of emotions, [and] different degrees in depth of life and insight, [which] necessarily resulted in emphasizing first one, and then another side of the same truth” (Principles of Sacred Theology, 63-64).
Now that I am a Presbyterian, I take special encouragement from Kuyper’s observation that the Westminster Confession is less restrictive in its ecclesiology than his own Dutch tradition’s Belgic Confession, with its “true church” versus “false church” delineations. He liked to quote Westminster on the “invisible church”: “The Catholic or Universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the Head, thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all” (Westminster Confession, ch. 25, art. 1). This article, he says, “beautifully sets forth [the] heavenly all-embracing nature of the church.”
Maybe this is a good time to look to the past–even to the ecclesiastically divisive days of the Reformation era–for some help in our present debates about where to find the “fulness” of “the one true Church”!