The “One True Church(es)”

The “One True Church(es)”

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”!


  1. I cannot count the number of military couples who come to me for counseling, struggling with the their differing faiths. This usually comes to a head when they are stressed over deployment or when the child arrives. Often it just bubbles to the surface as one of the many things the couple is fighting over. Where will our children worship, and who will give in?

    Additionally, as a Military Chaplain I find myself ministering to people of many different faiths. I have had the joy of counseling a Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Catholic, Lutheran, Wiccan, flat-out pagan, and even a few of my own faith. I have to tread carefully when discussing matters of faith, because I am not allowed to proselytize; however, with those who profess a Christian faith I have been able to talk more freely.

    I don’t know how this adds to the conversation, but when a couple is near the brink over baptizing their child or not–how do I answer? First let me say that I don’t baptize babies, as I see baptism as the symbolic act of a consenting human being to the sacrificial act of Christ’s death and His leadership for their life. I first take the couple to the place where they agree, Jesus Christ and their relationship with him. The relationship of the individual with Jesus Christ is what is paramount to me, and what I believe is at the core of the one true church. Has the individual put their faith in Jesus Christ, and are they now seeking his leadership regardless of their denominational affiliation. I know it is oversimplified, because with this belief a number of so-called cults could have adherents who are a part of the one true church. I guess if Naaman could be commended, though he would be worshipping idols with his master, a Muslim could be a part of the one true church. Couldn’t he?

    Comment by Chaplain Cook — July 25, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  2. Thanks so much for some of the only sane comments that I have read on a very heated topic.

    Comment by Will Hinton — July 25, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

  3. A major deficiency of Kuyper’s concept of “the true church” is that it leaves out any requirement or condition that must be met by people to occupy places therein, as though those places are filled automatically and universally, requiring no thought knowledge, faith or effort.

    Certainly “belief” in the Lord Jesus Christ at least is mandated. First par. Nicene Creed.

    Comment by Karl Landstrom — July 26, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

  4. Dr. Mouw, you mentioned Abraham Kuyper. Can you recommend a “Kuyper 101″ source? I am particularly interested in his sphere sovereignty work. I’m looking for something that a nonacademic can read and grasp quickly.

    Comment by Michael Kruse — July 28, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  5. Having just returned from the Oberlin Conference on Faith and Order, I find your thoughts very apropos. One of the papers presented at the conference was by Cardinal Dulles who mentioned how the Roman Catholic representatives in the past were feeling “embarrassed” by some of their tradition enriched practices, esp. over Mariology. He suggested that those days are over (perhaps because Pope Benedict declaration that the Catholic Church is the “fullest” embodiment of the true church). Dulles suggested, similarly to Kuyper, that each Christian tradition bring its respective traditions to the table without shame or embarrassment. With which I whole-heartedly agreed. He went on to propose, however, that in order for us to achieve “visible unity,” all Christian traditions much recognize the pope’s leadership on the basis of trusting the long history of the Catholic Church. Well, what do you think?

    Comment by Kirsten Oh — July 28, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

  6. If all Christians understood history and the Scriptures, the Bishop of Rome would be regarded as an honored brother in Christ who watches over the souls under his care. The Orthodox acknowledge a time in history when the Church of Rome was known for its faithfulness and its bishop was honored as the successor to the “See of Peter” – but never was the universal Church “governed by any successor of Peter.” Jesus Christ alone is the head of the Body, made up of many Churches.

    Comment by Mike F. — August 28, 2007 @ 6:55 am

  7. Thanks for the good informations and I am still looking for info of “true church”, just got info from also regarding true church identity….Thanks again

    Comment by STEVEN LEE — July 23, 2008 @ 12:36 am