Who is the One True Church?

Question
Who is the One True Church?
Answer

There are many denominations that have declared themselves to be the "one true church": The Roman Catholic Church; the Orthodox Church; the Oriental Orthodox communion; and the Assyrian Church of the East to name just a few. The Catholic Church in 1215 A.D. at the Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 1 stated, "There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside of which nobody at all is saved, in which Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice." In this, the RCC states they and they alone are the one true church! Along with this title, they claim to rule the church and to be the only ones that can correctly interpret the Scripture.

However, this definition differs from the Bible tells us. The Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 2:19-21 that the church is:

... the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

Briefly, from Paul's definition of the church we observe:

(1) The church (the saints, and members of the household of God, temple) began in the Old Testament. It consists of the elect (Eph 1:4-13) from all the ages (Heb. 11). The entire church - in both the Old and New Testaments - is the bride of Christ (Isa 54:4-8; 62:1-5; Jer 3:14; Hos 2:14-20; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7-9, et. al.). See "The Old/New Testament Church" below.

(2) With the word "foundation" we note the New Testament prophets and apostles are the agents of revelation by whom God speaks to his people. The prophets and apostles gave to the church the Word of God, which alone (without the tradition of man) is authoritative, sufficient, clear, and trustworthy, etc.

(3) That Christ is the chief "cornerstone" of his church. Christ holds his church together. He alone is the Head of the Church (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18). He is the Chief Shepherd of the church (1 Pet 5:4).

(4) That the church is the "temple" of the Lord. The church is one made from "living stones" (1 Pet 2:5, 25) from the entire remnant of God's elect from every from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev 5:9; 7:9).

As the Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1 states, "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 fills all in all." Joel Beeke explains:

After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord makes this remarkable pronouncement: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18). The Greek word translated "church" means a number of persons called together in a public assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). When the Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, this word was used for the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10; 9:10), and later assemblies, especially for worship (2 Chron 6:3, 12, 13; Psa 22:22, 25; Joel 2:16). Christ seized this word with a rich history in Israel and claimed it as His own: My church. He is the Lord of the congregation of God's worshipers, the King of the true Israel (Phil 3:3). Christ builds the church by His power, and He promises that Satan will never overthrow it.

This church transcends each local congregation of worshipers. A local church can die spiritually (Rev.3:1). Christ Himself may remove its light (Rev 2:5). There are many sad sights of empty buildings where a church once met, or where formerly faithful churches have fallen into heresy. But Christ said that His church cannot fail.

Therefore Christ spoke of what the Westminster Confession calls "the catholic or universal church," both the church worldwide and the church in heaven and on earth. The word "catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church's members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb 12:22-24). The Confession has a number of things to say about the universal church.

First, this church is invisible. That does not mean its members are ghosts that meet in phantom buildings. It means that the universal church is defined in ways that are spiritually discerned and not physically seen. The church is not a building, but a people who worship in spirit and truth, a temple built with living, personal stones (John 4:20-24; 1 Pet 2:5). It is not a particular denomination and cannot be defined by allegiance to any mere man such as the Pope of Rome (1 Cor 1:12-13). At certain times and places, the true church may exist as hidden gatherings of believers fiercely persecuted by leaders of the visible church (Rev 13:11-15).

We cannot produce a complete list of the church's members, for some whom we thought to be saved fall away and show that they never really belonged (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is known to Him or saved by Him (Matt 7:21-23). The church's membership is not defined by participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper, for some who receive the sacraments are not in Christ (Acts 8:13, 18-24; 1 Cor 10:1-8), and some true believers do not have the opportunity to receive them (Luke 23:39-43).

The true church is defined by invisible factors. The qualifications for membership are the secret election of God and the internal work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith. We can see evidence of these divine operations in the fruit of the Spirit, but the true identity of the church is invisible. Yet it is visible or known to God: "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim 2:19).

Second, the church consists of the elect. God elected or chose individuals in order to save them from their sins, adopt them as His children and heirs, and make them holy by union with Christ (Eph 1:4). The church is "a chosen generation," joined to Christ who is Himself "chosen of God, and precious" (1 Pet 2:4, 9). The Bible says, "Christ died for the church" (Eph 5:25), that is, He decreed to redeem the elect long before any of them were born. Their names were "written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," and when they believe in the Lamb they overcome the world because by God's grace they are "called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev 17:8, 14).

Third, the church is in union with Christ as the bride or spouse of the Lord. The church was promised to Christ in God's eternal counsels (2 Tim 1:9), and is betrothed to Christ by the Spirit in effectual calling (1 Cor 1:9; 6:17). As Christ's spouse, the church is the object of Christ's redeeming love and His nourishing and cherishing affection (Eph 5:25, 28-29).

Fourth, the members of the church are joined to Christ in a living, organic, and personal union, knit to Him as closely as the members or parts of a man's body (Eph 5:30-31). Since Christ is the church's head, he rules over it as Lord and the true members of the church submit to His Word as it washes them clean (Eph 5:23, 24, 26).

This unspeakable privilege of union with Christ makes the church the recipient of the fulness of Christ's graces, "his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph 1:23). There is no station in life higher or more privileged than to be a member of the true church!

Related Topics:

The Old/New Testament Church
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
Is Purgatory Biblical?
Lessons on Repentance - Psalm 51
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
What is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?
What is the Immaculate Conception?
Praying the Rosary?
Catholics and Justification?
The Catholic Bible?
Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
Hahn's Hersey: The Four Cups?
Pre-Apostolic Succession ???
Can Catholics be Saved?
Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Was Peter the First Pope?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).