Which is the True Church?

Question
Where was the true church between the death of the apostles and the Protestant Reformation? When I read the writings of the early church Fathers, they all seemed like they were Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox in their doctrine. Surely the true church didn't begin and end with Jesus and the apostles, and then start back up in the 1500's. So, where were these "Reformation Doctrines" before the Reformation? After looking into church history, it's getting difficult for me to remain a Protestant.
Answer
There are various ways of describing the true church. My preference is to speak of it as the body that contains the faithful remnant. Faithfulness, in turn, is not reckoned by purity of doctrine. Yes, you need a pure gospel in order to be faithful, but the basic elements of the gospel are few. In all other respects, the church can contain a faithful remnant even if much of its doctrine goes out the window.

Another way to speak of the true church, a way that is more traditional in the Reformed community, is to speak of the marks of the church. Generally, Reformed theology emphasizes the three marks the Reformers emphasized: the preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and proper church discipline. Really, though, we also accept the four marks of the church listed in the Nicene Creed; the church is also one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

Reformed theologians have sometimes condemned the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches on the basis that they do not preach a pure gospel and/or do not rightly administer the sacraments. I think there is merit in their arguments against these aspects of these institutions.

However, it is worth noting that many and perhaps most Reformed theologians and churches historically have accepted the validity of the sacraments of these churches. For example, Reformed churches normally do not require that converts from Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy be rebaptized. So, the general consensus would seem to be that at least with regard to baptism, the Roman Catholic formula and elements constitute right administration.

In speaking of "right administration," it is important to recognize that the test applied to sacraments is not a pass-fail test. Rather, the administration of sacraments is more or less right, to varying degrees, depending on how closely the particular administrations in question correspond to the biblical administrations. While the doctrines of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are quite flawed with regard to the sacraments, their actual formulae and elements are not so far off that I feel comfortable condemning them as invalid.

Moreover, although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches teach many false doctrines, and obscure the gospel by so doing, they have not so obliterated the gospel that no remnant remains of the pure gospel in their preaching, or that no person can be saved by listening to their preaching. I believe that there are saved individuals within both churches, meaning that both communities contain part of the remnant. According to the definition of the true church employed in my first paragraph, these churches both qualify as "true."

Also, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have processes for church discipline. Again, these should be judged on a sliding scale. Some elements of their discipline are proper. On the whole, however, I think this is the area in which they fail most grossly. Specifically, they fail in large measure to administer discipline through any process. That is, they don't discipline what they should discipline. Perhaps the most obvious failure is that the doctrines endorsed by their ministers contain vast and gross errors. In the Bible, the doctrinal standard for salvation is very low, but the doctrinal standard for ordination is very high (e.g., Jam. 3). So, while these churches may present a gospel that has the power to save, they don't really have any qualified ministers or a biblical track record on discipline.

My judgment is that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are true churches, but that they do a poor job when it comes to doctrine and church discipline. This means that although they may be true churches, their courts and their doctrine are untrustworthy. Therefore, although we can accept their sacraments and trust that some of their members are saved, we ought not to submit to their judicial authority or be members of their bodies. There are many Protestant churches that manifest the marks of the church in more biblical manners, and we should prefer membership in and submission to the courts of those bodies.

Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Eastern Orthodox Church can claim to fulfill the marks of the church on their own, particularly the mark of being "one." There is no single institution that contains all the believers in the world, or that can claim to be the sole true church. Rather, the true church is fragmented into denominations. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are ancient and huge denominations, but make no mistake: they are denominations. If either is the sole true church, then the other is not. If both are true churches, then the true church need not be gathered under only one institution. In the Protestant view, the idea that the church is "one" does not refer to the institution of the church. I think this is the only view that is supportable from the biblical data, and that can affirm the validity of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

With specific regard to the teachings of the early church fathers, I would make two points: the earliest church Fathers don't sound all that Roman Catholic or Orthodox to me; and the fathers were not inspired. First, in my reading of the church Fathers, especially the ante-Nicene Fathers, I find far more Scripture quotes than theology. The theology represented can generally be affirmed by Christians of all stripes. In fact, the sixteenth-century Reformers themselves often appealed to the church Fathers for support. Beyond this, many of the particular distinctives of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are absent from the early writings. For instance, there is no doctrine of transubstantiation in the early church writings, and no affirmation of the use of icons. We are not encouraged to pray to the saints, or to think that their relics are powerful, or that Mary was taken bodily into heaven. The list goes on.

Second, the early church fathers were not inspired; they were like us. Okay, so they were older, close to the time of Christ. But being older does not necessarily make one a better theologian or interpreter. One simply has to look at the manifold heretics in Scripture to see the truth of this: Cain offered an unpleasing sacrifice; God destroyed the entire world for its evil in Noah's day; Israelite and Judahite kings pursued idolatry with vigor; the Jews rejected Jesus even when he performed miracles in their midst; pagan and Jewish heresies infiltrated the early churches of Galatia, Colosse and elsewhere. Erroneous Christian doctrines were introduced in Thessalonica. The Old Testament history of God's people is one of a faithful remnant and an apostate majority. Even in the New Testament church, the apostles had to deal with many heretics, many of whom managed to gain a significant degree of influence in the church and/or to persuade large numbers of people in the church. We should expect this problem to be even more profound after the deaths of the apostles.

So, why should one be Protestant? There are at least four reasons that I can summarize quickly. First, we should have no great preference for older denominations over newer denominations. Even if you hold a Roman/Eastern view of apostolic succession, many Protestant churches can trace themselves in this manner through the laying on of hands directly back to the apostles. Belonging to an old denomination does not imply that one has access to more truth, or that one is more godly, or that one is smarter, etc. We all have access to the same books, and by my reading the doctrine of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church has changed over the years, despite their protestations to the contrary.

Second, our doctrinal standard should be the Bible, not the church or its Fathers. The Bible itself indicates that our church leaders are often wrong. Only those who are inspired are infallible, and Scripture offers no infallible leaders to the present church, nor does it suggest that the church itself is infallible. Besides, even if the Bible said that the church was infallible, which church would it mean? Roman? Eastern? Universal? The churches that are closest to the Bible's doctrine are Protestant. Therefore, if the church is infallible, the best candidate for that singular church would be Protestant. But again, the church is not infallible.

Third, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches fail their own standards. Neither is universal, and both have changed their doctrine in significant ways.

Fourth, as stated, the Roman and Eastern churches have demonstrated their courts to be ineffective and untrustworthy.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.