Which church is the true church?
Many in the ecumenical movement were offended this July by a Catholic document published for the Vatican by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The offence was caused by (among other things) the declaration that Protestant churches are not proper churches of Jesus Christ.
Structured around five questions and answers, and entitled Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church, the 16-page document states that Protestants suffer from a ‘profound wound’ because they do not recognise the primacy of the pope.
Now, no true Christian needs be disturbed by such pretentious statements. The claim that Protestant churches are not ‘the Church’ because they are not united with the Roman Catholic Church is nothing new. It is a restatement of the teaching of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and Dominus Iesus (2000) and, clearly, a teaching that the Catholic magisterium holds to unwaveringly.
Christ’s own churches
This, perhaps unexpected, reaffirmation by Pope Benedict XVI has disturbed those committed to the ecumenical movement but it need not hurt sincere believers and true churches.
The issue at stake is this – no human institution, not even a church or denomination, has the final authority to create new churches. That power belongs to Jesus Christ alone, working by the Holy Spirit through the biblical gospel. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18).
In other words, the Lord Jesus establishes true churches. He does this wherever four conditions are met: (1) where two or three people are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20); (2) where the Word is preached truthfully; (3) where the ordinances of baptism and communion are duly administered; and (4) where discipleship is lived out radically. When this occurs, human criteria like the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic Order become irrelevant. They are not needed for a church to be the church.
As Evangelical churches we refuse to consider ourselves second class or inferior churches because the Roman Church says we are! Our identity is determined solely by God and recognised by him, even if not by the world. The authority to recognise a true church does not belong to any hierarchy – Protestant or Catholic.
Justified by faith alone
To use words correctly, the Responses document is more ‘Roman’ than ‘Catholic’. It illustrates the ‘genius’ of Roman Catholicism, which lies in its apparent ability to hold in balance a central (Roman) authoritarianism with a catholic universalism, sometimes emphasising centrality and sometimes universality.
However, the reality is that Catholicism does not rest its teaching on the authority of Scripture, nor does it express the universality of the true church. Gospel universality is brought about only when diverse people are united in Christ by being justified by faith alone.
The gospel delivers the true church from Catholicism’s impossible tightrope walk. It invites every person and every church continually to reform itself in the light of God’s Word – to be led by the Holy Spirit rather than consolidate its own identity as the Vatican seeks to do in this document.
Evangelicals need not be afraid of Catholicism’s high-sounding claims. To his true followers Jesus says, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid … Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master”.
‘If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you … But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me’ (John 14:27; 15:20-21).
The author is President of the Italian Evangelical Alliance