No one has the knock-out punch argument for the question, "Which church is the true church?" This is why there are so many "true" churches. All Christian groups claim that they are the true church and the others are mistaken somehow.
Of course, in the larger picture, all religions have this "true church" perspective (witness the Muslim suicide bombers of our day) so our claim in the churches of Christ to be the true church is similar to every religious group whether Christian or not.
This is not to say that our claim isn't sincere or even accurate, it simply is not original. The problem, of course, is to prove such a claim, and in the event this cannot be done, decide what we are to do with ourselves as a result.
"EXTRA ECCLESIAM NULLA SALUS." "Outside the church, no salvation." This religious slogan could easily represent the attitude of the churches of Christ and be placed alongside the oft quoted, "Speak where the Bible speaks, silent where it is silent," the Restoration movement's famous quote summarizing the church's approach to Bible interpretation and application.
In fact, "Outside the church, no salvation," was an axiom that evolved from the early church "Fathers" (i.e. Ignatius of Antioch)1 and crystallized in the writings of Augustine who confidently claimed the Roman Catholic Church to be that one true church.
In his writings condemning those who practiced the Christian faith apart from the blessing and authorization of the Catholic Church, he wrote:
"Outside the Church he can have everything except salvation. He can have honor, he can have sacraments, he can sing Hallelujah, he can resound Amen, he can have the gospel, he can hold and preach the faith in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: but nowhere else than in the Catholic Church can he find salvation.2
Claiming to be the one true church has not only been claimed by many, it has also been done for a long time. Roman Catholics have been doing it for 1600 years!
THE MAIN POSITIONS
Within Christianity there are many groups. Call them churches, denominations, faith traditions, fellowships, the fact still remains that there are literally hundreds of separate groups each carefully distinguished from each other in order to create a recognizable and individualistic identity. Whether we like it or not, the churches of Christ are historically part of this mix.
There are, however, only a few differences between the groups at the most crucial level of importance and that is in the area of salvation. This is because how and when a person is "saved" is the only question of true consequence within Christianity.
It would greatly simplify matters, therefore, if we understood that all Christian groups fall into one of only three positions on this critical issue.
1. THE EXCLUSIVIST POSITION
This is the position first held by the early church "Fathers" and articulated by the Catholic Church until the 20th century.
It states that there is absolutely no salvation outside the Church. Among the different groups that hold to this idea (the mainline churches of Christ being one) there are various reasons given to justify this position.
The R.C. church's exclusivist stand is based on its idea of succession. It claims to be the historical successor to the Apostolic church of the 1st century with an unbroken line of leaders (Popes) who trace their lineage back to Peter the Apostle. This is a natural claim for a group that was influenced early and often by the example and rule of kings and their concept of the divine right of rulership. This appeal to succession along with the support of key passages in the New Testament that refer to the unique and singular role of the church as the sole deposit of God's work here on earth (Eph. 4:4; Col. 1:18), supports the church of Rome's claim to exclusiveness.
Of course, the Catholic Church isn't the only group that claims exclusiveness within Christianity, but it is the oldest and has had the longest time to support this idea historically. Others use different reasons to promote their exclusive position and these reasons are what stand them apart from each other and provide the narrative for their teachings as well as the context for their historical development.
The churches of Christ's claim to exclusiveness was the proposal that the Bible contained "forms" or "patterns" for religious activities that could be described, handled, and applied as doctrine to create a definite and recognizable Christian system and lifestyle in each generation. The movement birthed by this teaching evolved to a point where protecting this idea and promoting the forms became not only the basis for exclusivity but also the reason for all things done in the church.
2. THE INCLUSIVIST POSITION
The inclusive position springs from the exclusive one. Very few religious groups start there but many are eventually drawn in this direction.
The inclusive position says that Christianity is the only true religion but within Christianity there are many views and practices. Salvation therefore is exclusively found within Christianity but is attained through the various practices of that faith.
There are many in the Churches of Christ who are promoting an inclusivist shift in our attitude, however, upon closer examination we see that the battle in our brotherhood is really a struggle to become more or less exclusive. To be truly inclusive, our basic position would have to be that everyone who believes in Jesus is saved no matter what group or set of other beliefs they have about Christianity. This is the definition of what "inclusive" means in the religious world today and is not part of the dialogue going on within our churches.
3. THE PLURALISTIC POSITION
Religious pluralism is not a subject that is discussed often in the churches of Christ but it is a hot topic in the mainline Catholic and Protestant groups. Pluralism from the Christian theological perspective is the belief that all religions provide salvation. It does not deny that Christians are saved but asserts that Christianity is but one of many ways that God has of saving human beings.
It supports the approach that all religions should be equally respected and proposes that the only way to world peace is through the equalization of all religions.
There are theologians within Christianity that argue for religious pluralism stating that God wants all to be saved (I Tim. 2:3) and manifests Himself to various nations in different ways. The key idea is that whoever seeks "transcendence" (a knowledge/contact with the otherworldly) is seeking God. Another important idea among Catholic theologians (i.e. J. Dupuis)3 is that the mysteries and precepts found in all religions ultimately find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. From this comes the idea that if one is seeking the otherworldly God either on his own or through his native religion, he is seeking Christ whether he knows it or not, and God will reward that person with Christ in this life or the next.
Some pluralists work from within Christianity and seek to reconcile all religions to Christ, or the kingdom of God, or even the Trinity in some way or another. Others, who are of other faiths or not belonging to any group, propose that the phenomenon of universal religion points to a universal God. The main debate among pluralists concerns those who have no spiritual aspirations and what happens to them. Are they saved also? This only proves that even among what we in the churches of Christ would call heretics and pagans, there is always the issue of exclusivism.
These then, are the three possible positions for the basic question that divides not only Christians, but separates Christianity from other religions. Either some are saved within Christianity because of a correct mixture of faith, knowledge, and action in regards to Christ; or all are saved within the broad category of Christianity the only requirement being the inclusion within this category; or everyone regardless of religious belief or degree of faith are saved. Most debates within and between the three positions are a striving to move to a greater or lesser degree of openness towards one of these options.
The agents of change in our movement want the church to move to a broader exclusiveness where we widen our circle to include more groups that have different forms (for baptism, worship, etc.) than we have. This change is dangerous but not for the reasons usually given (slippery slope to denominationalism which is our word for all out inclusivity). No, this change is dangerous because it is really no change at all, just a shift in the way we are exclusive. In the end the goal should be that we strive to be exclusive in the things that the Bible establishes as exclusive, not exclusive according to standards we have established for ourselves.
There are, however, ways to preserve our restorationist point of view without compromising the Scriptures. I suggest three in particular:
1. limit our exclusiveness to biblical exclusiveness.
A. The Bible sets Jesus as the exclusive threshold for salvation and so should we.
He who is not with Me is against Me. (Matt. 12:30)
Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:32)
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. (John 14:6)
…for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
B. The Bible also has an exclusive plan or system through which Christ offers salvation to all, and so should we. This plan to save man is best described in Romans 3:21-30 and Ephesians 1:13-14. In these passages Paul explains that before the beginning of time God chose Jesus, the Divine Son, to serve as the atonement for the sins of humanity and thus offer freely the forgiveness of sin and regeneration in the Holy Spirit that would enable sinful humans to live together with the Godhead in a glorious state forever. This offer was to be received on a basis of faith in Jesus Christ as that Savior.
In other words, the exclusive plan is salvation based on God's grace received by faith in Jesus as opposed to salvation based on merit through law-keeping; or salvation for everyone; or no salvation at all. Paul summarizes it well when he writes,
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. Rom. 5:1-2.
C. The Bible establishes the exclusive response threshold for salvation, and so should we. Throughout the Old Testament man's response to God has always been some expression of faith (Hab. 2:4). For example:
- Noah expressed his belief in the coming flood by building the ark (Gen. 6:13-22).
- Abraham's faith was expressed in circumcision for himself and all of his descendants (Gen 17:9-10; 23).
- The Israelites witnessed their faith by keeping the Law given to them by Moses (Deut. 4:1-8).
This pattern of response continues in the New Testament as Jesus Himself establishes the exclusive response threshold for all of those who would receive the salvation He offers. This includes:
- Faith in Him as the Christ - Acts 2:36.
The threshold of faith is belief that Jesus is the Christ – not an acknowledgement of a particular set of doctrines held by one group or another. Our knowledge of the teachings of Christ is part of the process of sanctification powered by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:1-17) and facilitated by those who lead and teach us in the Church (Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:9-16). But the threshold of our faith for salvation's sake is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 8:36-37).
- Repentance of sin – Luke 5:32; 13:3; 24:47.
That repentance is part of the basic response to God and is very well documented in the New Testament beginning with the preaching of John the Baptist, confirmed by Jesus and continued by the Apostles. The debate, however, centers on what degree of repentance is required. Again the threshold is Christ.
The beginning of sin is the disbelief that results in disobedience (Rom. 1:18-32). Conversely, the turning away from sin, for salvation's sake, also begins at belief (in Christ) and obedience that naturally stems from that growing faith. There is a difference between the justification event in repentance (a turning away from disbelief to belief) and the eventual process of sanctification (greater obedience and spiritual maturity).
We err when we place the threshold of repentance at improved moral standards, or the completion of some restitution for past sins. This places the exclusive threshold at some arbitrary point in the process of sanctification rather than at the crossroads of disbelief and belief in Christ.
This exclusive threshold is plainly seen as 3,000 people who had previously rejected Jesus (disbelieved and as a result were complicit in His death) now accept Jesus as the Christ (believe) and receive salvation that very day (Acts 2:37-41)! If the threshold for repentance was at any point other than a turning from disbelief to belief, there would be ample opportunity to demonstrate it here at the initial preaching of the gospel – it isn't.
- Baptism – Matthew 28:19
The exclusive threshold of baptism is the baptism connected to Jesus. Christ is the threshold for baptism because it is His baptism (Acts 19:3-5); it is a baptism to unite us to Him (Gal. 3:27); it is an appeal to Him for forgiveness (Acts 22:16); and a clear conscience (I Peter 3:21). Baptism is a witness of our obedience to Jesus (Mk 16:16); our Christian discipleship (Matt. 28:19); our burial with Him in death (Rom. 6:3); and the seal of the Spirit that only He can give (Acts 2:38; Eph. 1:13). There is only one baptism related to salvation and it is the one connected to Christ (Eph. 4:5).
In the same way that we have tried to move the boundary for faith from faith in Christ as the Son of God to – faith in a set position or set of doctrines; and repentance from a turning from disbelief to belief in Christ to – prescribed behavior; we have also altered the exclusive threshold for baptism from a Christ centered witness to – a specific ritual where exact execution is required to accomplish salvation. This is ritualistic legalism not the baptism of Christ.
There is much in the New Testament to suggest that baptism as practiced by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles was by immersion in water. The meaning in the original language;
BAPTISMA = … consisting of the process of immersion, submersion, and emergence (from BAPTO, to dip) 4
and the many references to water in the process (Matt. 3:16; Jn 3:23; Acts 8:36) help us conclude that this was the form used. However, to establish the "form" as the exclusive threshold for salvation makes our execution of the form the deciding factor rather than the relationship of the form to Christ as the critical element.
If the form was the exclusive threshold then the disciples who received John's baptism (Acts 19:1-5) would not have had to be rebaptized since they had already been immersed. Note that in this instance Paul did not question the form of their baptism but rather the net effect (did they receive the Spirit?) and the relationship (John's baptism or Christ's?). If the form were the critical thing, he would have only had to change their understanding. But the threshold is Christ. He legitimizes the form not the other way around.
In simple terms: Christ's baptism (because of Him) and not immersion baptism (the correct form) is the exclusive threshold in regards to baptism. Understanding and executing the proper forms for baptism, communion, worship, church organization, etc. are all part of the maturing process (Eph. 4:9-16) and generally shape the type of exclusiveness we practice which in turn determines the character of our churches.
In the churches of Christ we have largely based our exclusiveness on the correct understanding and practice of the "forms." This has led to legalism, division, and the discredit of the restoration ideal and movement by the world. Society doesn't reject Christ because of us, it rejects us because of our actions and looks for Christ elsewhere.
The way back to a legitimate claim for Biblical relevancy therefore, is to restore the exclusive thresholds that Christ Himself has set in the Scriptures with regards to salvation.
Biblical exclusivity requires that we preach the good news that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ expressed in a repentance and baptism connected to Him.
The establishment of this Biblical exclusivity will return us to the original challenge of restorationism – Biblical unity!
2. FOCUS ON WIDENING THE CIRCLE NOT REDUCING IT.
Jesus was an exclusivist. He insisted that He and He only provided the way to salvation. However, unlike the Pharisees, He constantly strived to widen the borders of His approaching Kingdom. Sinners, tax collectors, beggars, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, even Pharisees, were called and made room for.
If we are to survive the shifting and repositioning of so many churches in our brotherhood, if we are to be heard among the increasingly visible messengers of new religions and philosophies in the world, we must emphasize what is good about the good news.
God has a plan to save us. This is the good news! Salvation is a gift. This is good news! We are saved by grace through a system of faith and not law. This is good news! Every sin is forgiven. This is good news! Salvation is for everyone, even you. This is good news for me personally!
If we want to remain restorationists while making changes to reenergize our church, let us focus more on restoring the good news about the gospel and the true nature of the Kingdom (Holy, devoted to Christ, open to as many who will enter) and less focused on judging everyone's practice of the external forms.
This shifting to a greater openness brought on by our focus on the gospel will blur the lines of fellowship as we have known them. IF we restore the exclusive Biblical thresholds for salvation then the Church becomes much larger and varied than we are used to or comfortable with.
Several questions immediately arise.
- How do we handle teachers and teachings that are in conflict with each other over the "FORMS" like baptism or communion, or non-salvation issues such as women's role in the church, the manner of worship, etc. in our own congregations and brotherhood?
- What would our position as churches of Christ be concerning fellowship with other "Christian" groups? Are we to be in fellowship with Roman Catholics, Baptists, and others who profess faith in Jesus Christ as savior but have different forms, organizations, and doctrinal views?
Thankfully Jesus provides us with another Biblical exclusive that establishes the threshold for issues of fellowship among the saved.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35
The practice of love among believers is what joins them within the body of Christ (the church) not conformity to "practice" and "forms." This does not negate what Paul says in Ephesians (4:1-3) concerning the effort that all need to make to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is only one Lord (the Savior Jesus Christ); only one faith (the teachings of Christ and the Apostles); one baptism (Christ's baptism); one body (Christ's body), etc. Our task is to seek out, with the help of the Spirit, the fullness of these, bearing with one another in love as we mature in understanding, wisdom, and the practice of the forms that make up the Christian religion. If our unity as believers is witnessed not by adherence to our interpretation and practice of the "forms" but by genuine love for one another, we will achieve true Biblical unity in God's eyes, even if that unity will be difficult to quantify, measure, or organize according to human standards.
This does not negate the need for order, teaching, obedience to God's Word. In the same chapter of Ephesians Paul goes on to explain that God has provided the church with special ministers (Apostles, prophets, evangelists, elders and teachers) for this very purpose. The task and goal for these is to help the church in the process of sanctification so that in time all will grow in the unity of the faith and knowledge of Jesus in love.
This is where we, as Restorationists, have a great advantage. Unlike most other groups we have little organizational baggage having established a system of congregational autonomy. We already have in place local leaders who are tasked to teach and lead.
"Widening the circle" would require us to not only accept all who come to Christ according to the salvation thresholds He has set, but to welcome them into our congregations as brothers and sisters. It would also mean that our primary goal would be to teach them how to love as Christ loves and begin the process of teaching them, "to obey all the things which I have commanded you." Matt. 28:20. There might be differences of opinion and maturity among the members as well as the teachers but these would be settled by the leaders ("Obey your leaders, and submit to them…" Heb. 13:17). The leaders' task would be to preserve the exclusive essentials (system of salvation by faith/witness of discipleship by love) and guide the church in its spiritual development as to form and practice.
Love would require that those who could not accept the direction and teaching of the leaders join themselves to those they can.
Churches of Christ could maintain a unique identity under theses circumstances, it just wouldn't be the identity it has had in the last fifty years.
Our new identity would be that of a group devoted to proclaiming the essential gospel; promoting the highest degree of love among its members; providing a place for all believers regardless of their level of spiritual maturity; preaching the simple practice of Biblical Christianity; and passing on to God the responsibility for judging the condition or value of other people's faith.
The issue of whether or not we would have fellowship with Catholics or Protestants or any other group professing Christ would be moot since our role would not be to join other groups to establish unity. Our focus would be to create unity within our own congregations and if we could truly achieve this then others would want to join themselves to us. This would be a true witness that we were indeed restoring the N.T. church.
"Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people and the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved." (Acts 2:46-47)
3. PREPARE FOR THE END.
The focus on preaching God's actual Biblical plan of salvation and maintaining the thresholds He has established will help prioritize our activities and resources in the local church. It will also eliminate the need to judge and compare ourselves with others. If others preach the same gospel, they are with Christ and our brothers working in other fields. If they are not, God will judge them in the end.
As we do these things the final task to complete our transformation will be to add to the gospel the "urgency" of the end.
A sense of urgency about a sure death, judgment, the return of Jesus and the end of the world… this is worth restoring to a church and world grown dull of hearing because of its diversions and abundance. "Be saved from this perverse generation!" (Acts 2:40) is as relevant an invitation today as it was when Peter first preached it on Pentecost Sunday.
In each generation there is a voice that God sends to shout, "Awake sinners." We could become that voice in the modern age once again. This could be our place!
What are we to do with ourselves? With God's help through His Spirit and the Word, we should continue to serve Him by faithfully proclaiming His gospel, not our own; lovingly receive those who come to Him on His terms, not our own; and faithfully announce that He is coming again and urge everyone, including ourselves, to be ready.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev. 22:20)
- Letter to the Philadelphians 3,3; The Apostolic Fathers AF Cambridge, 1965, 2:242-43
- Sermo an Caesarensis Ecclesia Preblem 6; C sel 53:174-75
- Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, Jacques Dupuis S.J., ORBIS Books 2004.
- Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Hendrickson Publishers