The history of the Christian church is a very remarkable one. It tells us of men of faith who carried the Gospel into all the world, transformed men who were savages and barbarians into men of God and made the peoples of northern Europe, many of whom practiced human sacrifice, into cathedral builders and architects of civilization. Despite the attacks of its enemies, the great achievements of the church are obvious and clear.
This does not mean that the church has not been guilty of great wrongs, nor that all criticism is in error. The years ahead promise us, if present trends continue, a dramatic resurgence of Christian power and culture. If Christians as individuals and as churches are going to exert the right kind of influence, and initiate the right kind of action, they must learn from the past, and this means both recognizing our sins and errors, and also re-establishing our roots in the word of God.
Our concern here is with one particular error, and with its implications. Before doing so, the connection between sin and error needs to be cited, Years ago, I heard about a man who bought his first automobile and, being a successful man, rejected the attempt of the seller to teach him a few things about its maintenance. His attitude was, when I need to have the car taken care of, I'll bring it back to you. He did, very soon, towed by horses, because of neglect by ignorance of a simple fact. He made a foolish error because in his sin he was too arrogant to bother learning a few simple facts. Sin warps our perspective, and the result is often error.
A great error of the churches over the centuries into the early years of the modern era had its roots in the doctrine of the church. The church is the body of Christ; it is a supernatural fact, created by God in Christ, and beginning its life in us with God's supernatural and regenerating grace.
Moreover, theologians have spoken of the church as Militant and Triumphant. The Church Triumphant is the church in heaven, the great assembly of the redeemed from the beginning of history until now. The Church Militant is the church in history, working to bring all things into Christ's realm and rule, to disciple all nations, and to teach them the totality of God's command word. The Church Militant cannot be severed from the Church Triumphant, but neither can it be identified with it.
The source of great error has been the belief that there can by definition be only one true church. In a very real sense, this is true. Outside of Christ, there is no salvation. Peter declares, "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This fact is basic to Christianity.
The problem arises when we predicate what is true of the church in Christ for the church as an institution in history with sinful and fallible men as members and officers thereof. What is true of Christ is not true of us, and what the church is in eternity, it is not yet on earth.
The belief in "our" church as the one true church has marked east and west, Orthodox and Latin churches alike, Catholics and Protestants, as well as the Anabaptists. It has led to persecution, because if "our" church is the one true church, we cannot view with kindly eyes false churches.
Because of this belief, a gradual shift took place in church life. Earlier, men sought to formulate creeds, confessions, and theological treatises in order to correct error and further the truth. The answer to error was to deepen one's knowledge of the faith and to proclaim the truth as the corrective to error.
However, in time, as each group identified itself as the one true church, it followed that they saw themselves as the sole possessor of truth. Over the centuries, each has seen the "fallacies" in the positions of other churches while remaining confident in itself as Christ's one true body and voice.
In a very real sense, this identification had pagan roots. Paganism, like humanism today, absolutized the temporal, and this is idolatry. In terms of God's law, idolatry is a fearful offense. A particular church may be closer to the truth on certain particulars, i.e., a specific doctrine, a form of government, and some other facet of the life of the church, but no church this side of heaven can be defined as the one true church. When God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3),He does not thereby ask us to judge the other churches but to clean up our own lives and to separate ourselves from every idolatry of church, nation, race, person, and so on.
From Old Testament times, however, the covenant people have looked to themselves rather than to God in defining the true order. God through Amos (9:7) asked the people of Israel "Do you think you are more than the children of Ethiopia to me, O children of Israel?" Israel like the church stood only by God's truth.
Given this propensity to believe that one is the sole possessor of truth, it followed that each group felt that its control over a people made all the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation. According to Scripture, it is Christ, not the church, who makes the difference.
Absolutizing one's perspective, group, or powers is the constant problem of history. It is one of the marks of the apostate intelligentsia of the modern era. In the l8th century, the French philosophers believed in "the omnipotence of criticism." Our modern intellectuals use more modest language, but their beliefs are no different.
In the political sphere, men and nations are prone often to regard their nation as the bearer of civilization, so that the welfare of mankind depends on their survival and triumph. The Lord God did very well when the modern nations did not exist, and He will do better when they are gone!
Our Lord tells us, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). He did not say, ‘the church is the truth, and no man can go to the Father apart from the church.'
When a church falls into idolatry and sees itself as the possessor of the truth, it shifts its ministry from the lordship of Christ to the lordship of the pastors, elders, bishops, deacons, or whatever its authorities may be. Such an idolatrous church then makes central to its dealings with its members not departures from Scripture but disagreements with the idle and oppressive pontificating of the church's little caesars.
St. Paul, though inspired of God and personally called to the apostleship by the revelation of Jesus Christ, still wrote humbly, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ" (Phil 3:12).
It is not we who are the truth of God, either as individuals, nor as churches. The triune God can never be contained and limited to an institution, however great.
solomon dealt with this issue at the dedication of the Temple. The Temple had what no church has ever had, the tabernacling presence of God in the Holy of Holies. But Solomon said, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" (I Kings 8:27).It the Temple could not be viewed as the sole possessor of God and His truth, how can any church make such a claim? The church becomes great by serving Christ, not by exalting itself.
To scale down the claims of the church is not to scale down the truth of God, His absolute claim on us, and the exclusive truth of His revelation. Rather, it is to recognize the servant role of churches and peoples.
We need to recognize that the more naturalistic and humanistic men and institutions are, the more they see themselves as the voice of truth. Having denied a truth over them, their only truth is, after Hegel, what is incarnated in history as the state and its elite rulers. The less Biblical we are, the more idolatrous we become. It should not surprise us that Marxism is radically idolatrous. Absolutizing the temporal is always idolatry wherever it appears. Foolish churchmen have often seen themselves as the truth (and also as the wrath) of God. This is idolatry, and God will judge such men. Not the church, nor men, but Jesus Christ is the truth of God, and He alone is our Redeemer.
(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 348; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 81)