I once listened to a talk by John Martignoni of the Bible Christian Society called "One Church". If I had to pick a single message during my life where I really felt God was calling me to take a role in working to heal the divisions that have taken place in His Body, the Church (Eph 1:22-23), I would have to say that it spoke the loudest to me through that talk. I've listened to it several times, and I will post a link to it below, but here I am going to do my best to re-present it in writing*. From it, I want to share what I believe should be important to every Christian: unity in the Body of Christ.
In Jn 14:6, Christ tells us, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me". Jesus is telling us two important things here. 1) There is ONE truth. 2) The truth is a Person...Christ. We know this isn't the first time the Jews had heard something like this, because John writes, "Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:31-32). Notice the singular "word" and "truth" there? And it comes up again when Christ is questioned by Pilate: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (Jn 18:37). What do we know from these Scripture passages? We know that Christ is the Truth, that Truth is important, that Truth makes us free, and that there is one Truth.
Great! So where do we find this Truth? What means did Christ leave us with to find Truth? Did He give us a group of fallible men making fallible interpretations of the Scriptures? Think for a moment about how many people claim to have THE Holy Spirit guided understanding of Scripture, and how many of them agree on every bit of Truth. Every week there are splits among various denominations/churches over some doctrine or another, to the tune of some 30,000-40,000 churches according to some sources. I'm sure these could be narrowed back down to just a few thousand unique beliefs, but is this the work of the Holy Spirit? Is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead people to differing Truths? Does the Holy Spirit work to cause division in Christ's Body, the Church?
No. This division is, at best, the work of the "unlearned" (KJV) or "ignorant" (NRSV)wresting Scripture "to their own destruction", Peter tells us in 2Pet 3:16. Peter is speaking of Paul's letters, as well as the OT Scriptures here. And if you can twist them to your own destruction, then it seems that it's pretty important to make sure you have the right understanding, right?
Notice what Peter DIDN'T say. He didn't say "the evil" or "the wicked" or "the ungodly", or "those who don't pray to the Holy Spirit", or "the non-believers". He said the "unlearned/ignorant and unstable". How many people in the world can claim to NOT be unlearned or ignorant in the Scriptures? Did the well educated and worshipful Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:27-31 believe he was NOT ignorant or unstable? No. When asked if he understood what he was reading , he replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?”. I dare say that if we were not all ignorant of Scripture to some degree or another, we wouldn't need Doctorate programs to help pastors understand the Scriptures.
And what does Peter say of those who are twisting Scripture? He says they are now "lawless"...they don't accept any authority telling them what Paul's words REALY mean, they are going to define that for themselves. Sound familiar? And does Peter say that even those who are stable will automatically remain so? No. He warns them of the exact opposite. "Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability" (2Pet 3:14-17). He also warns us sternly "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation" (2Pet 1:20).
Can we, who are ignorant and unstable (or even stable yet vulnerable, and still ignorant to some degree or another), really expect to read the Scriptures and always come to the correct doctrine or Truth? And if we think we can, then what justification do we give when our view is different from the next guy? If we both claim to have the Holy Spirit guided Truth, then who is to say which of us is right or wrong? And if it's okay for our beliefs to differ, and Truth can be whatever each of us thinks it is, then what does "truth" even mean anymore?
The fact is, nowhere does Scripture tell us that each of us as individuals will be infallible interpreters of the Word. Yet we know there must be one true understanding of the Word, because our One God has One Truth which makes us free. We know that Truth cannot contradict itself. We also know that Christ, the Truth, desires for us to remain ONE, and that differing understandings of Scripture have led, and continue to lead, to division in His Body, the Church. What we need is a guide, just like the eunuch in Acts 8:27-31. Having such a guide is Scriptural. But who is it? Where do we find this guide?
Scripture tells us, in 1Tim 3:15, who this guide is. "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1Tim 3:14-15). "The Church", Paul tells us, is the "pillar and bulwark of truth". He gave this message to the Corinthians as well when he wrote, "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues" (1Cor 12:28). Where have apostles and prophets and all these deeds and gifts been appointed? In "the Church".
Great! So where do we find this Church? Is it in the Methodist church? Or what about the Presbyterian church? How about the Lutherans, Episcopalians, or Catholics or Pentecostals? The Disciples of Christ? Or what about the Doers of the Word? Do we go to the Orthodox ,or Baptist, or Southern Baptist churches? Church of Christ? How many others can we find in the average phone book? In the small town of Baytown, Texas there are more than 35 different denominations (not including the "non-denominational"), and within just those, there are well over 200 different churches. Search a larger area, like Houston, and you will find over 2,500. Are these all the same? Do they all profess the One Truth? Does it even matter if they are the same? Did Christ establish all of these?
Scripture tells us that Christ established one Church (Mt 16:18). "I will build my church"...singular...Christ tells Peter. Scripture also tells us that the Church is His Body (Eph 1:22-23), that He is the Head of the Body (Col 1:18), that there is but one Body (Eph 2:15-16) with one Spirit (Eph 4:4) and one flock with one Shepherd (Jn 10:16). So, we know there is only one Church established by Christ. So is it a visible Church? Or is it invisible? Or maybe it's both? Is it abstract or concrete, spiritual or physical, or can it be all of these at once?
While it seems the possibilities are endless, there are really only 3 possibilities:
1) Christ established more than one Church.
As we have seen already from Scripture, this is not true. Christ established one Church, and only one. And it is His Will that it remain as one, so that the world will know that God sent Christ (Jn 17: 20-23). Christ established one, and only one Church.
2) Christ established a an abstract/invisible Church, which is the body of all believers in a spiritual sense. If this is true, then one of 2 things MUST be true:
A) Doctrine does not matter.
I doubt you would ever find any Christian that would flat out say that doctrine does not matter. But what we DO often hear are statements such as "we agree on the essential doctrines". This statement necessarily suggests that the points of disagreement are NON-essential doctrines. The problem with that line of thinking is that Scripture does not tell us that any doctrines are non-essential, or don't matter. In fact, Scripture says the exact opposite. "...[R]emain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine" (1Tim 1:3). Sounds like all doctrine is pretty important there. "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons" (1Tim 4:1). So, we can depart from the faith by giving heed to the wrong doctrine...sounds pretty important.
"We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming" (Eph 4:14), and "He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9). These can't be clearer in the fact that doctrine is important...it matters. And nowhere do we see that any part of any doctrine isn't essential.
B) Doctrine matters, but it is okay to have conflicting doctrines.
This is another area where "we agree on the essentials" comes to play, yet in this line of thinking we have not taken that statement to its logical conclusion. Instead, we stop somewhere in the middle and just say that it's okay to have conflicting doctrines as long as "we agree on the essentials". But again, where is this list of essential vs. non-essential doctrines? Who gets to decide what is/isn't essential? Christ tells us, “It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Mt 4:4). "Every word", Christ tells us. We live by EVERY Word. "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven..." (Mt 5:18-19). Not a letter, not a stroke, not an iota, as some translations put it, will pass away. And whoever breaks "the least", and teaches others likewise, will be least. What part of that would make us think it's okay to have conflicting doctrines...those which might be "non-essential"?
In Jn 14:26 we read that, "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you". He will teach EVERYTHING and remind of ALL that Christ said to the Apostles. "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (Jn 16:13). ALL truth, Christ says. Does any of that sound like there is a non-essential part of the Word? God, speaking through His prophet Malachi, says, "For I the Lord do not change" (Mal 3:6). Can any part of God's Word be contradictory within His Church is His Word does not change? Can part of it be essential vs. non-essential? No, it's ALL essential, unchanging, non-contradictory, one Truth that will make us free (Jn 8:32).
Back, then, to option #2 in which Christ established an invisible Church. Scripture tells us that the Church cannot be invisible. In Jn 17:20-23 we read, "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me". The unity Christ is speaking of must be visible, so that the world may believe. The world doesn't believe what it doesn't see. Is the world seeing a unity in an invisible church right now? No. At best, it sees continual division, each and every week a new church breaking off from another church that broke off from some other church over some doctrine or another. Our unity must be visible for the world to believe.
Christ also says of His Church that "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Mt 5: 14-16). Christ is telling us we are visible, "built on a hill" for all to see and a lamp on the lampstand to give a light (something visible) to all. This is the sign of a visible Church, not an invisible one.
We see again in Mt 18: 15-17 that we should be able to find the Church especially in cases of unsettled disputes. "If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Mt 18:17). If the Church is invisible how would we go to "tell it to the church"? And when we do go and tell it to the Church, what if we get conflicting messages and differing opinions about which person is right or wrong? If there is no visible Church, then who decides what is or isn't true or moral? Who speaks for the Church of 1Tim 3:15? There must be a visible aspect of the Church.
This leaves us with the third, and only Scripturally supported option.
3) Christ established one visible (with invisible aspects as well) Church, united in one spirit, within which doctrine matters, there cannot be any conflicting doctrine, and it must contain the fullness of Truth revealed by God, and all others, at best, have only partial truths.
"And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph 1:22-23).
"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul..." (Acts 4:32).
"Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (1Cor 1:10).
"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel" (Phil 1:27).
"The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (Jn 17:22-23).
If we are to be perfectly and completely one as Christ and His Father are One, can we disagree on any doctrines? Can there be any "non-essentials" which enable us to say that we at least agree on the "essentials"? The Scriptures could not be any more clear: One Church, visible (AND invisible...not "either/or"), with the fullness of Truth where all doctrine is important and there can be no contradictions, which has apostles, prophets, bishops, deacons, and teachers: this is the Church which Scripture shows us was established by Christ.
Great! So which Church is this? Well, this Church should at the very least claim to be 2,000 years old, hold the fullness of Truth, and to be infallible in matters of faith and morals. Otherwise it cannot be the Church which Christ established because Christ established a Church 2,000 years ago, with the fullness of revealed Truth, and He guaranteed it would be led to ALL Truth by His Holy Spirit. In other words, Christ's Church cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals because it speaks with the very voice of Christ (Lk 10:16). If your Church does not at least claim these things for itself, I hope you will prayerfully consider my Church, the Catholic Church, which not only claims all these and more, but can back up those claims when put under scrutiny.
*Though I tried to maintain the integrity of the original talk, I was unable to include some talking points due to the length or this article.
For more information on the Bible Christian Society and the "One Church" talk (among several other free resources offered) which was the source for this article: Bible Christian Society
For even more Scriptural examples of what Christ's Church looked like, and should look like today: Which Church is THE Church in the Bible? and How Did the Early Christians Worship?
Many thanks to John Martignoni for his evangelistic work in meeting all Christians where they are...in the Scriptures.