January 16, 2021

iMonk Classic: On the “One True Church”

Church Pew with Worshippers, Van Gogh

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From January 24, 2009

Note from CM: Back in Jan. 2009, Michael wrote a piece called, “Theology, Depression and the Unsolvable Problem of the Right Church.” Today, we present an excerpt from that post for Ecclesia Week. In this essay, the iMonk tries to temper our desire to find the perfect church, reminding us that no matter how pure our ideology, we will always still end up in a local congregation that is imperfect at best.

• • •

Now, I want to get down to this matter of the One True Church. If you judge that you are a person who believes there is only one true denomination, then I believe you should check out the candidates from the RCC to the EC to the LCMS to the local Church of Christ (if you are in west Kentucky) and reduce your choices to the actual candidates. You simply don’t need to mess around with denominations that don’t believe there’s only one true franchise or that believe we are all part of the broken, fragmented body of Christ. If you are in a typical Baptist church and you really believe that Jesus made the successor of Peter the living authority, then go to the RCC, please. Whatever the issues are that are keeping you from doing that aren’t very important.

Now, if you say “I just don’t know,” you should keep reading.

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, Van Gogh

I am a critical and analytical person. Send me to ten churches, and I will find ten things to like and ten things not to like at each one. I do not believe that any congregation is an expression of the one true church so much that there aren’t problems. But this is my nature. It’s EASY for me to see the brokenness and hard for me to see anyone’s claim to being the one, divine “it.”

Now, if I am convinced that one Denomination is right, my problem is going to be this: I still have to belong to a congregation, and a congregation is the place where the “essentials” are worked out in real life, not just in my head. So if I believe that the RCC has it right, I won’t be hanging out with B16 or Scott Hahn. I’ll be at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a fine congregation that doesn’t have a piano, that has congregational meetings that make me want to be Shinto and a priest who thinks a homily is practice for his missed career in stand-up. Oh yes, the Catechism is in the church library, but THIS is where I am a member, out here where no one knows what I’m even talking about.

If I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is the church Jesus started, then I’m clearly insane, but for the sake of the illustration…here’s this wonderful statement of faith, and a great missions network, and Al Mohler and those fine Calvinistic Ascol boys. But at my church, doctrine has been replaced with “How to be a great parent” sermons, the deacons have fired the last three pastors in less than 4 years, the music is a cross between an 80′s metal band made up of fat 45 year old men and the senior adult choir singing from the 1956 hymnal. We haven’t baptized a convert since 1993. Our current pastor looks like Ryan Seacrest and the youth minister looks like the Mindfreak guy.

That’s your church. Oh sure, you can drive elsewhere and you can improve. (I drive two hours each way.) You can work for improvement. You can do all that stuff. But here’s my point: You chose the one true denomination, you still have to deal with your local church. It is the place you do or don’t hear the Bible. It’s the place you do or don’t start churches and do evangelism. It’s the place you are or are not taught the faith you read about on that great web site.

The search for the one true denomination will drive some of you into depression, especially if you can’t admit that no such church exists and that you may never be happy if you find it. That every church is a compromise. That they all require you to live with some tension. You are convinced the LCMS has it right doctrinally? Great. Been to a local LCMS church lately? It’s a dice roll. That’s not an indictment. That’s the grown up world and it’s true across the board.

In his book Is the Reformation Over? Mark Noll makes this point very clearly. When you get Protestant converts to the RCC to answer researcher’s questions, they have a list of things they miss that’s not short or insignificant. Tears are shed. The broken body of Christ has the better sacramental thinking in one place and the better missional/evangelistic ministries in another. It’s the real thing. You want to be depressed? Go down the rabbit hole of endless despair? Just walk into ANY church saying “This is going to be great,” and forget how far short we all fall, how broken the body is, how much we all contribute to that brokenness.

There is no paradise in the SBC, the EO, the RCC, the megachurch, Redeemer Presbyterian, Mars Hill or the house church in Frank Viola’s living room. We’re all still working on this thing. We are all experiencing the brokenness and our part in it. We are all holding onto some part of the treasure, but none of us have it all. (Though as I said, if you believe someone does, then reduce your choices and go there.)

My friend Phillip Winn at the BHT is a good example. When I first met him on line, he was a member or a large Charismatic megachurch. Over time, he decided his family needed something more catholic and evangelical, so today he is a leader at a conservative ECUSA church working for renewal in that denomination. But Phillip is passionate about Jesus. He knows the flaws of his church. He knows the contributions his churches have made to the good and bad of the unity/disunity in the body of Christ. He loves his church, but his love for Jesus is what has transcended all the other aspects of his journey. If one church has nurtured that journey more than another, that doesn’t mean one is all right and the other all wrong.

Phillip is off the treadmill of looking for the perfect church. As a believer, he’s made a choice and he’s experiencing the ministry of Jesus in and through the church, imperfectly.

If you are depressed over this to the point of despair or atheism, I would advise you to step back; step back to the place you can see the goodness of God and the simplicity of faith. Move forward only as you are able to experience God along the way. If you believe God is playing a game with you, hiding the truth and holding out the carrot of really knowing Jesus if you choose the right door, please don’t go further down that road. God is good. Jesus love you. All that God has for you is there in Jesus, available to all who trust in Jesus alone by faith.


  1. God is not playing a game. He has used many ways to speak to us. He sent his son down to earth for us and our defects. There are many who come to us that need SAVING because of there own demons. Mainly in the forms of drugs and alcohol. Getting them to turn and face the son of god again is a process. Much like having one true church.

    • AA is my church, a place to belong and feel safe, my home church. Jesus came for the sick and broken. He is my Gentle Shepherd and Saviour. I had had enough of the so called “church”. I had to leave it and that is when I desperately sought the real Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Authors Andrew Murray and Charles Spurgeon and Charles Stanley have had influence on me and also The Recovery Bible, and the real 12 steps. It works if you work it. Crying out to God for truth, searching for Him earnestly, keep knocking, and being real in the rooms, and confessing my defects of character and sharing the real me with like minded safe people is my home church, forever. Thank you God for Bill W.

      • Reminds me of what Philip Yancey wrote in “What Good is God?” in a chapter where he talks about “Why He Wishes He Was an Alcoholic.” Pongo I came to another conlcusion and know deeply what it’s like to be crushed by the church. Between an accountability partner who lived a double life, while I had the shit kicked out of me, I also had a minister who put my job and career in jeopardy. Why…? His reasoning as he told me later on…was that he thought it would be good to lose my job to teach me a lesson of the consequences of sin. Last I heard (this was 3 years ago…) my accountability partner was still invovled in the chruch and was a leader. As for me all the facades and dishonesty were too much. I got a lot of relief from trashing a lot of Christian material in a dumpster behind a Safeway in the Washington, D.C. area. From my perspective Christianity can be quite a cancer. I’m not good enough for God or the church, and wouldnt be good enough to live a dishonest life and play the game well.

  2. “So if I believe that the RCC has it right, I won’t be hanging out with B16 or Scott Hahn. I’ll be at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a fine congregation that doesn’t have a piano, that has congregational meetings that make me want to be Shinto and a priest who thinks a homily is practice for his missed career in stand-up. Oh yes, the Catechism is in the church library, but THIS is where I am a member, out here where no one knows what I’m even talking about.”

    This, Yes. Michael really knew what he was talking about 🙂

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Except that Catholics aren’t blessed with congregational meetings in the way that Protestants are. The bishop assigns the priest to the parish, who controls the local bank account. There may be some sort of parish lay counsel, but it plays a strictly auxiliary role. There certainly is no equivalent of an annual meeting where the grouchy old guys insist on discussing every line item of the budget.

      But the Catholics do have all sorts of other affairs which might tempt one to Shitoism.

  3. David Cornwell says

    The not-so-perfect Church is where we sinners hang out with the Risen Christ. God somehow becomes incarnate in the imperfections of this world. My church is full of things I’d love to change, but… next door is the Episcopal Church, and down the street the Disciples. A block in the other direction the large Lutheran congregation. So, which one should I change to? Not a chance. I’ll hang out with my group of sinners… and the One who became flesh and is among us.

  4. Several years ago, I was at my local SBC church. It was a church that liked to praise itself. They didn’t see themselves as the one true church, they just saw themselves as better than all of the other local churches.

    There wasn’t alot of introspection, or humility. One of the leaders at the church once said that you should believe that your church is the best church. There is a kind of truth, to this statement, since certainly, none of us would probably want to wave a sign in front of their church, saying that, “We are the worst church in town.” Presumably most of us are attending our current churches, because we feel that for us, in the here and now, this is the best church. At the same time, there was a lot of arrogance in this statement as well, as if to say that our teaching, discipleship and living out the gospel was better than everyone else.

    So, what happpened? In the end, there was a nasty church split. The leadership was totally incapable of addressing the problems within the church, because they were too convinced of their own rightness. In the end, we left this church, because we felt that it was not the best church for us. Ironic, huh.

    What helped me in my own journey was that I talked to people, went to other churches, and read a lot of books, and along the way I discovered something remarkable. I discovered people here at I-Monk. I discovered that there are people, who were not members of my old SBC church, who were passionately in love with Jesus, and who were doing some amazing things for God. In my own way, I had discovered that God’s love is really as “wide and long and high and deep” as the Apostle Paul shares in Ephesians 3:18.

    • I guess one thing I discovered which is similar to what Michael is saying is that “perfection” is a hard thing to live up to. Better to adopt humility, brokeness and contriteness. Of course, this doesn’t exactly fit into the image of “My Church is the best one in town,” but it’s a church were I can make my home.

    • <

      Oh, we attended on a lot like that for close to a year. We decided it was time to move on when one of the ministers got up and told us we were ‘clapping wrong’ and proceded to ‘teach us the right way’. They also liked to make videos about their ‘coolness’.

      • Elizabeth. Totally relate. Once I had to give the opening prayer at a church service, and I used the phrase, “this Lord’s Day.” After the service, the Pastor pulled me to the side and told me, “You shouldn’t use that the phrase ‘Lord’s Day.’ It’s Presbyterian (and were’ Southern Baptists)”

        My head was nodding, “okay.” My brain was going, “What in the world?”

  5. “You chose the one true denomination, you still have to deal with your local church”
    “The search for the one true denomination will drive some of you into depression, especially if you can’t admit that no such church exists and that you may never be happy if you find it.”

    OK, but let us say that one tradition is the closest to your heart. You somehow fall in love with this tradition. Would you let it go just because you do not like the priest very much (and this would be a serious problem for me) or some people in your local congregation and would you look instead for a local congregation where you somehow feel more comfortable even though you have some problems with this particular tradition/denomination? If you move away from Sola Scriptura to something where the Scripture is viewed as part of the Tradition, then I think your choices will be quite limited?

  6. Someone asked my pastor (during a discussion on cults) if there could be any real Christians inside the Mormon church?

    My pastor said, “Sure. There could be some. And there might even be some here.”

  7. Convicting. A little sad, but he’s right.

  8. Oh God….the doctrine of “One true church”. Christians religious people will never escape that term, “one true church”. (Eagle reaches for his barf bag….) Consider….

    1. When I grew up my Catholic my family viewed Catholicism as being the “one true church.”
    2. When I looked into Mormonism in college, the missionaries told me about the apostasy that took place and Joseph Smith’s desire to find the “one true church” which led him to found the “one true church”
    3. As a fundgelical I was consumed with the concept of finding the “one true church” whereever I lived. The asine thing was when I lived in Wisconsin and drove close to an hour to go to church. It made it hard for memebership meetings, softball, etc..

    There are a few things that bother me about the concept of “one true church.”

    1. It makes Christians to be some of the most arrogant and self-rightous people around ESPECIALLY when it comes to church plants and church launches. One of the most asine things I heard of was 3 churches being planted adjacent to each other in Arlington, Virginia. Which one is them is the “one true church?” Another ridiculous thing was when the mega fundgelical magical kingdom on Lesburg Pike (aka McLean Bible) wanted to start launching churches in theaters inside Washington, D.C. Some Christian churches were apprehensive about the move, and eventually it backfired due to zoning laws, resitance by the neighborhood concerned with traffic it would create, etc.. In the end the fire breathing senior pastor was in the Washington Post quoting about the efforts to block the chruch “were from Satan!!!” (Where is the Saturday Night Live Church Lady when you need her?)
    2. The “one true chruch” mentality feeds the “us vs. “them” mentality but it changes it to create situations where churches fight amongst each other to beat each other up into getting the message out in the most “Biblical” way as they have a corner on the one true gospel.
    3. The concept of “one true church” leads ot one of the greatest sins that Christians practice, accept and embrace. That sin is the sin of pride. It creates situations that continue to divide Christianity and spliter it further. Remember when Jesus prayed for unity. Many Christians due to their practice of “one true chruch” basically give Jesus the middle finger as they quarrel and fight amongest each other because of the their efforts to be the”one true church”. It leads to so many sins in addition of pride. Those sins include secret knowledge, division, gossip, slander, anger, racism, and elitism.

    Meanwhile the agnostics like msyelf get reminded why Christianity is so %^&%ed up. The concept of “one true church” plays into that greatly.

  9. David Cornwell says

    As many have mentioned before the historic creeds of the Church are the place to find real unity and the “one true Church.” And the heart of this, for me, is this:

    The third day He arose again from the dead;
    He ascended into heaven,
    and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

    • And yet curiously, I have recently come across a few young people (20 somethings) who claimed to be Christians (one was Catholic, the other non-denom) who had very odd views, for Christians, on the nature of Jesus. One (the Catholic) believed that Jesus was fully human only whilst he walked on the earth, but after the resurrection became Divine. The other believed that Jesus was not human at all but simply the Divine in the appearance of a human. Now either these two people are completely unable to articulate their beliefs correctly, which I would find odd given one is a college student and the other a college grad; or their catechesis has not been sufficient. But I don’t even find that explanation adequate because, in the case of the Catholic at least, when I was Catholic every Mass included recitation of the Nicean Creed. That Creed explains the nature of Jesus.

      So if the Creeds are to be the fulcrum of the Church, it would be helpful if someone started teaching them.

      • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

        We’re teaching an overview class on the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion the first several of which just restate and flesh out the Creeds. #2 (Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man) exposed some serious lack of understanding basic Christology among our parishioners. At least now we see where we need to bolster the teaching!

  10. The concept of “One True Church” strikes me as very similar to the concepts of “old fashioned,” “organic,” “all natural,” and “made in America.” Each of these concepts appeal a basic dissatisfaction within us toward our churches, our cars, our food, our doctors, our government, our fellowman, and ultimately, ourselves. We live life in the “how things are” (i.e., in a disappointing reality), but long for “how things should be” (i.e., in an idealized utopia), and the dissonance between them makes us want and wish for something better. Unfortunately, even if we could find an organic, all-natural, old fashioned, made in America, one true church, we’d still find fault with it.

    We would look at the Ananias and Sapphiras (Acts 5) in our congregation, and see their very presence as evidence that that particular congregation is obviously not of the one true Church because how could such sinners exist within the one true Church if the doctrines were true and the Spirit were genuine?

    I guess I’m saying that seeking the one true church is a waste of time. It doesn’t exist. It never did, even when Jesus and the Apostles walked the earth. Find a church that makes you happy, and makes you want to serve others, and makes you want to be a better person. There is enough truth in that.

  11. “It’s the place you are or are not taught the faith you read about on that great web site.”

    “The search for the one true denomination will drive some of you into depression, especially if you can’t admit that no such church exists and that you may never be happy if you find it. That every church is a compromise. That they all require you to live with some tension.”

    What a brilliant, realistic observation! Compromise and tension. This is so true. Again, there is a sheer ignorance of ontology within evangelicalism which leads followers to the futile chase for perfect churches, perfect marriages, perfect careers, etc. The internet probably does make it worse – creating a virtual world of religious mirages. But reality is that within every participation there is estrangement; within every fulfillment there is non-being; within every ideal there are blemishes; within every belief there are doubts; within every strength there is weakness; within every saint there are failures. The Christian message is not that the ideal is obtainable; rather, it declares that in spite of flaws, failures and estrangement, there is grace, there is hope, there is acceptance, there is forgiveness, there is peace. The perfect has already come on our behalf; his name is Jesus.

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