September 29, 2020

Links To and Out of The “True Church” Vortex

Catholic convert blogger Bryan Cross asks “Where is the visible Church Christ founded?”

Bryan says a lot of good and truthful things. He’s a fine theologian and an excellent Roman Catholic apologist. If you are the person we’ve been discussing all week, remember: it’s this question that will drive you batty, so read at your own risk.

Or go a different way. A way that just might save your sanity.

British Lutheran blogger (and BHT fellow) John H at Confessing Evangelical gives the sane and Biblical Lutheran answer to the question, and links you to several of his previous posts on the subject.

if that doesn’t stop the voices in your head, here’s some medicine that really has helped me. Alastair at Adverseria has been on blog hiatus for quite a while, but back in the day he did some writing on “The Denominational Church” that rescued me from being sucked into the apologetic vortex.


  1. I’m reluctant to be the first to comment — but here goes ….

    In linked articles thee is a lot of “either/or” decision making going on — the invisible Church or the visible; either He meant this or He meant that.

    What has saved me from the mess is the understanding that with God it can be — and is — “both/and”. Listening to Joseph Campbell and reading Kierkegaard did that for me.

  2. I recall this discussion while I was a monk. Ultimately, the CHURCH, the body of Christ, is completely and totally visible. I tell people there is only one Church in my town; we just meet in different locations. Being part of that assembly takes place wherever I’m breathing air.

  3. “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.”

    Then I’ll just stay where I am.

  4. internetelias says

    John 4:21 “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” The inner spirit-man is invisible. When God revealed to Peter, Spirit to spirit, that Jesus was indeed the Christ…..Jesus revealed to Peter that, Spirit to spirit, Jesus knew him the same way. And on the same foundation, Spirit to spirit fellowship,…Christ would build His church…and the gates of hell would never be victorious over it. The upcoming redemptive act of Christ would forever preserve the Church unto Life…through a personal relationship with the Trinity. The ‘three’ are the ‘chief cornerstone’ disallowed by the builders. The building which rests on the foundations are ‘lively stones’…fittly joined together….the Body of Christ with Christ as the head of the body. Real ‘fruits’ are all that is visible of the true church. “By their fruits you’ll know them.”

  5. The analysis by Alastair Roberts is excellent. It comes closer to framing the problem and articulating a path toward a solution than anything I’ve yet encountered on this subject.

    It is deeply troubling to me that one of Jesus last prayers on earth was for the oneness of his church. As such, I would think it to carry added weight and significance. And yet I’ve never heard a sermon, nor even read anything dedicated to fleshing out the meaning of this prayer. On the other hand, there is no end to all the sermons and arguments I’ve come across defending the holiness of all our divisions from and against one another. How can God not weep at our arrogance and hardness of heart?

    If all Christians were to believe that in Christ we are one, what would this mean for the way we think, speak, and act? If we are truly, no matter our tradition, together the body of Christ, and individually found ourselves able to see each other as such, would anything in creation be more wondrous and magnificent? Imagine Christ as head moving through the world possessing a body that is not simply one in a spiritual, theological, and theoretical sense, but is physically one consisting of men and women from all creeds and cultures moving together in love toward God, each other, and the world. What if each one of us were to apply the creative power of our traditions to work out practical theologies in service of Christ call to oneness?

    As “unrealistic” and improbable as this vision is, can any of you argue that it is not what we are called to live for?

  6. The problem I see with Alastair is that he is simply making the post-Reformation argument, but simply with more numbers. Whether a country has two denominations or 1000 denominations, once there is more than one, it is all too easy to make the argument that the Church must include both denominations, because, “The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination.”

    But, this argument presents two problems. One is that the phrase I quoted is true, even when there is only one Church in an area. One needs only look at the Book of Acts to see several instances of “the work of God in . . . [an area far exceeding] . . . the work that He is doing . . .” in the Church. Frankly, the work of God has ALWAYS exceeded the borders of either Israel or the local Church.

    But, the second problem is one Alastair only indirectly recognizes. That is, it either makes everyone a believer or makes everyone a heretic. Sadly, what slowly starts going out the door in such a conception of the Church is a conception of Truth. Alastair conveniently skips the question of how you decide who is NOT part of God’s economy,despite calling themselves Christian, and needs to be evangelized. Eventually, an eventually which is already here, there is almost no authoritative way to speak to a local congregation–such as a megachurch–to tell them not only that the should change, but that they must change, or to speak to a very liberal congregation to tell them authoritatively that they have deserted the faith.

    In this, I give the Roman Catholic Church some well-deserved congratulations. Their careful definition of the Church, and of “other” Churches, and of ecclessial communities, and of separated brethren was a serious attempt to deal with the reality of the multiple denominations, the work of God that is present, and the reality that the idea of Truth and of One Church needs to be aggressively preserved. I know that no Protestant and few Orthodox liked the definition, but it provides a more philosophically and theologically sound model than Alastair.

  7. Fr. Ernesto,

    I find I agree with your entire argument. My post preceding yours conveniently skips past the seriously valid concerns you’ve outlined. Yet neither you nor I are ready to give in to the better argument of the Catholic Church, whatever our reasons. And likely none here would be part of these discussions were we not interested in the unity of the body or didn’t see ourselves somehow connected to each other through Christ.

    Still I ask, shouldn’t we be more aggressive as individual and denominational Christians in our efforts to recognize the oneness of the Church and actively reach out to one another? I’m not convinced that truth has to be abandoned to do this any more than it does for me to reach out to a brother or sister with whom I’ve had a difference. It merely means I must humble myself even where I see myself unjustly wronged, and act toward them as if we are connected in hopes that we will actually become so.

    It’s obviously not simple. But don’t we need to emphasize these things more than we have?

  8. In defense of Alastair, I think he’s not addressing every theological issue, but is addressing people like me. Hey, I know I’m a heretic. Now what am I gonna do? Fight every denomination till I win, or see the church outside my own bunch of heretics?

    By the way, I read B16’s homily saying that the conversion of Paul is a path for Christian unity. Would any Catholics here allow me in affirming only what Paul said about Mary, the papacy and purgatory?

    I’ll go get a sandwich while you work on that one.

    (Yes, I am a little annoyed tonight. Sorry for the snark.)

  9. Ellen,

    Thanks for your letter. Since it was of a personal nature, I have taken it off the post.

    Appeals for my conversion- even gracious ones- aren’t part of the conversation here at IM.

    And I have better reasons for not being Roman than the ones in that article.

    Let’s tell the world about Jesus. So many need him. He has me.



  10. MDS and iMonk,

    I see two issues at work. In one sense, the first one is the Francis Schaeffer-like “How Should We Then Live?” That has both a personal and corporate component. The personal one is the one iMonk has been addressing. We can, indeed, drive ourselves nuts going back and forth and back and forth. There is very clearly a time to say to God that you cannot figure it out, to ask for His grace and mercy, and to stay faithfully where you are until such a time as He gives you better guidance. In fact, for some people, their very mental and spiritual health may depend on shutting down the whole “search” process and simply being in the group in which they find themselves.

    The corporate component is that if we agree with the idea that God is at work in many groups, then we can, at the very least, find ways to cooperate with and encourage our fellow believer who belongs to another group. Mind you, this is not to say to the other group that we believe that their theology and claims are correct. But, it is to recognize that God is at work in both of us, and that there are issues of need in the world, both evangelism and social action, in which we must cooperate lest a worse world emerge.

    But, the second issue that I see at work is a philosophical issue. And that is the issue around Truth. While it can sound very warm and “huggy” to say that we are all equally heretics, philosophically that does tremendous damage to the Truth claims of Christianity. To say philosophically either that we cannot figure out what the Church is or to say that the Church is this invisible body that is visibly indescribable–for that is what it means to say that all Christian groups have equal validity in their doctrine and ecclessiology–is to drop into a type of relativism that, eventually, is destructive of the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy itself. [Note: it is quite possible to make the claim that there is a visible Church while saying that I, myself, may not be able to figure it all out.]

    MDS, yep, I am not a Roman Catholic. In fact [trigger laugh track here], I would claim that the Vatican definition is correct, but that the Orthodox are the Church of which they talked. GRIN. Nevertheless, the philosophical point is that the Vatican definition is, so far, the only one that tries to hold together both the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, the work of the Holy Spirit among those who name the Trinity, and yet the insistence that there is One Church and there is One Truth. It takes seriously the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy without returning to the Inquisition, allowing those who hold that definition to both cooperate with those among whom God is working in a “salvific” way while, at the same time, being able to call the other group to change and return to a more orthodox conception of the faith.

    No, not all problems are solved by that Vatican definition. But, it certainly avoids worse problems.

  11. Ky boy but not now says

    “There is very clearly a time to say to God that you cannot figure it out, to ask for His grace and mercy, and to stay faithfully where you are until such a time as He gives you better guidance.”

    Which I did for years. Then things went far enough from what I considered “truth” that my family and others bailed. But I know I’ll never find a place where I agree 100.000000% on everything. So we seemed to have found a place where we agree on all of the “majors” as we see them and most of the “minors”. Who can do better in a fallen world?

    I also agree with the RCC statement and also feel that they have the wrong group at the top of the heap. I just don’t feel like it’s your group either. 😉

  12. All I know — and I do know this — no matter where any of us stands on any of the issues of division and unity, no matter what heresies we cling to and the Truths we reject, when I enter into real prayer and communion in the Spirit of God I am joined there with many, many others. There it is none of my business where they worship, what they believe about any of it or how they identify themselves in relation to the God that we are all worshiping.

    And the real sense is that the moment I make that my business will be the last time I get in until I repent.

  13. Hi, M.S.–

    Yes, let’s tell the world about Jesus. But since that was not the subject of the article I referenced, or even of this thread, I feel my post was appropriate and specific, and useful to some who may be genuinely struggling with those aspects of Catholicism. As for the personal aspect, that is the essence of Christianity, and the essence of the way Jesus reached out. But it is your blog, so your way! No offense taken, and I will continue to pray.

    Peace to you, as well, and thanks for the note of explanation-
    In Him,

  14. I believe your post was appropriate….where the Catholic apologetics debate- pro or con- goes on. It doesn’t go on here in the IM comment threads unless I specifically allow it.

    Conversion to another denomination is a big deal in my world. I don’t see it the way Catholics see it. I would never join a closed communion group. My conscience simply will not embrace such a position.



  15. MS- I do not see the Catholic Church in the same way you do, obviously. It is not “another denomination”. It is the universal church, i.e. the one Christ founded when He was here in the flesh, giving Peter the “keys to the Kingdom”.

    When I tried to explain this to my 8th grade CCD students, I told them to imagine the Church as a beautiful car I owned, and I had to leave for a while so I chose one of them and gave that person the keys, and told him to take care of my car and get it back to me in one piece. Only he could determine who got the keys after him, if I didn’t come back for a while, since he was “in charge”. When I do finally get that car back, I imagine it will have a few scratches and bumps, but I will at least know how to find out where it is! Plus, the last person in charge will have the best idea of my original detailed instructions.

    The “Reformation” to me is like one of the students–a clean, responsible guy who considers his ways better than the others–who sneaks the car out– (makes a spare set of keys just to get the dirty car washed, for heaven’s sake)–and the bumper falls off, starting a chain reaction of other problems. The “in charge” kid soon realizes that the car is missing, and frantically starts a remorseful search to find it and get it back (he knows it was dirty). But by then the car has been mangled pretty badly. It is missing its entire muffler system, etc… It is missing its wholeness, but it is still the original car. When I return, I’m going to have to gather up the pieces from hither and yon, and I might be pretty ticked, but I want my whole, authentic, classic original car, and I mean to have it.

    Meanwhile, the car is having to function without its missing parts (the “denominations”), and it is sounding pretty bad and wobbling all the time, and is much harder to drive. I like to think, however, that if I were Jesus, I would have known all this would happen, and for a purpose, in my plan. I see, for example, that certain denominations are taking awfully good care of their missing pieces, shining them up, adding polish, knowing there is something special about the pieces they have found along the road. Maybe when my car finally gets back together it will be grander than ever.

    BTW–Closed communion means only that if you do not accept that it is the actual body and blood of Christ, you are desecrating Him in your reception of Him, and He will be coming to you in vain. He will not let His Church do that.

    I hope I cause no offense,
    In Him,

  16. Ellen….

    Thanks for the kind explanation. I’ve been reading Catholic writers, apologists, converts, etc. for many years and I hope I have some of an understanding.

    It’s because of the view of communion you are sharing that I could never become a Catholic. Among many other reasons.

    But my conversion and Catholic apologetics are not the subjects here at IM.



  17. You have taken offense. It was not meant. I wasn’t patronizing you, and I do not seek your conversion to Catholicism, unless that is the road God has chosen for you, as my first post clearly stated. I do hope you find whatever road that is–or perhaps you are securely upon it already! How would I know? I do not have God’s mind! But I’m pretty sure I am on the path He has chosen for ME, and I thought I had stumbled upon a site with an open-mindedness that might accept MY enthusiasm and excitement as a Catholic, and not take it as a personal challenge and affront. Wrong, apparently. Thanks for taking the time, at least, to respond.

    In Christ,

  18. Ellen,

    I’d humbly suggest that your diagnosis of my offendedness is off target. The kinds of conversations we have here is a matter of long-time moderation policy, not what I’m offended by. I’m not offended by hearing these explanations. I simply don’t have a “say whatever you want” comment policy, especially as regards Catholic-Protestant issues. And that’s why there is more civil, inclusive and appreciative Catholic-Protestant dialogue here than any other site on the web. Questions are answered, but every post and every discussion is not a question.

    Sorry my flawed attempts at moderation have offended you. Read more of what goes on here and you might find you can say much more than you think.

    BtW, you didn’t hear a detailed Protestant answer to your Catholic positions. I hope you noted that.



  19. MS- Thanks. I’ll check it out.


  20. I’ve been thinking about this all day while I was out on the bay coaxing clams out of the relative warmth of the mud to my freezing boat deck. It’s about the Catholic-Protestant controversy but I will relate it to the topic:

    It is quite intriguing to realize that, although we Roman Catholics believe that Peter was not only given the leadership role (the keys of the Kingdom, etc.) but was called to be the Shepard of the Lord’s flock (“Feed my Sheep” 3x’s), it is Paul, for the most, who has defined the New Testament theology. Paul was not called and taught by the Lord where the others could see. The Lord called Him after he had ascended, and it was only through convincing miraculous Spiritual evidence that he was accepted by those who had actually walked with Jesus.

    But if the Church back then clung to the ideology that Peter, the first Pope, as we RCC’s see it, was “infallible” in his doctrinal decisions, instead of listening to this Johnny-come-lately, there would be an eighth sacrament for men only, and priests would be undergoing some specific medical training along with all the other stuff they study in seminary.

    In my opinion, everyone — EVERYONE — must leave room in their theology for God to be God.

  21. I would claim that the Vatican definition is correct, but that the Orthodox are the Church of which they talked.

    The Vatican definition is “Everyone in communion with the pope at Rome.” Sure that fits Orthodoxy?

    I can’t take Bryan Cross too seriously after all his benders on “sacramental magisterial authority.” RCC version of Steve Hays.

  22. Michael: thanks for the link and the kind words about my post.

    To the earlier comment who felt I was driving a wedge between “visible” and “invisible”: I think the problem is that the “invisible” church concept tends to drive out the “visible” church. People with an “invisible” church understanding tend to end up regarding that, and that alone, as the “true” church. So yes, I think a robust emphasis on the visibility of the church is what is needed.

    There is a parallel with those who emphasise an invisible “baptism of the heart” in distinction from “water baptism”. “Visible” baptism with water tends to become secondary to the “invisible” baptism with the Holy Spirit. But the Bible knows of only one baptism and only one church.

    Both these are visible, and need to be (so we can say “I am baptised” and “there is the church” with confidence). What is invisible is the work of the Holy Spirit in working faith in those who are baptised and those sitting among the “assembly of saints” hearing the gospel proclaimed in word and sacrament.

  23. Josh,

    What exactly do you think is wrong with the concept of “sacramental magisterial authority”?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan