In our pluralistic age it is inevitable that the pluralism that characterizes us leaks into the Church. Today, if one insists that the Denomination in which they are members of, or the faith expression they embrace is the “one true Church,” to the neglect of all other faith expressions or denominations they are likely to be pretty quickly castigated and scorned. This collegiality among different faith expressions and denominations was not always the norm, and would have been considered, even a short 100 years ago or so to be quite inconsistent with Biblical faith.
For example, Dr. Francis Pieper, a noted Lutheran, in his book, “Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III, p. 422,” could write,
“Congregations and Church bodies must be divided into two classes according to their doctrine … “
Pieper then goes on to speak of churches that are orthodox and those which are heterodox with the implication clearly present that only Lutherans are orthodox.
This kind of thinking was also seen in the Lutheran Dr. Walter Maier when Maier refused to speak at a inter-denominational Bible conference because of its heterodox nature. Maier only agreed to speak at the conference when it was agreed that a Lutheran pastor would come in to preside over the conference. With a Lutheran Pastor presiding Dr. Maier could participate because then the conference would be orthodox.
Some of this thinking still carries on today among some Lutherans. I have a Lutheran Pastor friend who would not allow me to join his church since I am Reformed and could never agree with the Lutheran distinctives. I don’t fault him for that stance since it has been the position for much of the Church throughout Church history that organizations that don’t hold to distinctive doctrines as taught in the Scripture are not true Churches and should not be considered as such.
As another example consider the Baptist view of a little over 100 years ago of who does not constitute a true Church.
“It is only courtesy to speak of paedobaptist organizations as ‘churches,’ although we do not regard these churches as organized in full accordance with Christ’s laws as they are indicated in the New Testament… So we in matters … vitally effecting the existence of the Church, as regenerate church membership, must stand by the New Testament, and refuse to call any other body of Christians a regular Church…”
Dr. A. H. Strong, 1836-1921
Reformed Baptist Theologian
What Strong offers here is merely the classical view of Baptist Churches. That some Baptist Churches might not hold this merely means that those Baptist Churches are inconsistent with their own doctrine and have yet one more contradiction in their thinking. As an anecdote on this score I am reminded of a woman who was a member in a Reformed Church that I serve. She had been baptized as a infant. She wanted to volunteer to work for a local Baptist school. The Pastor of the Baptist Church was told of this and despite her protestations that she was already baptized as an infant the Pastor insisted that if she was to work at their school she must be baptized as an adult. The Pastor was only being consistent with the kind of doctrine that Baptists, such a Dr. Strong, has been articulating for years. Note that Dr. Strong called paedobaptist organizations “churches” out of a way of being polite. He clearly did not believe that they were Churches. Given the fact that paedobaptist churches eschew universal regenerate membership and credo-baptist doctrine it is only reasonable and consistent that Dr. Strong would speak the same way as the Lutheran Dr. Pieper above.
Note, that neither Dr. Strong, nor Dr. Pieper necessarily believed that those who were in those other religious organizations were not Christians. They merely insisted that their Churches (Denominations) were the one true Church.
The Reformed faith has always concurred with this thinking and have found fault with Baptist doctrine and Lutheran doctrine the same way that Lutherans and Baptists find fault with their doctrine and so likewise did not consider those denominations to be expressions of the true Church.
“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it….
As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.
Belgic Confession of Faith
Because the Reformed Church has believed the above it does not recognize Baptist Churches, Lutheran Churches, Holiness Churches, or Roman Catholic Churches as true Churches since they do not (1) engage in the pure preaching of the Gospel, or (2) make use of the pure administration of the sacraments, or (3) practices church discipline.
Now, once again, this does not mean the Reformed people don’t believe that there aren’t Christians in those organizations but it does explicitly teach, like Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics, that other denominations are not genuine Churches.
Now, currently if any Church or denomination express this once standard vanilla theology that there is only one true Church and those in alien denominations, for the good of their own souls, need to repent and join the one true Church those people are seen as “narrow minded,” “uncharitable,” or “mean-spirited.” But, clearly those who refuse to embrace this once nearly universal teaching who are narrow-minded since they are not broadminded enough to accept Churches who define themselves other then the casual pluralistic way they want to define churches. They are the ones who are uncharitable since they will not accept those who disagree with their pluralistic stamp. They are the ones who are mean spirited since they have decided scorn against those who define the Church as the confessions do.
The ironic thing in all this is that those who want to insist that the Church needs to be defined pluralistically are really members of the same ideological denomination regardless what the denominational stamp is on the church they attend. If all people in Baptist, Lutheran, Holiness, Congregational, Roman Catholic organizations and Reformed Churches are to insist that the genuine Church is where ever people gather who call themselves Christian, regardless of the denominational stamp then they have defined themselves as the same ideological denomination over against those who want to draw the genuine Church definition in different ways as we have seen above.
For Reformed folks we have historically said Reformed Baptists Churches were not true Churches because we are required to “detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers” (Article 35 Belgic Confession) For Reformed folks we have historically said Lutheran Churches were not true Churches since they deny Limited Atonement. For Reformed folks we have historically said that Holiness Churches are not true Churches since they are Arminian. For Reformed folks we have historically said the Roman Catholic Churches are not true Churches because of their semi-pelagianism. None of this means that we believe that all the Christians in those organizations are unregenerate. It merely means that out of love for God and love for them we do not refer to their organizations are Churches.
Later Editorial note:
I believe the drive to see all denominations as all being genuine Churches may be another consequence of our egalitarian age which loathes making distinctions between “this and that.” In an egalitarian age that desires to insist that all people and both sexes are alike it is easy to insist likewise that all churches are alike and eventually, over the course of time, all religions are even alike.