One recurring debate throughout the history of the Christian Church has surrounded the question, “How can we know what is the true Church?” and “What are the marks of the true Church?” The specific theological questions or matters of praxis have changed from one generation to another but underlying them all is this question and the varying answers given to it. Those who were deemed heretics pushed the boundaries of correct doctrine and praxis. Indeed, the drive to discern the true Church has produced some of the foundational documents of historic Christian orthodoxy (for which I thank God) but also has brought out the worst kinds of human behavior from professing Christians.
This observation has become a favorite target for critics (of all types) of Christianity and particularly the Roman Catholic Church. For they have lots of information from which to fashion objections and moral condemnations of the behavior of “the Christian Church.” In many ways the critics make valid points which we who believe need to acknowledge and work to not repeat in our own generation. However, we would be foolish to attempt to dwell with our contemporaries in the swamp of philosophical relativism and soften the truth of the revelation God has given to us in Christ. Or to bow to the delusion of the demons, which so many in this generation have happily embraced, that we cannot know the truth about living God and what is required to live together in a way that pleases and honors him.
In modern times this action of asserting truth as truth is held up as being especially suspect and blameworthy—for nearly everyone else except theists and Christians in particular. For it is not only academics in departments of the Universities but also people from all different backgrounds that react against this claim. Frequently the objecting cry is, “Who are we to judge?” and “No religion can contain God!” and “Who are you people that you say that you have special knowledge of God that others do not?” And thus the possibility for discussion of truth is shut down.
I acknowledge that these objections are rooted, in part, in the actual immoral behavior of professing Christians (past and present); and thus there is an emotive reaction rooted in the pain of violated trust with persons who profess Christian faith. This is understandable and regrettable and beyond me to answer except to note that it is still not a valid reason to reject the possibility of truth being revealed by God to us and for our deliverance from sin. When these objections are not rooted in emotive reactions and used as a kind of philosophical objection they are patently ridiculous and self-serving.
The notion that human knowledge is entirely relative is a farce that cuts against all claims to knowledge of the truth in all spheres of human experience—about the natural world, healthy psychological functioning, establishing moral norms and theological convictions. What is needed is the will to seek and discern the truth of all aspects of human life and have the humility to recognize the limits of what we can understand. The Christian faith has, at its best, always claimed that this was not only possible but that it is God’s will for human beings to pursue this in joyful relationship with their Creator. Thus surly we can come to discern the true Church.
Perhaps the greatest confirmation of the Church’s identity and message, from generation to generation, is the fact that it has been attacked by so many different people and for so many different reasons. G.K. Chesterton, in his usual brilliant manner, makes this point:
“It can always be urged against it [Christian orthodoxy] that it is in its nature arbitrary and in the air. But it is not so high in the air but that great archers spend their whole lives in shooting arrows at it—yes, and their last arrows; there are men who will ruin themselves and ruin their civilization if they may ruin also this old fantastic tale. This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight against the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. . . . And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. . . . Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but it foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waist the world.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 8 [cited from Collected Works, Vol. 1 (Ignatius Press:1986), pp.343-344, 345].)
The Church remains because God has established it as a beachhead of the Kingdom of God on earth. Those vilified, ignored and hated by worldly people have become the pillars which preserve what is good and noble among humans. Truly, God has appointed his own loved ones to suffer in this world “as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36; quoting Psalm 44:22)
Our forebearers’ in the Christian tradition suffered willingly and joyfully because they believed in truth; and thus to them it was of the utmost importance to pursue an accurate understanding of God’s truth in all aspects of life. (Indeed, in terms of theology, even the heretics believed in truth—although they did not think that the churches in their own time were correct on those points they disputed.) It was precisely because there were important (even essential) points of teaching and practice being disputed that Church leaders sought to establish a common understanding of and ways to articulate what made the true Church authentically true. To do this required them to discern together what were the attributes or marks of God’s church—“the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15, NRSV)
What a strange predicament we find ourselves in these times. Skepticism about truth and the trustworthiness of the Scriptures has not only infected people’s thinking generally but it has manifested in the actual behavior of many who profess to be Christians. One expression (particularly in America) of this unbelief is the notion that people who are disciples of the Lord do not need to have meaningful connection with the Church—that is, God’s people. Did not the Lord command us to live together in community? The teaching of the whole of Scripture assumes that people are living in natural and intentional community with shared faith in the Truth (God himself). God have mercy upon us and deliver us from the internal and external barriers that keep us from gathering together to the glory of Christ, as the Church of God, through the Holy Spirit.