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June 4, 2018

The Church, by which I mean “the whole body of Christ,” consists of all Christians, whether they are Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. (I use a capital C to refer to the church as the “whole,” and also use it with a proper name, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, etc.) Yet the Roman Catholic Church refers to itself as “the one church.” The Orthodox Church doesn’t use the same exact language but it confesses that to be inside the Orthodox Church is to be in “the body of Christ.” (In effect, this claim is dissimilar in one way, but the result is still a claim to be the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” as the Nicene Creed put it.) Add to these historic claims those made by many (most?) evangelicals. In such contexts church has a rather less confessional use, in in many instances, but popularly the true Church adheres to the same doctrines that evangelicals confess (e.g. justification, repentance, faith, etc.). These various ways of confessing the one Church create what seems to be an insurmountable barrier to visible unity. So how are we to make progress in dialogue as we work together for unity with all Christians and churches?

Some say the best way forward is to stop confessing our faith about the Church itself. We simply agree that the doctrine of the Church is not really that important. This is a minimalist response that will not work in the real life faith of most Christians. This views says that Catholics need to be less “Catholic,” the Orthodox less “Orthodox,” etc. I find this response unhelpful and unfaithful. It will result, in effect, to a sprint to the lowest common denominator, a race that leaves us with something far less than a healthy and robust understanding of the Church. So how do we proceed if we believe John 17:21 is Jesus praying for us to live and be one?

I previously cited Richard McBrien’s definition of the Church as “the whole body, or congregation, of persons who are called by God the Father to acknowledge the worship of Jesus, the Son, in word, in sacrament [sign], in witness, and in service, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to collaborate with Jesus’ historic mission for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Catholicism, HarperCollins, 1994, 723). This definition clearly embraces all Christians, both Roman and non-Roman alike. The only problem is that many evangelical communions omit the word “sacrament” and some even the word “ordinance.” Personally, I cannot grasp how any reader of the New Testament comes to this conclusion (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Yet when I understand the historical reasons how some have reached this point of view I am helped to see how and why they reject this common language. In the end most of us wish to embrace as our brothers and sisters in Christ all who confess Jesus as Lord! The strength of McBrien’s definition is that it avoids minimalism yet it includes (virtually) all Christians. 

This definition, as we saw previously, has a number of helpful insights that can guide prayer and work for unity. It begins by reminding us that we are a community, a people, specifically the people of God in Jesus Christ. Second, it gets right the emphasis in the New Testament on the Church as an institution. (Institutionalism is a serious problem but this should not lead us to “throw out the baby with the dirty bath water.”) Third, this definition reminds us that the Church has a mission that it received from Jesus. This mission is to spread the good news of the kingdom of God by both life and witness. 

So is the Catholic Church the ”true” Church of Jesus Christ? Yes and no. Yes, because in the Roman Catholic Church we find all the marks of the Church. No if by “true” we mean the one and only Church. The clearest distinction we can make is that the Roman Catholic Church is uniquely gathered and led by the Petrine ministry as exercised by the Bishop of Rome, the pope. Since Vatican II the Catholic Church has clearly said all baptized Christians are inside the church, thus we are “brothers and sisters.” From this place of affirmation the church does not deny its commitment to the Petrine office yet it includes those who are not in perfect communion with the pope, which includes the Orthodox and all Protestants. 

The simplest way forward, in Catholic and non-Catholic work for unity, is to start here. We affirm together there is one Church. We further affirm together that some of us do not accept the unique office of Peter constituting the papacy. Catholicism is a rich and diverse reality and a glorious term. All Christians should embrace the church as “catholic.” The word catholic means “throughout the whole.” It means the whole Church diffused throughout the earth, the global body of Christ, thus all who confess him as Lord. It refers to all who receive his mark of discipleship in baptism and follow him in active and growing faith. If we start here we can move out to the significant places we disagree yet still keep our focus on our unity in Christ as Lord. This is what I have called missional-ecumenism. 

ACT3 This Week

  1. I am home this week, working on programming and preparation for the first gathering of The Initiative, June 24-28, in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Registration is now closed unless you contact me directly to see if a spot might “open up” for another person this week. 
  2. If you’d like to connect with The Initiative more personally send me your email address. I will add you to a growing list of those who want to be “friends” of this community through personal prayer and interest. You can mail your request to

Pax Christi,

John H. Armstrong
ACT3 Network
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