A Texas sister writes that her church fellowship claims to be the “New Testament church,” founded on the Day of Pentecost about A.D. 33. That church went into “apostasy,” she is told, but was “restored” in the early 19th century. “But what about the many centuries between?” she asks. “Can anyone show an unbroken line of people or churches linking Pentecost to the present?”
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Some today do claim to be the only “true church” by pointing to such an unbroken chain as you suggest. That argument has long been used by the Roman Catholic Church as well as by the family of Eastern Orthodox churches. Anglican churches do not claim to be “the true church” to the exclusion of others, but they insist that their unbroken succession of bishops back to the Apostles makes them as much as part of “the true church” as anyone else. These all believe that only clergy ordained by bishops in the “apostolic succession” are fully authorized, empowered or vested by the Holy Spirit to administer the sacraments.
Others connect churches rather than bishops. A minority Baptist movement called “Landmarkism” claims to trace a solid line of Baptist churches from today back to the Apostles. Only churches of their variety are “true” churches, according to these folks, who therefore believe that only someone in their churches can administer proper baptism.
Alexander Campbell did not believe his movement contained the only Christians, but rather saw himself as a reformer within the larger Christian church. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 20th century, many within his “restoration movement” lost the movement’s original, ecumenical vision and came to see themselves as the only “true” Christians and the only “true” church. That understanding prevailed among many Churches of Christ and Christian Churches until recent years, but it is now under heavy attack by many of us who consider it unfaithful both to the Bible and to the best ideals of our own movement.
Mormons also claim that the true Church went into apostasy shortly after the original Apostles died, but that God restored it about 1830 through the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, Jr., who supposedly translated the Book of Mormon from ancient inscriptions on gold plates under instructions from an angel named Moroni. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus returned to earth invisibly in 1914 and set up his kingdom, with their Watchtower Society as its visible form.
Hard-liners among the Seventh-day Adventists claim to be the “remnant church” founded by a renewal of the “Spirit of Prophecy” through the visions and “present truth” revealed to Ellen G. White. And the Philadelphia Church of God is but one of several offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God which claim that they alone represent God’s “government” and New Testament Church today, based on the unique doctrines of the late Herbert W. Armstrong whom they see as the last-days “Elijah the Prophet” of Old Testament prophecy. (Happily, the original Worldwide Church of God has undergone gospel revolution, denounced its cultic past and now preaches the gospel.)
Amid all these confusing and contradicting claims, we do well to remember Jesus’ warnings concerning would-be messiahs. We do not need to go running here or there in search of the “true teacher” or the “true church.” The Bible does not envision “Lone Ranger” Christians who intentionally avoid fellowship with others. But while “church” is very important, no particular brand in the Yellow Pages has any exclusive claims on God or his salvation. Jesus — not any religious institution or ecclesiastical organization — is the door to the Father. Whoever has Jesus, has life, and whoever remains in union with him is complete in the eyes of God.