God Has A True Church … And It’s Not Your Denomination
One of the problems that come with denominationalism is the tendency for one denomination to identify itself as the purer or purest form of the church — what some call the true church.
They believe that they are right on a particular doctrine(s) that the other denominations get wrong and that to love Christ truly and genuinely is to accept that truth and become a part of that denomination.
Some of the denominations that make this claim often have certain views of eschatology where the “truth” that distinguishes them from other churches will become the “testing truth,” the mark of genuine Christianity.
But does God have a true church? Is there a denomination that is the purest form of Christianity? Does the remnant theology of the Old Testament translate to the New Testament in a way that constitutes a certain denomination as “the remnant church?”
Let’s find out.
(Since I am more familiar with Seventh-Day Adventist Theology, I will focus on a few of the passages they use to establish themselves as the true church. Instead of covering all those who err on this point, I will focus on one, and only make few comments about the others, as a way to expound on the actual teaching of the Bible about the church).
The one fold of Christ
One of the passages that some Adventists use to justify the idea that God will bring genuine believers out of other denominations into theirs is John 10:14-18.
But a cursory look at that passage teaches the exact opposite.
Traditional Adventists see in Jesus’ promise to bring his sheep that are outside of the fold inside the one flock as a promise that God will one day bring genuine believers out of “Babylon” (the other protestant churches) into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
But what does the passage teach?
The sheep of Christ are all that the Father has given to him. In John 6:35, Jesus taught that the Father has given certain people to him and it was his duty to save them, keep them, and raise them up on the last day (John 6:35-40). These are the ones that will look to the Son and believe in him; they are God’s elect children.
These ones that the Father has given to Christ are his sheep, the elect. They are the ones that Christ was going to lay down his life to redeem (John 10:15).
However, all those whom the Father has given to Christ do not come to him at the same time. While some have already looked to the Son and believe in him, others are still out there in the world. Those who have looked and believed are already in Jesus’ flock while others who are still out in the world are outside the sheepfold.
Jesus’ promise is that he will bring every one of his sheep into the sheepfold. Everyone who has been elected by the Father to salvation will look to the Son and believe in him.
At this point, Jesus’ ministry was intentionally limited to the Jews, the lost house of Israel (Mathew 10:16, 15:24-26, John 4:22), and many of the sheep who had come to the sheepfold were Jews. But the gospel will soon go far and wide to the very ends of the earth and God’s sheep among the Gentiles will come home.
Jesus was not going to have two flocks — one for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. Rather, he will have one flock — both Jews and Gentiles joined together in fellowship.
We see a confirmation of this just one chapter later. Caiaphas, the high priest, stood up in a meeting of the Sanhedrin and argued that it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish (John 11:50). John commented that the high priest did not say this on his own but he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation.
John went on to add that Jesus was not going to die for the Jewish nation alone but also for the scattered children of God and he will bring them together to make them one. The elect in the Jewish nation and the children of God scattered among the nations will be brought together as one.
Paul expounded on this idea in Ephesians 2:11-22. Gentiles who were uncircumcised from birth, separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, have now been brought near by the blood of Christ (verse 13).
Jesus has made the two groups — Jews and Gentiles — one. What Jesus called one flock in John 10, Paul called one group in Ephesians 2. He also called it one body and one new humanity (verse 15).
This union of Jews and Gentiles was already anticipated by the old testament prophets. To take one example, Isaiah prophesied that the servant of the Lord will not only restore Jacob but he would also be a light to the Gentiles so that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
Jesus, the servant of the Lord, did restore Israel by saving for himself a remnant out of the nation (more on this soon) and he became a light to the Gentiles. He thus united Jews and Gentiles into one body, the church.
God knows only one flock/sheepfold — the universal church consisting of Jews and Gentiles. This universal church manifests itself in various local churches in different regions (Romans 16:1, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Colossians 4:14, etc.). All God’s elect who have entered into the sheepfold belong to this universal church though they may be physically and locally present in different local churches in different regions of the world.
In essence, God does not have two or three sheepfolds; he has only one body consisting of all who have looked to Christ and believed in his name all over the world.
Is there a remnant church?
But if God has one sheepfold, is it possible that there is a sheepfold within the sheepfold?
The concept of the “remnant” is pervasive in the Old Testament. In the OT, the remnant is a descriptive term for those who survive a particular situation. The Israelites that survived the destruction of Jerusalem are a remnant (Isaiah 1:19). Those who came back from exile are also described as a remnant (Isaiah 10:21-22).
Paul took up this remnant language in Romans 9 and 11. He used it to describe those Israelites who God has elected to salvation through Jesus Christ. Just as God elected Jacob and left Esau, God has elected some Jews to salvation in Christ; these are the ones he described as the remnant of Israel in Romans 9.
He argued the same point in Chapter 11. Paul insisted that the rejection of the gospel by the Jews of his day was not an indication that God had rejected Israel. Rather, God has a remnant that he has chosen by grace just as he reserved 7000 to himself when Israel went after Baal during Ahab’s tenure (Romans 11:1-5).
While many Jews continued to reject the gospel, there was (and is) a remnant, the true Israel, who sought salvation by faith rather than works. Though all the members of the Israelite community were covenant members, there was a remnant who were truly saved, those who followed the path of justification by faith alone (Romans 11:7).
Some of the churches who claim to be the true church take this remnant theology to argue that their denomination is the remnant and that the church, the body of Christ, is similar to the Israelite nation.
But this is bad theology, to say the least.
First, what constituted the Israelite remnant as a remnant, according to Paul, is that they chose the path of justification by faith alone rather than justification by works. God elected them to salvation in eternity and when the time came, they heard the gospel and believed.
Therefore, even if we agree that the remnant theology is also present in the NT, what constitutes the remnant as “remnant” is that they have chosen the part of justification by faith alone rather than works. Said differently, they have looked to Christ and believed in his name.
However, John already told us that these are the exact same people who God has given to Christ (John 6:40). So all who are members of Christ’s flock are those who put their faith in Christ — those who have chosen the part of justification by faith in Christ.
The only way the remnant theology can apply in the NT is as a distinction between the visible and invisible church. The visible church consists of all those who identify as members of one local church or the other while the invisible church consists of the true children of God who have truly put their faith in Christ.
Not all those who are members of the visible church are part of the invisible church. Some who identify as members of the covenant community will be broken off like branches from a tree because of unbelief (Romans 11:17-21) and those who enjoy the benefits of the covenant community but lack genuine faith will fall away not to be restored but to face a certain judgment (Hebrews 6:1-8, 10:26-31).
But notice that what differentiates genuine members of the covenant community from the spurious ones is faith. Faith is the reason why some members of the covenant community (the visible church) are also members of the invisible church and unbelief is the reason why some members of the covenant community are not members of the invisible church.
In this sense, it can be correct to say that the invisible church is the remnant of the visible church since like true Israel, they are the ones who believe in Christ.
Notice that it is not one Sabbath doctrine or a view of the sacrament or a view of church governance or worship that constitutes the true church (or the remnant church). It is faith in Christ that makes a man a member of the true church — the body of Christ — and it is unbelief alone that disqualifies a man from the true church.
The rest of her offspring
One text that some have used to justify a remnant theology that identifies one denomination as the true church is Revelation 12:17.
The argument is that the “rest of her offspring” in Revelation 12:17 is a denomination that will arise out of the church at large.
But this is a faulty interpretation of the text.
The woman in Revelation 12 is the church. In the early verses, the woman represents the old testament church, out of which the child, Jesus Christ, came. That the child is Jesus Christ is clear from Psalms 2:9 and Revelation 19:15, where Jesus is the one who will rule all nations with an iron sceptre. The snatching up of the child to God is also a fitting description of Christ’s ascension (Hebrews 1:3).
After the ascension of Christ, the church is now the NT church — the sheepfold of Jews and Gentiles. The NT church is in the wilderness, where she has been/is being/and will be persecuted by the dragon. During this same period — the period from the life/death/resurrection/ascension to the second coming of Christ (the 1260 days) — God takes care of the church so that the attacks of the enemy never prevails.
But the dragon does not stop at attacking the woman. He went off to make war against “the rest of her offspring” (verse 17). Now, the simple question to ask is who is the offspring? Simple. The offspring is Christ. Christ is the offspring of the woman. Therefore, “the rest of her offspring” are the brothers and sisters of Christ. Like Christ, they are the offspring of the woman. The “rest of her offspring” are individual believers, the brothers and sisters of Christ, joint offspring of the woman. The devil does not just persecute the church as a corporate body, he also persecutes the individual members who make up the body.
This metaphor, like other metaphors in Revelation, goes back to the Old Testament. God often spoke about Zion, the OT church as a woman with children (Isaiah 49:14-26, 50:1, 54:1, Hosea 4:4-5).
In one particular instance (Isaiah 66:7-10, 22), Zion is described as giving birth to a son (verse 7) and then to children (verse 8).
The birth of an offspring on one hand and many offsprings, on the other hand, was also used to describe Christ’s fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant. Christ is the true offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:16) but believers are also the true offspring of Abraham because they are united to Christ (3:29).
So while Christ is the offspring of the woman, all individual believers, united with Christ, are also the offspring of the woman.
These people are identified as the ones who keep God’s commands and hold fast to their testimony about Jesus. While the devil persecutes the visible church generally, he also wars specifically against the invisible church as individuals — those who have genuine faith in Christ, a faith that is manifested in their obedience to God’s commands and their holding fast to the gospel, the testimony of Jesus.
James (James 2) has already taught us that true faith results in works. And Jesus also affirmed that genuine faith bears fruit (Mathew 13:1-23). Therefore, the genuine members of the church — the invisible church — will obey God and hold fast to the gospel.
Being obedient to God and holding fast to the gospel as fruits of genuine faith does not make one a member of a denomination; rather, it makes one a member of the true invisible church — the community of those who have chosen the path of justification by faith alone.
The testimony of Jesus in Revelation 1:2 are all the truths about Jesus that the revelator saw. They are the truths he and other believers suffered for (Revelation 1:9, 6:9, 20:4). And these truths about Jesus came to him through the Spirit of prophecy (the Holy Spirit that inspired the prophets, Revelation 19:10).
Therefore, to hold fast to the testimony about Jesus is to hold fast to the gospel — the truths about who Jesus is and what he has done.
“Commandments” in Revelation 12:17 is from the Greek word “entole” (order, command, charge, precept, injunction). John is not saying that true believers, the brothers and sisters of Christ, are people who keep the Old Testament law (which he often described as “nomos”); rather, true believers obey what God has commanded them to obey. There is no specificity about the commands they obey. It is the spirit of readiness to obey all that God has commanded them to obey as members of the new covenant that is in view here.
Revelation 12:17 is not about the Sabbath or Ellen White or a “remnant church.” Rather, it is a statement about how the devil and his cohorts attack the individual members of the invisible church in addition to the persecution of the visible church as a corporate body.
Again, what constitutes the true church is faith in Christ, a faith that reveals itself in obedience to God and perseverance in holding fast to the gospel. There is nothing here about the distinctives of one denomination.
Traditional Adventists believe that the protestant churches by rejecting the Jewish Sabbath have followed Catholicism and are therefore the Babylon of Revelation. Consequently, when the angel called people out of Babylon in Revelation 18:4, he is calling them out of “apostate churches” into “the true church.”
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In the Old Testament, Babylon was an enemy of the church. God used them as a means to bring the covenant curse of exile to Israel. They destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, and took Jews as exiles.
But though God used them to judge his people, he would destroy them for their sin and hatred towards God’s covenant people (Isaiah 13:19, 14:22). Babylon was going to fall from her high place (Isaiah 21:9, 48:14).
In Revelation 14:8, 17:1-5, John used Babylon as an imagery for one who causes the nations of the world to become idolatrous (adultery is used as a figure for idolatry — Ezekiel 16, 23). She is described as blasphemous, abominable, and idolatrous.
Because she is idolatrous and blasphemous, she persecutes the church, God’s holy people who bore testimony to Jesus (Revelation 17:6). The woman controls kings and nations (17:3,8) who have one single purpose — wage war against the Lamb (17:14). Jesus is victorious over them and he stands triumphant together with his “called, chosen, and faithful followers.”
But despite her idolatries, she is rich (17:4). She brings great wealth to the nations of the world and this is why they don’t mind drinking from the cup of her adulteries/idolatries (Revelation 18:9-20).
Babylon will however meet her downfall. The kings that she ruled over will rebel, hate her, and burn her to death (17:16-18). God will judge her with death, mourning, and famine (18:8), and the merchants who have made money from her will weep and mourn (18:9-20).
From the foregoing, it is easy to see that Babylon is a metaphor for a worldly religious system that pervades the nations of the earth. Babylon is a false religion that blasphemes the name of God, leads people to worship idols, and persecutes the children of God. In return, the nations that embrace it enjoy economic prosperity.
Can anyone read all these and think that the Baptist or Presbyterian church in his street is what is being described here? Unthinkable, right?
Those who name the name of Christ, follow him and proclaim his name are the enemies of Babylon, not the other way around. Babylon is the enemy of God’s true church — the invisible community of all those who have put their faith in Christ alone.
So when God calls people out of Babylon, he is calling them from a blasphemous, idolatrous, abominable religious-economic system that persecutes the church into the one sheepfold of Christ, locally and visibly manifested in millions of local churches all around the world.
A few words about others who claim to be the true church
Mormons believe they are the true church because they have the fullness of doctrine, the power of the priesthood, and the true testimony of Jesus Christ.
This fullness of doctrine, they explain, came from Joseph Smith’s visions and are designed to correct all other denominations who have fallen into error.
In opposition to this idea, Jude tells us that the faith of God’s people has already been once for all entrusted to them (Jude 3). Jesus has spoken to the church through his ordained apostles and those who ministered with them. This apostolic witness, documented in the 27 books of the New Testament, is the only authority the church recognises (2 Peter 3:2).
This is why Paul warned that the Galatians must receive no other gospel apart from the one he taught (Galatians 1:6-9).
Joseph Smith was not an apostle. The apostles were specially selected by Jesus to give witness to himself. They were taught personally by Christ (Luke 24:45, Galatians 1:12-17), had physical encounters with Christ (Acts 10:39-40, Acts 9:1-19), and were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20).
After the church was built, their unique mission as the foundation was done. Now the church has to rely on what they have taught as documented in the 27 books. There are no new apostles after these died that can exercise any revelatory authority in the church.
And it is easy to demonstrate that the “fullness of doctrine” and the “testimony of Jesus” that Mormons claim to distinguish them as the true church are indefensible from NT exegesis, apart from appeal to Joseph Smith’s authority.
Catholics also tend to believe that they are the true church because the authority of Peter as the first Pope continues in the popes of the Catholic church. However, when the apostles died, they did not ordain others to that office. The apostolic office was a foundation of the church and once the church was established in truth, the apostles died and that office ceased.
Instead, Paul and Peter focused on ensuring that the local churches had qualified elders who would administer their affairs (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-5). The authority of the apostles was unique and unrepeatable. After them, the church would be ruled by elders who will preach and teach the apostolic deposit (1 Timothy 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:22, 4:2, Titus 1:9)
And Peter was not a Pope. Paul confronted and rebuked him on an occasion (Galatians 2:11-14), James, rather than Peter, was the foremost leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15, Galatians 2:12), and Paul regarded James, Peter, and John, not Peter only, as the ones esteemed as pillars of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9).
The church was established on Peter’s confession, not on Peter (Matthew 16:18). While Peter indeed opened the kingdom of heaven (verse 19), in some sense, when he preached his sermon at Pentecost, that was part of the work of building the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), which was not unique to Peter (Matthew 18:18, John 20:23).
The argument of the Church of Christ is really confusing. While they agree that the true church is universal and non-denominational, they then confuse that invisible universal true church with the Church of Christ (the denomination). What begins as non-denominational then ends up as denominational. So to join the only true church is to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, and that after they have condemned denominationalism.
There are many things that remain to be said, but I believe the point has been made.
Unity in diversity
The true church is an invisible body and its members are scattered all across the visible church. You find them in millions of local churches all around the world. They may be in a Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Anglican, or Methodist church, etc., but they are all united as members of the invisible church through their mutual faith in Christ.
However, while this perfect unity characterises the invisible church, it does not always, or at least perfectly, translate into the visible church.
This is why Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united (John 17:20-23). The presence of denominations has tended to fracture this unity and the insistence of some that their denomination is the true or remnant church does make matters worse.
Of course, unity does not mean we dispense with our theological differences since those differences can help to sharpen our theological minds, refine our understanding of scriptures, and grow our love for God. The more and truer our knowledge of God, the better our fellowship with him.
However, theological differences that lead to denominations must not undermine the perfect unity of our mutual faith in Christ.
Of course, some theological differences are more important than others. Those who deny the humanity or divinity of Christ are antichrists and children of the devil (1 John 4:1-6, John 8). Those who deny justification by faith alone and put faith in their works are embracing a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
The testimony about Jesus — who he is and what he has done — and faith in him for salvation are the identifying markers of the members of the true church. Anyone who denies the testimony about Jesus and trusts in his works is not a member of the invisible church even if he is a member of the visible church.
But disagreements about baptism, eschatology, church polity, etc., are not in that category. People who are putting their faith in the Christ of scriptures can disagree on these matters. And they may form denominations that reflect their views on such matters. In fact, some denominations may be closer to the truth on those issues than others. Some denominations will be more theologically sound than others. But none of them can claim to be the true church. That is a preposterous claim that undermines the NT teaching about the church. Fundamentally, the true church is invisible and universal, not sectarian or denominational.
So while we recognise the place of theological disagreements, we must not allow those differences to undermine the foundational and fundamental unity of everyone who has genuine faith in Christ.
A new conviction of the truth regarding baptism, for example, may lead a Baptist to become a Presbyterian, but he is not moving to a true church from a false one.
If he has put his faith in Christ, he is already a member of the true church. No change in denomination can put one into the true church; it is faith in Christ that makes one a member of the true church. Changes in denomination can mean one is coming to a better knowledge of the truth but not that he is moving from a false church to a true church. The only move from a false church to a true church is the move from a false gospel to the true gospel, from a false Christ to the true Christ, from justification by works to justification by faith alone.
We can also use the language of “true church” for a local, visible church but without the definite article “the”. Given the above, a true local, visible church is one where the true Christ and the true gospel are preached so that people can have true faith in Christ alone and attain to the unity and maturity of faith through the consistent preaching of the word (2 Timothy 4:2), the administration of the sacraments (1 Corinthians 11:26), and the functioning of the diverse gifts of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:13).
The concept of “the true church” can be used as a way to distinguish the invisible church, which consists of all the people who genuinely look to Christ and believe in him, from the visible church which consists of everyone who is a member of any local church (and thus include spurious believers).
It can also be used without the definite article “the” (“true church”) as a way to distinguish visible churches where the true Christ and the true gospel are preached from those where false Christs and gospels are preached.
In the first instance, what constitutes the true church is faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the second instance, what constitutes a true church is the proclamation of that gospel.
The true church is not a denomination. There is no “testing truth” apart from the apostolic gospel that differentiates the true church from the false church and a true local church from a false one. A denomination’s view about the Sabbath, baptism, church polity, eschatology, etc., does not make them “the true church.”
Members of the true church are scattered all over the world, across different denominations. And true local churches exist all over the world, across different denominations. The only thing that makes a local church or a denomination a false church is if they embrace and teach a false Christ and a false gospel
Let’s keep sharpening our theological minds and debating our differences; but amidst that, let’s remember the perfect fundamental unity that binds us together — faith in the apostolic gospel (the person and work of Christ). It is that faith that constitutes the true church. And what a great privilege to be elected to be a member of that church.