I recently watched an older video that was a little tiff between Lutheranism and the Reformed. The general details are irrelevant, but at a point the talking-head made the claim that there are four, distinct, church communions: Roman, Eastern, Reformed, and Lutheran. The claim was that in all four there were legitimate Christians and all four were legitimate churches in as much as they rightfully administer word and sacrament. But, and this is the point, the Lutherans grasp the truth of doctrine best and are the truest church. And in case you were wondering, Reformed means everything from Westminster Presbyterian to Pentecostal to Amish. They are all offspring of the radical Reformation, and not the conservative Reformation initiated by Luther.
This reminded me of similar claims you might here. Rome claims that papal communion is the mark of the true church, even though Vatican II does not condemn all outside (referring to Christian groups outside as ecclesial communities). The Orthodox believe in the unity formed in the seven ecumenical councils is the basis for the true Church of the Apostles. Then there are lesser claims. Some strange Anglo-Catholics desperately cling to the Branch Theory, to include themselves as a true church and denying all "Protestants" as lacking true ordination. There are some Reformed who refer to a stark difference of presupposition, there is either the pure gospel of Calvinist theology (which is exclusively Christian) and Paganism, everything else being inconsistency or mixtures of the two. Then there are Pentecostal claims that only those who have the Spirit are true Christians, wherever they are, and Evangelicals who look for "true believers", not having any sense of church beyond a mere gathering of fellow Christians.
Listening to the talk, the idea sounds attractive and simplifies a whole host of issues. But, I've also been enamored with the simplicity of the idea that Church unity is forged around the Petrine figure of the pope (ala. von Balthasar). In earlier days, I was also attracted to the sense of looking for the "true" Christians ala. Evangelicalism and the simple idea that there was some set of presuppositions where I could use as a criteria to judge whether a church was a good church.
Of course, there are clear historical, biblical, and logical problems to this proposition, which I won't waste time enumerating. What I want to talk about is the attraction to ring-fencing as a form of problem solving. The idea is basically to formulate some set of criteria that causes a quarantining divide to safe-guard a formal purity. This purity may be in the form of doctrine, form of worship, or form of institution, though some lunatics seek to find it in a form of person, which involves an abyss of psycho-analysis. This tries to soothe the conscience against what is otherwise a disheartening mess of divided churches, apostasy, rank heresies, and the development of both pre and post Christian Paganisms. While I am wholly opposed to Confessionalism (though not to confessions), I can appreciate the motive behind it in trying to bring fierce and ferocious touchstone. It seems a safe way to police the borders and maintain the faith. And while Confessionalist bodies tend to dabble in the same zeitgeist, they are better able to defend many forms of Apostolic Christianity. Sometimes I wonder if this is better or worse; is it slowing the poison for a time when the true cure can be introduced, or is it merely masking the real rot and prolonging a deep evil. I don't know.
I am someone who is struggling to believe that the current situation is mapped out in the Scripture. I do not believe history, and thus time, is the meaningless play of events, or that Scripture has little but proscriptives for events. Rather, the Holy Spirit is always working, gathering up the broken shards of our lived experience, and knitting them together to reveal Christ crucified. This, I think, is the heart of Christian theology of nature, by which I mean all things temporal and secular (literally of "This Age") but I'll come back to this in another post.
Contrary to the above claims by silly non-Papists, Scripture does not reveal four church communions, or three branches, or unity viz. "ecumenical" councils (which refers less to catholicity than Romanity; Ethiopia wasn't invited to these councils; and many Syrians, Arabs, Persians, and Armenians weren't invited to most) or a Petrine office founded on his grave in Rome. None of this is based in Scripture (though I can imagine creative exegesis about the numbers three or four, or appeals to Biblical reference to the Roman Empire or Peter's martyrdom in Rome). Rather, it all assume Scripture has nothing to say. I'm not sure of all that Holy Writ says, but I do know that it speaks of One Church (eschatologically figured in the Heavenly assembly) made out of a unity of churches, referring to concrete, local, congregations. And it has no place for fixed churches, where Revelation reveals churches can embody not three or four, but seven types of churches that succeed and fail in their loyalty to Christ.
But ring-fencing is a temptation to ease our sense of time. It's denial that, perhaps, if the Church is indeed the Body of Christ, it not only bears about glory, but crucifixion and humiliation. She is attacked not only by the foreign enemies of God (Pilate), but even stricken and betrayed from within by those controlled by Satan (Judas) and those under siege by Satan (Peter). And in the moment of betrayal, how does one know the difference between Judas and Peter, let alone those who flee? Perhaps we're not taking Scripture seriously enough if we don't think these same marks that happened to our Lord would not also happen to us collectively. But the urge can be great, so I strongly warn against it. For the Body is One, without a single broken bone, but remains stricken, even by ideologues.