Is There Only One ‘True Church’?

“JUST as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: ‘a single Catholic and apostolic Church.’”​—Dominus Iesus.

That is how a Roman Catholic cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, set out his church’s teaching that there can be only one true church. That church, he said, is “a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church.”

“Not Churches in the Proper Sense”

Although Pope John Paul II insisted that the document Dominus Iesus contained “no arrogance towards, or disrespect for, other religions,” Protestant church leaders reacted strongly to it. For example, at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in June 2001, one minister said that the document was the work of “a powerful faction in the Roman Catholic Church . . . scared silly by the spirit of openness introduced by Vatican II.”

Robin Eames, the Church of Ireland Primate, said that he would be “bitterly disappointed” if the document was “a throwback to pre-Vatican II.” In commenting on the Vatican’s claim that churches that reject certain Catholic doctrines “are not Churches in the proper sense,” Eames said: “That to me could be insulting.”

What prompted Dominus Iesus? It appears that the Roman Catholic Curia was disturbed by what has been called religious relativism. According to The Irish Times, “the emergence of a pluralist theology​—saying basically that one religion is as good as another . . . increasingly preoccupied Cardinal Ratzinger.” It seems that this viewpoint sparked his comments about one true church.

Does It Matter Which Church You Belong To?

Of course, to some, “religious relativism” or “pluralist theology” is much more reasonable and attractive than any suggestion that there can be only one true church. To them, religion should be purely a matter of personal preference. ‘In the end,’ they say, ‘it really does not matter which church you belong to.’

That may appear to be the more tolerant view​—even though one effect of it has been the fragmentation of religion into myriads of differing denominations. ‘Such diversity  in religion,’ say many, ‘is no more than a healthy expression of individual freedom.’ According to writer Steve Bruce, however, such “religious toleration” is in reality nothing more than “religious indifference.”​—A House Divided: Protestantism, Schism, and Secularization.

What, then, is the right view? Is there only one true church? Does it subsist only in the Roman Catholic Church? Are other churches equally acceptable to God? Since these questions involve our relationship with our Creator, surely it is important to get his views on the matter. How can we do that? By looking into God’s inspired Word, the Bible. (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Let us consider what it has to say on this subject of one true church.

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