Clarify “One Church”

By Don Partain

As a sophomore at Florida College, in 1970, 1 attended Edgar Srygley’s class on Logic. One section of the class dealt with the error in reasoning known as “the fallacy of four terms.” In this fallacy, instead of having a three-term syllogism, the reasoner actually employs four terms because one of the terms has two different meanings. For example, “Designing persons are untrustworthy. Architects make designs. Therefore, architects are untrustworthy.” What is the fallacy of this reasoning? “Design” is being used in two different senses, ambiguously.

Unwittingly, I think we have often been a party to ambiguity as we have taught our denominational neighbors about the “one church.” There, of course, is only one church, one body of Christ, of which one must be a member in order to be saved (Eph. 4:4; 1:22,23; 5:23). However, I’m afraid that we are coming across as saying, “There is only one true denomination – the “Church of Christ.” In other words we are using “church,” meaning the universal body of the saved; but they are hearing “church,” thinking “denomination” – a denomination that claims to be the only right one.

The fact that we upset them by saying there is only one church is evidence that they have misunderstood us, because mainline denominations teach the same thing! Their creeds or manuals speak of there being only one universal body of Christ; and in fact, they usually even refer to it as “the church of Christ.” So, they would not argue with us on the point that there is only one church, and that it belongs to Christ. They only become upset when they think we are saying that the congregations which go by “Church of Christ” are a denomination within the body of Christ that thinks it is the only right denomination.

So, when teaching them, we should first make it clear that we do not use “Church of Christ” in a denominational way. When we say there is only one church, we are not talking about a denomination, but instead, the one universal body of the saved. This doctrine is common ground for both of us, we should point out.

Then, we teach them how to be added to the church. And, we teach them that the universal church is not composed of either denominations (denominated collectivities) or local churches; instead, it is composed of individual Christians. Here is where we will need to do much teaching, because denominations teach that “faith only” places one into the saved body. And, having been saved by faith only, then one simply joins himself to a denomination – and that all the denominations, taken together, constitute the universal church.

I’m afraid that we have often unnecessarily aroused prejudice and have closed doors of opportunity because we have not made it clear in what sense we are using “church” when we say there is only one true church. And, it is especially regrettable since we could have instead even used the scriptural doctrine of there only being one church to establish common ground with our denominational friends – common ground that would have possibly made them more receptive when we began discussing gospel obedience with them.

So, when we talk about the one church, let’s be sure that they understand “church” in the same way we mean it. Otherwise we may have mixed our terms much the same as we did in our faulty syllogism which concluded that architects are untrustworthy.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 6, p. 182
March 15, 1990