3. Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts,(19) which the Apostle strongly condemned.(20) But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church - whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church - do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body,(21) and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.(22)
Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.
The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.
It follows that the separated Churches(23) and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.
Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life - that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ's Catholic Church, which is "the all-embracing means of salvation," that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God. This people of God, though still in its members liable to sin, is ever growing in Christ during its pilgrimage on earth, and is guided by God's gentle wisdom, according to His hidden designs, until it shall happily arrive at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Of course, there are elements here that are peculiarly Roman, so the statements cannot be wholly accepted, but there is also here a fairly accurate articulation of the relationship that exists between the visible church de facto and the visible church de jure. Among the things that Roman Catholicism gets right is that the formal, visible church is called to be one, that church courts have real authority from Christ, and that therefore denominational division inherently implies a mutual rejection of de jure legitimacy between the divided denominations. In the above citations, Rome notes well how the church de facto exists beyond denominational boundaries, while, at the same time, the church de jure is defined by those boundaries. We Reformed Protestants can take a lesson here. Rome is far ahead of us in terms of being practically consistent in articulating some of these principles, even though the very same principles are an essential component of our Reformed tradition of presbyterian church government.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, likewise, tends overall to do a better job than we do in these areas. Here are some comments from Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, from his book The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997--footnotes excluded):
The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the 'one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church', of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be. (p. 307)
Orthodox writers sometimes speak as if they accepted the 'Branch Theory', once popular among High Church Anglicans. (According to this theory, the Catholic Church is divided into several 'branches'; usually three such branches are posited, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and the Orthodox.) But such a view cannot be reconciled with traditional Orthodox theology. If we are going to speak in terms of 'branches', then from the Orthodox point of view the only branches which the Catholic Church can have are the local autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox communion.
Claiming as it does to be the one true Church, the Orthodox Church also believes that, if it so desired, it could by itself convene and hold another Ecumenical Council, equal in authority to the first seven. Since the separation of east and west the Orthodox (unlike the west) have never in fact chosen to summon such a council; but this does not mean that they believe themselves to lack the power to do so.
Such, then, is the Orthodox idea of the unity of the Church. Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. This belief has the same basis as the Orthodox belief in the unbreakable unity of the Church: it follows from the close relation between God and his Church. 'A person cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother.' So wrote St. Cyprian; and to him this seemed an evident truth, because he could not think of God and the Church apart from one another. God is salvation, and God's saving power is mediated to humans in His Body, the Church. 'Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.' Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked, 'How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!' While there is no division between a 'visible' and an 'invisible Church', yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say. (p. 246-248)
After mentioning that there are two views on the question of the status of non-Orthodox among Orthodox people today, Bishop Ware describes the view of the "moderates," which he seems (so far as I can see from his book) to share:
There is first a more moderate group, which includes most of those Orthodox who have had close personal contact with other Christians. This group holds that, while it is true to say that Orthodoxy is the Church, it is false to conclude from this that those who are not Orthodox cannot possibly belong to the Church. Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The Spirit of God blows where it chooses and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church. We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not. . . . There is only one Church, but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church, and many different ways of being separated from it. Some non-Orthodox are very close indeed to Orthodoxy, others less so; some are friendly to the Orthodox Church, others indifferent or hostile. By God's grace the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of truth (so its members are bound to believe), but there are other Christian communions which possess to a greater or lesser degree a genuine measure of Orthodoxy. All these facts must be taken into account: one cannot simply say that all non-Orthodox are outside the Church, and leave it at that; one cannot treat other Christians as if they stood on the same level as unbelievers. (p. 308-309)
Again, we see here the distinction between the visible and the invisible church (though Bishop Ware tries to distance himself from this "Protestant" idea right in the midst of embracing and articulating it) and the distinction between the church de facto and the church de jure. There are true Christians, true members of the Body of Christ, outside the de jury body, yet it is the de jury body which possesses the authority of the church--as is evident in the claim that the Orthodox Church by itself could call and hold an ecumenical council. Presbyterianism leads to the same conclusions. There are lots of true Christians outside the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but the decision of the FPCS to remain separate from other denominations implies a claim to be the totality of the de jure catholic church. It can therefore be rightly said that the yearly Synod meeting of the FPCS is in fact an ecumenical council, for it is currently the highest judicatory of the church and represents the whole church.
Will we own up to these things consistently and clearly?
For more, see here.