Posts Tagged With: Christianity

Why Are There So Many Different Churches?, Part 5: How to Choose a Church.

Given the legion of Christian churches and denominations, there might be some out there asking, what do I do now? Perhaps you’re looking for a Church which proclaims the whole counsel of God. Maybe you’ve come to Christ recently, or maybe you’re at a time in your Christian life when the Holy Spirit is giving you a fuller understanding of the Holy Scriptures than you once had, through diligent study or comparing teaching that you’ve been hearing with Scripture. You want to be fed, to grow, to take advantage of the gifts that Christ has provided, and most of all, you want to be obedient to Him. So you need to find a local church. But how should one go about looking for a church when there are so many different churches?

Look for a Church which proclaims the Holy Scripture and all of it.

In order to evaluate a church, you will need to prove it by the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in them daily. Pray and ask God to help you understand. In this way you will get to know the Savior’s voice, and you will be able to easily distinguish it from the voice of an imposter. Do internet searches to find what churches there are in your area. Sometimes the denominational affiliation will tell you a lot about a particular church, but not always. You can gain a lot of information about what they believe and the general ethos from a church website. Do they seem to take doctrine seriously? Study their creeds, confessions, or statement of faith. Are they committed to God’s word? Are they active in evangelism? Is the website just trying to catch your eye, or does it actually have a lot of helpful information? How about orders of worship and sermons in text or audio? Then, when you visit a new church, be ready to not just get a “feel”, but to actively search out the things they are teaching and the answers they give to your questions from the Scriptures. Don’t assume you have nothing to learn. After all, you’re looking for a church to grow and be fed, right? But don’t let your guard down, either. If you hear or experience something that you don’t understand or find questionable, ask. The leadership’s reaction to your questions will tell you a lot about them. Are they taking God seriously at his word or are they just following customs or trends blindly without logical or Scriptural basis?

Don’t settle for a bare minimum of Scriptural truth. God has given sixty-six books for the good of his people, the Church. Certain books or passages are harder than others, but God has given them for a reason, and they will be a blessing to you in your Christian walk. In good times, just the basics elements of the gospel may seem like enough, but in great times of temptation or trial, you will need the full meal. A watered-down “gospel” message won’t satisfy in the longrun. Determine whether a local church is committed to a full exposition of Scripture in sermons and other occasions like Bible studies. You’re not just looking for a bare, basic, or mere Christianity, but a robust ministry of the word which will help you to grow.

How are they interpreting the Scriptures? Do they emphasize “favorite passages” at the expense of others? Or do they approach God’s word with the reverent and God-honoring perspective that the parts of Scripture are understood in the light of the whole, the whole in light of the parts, and that there are no contradictions anywhere in the Bible? If a church truly considers the Bible to be God’s word, it will not highlight certain parts at the expense of others, but it will seek to understand God’s word as it is given by God as one unit teaching one system of belief in complete harmony and without contradiction.

If you can’t find a soundly Bible-believing church near you, look a little farther away. Move if necessary. It’s that important!

Don’t be afraid for no reason of unfamiliar traditions.

Take time to carefully evaluate them by Scripture. Churches have reasons for doing the things they do. If they have good reasons, they can explain it to you based on sound application of Scriptural principles. Ask questions. (If the leadership can’t explain why they do what they do, that should raise a red flag!) Find a church where you will be fed and not entertained, where worship is God-centered and not Me-centered. Don’t be afraid of churches or denominations with deep historic roots. There is often ancient wisdom to be found in the older Protestant denominations. But beware of those who no longer share the faith of their forefathers, or who have become so tolerant and broad-minded of a multitude of positions that they no longer stand for anything.

Don’t Expect Perfection.

There is no perfect Church on earth. Other Christians in any church will be as messed up as you are. Even the best churches have not yet arrived to the fullness of what God is making them into. If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it! Don’t let this discourage you. Most of us, if drowning in the ocean, would get into a lifeboat, even if there were hypocrites in it! In the same way there may be truth and love for Christ, and you will be able to grow in your discipleship to Christ, even in very imperfect churches. But find the best one you can initially, and stick with it.

Be Prepared to Settle Down.

Choose carefully at first, but don’t become a life-long church-hopper. In order to be grounded in the faith, you will need to be in covenant with a local church of believers which cares for you, knows you by name, provides accountability, and has specific overseers watching over you in the Lord. This means you will eventually need to put down roots in a specific church and stay there. Growth takes time, and when you find a church where you can grow, plan to stay long-term. You will have to put roots downward in order to bear fruit upward. Avoid the consumer mentality that you are just there to receive but not to give. When you finally decide on a church, join with your family (if you have one) and be helpful, stable, encouraging, giving of your time and resources, and produce fruit there for others to enjoy.

This is meant to be a brief guide on how to choose a church. More explicit detailed models and guidelines are found in the Scriptures, especially in the book of Acts and in the epistles of the New Testament.

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If Christianity is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 4, Ultimate Questions

We have been looking at the phenomenon that confronts our world today, that there are scores and scores of separate churches within the Christian faith. We talked about what happened exactly, looking at some major events through the lens of history, and the root cause of the sinfulness of the human mind which prevents us Christians from being of one mind on things. That leaves us to consider the ultimate reason for the divisions that exist. First of all, I, as a Christian, am bound to believe that what has happened has happened strictly in accordance with the inviolable will of the sovereign God. The God of whom it is said, The lot is cast in the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD, (Proverbs 16:33) is the same God who rules and governs all of creation, working His sovereign will in whatever happens. This is especially true of what happens to the Church of Jesus Christ. And although Christians often have little but the faintest glimmer of the reason why things happen, that is, the ultimate purpose is of everything we are experiencing here and now, in this case God himself gives us a clue in the Bible. We read:

1 Corinthians 11:19

For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

The word, heresies here is used in the pure Greek sense of schisms or divisions from the Greek word, heresis. The point is that even those divisions which occur in the Church of Jesus Christ are according to God’s ultimate purpose, in order to distinguish those which are approved by God from those which are rejected. This is a hard teaching in many ways, but it does especially help to explain those divisions which come from a serious departure from sound Christian beliefs or behavior. But what about other cases in which the differences are more subtil and Christians still embrace one another, yet different churches lack substantive fellowship because of doctrinal differences? In cases where you have two genuinely Christian Churches which must remain separate, what could be God’s purpose in it?

I would like to submit that the reason God has allowed the churches that make up Christianity to split over so many different topics is in order to keep us humble. There is a tendency in any human institution (not in this case an institution founded merely by humans, but one which is nevertheless made up of sinful human beings,) for the inertia and pride of the institution to overshadow the mission. In the case of the Church of Jesus Christ, if there were only one united Church on earth, Christians might start to think that this Church is incapable of error (infallible), and depend on it more than on God. We see pride in the decadence of the Church of Rome in the age of the Renaissance, when popes sought worldly gain with impunity, by the sword or by selling indulgences1 to poor uneducated peasants to build the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica. It is seen in the various television empires which were built in the 20th century by popular preachers who grew to love the world more than Christ and His word. If there were not any divisions, pride in our churchly institutions would grow unchecked. But since we are so weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, divided in to hundreds of tiny sects by common parlance, can there be any doubt where the strength of Christianity lies? It’s not in us, but in Him. Because we are so divided for some good reasons and many not so good reasons, we must depend on God who gave His Son to die for us.

It is my belief that God has ordained that the Christian Church be divided because God’s glorious grace is magnified in the weakness of His people, as He says,

God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:27-31

1Indulgences were sold by travelling pedlars in Europe: slips of paper signed by the pope with the promise that those who bought them would procure release from suffering in Purgatory for themselves or others on whose behalf they purchased them. The funds raised were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

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If Christianity is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 3, History Has a Lot to Do with It.

Our discussion of the fact that there are many different Christian churches would be remiss if it did not include a look at the history behind the various splits and divisions.

For the first few centuries of Christianity, there were different churches in different locations, which more or less had fellowship and communion with one another. In those early centuries a hierarchial structure developed whereby the most important cities in Christendom were led by archbishops. The most important centers and archdioceses were eventually Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Now and then councils of bishops were held representing the entire Church to respond to false teaching that had crept up in part of the Church. The councils of Nicaea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451) are examples, which produced what we know today as the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. These statements about the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ are still important and instructive for us today, subordinate to the Scriptures. Those who could not adhere or subscribe to the documents produced by the councils were considered to be heresies or departures from the true Christian faith. The Church which was unified on the basis of the foundational doctrines of the Triune God and of Christ expressed in these documents was in those days known as catholic, meaning universal or as Augustine put it, “that which has always and everywhere been believed by all Christians” and orthodox, meaning that she followed straight doctrine. For the first millenium of Christianity, then, there was basically only one truly Christian Church extending from Britain and Portugal to North Africa and Palestine. Although many things varied between churches from city to city, and province to province, there was a basic organizational unity and fellowship among Christians professing the true faith handed down from the apostles.

The first and the largest split in the history of Christianity occurred in 1054 A. D. when the western church split from the eastern church, known as the “great schism.” Although there was sadly a good bit of political motivation behind the division, on the surface the split involved the question of whether the phrase “and the Son”, known in Latin as the filioque, belonged in the Nicene Creed. It was not part of the original document but it had been added in the West to express the biblical teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Eastern theologians disagreed, and still disagree to this day. There was also a dispute over whether it was proper to use leavened or unleavened bread in the sacrament of Communion, and over whether the bishop of Rome, aka. the pope, was the universal bishop of the whole Church. Ever since the schism, the eastern church has come to be known as orthodox and the western church as catholic.

The next great division occurred in the western church during the 1500’s, known as the Protestant Reformation. Over a period of centuries many false teachings had gradually but powerfully crept into the catholic church to the point where the good news of salvation by faith in Christ had been obscured. Many extra-biblical traditions had accumulated to the point where even the priests were quite ignorant of the Holy Scriptures, not to mention the laity! Mass was only held in Latin, a foreign tongue to many. The lives of parishioners were filled with such things as veneration of relics (dead bones and other objects supposed to be from saints,) prayer to saints, indulgences (get out of purgatory certificates sold to raise funds for the pope), and the addition of five sacraments not given as such in Scripture: marriage, ordination, confirmation, penance, and last rites. Salvation was taught to be a reward for good works and a result of partaking in the supposed seven sacraments rather than being based only on the merit of Christ himself, as Scripture teaches. But when a great movement known as the Renaissance made available such important scholarly material from the east as the Greek New Testament and the writings of the Greek fathers from the time of the great ecumenical councils we mentioned above, young scholars began to learn that the way of salvation revealed in Scripture is purely by the grace of God in Christ unto salvation unto everyone who believes in Him, based on His merit alone and not on any of our own works, following such passages as Romans 1:16, 17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer brought and preached the Bible in their home countries including Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and Scotland. The Bible was translated into the languages of the people from the original Hebrew and Greek so that they could understand the Scriptures for themselves. Worship was held and sermons were preached in the common languages of the people. Instead of basing the Christian faith on the great mass of tradition that had accumulated over the centuries, these Reformers looked to the Bible alone as the final authority and standard for the Christian faith. The Reformers kept those traditions which were based on Scripture and threw out the rest so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Since the Roman Church had rejected the Reformers and their teaching, new churches were established in many countries, wherever the gospel was heard and believed in purity. Although divided by geography and sometimes by some of the finer points of doctrine, these churches, known as Protestant, held the basic Christian faith in common. By rejecting the doctrines of salvation by faith alone and the unique authority of the Holy Scriptures at the Council of Trent ( AD 1545-1563), the Roman Church, commonly known as the Catholic Church, departed from the true Christian faith handed down from the apostles. Sadly she still rejects these important pillars of the true Christian faith of salvation by faith in Christ alone and the Scriptures alone as the final authority, even today. The Protestant Reformation birthed such churches as the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches divided by geography and sometimes certain matters of doctrine or practice, but united on the basics of the gospel.

Over the years, further movements and divisions within the churches of the Reformation produced other churches such as the Baptists and Methodists with their own distinctive emphases during the 1600’s and 1700’s. The 1800’s saw a number of cults started by powerful personalities or self-appointed prophets who gathered their own following, especially in the United States, many of which groups continue until this day. In the 20th century, many of the Protestant churches had become infected with liberal theology which undermined the pure faith based on the Holy Scriptures that had characterized the churches of the Reformation.  Many churches were influenced by modern trends like evolutionary theory, “higher” biblical criticism, feminism, and sexual “liberation.”  But in several cases a remnant of true believers remained to carry on the heritage of faith in those churches or break away and form new denominations to bear the old name and faith. The charismatic/pentecostal movement attempted to recreate the experiences of the apostolic age, counter to a biblical understanding of God’s plan for redemptive history, I believe. And many independent churches were established, with no official ties or fellowship with any other congregations.

Here is a quick summary of the historical circumstances which led to the plethora of churches and denominations that we have today. So here’s what has happened. That leaves us to consider God’s ultimate purpose in it and offer some practical considerations. To be continued.

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If Christianity Is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 2, The Brain On Sin

2. Christians are still sinners, and this affects their brains.

The sinfulness of man also extends to the thoughts and intellect.

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Romans 1:21

Ever since the fall of the first man, all people in this world are sinners by nature, and that includes Christians. (Romans 5:12)  The unbelieving world has had its thinking turned into vanity and its heart (considered the seat of the thoughts and emotions in ancient Jewish culture) made foolish and darkened. Unlike the unbelieving world, Christians are forgiven of their sin, and they are winning the victory over it little by little by the power of the Holy Spirit. But they still struggle against sin in their lives. Likewise the brains of Christians are still impaired by sin. This prevents even sincere Christians from having full unity in the truth, even when they come to the same 66 books of the Holy Scriptures with willing hearts and a teachable spirit. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all truth,” (John 16:13) but this is a gradual process. Just as the Christian is not immediately perfect in personal holiness the moment he is born again, he also is not granted perfect understanding overnight.

It takes hard effort to gain a thorough understanding of the Scriptures, and the lingering mental impairment of sin that remains in Christians prevents them from coming to a perfect understanding this side of heaven. The effects of sin on our brains have been called the noetic effects of sin.  These effects of sin on the brain prevent us from seeing clearly, thinking logically about Scripture, seeing the connections between the different parts of Scripture, interpreting context, and comprehending what we are hearing or reading.  And while it is unhappy that true Christians must be divided (to some extent) on second tier issues, it’s equally important that we obey God’s commandments to the extent that we are able to comprehend them, even the “second tier” instructions. Jesus said, “teach all nations, …teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”  Matthew 28:19, 20   In these cases where genuine Christians disagree, they ought to remember not to seek unity in form without unity in doctrine. All true believers may come to a sufficient knowledge of everything required for salvation by a diligent study of the Scriptures. But other matters besides just that which is absolutely necessary for salvation are addressed in Scripture, too. It takes hard work to come to unity on these matters, but it’s far better to try than to just gloss over them and pretend they’re not important.

Even though some issues which divide sincere Christians are not essential matters of salvation, they can still be very important for the order of the church. If a family with young baptized children came to a church which did not believe in infant baptism, and their children were later admitted to the Lord’s Supper without being baptized again, it could lead to a disagreement and division in the church over whether they had been correctly baptized or not. The confusion over whether the kids had been baptized could turn the sacrament of baptism, which Christ gave to strengthen the assurance of those baptized, into a source of doubt and uncertainty. Other parents might resent their young children not being baptized. And so as hard as it is, the proper course on many of these not-first-tier but nonetheless important matters that are addressed in Scripture is that each particular church be clear on where she stands on it, according to the best light she has on the Scriptural teaching. And this puts some limits on full communion between churches.  Again, it’s not so much that these matters are not sufficiently clear from the Scriptures, but sin is still having an effect on our brains.  

And even where a proper concern for obedience and church order keeps us divided in name and formal communion, we can still be united in spirit and have times of fellowship, study, and prayer now and then with those Christians from other churches who are being saved as we are.  (Although it is important that the primary feeding and most frequent fellowship of a Christian occur in the local church where he or she has made a public covenant with other believers to walk together in the Lord.)  

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If Christianity Is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 1, Defining Differences

The vast array of denominations and sects within Christendom is dizzying and admittedly wearying to inquirers and those new to the faith, let alone to your average longtime church-goer!
Some may wonder whether Christianity can be the true faith, considering that there are so many divisions and disagreements between professing Christians. Why are Christian churches divided into so many different labels and groups?

1.  Defining differences

First of all, there are differences, and there are differences.  The first type is fundamental and essential differences in the faith.  The Apostle Paul in Holy Scripture writes about these when he says:

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. 1 John 2:18, 19

When division occurs in the church over an essential doctrine like the doctrine of Christ, there is a distinction being made between true and false religion, between that which is Christian and that which is Antichristian. This is the kind of division John is describing in the passage above. Many divisions in the Christian Church throughout history have been of this kind. (Ever since the resurrection of Christ, we have been in the “last time” that John refers to.) For example, in New Testament times there was a gnostic movement which attempted to blend Christianity with Greek philosophy in order to make Christianity more attractive to Greeks. Eventually the gnostics denied that Christ had come in as a real human being with a human body, since this idea was offensive to Greeks. It was a denial of Christ the Mediator, God come in the flesh. In such cases where there is a split over essential Christian doctrine, one group continues as the true Christian church and the other is a false church or religion of some other kind.  John calls them, “antichrists.” Many other divisions of this essential nature happened in the first millenium of Christianity, especially during the debates over the Trinity and the person of Christ, leading to such breakaway heretical groups as the Arians, the Sabellians, the Nestorians, and the Monophysites. Some modern groups which have followed in the mold of the ancient heretical groups are the Mormons, the Jehovah’s witnesses, and the Oneness Pentecostals. It’s uncanny how closely these modern groups resemble the ancient heresies. And a few of the ancient heresies themselves are still around in isolated pockets around the world.

In other cases, there are differences or divisions which do not involve an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, and different churches may continue to recognize one another as true churches of Christ, yet there are some limits of various degrees on the amount of fellowship they have with one another, either intentionally or otherwise. In this category would be many of the churches that trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, who still adhere to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, and believe that righteousness in God’s sight comes through faith in Christ alone, but they remain separate for various reasons. In some cases there are doctrinal differences which do not reach to the essential doctrines of Christianity, but they are held distinctly out of a desire to be in full obedience to God’s revelation in Scripture, and two particular Christian churches have not come to agreement on them. Into this category would fall the debates over whether baptism is best administered by sprinkling or immersion, or degrees of difference in understanding the church and the sacraments which do not undermine the good news of the grace of God in Christ for sinners by faith in Him unto salvation.  They are united on first tier essential Christian doctrine, but divided on other issues.  How is it that after two millenia and one common book, so many true Christian churches (not to mention individuals) remain divided on some of the important but second tier issues? To be continued…

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