Posts Tagged With: denominations

Q&A About the Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ in her Current State, Denominations, and the Obligation of a Christian

Question: In 2013, the Christian churches are woefully and hopelessly divided, and yet Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:11.)  Should we attempt to determine which of all the churches (denominations) is the most pure or correct, and just consider all the others to be illegitimate unless they join her?

Answer:  According to the united testimony of the Church throughout history, No.  It is true that the Church of Jesus Christ is divided, in visible form.  There are literally hundreds of separate communions and denominations which are not inviting one another to take part in their important work and decision-making.  This is due to many factors and circumstances of history.  Many of them involve sin.  But, wherever there is the pure preaching of the Word in its fundamental truths of the law and gospel, the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are administered according to Christ’s commandments, and the members of Christ’s Church are walking together in love and mutual discipline, Christians ought not to abandon her.


      1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

      2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

      3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is                         recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

This position is supported by the best Bible-scholars and theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church.  Following are some key examples:

1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol III.  turretin

Of the unity of the Church, Turretin states, “Nor is it uniform as to rites and government.” P. 27

Speaking of the Church visible, he writes, “Although there are many particular churches scattered through the world, the unity of the church is not on that account broken up or his body despised because the catholic church remains always one, composed of these various parts, which (because they are homogeneous) obtain the same name with the whole.”  Note that in referring to the “same name”, Turretin affirms the legitimate ecclesiastical power and authority of separated churches.

In what sense is the church called catholic?  P. 30 “First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name of the catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers (those triumphant in heaven as well as those militant upon earth), in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived form the beginning of the world or will live even unto the end.”

p. 31 “Now although the word “church” popularly speaking denotes an external and visible assembly, it does not on that account follow (speaking accurately of the church of Christ) that its proper and natural signification implies simply a visible assembly or a simple external profession: for a spiritual and internal communion constitutes its essence, as has been seen.”

On p. 143 he discusses disagreements between the evangelical and Reformed churches, “Disagreements are a prejudice under which the evangelical churches labor.  But they cannot hinder them from retaining the name of the true church, because they agree as to the foundation.  And if any differences exist, (which God wished to permit in order to prove our faith), they are about articles less necessary, in which there can be a disagreement without touching the essence of saving religion:  as the apostolic churches formerly had their differences and stains, as is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles; nor were the eastern and western churches, the Latin and the Greek, the African and Italian churches free from them, which did not on that account cease to be true churches.  Again, the contentions and differences of the evangelicals are far less than those which are agitated among the Romanists, who, as was seen before, frequently charge each other with heresy.  Nor do we notice here the more rigid judgments of some of those who take their name from the great Luther, who, carried away by sinister prejudices, are accustomed to attack us.  For however harshly they may have treated us, we do not cease to honor them with brotherly affection.  And if, their prejudices and private affections being laid aside, they would seriously examine the thing itself by the law of love, truth, and Christian prudence, they would not be so much averse to a pious syncretism and reconciliation with us, or at least a mutual toleration, to which not a few of the more moderate among them are not indisposed.”

p. 307 “councils are not simply and absolutely necessary to the being of the church.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

p. 46 “In the first place, the principles laid down as to the Church local and catholic, serve to evince the nature of the relation in which both member and office-bearers of separate Churches stand to each other, notwithstanding of the separation.”

He goes on to say on p. 47, “the office-bearers of the Christian Church are not the office-bearers of any particular society alone, but the office-bearers of the whole visible community of believers.  It may be necessary for the advantageous exercise of their office, and profitable for the Church, that particular ministers should be set apart to labour in particular charges, as more exclusively theirs.  But their ministry is not limited to these.  Their commission as preachers of the Gospel is a commission co-extensive with the visible Church of Christ; and they are free to exercise their ministry wherever and whenever they have a regular opportunity to do so…Difference of doctrine or administration or worship may indeed hinder their fellowship,–and not without sin on one side or the other; but it ought never to be forgotten, that both members and office-bearers, however separated, if they belong to the Christian society at all, belong not to many Churches, properly speaking, but to one; that they are in communion, not so much with various local societies, as with the one catholic Church of the Redeemer.” P. 50 “The oneness of the invisible [church] is the ideal, to which, amidst all its breaches and divisions, the visible Church can only approximately approach.”

2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

Hodge, Charles, Church Polity.

hodgeWhile acknowledging the normal, ideal, and biblical form of the church, would have all churches meeting together in common councils and taking part in mutual submission p. 93, Hodge states that the current denominational lines and distinctions are a necessary evil, due primarily to disagreements between Christians on the biblical model of church government.  He gives a summary of what has divided each of the major denominations from one another, then says, “Thus the evil has gone on increasing until the Church is split into sects and independent communions almost without number.  Nevertheless, the existence of such divisions is the less of two evils.  When men differ, it is better to avow their diversity of opinion or faith, than to pretend to agree, or to force discordant elements in a formal uncongenial union.” p. 95  He then goes on to discuss what the relative duties of these divided denominations are, in recognition of one another as churches of Christ.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

Speaking of the term “catholic”, Turretin states, p. 32, “But whatever is the reason of this appellation, it is certain that it does not belong to the Roman church, since it neither holds the catholic faith, nor is it everywhere diffused—innumerable churches both in the east and in the west having been separated from and having nothing in common with it.

Speaking of whether the external splendor of the church may be entirely obscured in any age, Turretin writes, p. 48, “The church can never wholly fail on earth (as was seen before), but not that it is always conspicuous and prominent, but is often so obscured and sunk (whether by persecutions or errors) that no assembly of her appears clearly in the world, but remains obscure and withdrawn from the eyes of men.”

p. 55 “It is one thing for the gospel ministry to be the ordinary means of the gathering together and conservation of the church, which will perpetually endure even until the end of the world (which Paul asserts in Eph. 4:11, 12 and is granted by us); and another for this ministry to be perpetuated in an uninterrupted succession in any one seat (to wit, the Roman) and always with the same splendor of uncorrupted doctrine as well as of inviolate order and observable dignity.  Following the Scriptures, we deny the latter.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ  bannerman

”different interpretations of Scripture have introduced among professing Christians a difference of belief regarding the doctrines of Christianity.  Opposite opinions, too, as to the forms of administration and modes of worship appointed for the Christian Church, have led to apparently irreconcilable breaches among them.  And now the vast society of professing Christians throughout the world is broken up and divided into distinct sections, which not distance of place, but distance of opinion and practice keeps apart; so that, while they profess to worship one through one Mediator, they would not meet together for that worship in common, even although they could.”

3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics

p. 670

Heppe summarizes the historic Reformed position being that where the three marks of the purity of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline exist in a communion, Christians must not separate themselves from this church.  20. Naturally all these attributes do not attach to all separate Churches in the same perfection, yet that is why the Christian must not forthwith separate himself from the communion to which he belongs when he notices in it errors and lacks of minor importance.  All that matters is that everything belonging to the saving nature of revelation is preserved in complete purity.  calvin  –Calvin (IV, I, 12): “When we say that pure ministry of the word and pure rite in celebrating the sacraments is a fitting pledge and earnest, that we may safely embrace as the Church a society in which both exist, it holds to the extent that it is nowhere to be rejected, so long as it persists in these things, although it is otherwise rife in many defects.”

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

p. 86 on the marks of the true church, “After having treated of the nature, properties and adjuncts of the church, the order demands that we discuss its marks.  This question pertains to its external state and is of the highest importance in religion.  For since salvation cannot be obtained except in communion with the true church and many glory in this sacred name who are destitute of this truth, it is of great value to know its true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves; and the genuine society of pious Christians (to whose communion we are called) from the conventicles of heretics, which must be shunned by us; also that thus we may know what that assembly is to which it is necessary that we should join ourselves that we may obtain salvation.  And because the question can be twofold (the first concerning true marks, which are asserted by us; the other concerning the false and adulterous which are obtruded by the Romanists), we shall discuss each separately and now treat of the first.”

In response to the Romanist assertion that “the union of the members with the head and with each other” is an essential mark of the true church, Turretin argues, p. 111 “The seventh mark is “the union of the members with the head and with each other.”  But neither can this be a mark. (a) For since a union can be twofold—one internal, the other external—neither can be a mark.  Not the internal and mystical of believers with Christ and with each other because it is invisible, known to God alone.  Not the external or with a visible head because there is none; or of the members with each other by the possession of the same sacred things and symbols and offices of mutual love because this can be obscured and hypocritical, separated from the truth of doctrine (without which there can be no true union.)  …XXXVI (c) It is not inseparable because there can be dissension among Christians, while the truth is unimpaired and often was (Acts 11:2, 15:39, Phil. 3:15, 16).  It is indeed the property of a well-constituted church [that is, unity]; it is the duty of all.  It is the surest method of defending and preserving the church, peace, and concord being recommended unceasingly by Christ and the apostles.  But not forthwith does a church cease to be true which is afflicted with certain discordancies and whose parts are drawn asunder in various heads, provided an agreement as to the foundation remains.  Thus formerly there were various differences between the apostles about the primacy, between Paul and Peter, Paul and Barnabas.  Thus among the ancients (between the Eastern and Western churches), there was a fierce contention which lasted through many centuries about the celebration of the Easter.  Among the fathers there was more than one dissension: as between Irenaeus and Victor, Cyprian and Stephen, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, Jerome and Ruffinus, Cyril and Theodoret and various others, which nevertheless did not make the church of that time lose either its name or its truth.”  Name for Turretin means legitimate ecclesiastical authority which extends to all its acts and ordinances.  Above Turretin recognizes external unity as a duty of the true church, yet emphatically denies that it is a distinguishing mark of the true church.

…”Hence unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity.” P. 112  …”Otherwise, as Nazianzus well remarks, ‘A discord arising on account of piety is better than a corrupt concord’”…”Athanasius did not cease to be orthodox, although Liberius had expelled him from his communion and would not receive into common converse the bishops sent by him from Africa.  He commanded the whole fraternity not to admit them to their houses, so that not only hospitality, but also peace should be denied to theones coming (as Cassander informs us on the seventh article;”

p. 137 Are the evangelical and Reformed churches true churches of Christ?  We affirm.

“…which seceded from Rome, in communion with which therefore salvation can certainly be obtained.”

Note that in all of this discussion of Turretin in distinguishing among churches that are called Christian, between those that are true, and those that are false, he is writing in the context of the duty and obligation of Christians to join themselves externally to the true church for their own salvation.  (Because this is where the ordinances and ministry are which God has ordained to be the means of grace to lead men to salvation.)

Although Turretin recognizes external, formal, unity as a duty of all churches, he explicitly denies that it is or can be a mark which distinguishes that true church to which Christians must unite themselves from the false church from which Christians must separate themselves.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

It is in the context of viewing the true Church of Jesus Christ catholic and visible as historically divided in doctrine, worship, and government that Bannerman goes on in the second part of his work to discuss the existence and exercise of ecclesiastical power in doctrine and ordinances.  The power that the Church has in doctrine and ordinances is not, according to Bannerman, confined to one sect or party, but exists wherever the true Church of Christ exists in the world, despite a sinful state of separation.

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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 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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