One of the lunchtime conversations that took place at our table when I was in junior high school had to do with which denomination was the one that was closest to the truth.  As junior high students, we realized through interacting with each other, and listening to the adults in our families and churches, that as far as church was concerned, we didn’t all believe exactly the same way.  The differences between the various churches in our community became somewhat obvious to me when I was in elementary school and went to VBS at three or four different churches each summer.  We lived in a community in which the largest single religious group was Mormon, and if you lumped everyone in town together who went to church, only about a fourth of the population did. 

Two of my best friends in junior high were preacher’s kids, one Assembly of God and one Church of Christ.  Our churches were quite similar in many ways, in that they were small churches of between 40-60 active members, and had bi-vocational pastors.  We were united in our opposition to Mormons and Catholics, that went without saying, of course.  And of course, we weren’t experienced enough in our own theological position to recognize that there were larger theological differences between our various congregations, beyond that which we could observe.  We knew the Assembly of God was loud, they clapped and raised their hands, and spoke in “tongues.”  And we knew the Church of Christ didn’t have a piano and an organ.  That was pretty much the content of our discussions about which church was “closest” to the truth.  I couldn’t really understand why some of those things were such a big deal, nor why my Sunday School teacher got a little red in the face and a little bit angry when I would raise these questions in class.  I was never satisfied with the explanation that there were certain things we didn’t do, and certain things we did, just because we were Southern Baptist. 

In recent weeks, several things have brought this issue back to my mind.  The continualist/cessationist debate in the SBC, reading about the Pope’s recent statement regarding non-Catholics, and a 20/20 report on Hell that featured an interview with Tulsa pastor Carlton Pearson, along with everything I’m reading in the blogging world, have all served to put this question back on the front burner.  In junior high, the big question was making sure you “believed enough” to get into heaven.  Of course, now I know that it isn’t a matter of “believing enough,” but of receiving the grace that comes through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, and victory over death and the grave.  Today, it’s a matter of drawing lines related to a set of doctrinal beliefs that are required in order to worship together, be part of the same church, and minister together. 

The fact that many of these issues are considered minor ones by a lot of Christians is evidenced by the growth in both the number of non-denominational churches and the number of people attending them.  In these congregations, many things that some denominations consider “distinctives” are not raised to the level of essentials, and people of various backgrounds are brought together with a strong focus on their salvation and their call to fulfill the Great Commission as a church.  Insistence on things that, from a doctrinal perspective, are not directly related to either of those issues is considered a hindrance to the mission and ministry of the church. 

So where do you draw the line?

When Carlton Pearson articulated his changed views on hell to his Pentecostal congregation of 6,000, all but a few hundred of them left the church.  But I don’t think his interpretation of the definition of hell was what caused the exodus.  In order to arrive at it, he abandoned his belief in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God.  That’s what I think caused his congregation to decide he could no longer be their pastor, and rightly so.  He was wrong.  But so were most of his critics.  The mean-spirited, hate-filled response he received from far too many of his former members was also quite contrary to the clear teachings and instructions of the scripture in dealing with such matters.  It’s one thing to claim belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible.  It is quite another to practice what it says.

The Church of Christ believes that water baptism is essential to salvation.  The Assembly of God believes that speaking in tongues is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  Both of those groups use a literal interpretation of the scripture as proof for their conclusions.  Baptists do not accept either of those beliefs, but we insist that our literal interpretation of the scripture on these points is the correct one  That’s the point where people accept the teaching of the church largely based on their own presupposition.  People who are raised in any of those three traditions will likely accept what their church teaches, and reject what the others teach, and claim that their view is scriptural.  Yet, in a small Arizona town where most of the churched people were Mormon, and most of the people weren’t churched, those differences did not prevent Christians from all three of those churches from recognizing the faith they had in common, and working together on things that inspired and encouraged each other, and presented the gospel to the community.

I don’t get why Baptists must be so dogmatic and insistent on having their own way on so many insignificant finer points of scriptural interpretation.  But beyond that, I don’t see why separation and exclusion are the responses to differences of opinion.  I suspect that, in some cases, there are personal egos involved.  But there appears to be a real blindness when it comes to following the scriptures instructions for getting along with each other.  No wonder the world has such trouble taking us seriously.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

10 responses

  1. Jason Epps says:

    “But there appears to be a real blindness when it comes to following the scriptures instructions for getting along with each other. No wonder the world has such trouble taking us seriously.”

    Wow. Amen.

    J

  2. Timothy says:

    You may be interested to learn that the doctrine of no salvation outside of the Church is an ancient Christian doctrine and was widely taught by the early Christian Church:

    http://christian-apologetics-society.blogspot.com/2007/07/outside-church-there-is-no-salvation.html

  3. starbunk says:

    A lot of that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway. Only faith in Jesus and acceptance. Everything else is man-derived interpretations.

  4. Lee says:

    Early church fathers shed a lot of light on what happened in the early years of the Christian church, and give tremendous insights into the reason why things developed the way they did. However, in terms of doctrine, they are not authoritative. Only the scripture carries the authority of doctrine.

    If you’re hinting that “the Church” is the current Roman Catholic variety, and that, as Pope Benedict declared, is the “true Church,” your argument won’t hold water. The “true church” is the invisible, confessing body of Christ, not the institution. It exists invisibly as the universal body of Christ, and locally, as gathered groups of individuals who confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. I have no doubt there are many Catholics in that body, as there are Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Charismatics, Pentecostals and others. But in and of themselves, denominations are not “churches.”

  5. […] Who Is Closest? So, who is closest to the truth. A very interesting article from Deep In the Heart. [Re]connected My good friend David Ketter […]

  6. Lee says:

    For me the bottom line of the Christian faith is the testimony that Jesus is the fully divine, fully human Son of the living God. This is attested to in the scripture in several places. Matthew, the gospel writer, records Peter’s confession of Christ. Paul, the apostle, affirms this in I Corinthians 12:3. And John, the apostle, affirms it in I John 4:1-3. I believe this core doctrine of the faith is the measure of true Christianity. Without this acknowledgement, one cannot be Christian while confessing it genuinely is the essence of Christianity.

    Beyond that, doctrine is a matter of interpreting the scripture. So those who stick with the scripture, and work to avoid departing from its central themes when interpreting it, are closer to the truth than those who allow their own culture and circumstances to do the interpretation for them. Acknowledging that humans are prone to bias, predisposition and error in their interpretations of things, I’d add that prayer, and dependence on the spirit are yet additional requirements to staying “close” to the truth.

    In I Corinthians 13, Paul says, “Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture. But when full understanding comes, these partial things will become useless.”

    Every denomination has its cultural bias that prevents it from being perfect. They are human institutions, not even mentioned in scripture. The fact that Christians cannot agree on the finer points of the scripture is evidence of our human imperfection. Sincere believers are on a quest for the truth, and those who attempt to live their lives in such a way that their gratitude to God for what Christ has done for them shows in their obedience are, at the very least, headed in the right direction. Inside the Kingdom, I’m not convinced that anyone is close enough to brag about it.

  7. Timothy says:

    >” Only the scripture carries the authority of doctrine”

    And what was authoritative those decades between the death of Christ and when the scripture was written? The Old Testament?

    Where does the Bible say that “Only the scripture carries the authority of doctrine”. That’s not in any of the Bibles I’ve ever read. I’d certainly like to see that in print. Please tell us the translation and edition that we too may purchase such a marvelous Bible.

    >”The “true church” is the invisible, confessing body of Christ, not the institution.”

    Christ established one very visible Church and thus Christ’s Church today is a visible Church. After telling us to not hide our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:13-16), why would Christ then hide the light of His church by making it invisible? Does that not contradict scripture?

    No, I don’t buy into the tradition of man which teaches that Christ’s Church is invisible for one second. Its just not Biblical. If you’re as interested in discovering the Truth as your title suggests, you might challenge yourself to find out which modern “institution” is the one visible Church established by Christ.

    To start, you might ask Christ in a prayer. But don’t ask unless you’re sincere and willing to “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5)

    God bless one and all…

  8. Lee says:

    I Timothy 3:14-17, NLT
    But you must remain faithful to the things you were taught. You know they are true for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive salvation that comes from trusting in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

    Sounds to me like there is a passage from the apostle Paul that is quite clear about the authority and sufficiency of scripture. I can’t find anything in the New Testament that ever speaks of the church as being institutional, nor where the authority of the apostles was passed on to specific individuals . And to answer your question, from the time of Christ to the time that the canon of New Testament was being written, the apostles were the doctrinal authority of the churches. The books of the New Testament were written and widely circulated by the end of the first century, obviously, because they are almost completely quoted by the early church fathers and were given a higher authority than the writings of the second century.

    The confession of the true church is “Jesus is Lord.” A church is a gathered body of believers who are united by that confession, not under a human authority. I don’t differ with you in that I believe there is no salvation outside the church. However, what I mean by that is that a church consists of saved believers who gather together in the unity of the spirit, and function as a body of Christ. They need no endorsement from any ecclesiastical “authority” because, outside of their own group, no such authority exists. There is no basis in scripture for the church to exist as an institution.

  9. Tim Dahl says:

    The worst thing that ever happened to the church was becoming betrothed to the state. It just happened to have started in Roman. The Holy Roman Universal (catholic) Church, was probably the evil one’s most proudest hour. We’ve been trying to un-enmesh the church ever since.

    Oh, and Lee… When are you going to post something else?

    Tim

  10. Lee says:

    I’ve been on a mission trip for the past couple of weeks, so it will be today or tomorrow.