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.