Searching for the church—Part 1

In my previous post (15 Reasons why I came back to the Church) I focused on the reasons for coming back to the church. Today I will turn my attention to the searching aspect of coming back. First, let me distinguish between the Church, consisting of all believers in Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, also referred to as the Church Catholic [does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church=RCC] and the church as the local visible manifestation of that Church.

The Church in its essence is invisible. No one can look into another person’s heart and determine whether that person is a Christian or not. Yet there is a unity among all Christians, as Jesus expresses it ( “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one;” John 17:20).

The church is visible and gives our “flesh and blood” look at those who believe in Jesus Christ. But even here we cannot identify those who truly believe. As Jesus says there are weeds among the wheat.

Faith and Faith

Early on it became helpful to distinguish between two uses of the word faith.

  1. Faith which believes: This refers to the belief/faith/trust that God creates in the person (John 3:5; Romans 10:17, etc.). You might hear the expression “personal faith,” but that is really redundant, because faith which believes can only be personal.
  2. Faith which is believed: This refers to the content of the faith which believes, and often identified with the definite article, “the faith.” The outward expression of the content the faith is critical, because if the “faith which believes” is based on wrong content, then there is great danger in losing the “faith which believes.” Here are two examples of this use in the New Testament:

Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13)

until we all attain to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)

So, what difference does it make to know the difference between “faith” and “the faith” when searching for a church? In my experience in church leadership over the past 35 years, much of it as a pastor, I have found most people use #1 as the criteria, and seldom if ever pay attention to #2. That is, the person will state, “I believe in Jesus” (with many assumptions behind that statement) and tries to find a church that reinforces the “personal faith.” Carl Braaten aptly observed: “that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology” (First Things 61 [March 1996]).

For someone who approaches the search this way, it is not unusual to find that person shifting from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian to Evangelical to non-denominational, searching for a local church that “feels comfortable.” These tags are of little or no consequence in the search, because “it is what I believe in my heart that counts.” Note this is not a judgment but rather an observation.

The Search changes direction

What happens if we include that second aspect, the content of faith, “the faith”? Now I have to begin to examine what is the content of my faith? What do I believe about God? Who is this Jesus? What does the Trinity (three in one) mean? What do I believe about justification, sanctification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.? If these questions come up, then we search Scriptures. But how many of us are experts in that? Is it necessary to be an expert? The key is beginning to read the Word, but more than just a quick devotional plunge every now and then. (I recommend reading entire books in roughly this order: Ephesians, Mark, 1 John, Luke, Romans, Matthew, 1 Peter, John, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, etc.)

As I examine these topics and come to some decision about the content of my faith based on my study of Scripture, now I begin to examine what that local church, or congregation, publicly teaches. If I come to one conclusion about baptism, what happens if that congregation teaches differently? Is this a church where I can in good conscience worship? Where do I draw the line on all these essential teachings?

This is not a new problem. Christians have faced this challenge from the very first. So what becomes the standard for me and the church to determine what is “the faith”? Obviously, we will say the “Bible.” For the first Christians, prior to the formal collection of the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was the basis. In Acts 17:11 we read: “and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.”

As time went on, challenges to the Biblical teaching arose, and the Church responded with statements of faith based on the Scriptures. Those statements of faith, known as “Creeds” (“creed” comes from credo = “I believe”) became summary statements of the content of what is believed. We have creedal statements even in the New Testament:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.  (1 Tim. 3:16)

Notice that Paul even writes “by common confession.” So Paul acknowledges how important it is to share in the content of “the faith.”

Also, notice that in this search of Scripture, we discover that this is never a “one issue” or “one doctrine” kind of litmus test of a church (or myself). If I disagree with what the church teaches about baptism, that will affect what it teaches on sin, salvation, God and humans in relationship, etc. In fact, every critical doctrine ultimately affects the teaching about justification by grace through faith.

Where does this lead?

At this point, our search leads us to consider what a church publicly teaches or confesses. A statement of “the faith” is critical. Every church has a creed of some kind. I remember serving as pastor in a smaller community, in which there was a church, specifically identified as “anti-creedal” claiming “we believe what the Bible teaches, so we don’t need a creed.” One newsletter had the very large headline, “We are Anti-creedal!” The rest of the page consisted of 20+ statements of faith, i.e. a creed!

As you study the Bible, it helps to examine the two major creeds, Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed to see what they teach. The Apostles Creed developed over a period of centuries but has been seen original as a baptismal creed. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 as they met the challenge of those who taught the Jesus was somehow a “lesser God.”

Again, see whether the creeds themselves teach what the Bible teaches. When I teach adult instruction class, I give this handout of the Apostles Creed for them to see that the creed is not “something added to the Bible” but is a summary of what the Bible teaches.

The Next Step

Finding a church that confesses “the faith” that matches the Bible is not an easier or simple path. If a doctrine of the church is obviously contrary to the Bible, then move on, this is not a place for you to grow in “the faith,” let alone concern for “your faith.” But take your time. As your grow in your understanding of the Bible, you will discover your understanding of “the faith” will reflect more and more what the Church has confessed as “the faith.” And as you do, you will find a church which does as well.

This is an important aspect of your faith, but it is also an exciting time as your learn more about who God is, what God has done, and how God relates to people. We belong to that extended train of believers throughout history, the Church. The wisdom of those who have gone before us is valuable for us as we study, reflect, pray, and learn.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
This entry was posted in Doctrine- Systematics, Ministry, My church, Personal Reflection, Worship/Liturgy. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Searching for the church—Part 1

  1. jen says:

    Have you heard the episode of “On Being” (formerly “Speaking of Faith”) where the late great Jaroslav Pelikan talks about the need for creeds? It’s amazing.

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  2. Jenny says:

    LOL Yes, as someone who grew up in the Restoration Movement’s independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, I can verify that many “anti-creedal” churches in fact cling to “statements of faith” that are de facto creeds.

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  3. Stephen Kurtzahn says:

    Thanks, Rich. Well written! Just one comment though. You write, “In fact, every critical doctrine ultimately affects the teaching about justification by grace through faith.” Isn’t it proper to say that every doctrine is critical? It would have been just as accurate to say, “…every doctrine ultimately affects…” Even such teachings as church fellowship ultimately affect the teaching about justification. Would you agree?

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    • exegete77 says:

      Thanks, Stephen. It was a judgment call. I was thinking more along the lines of what Pieper wrote in his Dogmatics concerning the hierarchy of doctrines: fundamental doctrines (which he lists as five that are the essence of saving faith); secondary doctrines (i.e. Baptism and Lord’s Supper), non-fundamental doctrines, and adiaphora. Thus, I would classify the first two categories of Pieper as “critical doctrines.”

      I think it interesting that most battles with false doctrine relate to those two areas. In teaching for the past 30 years in a variety of roles (pastor, pastoral mentor, and seminary president), I have found that most people if grounded firmly in those two categories have the basis for sorting out the others. In every large Bible class I teach, questions arise at least once a month related to one of those two areas. Just some further reflection…

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  4. Emily Cook says:

    This is a great post Rich. I remember someone saying, “It doesn’t matter so much if it is SINCERE faith if it is faith in… my shoe! My shoe’s not going to save you!” (this sounds like my husband though I am not entirely sure.) Seems like nowadays we are very concerned with sincerity, and much less concerned about what we have sincere faith IN. This is definitely a problem. Your distinction between personal faith and “the faith” is very helpful.

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  5. Emily Cook says:

    PS I appreciate the apostle’s creed handout too- thank you!

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  6. Pingback: Searching for the church — Part 2 | "believe, teach, and confess"

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