In this third part of searching I look more at the issue of “the faith,” that is, what is the content of what a church actually teaches and preaches. The first part of this series is 15 Reasons Why I Came Back to the Church, and the second is Searching for the church — Part 1.
This part of the search takes a while. It is one thing to hear a good sermon on Sunday or a good short series of sermons. It is another to determine whether the church covers all key doctrines or whether these are more hobby-horse sermons. What makes this more complicated is that you have to be there and dig into both the sermons and the official teachings of the congregation or denomination.
So, in one sense you are becoming a focus of the church’s ministry (or you should be!) unless the church doesn’t want to deal with you as part of the ministry and only as “members” (whatever that might mean). This is a catch 22 situation. As you and your family become (unintentionally) integrated, it can be difficult to leave if you discover the teaching of “the faith” doesn’t measure up.
This part of the search also involves your own growing in the “the faith.” That is, you study the Scriptures in a more consistent manner. You don’t just pick a few favorite passages, but wrestle with some of the more challenging texts (1 Cor. 11:23-29; 1 Peter 3:21; Romans 3-8, John 14-17, etc.). At this point a critical text to keep in mind is Acts 17:11
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (NIV)
Thus, no matter what the credentials of the pastor, the size of the congregation, or popularity of the ministry, every pastor ought to welcome questions about Scripture. And you can ask, not to trick someone or “win an argument,” but rather in humility to see whether what you hear and see in the church is consistent with Scripture. I can’t stress this enough: humility is critical in this whole process, in your own study of Scripture and in your testing of the church’s teachings.
Two Questions to Start:
There are always two questions to ask a group or an individual to find out whether it is even worth pursuing.
1. What is most important?
It’s amazing how easily this question is glossed over in many churches today. The Bible is very clear on this point, but the answer to this question can be summarized as: justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. See the following Bible passages:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 NIV)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)
The list of passages goes on and on: Philippians 3:9; John 14:6; Acts 2:36; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 2:16, etc.
Unless that is stated up front by the group and is consistently the center of everything else in teaching and ministry, then the group is one to avoid.
2. What is the source for #1?
For Christians, the answer ought to be “the Bible.” But don’t be too quick to jump on this answer. Why? Because over time it will surface that the real answer might be “The Bible and reason.” In other words, the real stance might be: “I accept the Bible as long as it makes sense to me.” Or ask yourself whether faith is so narrowly defined that it does not apply to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Bible does. Have they (we) restricted it to mental capability? The answer to such a question may indicate that the Bible is no longer the source, but rather my own reason. So, if a group claims the Bible is the only source for doctrine and faith, very good. But look closer at how this is practiced in preaching and teaching.
Distinguish between what is important and not important?
So how do we decide what is or is not important? What is the role of baptism relative to what is most important? What about the role of women? (NB: even phrasing this question this way reveals much about the church) What about end times? It can be very confusing.
As I wrestled through this process I came to realize that there were distinctions between doctrines, some very important, and others less so. At the time I didn’t have resources to formally sort this out, but as it turned out, I followed much the path that Franz Pieper had articulated in his Christian Dogmatics. And I discovered that this process was used by Christians for many centuries, that is, to distinguish Fundamental Doctrines vs. Non-fundamental Doctrines vs. Adiaphora (“things indifferent”).
These concern the foundation of the Christian faith. Saving faith (as “the faith”) includes the following:
- Knowledge of sin and consequences of sin (Luke 24:47; Isaiah 66:2; 57:15; Psalm 34:18; 51:17; Luke 4:18, etc.)
- Knowledge of the Person of Jesus Christ, i.e. true God and true Man (Matt. 22:42; 16:13-17; 1 John 1:1-4; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 12:3, Matthew 28:18-20, etc.)
- Knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ, not as an example, but rather the Mediator who gave Himself as a ransom for all to take away the sin of the world (1 Timothy 2:5-6; John 1:29; 1 John 3:8; etc.)
- Faith is in the Word of Christ, the external Word, not an internal “feeling” (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13, etc.)
- Belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead and of eternal life for all believers in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 54, etc.)
If the above are not believed and taught, then the person/group is not Christian. It is that simple.
There are two secondary fundamental doctrines, that support the above, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The difference is that while these are built on the above foundation someone can believe or teach wrongly on either topic and yet be Christian. This is critical in two ways. We may disagree on these two topics but we cannot then claim that those who disagree are not Christian. On the other hand, we cannot just accept something to avoid digging further, claiming “it doesn’t matter because I’m Christian.” Doctrine does matter. If Scripture teaches something on these two topics we cannot dismiss it as unimportant (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 1:13-14, etc.).
Pieper writes about this classification very well:
Non-fundamental doctrines…are those Scripture truths which are not the foundation or object of faith in so far as it obtains forgiveness of sins and makes [people] children of God, but with the faith of those who have already obtained the forgiveness of sins should and does concern itself. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pp. 91-2)
The knowledge of non-fundamental doctrines serve faith, and include topics such as: the Antichrist, doctrine of angels, end times theology, etc. However, the denial of or errors regarding non-fundamental doctrines can endanger saving faith, i.e. approaching the end times in such a way that faith in Christ is weakened rather than strengthened.
Adiaphora (“Things indifferent”)
These are things which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. In Christian freedom we can make choices on either side of the topic, but always with concern for the weaker believer (i.e. Romans 14:13-18). Examples include: to be vegetarian or not, to drink alcoholic beverages, what day to worship, etc. These can raise all kinds of additional concerns, which means caution, love, and humility inform and guide our freedom in these matters.
One other topic: Law and Gospel
Understanding Law and Gospel and the proper distinction between them is essential in terms of reading Scripture rightly. Over the past 30 years I have found that once people come to grips with this, many other pieces fall into place (not in the sense of “making sense” but rather consistent with Scripture itself. This deserves a separate post, but just a note on it (and a Law-Gospel, Handout):
- Law: Tells us what we are to do or not do, and threatens punishment when we fail. It can only condemn, accuse, threaten (in doctrinal terms). “I” am the subject of the Law.
- Gospel: Tells us what Jesus Christ has done for our salvation, 100% his doing, nothing I can do or even believe to change that. “Jesus” is the subject of saving work, and He is always the object of saving faith. Gospel never condemns, never accuses, but always comforts, forgives, renews, restores, and builds faith in Jesus Christ.
Much more could be written but this is at least a good starting point. It gives a road map to make sure that we do not make a “shipwreck of our faith” (2 Timothy 2:16-18). As we work our way through the above process, we also look at how this is working itself out in the congregation. Correct doctrine is to be consistent with a Spirit-led, God pleasing ministry among the people and in outreach. So that is the next focus.