I’ve gathered a list of questions that I think people pose with regards to their understanding of church, and this post tries to offer a biblical and theological response.
A Church Boy Gone Wild
This infographic is definitely not one of the questions we are considering! 🙂
I ponder only because I once asked some of these questions, and based on a research I conducted among those who went “wild with me”, the threat posed by these questions pushed them out of the Church. Having grown up in the Church, I decided to test the wild waters of the world, in a bid to quench my thirst – I ended up more thirsty. Unlike the common statistic, I found myself back again and deep in both the body and the institution called Church – evidence of God’s grace upon my life.
In the original language, the word Church translates to “the called out ones,” showing how Christians as a body, although still in the world, are called out from the world to be set apart for God (1 Pet. 3:15). Thomas Oden, taking his usual approach of quoting the Church Fathers, shows that this is the way most theologians in the history of the Church have thought about it (Ignatius of Antioch, Chrysostom, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant catechisms and creeds). As both a people and locally constituted “institutions”, “the church is called from the world to celebrate God’s own coming, and called to return to the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God” (Oden, Classic Christianity). In short, while the church bears the unique character of the Living God, together with its people, it is meant to be an instrument of radical transformation.
Marks of the Church
R. C. Sproul observes the following three marks as unique to a church: preaching that is centered on the gospel, right administering of the sacraments and authentic application of discipline. While our postmodern ears itch when we hear these marks of objective truth, remembering the passion of Jesus through a meal and disciplining in the church, scriptural evidence is clear on the place of these marks (Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, Acts 2:46, 1 Cor. 5, 11:17-34, Jude 3). These marks distinguish the church from say para-church organizations and other Christian fellowships. In addition, the Christian creeds showing consensus through the centuries note the nature of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” In accordance with this, one theologian explores the themes of the unity, purity, universality and tradition as definitive of the Church (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology). So in looking at the questions, reference will be made to some of these issues.
- Why should I go to church?
First a confession: once or twice (or maybe more) I’ve had a long Saturday (strong emphasis on the “day” 😉 ) and opted to stay indoors on Sunday in order to attend “bedside baptist.” Yet, we go to church because it is commanded in the scripture (Heb. 10:24), of course, with the assumption that it is more than just following a rule. The reason for this is that through the preaching of God’s word, and the sacraments (Baptism and Lord’s Supper, in Protestant theology), God uses them as a means of grace to spur us on into maturity and Christ-likeness. John Calvin sees the sacraments as “a testimony of God’s grace, made visible by an outward sign”. This goes against the individualistic strain that seems to suggest that the Christian can grow in isolation. We go to church because as a people gathered together in community under the One Lord, it is the means through which God grants us growth in the faith (Mt. 16:18, 1 Thes. 5:11).
2. Why are there many denominations?
The presence of so many denominations stands head strong against any claims that the Church can be one. But taking the stance of the universal church as being made up of those who have fellowship with God in Christ, through the Spirit, then there is a basis under which the true church is united. On the other hand, among the true churches, the different denominations may be indicative of the different emphases that believers focus on – they are all gifts of the One Lord and One Spirit that believers worship. Therefore, some churches focus more on the subjective experience brought about by the Spirit (Charismatic/Pentecostal), others on the sacramental life (Roman Catholic/Orthodox), others on the regenerative effects of the Word (Reformed/Evangelical) and others on the social implications of compassion, mercy and justice (Progressives). Thus the presence of the many denominations shows diversity, and unity means embracing the different emphases in each of our Churches for deeper unity (Oden, Classic Christianity).
3. Is the church hypocritical?
The New Testament severally refers to believers as “saints” showing their new nature in Christ positionally, but also, the progressive process whereby this becomes evident as they become Christ-like (2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Pet. 1:13-25, Rom. 8:28-30). In the reformed tradition, the understanding of man is that (s)he is a sinner who through faith is regenerated or given new birth by the grace of God, and that through the work of the Spirit (s)he is transformed day-by-day to be like Christ. Therefore, to the person who says that the Church is hypocritical, with Sproul, we can answer them “there’s always room for one more” (Sproul, What is the Church?). Shedding more light, the phrase that “the Church is a hospital of sinners and not a museum of saints”, can help churches to shift their focus from behavior modification to character transformation, which is the lasting solution of the gospel for all sinners.
“The Church is a hospital of sinners and not a museum of saints”
4. Should the church be based on tradition?
Our previous bad experiences with tradition in Churches and our postmodern disdain of history, causes us to throw the baby out with the dish water. Modern evangelical Christianity proposes a Western mode of individualism that makes the individual Christian the sole interpreter of Scripture, usually to detrimental and errant tendencies. We come to realize that we always interpret the scripture based on a certain tradition – those who interpret from a “no tradition perspective” and those who live and practice based on a certain tradition, unique to their church/life history. So the question should be what tradition is healthy? From biblical teaching, it seems that it is the tradition centered on the gospel, which was handed down through the apostles (1 Cor. 11:2, 1 Thes. 5:21, 2 Tim. 2:2, Eph. 2:20) and via the 2,000 year history of the Church (among groups and individuals that were faithful to God’s Word). At the point where people follow tradition “just because” or without biblical warrant (Mark 7:9-13), then that type of tradition is detrimental. But where tradition is used to pass down biblical precedent and values, then that is healthy tradition (see the comparison in 1 Pet. 1:18-19).
5. Are there essential beliefs that bind churches together?
Question 4 certainly blooms into this last question. Our disapproval of history and the value that it can add to the believer causes many to be shortsighted. The lack of historical familiarization with the Church at a basic level shows us that what we may falsely tout today as normative Christian doctrine and practice may be the heresies of the past. For instance, there are some who say that those who haven’t had subjective “spiritual” experiences are not real Christians. When not explicitly stated, this can be seen implicitly in modern day worship practice in the church. There is definitely a place for the emotions (Worship in Psalms) but basing extreme subjectivity as normative Christianity may be a mere retrieval of the gnostic heresy in the early church. That said, we have seen that there are core doctrines that a majority of true churches have held on to (e.g doctrines of the Trinity and the atonement of Jesus Christ – 1 Cor. 15) and there are others where there is respectful disagreement (e.g. the mode of baptism). Even with various differences, these essential doctrines bind churches together and are the reason that Christians from different churches or denominations can fellowship together. As it has been rightly put, when the scores are settled on Judgement day, it will not matter too much which denominational tradition one was a part of, but it will be based on the fruit shown as the result of the inner transformation of the Spirit because of the Cross event.
Calvin, John. tr. Robert White. Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Grudem,Wayne. Systematic Theology.
Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology.
R. C. Sproul, What is the Church?