Do you ever find it difficult to figure out how to translate what you read in Scripture into the modern world of denominationalism?
I think that process—I refer to the process as "separating what is from what should be"—is one of the hardest things about being a Christian today.
When we read the New Testament, Christianity seems so clear and the distinction of Jesus' followers from the world so obvious.
And when I look around today, I see:
- rampant division,
- numerous "gospels" being preached, and ...
- people professing to be disciples of Christ that don't look anything like Him.
Visible Christendom's story matches that of human history: perfect divine origin followed by human mutilation and perversion.
Jesus left the church in the hands of the apostles, who took on the mission of ensuring its teaching and practices were pure.
By the time John died around 100 A.D., the various sects of the Gnostics were opposing and perverting the truth and gathering a strong following.
From the death of the apostles, the mainstream visible church would begin to change and evolve into what eventually became the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. In this multi-century unfolding, the ability to discern the pure Christians from the corrupt becomes much more difficult.
Of course, centuries later, the Reformation movement would lead to the rise of Protestantism and the number of denominations would grow exponentially in the centuries to follow.
When I stare at a picture of the myriad groups of believers (or just drive down the street and count church buildings), it hurts my head.
I wonder, "How could we arrive at this mess? How could GOD allow this? Why didn't He prevent this?"
While we can theorize as to reasons why GOD allowed what is, the reality is that we won't know for certain, in this life.
Our understanding of Jesus' church is incredibly fundamental to our view of Christian life and how we interpret and apply the Scriptures.
I have explained what the Scriptures teach on this matter in the article "Who is Jesus' Church?" but will give a quick overview here:
- Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6).
- In order to be saved we must be "in" Jesus (Rom. 8:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:26-27).
- A believer is placed "in Christ" when they die with Him by being baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins (Rom. 6; Col. 2; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Acts 2:38).
- Until the believer is baptized, they remain guilty of their past sins (see Saul of Tarsus' conversion - Acts 9; 22:16) and thus are outside of Christ.
- Once in Jesus, the new disciple begins assembling with a group of Christians in the area.
- The collection of Christians in a specific area comprise "the church in [location]."
The most popular "gospel" that has been preached for the past few centuries is that a person is saved when they confess that Jesus is Lord and pray for Him to come into their life and forgive their sins.
But this is "a different gospel" like Paul referred to in Gal. 1 and, because it:
- does not teach the hearer to immediately die with Jesus in baptism,
- leaves the "believer" outside of Jesus, yet believing they are saved.
(The early Christians actually battled against groups like the Gnostics who first taught this "belief-only" false gospel.)
Those who believe this incomplete gospel form churches (assemblies) who continue to preach it.
They call themselves Christians and then wonder why those who follow and preach the biblical gospel which includes water baptism for the forgiveness of sins aren't unified with them.
Furthermore, the rise of denominations has led to what I call the "denominational mentality" (intended only as a descriptive term, not a condescending one).
The denominational mentality perspective views:
- Jesus' "one body" (Eph. 4:4-6) as the collection of all denominations.
- Each denomination as a separate "flavor" of Christianity, no better or worse than the rest.
- Themselves predominantly as being "Baptist," "Catholic," "Church of Christ," "Mormon," etc., as opposed to simply "a Christian". (If people ask you what you "are" religiously, and you reply, "I'm a Christian.", they'll often say, "I know, but what denomination are you?")
- Denominations as being acceptable to GOD, or even a blessing, because their differences appeal to different types of people.
- The differences between denominations, for the most part, as simply personal preference with no impact to individual salvation, because, after all, you *just* need to believe in Jesus and accept Him as Lord and you'll be saved.
As you would expect, however, this denominational mentality is not found in Scripture, because there were no denominations at that time.
The truth is that:
- Jesus has one body, not a collection of splintered fractions.
- It is possible to be a Christian and not be part of a denomination, or have the denominational mentality regarding the church.
- Just because a person assembles with a denomination does not necessarily mean they:
- Are outside of Jesus.
- Have a denominational mindset.
- Aren't striving to be part of the one church of Jesus.
It is my express intent to be just a Christian, with no denominational association or thinking.
I just want to be a part of the church I read about in Scripture.
(This was a significant reason why we started the church that meets in our house. I believe that, in order to rid ourselves of a denominational mindset towards the church, there must be substantial differences in how we think and operate. This is why our group has no "name," title, building or government recognition as a church.)
Yet, separating what GOD intended from what exists today is hard. It's difficult, at times, to see through the hodgepodge of what is today to what should/can be.
In the first few centuries, Christians often didn't have multiple churches (local assemblies of Christians) to choose from. Sure, in many cities there were multiple assemblies of Christians, primarily meeting in homes, but they believed and taught the same things on the most important doctrines, such as salvation.
With today's advances in technology, travel, communications and (in many places) religious freedoms, options for local churches with which to assemble and work together abound.
Even still, how can a Christian locate a good church in their area with which to work?
I offer three general suggestions:
- Find a congregation that practices and teaches the New Testament gospel.
If they don't, they aren't helping people get "in Christ" and therefore you can't be unified with them and continue following Jesus at the same time. (Of course, it is always recommended to show people what the Scriptures say about salvation. I'm assuming here that they refuse to listen.)
- Find a group that is genuinely striving to study the Bible and follow it.
If they have additional teachings, insist on following and teaching doctrines not found in Scripture, or consistently teach tradition as "the only way," run. Sometimes this will take time to discern, for many groups will claim they are genuinely seeking to follow the Bible alone, but their practices reveal otherwise.
- Find a group of people who understand the church's fundamental purpose—to change the lives of people—and are active in working and serving their community.
Lastly, you may find yourself in a location that simply doesn't have an existing healthy church with which you can work.
This is a great challenge and opportunity.
Start praying and building.
Work in the community by talking to people.
This is easy to say but takes a lot of work. The reward is worth it.
How do you feel about the challenge of separating what is today from what should exist based upon the Scriptures?