12 November 2008

The “true” church

Someone wrote me with a list of “key beliefs” that he thinks can help weed out “the true church” from among all the counterfeits, and asked me to critique it. I did.

Honestly, this whole endeavor sets off major warning bells. Any attempt to identify a single “true” faith by implication labels all others as “false”. This is destined to sow divisions within the body of Christ (Rom 16:17-18; 1Tim 1:3-7; 6:3-5; 2Tim 2:14; Tit 3:9-11), rather than sow the unity that is Jesus' desire for his people (Jn 17:20-23; Rom 12:16; 14:19; 15:5-7; 1Cor 1:11-13; 3:3-5; 2Cor 13:11; Eph 4:3; Php 1:27; 2:2; 1Pet 3:8).

The true church consists simply of those who know Jesus (Mt 7:21-23), and the true church meets together any time two or more gather in his name (Mt 18:20). While we may disagree on various matters of doctrine and practice — and some interpretations may even be downright wrong — we should never let those differences disrupt the communion of believers. One commandment we can be sure of is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-40; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jam 2:8) The way we can recognize true Christians is by their love for one another. (Jn 13:34-35; 15:12,17; 17:22-23; Rom 12:10; 13:10; Col 3:14; 1The 4:9; 1Pet 1:22; 4:8; 1Jn 2:10; 3:10-11,23; 4:7-12,21)

The other basic premises of your project are also debatable.

First, the Bible is a collection of religious writings written by good men …

There are no good men. Anyone who thinks he is good is deceived. (Mk 10:18; Rom 3:10,23; 1Jn 1:8-10)

… and is true, as far as it is translated correctly.

True in what sense? I agree, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2Tim 3:16) But I do not agree that the Bible is literally true in every detail, where that is not the author's intent. For instance, I do not believe that God has wings or feathers. (Ru 2:12; Ps 17:8;36:7;57:1;91:4) Neither does the sun, for that matter. (Mal 4:2) Before insisting that you know the “truth” of a passage, you had better be sure of its intent.

Many of the claims on your list are dependent on “controversial verses that are easily interpreted differently”. When a doctrinal conclusion depends upon your interpretation of a single verse, or even a small collection of verses, you should hold it lightly — particularly when it contradicts the consistent message of the rest of Scripture.

Likewise, many of your claims take an informative verse and interpret it as normative. Just because an event did happen a certain way once does not imply that it must happen that way every time. When God wants us to do something a certain way every time, he has no qualms about telling us that outright.

For example:

that angels appear as men in shining garments (no mention of wings) (Lk 24:4)

Just because angels appeared that way once doesn't mean they will always appear the same way. In fact, Isaiah and Ezekiel both saw angels with wings (Is 6:2; Ez 1:5-6;11:2), and God commanded that the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant should be portrayed with wings. (Ex 25:20)

This strikes me as a bizarre teaching to have in a list of “key beliefs”. Does the saving message of the gospel really depend on whether angels have wings?

The disciples of Christ break bread together on the “first day of the week”- Sunday (Ac 20:7)

Just because that particular group of believers got together on that particular Sunday does not establish such behavior as normative for all Christians at all times. By the same argument, according to that same passage, all of our church services should last until midnight.

In the organization of the Church, there is a group called the “seventy” (Lk 10:1)

There was a moment in history when Jesus sent out 70 (or 72) disciples, in pairs. As far as Scripture (and history) records, this was a one-time event, before the inauguration of the Church. Inferring anything normative from this single event is a serious stretch. Jesus also commanded the Twelve and the Seventy not to take any luggage with them when they went traveling (Mk 6:8-9; Lk 10:4), but I would not recommend this as a general policy.

God intended for the Church he established to continue by the leadership of 12 Apostles (Ac 1:23-26)

Naturally, since they were the ones that Jesus had been grooming for the job. It's worth noting, however, that the spokesman and apparent head of the early church was James, the brother of Jesus, not one of the Twelve. Even Peter deferred to his authority. (Ac 12:2; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19; 2:9,12) It also cannot be overlooked that Paul, who wrote half the books of the New Testament, was likewise not one of the Twelve. Rather, he ministered as an apostle for three years before meeting any of the leaders at Jerusalem (Gal 1:18), and later took it upon himself to publicly rebuke Peter. (Gal 2:11)

The title apostle is furthermore accorded to many other early church leaders, basically anyone who preached the gospel in foreign lands. (Mk 3:14-19; Ac 1:26; 14:3-4; Rom 16:7; Gal 2:8-9; 1The 1:1; 2:6b; Heb 3:1)

If you really want to carry the model of 12 Apostles through the rest of the church age, make sure you apply the entire principle: the 12 Apostles must all be men who walked with Jesus throughout his entire earthly ministry. (Ac 1:21-22)

leaders of the church (elders) should not receive money or “filthy lucre” for their services (1Pet 5:2-3)

“The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” (1Cor 9:14) This seems unambiguous.

However, 1Pet 5:2-3 and other passages make clear that elders (or others) should not be motivated by the love of money or dishonest gain. (Mt 6:24; 1Tim 3:3; 6:5,9-10; Tit 1:11; Heb 13:5; 1Pet 5:2-3)

there is a temple of God (Christ recognizes temples) (Mt 21:12-13)

There was undeniably a temple in Jerusalem at the time of the incarnation. The temple was the place where God's presence resided on earth (1Ki 8:6,10-13), and where priests could make animal sacrifices in atonement for the sins of the Jews (Lev 4; 17:11; 1Ch 6:49; Rom 9:4; Heb 9:7,22). Jesus walked in the temple and taught in the temple (Mt 21:12,14-15,23; Lk 2:46; 21:37-38; Jn 8:2: 10:23), as did his disciples in the early years of the church. (Ac 2:46; 3:8; 5:21,42; 21:26-27) Of course they recognized it.

Jesus predicted that the temple building would be destroyed (Mt 24:2). Historians tell us this occurred c.70 AD, and it was never rebuilt.

Jesus made the temple sacrifices obsolete by becoming the blood sacrifice for atonement, once and for all. (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 9:12; 1Pet 3:18) At the moment of his death, the curtain of the temple, which set apart the Most Holy Place, was torn in two from top to bottom (Mt 27:51), revealing that he had made a permanent way into God's presence. (Heb 9:24; 10:19-22) His temple, the place where his presence resides, is now the church, the body of believers. (1Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; Eph 2:21). God has no further need of an earthly temple. (Ac 17:24; Heb 8:1-2)

Baptism must be in deep water, enough to “go down in” and “come up out of” (Ac 8:38-39)

Just because Philip baptized the eunuch in a river or lake doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to be baptized in a river or lake. Many instances of baptism in the Bible don't discuss the method or location, and there is no indication of a river or lake being present. (e.g. Ac 2:41; 8:12-13; 18:8). For all we know, perhaps they were sprinkled. I happen to think that baptism by immersion is preferable, but it's hardly a “key belief”.

A second baptism (in a person's lifetime) may be required. (Ac 19:1-6)

Remember to take account of the context. The Ephesians in this passage had never been baptized into Christ. They had only been baptized by John, presumably before the Christ had been revealed. (Mk 1:4; Ac 10:37; 13:24; 18:25; 19:4) They had been baptized with water, but not with the Holy Spirit. (Mt 3:11; Ac 1:5) Of course they needed to be baptized again, because they had never been baptized as Christians.

If there were other world religions today that also practice baptism, then it would make sense for someone to be baptized twice. As far as I know, today only professing Christians practice baptism.The Scriptures are quite clear that there is only one baptism into Christ (Eph 4:4-6; 1Cor 1:12-13), and baptism into Christ is once and for all. (Mk 16:16; Rom 6:4; Col 2:12)

Having said that, it is my belief that someone who was baptized as an infant should have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Christ by being baptized (again?) after their profession of faith. Whether this counts as a re-baptism, or whether infant baptism doesn't “count” as baptism in the first place, is a subject for philosophers to debate over cups of tea. I know faithful, Bible-believing Christians on all sides of this issue, and there is plenty of room for differences of opinion. (See next point.)

from place to place the Church must be the same, and have the same doctrines (Mk 3:24-26)

The Scripture writers were well aware that believers would not agree on everything. They therefore set out principles for dealing with our differences, e.g.: each person is accountable to the Lord for his own convictions (Rom 14:5,14,23; 1Cor 10:30; Col 3:17; 1Tim 4:4-5); we should not argue about disputable matters (Rom 14:1,22; Col 2:16-17; 1Tim 1:3-7; 4:1-3; 6:4-5); we should accept one another despite our differing convictions (Rom 14:1,3-4,13; 15:7); the strong of faith should accommodate the weak of faith (Rom 15:1; 1Cor 8:9); we should not act in a way that causes someone else to stumble in their convictions (Rom 14:13,15,20-21; 1Cor 8:9-13; 10:28-29).

Mk 3:22-26 is not, in fact discussing the Church at all, but the Kingdom of Satan. Jesus is refuting the claims of some of the Jewish leaders that he casts out demons by the power of Satan, saying that it would be foolish for Satan to turn against himself.

Still, the point is valid that the Church should not be divided against itself, as we so often are. (See references in the first paragraph.)

a person must be worthy of baptism (Mt 3:8)

No one is worthy of baptism. If you think you are, then Christ did not come for you. (Mt 9:13; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:32; Rom 5:8)

John's baptism was a symbol of repentance, i.e. turning away from evil behavior, and turning toward God. It was only natural, then, that he would only administer it to those who showed signs of repentance. Mt 3:7-8 is also consistent with the teaching that professed faith that does not lead to loving action is meaningless. (Jam 2:14)

Faith alone is insufficient, as are deeds alone. Together, deeds and faith will justify a man through the atonement (Rom 3,4)

The very heart of the gospel message is that man can only be saved by faith, and faith alone, for his works will never be sufficient to save. (Jn 5:28-29; Rom 3:21-24,28; 4:3,5-8,13; 9:31-33; 10:9-10; 11:5-6; Gal 3:6-9,11,24; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5) Jesus' sacrifice was the only possible atonement. (Jn 3:16; Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 9:12; 1Pet 3:18)

This truly is a “key belief”. For the Scriptures tell us that any attempt to supplement grace with works nullifies the message of grace. (Rom 11:5-6) For those who preach a different gospel based on works, no salvation remains. (Gal 1:9; 5:2-4; 2Pet 3:16)

On the other hand, James emphasizes the point that saving grace always leads to works of love and gratitude. Thus anyone who claims to have faith that is not borne out in his works is a liar, or is deceived, and has not really come to know Jesus. (Jam 2:14; Mt 7:21-23; 15:8-9; 25:31-46; Eph 2:10; 4:12; Php 2:13; Col 1:29)

You are right, of course, that demons know that Jesus is the son of God, and in that sense “believe”. James makes the point that such intellectual assent is not the same as faith that leads to salvation.

If you have read this far, I commend you. If you have not taken the time to read all the Scripture references, please do so at your earliest convenience. Feel free to read more of the context, or follow cross-references. For you should not believe anything based on my word alone; just as you should not believe anything just because it is what you have been taught. Rather, you should take every tradition and teaching, and measure it against the Scriptures to see if it is sound. (Ac 17:11; Rom 15:4; 2Tim 3:15-17; 2Pet 3:16)

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