Posts Tagged ‘Church’

What’s the Problem With Denominations, Anyway?

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

What’s the problem with denominations, anyway?

Well… There’s a lot wrong with the way Christians sometimes interact with each other over differences of belief & practice–at the personal level and at the denominational level, within churches and between them.  We get hung up over small details.  We get defensive and prideful.  We get “factious”, as some translations of Titus 3:9-10 put it.  Individual churches split, whether for good or bad reasons.

And in the past–mostly when the State dipped its hand into the church, or vice-versa–this has led to violence, persecution, and death.  The Spanish Inquisition, the burning of John Huss, the execution of Servetus in Geneva, the persecution of Irish Catholics, or of Anabaptists by both Catholics and Lutherans.  Issues of orthodoxy being settled by the sword.

On the other hand, differences & potential divisions have also been handled with maturity, peace, love, and reconciliation.  Maybe that’s even been the dominant tendency.  (It’s hard to say, since scandalous behavior stands out so much.)  But doing this well is a personal, individual struggle.  It’s something we all must learn, part of our growth in love & maturity.  It’s an area that needs careful attention, with a lot to figure out on resolving conflicts & differences, both the personal & organizational levels.  (It’s what motivates the ecumenical movement–which has its own merits and flaws.)

And as one small piece of the large discussion, I want to ask:  Is the existence of denominations really a scandal, itself?

Denominationalism tends to be a main target any time we critique divisiveness.  After all, could anything epitomize division & separation more than denominations?

And yet… A couple questions:

I’m part of Hope Chapel, a non-denominational church in Austin.  Just down the street, there’s First Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  Does the fact that we’re not the same local church displease God?  The fact that they have the word “Presbyterian” on their sign?  The fact that they’re affiliated with other churches in a large-scale organization–one that doesn’t include us? (Some will say “yes” to the last–it displeases God.)

Is it a scandal that we don’t do everything the same way? As a Presbyterian church, they hold certain things in common with other Presbyterians.  They practice infant baptism, believing that it inducts children into the community of the church.  (My church doesn’t, believing that baptism is something consciously chosen.)  Their church is led by elders/presbyters, both “teaching elders” and “ruling elders”.  (We also have elders, in addition to our senior pastor.)  They believe that local churches should be grouped together in synods, providing oversight & mediation of disputes–and synods grouped in the general assembly.  (My church is independent.)

They hold to these things out of biblical conviction–they think it’s how God wants church to look.  Including the part that involves large-scale organization.  So is it really a scandal for them to group together, and have a name for the group?  Is it a scandal that we’re not part of that grouping, because we don’t do things the same way–since our understanding of Scripture’s guidance is different?

In the perfect world to come, we won’t have those differences.  They’re happening because somewhere, some of us are misunderstanding & making mistakes.  And someday, we’ll be with God more directly and won’t have those problems.  (The differences of principle will disappear, if perhaps not the differences of style.)

But in the meantime, where does the scandal come in?  From the very existence of different denominations?  Or is it possible to have a God-honoring unity in spite of our denominational differences?  A unity rooted in Christ & the Gospel?  A unity reflected in the way we interact with each other, across our denominational lines?

As we seek to treat one another as brothers & sisters in Christ in this world, ridding ourselves of a divisive spirit, will that actually require dismantling denominations?

“Was I Really Baptized?”, and Other (Quibbling?) Questions

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Over at the SBC Voices blog, they’re starting a new series of debates between fellow Baptists.  The mission statement requires that they be civil, biblical, non-personal 1000-word essays–enforced by the editors.  It looks to be interesting.

The first debate is over baptism and local church oversight.  Who performs baptisms?  Does it need to be done by a local church?  Can you baptize yourself?  Where the rubber meets the road: If you weren’t baptized by a church, should you be rebaptized?

I like the discussion.  Here are the links.  (I’ll try to add the rest, as they post more.)  As always, I comment under the name “Jugulum”.

  1. Diverse Voices Debate: Is Church Oversight Essential for Baptism?
  2. Diverse Baptists Debate: Church Oversight of Baptism- Foster’s Rebuttal of Miller
  3. A Response to the Baptism Oversight Debate

——————-

In my judgment, the case  for necessary church oversight isn’t strong.  But I want to make two “meta” comments about conversation itself, and one about the content of the debate.  (The specific observation is a quote from a comment I left at the first entry.)

The two general issues:

1.) Is it stupid even to be having this kind of debate?  Is it just quibbling?
2.) Even if we disagree with the other side’s final conclusion, we can still learn & grow from the principles & arguments they use.  (In this case: We can grow in understanding the symbolism & meaning of baptism, and think about how to preserve the richness of what God has given us.)

The specific comment:

3.) We should care about preserving & reflecting the symbolism of baptism in how we practice.  But “this preserves the symbolism better” doesn’t imply “it’s not valid without it.”  A comparison to the Lord’s Supper may help. (more…)

Bible Study, Community, and Orthodoxy

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Recently, I’ve been talking with some friends about some hard questions, and we turned to a particular chapter of Romans.  After I sent them a link discussing part of the passage, one of my friends started searching for other commentary about it.  But then he stopped, because, as he put it:

After that, I decided researching the passage would be counter-productive.  My goal is to understand the passage, not understand what scholars say about the passage.  I suppose I’m going on the assumption that if God is conveying truth, even someone as ignorant (unschooled) as myself should be able to understand at least the main point.

He then proceeded to read the chapter himself, think about it, and send an email to the rest of us explaining what he saw in the passage.

In thinking about his comments and his approach, I find myself both agreeing, and wanting to preserve a right place for commentary.  At the core of good Bible study is personal Bible study–you the Christian, with God, studying the Word and receiving from the Spirit.  It should never be less than that.  But Bible study should be more. It should include community & relationship, accountability, and connection with the rest of the Church–now and in the past.

Personal Bible Study

We’re supposed to pore over Scripture directly.  I think study Bibles aren’t very good for new Christians–they should be poring over Scripture, getting in the habit of looking there, first.  Not getting in the habit of answering every question by reading what other Christians say.  We shouldn’t depend on study notes to give us the answers–our first impulse shouldn’t be to look there, but rather to wrestle with the Word.  The same applies to commentaries.  We can’t let studying them replace Bible study.

Bible Study in Community

The Christian life isn’t about me & God, it’s about us & God.  We’re not supposed to be solo Christians.  That goes for Bible study, too.  It should be relational.  It’s not “me & my Bible & God alone in the woods”.  We study by ourselves (just like we pray by ourselves), but we shouldn’t stop there.  We need to do things in community, in fellowship.  Solo prayer & worship is important, but there’s also a richness to group prayer & worship–to the “one another” work of the Spirit.  Same with Bible study–there is richness and help in studying together.  Christ did not die to make solo Christians; he died to purify a people, to make a family, to make a Body of various parts joined together–who will be loving and serving and blessing each other, teaching each other, through the work of the Spirit.

So we talk about it, and you help me see what I might have missed, and vice versa.  Or you help me see that it doesn’t say what I thought, and vice versa.  If something seems obvious to me but you can’t see it at all… Then we need to step back and look again, together.  “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Is the Bible Plain?

Community Bible study is part of accountability, and we all need it.  Because the Bible is written for us all to read, but there are lots of ways that we can get things wrong.  We have blind spots, we have preconceived ideas.  We fail to see things because we don’t want to, or we see things because we want to see them.  Or we just miss things for no apparent reason–even things that seem obvious after someone points it out.  And sometimes the Bible is hard to understand–it’s not written for scholars, but not everything is plain & easy.  As people say, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”  The basics of the Gospel & following Christ are plain, but it’s also easy to miss things, and we need to help each other see more clearly.

So… I think Bible study should have steps.  (1) Spend time prayerfully studying the Word by yourself.  (2) Spend time studying it with other Christians.

Commentaries Are Christian Community, Too

“Studying it with other Christians” includes going out into our Christian community and study it with each other.  But commentaries are another way.

A commentary is just something that another Christian has written.  It might be quite helpful, and show you things in the passage that you missed.  It might tell you some helpful background info–something that would have been obvious to the original audience, but isn’t obvious to a 21st century American.  Or it might say things that are totally off-base.  Just like any time you study the Bible with another Christian.  It’s not a replacement for reading the Bible yourself, and you need to apply discernment to what you read.  But it can be very, very helpful.  Our fellow Christians can be very, very helpful.

Christians Who Aren’t Like Us

We all have blinders & bad assumptions–things that make us misunderstand Scripture, or read our theology into the text instead of reading it out of the text.  Those problems sometimes come from our cultural background.

But people from other cultures have different blinders.  We make different mistakes–and if we examine them together, we can help one another to see more clearly.

The more we listen to Christians who are very different from us, the more we will have iron sharpening iron.

So, it’s exciting that Christianity is growing so much in Africa and China.  I can’t wait to find out how they contribute to our understanding of what God has said–to see how they challenge the Western church’s priorities and assumptions.

The History of the Church

We also shouldn’t just read commentary from modern people.  We should be connected with the church as a whole, throughout history.  We should be grounded in history.  We should be aware of how Christians have wrestled with and answered questions in the past, and we should hear their voices as well.  Because:

  • Just as people from other cultures today have different blinders, so do people from the past.  They’re less likely to make our mistakes, and we’re less likely to make theirs.
  • If we really think the Bible is clear, do we think it is clear only to us, now?  If we think the Bible is saying something that no other Christian in the history of the world has seen, shouldn’t that make us wonder?
  • If we have the Holy Spirit, so did they.  If we are fallible, so were they.  If our fellow Christians today are worth listening to, so were they.

Let’s listen to the dead guys, too.

Catholics and Eastern Orthodox understand this point, but go too far.  They invest the history of the Church with too much authority, letting it move into the role of interpreting  for us, instead of with us.  But sometimes Protestants do a pendulum swing, too far in the other direction.

Only sometimes.  But it definitely happens.

We should draw on the wisdom of the Christians who have gone before us.  It’s one thing to look at it with caution and discernment; it’s another to throw it off entirely, like a teenager convinced of his parents’ irrelevance & foolishness.

Summary

The Holy Spirit has been teaching Christians from the Scripture for 2000 years, and it doesn’t make sense to cut ourselves off from that.  It is not “Me and my Bible alone in the woods with God.”  As we pray for God to help us understand his word, we should be plugged in directly to the Bible, and into our community, and into the broader community of Christians, living and dead.  Study the Bible directly, and then do it with other Christians.  We help keep each other from going off in weird directions.

Stop Attending Church

Monday, August 17th, 2009

(Taken from my Facebook wall and Twitter page today.)

Stop attending church.

Frank Turk’s reply:  “Indeed: what if you loved your church?”

After I posted a link to Frank’s recent blog series called Not Done Lightly (scroll to the bottom and read upward), where he discusses the reasons for his strong belief that we should almost never leave a church unless we’re asked to leave, Kelly F. posted:

I glanced at Turk’s stuff and I think he’s making very good points. A real challenge, though, in committing oneself fully to a church is that in our mobile, unrooted lives we often find ourselves in the position of ‘shopping’ for a church. There’s really no way around it when you move to a new neighborhood or town. But then after you’ve chosen a particular church you have to stop thinking of it as a commodity to choose and start thinking of it as a family you’re called to love, bear with, and serve. It’s a hard switch to make.

The flip side of this is that church leaders (in general) have to stop acting like they are trying to sell a product to a target market. We’re called to make disciples, not make a sale.

So.  Let’s try not to attend church.  Let’s try to commit to loving a church, a community, as a family.

Who is Church for?

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Here’s a brief interruption to my “Homosexuality & Hypocrisy” series.

The Church is the only society that exists primarily for the sake of those who are not its members. — William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1881 – 1944)

I’ve been thinking about this quote since I heard it a week ago.  (I’m not sure about the exact wording–Google reports many forms.)  How true is it?  Or maybe put the question this way:  In what sense is that sentence true, and in what sense is it not true?

It’s clearly true in this sense:  For every Christian, evangelism and acts of service are part of our discipleship.  Part of being like Christ.  Our lives should include an outward orientation.  Part of following Christ is loving people.  So as Christians, part of our lives is supposed to be for the sake of those outside the church.

But what does “the Church” exist for?  When we meet together in a local church, what are we doing?  Aren’t we coming to be built up & fed?  To be challenged, encouraged, convicted, held accountable, comforted, consoled, rebuked, taught?  In that sense, doesn’t the church exist to build up the members?

That is, after all, what Jesus commissioned Peter to do–feed His sheep.  He commissioned Peter as a shepherd–a pastor.  The leaders of the church exist “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-16).

Of course, we don’t come to be passive.  The leaders aren’t the only ones who serve.  On the contrary, 1 Cor. 12-14 tells us that we are all given gifts by the Spirit–”To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”–and each member of the body is needed.  So we come together to love and serve one another.  When we’re fed, it’s “for the work of ministry”.

It’s interesting, though.  In these three passages, the purpose of gathering together is talked about in terms of building up the Body.  In that sense, the church–seen as a local gathering of followers of Christ–exists for the sake of its members, not for its non-members.  We gather to be fed, and to serve one another.  When we gather, it isn’t directly for the sake of people outside the church.  Except…

It’s not quite either/or.  The two sides come together, in at least these ways:

  1. The church sends out missionaries.
  2. When we are fed & built up, that means that we grow in discipleship.  And discipleship includes loving those who do not know Christ.  Our edification does include an outward aim.
  3. Feeding & equipping Christians to serve can mean organizing community service efforts.  Or it might not.  Instead, a church might help its members get plugged in with existing community service groups–or encourage & exhort its members to serve in “unorganized”, random acts of kindness.  All three can be good.

But however the church handles community service, we should be sure that we are adorning the gospel with good works–not replacing the gospel with good works.

On Statements of Faith

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

At my local church, we’re looking at revising our statement of faith. We want to clarify some of what’s there, and maybe address some additional issues & practices. So I’ve been having a few conversations with people about the general subject of statements of faith, and have some thoughts, as well as a question:

Do you know of any additional ways to handle these concerns? Do you know any churches that handle these concerns particularly well?

What Does It Mean? What Does It Do?

A statement of faith is something around which the church unites. It says, “This is what we believe”–but how does that work out?

In churches with member rolls, becoming a member typically includes agreeing to the statement of faith. But my church doesn’t have member rolls. So what are we saying? Are we still saying, “We expect that if you make Hope your church, then you agree with this doctrine”? Are we saying, “We expect that you will not try to lead people away from these beliefs, even if you disagree”?

Should someone be put out from the church if they reject the statement of faith? If they disagree on the nature of the gospel? If they disagree on the authority of Scripture? If they disagree on the role of spiritual gifts? If they disagree on the destiny of the unevangelized? If they disagree with the church’s stance on the Rapture? Which of these should be included, and what should be the nature of our commitment to it?

(more…)

Added a Baptism Comment

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Update:

Anyone following my discussion with Mike Burgess on baptism may want to know that I’ve added a new comment. (I may write one more entry on it, then I’ll be setting aside the topic for now.)

Baptism Resources

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

I wrote my two entries on infant baptism because I’ve been encountering the subject in a few different places lately.  If you’re interested in thinking about the issues, you might check some of them out:

John Piper’s recent sermons

John Piper’s church, Bethlehem Baptist, is dealing with a question of church membership.  Baptism is a standard requirement for membership–so Baptist churches have to decide, “Should we allow people to become members who were baptized as infants and will not be baptized as an adult, professing believer?”  (Piper would like to widen the existing policy to allow it.)  He has recently preached on How Important Is Church Membership?, and What Is Baptism, and How Important Is It?

The latter is a pretty good basic case for believer’s baptism.  If you only have time for one thing to listen to/read, I would recommend that.

Update: Also, the former is a pretty good case for why Christians ought to be committed to a particular local body of believers.

Debates

Dr. James White (a Reformed Baptist) and Pastor Bill Shisko debated baptism a couple years ago.  I’ve listened to it multiple times since I first downloaded it last year.  It’s a fairly accessible, if you’re studying the issue for the first time.  It’s a well-structured, pleasant debate.  It has some good back-and-forth, some cross-examination, and some audience questions. I would recommend this, if you’re willing to devote a couple hours. Here are the mp3s.

Dr. Robert B. Strimple (a paedobaptist) and Dr. Fred Malone (a Reformed Baptist) debated the subject at Westminster Seminary.  I think Dr. Strimple’s arguments are deeper than Pastor Bill Shisko’s–but I think Dr. White’s may have deeper than Dr. Malone’s.  Dr. Strimple presents a fairly strong case for the covenantal aspects of the paedobaptist view.   (But this debate has less interaction between the two, so I think it’s less useful in some ways.)  Here it is:  The Proper Subjects of Baptism

Some blog discussions

Sparked by Piper’s sermons, there has been some discussion lately in the blogosphere.  Frank Turk (aka centuri0n) has had some entries, with some challenging discussion in the comment sections.  (You’ll find some comments by me.) You can check them out at:

  1. First Up, Lutherans
  2. Kobra Konquest
  3. Corresponds to What?

Segment from Issues, Etc.

Here’s the segment that I mentioned in the previous entry, from Issues, Etc.

“Answering Objections to Infant Baptism” with Pastor Tim Pauls

Going Deeper on Baptism

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Mike Burgess was kind enough to comment on my previous entry on infant baptism.  (Mike is a Roman Catholic, formerly-Reformed, with whom I was previously discussing another matter at Beggars All blog.)  My reply become long enough that I’m going to make it a new entry.

If you don’t mind me dropping by to comment, I’d like to offer a few reflections on your post. I appreciated the civil interaction with you on the Beggars All thread.

When I was Reformed, I was a paedobaptist and paedocommunionist. There is a lot of really insightful paedocommunionist material available on the web from vital, Reformed men. You might look into it simply for research as you ponder these things. I can point to some if you’re interested.

No, not at all! Welcome to my blog.  I appreciate some challenge from various perspectives.  I also want to have a healthy respect for tradition–for the thoughts & reflections & commentary of other believers.  I think that’s an important, even vital part of Bible study.

I’m about to post an entry with links to the sermons, discussions, and debates on this topic which I’ve been reading & listening to lately. You would be more than welcome to add some recommendations.

The point here is that, using the remnant analogy, those Reformed men don’t fit your objection to the “inconsistency” charge.

I’m not sure what you mean by “the remnant analogy”. (Something like, “God’s covenant community has always consisted of the external community, with a smaller remnant of true believers–covenant signs have always been properly given to the children of those who believe, even if those children are not necessarily part of the remnant”?)

Yes, those who allow their children to take communion are not being inconsistent–not in the way I mentioned in my Example 1. I am aware that some do practice paedocommunion, which makes them consistent. But I have heard the argument from someone who does not practice paedocommunion, so the criticism applied. (In retrospect, I don’t know why I said that paedobaptists “usually” require a profession of faith for communion–I actually don’t know what the percentages are. I’m going to correct the other entry.)

Still, I expect that all paedobaptists face somewhat similar questions. If an adult converts and is baptized, and that convert has children, which of their children should be baptized? Infants? Kindergarteners? Teenagers? 25-year-olds living with their parents? 40-year-olds who have their own children, where extended families live under the same roof? Servants & slaves, who (in Biblical terms) are part of the “household”? (I’m curious–do you know Catholic practice in these matters?) (more…)

Thoughts on Infant Baptism

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Infant baptism (“paedobaptism”) has come up in a few contexts lately–some conversations, some radio shows, some blogs, etc.  I’d like to put down some thoughts.

1.) It’s Important

It’s important to figure this out.  We shouldn’t just shrug and say, “Oh well, people disagree.”  If infant baptism is valid, then we credobaptists (believer’s baptists) are withholding something from our children–not treating them as God would have us.  But if baptism is something that a believer does, then those who were “baptized” as infants are not obeying the Lord in his command to be baptized.  Either way, we are missing something.  God commanded this practice for a reason; if we take His commands seriously, we should do our best to understand them correctly.  We should go to the Scriptures, and do our best to understand them correctly.

2.)  It’s Intramural

This is a discussion between brothers in the Gospel.  It is a serious matter, but not one that decides your salvation.  (Though, if you believe that baptizing an infant saves them, it does start to get close to the question, “What is the gospel?”) (more…)