Thursday, May 5, 2011

Choosing a Church

Listening to a radio preacher talk about choosing a church the other day. Just caught a snippet but I was struck by how strongly he talked about it. Both about how central it is to our spiritual health and about how many Christians struggle with it. So I googled it and saw many protestant teachers address this question frequently. It makes sense. People understand that deciding to follow the bible is hardly the end of your spiritual questions. Where are you going to get your answers? Your pastor, your bible study, your Christian friends, etc. Where do those come from? From your church. When you choose a church you are choosing something that will directly or indirectly influence almost all your religious thinking and spiritual relationships.

What is more, most religious thinkers regularly point out major errors that are made in many churches. So while they believe there are many good churches they also think there are a lot of bad choices to make. They see, quite rightly, the danger of choosing a church based on your personal comfort. Spiritual growth happen precisely when we allow God's word to make us uncomfortable. But God can call us to spiritual growth in directions that surprise us. So we need a church that matches who God wants us to be rather than who we are. The problem is we don't know exactly what God wants us to be.

So how can someone avoid these problems? Is there a simple, biblical rule to follow? No. The bible never addresses the topic. As far as teachers go? They typically give a number of broad categories like biblical exegesis, accountability, being spiritually fed, etc.

What I found interesting is that even these broad categories have changed since I learned about the marks of a true church back in school. We were taught there were 3:
  1. They teach the true and complete doctrine of salvation
  2. They conduct valid sacraments
  3. They discipline people engaged in public sin
I think these come from Calvin. But even though I went to Calvinist thinkers in my web search I didn't get this list. The first one used to be understood to mean only go to Calvinist churches. Now most phrase it in terms of the bible. But every preacher claims to teach the true biblical doctrines so you have to measure that claim against something.

The last two criteria have disappeared entirely. Sacraments and church discipline have gone out of fashion. There is so much doctrinal disagreement over sacraments that nobody wants to assert they have the right teaching. On public sin it is not disagreement as much as disobedience. Churches typically agree that premarital sex is wrong but they often no longer discipline unmarried people living together. The practice has become so common many churches just accept that people do that. So what used to be very important Christians doctrines that would prevent you from being part of a church have been downgraded. Not because the bible does not say they are important. It does. But in one case because protestants disagree with each other and in another case because the culture disagrees with protestants.

More and more these choices boil down to feelings. Doctrines matter only if you feel strongly about them. Liturgy, leadership, community. Use some basic principles but it all comes down to what makes you feel like something is from God or it isn't.  But that gets back to the problem of your personal comfort. People often choose churches badly. The people who like to talk about end times prophecy find a church where the pastor preaches on the end times almost every week. The people who's faith is very rational find a pastor who preaches very deep theological sermons. The people who are very charismatic find a church that focuses on that. The trouble is nobody grows beyond where they are at. The thinker really needs to go feed the hungry. But the church he has chosen has the same limitations he does. So growth does not happen.

So what is the answer? It is simple and it is biblical and it is humanly impossible. One church. All these people with different beliefs and different spiritualities need to come together and learn from each other. Iron sharpens iron. If they are all part of the same fellowship that will happen. But now it does not.

So how would they choose their leadership? God will choose.   Everyone simply needs to respect the priest who was chosen by the bishop who was chosen by the pope. This is why it is humanly impossible. God actually has to be in the process. If He does not give a special grace to the priest, bishop, and pope then there is no reason for anyone to respect them. But the truth is he does give the grace.

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