Thursday, March 29, 2007

Discernment and anti-denominational church ads

For several months an ad has persistently appeared in the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper that reads in part:

Several families from the Charlottesville area have fully dedicated themselves to worship and actively work as a congregation according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles. We fully believe that the only answer to the denominational spirit which exists among professed Christians is to let the Bible constitute our only creed and drop all denominational names, titles, creeds, and organizations.

We have no desire to "found" a new church, but through faith understand that the Lord adds the saved to the church which he purchased with his own blood (Acts 2:47, 20:28). Since God and his Son are owners, we are content to be known as belonging to the church of God or the church of Christ. We will not be ashamed to wear the name that brings glory to our Savior and be known individually as Christians.

The families mentioned above have no intention of making the bigoted claim of being "the only Christians", but we do seek to go back to the Bible for every practice and therefore to be only what men of the first century were; that is, "Christians only".

I read a copy of this ad to the three college men I meet with each Monday morning for systematic theology study and then asked them what theological/spiritual problems this statement raises.

Here are a few problems we discussed at that time, along with some added reflections:

1. The ad assumes that "denominations" are necessarily bad. For a contradiction, see the audio of my teaching "Are Denominations Bad?"

2. The ad disparages the clear declaration of one’s Biblical faith in Confessions or Creeds. Do these men affirm the classical orthodox creeds that are drawn from—while being subservient to— the witness of Scripture? Would they affirm the doctrine of the Trinity? The Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Christ? The New Hampshire Confession’s affirmation of Scripture as "truth without any mixture of error"? If not, why?

3. The ad reflects a "purity" movement that presumes to restore primitive Christianity without any reference to the historical reality of the Christian movement since the time of the apostles, including the Reformation.

4. While disparaging "denominations" and "organizations" this movement clearly has some denominated beliefs. In addition, someone had to "organize" the placement of these ads. I do not blame them for this. The organization of a church is Biblical. Is being disorganized a more godly and faithful approach? Was Paul in error, for example, when he told Timothy to "set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders" in the church (Titus 1:5). Is the disparagement of clearly confessed beliefs and Biblical organization more a reflection of ancient (Biblical practice) or modern egalitarian and anti-authoritarian sentiments?

A little web research revealed that the ads are being placed by a local Church of Christ congregation (see the full ad here). With some study, one will find that the sentiments expressed are clearly consistent with the "Church of Christ" "denomination" begun by Alexander Campbell. Campbellites have some very distinct doctrinal beliefs that not all Christians will affirm. For example, they believe that one must be physically baptized in water in order to be saved (a form of baptismal regeneration). Christians shaped by the Reformation (whether they be Baptist or Presbyterian) will reject this as an affront to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, not by any human work (including baptism) lest any man boast (see Ephesians 2:8-9).

I would not want to attend a church that is unwilling to declare forthrightly what it believes about the doctrines the Bible teaches. A clear confession of faith—again not above but under the authority of Scripture—is the best safeguard against doctrinal error. After all, both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses will quickly tell you they fully believe in everything the Bible teaches (the Mormons even affirm the KJV English translation exclusively!), but their doctrines are heterodox.

Since the ads continue to run, I assume that some folk must be responding. Let us echo Paul’s prayer for discernment:

NKJV Philippians 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, 10 that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, 11 being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

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