If you throw a rock in the South you’ll probably hit a church or two. The “Bible Belt” is an amazing place when you consider that there is almost literally a church on every corner. Sometimes two, or three, depending on where you look.
On one hand, it’s good that there are so many churches. It makes access to the gospel incredibly easy since you can get it anywhere. On the other hand, it presents an interesting problem for Christianity. That enormous number of churches makes it easier for wolves to dress themselves up as sheep.
This is where Christian’s have to practice discernment. Among all these churches, you’ll find various practices and beliefs that may or may not be biblical. This is a problem that Christian’s have wrestled with for two thousand years. Throughout those years whole factions of Christian practice have come and gone, each leaving their mark on the religion. Some of these marks are more profound than others, particularly when it comes to the division of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism. The debate between the Reformers (Protestants) and the prominent Catholic clergy still remains in our atmosphere and there are still divisions between the two.
The root of this division had to do with the authority of the Bible usurping the authority of the Pope, church staff, and traditions. The Protestant movement began with scholars reading scripture, looking at the actions of the Pope and the Church and seeing a disconnect between what Jesus and the Apostles said and did and the way the modern clergy was acting and teaching. The Reformers may not have intended to cause division but rather correction in the thinking of the Church. The resulting Protestant movement led to the empowerment of believers in asking (and answering) the question of how to practice and interpret Christianity and biblical principles. This question and the various answers have led to tremendous growth and challenge for Christians and helped to push forward the creation of denominations. (For a quick survey of church history, click here.)
The creation and proliferation of Protestant denominations has made it difficult for both Christians and non-Christians to understand whether what it is we say we believe is our actual belief or an allusion to another belief. Today, a safe estimate for the number of ways Protestant Christians apply the same gospel message is somewhere between 200 and 300 distinct doctrinal sets according to the National Catholic Register.
Lumping in Catholics and Protestants together, you end up with what is essentially “Three Hundered and One Ways to be a Christian”. This is alarming to think about when every single one of these ways claims that they are following Jesus in the “most correct” fashion. For a new or practicing Christian, this must be addressed in a discerning and humble fashion if you are going to make it through this gauntlet of competing beliefs and understandings.
To help test whether your church or the church you are attending is going to be the best church for you (i.e. one that is going to help lead you through the narrow gate) I have put together a short set of questions for you to ask:
- Do they believe in an actual, human Jesus that is both fully God and fully man who existed as a real figure in human history?
- Do they believe that faith in this Jesus is the only means of salvation for the sinner?
- Do they believe that we are all sinners in need of that salvation?
- Do they believe that salvation is a gift from God and that no work of man is sufficient to mend the brokenness of man or the separation between man and God?
- Do they believe in limited atonement (not everyone is going to make it to heaven)?
- Do they believe in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God to the exclusion of other religion’s texts?
A “no” to any of these questions should disqualify a church from being called a Christian Church because Jesus (who was the Christ) teaches these things himself.
There are many many other issues that exist when considering doctrines and how they apply to your faith. Many denominations fall to one side or another when it comes to answering these issues or fail to address them at all. Even churches within the same denomination may differ when it comes to how they practice and interpret the Christian faith. The questions listed above are certainly not the only ones that are important when deciding where to attend and discerning whether a church is leading its congregation well. There are more issues than doctrine at play when it comes to the health of a church and its message.
At the end of the day, it falls to the individual believer for how they respond to the Gospel. The church is meant to be a place where believers can gather, worship God, and do their best to grow the kingdom of God. So, when it comes to denomination, do some research. Find out what the church says it believes and test that against scripture.
In closing, I leave you with this longtime church maxim: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.