One Church – the Church of Believers

Discussion at minister’s fraternal –
if Jesus came to earth today, which denomination would He join?
Roman Catholics – maintained continuity with Apostles
Anglicans – combined that continuity with Reformation “justification by faith”
URC – combined Reformed theology with Congregational government
Pentecostals – Responded to leading of Holy Spirit in every age
New churches – retained balance of evangelical truth and charismatic openness.
Baptist – “I don’t understand the question”
You mean you don’t understand what is the distinctive Baptist contribution to the churches?
“No – its this business of “joining a denomination” – I don’t understand why Jesus would want to stop being a Baptist in the first place!

Nicene Creed: I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

One church – and so it was for the first 1000 years – until Eastern Orthodox churches split from Rome. Two holy catholic and apostlic churches. And so it was for another 500 years until the Reformation and the Protestants split off from the Roman Catholics. And then 100 years ago the Pentecostals split off from the protestants. And 40 years ago the charismatics started splitting off from everybody. So now we have thousands and thousands of different churches – all claiming to be the one true holy catholic and apostolic church. All convinced they are right and everybody else is wrong. Or at least, they are more right and less wrong than everybody else. So many groups of Christians ignoring Paul’s commands to the Corinthians and falling into the sin of looking down on others and excluding others.
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.

Churches have split and stayed split over all kinds of issues and for all kinds of reasons, some good, some bad, some ugly. . The most obvious differences between denominations today are these.

Differences in forms of worship
Liturgy or sponteneity
Strengths of each,
Weaknesses of each
Worship leaders workshop – worship is heart attitude, not externals

Differences in attitudes to leadership and “priesthood”
Priests set apart, or priesthood of all believers
Strengths of each

Differences in organisation – hierarchy or congregational independence
Bishops and oversight or government by church meeting
Strengths of each
Weaknesses of each

Ruth said, “Don’t take the bishop out of your brother’s eye until you have first taken the church meeting out of your own eye!”

Underlying differences in approach to authority
Roman Catholics = Scripture interpreted by tradition
Protestants = Scripture alone
Pentecostals and charismatics = Scripture interpreted by experience

Some people would suggest that Christians disagree and fall out and part ways for good doctrinal reasons. In fact, church history tells us that churches have split because of empire building. The key issue has not usually been truth, or the glory of God, or effective mission. Most often the issue has been “who’s in charge.”
For 1500 yrs church was in control of elite – priesthood and theologians, who used to be one and the same individuals.
Then Bibles for everybody came along, ordinary believers could study scripture for themselves. Reaction against priestly dominance, and hierarchy of church as an institution – protestant reformation and self-governing congregations.
Pentecostals and Charismatics and New Churches – power passed not the traditional pastors and elders and leaders but to the individuals blessed with particular spiritual experiences, prophecy, speaking in tongues etc.
The key question has often been “who’s in charge?” Us or them? If we don’t like who’s in charge we’ll go off and form a new church for us where we can be in charge!

Once Christians stop caring about who’s in charge – once we stop empire building – then we can see the wood for the trees when it comes to issues like styles of worship, priesthood, church government, even charismatic vs non-charismatic issues. And we see that in God’s eyes there IS only one church.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

The one holy catholic and apostolic church is that community in every place in every age who are united by the fact that they all agree and proclaim the same creed, the Nicene Creed, or even the earliest and simplest Creed – Jesus is Lord.
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The Body of Christ is that community united by the fact that they are believers, they are saved, they are born again, they are God’s children, His forever family, the church
Holy = set apart, belonging to God, different from the world around
Catholic = all inclusive, all embracing – not Roman Catholic
Apostolic = built on the foundations of the apostles – not “apostolic succession”

We are not allowed to look down on brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. There is only one Church. And we are theologically and morally obliged to love and worship with and work with all true believers. Styles of worship, role of priests, church government, attitudes to charismatic experience. These things don’t matter. If they are saved and we are saved – then we are ALL ONE IN CHRIST JESUS.

But there is the most important point. One church – but which church? The answer is, the church which is the fellowship of believers, the community of the saints. The believers’ church. Is there any other church, you might ask?

Well yes. There are people who say that we can never know who is truly saved this side of heaven, so the church will always be mixed – believers and unbelievers all jumbled up. They point to the parable of the sower and the different kinds of seeds, or the parable of the weeds growing amongst the wheat in the field. The church will always contain a mixture of believers and unbelievers and we should always be charitable, and never judge others, so people say.

So on the one hand this “mixed view” of the church can lead to some denominations with people in positions of responsibility who actually don’t believe even in the Nicene creed – who don’t believe Jesus is God or who don’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead. People who don’t believe Jesus died on the cross to save us because they don’t believe we need to be saved. Some believe everybody will get to heaven, and some would say heaven doesn’t exist anyway. A mixed church.

Then on the other hand there are those in some of the very new churches, emerging churches, fresh expressions of church, who similarly say that we mustn’t put barriers to people who are on the way to faith by demanding that they express that faith in ways such as baptism or church membership. For some “emerging churches” the church is anybody who wants to come along – whether they believe anything or not. A mixed church.

And here I want to say that the one thing we must insist on is the Bible definition that the church is the community of believers. There is only one church – we are all one in Christ Jesus – but those who make up that church are those who are truly saved.

My thinking on these things was very much helped by visiting Canada on Sabbatical back in 2008. For four days I took part in a conference at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg on “Congregationalism, Denominationalism and the Believers’ Church”. This brought together mostly academics but also pastors from the Baptist, Mennonite and other Brethren traditions from Canada and the Northern USA. The whole time there reminded me most helpfully that my theological understanding is not merely broadly “evangelical” but specifically Baptist. And there are at least three beliefs at the core of Baptist identity which I want to defend and affirm: the central authority of Scripture, what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be the true church, “the Believers’ Church”.

The supreme authority for faith and practice in the Christian life is the Bible, God’s inspired Word as received by the Churches and correctly interpreted. Christians are “the people of the Book”. Whatever the relativising Post-Modern world around may say, we Baptists are committed to the authority, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture. And on two further matters, Scripture is very clear.

Firstly, every person either is a Christian or they are not. A Christian is somebody who has been born again to a living hope, they have passed from death to life and from darkness into light. They are in Christ and there has been a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. Either a person is a Christian or they are not. Just as either they are in England or they are not in England, but they cannot be in some strange place in between. They are either alive or dead. They cannot be “on the way to being alive.” Either they are saved or they are not saved. Either Christ is in them and their destiny is to spend eternity with Christ in glory, or it is not.

Secondly, the Bible makes clear that the true church is the gathered community of all true believers, those who are “called out” of the world to be the Body of Christ which is made up of all who are truly saved. The church is the Living Temple, the Family of God and the Household of faith. The true church is the fellowship of true Christians. It is “the Believers’ Church.”

In this life, we may not be able to tell who actually is saved and who is not, who is a true believer and who is not. I agree that the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds tells us that we will not know for certain who is saved until the final judgment. The Parable of the Sower tells us that some who initially seem to be strong Christians actually will prove not to be so. Nevertheless, the true Church is defined and delimited by the company of true believers.

So are religious organisations which allow unbelievers to occupy positions of power and influence really truly churches? Are Emerging Churches actually churches? Most instances of Emerging Church deliberately consist of a mixture of those who are already saved and those who are not. Indeed the blurring of boundaries, so that folk “belong before they believe” is a major feature and strength of Emerging Churches. But according to the Biblical definition embraced by “Believers’ Church” traditions like the Baptists, such mixed groups are not “churches”. They are most valuable “outreach communities” or “missionary congregations” but they are not “churches”.

So we believe in one church – but which church? The most important issue is not forms of worship, or the existence or absence of a set-aside priesthood. The most important issue is not forms of government, hierarchy or church meeting. The most important thing is to recognize that the true church is not a human organization but the community of the saved, the fellowship of believers. I believe in the one church – the believers’ church.

You may also like...