A True Church Versus The True Church

One the most significant trends in Christianity in the United States today is the proliferation of house churches. According to a recent Barna study, 10% of American adults worship in a house church in any given month. That statistic is truly stunning, given that estimates of weekly attendance across all churches range from 20% to 40%.

House churches are diverse and difficult to characterize. They tend to be small and informal, led by laypeople with no paid staff. They invoke simple, bare-bones Christianity without the trappings of organized religion. People seem to like them because they are the exact opposite of the megachurch, a symbol of what many find distasteful about present-day American culture. The megachurch is supposedly corporate, consumer-driven, and depersonalizing, whereas the house church is seen as authentic, organic, close-knit and personal, attractive to homeschoolers, do-it-yourselfers and others who like to swim against the prevailing tides. (Personally, I think that characterization of megachurches is unfair. But that’s another story.)

Since the early 1990’s, I have pastored a small UBF church. For the first 15 years, we held weekly worship services in our home. When the congregation outgrew our living room, we met in various temporary locations and eventually purchased our own building. Thus I can legitimately claim to be on the cutting edge of the house-church movement.

But for much of that time, we called this operation a “ministry” rather than a church. Three years ago, we incorporated in Pennsylvania and obtained federal 501 (c) (3) status as a church. So we are a now a legitimate church, at least in the view of the IRS. But are we legit in the sight of God?

This is an issue that we have not fully resolved. It is crucial one, because it affects our standing in the larger Christian community, how we present ourselves to those who have looked upon us with curiosity or suspicion and asked, “Why are you doing this?”

We are definitely making progress in understanding who we are. One important point to consider is the distinction between “a true church” and “the true Church.” The true Church consists of all people from all places and times who belong to Christ. It is not a visible organization with membership roster that we can see in this world; only God knows who truly belongs to him. But certainly this true Church includes people who attend churches of many flavors, shapes and sizes. I believe that I am a member of the true Church because I am a committed follower of Jesus. (I no longer doubt my salvation; God has given me assurance through the Holy Spirit that I belong to Christ. But even as I rest in God’s salvation, I need to be constantly persevering in my faith and putting my trust in Christ alone, rather than trusting my own past decisions and experiences.)

On the other hand, “a true church” is a concept that is more difficult to define. The Apostle Paul wrote letters to the saints in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, and so on, and Revelation chapters 1-2 speak of seven churches in seven cities. But in any given city, the church did not necessarily function as a single congregation; more likely, it was a loosely organized network of believers who met in their homes.

All of the churches mentioned in the New Testament had strengths and weaknesses in their beliefs and behaviors. Some were commended, others were rebuked. For example, in Revelation 2:6, Jesus declared that he hated the practices of the Nicolatians who were leading believers astray. But I cannot find any example in Scripture where a whole community of people who baptized in the name of Jesus Christ – or “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” as Jesus commanded – is denounced as a false or illegitimate church.

Since the beginning, the Church has produced doctrinal statements like the Apostles Creed to define the essence of what Christians believe. These statements were originally used to catechize new believers and prepare them for baptism. They establish many of core teachings of the faith – the Trinity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so on. If someone is not willing to confess the Apostle’s Creed (except perhaps for that part “he descended into Hades,” which many find difficult to understand) then I would certainly wonder whether that person is a Christian. By this creedal standard, groups that claim to hold Jesus in high regard — Bahais, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. — but are not distinctly Trinitarian are not calling people to the Christian faith. There may be some members of the true Church within these communities, but they are not systematically drawing people into the true Church.

Yet Christians have many more yardsticks that go far beyond the basic creeds by which they evaluate churches and declare them to be true or false, healthy or aberrant. Many of these yardsticks are based on theological or political leanings and personal experience. Sometimes they reflect stereotype, prejudice, and ignorance of other cultures and generational tribes. Sometimes they are rooted in tragic past hurts and unresolved conflicts.

There is a good Christian man whom I see and talk to regularly. Many years ago, someone close to him was sexually molested by a Roman Catholic priest, and has been strongly anti-Roman Catholic ever since. That horrible event has become the prism through which he sees and evaluates the whole Catholic church. He now identifies himself not as a “Christian” but as a “Protestant Christian” and would like to see other people abandon Catholicism. And who can blame him? But I do not believe that his stance – to be dismissive of a whole denomination of 1.2 billion people worldwide – is a logical response to the trauma he has suffered. One can certainly raise objections to specific teachings of Roman Catholicism. (As a former Catholic, there are many RC teachings with which I disagree.) But objecting to specific teachings is different from denouncing the whole with sweeping generalizations.

It is remarkable to me how quickly believers will denounce whole congregations and denominations that are clearly Trinitarian. They will cite Bible verses to prove their point, but in many cases, I find that the Scriptures are being used in ways that were never intended. For example, someone may say that a certain church is aberrant because “they don’t teach the Bible.” And he may cite 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” This was the charge that Paul gave to Timothy to give him clear direction for his ministry. It is a charge that I take seriously, and I wish that all pastors did so. But Paul did not present this to Timothy as a yardstick to classify whole communities of Christians as unfaithful because the style, frequency or emphasis of their Bible study does not measure up to someone’s preferred standard.

Some make no clear distinction between the Body of Christ, “the true Church,” and their own congregation or denomination, which they presumably consider to be “a true church.” Perhaps they have not thought that such a distinction is necessary. But sooner or later, equating two things that are not equal will get you into trouble. In this case, the inevitable result is sectarianism, an air of superiority and distrust toward anyone outside of your group or theological tradition.

Sectarianism is passionately denounced by Apostle Paul (1Co 1:10-17; 1Co 3:1-23; 1Co 12:1-31). Paul’s pleas for unity and peaceful co-working in the church are no less strong than his warnings against sexual immorality (Gal 5:20; Eph 4:3-6; Php 4:2). Many of us would feel compelled to distance ourselves from a church member who openly and unrepentantly practiced a homosexual lifestyle. Would we act the same way toward someone who regularly speaks of his own group in unrealistically positive and glowing terms while denouncing other Christian groups and traditions in broad, sweeping terms?


  1. FishEater

    I am so tempted to turn this into a Catholocism is the fullness of truth.. visible vs.  invisible.. kind of argument … but I wont. I am sure we are all sick of that by now. =)

    I will look at this website thread from a general Christian framework. It seems like sectarianism is what guides Jehovas witnesses, 7th day adventist and mormons. “We have the true gospel.”  
    What saddens me about people who leave these groups or people who leave the Catholic church because of sexual abuse is the impact this must have on their ability to trust others or know truth. I imagine that if I was a mormon and someone convinced me that the Mormon teaching was false, I would find it difficult to trust any Church.  

    In terms of distancing ourselves from sectarian groups, I think they themselves would like that. I know there are many 7th day adventist who applaud protestants for not being Catholic but condemn them for following the mark of the beast (Catholic church) and worshiping on Sundays instead of  Saturdays.  

    I am reminded of a chapter in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy in which he suggest that one cannot argue with a madman since every argument you use against them is more evidence of why they are right. For example, “if a man says that he is Jesus Christ,it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.”

    So in the same way, it sometimes feels pointless to tell a sectarian group that clearly you cant be right, after all, your church is small and the things that are believed by your members have never been held to be true outside this small community. They may reply, “yes of course, no one believes what we teach because we are not of this world. Christ shames the strong and huge churches by exalting the small ones.”

  2. Hi FishEater, you make some interesting points about sectarian groups. When I wrote this article, I was thinking more about sectarian individuals.

  3. Thanks Joe, What would you say about the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? They call themselves Christians, they believe that Jesus died for sin and rose again…but would you say that they are a “true church”?   Would it be too sweeping a  denounciation to say that the Mormon Church is not a true church? If some Mormon sincerely asked you that question would you refrain from answering? What is the line where you would say that a church ceases to be “true”?

    • Mormons are not Trinitarian,  even though, as you say, they  use a lot of Christian-sounding language.   I will stand by what I wrote: “There may be some members of the true Church within these communities, but  they  are not systematically drawing people into the true Church.” Saying much more than that will go beyond the scope of what I wanted to  address in this article.  But clearly they have departed  very  far from the teachings of the Bible and the apostolic tradition and creeds, the Great Tradition of what has been   believed by all since the earliest days of the Church.

    • GerardoR

      Yeah, the Catholic church  acknowledges  the babtism of most protestant denominations but not  Mormons  or Jehova’s  witness. I am totally with you Joe. We might not be able to know where to draw the limit but we can atleast all  acknowledge that those who deny the divinity of Christ are not Christian.    That, at the very least, should be criteria we can go by.

  4. GerardoR

    In terms of sectarian individuals, I am unsure what motivates some people to hold that view. I guess some people dont want to feel that they have only the partial truth, or are a part of a denomination but have the whole truth and come from a line that stretches as far back as the first Christians. Maybe it is a backlash to denominationalism or cultural relativism that motivates some individuals to say, “No, my church is not just a small american denomination but the true church.”

    I can understand why someone would want to feel like that. After all, didnt Joseph Smith claim to have founded Mormonism one night while he prayed whether protastant vs. catholic christianity was true?  

    Speaking from my own experience, I know that I can often get very hard nose about defending the Catholic Church as containing the fullness of truth. I feel I have biblical reasons for doing so but I think that my attitude in presenting the arguments is often colored by my experience in encountering anti-catholic bias from many protestants. I think I overdue it.

    I feel like I have anti-catholic PTSD where I react siwftly and rudely to any comment that may feel like an attack on my faith.  I have become very insensitive to differentiating bigotry from ignorance in peoples anti-catholic sentiments. I will automaticly assume that anti-catholic statements come from bigots instead of realizing that maybe they have never met a Catholic and they are only speaking from ignorance. I am very unempathetic to how weird Catholocism must look to other people who have never heard of its teachings.  

    I am sorry if I have offended anyone on this website with my rash and callous  judgements.

  5. James Kim

    Growing up in the Asian culture, I learned early on that the pressure to confirm to the society was very strong. During the middle school and high school days all students had to wear same school uniform for six years. They are trained like a military camp. In this kind of uniform culture, any sticking nails are hammered down mercilessly and immediately. People also develop exclusive mentality such as “If you do not agree with me, you are no longer my friend”.
    Growing up in UBF I admit that we also had similar sectarian thinking, “My church is the best”. Even our children who were born here have similar opinions. With sectarian thinking we do not feel for coworking and networking with other churches because we think we are the best.
    John Armstrong described sectarianism in his book, “Your church is too small” like this. “Sectarianism creates an attitude of exclusivity. And when we hold this attitude, we act as if we belong to a superior (understood as the best, right, only, pure) church.—
    Sectarianism is seeking unity in uniformity rather than unity in diversity and expecting other Christians to comply with my views before I can have genuine fellowship with them.—
    Sectarians believe their church/denomination/tradition can best ‘represent the body of Christ, to the exclusion or marginalization of other genuinely Christian groups”.

  6. Hi Joe, I want to start by checking whether I get what you’re doing in this article. Here is my summary:

    You begin by raising the question of whether contemporary house churches, like those we find in UBF, are legit before God.
    You then oppose a tendency many Christians have, namely, to evaluate and classify as non-Christian other churches (or “churches”) using standards other than credal ones (which you suggest are legitimate).
    You conclude by calling the above-mentioned tendency “sectarianism”, noting how it is denounced by Paul, and raising a question of why Christians are willing to tolerate this, even while being unwilling to tolerate other practices (e.g. certain sexual practices).

    I agree with you that sectarianism is bad news, and is quite harmful to the body of Christ, for which Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21). I myself have benefited enormously from exposure to churches and Christians from churches other than UBF (mainly Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Pentecostal). I have also seen really positive impact of exposure to the wider body of Christ in other members of our chapter. I am very grateful that in our chapter we have been working to open ourselves up in these ways.

    I have a couple of questions as well. One is about house churches, like the ones we tend to plant in UBF, is about our tendency not to get involved much with other Christian organizations around us. On the one hand, as lay ministers, many of us feel there simply isn’t time to do a really good job keeping on top of our own ministry while also forging connections with the larger body of Christ around us. But is it even okay (Christianly acceptable) to not do this, to not even prioritize this at all? Certainly, if we assume that everyone outside our own ministry is not really Christian, we might justify this to ourselves, but that assumption is both unrealistic and probably a bit crazy.

    A second question is actually a proposal (not originating with me, but one I think is useful) for a non-doctrinal criterion to assess when there are real problems with a church. The criterion is this: If the practices of a church systematically hinder people from developing and maintaining a real love relationship with Jesus Christ, there is something deeply wrong going on. Now I should say that since we are all sinners, you probably aren’t going to find any Christian, nor any church made up of Christians, who never hinder love between Christ and others. But I think all churches would benefit from asking themselves whether the way they do things tends to have this effect, and if it does, this should be one of the main targets for reform, both at the personal and at the ministry level.

  7. Andy, you understood the purpose of my rambling, disorganized article far better than I did when I wrote it.

    Regarding your question about house churches: There are many dangers that arise when small house churches try to stand alone in a community apart from other Christians in the area. Being in fellowship with other believers, especially ones who differ from us, has natural purifying and corrective effect on everyone involved. I live in a university town where there are lots of campus fellowships and churches, many good ones. From the start, I had a critical attitude toward them, even though I hardly knew them. In a sense, I “needed” to criticize them in order to justify my own ministry’s existence. What is the point of starting another church or ministry unless the ones that already exist are inferior or deficient? So, in my mind, I made up all kinds of reasons why those other churches must be deficient. Developing friendships with Christians outside of UBF began to purify me in so many ways. At the same time, it forced me to question why I am doing what I am doing. I can no longer   believe the  claim that UBF is purer, better, stronger than other churches, because I have seen with my own eyes that it is not true. I can no longer accept the idea that our methods of Bible study and discipleship are inherently better, that our ideas on courtship and marriage are inherently better, etc.  because I have seen with my own eyes that it is not true.  This realization that we are not superior has, in a major way, “destabilized” our small congregation because it raised serious questions about why we exist and what we are trying to accomplish. But I now view that de-stabilization as a very good thing, because you cannot build a healthy church on such naive, groundless assumptions about the superiority of yourself and your own group relative to others. No church, large or small, can be healthy unless it rests on the solid foundation of God’s unmerited grace through Jesus Christ.

    Regarding your second question/proposal: If we need a  criterion to judge whether a congregation is headed in the right direction or wrong direction, then the one you propose sounds very sensible. But do we really need such a criterion? Perhaps we sometimes do. But, as you suggest, we should apply it first and foremost to ourselves. Love is an inner reality that is sometimes hard to see in others unless we really know them and understand them. And it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are motivated by love when it is not so.  Not a  small number of  people have been hurt in the name of “love.”  I have seen  individuals  treated badly  for the sake of a supposedly greater cause or mission, and then heard people justify it as an example of showing “God’s love” rather than “human love.” I no longer believe that line of reasoning at all. Christ died to save people, not to advance a greater cause, because there is no greater cause than saving  people who are made in God’s image. The object of real love must be a person, not  a principle or idea.

    • Thanks for this reply, Joe. In your response to my first question you said, “What is the point of starting another church or ministry unless the ones that already exist are inferior or deficient?” I think this is a really good, but also somewhat scary, question. Good because it is a question I think we really need an answer to, and scary because it carries some serious “destabilizing” potential.

      Indeed, if we don’t have a clear rationale for carrying out independent church ministry in a given region, is it even right before God that we do so instead of joining with other already established churches to build up the body of Christ and expand the kingdom of Jesus together in Christian unity? If our rationale is that we are better and the other churches, who aren’t doing their job, then I think we need to examine the basis of such a claim very carefully (my suspicion is that if we do, we will find, as you did, that it is really unfounded).

      One thing I struggle with is that I don’t have a clear answer to this question, but at the same time, I have seen the way God has been blessing and using our small efforts in positive ways in the lives of many people who have been involved in our ministry. There is maybe a separate question lurking here besides the question of whether to start a new church in a place where there are already good churches. Namely, “What is the point of continuing to carry out church activity in an area in which there are lots of other good churches?” Though we are still relatively quite small, I consider the people who we are able to reach through our house church ministry, and would not want them to be without the place they’ve come to see as their home church, at least while they are here in Waterloo (many of them are students).

      I still think it is good for relatively established ministries to seriously ask themselves this second question, in order that either (a) they will receive greater clarity and conviction from the Lord about the meaning of what they are doing, or (b) they will realize that they need to operate in significantly different ways, and will begin to take steps to do so. One problem is that we tend instead of even asking such a question to assume that what we’re doing is fine and just press forward with it. A big part of this, again, is the potentially destabilizing effect that even seriously asking such a question might have. For those of us who have deeply invested themselves in the ministry paradigm, such a question can feel like it penetrates right to the root of who we are in God. I guess that in itself is probably not a good thing, since our identity needs to be wholly and purely determined by our relationship with God in Christ and not by what we do.

      I’m not sure you totally understood my second proposal, though I do agree with what you said in response to it. I actually didn’t mean to say anything about us showing God’s love to others / each other, but to suggest a criterion for (self-)examination and potential reform based on whether or not what we do as individuals and as a ministry genuinely leads people to Jesus Christ or whether it in fact (even if unintentionally) hinders them from forming and going more deeply into such a love relationship with Him.

      You do raise an important point about the difficulty of seeing / measuring love in a person. I guess work needs to be done to develop more clearly what it means to have a love relationship with Christ, and how we can tell when we ourselves or another person in fact have this. But I posed this as a criterion based on the idea that this is really what the Bible is about: God loved us to the extent that He sent Jesus for us; He wants us to respond in grateful adoring love, acknowledging this undeserved grace in all our words and ways. So if a church is hindering people from getting in touch with the love of God in Christ, and from responding to that love from their hearts, this seems like a very crucial place to start the process of reformation.


  8. david bychkov

    Thanks for the great post, Joe. Thanks for everyone’s wonderful comments. I want to say “Amen” with each of you. Everything here really helped me to understand better myself and others, to be patient to other’s strong opinions which opposite to mine and to be willing to purify my heart from all kinds of wrong motives for disagrements, aparting etc. Thanks again.

  9. In my limited understanding and experience, I think that to “liberal” churches, syncretism or “compromise” or “combining unbiblical elements to the faith” is the primary sin.

    In contrast, to “conservative” churches, sectarinism is the primary sin. Perhaps, UBF’s primary distastefulness is more likely our sectarianism rather than syncreticism.

    This might be too broad of a generalization. Nonetheless, perhaps, the common factor of both syncreticism and sectarianism might be our strong human desire for acceptance and security.

    Liberal churches find acceptance and security by being like everybody else. But conservative churches find acceptance and secrurity by criticizing Christians and churches who are “not like them.”

    As for myself, after having being in UBF for 30 years with UBF being my only experience of what a church is, my sectarianism is deeply ingrained. I am beginning to see how offensive and “unChristian” and self-righteous it is to be sectarian by implicitely denouncing any Christian or church that is not like my  “ideal” church.

    Perhaps, my sin is the sin of Jonah, who was the “Christian” of the story, but the most nasty person in the whole book. Perhaps, God put Jonah in the Bible for me to see a reflection of how ugly a Christian can be, when he looks down on other people, other Christians, other churches,  other Christian metods,  or other denominations.

    • GerardoR

      Interesting charecterization. I never thought of this way. Thank you!

  10. Sorry, mis-spelled “methods.”
    Also, we can study Genesis and say, “Be a father of faith like our spiritual  father Abraham.”
    But we can’t study Jonah and say, “Be a self-righteous Christian like Jonah!”

  11. Here is something to consider. The Apostle who preached so much about unity and fellowship and love and gentleness and against division and strife  also said in Galatians 1:6 that if anyone preaches another gospel other than the one he and the other Apostles preached, let him be anathema! Condemned forever! Accursed! Should Paul be considered divisive because of this statement? Was Luther wrong to stand  up against  the incredible darkness of the church in his day, and call them out on it? Were the 95 theses just a misguided document of schism and discord?

    Hogwash! There can only be unity and true fellowship in the  church  when the Gospel is intact. Luther was quite right when he said that Justification by Faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls. Certainly there are also  also other core doctrines that Christians need to hold in order for there to be Biblical unity, but thats my point, they must be there. Otherwise there is just mere sentimentalism and false “christian”  unity.

    I would even  go so far as to say as an example (since we were talking about this on another post) that someone calling out  a guy like Rob Bell isnt being divisive, instead it is Rob Bell who is divisive!  If he (for instance) writes a book denying the  Biblical and historically held  doctrine of hell, is that not an attempt to divide one’s self and church from mainstream Christianity?

    • Should have said on there Galatians 1:6 and following…

    • Hi Dave,

      The anathema or “curse of God” that Paul pronounced in Gal 1:8-9 was the adding of “legalism” to the gospel, which to the Galatians was circumcision, dietary food laws, and the keeping special holy days, which was commanded in the Bible (O.T.). This legalistic pressure came from the “older, senior  (Jewish) Christians” in the church in Galatia applied to the “younger, junior (Gentile) Christians.”  In our day, I think that we add to the gospel, by adding our “particular distinctive of ministry” or “particular biblical imperatives” to the gospel.

      So, if I add my UBF distinctives  of  “one to one Bible study,” or “fishing,” or “testimony writing” to the gospel, then, according to Paul,  I should be eternally condemned or cursed by God, for I have then somehow taught others who come to UBF (at least implicitely) that unless they “do these things,” they are “lesser” UBF Christians. As someone shared previously about “mission as idolatry,” that even the adding of “mission” to the gospel, is a dilution of the gospel.

      I think that the church in the U.S. has been greatly weakened over the years by the introduction of “moralistic legalism” into the church, such as “no drinking,” “no smoking,” “no dancing,” etc.

    • Ben, I agree with you that Galatians is about adding legal imperatives to the gospel. The gospel should bear visible expressions of faith in the life of a believer, but these will vary from one person to another and one community to another. Refraining from drinking, smoking, dancing, etc. could be valid expressions of gospel faith under some circumstances. But problems arise when Christians begin to assume that these should be essential expressions of faith for everyone. Every faith community will have distinctive expressions of gospel faith. It’s okay to dsplay these distinctives to the rest of the church and to the world. But they should be presented as the fruit of the gospel, not the gospel itself, and they must be held loosely, not kept as absolutes.

    • Yes, that is the point that Paul is making. That is why a doctrine like Justification by Faith Alone, for instance, matters so much in order for there to be unity. I am pretty sure that whenever Paul visited a Judaizer church, he was not silent  in telling them that they were perverting the Gospel.

      Dr Ben, I do not know for certain what you taught, but unless you were teaching that in order to be saved, a person had to conduct one to ones or fishing, I think you could have been wrong without being in danger of being cursed forever ;)

    • David, I agree that justification by faith alone is an essential part of the gospel. What I see as  a major point of confusion — not just in UBF, but all over the place — is what happens after justification. In Romans 1:17, Paul says that righteousness is “by faith from first to last.” I think that he meant that the whole process of salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification) is offered to us as a free gift of grace and received by us through the instrument of faith. The idea of being sanctified by faith, rather than by self effort, is really, really hard to grasp. I think that people need practical examples to  demonstate what this kind of Christian life actually looks like. I have encountered quite a few people who, while seeming to uphold correct doctrines on this point, do a very poor job of explaining and actually demonstrating it to the world. (Please don’t take  this personally; I’m not talking about you.) And, at the same time, I have encountered Christians who  articulate this aspect of the  gospel in unfamiliar terms and language, or who don’t try to articulate it at all, but who demonstrate it quite wonderfully.

    • An interesting verse to set alongside Gal 1:6ff is Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” This appears to imply that the true gospel can be preached even out of false motives (out of envy and rivalry, v. 15). Does this support the idea that purity of doctrine proclaimed is more important than the right inner life before God of the one proclaiming it? Can the two things really be separated in this way? Maybe so, if we note that ultimately it is Christ Himself who reveals His gospel to people by His Spirit, even in spite of our own weaknesses, wrong attitudes, selfishness, (and even doctrinal errors?). Hmmm…

    • Andy, that’s a good point. I think it is related to the controversy over Donatism in the early church. The Donatists said that sacraments were not effective unless they were administered by someone who is a true believer and in a right relationship with God. Most of the church rejected that teaching, and rightly so.

      What disturbs me about the present Rob Bell controversy is that many innocent people  can be  and are being hurt by it. Once Rob Bell is labeled as a heretic because of his new book, everything that he has ever done (a lot of which is good) becomes suspect, and by association anyone who has ever used his material and been blessed by it automatically becomes suspect. I know a Christian campus leader outside of UBF who has posted inspirational quotes by Rob Bell on her Facebook page. Some of her financial supporters saw it and, because they heard that Rob Bell is a heretic, gave her a hard time and may have even considered pulling their support, even though they know next to nothing about Rob Bell. There are young people in UBF who have been using Bell’s Nooma series as a springboard for discussion. Do we want to treat them, and their pastor, as being tainted and suspect because they have been watching the Nooma series? I certainly hope not. There are real dangers in false teaching, for sure. But there are also real dangers in handling it unwisely. Rob Bell is a big boy. He can defend himself and take responsibility for what he says, But other innocent people should not have to bear responsibility for everything he says, nor should they be shunned for having been blessed by his ministry.

  12. Good point Joe, if God can speak through Baalam’s donkey, he could also have used Rob Bell.  I once heard a  preacher who was talking about the demon possessed  woman who was following Apostle Paul and friends and saying that they were men from God teaching the way to salvation…Paul ended up rebuking her and casting out the demon! Why did he do that? Because God does not need demon possessed people to preach the Gospel!

    I am sure that people have been blessed, and even converted  by the preaching of  Benny Hinn, but I would not want to be  a part of  his ministry! That this is the case  just shows how powerful the Gospel is.  God wants approved workmen and not swindlers and heretics to be the elders and leaders in his church. But he can even use those people in his Sovereignty to  fulfill his ultimate purpose.

  13. Andy Stumpf

    If it isn’t too presumptuous of me, I’d like to see if I can effect a summary and sort of reconciliation of some of the two sources of tension in the discussion on this post and the other one, concerning Rob Bell and related topics.  

    I think everyone basically agrees with the following two points:  

    (1) Doctrinal correctness is essential, and is all the more so the closer the doctrine in question gets to the Gospel itself. (Hence the concern about hell, since a correct view of hell is being taken (at least by David L.) to be a crucial backdrop for the gospel message). Since the Gospel is a matter of salvation (in all the breadth in which we might understand that term), upholding the Gospel as revealed by God in Jesus Christ is literally a matter of life and death.

    (2) Our efforts to ensure doctrinal correctness should always be done in a manner consistent with the Gospel, which teaches us to be gracious to others and strict with ourselves, and above all else to love one another. (Hence Joe’s concerns about quashing people’s legitimate and sincere questions about doctrinal issues, rejecting people and their followers wholesale on the basis of particular doctrinal errors, etc.)

    In my mind, these two points are held together nicely in Paul’s admonition to speak the truth to one another in love (Eph 4:15). Should one of either (1) or (2) be held as a higher priority than the other? Does love trump truth, or does truth trump love, in a case of conflict between the two?

    I think the overall way the Bible speaks to all this suggests that real truth and real love are going to turn out to be compatible (e.g. “Love… rejoices with the truth”), while nevertheless prioritizing love. The content of the truth is love. Jesus is the Truth, and Jesus is Love. God is Love. “Truth” presented in an unloving way can never really be truth, since anything done without love would fail to reveal the one who is Love, who also embodies Truth.

    Conversely, true love would never be false and would never lie. The devil is the father of lies and he deceives the whole world. But Rahab lied to her king about the Israelite spies she was hiding and was not only spared with her family but also made it into the genealogy of Jesus. Arguably she did this out of her love for God (and for God’s people), and while the means were not ideal, it was the way she was able to find to express her love.  

    What I mean to say is that there may be cases where love trumps certain ways of expressing the truth, but I don’t think there is ever a case where for the sake of truth it would be right for us not to love, that is, in dealing with each other to be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs, and always protecting, trusting, hoping and persevering (1 Cor 13:4-7).  

  14. Thanks Andy, I appreciate your post. One thing though, I dont think that it is ever right to lie, for Rahab or for anyone (even though I have been guilty of doing so in my life)  because Jesus says that all lies come from the devil. At the same time, perhaps she could have said something else that would have diverted the king without lying…what I am trying to say is that Rahab was not honored because of her lie but because of her faith.

    I recently saw a great short video on youtube. I wonder if you all would say that John Gerstner is being divisive here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGqMn0ph3Q0

    • I would not say Gerstner is being divisive here.

    • I don’t think he’s being divisive, but I question whether he is  representing  Roman Catholic positions accurately. How does this mesh, for example, with the Joint Declaration on justification by faith signed by Rome and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999? Peter Kreeft has written a great deal about how Catholics do actually believe in justification by faith. In discussions like these, it’s hard for a Reformed person  to present a properly nuanced view of Catholic teaching, just as it’s hard for a Catholic to really explain Reformed teaching. Part of the problem is that the two streams of theology use different terms, and sometimes they use the same terms in different ways.

    • GerardoR

      Hi David,
      I dont think John Gerstner is being divisive either. I dont think divisiveness means anyone who disagree’s with your position, or is passionate about defending what he believes.  

      In terms of the actual content, I actually think he is 90% accurate in presenting the Roman Catholic Churches view on justification. This is definately a breath of fresh air as many protestants like to make a straw man argument that Catholics believe we are justified by works alone. I commend him for properly presenting the Catholic view.

      My only objection is that he uses words that make it seem as if Christ does the faith part and we do the works part. I think he leaves out an important nuance there. The cathechism states: Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.(CCC 1992)

      Catholic teaching says that works are a part of our justification, because it is what completes the faith (James 2:22). Faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17). Catholic teaching also says that we are justified by faith and works (James 2:24). The two operate together in harmony. So Christ is the one who is also working through us to complete the good works but we have a responsibility of responding to that. Some people don’t respond to his call for works. So we are saved by Christ alone indeed who works in us to create faith and works, but as I have said before, we are working THROUGH him, IN him and WITH him in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  

      As for what Joe said about the Joint Declaration on justification by faith that was signed by Rome and the LWF. This declaration said that we are indeed justified by faith alone. So there seems to be a contradiction. The Cathechism says we are justified by faith and a response to that faith through works. However, the declaration says faith alone. Well, I think this seeming contradiction highlights an important detail that I think is really what is at the hear of the whole faith + works debate. The Catholic Church teaches that we are indeed INITIALLY justified by faith alone. But that if we do not respond to Faith with Charity, or complete Faith with Love, we place ourselves in danger of loosing salvation.  

      So if you ask me, the whole fatih vs. faith + works debate ultimately boils down to a once saved always saved debate. As you know, the Roman Catholic church teaches that we can loose our  salvation (John 15:6; Romans 11:22; Galatians 5:4; 1 Corinthians 9:27).  

      I have commonly heard the argument presented that justification has to lead to good works. The interesting thing is, that if you challenge that argument people will say that a lack of good works shows that the person was never saved to begin with. I find this line of reasoning very  erroneous  and frustrating to deal with but I wont go over the reasons why. One thing that I have realized though is that if you go along this line of reasoning, then you have no way of knowing whether you are one of those people who THINKS they are saved, but was never saved to begin with.  

      Anyway, I am not trying to turn this in a faith vs. faith + works debate and I hope no one misunderstands my intention. I just wanted to respond to the video and your comment David. I think he does a fairly good job of presenting the RCC’s view on salvation but neglects to point out that we do in fact believe we are initially saved by faith alone but that one must respond to such faith with Charity.  

    • Gerardo, you’ve touched on something very important which has frustrated me for a long time when I hear people debate these issues. When someone from one tradition describes the position of another tradition, they may say that the other’s errors are “dangerous,” and then they proceed to describe the other’s position, getting it about 90% right. The 10% that they do not get right  is often the nuance which, when properly lived out, actually protects Christians from the supposed dangers of the 90%. And often the people who are faithfully living out this nuanced view of salvation cannot articulate in theological terms what they are doing or why, but they instinctively know it is right.

      Let’s say, for example, that a Reformed person talks about the perseverance of the saints, which can be  crudely described as “once saved, always saved” or “you cannot lose your salvation.” Good pastors who hold and teach this view also take great care to explain the nuance and pitfalls, protecting against misunderstanding and misapplication. Similarly, good pastors from Wesleyan/Arminian traditions who hold alternative views also explain the nuance and pitfalls, protecting their flock against misunderstanding and misapplication. So, even though they start out from positions that seem very different, they often end up in pretty much the same place in terms of how these doctrines actually play out in the Christian life.

    • GerardoR

      I am a bit unclear about what you mean in your last post. Are you saying the 10% that people from both sides of the debate often forget is usually the key to understanding the other persons position? I would appreciate it if you could  clarify  a bit.

    • Yes — the key to understanding the opponent’s position, and the key to overcoming the supposed dangers that opponents say will result if you hold that position.

    • GerardoR

      Ok, I understand now. I am curious what would you say is the misunderstanding that non protestants make in reformer theology regarding justification. I actually never bothered to consider that Catholics may hold a biased misunderstanding of reformer theology. This shows you how self righteous I am. =)

      One thing I once heard was that Catholics and the Orthodox falsely assume that the reformers believed that if they place their faith in Jesus (say in 1980), they can murder, cheat, steal, profane the name of Christ and not repent (say in 2011) and yet they will still be saved because of their act of faith in 1980.  Is this true? This is one of those things that I have always suspected is not true of most protestants.  

      I also once heard from a Catholic friend that protestant worship the bible. I know that one is  definitely not true. =)    

    • Gerardo, on your question  I will defer to others who are more strongly committed to reformed theology than I am. Perhaps David L or others can chime in about how reformed positions are often misunderstood or misrepresented.

    • By the way — I loved your question, Gerardo. Wouldn’t it be a great witness to the world if Christians were a little less quick to point out the errors in one another’s theology, and instead said to one another, “I’ve heard that you believe XXX and YYY and I think that this could lead to bad practice because of ZZZ. Have I understood your position clearly? If you think I’m wrong, please tell me why, and I promise to listen very respectfully.”

    • GerardoR

      haha.. yeah it would be a better world. Maybe you should make that a suggestion in your commenting policy.