Which Church Is Right? And do I have to go to church to be a Christian?
Sept. 13, 2009
Why are there so many different churches? Which one is right?
This is surely one of the most confusing issues to a skeptic is the huge variety of churches and the differences between them. We can understand why many people feel that if churches can’t agree, how are they supposed to find the truth there?
This is a good question, but it is not as complicated as it seems. When you really look into it you find that there is a simple core of Christian belief that is common to all good churches.
Let’s start with what the Bible says about the church.
The church was a new institution, started by Jesus Himself
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
15 "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
The word that Jesus used for “church” was actually the normal word for “assembly.” In Greek, it was “ekklesia” which literally meant “called out.” (ek – “out of” and kalleo – “to call”). I think this is the first time we’ve used a Greek word on this program because it can be confusing. But this word, ekklesia is the basis for our modern word ecclesiastical, which means the practice of everything that has to do with the church. In Bible times, when there was something important to share with the people of a town they would have an assembly, like our “town hall” meetings today. They would call the people out to this assembly and then discuss the important matter. So, that’s a word picture of what the church is. People “called out” from the world to discover important truths together.
The beginning of the church
Soon after the death and resurrection of Christ, the church came into existence. This happened on the Day of Pentecost, a little more than a month after Christ had returned to heaven. When He left, He told His disciples to wait for the promise He had made about the Holy Spirit. They would need the help of the Holy Spirit to do their work. So they had been patiently waiting for something powerful to happen.
2:1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(from New International Version)
All of a sudden, the weak and fearful disciples were changed! The Holy Spirit entered into them and gave them supernatural power to be bold and effective communicators. Within a few years they and the others who followed them were able to take the Gospel – the “Good News” about Jesus all over the then-known world! Jesus’ prophecy about His church had come to pass!
At the beginning there were not different kinds of churches in every town. The Apostles Paul and John wrote to many different churches, but it was always to the church in a certain town – like “The Church at Corinth” or the “Church at Ephesus.” The home church of Christianity was “The Church at Jerusalem.”
However, right from the beginning each church was a little different from the others. That is because each town and each area had its own background and culture. The new teaching about Jesus was received in different ways and applied to their lives in slightly different ways.
But here is a very important point. The basic truth of Christianity did not change from place to place. That’s why the early church adopted a simple statement of what was essential to Christianity. It is based on the Bible, and known as “The Apostle’s Creed.” Let me read it to you.
The Apostle’s Creed I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell. [See Calvin]
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
By the way, we should point out that if a certain so-called church does not agree with the Apostle’s Creed, it is not considered a Biblical church. It may be a cult, which departs from one or more of the basic teachings of the Bible about the church.
But basically, every true Christian church has had the same basic belief at its core. And yet every church also had its unique features, just like different humans do.
The Bible anticipated this difference from church to church, but it also provided for its unity. There are several illustrations in the New Testament about the nature of the church. One of them is a body, where various parts of the church are different, like various parts of the body, but they are all unified by the fact that Jesus Himself is the head of the Church.
1 Corinthians 12:14-20
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
(from New International Version)
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it
(from New International Version)
How new denominations start
First, lets do a simple review of Church History.
The Church and its many branches is like a tree.
The root system is Jesus Christ Himself
The trunk is the early church. Much later, this one, world-wide church was called the “catholic” or “universal” church, and later still, after the first big division of the church it was called the “Roman Catholic” church. That big division was called the “Orthodox” Church. There were many differences between them, but it was primarily a cultural difference with the Roman Church representing Western culture and the Orthodox Church representing Eastern Culture.
But remember this, the two great branches of the church still agreed on the Apostle’s Creed, even as all Biblical churches do today!
Much later, in the 1500’s Martin Luther and John Calvin led a “Reformation” of the church. You can imagine how many un-Biblical ideas could creep into a church during 1500 years of its history. Martin Luther, a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a long article called “95 Theses” and posted it on the door of a church in Germany. He objected to wrong practices of the church, like the selling of “indulgences.” People were paying money to buy their way out of future punishment for their sins!! This, of course, was totally contrary to the teaching of the Bible. Luther had just hoped the Church would agree with his complaints and return to their Biblical foundations, but instead, they expelled him from the Church. So he gathered others who agreed and started what is now known as the Lutheran Church. In Switzerland, John Calvin did the same thing, starting the “Reformed Church.”
Just a few years later another reformation movement, the “Anabaptists” began. They agreed with the Reformation, but felt it had not returned completely to Bible standards. One of their issues was the matter of infant baptism. They showed that the Bible taught that baptism was a sign of one’s belief, and that babies had not yet accepted Christ.
So, from that time until now there have been hundreds of other new church groups started. They were almost always splinters of older groups that had drifted away from Biblical standards. So, in a way these different “denominations” or new names for churches, were a good thing, constantly bringing the church back to its roots in the Bible.
So today, there are three kinds of denominations. There are some which no longer agree with the Apostles’ Creed – the simple core beliefs of Christianity. These are not Biblical churches, and we hope you don’t get involved with them.
Another category of denominations are the many older branches of Christianity that still hold the basic teachings of the Bible, but have added so many other things that it may be hard for a person to find the Gospel and develop a personal relationship with Him.
Then there is the third category of churches – Ones that are consciously Biblical, and are committed to developing a personal relationship with the living Christ. They come in all different styles, suiting the needs of different people all over the world. They may be different in their music, and the way they do things, but they still hold to the same core beliefs that Christians have always had.
So, this brings up one more question that is related to what we are talking about today…
Does a person have to go to church to be a Christian?
When I was young I saw an article entitled, “Which Church Saves?
None! Only Jesus saves us from our sins. But if a person believes the Gospel, does he or she need to attend church? Maybe not, but I can guarantee that if they don’t they are missing out on important aspects of their Christian life.
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
(from New International Version)