Controversy & Division
The church deals with a lot of issues, and there are a lot of controversies swirling around both inside and outside the body of believers. Moral questions, political affiliations, missional differences, a million stylistic opinions, global concerns and theological interpretations are only a part of the everyday life and conversation for believers around the world.
But, amazingly, though the divisions seem to be a problem for us, God actually does allow for a lot of debate, dialogue and differences among His people in the way they practice and perform their religious activities and commune with Him and each other.
Some people talk about how sad it is that the Christian church is so divided – by denominations, cultures, locations, styles – and consider our lack of uniformity to be a weakness. I would ask them to consider that these divisions are not only necessary, but can be a source of great strength as we choose to express our love for God, the church and the unsaved in a variety of ways, learn from one another, and give God praise in a rainbow of different ways. God doesn’t desire our uniformity, He desires our unity.
It’s remarkable that I can attend different churches in different places, with a different language, different clothing style, different taste in music, different architectural style, and be worshipping the same God, for the same reason, with people who would be considered my brothers and sisters in Christ, and whom I will spend all eternity with. That’s amazing! I may not prefer their style, but that doesn’t mean that they are wrong – only different – and I’m learning to praise God for those differences, because as I experience them, I learn more about the heart of God and His work in the world.
Spot The Difference
But as wonderful as some of these differences are, there are some things in every Christian church that must be absolutely the same or they are not Christian churches. There is a standard, a baseline, a fundamental, foundational group of beliefs and professions that cannot, and must-not be altered, or the people in that place are no longer Christians.
It’s like those “Spot The Difference” puzzles where two images are side by side, and they look the same, but when you look closer, the details make them very different. These churches may sing Christian songs, use Christian language, hold and read the Christian Bible, and even practice Christian traditions, but if they do not hold to these rock bottom beliefs, then they make themselves different from a church of Jesus Christ (that is drawing people towards the one and only Saviour of the world) and turn into a worldly, demonic corruption (that is misleading people with a message that cannot save and will lead its followers to hell). These are absolutely critical matters. We are talking about more than life and death issues, but issues of eternal-life and eternal-punishment.
What we are talking about is the difference between the True Gospel and the many, many False Gospels that have come about through the ages. On one hand is the True Gospel that points to the One Saviour, the One God, and the One Way, One Truth, and One Source of Life… and on the other are the False Gospels that sound right, are often more agreeable and understandable, and sometimes even feel more right to us than the True Gospel.
A Faith Smorgasbord
When people think of religion, the church, or even Christianity, they see it less as a singular way – a straight and narrow path not to be deviated from, and more like a buffet where they can come and fill their plate with many different options, choosing the things they like, passing by the things they don’t, and creating something that sounds right, feels right, and is most understandable to them.
The prevailing thought about what people would call “going to heaven”, “being saved”, “being religious”, “getting in touch with God” or simply “being spiritual”, seems to be that as long as you are thinking about something, doing something, believing something, then God (or whoever the higher-power you have designed is) will honour your choices and create for you the heaven/paradise that you have designed for yourself, using the criteria that you have set. None of that makes any kind of rational sense when you think about it.
It’s like walking into a building in downtown Ottawa and saying, “Ok everyone, I work here now. I’m going to choose the job I want, the hours I want to work, the boss I want, get paid what I want to get paid with the benefits I want, and retire whenever I want to and however I want to.” I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work, right? (Though I haven’t tried it…)
It’s like walking into a kitchen and saying “I’m going to bake a cake, but I don’t like the way Betty Crocker does it, so I’m going to put in all my favourite ingredients and call it cake. I like hot wings, cheese, chocolate, hamburgers, asparagus, camomile tea, oysters, miracle whip, fried chicken, and ice-cream. I’ll put them in a bowl, mix them for however long I feel like, and then stick it in the oven… no wait… microwave… for as long as I want, and since I’m so dang smart, it will be a delicious cake.”
Nothing in the world works like that, and somehow we think that’s how our relationship with God and the rest of eternity is supposed to work.
What is sad is that this isn’t just out there in the world among the “foolish heathens”, but is also prevalent in the Christian church. The True Gospel has been under attack forever, but is supposed to be attacked from the outside. Now, even the churches who call themselves mainstream, evangelical, and conservative, are altering, silencing and even avoiding the True Gospel.
My favourite example of this, and one that infuriates me to no end, is something that has become popular among some churches, is changing of the words to Amazing Grace. We all know the first line, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Well, some people find the word “wretch” too harsh. In the words of one article, it has been changed “to downplay a sense of imposed self-loathing by its singers.” (Wiki). So now they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me” or “that saved and set me free”. Being a “wretch”, calling ourselves “wretched”, doesn’t feel right… it’s not understandable, relatable, comforting… and therefore it must be changed so we can feel better about it. I know that Amazing Grace isn’t scripture, but this certainly does show an altering of the perception of how Christians see themselves and the True Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Know the Counterfeit
The old illustration that is often used is still true: when the police are trying to identify a counterfeit $20 bill, they do not spend their time studying only the counterfeiters; it is far more important that they study, memorize and ingrain in their minds the true $20 bill. Therefore, anything that is different from that perfect example, must be a counterfeit.
In the same way, I want for you to know the True Gospel so wholly that whenever you are presented with something false, even though it may feel right, sound right, or even seem more understandable, you will know it is a counterfeit.
When Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers were rallying against the heresies of the Roman Catholic Church they were fiercely passionate, even to the point of losing their lives, because of what was at stake – the salvation of sinners, a right relationship with God, the full meaning of the scriptures, the person of Jesus Christ as the only One who can take humanity and the world from being marred by sin and destined for destruction, to make new, reborn, and destined for glory. They were fighting for the True Gospel because a counterfeit gospel was being put in its place.
And as they were fighting, debating and writing, they articulated what would be long recognized as the essentials of Christian life and practice. They were not fighting for a worship style, where to put the religious furniture, what should be worn in church, for a certain governmental style, or which was the right translation of the Bible – they were fighting for the bedrock beliefs of the Christian faith, which were being altered by the church for their own ends and profits.
These five fundamental beliefs are known today as the Five Solas (or Five Solae) and are a powerful tool to stay true to the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ that leads to Salvation. They are the Latin phrases, in no particular order: Sola Gratia, Sola Fida, Solus Cristus, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria. In English they translate to: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Scripture Alone, and The Glory of God Alone.
Knowing and understanding these, will help you to know the True Gospel of Salvation through Jesus Christ, and be able to identify any counterfeits – heresies, alterations, changes, additions, etc – that will ultimately lead you and others away from Jesus.
I’ll go through Sola Scriptura, in my next post.