Churches tend to identify themselves by doctrine. Some church names clearly show this: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and on and on. Others are more subtle, eschewing any historic identifiers and referring to themselves by more generic or non-threatening names: Community, Gathering, Chapel, Fellowship, etc. Some of these churches have very detailed statements about their beliefs—doctrines—while others may seem more accepting, but often even these make it uncomfortably clear what is or is not expected or acceptable.
Others are more subtle, eschewing any historic identifiers and referring to themselves by more generic or non-threatening names: Community, Gathering, Chapel, Fellowship, etc. Some of these churches have very detailed statements about their beliefs—doctrines—while others may seem more accepting, but often even these make it uncomfortably clear what is or is not expected or acceptable.
Let me be clear. There is such a thing as truth. Some things are absolutely wrong. There is nothing wrong or bad about having standards. And if you desire to be part of a group that has stated standards, you should honor those standards.
It is greatly troubling when too much emphasis is placed on what members must believe—or what is stated as the correct understanding of Biblical truth. Oh, sure, anyone is welcome to visit, or even come regularly. But before you can “join” or be in “full fellowship,” you’re expected to profess your belief and confidence in the creed or doctrinal statement.
I understand the concern that evil is real and error is subtle. Pastors certainly have a responsibility to “guard the flock.” It is a universal malady that “all we like sheep have gone astray.” And we must all take care, lest when we think we stand, we should fall. But it is worth noting that those who most troubled Jesus while He was on earth were those with the most Bible knowledge, the strictest rules, the most training in correct interpretation, and the highest standards.
I find in my own life, for what it’s worth, that I change—hopefully grow— in my understanding of the Bible. Sometimes that change is rather drastic, while at other times it is very gradual. What I formerly accepted and professed to believe about end times, or the meaning of grace, or the proper church government structure, or the purpose of church gatherings, and a host of other things large and small, has changed significantly over the years.
I have also noticed during years of ministry in many different places in the world, that I can enjoy fellowship with people who attempt to follow Jesus even when the church labels and professed doctrinal views are very different from mine. Whether preaching to Baptist in Africa or Reformed in Europe or Pentecostal in Latin America, or sharing with Brethren in Italy or Word in Venezuela or Charismatic in Ghana, we seem to enjoy sharing with one another the blessings of God, delight in studying Scripture together, and appreciate the prayers and praises of all.
If you only listen to or fellowship with people with whom you agree, you will never be challenged.
There is great value in learning and studying Scripture, and much profit in delving into the teaching and understanding of men and women who have devoted their lives to the study of Scripture. Reading Luther and Calvin, or more modern teachers like Wiersbe or Wright can lead us to a fuller and richer understanding than we might even imagine. The Shorter Catechism and the Thirty Nine Articles are great tools to expand and challenge our Biblical knowledge. But just because they’re old, or new, or written, or sound authoritative, doesn’t necessarily make them so.
Just once I would like to find a church that asked, “Do you love God?” and then invite me to be a part.
Even if you never read a commentary, and if you have no curiosity about what might be different in the church down the road, be careful about stunting your growth by proudly learning everything your church teaches while thinking that the folks in that other building would come to your church if they only knew the truth. You probably know lots of things that would help them. And they almost certainly know a few things that could benefit you.
Our goal is not to know the right things. We have all eternity to work toward that. The goal is to know Jesus. We can start that right here and now. And grow until we’re just like Him.
“Eternal life is to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, the one you sent.”
Jesus, John 17:3 (CEV)