Navigate: HOME LIBRARY PAMPHLETSReproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.
One Bible - Many Churches...
Does it Matter What We Believe?
THE title of this booklet is partly objective and partly subjective: that is to say, partly factual and partly a matter of judgement. One Bible-Many Churches is surely indisputable? Does it matter what we believe? is open to discussion. It seems sensible to begin where there is likely to be the greatest measure of agreement -- that there is one Bible. Surely this is manifestly true? Of course there are several versions and many translations -- but one Bible, whether the language is eastern or western, ancient or modern. The text is not open to alteration in order to bring it into harmony with this point of view or that. There are hundreds of scholars quick to detect any interference with the book. Thousands of pens are poised ready to indict any attempt to meddle with the words. The Bible is unique, using the word in its proper sense -- there is one Bible. In every nation it is the same and the Bibleís unity is intact.
That there are many Churches seems equally self evident. There are some who say that there are many names but the church is one. This is a verbal device to hide the divisions. The different names do stand for different causes. True, they are alike in some respects but the differences are real enough. There is a difference of teaching between one church and another, and sometimes the difference is very substantial, even fundamental. Then sometimes within the same church there are ideas and practices which contradict each other. In any case the effect speaks for itself -- somebody seeking to find the true church is puzzled and perplexed and forced to cry at last that they cannot make up their mind when faced with so many different churches clustered around one Bible. The problem is intensified by the fact that the differing churches all claim to have based their teaching on the one Bible. How has this situation arisen?
The Development of Differences
One of the great disappointments of Protestantism has been that the theory did not work. Instead of the unity which its founders expected, it produced in the course of time a diversity of opinion and an increasing number of competing religious communities all claiming in some sense to be founded on the Bible, resulting in the religious chaos in Christendom today. One of the reasons for the modern ecumenical movement is the awareness that the existence of so many different churches is a reproach to Christianity itself. That personal freedom which was an essential feature of the Protestant cause has produced the very things which have weakened it. Supposedly centred around one Bible, the Protestant churches have in the course of the centuries multiplied their differences.
Was the theory wrong -- the idea that the teaching of the Bible was all-sufficient and, to men of sense and goodwill, self-evident? The fact that results fell far short of the ideal does not make the theory false. As will be shown later there were other factors which spoiled and limited the unifying effect of religious truth. The Bibleís claims about itself assert that its teaching is all-inclusive and all-sufficient. It is God speaking to men. It proclaims that God has spoken all down the ages by His holy prophets and now at last He has spoken by His own Son Jesus Christ. What has been spoken, by the prophets and by the Son, for us is imprinted on the pages of the Bible. Take away the Bible and, as far as we are concerned, God is silent. Some religious people claim to have seen visions and received special revelations, apart from the Bible, but for the vast majority of men and women there is no sign or signal from heaven. The voice of heaven is heard in the printed sentences of Godís Word in the scriptures -- and nowhere else.
Consider the testimony of the Bible about its all-sufficiency. Our Lord often rebuked the people of his own day -- but never did he rebuke them for reading the scriptures, rather he rebuked them for not acting in accordance with what they read. He said, "Ye search the scriptures, and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life" (John 5:39-40, R.V.). To the Sadducees he said about their attitude to resurrection, "Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures" (Matthew 22:29), and then went on to say, "But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living". Jesus said this was God speaking to the generation of that very day, and because they ignored it they were going astray.
The Holy Scriptures
To the believers at Thessalonica he wrote, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). These references lay emphasis upon the fact that the scriptures are able and sufficient to teach the truth about God necessary for salvation and uphold the right and duty of ordinary people to read the scriptures for themselves.
It is perfectly true that the Apostle Peter warned the believers against those who twist the scriptures and make them mean something which is not intended. But he never warned them against reading the scriptures, for he exhorts them "as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:1,2). Their spiritual growth and increased knowledge of God depended upon a careful reading of the Word of Truth. There is not the slightest suggestion that by doing this they would be exposed to danger or would be led away from the faith. On the contrary the essential and central feature of these passages is that the scriptures are able to teach men the truth about salvation and that truth is comprehensible by ordinary people. According to the Bible, then, the Reformersí theory was right, but something went wrong.
There has been a marked tendency for people to make God after their own image -- to fashion their ideas about Him out of their own desires, so that they invent a God in accordance with what they wish Him to be, rather than as He is revealed in the Bible. They come to the Bible seeking support for a self-invented God and very often they are satisfied that the Bible supports them.
This satisfaction is secured by a superficial reading of certain passages of scripture, a capricious selection of parts of the Bible which appear to be favourable, and a rejection of those parts which are not. Furthermore, doctrines are formed or supported on isolated texts without reference to the general teaching of scripture. Very often doctrines tend to be isolated from each other, like parcels tied up separately, and the final and logical outcome of their teaching is not looked at penetratingly. So the discrepancies and contradictions are not brought to light.
Secondly, certain churches have been dominated by particular doctrines upon which more than usual emphasis has been laid, which has resulted in the neglect of other important teaching. The outcome of this has been a dislocated and unbalanced view of Bible truth leading to false conclusions and a disordered conception of salvation.
In the religious world today, therefore, it would be impossible to get a clear and unanimous explanation of the Kingdom of God, the Authority and Inspiration of the Bible, the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, the importance of Baptism, the nature of the Church, the meaning of the Lordís Supper, the nature of Man, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and Life after Death. Churches which for years have been teaching their people a theology based on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, now find that some of their leading theologians and writers are saying that this doctrine is not Biblical but pagan; that survival of the individual will not come about by flight of the soul to heaven at death, but by the resurrection of the body at the second advent of Jesus Christ.
This is the Biblical view of the nature of man, but only a few believe it. The Bible says that man is mortal. It says it categorically and emphatically, and yet in the religious world there is uncertainty, doubt and deliberate contradiction. This one thing alone is representative of the confusion and multiplicity of ideas which confront the seeker after religious truth and which so often fill him with dismay and despair, or which breed an indifference leading to apathy and agnosticism. Sometimes that indifference is expressed in the belief that it does not matter which church you attend or what you believe -- with so many to choose from, one is as good as another.
Does it Matter?
These illustrations are, of course, hypothetical and outrageous. Yet when it comes to religion, what in the case of surgery and navigation is obviously wrong and dangerous, is too often accepted as reasonable and harmless. Plenty of people hold the view that it does not matter what you believe about God so long as you lead a respectable life. On the face of it, does this seem sensible? Is it likely that God, who made the world and sustains it day after day by laws which are unchangeable and absolute, would be indifferent to how men regard Him? Would it not be reasonable to expect that this God would be vitally interested in what men and women think about Him and how they treat His word? But the truth is that man is not left to his own feelings on this matter. God has spoken and the Bible claims to be His word. It is there that God reveals the principles of true religion, principles whereby we may come to God and be accepted by Him and receive His salvation.
Upon reflection, therefore, it is just as dangerous and just as foolish to neglect the principles of true religion as it is to neglect the principles of surgery or navigation. The only difference is that the results of neglect in the case of religion are not so obvious at first, but at the last are more permanent and irrevocable. In the case of religion, just as truly, somebodyís life is at stake.
What About Tolerance?
In some quarters it seems that the great thing is not to come to definite conclusions about anything. ĎDiscuss and consider but never decide.í ĎSome religions may be better than others -- but all religion is good.í ĎChoose the one that suits you and brings out the best in you and does no harm to others.í This point of view has the appearance of moderation and reasonableness -- but it contradicts the teaching of the Bible. Intrinsic in true religion, as revealed in the Bible, is the idea of intolerance -- that is to say, because there is a true religion, that which is in opposition to it and contradicts it must be false. This point of view is unpalatable, but to the honest mind it must be logical.
About the method of approaching God, the Bible uses words which are imperative and categorical. An example is in Hebrews: "Without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (11:6). Notice the words impossible and must. The writer does not say it is better to come to God with faith or that it is difficult to come without faith. He said, "It is impossible to please God without faith and whoever comes must believe". Those words allow no middle course. Whoever comes must believe and it is no good coming without faith. This provokes the question, "Why wonít I do as I am? Whatís wrong with me like this?" The Bible reveals that God is not prepared to accept anybody because of their natural goodness. It is unacceptable and it would be unfair. Some are born in bad circumstances and live in degraded conditions, so that natural goodness is a struggle; others are born in good circumstances and live in congenial surroundings, so that being good comes easier. God does not accept people on this unfair basis.
The Basis for Godís Acceptance
Since men and women cannot be received on the basis of their natural goodness, which is inadequate and unfair, God receives them on the basis of their faith. The faith they show is counted by Him as righteousness. This is the great doctrine of justification by faith and explains why it is impossible to come to God faithless, and why those who come must believe. In order to show how the great principle operates the Apostle Paul takes the case of one man, Abraham. Abraham received certain promises from God which, at the time they were spoken, appeared, humanly speaking, to be impossible of fulfilment. But Abraham had faith in the promises in spite of adverse appearances and God counted this for righteousness:
"He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification" (Romans 4:20-25).
Paul insists that the principles which operated in the case of Abraham are true for every man who will come to God for salvation.
Faith in the Word of God
"He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe" (John 1:11-12).
"Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe" (Hebrews 11:6).
"Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:15).
Faith or Superstition
The writers of the New Testament knew this and were constantly urging the believers to hold fast to the truth. Consider the strong words which the Apostle Paul used on this very issue:
"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8).
These are solemn sentences. Paul pronounces a double curse on those who preach falsehood. This is an example of the Ďintoleranceí already referred to, and which is so different from the modern attitude of easy tolerance towards ideas about God which are totally divergent and sometimes mutually destructive. Paul insisted that the gospel he preached was the truth and anything which contradicted it was a lie. He maintained that there was a definable standard of truth about God and His purpose and those who departed from it were in danger.
It is popular today to say that the Christian faith cannot be defined in propositions. It is supposed to be too personal and too mystical for that. It is this point of view which encourages so many to say that it does not matter what you believe or which church you join. But such a view is manifestly false, measured by the teaching of the New Testament where the church is called "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3: 15). There is a solemn duty laid on every believer to ensure that their faith and their church is built on that true foundation, as it is revealed in the Bible.
When Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman about true religion, he used some very significant words:
"The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him" (John 4:23).
What Jesus meant was that true religion does not consist of mere outward show and external ritual, nor only the performance of certain acts of praise and submission, but rather it is an inward condition, of the spirit and not just of the letter. This emphasises the importance of living according to the way God has commanded. It is possible to praise God with our lips but in our lives to dishonour Him. It is possible to sing songs of submission and bow our heads in humility and yet in our hearts to be as proud as peacocks. We prove the truth of our religion by the obedience of our lives. The need is to discover the truth by humble reference to Godí s word, and to apply it in daily living. This is worship "in spirit and in truth".
A Matter of Life and Death
In Leviticus there is a record of two men who ignored the principles and ended their lives tragically. Nadab and Abihu were priests of the Lord and their lives were regulated by Godís commandments concerning His worship:
"And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his tenser, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified" (Leviticus 10:l-3).
Priests were right to offer incense before the Lord, and the way of doing it was carefully prescribed by God. But these two men ignored Godís commandments and offered unhallowed fire obtained from some other source than the altar of the Lord. Perhaps it was due to carelessness, or indifference, or just plain disobedience, but God rejected their worship because it was done in a way He had not commanded.
Some people would say that wrong ways ought to be excused if the objective is right-that doubtful means are ennobled if the end is good. But this is evidently not true when it comes to worshipping God. This story unmasks and condemns the theory that the end justifies the means. It shows that God is not indifferent to the methods men invent for worshipping in His presence. Indeed we may claim the right to please ourselves but it may not please God.
The Bible teaches us over and over again that truth is not advanced by false means, neither will it rest upon corrupt foundations. You cannot worship God by disobeying His commands. We cannot glorify God by being indifferent to His will, any more than could Nadab and Abihu. It is no good coming with "strange fire" now any more than it was then. God has not changed in nature or in purpose. Those who stand in His presence for worship must be those who have bothered to enquire about His will and who have a master passion to do it and obey His word. The old principle which Moses reiterated to Aaron is still true: "I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified." If God is to be glorified He must be obeyed. Any church which leads men to believe that Godís word is unreliable, or that His commandments can be ignored, or that it is a matter of choice whether we believe in certain fundamental doctrines, must be false because in the final analysis it teaches men to disobey Godís word.
The Test of Truth
"In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9).
This is far removed from popular religious teaching of today. There are prominent teachers in Christendom today who deny Bible teaching about God and His purpose, who explain away the reality of Christís resurrection, who throw doubt upon the authority of Godís word, and water down His commandments. The moral is that we ought not to be too impressed by the credentials of the Ďscholarí. Where scholarship is faithful to Godí s word and helps us to understand it better we ought to be grateful for it, but the Bible never suggests that human cleverness is the passport to divine knowledge. instead it tells us that the truth unveils most of her face to those who are humble and of a contrite spirit.
One of the first things the New Testament emphasises is that doctrine can be defined. Sometimes today it is said that the Christian faith cannot be stated in propositions and that it is something mystical which cannot be analysed. If that be true, here is a strange thing -- the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Galatians marvels that some of them had turned away from the truth and had departed from the gospel to another. The point to notice is this: how can it be said that somebody has departed from something if that something cannot be defined? Surely the teaching of the New Testament is that there is a definable objective standard by which judgements can be made. Now if the Lord God has gone to great care to reveal the truth about Himself and His purpose it is illogical to behave as though it does not matter, and that people can please themselves about what they believe.
In the Old Testament there is a passage which settles this point clearly:
"To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word" (Isaiah 66:2).
Trembling at the word of God means understanding it, believing it and obeying it. People are not entitled to please themselves if that leads them to be indifferent to what God has revealed. Men and women ought to look carefully and sincerely at their beliefs.
Vital Doctrines to be Discovered
It also brought the sobering conviction that one of the most solemn commandments of the Lord had never been obeyed: to be baptized. With an understanding of the Bible doctrine about baptism it became evident that what had previously passed for baptism in the form of christening was quite out of harmony with scriptural teaching and practice. The word of God demonstrated that baptism is an act of obedience, resulting from faith -- a voluntary burial in water as a sign of death to the old life, and a rising again from the water to a new life of obedience.
In the days of the infant church many believers were stoned, beaten, starved, hunted, hounded and eventually martyred. They endured all this because they believed that what they had to say was vital. In the words of Peter, "We ought to obey God rather than men". If it does not matter what we believe or with whom we worship, then they were mistaken in their determination to preach the truth at all costs.
Examples of Living Faith
There is a significant case in Acts 8 which concerns a man who by todayís standards would be called a Bible reader and a regular churchgoer. He was an Ethiopian, returning to his homeland after worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem. He was sat in his chariot reading from Isaiah 53. An angel directed Philip to go to the Ethiopian and help him with his understanding of what he was reading. So Philip joined the man in his chariot and explained to him the truth about Jesus Christ. As they proceeded on the journey they came to some water and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized. Philip replied, "If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest". Once again it is emphasised that faith is essential in the process of conversion.
The third example has to do with Apollos, a man of considerable eloquence, "mighty in the scriptures" (Acts 18:24), said to have been instructed in the way of the Lord, fervent in the spirit. But the record makes it quite clear that more was needed. Two disciples, Aquila and Priscilla, took him and "expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly". It was a matter of vital importance that he understood the way of God more perfectly.
So there it is -- a devout man who prayed every day and lived a faithful life; a Bible reading man who worshipped God reverently; a man mighty in the scriptures who was fervent in spirit and preached diligently-in every case needing to be taught the truth more perfectly. None of these examples gives any support to the idea that religious people can please themselves about what they believe. On the contrary the evidence is that those who mean business about their religion should take care that the basis of their faith conforms faithfully with the teaching of the word of God. Saving faith is faith in that which is true. Any other kind is likely to prove abortive.
ĎOne Bible, Many Churches.í Does it matter which one? In the final analysis the answer will depend upon what the questioner is seeking. If the quest is for friendship, or to satisfy the belief that one ought to worship somewhere -- then the answer is No, it probably does not matter. The answer is Yes, however, if the quest is for eternal life, and a form of worship acceptable to God.
-- DENNIS GILLETT
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.