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> .... your advice on choosing a denomination and church home. My
> reading of the Bible and other Christian literature has
> certainly strengthened my faith and blessed me but I struggle
> with the multitude of denominations and the somewhat dogmatic
> scriptural interpretations and theological positions associated
> with each. As an intellectual, questioning type of person, I
> find it difficult to reconcile these varying viewpoints and
> wonder how I will ever be able to decide where the truth really
> I only want to attend one church. I have attended a United
> Methodist Church, a non-denominational church (but what I
> think is a pentecostal or charismatic church), as well as the
> Assembly of God church and have found both positives and
> negatives with all three.
I normally do not recommend a denomination. I myself started as an Episcopalian and became a Lutheran (not all that far a move). You will find positives and negatives wherever you go.
You need a congregation that will embrace you and your desire to grow not just 'spiritually', but specifically in Christ. (Don't worry about the denomination just yet.) That's something you have to do for yourself, as you seem to be doing. After a while, you'll develop an understanding of the faith that may or may not fit with the congregation you take part in. At that point you'll be better equipped to know where you belong. Three essentials: (1) keep up your own study of Scripture; (2) keep praying about it; (3) keep knocking on doors - the door shall be opened, you can trust that.
> I desperately want to live my life according to God's
> but worry that my understanding of God's will may be influenced
> by where I attend church.
It will be influenced. Part of learning how to live a Godly life is to see others do it (in their murky, incomplete, human way - the only way it gets done), and to take part in it as best you can. Part of it is loving, and failing to love (because that too happens). You can't be a Christian by yourself, because just by being a Christian you are a part of something bigger than yourself - not 'Christianity' (the religion) but 'the Kingdom of God' (where God rules). We're in this together, like it or not, and that fact is used by God to shape us. Please accept the challenge. There is forgiveness, and there can be healing. Most congregations have people in them who really understand this, though it may not be the pastor or church leaders.
If so, then what is a "non-denominational" church? It simply means that the congregation has no formal affiliation with a larger group of churches. Such churches make all of their own decisions as to doctrine, hiring, faith standards - everything. They have no seminaries of their own, no single source for ministers, and do not view themselves as the bearer of any one tradition within Christianity. (This is not true, for example, of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Vineyard congregations, who are very independent but do have some standards and schools in common with other churches of their kind and do view themselves as part of a tradition.) It used to be true that the nondenominational church was basically out on its own, with no means of outside support, encouragement, and accountability. This is no longer necessarily so. An indie church can now develop its own network of support, through various outside agencies and associations which meet specific parts of a church's task. Thanks in no small part to the work of the Billy Graham Association over the years, they can even identify themselves as part of a tradition, should they choose to. The only thing that remains hard to do is to develop a system of accountability, to keep a nondenom congregation from jumping off whatever cliff its pastor or lay leadership tells it to. This is a real danger. It is a real danger for denominational churches too, but they have ways of limiting the damage.
Oh, by the way: some groups of churches try to tell you they're not a denomination. Vineyard Churches can at least argue the point because they're so independently organized. But local Calvary Chapels and Churches On the Rock say it too. They are as denominational as the Disciples Of Christ (an earlier attempt at nondenominational churching that has only lately come to grips with the fact that they are a denomination). Then there are some Baptist and Presby-Reformed "Community" or "Bible" or "Fellowship" churches that hide a rather strong institutional connection -- naughty naughty! Be what you are.
I'm glad for denominations. They enable Christians of a specific Christian framework and tradition to live out their particular way of following Christ. (I'm denominational by choice : the ELCA Lutherans.) I'm also glad for nondenoms. They remind us that faith and fellowship are more important than structure. They are the ones who in recent history have taken the big risks to move the Body of Christ forward.
You're mainline? Are you kidding?
>> You must have a split personality or some other disorder. On the
>> one hand, you give us these sound Christian beliefs backed by
>> both the Bible and faith experience. On the other hand, you're
>> an ELCA Lutheran, a mainline church that's deep into the process
>> of slipping over the slope into the death of its faith. When I saw
>> it was going Titanic, I jumped ship and joined the Covenant Church.
>> You speak of 'spiritual honesty'. But you don't practice it, do you?
You should meet our former shrink; he wondered about us, too...
I should start by saying how much I value the Evangelical Covenant Church's living witness to a faithful Christianity expressed in freedom with accountability through relationships, not law. It's a good place to be. Several of them on-line were part of my starting this venture -- they wanted me to post answers to people's questions first on on-line bulletin boards, then as a web site. It has many Lutheran roots in its history, and it still shows in what the church does and what it believes. So you haven't moved as far as you think. It's just not where I belong.
Is it tough to be in the ELCA? Yes. It's tough to belong to any organization. I don't demand that the rest of the ELCA believes, thinks or acts like me. They won't. They shouldn't. I do ask that we hold to, teach, and tell the gospel of Christ and live in the love that made that gospel happen - Christ's love. We have as much trouble doing that as most folks do. But for the most part, the ELCA is still working at it. And its mainline tendencies create more freedom to do it in. A fuller, richer set of voices are heard there than are heard in most Baptist or Evangelical settings. A whole lot of those voices don't have much worth listening to, but believing mainliners learn to take what the Spirit and the Word lead us to take, and leave the rest. Lutheran confessional theology, and especially the more open form of it that is at least still formally taught by the ELCA, is pretty close to what the Lord has led me to believe.
With any church, I speak up most about disregard of the Scriptures, and a back-pew way of life. (Most Lutherans who attend church sit in the back, and thus the front seats are often nearly empty.) To the back-pew Lutherans, Satan is just a theological construct to explain evil, and good works has a lot to do with what saves us. They are determined not to commit themselves fully to Christ and the Church Universal (that would be dangerous 'fanaticism'). They believe Jesus sinned while on earth, and the "Holy Spirit" is just an old-fashioned way of saying that God is here with us. For them, it's fine with God if one's spirituality has a little of Jesus in it, and a little of Buddha, a little of Mohammed, etc.. Any other person's faith is a totally private matter and if truly held is good enough 'for them'. The Bible is good advice that can be ignored or set aside if needs be. And the church member has no duties toward the rest of the church - not in time or money or effort or loyalty. Every one of these things are true to at least a third of Lutherans, in both ELCA and LCMS; some are even held by a majority. (So says nearly every social science statistician.) Every one of these things fly in the face of the good news of Christ, and are as opposite as can be to the Lutheran Church's founding faith and its theology. And every one of these things has colored the behavior and actions of seminaries and churchwide officials in some way. It's a shame and a sham, and those of us who know better have to speak clearly so all can hear, to dispel these lies with the truth. We have to re-learn the word 'no'.
The thing is, you can't go anywhere to escape it. Not the Covenant (its members lag the ELCA on each of the above matters by only about 10 to 12 percentage points). Not the Baptists (less than a third have evangelized lately). Not the Catholics (the priestly scandals exposed many of their fissures). Not A/G (they rate sky high on works-righteousness measures). Lord knows, not the Episcopal Church (where being supportive of everything is more important than being for Christ). The task is the same in every denomination and every congregation, because every church is part of the world it lives in. It seeps in. (By the way, on some matters, that's good. On others, though, it's deadly.)
Even more, you don't get around it by getting away from church institutions. Because you, too, are part of the world you live in. Only, without a definite body of people to back you up, you shift, acculturate, deemphasize, morph. You become the frog in the kettle, and get cooked.
We have to take part in God's work to change the atmosphere around us, to bust through the fog with the light. But we need to stop spewing fog from our own mouths.
A reader asks :
> You may, or may not, be an
exception to the rules of the Lutheran church,
> as those I have come into contact with here appear to move in
> different areas than you as pertaining to the Spirit's moving in the church.
> Is the official tenet of the church
the same as your views, or are you
> more out on a limb on this?
The writings about the gifts and fruits themselves are in keeping with Lutheran teaching, as are the definitions pages. However, Lutherans generally do not have 'tongues' or 'healing' on their rather short gifts list, nor do they leave much room for unusual spiritual experiences. They're scared to even raise the subject because in their home congregations it has proven to be the excuse for much conflict.
Much of the divisiveness comes from:
(3) and (4) are an offense to what it means to be of Christ's Body; (2) has no scriptural or traditional support, and can be used to create a classness which is contrary to the Gospel (and also leads many Pentecostals to consider me unsaved, which I take personally); (1) is just a matter of proper education. But many Christians do not have these four problems, and struggle against this fear of divisiveness, a fear that keeps us divided.
The Pentecostalist challenge runs right to the heart of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us today. I am convinced that even massive divisiveness is not good enough cause to duck one-third of the Trinity. Doing so makes us liars to God each time we cite the creeds, and I fear the long-term consequences of that. I'm convinced that the Spirit is doing great things among pentecostalists worldwide - yet also some things are happening that aren't so great. I'm convinced that if we're serious about honestly understanding what we do and stand for as followers of Christ, we must come to grips with them by really listening and paying attention. This is not just because there are now more of them than there are of Lutherans -- though that fact by itself brings with it an ecumenical imperative that's as large as that which we have with the mainline and Catholic churches. It is also because God is trying to tell us something. What that 'something' is can only be discovered through a full-bodied relationship and full use of discernment, something we've hardly even begun to do.
So, as Lutherans go, I'm going out on a limb. I'm trying to bridge a chasm that doesn't have to be there, and trying to educate a people who are so focused on today that they are doomed to relearn the lessons of a history they don't know. I'm doing so as a non-charismatic and a Lutheran who wants non-charismatic Methodists and semi-charismatic Orthodox and charismatic pentecostals and mainline renewalists and anyone else in the faith to see the common bonds that I see and write about.
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Church Denominations. Copyright © 2002-2008 by Robert Longman.