Most travelers share confidence in worldwide franchises. Tourists, for instance, can be sure a Starbucks in London will offer the features and format of counterparts in Portland or Miami. Familiarity and reliability invite customer loyalty.
Here’s a question: can we also use reliability as a sign of authentic Christianity? When we visit a new Christian community do we find the same faith? Does a cross above a door assure us that the community within represents the crucified Christ? Do they practice his words and ways?
The broad answer is no. Even Jesus was killed by the Jewish religious guides of his day. And Jesus expected this from erstwhile followers when he warned that, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” At judgment day he will “declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
The same may be too true today. Yet most Christian communities reassure visitors that their community is to be trusted: they offer a secure home for the faithful.
But what’s used to validate such claims, especially in light of Christ’s warnings?
Five main “franchises” of faith come to mind. All share overlapped features of Christendom but each remains distinct. They include, 1. Continuity-based churches, 2. Denominations, 3. Creed-focused churches, 5. Bible-focused churches, and 5. Spirit-centered churches.
First, the continuity churches—the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics—claim longevity as an ultimate virtue. Theological continuity through mostly unbroken lines of hierarchical leaders suggests their role in defining faithfulness.
Denominations, on the other hand, feature particular beliefs, ordinances, and polity—their branding devices—and they maintain these through formal oversight. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists are examples here—though with many subdivisions—and each presents its denominational identity as their proof of reliability.
Creedal movements, in turn, formed as denominations split over doctrinal disputes. The aim was to distinguish orthodoxy—correct faith—from less faithful options. They first affirm the old confessions—Nicaea and others—and then the creeds of the Protestant Reformation as proofs of integrity. The Gospel Coalition, for example, claims to offer the Reformed theological tradition—the “Calvinism” of Heidelberg and Westminster—as an ultimate safe haven for faith.
A similar effort to ensure church purity is offered by the Bible Church movement. These churches dismiss formal ties with denominations or creedal traditions. Instead they treat strict exegetical Bible study as the trustworthy basis for sound faith.
And finally, the Spirit-centered groups—the Pentecostals and Charismatics—offer a more immediate test of reliability: the personal experience of God’s presence. This, they hold, trumps all other groups because God himself, by his Spirit, endorses them.
Where do these leave us? Each has merits but they can also be misleading.
We need to recall that similar assumptions were active when Jesus came on scene. Among the religious franchises of his day were the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and more. Some were more hierarchical; some more Bible-focused; some were creedal; some were more experiential; and others relied on leaders who represented Old Testament Judaism.
Jesus, however, never joined these communities. But he wasn’t wholly dismissive as we read in Matthew 23:3 where he warned his followers against the scribes and Pharisees: “practice and observe whatever they tell you—but do not do what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
What Jesus did offer was his relationship with his Father as both the guide and substance of faith. A reliable faith doesn’t come by way of behavioral or creedal alignments, or by way of meticulous exegetical studies, but by turning to his Father in every way possible. And to “know” Jesus in this personal sense is to “know” the Father—as in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
We must not miss what Jesus meant by “knowing.” For him it was more than a cognitive process—merely collecting and assessing information. Instead knowing had the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit as its ultimate context. It involves information and truth but this is relationally rooted, birthed in love. So a cognitive devotion to creeds and Bible texts is inadequate. To know God is to know his love poured out in our hearts by the Spirit.
The Bible also uses “to know” to speak of marital intimacy. And this engages God’s plan for the ages: the Father’s purpose is to provide a bride for his Son. The goal is spiritual union as noted in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20. This intimacy explains the “great commandment”—our call to love God.
Jesus shares and receives spiritual intimacy: he invites us into the bond he shares with his Father. In fact his complaint against failed Jewish Bible study in John 5:42 pivoted on this: “you do not have the love of God within you.” And, by contrast, Christ’s ambition in the incarnation is summarized by what is “known” in John 17:26: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
So as we travel from church to church, what should we find in common among them? Is it a list of marks to be affirmed by a theological inspector? Or is it a heartfelt delight that spills out in conversations of being “one” with Christ? Do we come to the Bible to collect and collate information, or to enjoy God’s heart as the Spirit leads our community?
So Jesus summed up the ultimate measure of sound confidence: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Paul agreed: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Thanks, Ron. My reading of this followed some lively conversations with my daughter regarding these kinds of issues in the church at large. Your last two paragraphs put it all in perspective! I’m so delighted that we have a God who desires an intimate love relationship with us.
Thanks Gretchen – it makes such a difference to know we’re “welcome” by a communion defined by mutual love (i.e. God who exists as a communing being), and who invites us to the party! If only more of the church could relax and taste and see how good he is!
Thanks Ron for “hitting the nail on the head”. Nice to see a familiar name stating what Jesus says in His Word.
It’s a real treat to hear from a classmate! Thanks for the encouragement.
Aug 13 15
This is so key yet overlooked so easily. My friend in Holland said that his Dutch Reform Church had a great creedal confession and was very Biblical and orthodox. Yet the congregation was very cold in terms of loving each other. Interesting that when the time of our death draws near, our bodies grow cold.
God’s grace and unfailing love to you,
“ Jesus, however, never joined these communities. But he wasn’t wholly dismissive as we read in Matthew 23:3 where he warned his followers against the scribes and Pharisees: “practice and observe whatever they tell you—but do not do what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
Could you unpack this or point me to some resources to learn more?
My question, specifically, is about denominations and church membership and the ways I’ve seen Christianity transformed into churchianity.
The contrast between “inward” and “outward” forms of faith are striking. And only one is valid: the reality of having Christ’s own life with the Father, active in souls as God’s love pours out into responsive hearts (Ro. 5:5). The difference can be in seeing one as a performance (“acting” to try to match Christ’s lifestyle) and the other as genuine and spontaneous (“loving” and being changed by this new love). My point (and what I believe Jesus was saying) is that the two will have behavioral features that overlap, but the motives are profoundly different.
Let me add that I’ve found the “old” writers most helpful for further study. Augustine’s “Spirit and the Letter” for instance; or Edwards’ “Charity and its Fruits”. A less sophisticated but still helpful work from our day is Skye Jethani’s “With”.