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I'm a Christian, married to a wonderful man, Steven, and mother to a wonderful little son. I have many interests and a few noteworthy journeys in life and I enjoy sharing them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Which Denomination is True?

There is a myth in existence that has been around for quite a while, perpetuated by those who desire a claim to possessing the only truth and accepted by those who are ignorant of what the truth really is. This myth is that there is one, and only one, true denomination, and anyone else is out of luck.

This claim began with the Catholic church and its claim to apostolic authority. Based on Matthew 16:18, which says, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build by church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it," the Catholic church believes that authority came directly form Peter and that therefore only a church--namely the Catholic church--that could trace its authority back to Peter was a valid Christian church.

Of course, to believe this misses a few important points in scripture. First, God calls Himself the Rock and says that there is none other (Isaiah 44:8). Jesus was responding to Peter declaring who Jesus is--the Christ (vs. 16). If anything, Jesus is making a point that Peter (whose name means "rock") is a pebble. He may have been instrumental in declaring the truth, but authority is from Jesus and the church is founded on the only true eternal Rock--who is Immanuel, "God With Us." The rest of the New Testament bears witness to this.

Martin Luther proved from scripture that the Catholic church does not hold exclusive keys to the authority of Jesus or salvation, but then Protestants took their new freedom and ran with it, making new denominations over ever minor disagreement. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. It did, however, cause each denomination to cry out their "exclusive" truths and discredit other denominations, particularly during revivals such as the one that Joseph Smith experiences, causing misunderstandings and the perpetuation of the myth that there is one true denomination. Some religions, like the Mormons, use this claim as one of the foundations of the religion, and it would collapse if it became clear that there are actually other "true" religions.

The question becomes, what is the one true church, and how do we tell?

The first thing to understand is that it is not a denomination that one has to belong to or believe in to be saved. No institution has the power to offer salvation. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies," (John 11:25) and, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Jesus' apostles gave the same criteria for salvation. "And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Acts 2:21) "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9) "For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God--not by works, so no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

There are more that can be cited, but it seems the point is made. Belief in Jesus, not a religion, is the key to salvation. This is why Jesus himself didn't establish a denomination, and neither did his apostles. They established belief in Jesus himself, and people gathered as churches as a result. This is why believers are referred to as the "Body of Christ" (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 4:12, Colossians 1:24), and any who believe are accepted into this church body through merit of their Spirit-filled life and their salvation in common with other believers.

There are then two questions: what churches have correct authority, and what churches have correct teachings? Both of these are important in discerning which religions are in line with what is taught in scripture regarding Jesus and salvation.

The ultimate source of authority and true teaching is the Bible. "Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matthew 24:35) "All scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Timothy 3:16) There is a plethora of evidence that God's Word has, indeed, been well preserved.

The apostles transferred their authority into scripture when they were guided by the Spirit in their writings. Every book in the New Testament is written by apostles or by those who were with the apostles. The Spirit guided their writings just like in the Old Testament. It is important to understand that the Bible is not meant as a fax from heaven; God used the words and language of the writers to convey His Word. That means that the Bible is authoritative in any language, and the redaction it has undergone--none of which effect doctrine--do not effect the truths of the Bible. It does not lose authority because a synonym is used or a place name left out in a list. If anything denies the basic, important truths about God, Jesus, and salvation, they are outside of the authority and teachings of the Bible and therefore not true.

These are what we call "closed-handed" issues. They are all found in the Bible, and were made official in the creeds, which were issued to fight heresy. They include issues such as monotheism, the Trinity, Christ's death, burial, and resurrection to conquer sin and death, and salvation through Christ alone. Again, all these are firmly established in the Bible, which holds authority. Men got their authority from the Bible and the Spirit, not the other way around.

Here is the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Maker of heaven and earth,
    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
    born of the virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
    and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
    the holy catholic church;
    the communion of saints;
    the forgiveness of sins;
    the resurrection of the body;
    and the life everlasting.

Remember, catholic means "universal." Christians do still believe in a universal church made up of all believers, as shown above. This creed, dating from only a short time after the Apostles, is in line with scripture.

The clear implication is that any denominational or non-denominational church that follows these teachings and is under the authority of the Bible is a viable choice for Christians to attend. Salvation does not come through a church and its teachings, but instead through Jesus and the Word. (Interestingly, Jesus is the Word according to John 1:1, 14.)

So what of the things that Christians and denominations disagree on? Well, these disagreements aren't necessarily wrong. There are simply some things that the Bible is not explicit on and which therefore people disagree on. Issues that can actually affect one's salvation--the closed-handed issues--are clear in scripture, but the Bible writers and the Spirit weren't as concerned with laying out all the little details of every lesser issue. That means, within the confines of the closed-handed issues and what the Bible states clearly, disagreement is allowed.

Within these allowable disagreements, love and charity should be shown. That's not to say debate and discussion aren't allowed, but those who disagree on these issues aren't putting themselves outside of Christ's salvation by their differing beliefs, and should not be treated as if they do. It is that sort of treatment that perpetuates the false belief of "one true denomination" and takes the focus of belief off of Jesus and the Bible.

In conclusion, there are some simple truths that we must come to understand. The first is that Jesus is the way to salvation and the Word is the way to knowledge about the important issues. If a church or denomination places itself under that authority and affirms those closed-handed beliefs, then they are a viable church for a Christian to attend. There is no "one true church" as in a denomination, but there is a universal church made up of true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are allowed to disagree on the little issues, but there is and must be unity in the important issues. That there is one true religion and we must attend and believe in that religion to make it to heaven is nothing less than idolatry of a religion and incorrect understanding of the Bible.

If you haven't yet given your life to Jesus, and you agree with what you have read here, I'd like to invite you to do so now. He stands ready to forgive you and bring you into the Body of Christ, his bride the church. All it takes is confession of your need for him and belief in him. What are you waiting for?

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