"For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth." ~ Deuteronomy14:2

Saturday, June 30, 2012

GotQuestions.org: A great Christian resource. Here are some answers about confusing Christian issues

About GotQuestions.org: Comprehensive archives, multilingual, and an easy to use search engine. Answers to your questions are given personally within 2 to seven days. GotQuestions.org was founded in February of 2002. God gave our founder, S. Michael Houdmann, a vision for helping people find answers to their Bible questions through the internet. Little did he envision how quickly God would turn GotQuestions.org into a full-time ministry. We quickly discovered what a great need there was for a quality Bible answer service on the internet.

Within one month of our launch, GotQuestions.org was receiving over 30 questions a day. The volunteer staff grew from 5 writers, to 10, to 20, to 50, and ultimately to our current staff of over 240. At the same time, the volume of questions steadily increased. We are currently averaging 125 questions per day. In response, we opened our question answering ministry to volunteers whom the Lord brings our way. We continue to praise the Lord for our volunteer writers. They are what makes this ministry possible!

Just as in any other field, the internet is a battlefield. This is equally true in the spiritual realm. The cults, false religions, and other semi-Christian groups have websites as well. Some of these sites perform much the same function that we do. The answers these sites provide are often very unbiblical and lead searching people down a false path - potentially to their own spiritual destruction. (Note: we are by no means claim to be the only site on the internet that answers people's questions in a God-honoring way. In fact, there are others.)

So, the GotQuestions staff began to pray, how can we prevent people from visiting these unbiblical sites? In response to our prayers, God led us to search engine optimization and search engine advertising. By designing our webpages to be search engine friendly, we achieve good listings in the search engine. For example, we seek to be listed highly every time someone searches for Bible Questions, Bible Answers, and Christian Answers - because that is what we do. We determined that we would strive to be listed higher than the sites that do not proclaim the truth - no matter the cost - trusting that God would provide the funding we would need. God has met our needs every step of the way, as we knew He would (Philippians 4:19).

As our website traffic increased and the volume of questions continued to grow, we recognized the need to have our most frequently asked questions and answers posted online for easy access. We currently have over 2000 of our most frequently asked questions posted online in our archives. We started posting a question of the week online and immediately received requests for it to be sent out via email as well. Many "questioners" would ask us to recommend a good Christian book that would help them with their question, so we began including recommended books along with the answers, and created an affiliate bookstore online.

In November of 2005, we began the process of translating what we believe to be our most important webpages into other languages. It is our goal to translate our 52 "most important" articles into every major world language. Beyond that, it is our goal to translate at least 200 webpages into the world languages that are most prominent on the internet. There are, sadly, many languages in which there is very little to no quality Christian content available online.

We continue to pray and dream regarding how God would expand and improve the ministry of GotQuestions.org! We praise the Lord for what He has accomplished through us and in us! We look forward for how God will use GotQuestions.org in the future (Jeremiah 29:11).

Question: "Why are there so many Christian denominations?”
Answer: To answer this question, we must first differentiate between denominations within the body of Christ and non-Christian cults and false religions. Presbyterians and Lutherans are examples of Christian denominations. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are examples of cults (groups claiming to be Christian but denying one or more of the essentials of the Christian faith). Islam and Buddhism are entirely separate religions.

The rise of denominations within the Christian faith can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, the movement to “reform” the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century, out of which four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. From these four, other denominations grew over the centuries

The Lutheran denomination was named after Martin Luther and was based on his teachings. The Methodists got their name because their founder, John Wesley, was famous for coming up with “methods” for spiritual growth. Presbyterians are named for their view on church leadership—the Greek word for elder is presbyteros. Baptists got their name because they have always emphasized the importance of baptism. Each denomination has a slightly different doctrine or emphasis from the others, such as the method of baptism; the availability of the Lord’s Supper to all or just to those whose testimonies can be verified by church leaders; the sovereignty of God vs. free will in the matter of salvation; the future of Israel and the church; pre-tribulation vs. post-tribulation rapture; the existence of the “sign” gifts in the modern era, and so on. The point of these divisions is never Christ as Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to their consciences and their understanding of His Word.

Denominations today are many and varied. The original “mainline” denominations mentioned above have spawned numerous offshoots such as Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Nazarenes, Evangelical Free, independent Bible churches, and others. Some denominations emphasize slight doctrinal differences, but more often they simply offer different styles of worship to fit the differing tastes and preferences of Christians. But make no mistake: as believers, we must be of one mind on the essentials of the faith, but beyond that there is great deal of latitude in how Christians should worship in a corporate setting. This latitude is what causes so many different “flavors” of Christianity. A Presbyterian church in Uganda will have a style of worship much different from a Presbyterian church in Colorado, but their doctrinal stand will be, for the most part, the same. Diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not. If two churches disagree doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John 4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John 17:21-22).

The Downside of Christian Denominations: There seems to be at least two major problems with denominationalism. First, nowhere in Scripture is there a mandate for denominationalism; to the contrary the mandate is for union and connectivity. Thus, the second problem is that history tells us that denominationalism is the result of, or caused by, conflict and confrontation which leads to division and separation. Jesus told us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This general principle can and should be applied to the church. We find an example of this in the Corinthian church which was struggling with issues of division and separation. There were those who thought that they should follow Paul and those who thought they should follow the teaching of Apollos, 1 Corinthians 1:12, "What I am saying is this: each of you says, “I’m with Paul,” or “I’m with Apollos,” or “I’m with Cephas,” or “I’m with Christ.” This alone should tell you what Paul thought of denominations or anything else that separates and divides the body. But let’s look further; in verse 13, Paul asks very pointed questions, "Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” This makes clear how Paul feels, he (Paul) is not the Christ, he is not the one crucified and his message has never been one that divides the church or would lead someone to worship Paul instead of Christ. Obviously, according to Paul, there is only one church and one body of believers and anything that is different weakens and destroys the church (see verse 17). He makes this point stronger in 3:4 by saying that anyone who says they are of Paul or of Apollos is carnal.

Some of the problems we are faced with today as we look at denominationalism and its more recent history:

1. Denominations are based on disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture. An example would be the meaning and purpose of baptism. Is baptism a requirement for salvation or is it symbolic of the salvation process? There are denominations on both sides of this issue and have used the issue to separate and form denominations.

2. Disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture are taken personally and become points of contention. This leads to arguments which can and have done much to destroy the witness of church.

3. The church should be able to resolves its differences inside the body, but once again history tells us that this doesn’t happen. Today the media uses our differences against us to demonstrate that we are not unified in thought or purpose.

4. Denominations are used by man out of self-interest. There are denominations today that are in a state of self-destruction as they are being led into apostasy by those who are promoting their personal agendas.

5. The value of unity is found in the ability to pool our gifts and resources to promote the Kingdom to a lost world. This runs contrary to divisions caused by denominationalism.

What is a believer to do? Should we ignore denominations, should we just not go to church and worship on our own at home? The answer to both questions is no. What we should be seeking is a body of believers where the Gospel of Christ is preached, where you as an individual can have a personal relationship with the Lord, where you can join in Biblical ministries that are spreading the Gospel and glorifying God. Church is important and all believers need to belong to a body that fits the above criteria. We need relationships that can only be found in the body of believers, we need the support that only the church can offer, and we need to serve God in community as well as individually. Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church is all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.(Recommended Resource: Complete Guide to Christian Denominations: Understanding the History, Beliefs, and Differences by Ron Rhodes.)

Question: "Why is Christian doctrine so divisive?"
Answer: Some Christians view the word “doctrine” as almost a curse word. The thought process is essentially “doctrine is to be avoided because doctrine causes division among Christians, and God desires Christians to be united as it says in John 17:21.” While it is true that doctrine does cause division, if the division is due to a disagreement over an important biblical teaching, division is not necessarily a bad thing. Paul declares, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). Titus 1:9–2:1 proclaims, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it…But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

The Christian faith, more than any other, is based on doctrine. The doctrines of the deity of Christ (John 1:1, 14), the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:17), and salvation by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) are absolutely essential and non-negotiable. If any of these doctrines is removed, the faith is empty and void. There are other doctrines in the Christian faith that are very important, such as the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and the reality of the eternal state. If Christian doctrine is causing division on any of these points, so be it, as those who deny these doctrines need to be separated from.

However, there has also been a tremendous amount of division in the Body of Christ due to doctrines that do not, or at least should not, have “crucial” status. Examples include: the timing of the rapture, young-earth vs. old-earth creationism, charismatic vs. non-charismatic, premillennialism vs. amillennialism, etc. These Christian doctrines are important. Every Christian doctrine carries some importance. But, these doctrines are perhaps not ones worth dividing/separating over. There are dedicated Christ-loving believers on both sides of these issues. We should not divide over non-essential issues, at least not to the extent of questioning the validity of another person’s faith.

There are degrees of division, however, that are appropriate even in regards to non-essential Christian doctrine. A church is to be united and like-minded in regards to focus, priorities, and ministry. If there is a doctrinal issue that prevents a united ministry focus, it is better for a person to find a different church rather than cause conflict and division within a church. These sorts of divisions have been the cause of many of the divisions/denominations within the Christian faith. Some joke that church splits are the easiest way to plant a new church. But if division due to a non-essential doctrine is necessary to prevent disunity and conflict, then division is what needs to occur.

If everyone would throw aside preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions and just accept the Christian doctrines the Bible teaches, division would not be a problem. But we are all fallen and sin-infected beings (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23). Sin prevents us from perfectly understanding and applying God’s Word. Not understanding and submitting to Christian doctrine is what causes division, not doctrine itself. We absolutely should divide over disagreements regarding the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Sometimes, division over non-essential matters is necessary as well (although division to a lesser degree). But, the blame for division should never be placed on doctrine. Christian doctrine, in reality, is the only way to true, full, and biblical unity within the Body of Christ. (Recommended Resource: The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns.)

Question: "What are the mainline denominations?"
Answer: People in our society often use terms which seem concrete, yet upon closer examination, are actually very unclear. In a culture such as ours which has strong Christian roots, general references to churches and denominations often become cloudy in their meaning. When people speak of “mainline denominations,” they are usually referring to the historic denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. Since each of those groupings is quite varied, and there have been a number of splits and mergers, the actual meaning of the term “mainline” gets harder and harder to determine.

One way of categorizing churches is by very broad groupings. The Barna Research Group, in some of their surveys, breaks people into four general groups: Catholics, Protestants, Born-again Christians, and Self-identified Christians. Four out of five Americans place themselves in the “self-identified” category, though only 47% of these adults attend regular weekly services. Four out of ten Americans fit in the “born again” category, and 59% of these adults regularly attend church. One out of five Americans identify themselves as Catholic, which is the largest denomination in the United States. Nearly half of Catholics (49%) regularly attend services, and 24% of Catholics fit in the “born again” category by their beliefs. Protestant adults are 52% likely to attend weekly services.

The Barna Group breaks those categories down more specifically in other surveys, creating twelve distinct denominational groups, though they don't all represent specific denominations. Those groups and their percentage of the US population are: Assemblies of God (2%), Catholic (22%), Episcopal (2%), Methodist (6%), Lutheran (5%), Mormon (1%), Pentecostal (2%), Church of Christ (2%), Adventist (1%), Presbyterian (3%), Baptist (17%), and Non-denominational Protestant (5%).

If these mainline denominational groups were broken down into more specific denominations, the list would be very large indeed. A partial listing would include: Assemblies of God, Catholic, Episcopal, Free Methodist, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Salvation Army, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Free Lutheran, Lutheran Brethren, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Mormon, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, United Pentecostal Church, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Church of God (Anderson, IN), Foursquare, Vineyard Churches, Church of God in Christ, Adventist, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist, General Association of Regular Baptist, American Baptist, National Baptist, etc. These listed are among the most recognizable denominations, though there are others, and any listing is bound to leave some out.

Not included in this list is the variety of independent or non-denominational church fellowships, as they exclude themselves from any denominational categories. Even some of those listed are not truly denominations, but associations or fellowships of autonomous churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention. Typically a denomination exercises authority or control over the local churches regarding doctrine and practice, and often owns the property where the local church meets. In contrast, associations and fellowships tend to give support without exercising control over the local ministries.

Why are there denominations? Even though God only gave one Bible with one gospel, people do have different ideas of how to understand and apply it. When churches identify with one another on common ground, they band together. When they disagree on points of doctrine or practice, they tend to separate. This disagreement is not because of ambiguity in Scripture, but often it is because of sinfulness or ignorance in people. James 4:1 asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Again in 1 Corinthians 3:4, Paul wrote “for when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not being merely human?” Jesus' own desire was that believers would “be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). As Jesus prayed for this unity among His followers, He was very clear that the basis of that unity would be “the words that you gave me” (v. 8) which is the truth which purifies us (v. 17). Sadly, many Christians primarily identify themselves not as Christ followers, but by their denomination. While association with like-minded people is important, we need to be careful to keep our priorities right, and ensure that our devotion to Scripture is higher than our devotion to denomination. (Recommended Resource: Complete Guide to Christian Denominations: Understanding the History, Beliefs, and Differences by Ron Rhodes.)

Question: "Why are there so many different Christian interpretations? If all Christians have the same Bible, and the same Holy Spirit, should not Christians be able to agree?"
Answer: Scripture says there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). This passage emphasizes the unity that should exist in the body of Christ as we are indwelt by “one Spirit” (verse 4). In verse 3, Paul makes an appeal to humility, meekness, patience, and love—all of which are necessary to preserve unity. According to 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, the Holy Spirit knows the mind of God (verse 11), which He reveals (verse 10) and teaches (verse 13) to those whom He indwells. This activity of the Holy Spirit is called illumination.

In a perfect world, every believer would dutifully study the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15) in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s illumination. As can be clearly seen, this is not a perfect world. Not everyone who possesses the Holy Spirit actually listens to the Holy Spirit. There are Christians who grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). Ask any educator—even the best classroom teacher has his share of wayward students who seem to resist learning, no matter what the teacher does. So, one reason different people have different interpretations of the Bible is simply that some do not listen to the Teacher—the Holy Spirit. Following are some other reasons for the wide divergence of beliefs among those who teach the Bible.

1.  Unbelief. The fact is that many who claim to be Christians have never been born again. They wear the label of “Christian,” but there has been no true change of heart. Many who do not even believe the Bible to be true presume to teach it. They claim to speak for God yet live in a state of unbelief. Most false interpretations of Scripture come from such sources.

It is impossible for an unbeliever to correctly interpret Scripture. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). An unsaved man cannot understand the truth of the Bible. He has no illumination. Further, even being a pastor or theologian does not guarantee one’s salvation.

An example of the chaos created by unbelief is found in John 12:28-29. Jesus prays to the Father, saying, “Father, glorify your name.” The Father responds with an audible voice from heaven, which everyone nearby hears. Notice, however, the difference in interpretation: “The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” Everyone heard the same thing—an intelligible statement from heaven—yet everyone heard what he wanted to hear.

2. Lack of training. The apostle Peter warns against those who misinterpret the Scriptures. He attributes their spurious teachings in part to the fact that they are “ignorant” (2 Peter 3:16). Timothy is told to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). There is no shortcut to proper biblical interpretation; we are constrained to study.

3. Poor hermeneutics. Much error has been promoted because of a simple failure to apply good hermeneutics (the science of interpreting Scripture). Taking a verse out of its immediate context can do great damage to the intent of the verse. Ignoring the wider context of the chapter and book, or failing to understand the historical/cultural context will also lead to problems.

4. Ignorance of the whole Word of God. Apollos was a powerful and eloquent preacher, but he only knew the baptism of John. He was ignorant of Jesus and His provision of salvation, so his message was incomplete. Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:24-28). After that, Apollos preached Jesus Christ. Some groups and individuals today have an incomplete message because they concentrate on certain passages to the exclusion of others. They fail to compare Scripture with Scripture.

5. Selfishness and pride. Sad to say, many interpretations of the Bible are based on an individual’s own personal biases and pet doctrines. Some people see an opportunity for personal advancement by promoting a “new perspective” on Scripture. (See the description of false teachers in Jude’s epistle.)

6. Failure to mature. When Christians are not maturing as they should, their handling of the Word of God is affected. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3). An immature Christian is not ready for the “meat” of God’s Word. Note that the proof of the Corinthians’ carnality is a division in their church (verse 4).

7. Undue emphasis on tradition. Some churches claim to believe the Bible, but their interpretation is always filtered through the established traditions of their church. Where tradition and the teaching of the Bible are in conflict, tradition is given precedence. This effectively negates the authority of the Word and grants supremacy to the church leadership.

On the essentials, the Bible is abundantly clear. There is nothing ambiguous about the deity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and salvation by grace through faith. On some issues of less importance, however, the teaching of Scripture is less clear, and this naturally leads to different interpretations. For example, we have no direct biblical command governing the frequency of communion or the style of music to use. Honest, sincere Christians can have differing interpretations of the passages concerning these peripheral issues.

The important thing is to be dogmatic where Scripture is and to avoid being dogmatic where Scripture is not. Churches should strive to follow the model of the early church in Jerusalem: “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). There was unity in the early church because they were steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine. There will be unity in the church again when we get back to the apostles’ doctrine and forego the other doctrines, fads, and gimmicks that have crept into the church. (Recommended Resource: The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns.)

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