St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Church Shopping

The sins of church shopping and how it is really idolatry.

Yes it's a sin. No it doesn't help you or anyone.

There’s a book called “A Secular Age,” which was written by Canadian author and philosopher Charles Taylor.  In chapter 13 of the book, the chapter called The Age of Authenticity, Taylor considers the great havoc and chaos brought about by this generation’s extreme idolization of “expressive individualism,” and particularly how it has devastated the western church.

Taylor surveys the history of how we got to this Age of Authenticity, where the Christian ethos is mainly understood within the “expressivist dispensation” of consumerism.  In laymen’s terms, Christian spirituality isn’t so much bound up in the frameworks of church, external authority, or objective truths, but now based on interpersonal concepts of truth, internal self-authority, and subjective interpretations.

This has led to a demise of formal church membership, an evasion to the doctrine and confession of a particular church or church body, and even a negative disposition toward any church or clergyman who claims objective truth.

Consequently, those who still do attend a church do so, not because of the teachings, doctrine, theology of the church, but because of other factors.  What factors?  It may be something as simple as comfortable pews or seating.  It may be something as personally inspiring as the musical performance.  It may be something about the pastor’s voice or attire.  It may be something about the temperature of the room.  It may be location.  It may be familiarity with the other people who attend.

Yet, most of the time, a person will not even consider the teachings of the church or church body as fundamental to his decision about attending, if he ever considers it at all.  In fact, some people refuse to formally join a church because they refuse to be tied down to a church’s dogma.

The Church and the Marketplace

But is this really how Christians are to understand the church?  Is the church you attend little more than a booth in a market, a booth which ‘sells’ you the faith in the way you want to buy it?  Is church really just another brick and mortar building offering “have it your way” worship?  Is the Christian faith merely about your feelings, your emotional sentimentality, a place where your needs are met and your wants are given?

Not according to the namesake of Christianity – Christ Jesus!  According to Him, worship, church, and His kingdom is so very much more.

In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus meets a woman at Jacob’s Well.  And while there she says some interesting things regarding worship and right worship.  This woman is a Samaritan, a “half breed” Jew whose ancestors married with Babylonians and had children with them.  As a result they were outcast from much of Jewish society.  They were forced to worship on a different mountain, far from Jerusalem.  The woman, when speaking to Jesus, talks about how her forefathers said to worship on their mountain in the northern kingdom and that Jerusalem was not the true city of God.  She even says, in so many words, that her version of Judaism also believes that Messiah will come and make things right.

But then she is amazed when Jesus points out her sins — that she had been with many men and is currently sleeping with her boyfriend.  But before she walks away and heads back to her own town, Jesus says something to her which speaks volumes to the issue at hand.  Jesus says that the time is coming when true worshipers will not worship at either mountain.  He says that God is looking for true worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Of course, there’s been a few different opinions offered up concerning Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, but fi we simply read the text without spin, what Jesus is saying is clear:

  1. True worshipers are different than the false worshipers of Judaism and Samaria.
  2. Worship is not about location of preference or any such thing but is something more.
  3. True people of the Spirit of Christ worship by the same Spirit who illuminates their hearts to faith in Christ and His Word.
  4. True worshipers, therefore, are not seeking the things of the world — neither their own wants or desires nor the philosophies of this world — but seek only the truth of God and are enabled to do so by the Spirit who dwells in them.

True worship is distinct from false worship because true worship is Spirit-driven, and the Holy Spirit drives worshipers first to the Word of God (the Scripture) and makes their own opinions, feelings, philosophies, wants, and needs inconsequential to right, true, godly worship.

This is why a consumerist, “expressivist dispensation” does not work in the Christian church.  It can’t, because worship based on marketing, “meeting people where they’re at,” or minimizing sound doctrine for the sake of creature comforts isn’t true Christian worship driven by the Spirit of Christ.  It’s idol worship, devil worship, though so much of the western church has fallen headlong into its trap.

It is sort of ironic that, as I write the content of this page, I am arranging the images and limiting the length of sections…to appeal to YOU, the reader…because I know that if I don’t produce phrases and media in a way appealing to you a consumerist, you’ll find information elsewhere.  What a twisted web of fools we’ve become!

Before we delve too deep into the issue at hand, we should first define church.

The word “church” can refer to the full number of believers from the past, the present, and the future.  It can also refer to a “denomination” or church body which holds to specific beliefs and practices, it can refer to a local congregation, and it can refer to the physical structure where believers gather. 

To say that all Christians are members of the Christian Church is fundamental.  We call this the invisible church or the catholic church (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic church denomination).  Catholic simply means “Universal” or “Christian.”  Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and God is catholic or Christian.  We do not possess the ability to see this church or count its members.  Only God knows this.

But we can know the visible church.  The visible church is a gathering of Christians around a particular set of beliefs or a confession of common faith.  This would be a church body such as LCMS or Roman Catholic or Methodist, etc.  And within these larger bodies there are individual churches or congregations and each of these congregations believes and confesses the faith in the same way as the larger body.  Be wary of those churches who claim to be “non-denominational.”  You can bet your bottom dollar that their preacher or pastor was trained in a seminary and that seminary belongs to a church body.  Most non-denominational churches tend to lean toward the Reformed or Baptist persuasion.  Nothing necessarily wrong with non-denom’s, but they try lure people in under false pretense and this is, minimally, bait and switch.

“But don’t all Christians essentially believe the same things?”

In a word: NO!  Here’s where we start running into problems.  See, every church body — the Visible Church — is differentiated from every other church body by two principles: the formal and material principles.  The formal principle defines a church body’s source and means of doctrine.  The material principle defines a church body’s most important teaching.  Knowing the differences between church bodies by use of these principles will greatly help you in your discernment of finding a new church home.  Again, “spirit and truth.”  This is about your eternal life, so you ought not take church doctrine lightly.  In fact, it should be the FIRST thing you drop in your church shopping cart!

Formal Principles & the Church Bodies Who Confess Them

These are the five most prevalent Formal Principles in Christendom, from most “conservative” to least.

The Bible Is the Infallible and Inspired Word of God

The source of all doctrine must come from the plain reading of the Scripture, which is the Word of God, infallible, trustworthy, and wholly perfect and profitable for faith and life.  It is the norming norm.

  • Confessional Lutheranism
  • Conservative Calvinism

Infallibility of the Scripture and Tradition

While the Scripture is God’s Word and infallible, it must be understood through the authority of the church, pope, or some prophet or church fathers.

  • Roman Catholic
  • Some Episcopal
  • Anglican
  • Orthodox (not in the same way as Roman Catholic.  Orthodox only accept the “sacred tradition” of the church fathers until the Great Schism)

Scripture and Human Reason

While the Scripture is God’s Word, it cannot be understood without the application of reason.

  • Arminian
  • Baptist
  • Some Calvinist/Reformed
  • American Evangelical, in part (American Evangelical isn’t a church body per se, but a movement which encompasses ideas from all church bodies who hold to this formal principle)
  • Restorationist, to a degree

Scripture and Emotion

The Scripture is God’s Word, but true understanding is through ones own individual experience/feeling/encounter from the Holy Spirit.

  • Traditional Methodists/Wesleyan
  • Zwinglism or Modern Pelagianism
  • Pentecostal
  • Perfectionism

Scripture NOT infallible and Reason

The Bible only contains God’s Word and we must employ human reason, science, higher criticism, etc. to understand.

  • Liberalism (non-confessional Lutherans, Unitarians, some Presbyterians, some Methodists)
  • United Churches of Christ
  • Disciples of Christ
  • Episcopal
  • AME
  • American Baptist Church

Beyond these Formal Principles, every church body also embraces one of several Material Principles.  As noted already, the material principle is the most important teaching — the doctrine from which all other doctrines come — in the church.  The material principle is no less important to consider when looking at the church you finally join and commit to.  Oh…did I forget to mention that?  Yeah, so when you join a church, you are committing to that church’s doctrine and practices.  And since we already know that churches teach different things from denomination to denomination, it’s also clear that (dare I say it) not all churches teach the right things!  Lots of human opinions, traditions, stubborn brains, and history comes with every church body.

So, let’s dig into these Material Principles and see how they differ from one another.  But to help you out a bit, let’s do this by order of church body.

Eastern/Orthodox Christianity

  • Formal Principle: Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition (Holy Orthodox)
  • Material Principle: “Christ became man that we might become divine.”  The doctrine of theopoiesis, or the ultimate deification of man.

Website: https://www.oca.org/

Roman Catholic Church

  • Formal Principle: The Holy Scripture and Tradition.  The papal hierarchy is the infallible teacher of scope and subject of the Gospel (the church is above the Bible)
  • Material Principle: Man’s soul is essentially good but with a corrupt body, thus man must be progressively justified – made just and brought into a “state of grace” through good works, penance, and self-discipline.

Website: https://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html

The Confessional/Conservative Lutheran Church

  • Formal Principle: Scripture Alone.  The Bible is the sole source and norm for the whole faith and life of the Church.
  • Material Principle: That man is justified by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Websites:

LCMS – https://www.lcms.org

WELS – https://www.wels.org

LCC – https://www.lutheranchurchcanada.ca/

ELS – https://els.org/

TAALC (AALC) – https://www.taalc.org/

The Pietist/Liberal Lutheran Church

  • The Bible is the inspired Word of God, but not inerrant because human beings have error.
  • Justification by faith
  • Because of theological liberalism and the use of Higher Criticism, the liberal Lutheran church bodies are not in any way consistent with orthodox, historic, reformation seated Lutheran churches.  The fact that they still carry the name “Lutheran” means so very little.

ELCA – https://www.elca.org

ELDONA – https://eldona.org/

LCMC – https://lcmc.net/

 

Reformed Church Bodies

Due to the number and variations of Reformed church bodies in the world, we will split them into a few major groups.

Reformed Churches

  • Formal Principle: The Bible is the Inspired Word of God
  • Material Principle: The Glory/Sovereignty of God.

Presbyterian Churches

  • Essentially the same as Reformed, though there is a trend toward more theological liberalism and higher criticism

Baptist Churches

  • Depending on the origins of the Baptist church (either Particular Baptists or General Baptists), the Formal Principle does consider the Scripture the sole source and norm for faith and life, but may also consider human reason/rationalism as an addition to the principle.  Particular Baptists tend to be more Reformed and exclude human reason, while General Baptists (by far the largest of the Baptists groups) are less reformed, more Zwinglian, and do allow for human reason.
  • Material Principle(s): The Sovereignty of the Individual, 

Protestant Episcopal/Anglican Churches

Arminian Church Bodies

Formal Principle: A collaboration of Scripture, the church fathers, and human reason.

Material Principle: The ‘perfected’ man (that man must be made perfect in this life).

Churches include: Methodist Church, American Methodist churches, Holiness churches, United Brethren Church, Salvation Army, Unaffiliated Scandinavian bodies

Unionizing Church Bodies

Formal Principle: Holy Scripture and Personal Piety

Material Principle: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity”

Unionist churches include:

Moravian church, United Churches of Christ, Congregationalists, Christian Reformed Church, Evangelical Synod of North America, Evangelical and Reformed Church, United Church of Canada.

Inner Light/Enthusiastic Churches

Formal Principle: Scripture and a “mystical experience of Christ” (enthusiasm/mysticism).

Material Principle: The Immediacy of the Holy Spirit’s operation in the life of the Christian or “mystical pietism.”

Churches include: Mennonites, Brethren churches, Quakers, Amana churches, Schwenkfelder Church

Millennial Sects/Cults

These churches tend to be of the Premillennial persuasion, or what is known as Chiliasm, the belief that Christ will establish an earthly kingdom in this world.  They are also dispensational, believing that God saves people in different ways throughout history, or in different “dispensations.”

There is a wide variety of formal and material principles in these church bodies, which include:

The Catholic Apostolic Church, 7th Day Adventism, Christian Communes, The Mormons (as a sect, not Christian)Jehovah’s Witnesses (as a sect, not Christian), Anglo-Israelism

Other Lutheran Bodies

There are several other Lutheran church bodies in the USA which fall somewhere along the spectrum of confessional to liberal.  Visit: https://www.valpo.edu/church-relations/resources/lutheran-church-bodies-in-north-america/ to see a full list, and ask Pastor Carlson regarding where they fall theologically.

Your Shopping Checklist

Discernment regarding the church you will attend is more than looking at the sign, the colors, the structure, or the style of music.  You are dealing with matters of your eternal soul, and you don’t want to be caviler or shallow when shopping for your church home.  Consider the following checklist.  Use it as you wade through the vast waters of church denominationalism in the United States, and as you take seriously the need to be in a church that seeks to truly be faithful to God.

  • Purely preached Gospel
  • Rightly Administered Sacraments
  • Historic Christian Liturgy
  • Timeless Christian Hymns
  • Supports Mission Work
  • Trains Future Pastors
  • Opportunities for Bible Study
  • Opportunities for Service
  • Social Activities
  • Friendly People
  • Close to Home (worth the drive)

As you discern, ask yourself, is it more important that the church is close to home, or that it faithfully preaches the Gospel?  Is it more important that the church have a great childcare program, or that the Lord’s Supper is administered in accordance with Christ’s teaching?  Is it more important that the church have a comfortable atmosphere, or that there are opportunities to be in the Scripture?  As you shop in the store, filling your cart with what you need and not just what you want, so too should you “fill your church cart” with the needful things before the “nice to have” things.  The important things must precede the less important things.

Now, according to the Holy Scripture, what ARE the most important things?  Consider the following:

  • Does the church believe the whole Bible is God’s revelation to man?
    (See 2 Timothy 3:16.)
  • Does the church believe in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
    (See Matthew 28:19.)
  • Does the church believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and the only Savior of the world?
    (See 1 John 4:14.)
  • Does the church believe that Christ died for the sins of the whole world?
    (See 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 1 John 2:2.)
  • Does the church believe everyone is saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ’s atonement?
    (See Ephesians 2:8.)
  • Does the church believe that in Baptism God washes away all sins?
    (See Acts 22:16.)
  • Does the church literally believe the words Jesus spoke when He instituted the Lord’s Supper?
    (See Matthew 26:26-28.)

Finally, as you consider all of this, spend time in prayer, asking the Lord to be your guide and to fill your mind with His Word so that as you discern, you do so according to His divine guidance and teaching.

If you have questions, would like to “pick the pastor’s brain,” or anything at all, please feel free to contact us.  More than anything, we are interested in your salvation and preparing you for your sleep of death so that when the Lord returns, you will be raised imperishable and feast forever with Jesus in heaven!