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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
While the Scripture is God’s Word, it cannot be understood without the application of reason.
The Scripture is God’s Word, but true understanding is through ones own individual experience/feeling/encounter from the Holy Spirit.
The Bible only contains God’s Word and we must employ human reason, science, higher criticism, etc. to understand.
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.
LCMS – https://www.lcms.org
WELS – https://www.wels.org
ELS – https://els.org/
TAALC (AALC) – https://www.taalc.org/
ELCA – https://www.elca.org
ELDONA – https://eldona.org/
LCMC – https://lcmc.net/
Due to the number and variations of Reformed church bodies in the world, we will split them into a few major groups.
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).
Formal Principle: Holy Scripture and Personal Piety
Material Principle: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity”
Unionist churches include:
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:
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.
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:
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!