In a previous post, A TULIP by any other name , I posed the question “So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it even matter?”.
A small church pastor of my acquaintance, some years ago, proposed that not only does it not matter but that giving it any importance is wrong and divisive. In the words of the Apostle Paul “May it never be!”.
We are in effect asking what purpose and value there is in theological inquiry, and if it is mandated biblically for the congregation at large. I would propose that not only is it mandated, but to do otherwise would be to ultimately revert to a pre-Reformation state, with an all powerful Magisterium. Further, this would reduce any real Bible reading to word repetition with only magical significance, again falling back to the Magisterium understanding. Surely this not where we are lead to go!
As to the mandate to study the Scriptures, we have only to cite the Bereans, who are praise as correct for searching the Scriptures day and night to attain understanding (Acts 17:11).
Now to the purpose and value there is in theological inquiry.
Let’s start by considering an underlying issue at hand. How does a church get its identity? Or more appropriately – how should a church get its identity? Any difference between the does and the should will help with our original question.
When you think of a church with which you are familiar, what do you think of?
Do you think of their great contribution to the community? Do you think of their great childrens programs and activities. What of their assistance to those in need physically or mentally? Do you think of the wonderful people who attend there? Do you think of their support for the family or marriage in trying times?
If those are the attributes that come to mind, then those are the things that form the identify of that church before the world, the things into which their energy and thought are poured.
All of these things are good in themselves, but are they the primary reason for the church to exist? Do they bring to mind the primary place that believers are to draw identity from? It would not appear so.
All of the attributes listed are supporting things of world. They are secular in nature. All are addressed by other good and honourable agencies, possibly even more effectively than by the church. Though these good works are certainly the hallmark of the church, they can not be the primary distinguishing characteristic because they are man-centered.
Man-centered activities are of the flesh by nature, derived from the mind of flesh. As such, they are can not lead to spiritual things. As Galatians 5:17 states “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”
Things of the flesh and programs based upon it can not produce an identity that is based in the Lord. They are an anathema to one another and the identity produced is of the world.
Does this mean that this identity is bad or evil. Not at all. But is does mean that it, like the fallen man from whom it springs, is not of God and can not by definition truly please god. They do not develop an identity based in Christ. They can not. They are of the world and as such unacceptable before God. As Scripture states, they are clothed in “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), no matter how good they appear.
Conversely, do think of the church in terms of their love of Christ, their dedication to His Word, their passion to understand it, their joyful worship, their passion for glorifying Christ and the Father in everything, almost forgetting their programs and such?
These are things of the Spirit. They lead to correct understanding and to correct standing before God. They are the reason that we were created.
Part of this pursuit is the desire to understand the precepts which the Lord has given us in His Word. To follow His precepts we must understand them and His Word is our source. So (as did the Bereans) we study them, their meaning and the resultant biblical doctrine as a first priority. Following this doctrine in common understanding gives us identity with its source.
The identity of the believers and their church should have nothing whatsoever to do with the programs, works and activities of worldly life. It must be grounded solely in the Word and its precepts (doctrine). This is where the true church draws its identity and the only way it can be know as belonging to Christ. This is precisely the opposite to the worldly focus initially described.
That said, this does not denying the value of programs and activities . They are invaluable. They are not, however, the basis of the church nor the primary focus of believers. They are fruit – an after effect of correct identity, when energy is focused upon Christ and the Word.
So, back to our original questions. The sole source of identity of the church, supporting the faith of believers, is the focus on our Lord and His worship, the seeking of theological truth from the Word and the communication of biblically correct doctrine.
These matters of theology are not small differences. Correct doctrine binds believers together in worship of God, creating a solid church. Without that, identity is a fleeting feeling based in programs that succeed or fail in the world. And without foundational agreement, the body is not solid, but frail.
Identity based upon worldly matters may in fact create a church, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ.