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I have recently been involved in an online conversation with a self-described atheist. He raised some questions that I thought might be of interest to our readers. He writes:

I just find it fascinating how each of the more significant divisions of Christianity consider all the other ones so wrong on some pretty major things.  I was curious why you thought that was. Certainly you have experience with having differences in more minor details with the people you do the show with but even that, how do you reconcile Christianity being the one true religion when it is so fractured on both some of the fundamentals and no consensus on the finer points. How do you ever get to a point of believing that you have it right?

The first part of the question about “all the other ones” is regarding our position that groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Moonies, and many others, who, although they call themselves Christians deny essential doctrines of the faith, are really not Christian at all. How do we decide what are the “essential doctrines of the faith?” I will use an analogy from the world of art called “provenance” to explain.

Provenance is a historical record of a work of art (as well as other areas of research) back to its origination in order to insure to a potential purchaser that what he or she is considering purchasing is indeed the original and not a forgery. As Wikipedia points out:

…establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation. The term dates to the 1780s in English. Provenance is conceptually comparable to the legal term chain of custody.

The church has a historical record, a provenance, if you will, of what the church has believed and taught on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, stretching from the First Century to the present day. False teachers rose up in the First Century and challenged these essential doctrines, and false teachers have continued to do so throughout the history of the church. Jesus warned about false teachers and false prophets in Matthew 7:15 and following, saying these would appear “in sheep’s clothing,” pretending to be true Christians. Paul warned the Ephesian elders of the same thing in Acts 20:28-30. In fact, most of the New Testament was written in response to false teachings and false teachers who did and would appear.

One early example is the Gnostic challenge to Christian teaching on the human side of Christ’s nature. Christians believed Jesus Christ was God in human flesh: Gnostics rose up and denied that the Son took on human form. The church spent a great deal of time refuting that heresy, but did not spend much time then in defense of Christ’s deity because that wasn’t something the Gnostics denied. Yet we know that Christians believed that Jesus Christ was God because, in addition to the biblical teaching, secular sources such as Pliny the Younger confirmed this when he wrote to the Emperor Tragan around 112 A.D. He was looking to the Emperor for guidance as to how to address the “Christian problem,” and noted that the Christians gathered in the early morning and sang a hymn to Christ as God.

In the Fourth Century, a new heresy developed when false teachers arose who denied the deity of Christ. The church found itself defending the essential doctrine that Jesus Christ is God, while the earlier heresy of the Gnostics was no longer at issue as all parties now agreed that Jesus had incarnated in human form. We cover this in “The History of the Trinity” part 1  and part 2.

We could trace the provenance for each of the five essentials of the historic faith – the deity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the Trinity, and salvation by grace through faith (some would add the inspiration of Scripture as a sixth). As false teachers arose and denied one or the other of these essentials, the church prevailed by showing that the doctrine under attack was an essential part of the “faith once delivered to the saints,“ and that any teaching opposing such an essential teaching put the proponents outside the true Christian faith.

And still today, groups which arise and deny one of more of these essential doctrines are by definition outside the authentic historic Christian faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses forthrightly deny most of the five. Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) take a different tack, denying the essential doctrines by redefining them, resulting in implicit denial.

Some would defend these non-Christian groups by asserting that if a group claims to be Christian, it should be included in Christendom and regarded as truly Christian, but that of course is anti-biblical too. Jesus told us outright that the false teachers would come in sheep’s clothing, pretending they are “sheep,” which is exactly what these non-Christian groups do today. He further said that we must judge them by their fruits, their teachings. We must examine them and give them a T for True or an F for False. Simply because groups arise that claim to be Christian doesn’t mean we should accept their claims.

Let’s take the issue out of the category of “Christian versus non-Christian” for a moment, and insert the category of “Nike versus non-Nike.” There are plenty of shady characters who produce Nike knockoffs and sell them as TRUE Nikes. They are essentially cheap shoes dressed up in “Nike clothing.” Does the fact that there are imitators out there mean there are no authentic Nike products? Of course not. Should the pretenders (counterfeiters/frauds) be recognized and accepted as “true Nikes,” or should they be exposed as frauds and counterfeits? Like a forgery of a piece of artwork or a counterfeit Nike product, fraudulent claims by false religious groups should be publicly exposed to alert the unwary. It is far worse to purchase a knockoff faith than a knockoff Nike because there are eternal consequences. That’s why Jesus and Paul and Jude and Peter issued such dire warnings against accepting the false as true.

What about the divisions within the historic faith? Ah, that one perplexes many, mostly because they think of the church as an organization rather than what it is: an organism or family. In an organization one would most likely have imposed uniformity, where all must march in lock step or be summarily dismissed. The Church, which is the Body of Christ, is more like a family than an organization. There are the essentials which all the family members embrace and which identify and exclude those who are not family members. And yet we all know that family is not a uniform proposition. Tied together by birth, adoption, or marriage, family members are still free to disagree on non-essentials, and we do. One brother likes a feather bed, another thinks foam mattresses are the best, while another is rolling around making waves in a water bed. They may not like the same music at the same volume. One sister makes liver for dinner, another won’t eat it, and another won’t even look at it! So, occasionally, arguments ensue. Family relationships are messy.

The church family is messy too. Just because we are family and accept each other as family, doesn’t mean we have lockstep uniformity of belief, behavior, or preference. There is a certain amount of squabbling, and some become estranged and won’t even talk to one another. But guess what? They are squabbling brothers; they are estranged brothers; they are brothers who will not speak to one another. The family cord is not broken and cannot be broken. What God has joined together cannot be torn asunder.

The Church is united in the essentials of the faith, what it is that makes one a Christian. We disagree on what sometimes are very important but secondary issues like a family might. We agree that “in the beginning God created” but may not agree on when or how. We don’t agree on the timing or method of baptism. We wrangle over whether the sign gifts are for today or if they ceased in the First Century. The list is long but really comes down to orthopraxy –  how we practice the faith – and not orthodoxy – what the faith is.

So, yes, I do disagree with many of the guests we have on the webcast on any number of issues. That doesn’t mean much – Joy and I disagree on many things, but we are still family. She might even suggest that I have every right to be wrong. My son and I and my daughter and I don’t agree on everything (imagine that!) and yet he is my son, she is my daughter, I am their father, we are family, and will remain so.

The essentials demonstrate how to identify the family called the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The differences demonstrate how we in the Church are truly human and, as such, flawed. But this condition we find ourselves in will not last forever; for one day, perhaps soon, we will all be like Him.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2)Ω

Don and Joy Signature 2

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