Mark D. Roberts

Part 5 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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In my last post I suggested that if you’re looking for a church, you should clarify your basic values for a church, but with an open mind and heart, since God might surprise you. This suggestion might seem to imply that there are no absolutes in looking for a church, that anything is possible. But, in fact, I believe that there are certain characteristics of a church that one should almost always seek. I’ll explain my “almost” below.
One of these characteristics is right theology. I believe you should seek a church that is essentially orthodox. Let me unpack this phrase. First of all, orthodox means “right believing.” I am using a lower-case ‘o’ because I don’t think one must join an Eastern Orthodox Church (with a capital ‘O’), though this is one possible option, since Orthodox churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) tend to be orthodox as well. They believe the right things at the core. (Photo: The vast majority of churches in Greece are, as you would expect, Greek Orthodox. While in Athens last year, I was surprised to find a Protestant church. The sign reads: HELLENIKE EVANGELIKE EKKLESIA, or “Greek Evangelical (Protestant) Church.”)
Of course you’ll find different versions of what constitutes orthodoxy among Christians. But historic orthodox has affirmed such basics as: God as Trinity; Jesus as fully God and fully human; Jesus as Savior of the World. These basics are captured in the classic creeds of the church, especially the Nicene Creed. I realize many Christians would add to the list of essential orthodoxy (the authority of Scripture, the nature of the sacraments, etc.), but I want to focus on the core doctrine affirmed by virtually every true Christian throughout the centuries.
That covers the meaning of orthodox in essentially orthodox. So what about essentially? I’m using this word in two senses. First, I mean that the church should be right-believing in the essential core of doctrine, that which has to do with the nature of God, Christ, and salvation. But I also mean that the essence of the church has to do with God, Christ, and salvation. Churches have to do with all sorts of wonderful things: friendship, helping the poor, music, art, teaching, prayer, and so forth. But every church must be grounded upon and centered in God, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who became human in Jesus Christ in order to save the world. If a church is based upon something other than God and God’s salvation in Christ, then that church is not essentially orthodox.
Let me hasten to add at this point that the church is not simply a community of right belief. Scripture is clear, from Genesis 1 straight on through to the end, that faith in God is more than merely believing the right things about God. It is a relationship of trust in God, a relationship that leads to right action (orthopraxy or orthopraxis) as an outgrowth of right belief. Too many churches, especially in my Reformed, evangelical tradition, pride themselves on being orthodox by utterly fail to live out their true belief in obedience and love. I would encourage you to look for a church that is both essentially orthodox and that seeks to live out its faith in everyday life.
My Recommendation #2 stated: ” Look for a church that is essentially orthodox, unless . . . .” My use of unless seems to imply that there may be a situation in which it is right for someone to join a church that is not essentially orthodox. Indeed, I am using unless in this sense. But, before I get besieged with critical comments and emails, let me explain my meaning.
I believe that almost every person should look for a church that is essentially orthodox. Several years ago, a good friend of mine, I’ll call her Lisa, did this very thing as she began seeking a church. But, in the end, she decided to join a liberal church that did not proclaim Jesus as the Savior. He was merely the Savior of those who happened to believe in him. According to this church, there were plenty of other saviors for other people. Lisa, who believed strongly that Jesus was THE Savior of the world, nevertheless felt called by God to join a church that was not essentially orthodox. Why? Because she believed that God wanted her to bear witness to classic Christian truth in that church.
Now Lisa was not the sort of person to offend people by her arrogance. She had a winsome personality that reflected both the truth and love of God. In time, she did indeed have opportunities to share her orthodox belief. And many people in the church were drawn to orthodoxy through Lisa’s faithful witness. As I look back upon Lisa’s choice of a church, I do believe that she was in fact called by God to a church that was not essentially orthodox.
This explains my use of “unless.” But, let me add in closing that I think Lisa’s example is unusual, though not unique. Lisa wasn’t your average, every day Christian. She had a bright mind and lots of biblical training. She was solid enough in her core beliefs that she was not persuaded by her new church to give up essential orthodoxy. Most people aren’t like Lisa, however. Most of us need, for a wide variety of reasons, to be in a church that gets the basics right.
What I’ve said about essential orthodox raises a practical question: How can you know what a church believes . . . really? How can you know if a church is essentially orthodox? I address these questions in the next post in this series.

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