Part 14 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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If I had been approaching this series on choosing a church more systematically, as if I were writing a book rather than a series of blog posts, odds are this recommendation would have appeared much higher on the list. In a sense, it is presupposed in most of my other recommendations. If you find a church that is essentially orthodox, that proclaims and embodies the gospel, that encourages you in your worship, where you experience genuine fellowship, where you’ll be equipped as a minister, where you’ll grow as a disciple, and that is a missional church, it’s almost guaranteed that this church will also have high regard for Scripture.
You’ll notice that I did not use words often associated with biblical authority, words such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” I realize many people would find one or both of these words essential, and that’s fine with me. But, for the sake of this series on choosing a church, I’m not so concerned with the wording that a church uses for the authority of Scripture. What is highly recommended, from my point of view, is that a church value the Bible as uniquely inspired and authoritative.
God’s inspiration touches many things and many people. I believe that God inspires artists and musicians, poets and preachers. I also think God inspires great paintings and symphonies, great novels and sermons. But the Bible stands in a different category as a uniquely inspired document. At least this is what most Christians have believed for centuries and continue to believe around the world today. I stand firmly in this congregation.
The Bible is, therefore, uniquely authoritative. Its truth trumps everything else. In church life, this means that the Bible should be the authoritative source for preaching and teaching. It should guide the decisions of church leaders in a way unparalleled by any other authority. (Photo: St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas. One of the main things that drew me to this church was its commitment to biblical authority.)
What authorities compete with that of Scripture? Historically, one such authority has been church tradition. Some Christians believe that church tradition stands on par with the Bible when it comes to authority in the church. As one who stands in the Protestant tradition, I believe that church tradition has much to offer, but that the Bible gets the majority vote. Of course in many, many cases Scripture and tradition agree. But if there is a difference, then Scripture should prevail.
Another potentially competing authority is that of church leaders. Yes, of course you find this in the Roman Catholic church, where the authority of the church, as expressed through the Pope, can establish doctrine on par with that based on Scripture, even if there is little or no biblical evidence for that doctrine. Now when the Pope is himself a biblically-centered leader, as in the case of Benedict XVI, that which he teaches will often be consistent with Scripture. But, once again, I’d encourage you to look for a church that prizes biblical truth above all.
I should add, by the way, that there are Roman Catholic churches in which the Bible is taught as an absolute authority. I used to attend such a church sometimes when I was in graduate school. Moreover, there are many Protestant churches that profess the ultimate authority of Scripture, but in fact give that authority to their pastor. The pastor, much like the Pope, is the ultimate and inerrant interpreter of Scripture, and therefore has de facto ultimate and inerrant authority in church matters.
Perhaps the most common competitor to biblical authority these days, at least in the United States, isn’t tradition or church leadership. Rather, it’s one’s personal experiences and feelings. I have heard apparently committed Christians say things like, “Well, I know the Bible says that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but I believe it’s okay for some people because their experience guides them. They feel like they’re doing what’s right. Who am I to judge their experiences and feelings?” It’s becoming increasingly rare for a Christian to say, “Well, my feelings tell me my behavior is just fine. But Scripture teaches otherwise, so my feelings must be wrong.”
Sometimes Christians talk about their feelings and experiences with spiritual language, seeking to baptize their subjectivity. They’ll say something like: “The Holy Spirit has led me to believe that premarital sex is okay,” or “I’m responding to new revelations from the Spirit.” These folks might believe what they’re saying, but in fact it’s simply another way to talk about their personal feelings. And I would not recommend a church that places feelings above biblical truth.
I realize full well that what I’ve said about the priority of biblical authority steps on lots of toes. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will feel the press of my shoes. So will my liberal/progressive readers. So will those who give priority to what they consider to be the leading of the Spirit. Surely, if these folks were to write a blog series on choosing a church, they’d have different recommendations. But, for me and my house, it’s essential that a church values the unique inspiration of Scripture and is guided by the unique authority of Scripture. So, if you’re looking for a church, I’d urge you to seek the same.
Practically speaking, you can usually find out what a church believes about Scripture from its website or other materials for visitors. This is certainly a question you might want to ask the pastor. But, even without consulting what a church says about the Bible, you can often tell where it stands by what you observe in a worship service, especially in the sermon. If the preacher regularly bases the sermon upon Scripture, speaking as if the text of the day is fully true, then the church probably has a high view of biblical authority. If, on the other hand, the preacher disagrees with Scripture or corrects it, then you know that other authorities take precedence in the church. If the sermon has little to do with Scripture, chances are that the church doesn’t place a high priority of biblical truth. But this is something you should check out through additional investigation.