There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

When Is a Church Not a Church?

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  • When Is a Church Not a Church?

    R.C. Sproul

    When is a church not a church? This question has received various answers throughout history, depending on one’s perspective and evaluation of certain groups. There exists no monolithic interpretation of what constitutes a true church. However, in classic Christian orthodoxy certain standards have emerged that define what we call “catholic,” or universal, Christianity. This universal Christianity points to the essential truths that have been set forth historically in the ecumenical creeds of the first millennium and are part of the confession of virtually every Christian denomination historically. However, there are at least two ways in which a religious group fails to meet the standards of being a church.

    The first is when they lapse into a state of apostasy. Apostasy occurs when a church leaves its historic moorings, abandons its historic confessional position, and degenerates into a state where either essential Christian truths are blatantly denied or the denial of such truths is widely tolerated.

    Another test of apostasy is at the moral level. A church becomes apostate de facto when it sanctions and encourages gross and heinous sins. Such practices may be found today in the controversial systems of denominations, such as mainline Episcopalianism and mainline Presbyterianism, both of which have moved away from their historic confessional moorings as well their confessional stands on basic ethical issues.

    The decline of a church into apostasy must be differentiated from those communions that never actually achieved the status of a viable church in the first place. It is with respect to this phenomenon that the consideration of cults and heretical sects is usually delineated. Here again we find no universal monolithic definition for what it is that constitutes a cult or a sect. Both terms are capable of more than one meaning or denotation. For example, all churches that practice rites and rituals have at their core a concern for their “cultus.” The cultus is the organized body of worship that is found in any church. However, this cultic dimension of legitimate churches can be distorted to such a degree that the use of the term cult is applied in its pejorative sense. For example, the dictionary may define the term “cult” as a religion that is considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist. When we talk about cults in this regard, what comes to mind are the radical distortions in fringe groups, such as the Jonestown phenomenon. There, a group of devotees attached themselves to their megalomaniacal leader, Jim Jones, and illustrated their devotion to such a degree that they willingly submitted to Jones’ direction to take their Kool-aid laced with cyanide. This is cultic behavior with a vengeance. The same kind of thing could be seen among the Branch Davidians, the followers of Father Divine in Philadelphia, and other lesser groups that have come and gone over the course of church history.

    It is noteworthy that almost any compendium that treats the history of cults will include within its studies large bodies of religion such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nevertheless, the sheer size and endurance of such groups tend to give them more credibility as time passes and as more people associate with their beliefs. When we look at groups, such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we find elements of truth within their confessions. Yet at the same time, they express clear denials of what historically may be considered essential truths of the Christian faith. This certainly includes their unabashed denial of the deity of Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have this denial in common. Though both place Jesus in some type of exalted position within their respective creeds, He does not attain the level of deity. Both groups consider Christ an exalted creature. Following the thinking of the ancient heretic Arius, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the New Testament does not teach the deity of Christ; rather, they argue it teaches He is the exalted firstborn of all creation. They say He is the first creature made by God, who then is given superior power and authority over the rest of creation. Though Jesus is lifted up in such Christology, it still falls far short of Christian orthodoxy, which confesses the deity of Christ. Passages in the New Testament such as Jesus being “begotten” and His being the firstborn of creation” are incorrectly used to justify this creaturely definition of Christ.

    In the first three centuries of Christian history, the biblical passage that dominated reflection on the church’s understanding of Christ was the prologue of the gospel of John. This prologue contains the affirmation of Christ’s being the Logos, or the eternal Word of God. John declares in his gospel that the Logos was “with God in the beginning, and was God.” This “with God” suggests a distinction between the Logos and God, but the identification by the linking verb “was” indicates an identity between the Logos and God. The way in which this identity is denied by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cultists is by substituting the indefinite article in the text, rendering it that the Logos was “a god.” In order to wrest this interpretation from the text, one must have a prior affirmation of some form of polytheism. Such polytheism is utterly foreign to Judeo-Christian theology, where deity is understood in monotheistic terms.

    The threat of cultic distortions is something the church must struggle with in every generation and in every age.
    The threat of cultic distortions is something the church must struggle with in every generation and in every age. It is also important to understand that even legitimate churches may contain within it practices that reflect the behavior of the cults. Cults can emerge within the structures of certain churches. In the Roman communion, for example, we see in Haiti a mixture of Roman Catholic theology with the cultic practices of voodoo. Also in that same communion there is no question that large groups of people venerate Mary to a degree that is beyond the limits espoused by that church itself, degenerating their worship into a cult mentality. But such can be the case among Lutherans, Presbyterians, or any group, when orthodoxy is sacrificed for the devotion to idols.

  • #2
    I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord conceive-ed by the Holy Ghost...

    I think a good start for a test of orthodox evangelicalism is the Apostles' and Nicene creeds which the Church has confessed for generations.
    Comment>

    • #3
      A Christian Church is one that teaches what the Apostles of Jesus Christ our Lord and God taught.

      (Galatians 1:7-8) “Not that there can be more than one Good News; it is merely that some troublemakers among you want to change the Good News of Christ; and let me warn you that if anyone preaches a version of the Good News different from the one you have already heard, he is to be condemned.”

      I personally don’t know of any organized church that is teaching what the apostles taught.

      The following scripture is evidence that no church is teaching what the apostles taught.

      (1 John 3:5-6) “Now you know that he appeared in order to abolish sin, and that in him there is no sin; anyone who lives in God does not sin, and anyone who sins has never seen him or known him.”
      (1 John 3:9-10) “No one who has been begotten by God sins; because God’s seed remains inside him, he cannot sin when he has been begotten by God. In this way we distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil: anybody not living a holy life and not loving his brother is no child of God’s(Matthew 5:39) “You have learnt how it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.”

      (Matthew 5:44) “But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;”

      (Luke 14:33) “So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.”
      (Matthew 6:19) “Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moths and woodworms destroy them and thieves can break in and steal.”
      (1 Corinthians 6:9-19) “You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanders and swindlers will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

      Comment>

      • #4
        Originally posted by RS Presbyterian View Post
        I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord conceive-ed by the Holy Ghost...

        I think a good start for a test of orthodox evangelicalism is the Apostles' and Nicene creeds which the Church has confessed for generations.
        I agree after concluding some years of research on this topic.

        God bless,
        William
        Comment>
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