Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Which Church Is the “Right Church?”

In a discussion forum I belong to, a member introduced this topic and it provoked, of course, a spirited response from other participants. I decided to put my own oar into the water, with the following comments.

In one sense, there is no "right church" as an institution, because all human institutions are flawed. Even the New Testament church had its flaws (read Paul's letters!), so the attempt to identify one "right church" or denomination is futile. The question needs to be rephrased to something like, "What are the characteristics of a church (or other identifiable body) that would mark it as faithful to the intent of Jesus and the apostles?" Then ask, further, "Where can we find those characteristics operative today?"

The answer will not lead us to any specific denomination or, perhaps, any specific local congregation. Recall that denominations are not based on belief or practice, but on historic association and tradition. Therefore one finds a spectrum of belief and practice within any denomination, so that individual members of any church may very well find people of like faith in another church. It is a misconception to think that official doctrinal statements normally divide one denomination from another in actual practice, because the membership and leadership of those groups may in fact have beliefs that differ from the official statements.

However, there is a core of Scriptural criteria that would identify a grouping of Christians (across denominational lines) as being faithful to the apostolic intent for the church. These criteria would include (1) adherence to the Bible as the authority of faith and practice; (2) the conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to the genuine understanding of God and to communion with Him, and all other supposed ways are partial or false; (3) the understanding that being a Christian has implications for the pattern of personal attitude and conduct, in relationship to other believers and to people and the culture in general.

Once such core criteria are identified — and some other traditional criteria that have historically divided denominations are seen as peripheral or irrelevant — then the way is open to search for the "right church" among people who might officially (or habitually) identify with any specific Christian church or denomination. This allows Christians to cooperate in significant ways across denominational lines, recognizing the common "core" while granting each other the freedom to pursue distinctive traits of their particular tradition without controversy. Such an attitude permits the existence of movements like "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," united in common cause because of common core beliefs. Evangelicals do not have to endorse all Catholic practices, nor do Catholics have to endorse all evangelical tenets, in order for this to occur. In this way the "right church" can begin to emerge not only as an ideal, but as a specific thrust in the world.