The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book A Presbyterian Primer for Curious Christians. It is a rough draft and subject to change.
If you have decided to become a Presbyterian, choosing a church is more a matter of principal than preference. By “preference,” I mean that there may be some things about a choosing church that should be left up to our individual consciences before God. Whether or not the church serves coffee in the basement, uses guitars in worship, or encourages blue jeans instead of suits is more a matter of preference than principal. “Principals,” on the other hand, are those non-negotiables that a church must believe, be, and do according to the Word of God.
Assuming that one will approach the decision prayerfully, there are many obvious questions that one should answer before joining a church. Does the church have informative, spiritual, convicting preaching that digs deep into the Scriptures? Is the church prayerful, peaceful, and loving? Does the church worship Biblically and reverently? Does it have an educational ministry that effectively ministers to your entire family? Will it give you opportunities to use your gifts? Is it a place where you can develop lasting relationships that will allow you to encourage and be encouraged in Christ?
These and many others are exceptionally important questions, but with regard to Presbyterianism in particular, there is at least one other very important thing to consider—there are many different Presbyterian churches and denominations, but not all of them believe the same things. Some of the differences have to do with what is commonly called liberalism.
Like most of the world today, many churches and denominations no longer believe that the Bible is absolute. Absolute means “true at all times, in all places, and for all people.” Over the years, these types of churches have been described as liberal. Typically they are open and honest about their liberalism, taking public stands against many things that are taught in the Bible.
In the 1800’s and 1900’s it became apparent that some Presbyterian denominations were liberal (this was also true of many other denominations). Over the years, different Presbyterian churches split off those denominations because they did not agree with liberalism. This means that, today, some Presbyterian churches and denominations are liberal and some are conservative. How can you know the difference?
Probably the easiest way to determine this is to ask a couple of very important questions:
- Does the church or denomination believe and teach that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and inerrant?
- Does the church or denomination believe and teach that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to receive God’s salvation?
The Inspiration, Authority, and Inerrancy of the Bible
Inspiration means that the Bible ultimately comes from God. Authority means that the Bible is the only rule for faith and practice in the church. What it says is what God wants us to believe and do. Inerrancy means that the Bible, as it was originally written, has no errors in it.
Those who doubt the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible often question the miraculous and supernatural parts of the Bible. They might not believe, for instance, that Jesus was actually born of a virgin, or that Jesus healed people, or was actually raised from the dead. They might view many of the stories of the Bible as fanciful legends—the story of creation, the world-wide flood, Jonah and whale, the feeding of the five thousand, to name only a few. Often they will stress that certain parts of the Bible were simply the products of the times in which they were written—since the times have changed, they no longer apply, and we should not longer teach them. Some just ignore the parts they do not like.
The upshot of all this is that they feel the liberty to pick and choose what they believe to be true in the Bible. In effect, they create their own religion using Christian words—Christian in form, but not in power. Of course, this impacts what they teach in their churches. At best, they leave out of their preaching and teaching much of what God wants us to know. At worst, they preach and teach doctrines that go against what God has revealed, especially regarding salvation through Jesus Christ alone.
Salvation Through Jesus Christ Alone
Early on in the history of liberalism, one of the key doctrines that came under attack was the idea that faith in Jesus Christ was the only way to be saved. Unfortunately, this is still very common in liberal churches today. Some may, for instance, believe that Christianity is just one of many different ways to know God. Which religion you choose does not really matter, as long as you choose one. Therefore, Christians do not have the right to tell someone from another religion that their religion is wrong. This is called relativism. Others may believe that Jesus Christ saves all people, regardless of what they believe. This position is called universalism. These teachings make being a Christian or deciding which church to join a pointless matter. If "which religion?" doesn't matter or if God saves all, then why bother?
God’s Word testifies concerning itself—“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).” God’s Word also testifies concerning Jesus Christ—“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)." Those who accept the testimony of the Bible concerning itself and Christ, cannot accept either of these liberal conclusions. When you are choosing a church, take time to find the answers to these two questions. The answer will tell you whether or not a particular church will preach the Word of God, or whether it will simply preach the opinions of men and women who have rejected the Word of God. The cost of joining a church that has rejected the Word of God is very high. Not only will you not be taught the Bible, but you will not be taught the Gospel. You will probably even be taught to doubt the Bible. Without the God’s Word and his Gospel, you and your family cannot grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You may be able to guess that I cannot recommend joining a liberal church. If the Bible is not absolute, then all the questions in this book are pointless, and you are wasting your time reading it. If all our beliefs and practices are determined by what we want to believe rather than what the Bible teaches, then it does not matter which church you join. In fact, you should probably wonder whether there is any value in joining a church at all. They Bible says to have nothing to do with those who a present a form of godliness, but deny the power of God (2 Timothy 3:5). They will do more harm than good.