Look I am a Stickler for Sound Doctrine
You only need to know me for about three minutes to learn that I am a stickler for sound doctrine and theological purity. To-that-end, I am incredibly thankful for the internet, and yes, even Facebook. I tell people constantly, that before I recommend a church to a friend or someone I have evangelized I want to know what that church teaches. It is too easy today to be “taken in” by churches that appear to talk the talk in person, but on paper or in practice they fail.
Technology has become both boon and bane for the Christian today. Whether it is the ease of information gathering afforded by quick access to the internet or even the abundance of channels available through cable TV. So, it is easy to find teaching through varied venues. But is isn’t always easy to find sound teaching.
However, this isn’t the point of my little essay. So, shall we dive in…?
Easy Information Makes Us all “Experts”
Early in my walk as a Christian I did not have access to the internet. Not easy access anyway. I spent my time reading the bible and asking questions of the pastor of the church I was in. My sole resource was the Scofield study bible my parents gave me at my baptism. (Yes, I started out a Dispensationalist.)
I was hungry and I soon found myself wanting more information. As I started to delve into the world of the internet, I discovered that even in 2004 there were many places to turn. Information was easily available at the literal tips of my fingers. I was fortunate that God led me to sound ministries early on, otherwise I could have been sucked into some dire places.
However, the information was coming at me like a deluge. It had the effect of making me feel like I was a doctrinal and theological heavy-weight almost overnight. The more I looked around the more I experienced. If you think that the cage stage is only for Calvinists, you have never met rabid Arminians or KJV Only types.
Even in the days of forums and bulletin boards instead of Twitter and Facebook, it was easy to get into arguments that would last for days and even weeks. The more you argued the more you researched. It was easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias. Many became self-professed experts and the effect was deleterious. It has only grown worse…
But how does this relate to Christian community?
The overabundance of information available today causes Christians to segregate into cloistered groups where they exist in theological echo chambers. Even in the same local body, special interest groups spring up based on very narrow doctrinal views.
When I was in school my grandparents lived sixty and ninety-six miles away respectively. When we wanted to go visit them it was an ordeal in the making. You packed your clothes and made plans. You weren’t driving ninety-six miles and back for a day trip.
My how the times have changed. Admittedly, fuel prices have gone up, but engine efficiency has increased as well. Instead of getting seven to ten miles to the gallon, you now can get upwards of forty or more in some vehicles. My dad used to make jokes that our cars got gallons to the mile and could pass anything on the road but a gas station.
So how does this relate to Christian Community?
Back as recently as the late 1980’s and early 1990’s people stayed local to gather for worship. It was normative, but not just because it was easy. It was because you stayed in a close-knit community. The people you saw Monday thru Friday, you worshiped alongside on Sunday. When a problem arose in the local body you made attempts to work it out. Sometimes it worked out and others it did not. But you were committed to the effort. Sometimes a failure to agree would result in the most aggrieved party leaving that local body and joining another. A different body wasn’t hard to find even in small towns because the American mindset had led to massive increase in differing denominations.
Once you were in a town or region, you put roots down. Moreover, you committed to being part of that community. It wasn’t always easy, but you did the work. Much of this was due to the fact that travel had not always been easy. Folks were used to being tied down.
In the early days of the Church travel was hard. Most people walked everywhere. To make matters worse finding a safe place to worship was incredibly hard. The simple act of gathering with a local body of believers often began with several hours of walking. It was often fraught with threats of being robbed or martyred for being Christian.
And don’t think that there weren’t divisions even in the early days of the Church. Many of the epistles were written to address such things. But the fact that travel wasn’t easy, and safety wasn’t a guarantee made the early Christians fight hard for purity. Simply put, you didn’t pack up and go start your own church or run off to a neighboring town to find a group of people you agreed with. This is why Paul addressed his epistles to the church in Rome and Corinth and Thessalonica and so forth. Instead of addressing them to First Baptist of Rome or etc.
As history advanced and “technological” advancements took place by way of information and travel, the face of the church began to change. From the advent of the printing press to movable type to smart phones everything impacted how the Church learned and passed on information. Walking gave way to horses and carriages and then to trains. Now cars can cover in a few minutes what it used to take hours to do.
This has led Christians to become incredibly disloyal and rather easily. I speak from a certain place of shame. I have been known to walk away from a church in a fit because they didn’t toe the line I had established through hours of online “study”.
Not Every Move to a new Church is Disloyalty
Make no mistake, there are certainly valid reasons to leave one church and search out another. There are times when it becomes painfully clear and needed. Several times I have moved on (in one case twice from the same congregation) I can think of one time where I was way too hasty and made a mess of the whole ordeal. In the other cases it was painful and much needed.
Each of those situations was hard and came after much conversation and counsel. In one case we were two hours away from a congregation. We didn’t choose to leave there over doctrine. We left because there was no way for us to be actively part of a body so far removed.
Perfect Storm of Pickiness
There is nothing inherently wrong with being doctrinally particular. Theological purity is not a bad thing. However, purity of those two things is impossible this side of heaven. No matter how right we are, we will always be wrong in some way. Thus, the phrase Semper Refromanda. Always reforming. We should not be looking to always change everything, but when we discover that we are in legitimate error we need to adapt and change.
But today, what see is rigidity in doctrinal purity. Even so much as a disagreement over something that should be adiaphora will send today’s “Internet Theology Masters” off and running for the next place they can judge harshly and leave. Look, I am picky as all get out. It took months of my wife working on me to agree to settle in at our current location. I am thankful for her persistence.
Conversely, I am familiar with many men and women that have moved all over the country and have never found a single congregation worthy of their majestic grasp of doctrine. In one instance, a man that was once a friend moved nearly fifteen-hundred miles away several years ago. The place where landed has many congregations that are sound. In at least one case he visited a church once and the pastor happened to be preaching an exegetical message and it covered financial giving. This was enough for the former friend to reject the church as not good enough for his standards.
Now couple the way technology has made listening to your favorite “pastor” and theologian so easy while making driving great distances to hear them even easier and you have a perfect storm of pickiness.
It’s Easy to Drive Hours to Praise our Heroes
John Piper used to pastor Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis. I cut my theological chops on Piper. Piper taught me how to refute Open Theism. I learned how to use the Doctrines of Grace to love my neighbors thru Piper. But in all of the years that Piper was pastoring in the Twin Cities I only ever saw him preach in person one time.
Does this make me superior to anyone who once drove there to see him on a regular basis? No. What I am saying is that it’s too easy to be about hero worship. Sometimes driving hours or great distances to regularly sit under the preaching of spiritual heroes is easier for people because it keeps them from the transparency that comes from being plugged in to a local body that isn’t their idea of perfect.
I know of a man that worships at Grace Community Church in LA. This man drives almost two hours one way to sit under the teaching of some phenomenal teachers. But that isn’t all he does. He attends Sunday School and bible studies and he volunteers his time. Often at great personal sacrifice to himself. Do I tell you this to laud him as the paragon of church membership? Nope! I tell you this because he models what it means to be part of the Church community.
A Final Word
Today, it is far to easy to pick apart the local guys pastoring churches and serving as elders when the internet is a treasure trove of “pick-your-own-adventure sermons.” You pick at every nit of doctrine and pull the string until you unravel the entire sweater to justify why a church isn’t good enough for you.
But if you have a local body where the elders are faithful and hopefully confessional (WCF, 1689, HCF) yet not perfect. Or maybe not the most charismatic of preachers, commit to that body. Plug in. Invest. Search for the things that you can unite in and hash out the areas of difference. If they aren’t heretical converse with them. Work out your differences and be prepared to be corrected and submit to truly godly men that God has seen fit to put over you as under-shepherds of Christ. Seek unity with the local body. Be in community with them in the truly biblical sense.
Soli Deo Gloria!