Spit was flying in all directions. The tie of a large elderly gentleman flung about as his loud voice trumpeted towards his opponent. The other similar looking man had not heard a single word. I glared from one part of the rather small room to the other. It was a literal shouting match, between four elders, of two different Christian denominations. Perplexed, the fourteen-year-old me did not know why this thing had occurred.
I enjoy the analogy that C. S. Lewis uses in his introduction to “Mere Christianity”. He describes different Christian denominations as a house with a large hall and several doors, which open to rooms (each representing a different denomination) There are rules common to the entire house. When trying to find the right door, one should never ask,
“Do I like this kind of service? But are these doctrines true: Is holiness here. Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”(C. S. Lewis – Mere Christianity)
The hall is a waiting room, not a camping place. And while you are in the hall you should keep on praying for light. And very importantly, even in the hall, you should try to follow the rules common to the entire house.
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those still in the hall. The common law of the entire house is that we pray for those who think differently to us, so states C. S. Lewis.
New followers of Jesus, should never have to be stuck in between a shouting match. And if this is something you encounter, my personal advice to you would be to knock on a few more doors. Please remember that Christians are human beings, with many faults, no matter how senior they are in their specific church group. And just as there is no such thing as a perfect human being, there is no such thing as a perfect church.
That being said, there are many rooms in the house of Christianity, which are God honouring. And again quoting C. S. Lewis,
“At the centre of each, there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis
It is not these rooms that I’d like to speak to you about. But there are rooms that cloak themselves as belonging to the same house, but on closer examination, you find them having quite a different foundation.
Spotting the difference is tough. Thus if you are standing in the hallway, asking which door is the one which is right for me, I’d like to offer you a small bible study on this matter. The bible was of course written way before any denominations existed. Still, the inspired word of God (The Bible) is the authority in all matters about Christianity.
We find the answer, to which church should I go to in John chapter 4, verses 20 to 24.
To grasp what is going on in this chapter, you must understand the historical context.*
In John chapter 4, we find the story of when Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. True to the character of Jesus, his speaking to this woman is unheard of in Jewish culture. Foremost, she is a Samaritan. This was a mixed tribe of people. They were descendants of Jacob, who had intermixed with the surrounding tribes.
So, they still prayed to God, like their forefather Jacob, but they also prayed to Gods such as Baal. Subsequently, in the eyes of the Jews, these unclean Samaritans were nothing but idolaters. The Samaritans had some holy scripture as the Jews, but they did not have all of them. And their scriptures had differences.
The proper place of worship
One of the many arguing points between the Jews and the Samaritans was the proper place of worship.
Samaritans held Mount Gerizim as sacred. In the Samaritan scriptures, Mount Gerizim, rather than the Jewish scriptures which stated Mount Ebal, was the mountain on which Moses commanded the construction of an altar. The Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim, which the Jews destroyed. There was some ripe hostility between these two groups.
So then here Jesus is, having a conversation with a Samaritan woman. So unheard of for Jew. The woman listens to many of the things he has to say. Perhaps she does not like that Jesus recognizes she is leading an immoral life. She has had five husbands, and the man she is currently with is not her husband. So, it seems she changes the subject. She argues in verse 20 of John chapter 4.
“Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where it is necessary to worship.”
(So Jesus responds in verse 21)(LEB)
“Believe me, woman, that an hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. ”
Okay, so where then is the proper place of worship?
“You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews.”John 4: 22 (LEB)
Since the Samaritans did not have the full Jewish scripture, they did not understand the full Messianic prophecies. Note the last part, “Salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus continues this point in verse 23.
“But an hour is coming—and now is here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for indeed the Father seeks such people to be His worshipers.”John4: 23 (LEB)
The three important words, when looking at a church, are worship, spirit and truth.
True worship is a way of life, a life dedicated to God (Romans 12:1). However, praise of God, which is part of this lifestyle, is an essential part of attending a church service. Thus when looking at a church, ask yourself: Are they worshipping God (The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit) in their service?
The place of worship is irrelevant (as noted in verse 21) because real worship must be in line with God’s nature – which is spirit, who is omnipresent. The location of a church is irrelevant and thus by devotional application** which denomination or church it is. I’d like to pause and reflect here.
Let’s look at truth, as in how it applies here.
Some churches teach they are the only way into heaven. They preach that their denomination is the truth and the light. They like to say that this specific denomination is the narrow way into heaven. This is a false teaching and a major red flag to look for while you are “knocking on doors.”
Simply put, Jesus is the truth and the light. And following Jesus is the only way into heaven. And let me note here, that Jesus is from the Jews (verse 22 quoted above), not any denominational (or non-denominational for that matter) group.
It’s not the leader of the denomination/church (by whichever name he calls himself). It’s not your relationship with the church leader or even your contribution to this church that matters. It’s not that you go sit in a building every Saturday, Sunday or whichever other day of the week.
You should follow the one whom your church leader follows. And this should be no one else but Jesus.
Jesus is truth. And as John chapter 1 puts it, Jesus is the word of God made flesh. Thus the word of God is truth – in its written form. For a new believer, this would be easy to spot since the 66 sets of texts which make up the bible – is authoritative, and is used as our measuring stick on truth.
Here’s a little diddly to learn the books of the bible.
If a church I was checking out has any other additional books, which it considers authoritative – I would be highly sceptical of the truth they teach at that church.
Some churches have included within their Bible the Apocrypha. And while these and some other intertestamental books are instrumental to understand the historical context and mindset of the New Testament authors – should these be considered inspired by the Holy Spirit, reliable, trusted, accurate, and true?
As a new believer, I would not want to be led astray by some weird teaching, which does not fit in with the rest of the inspired scripture. Subsequently, while I don’t think it is wrong to reference these during a sermon, it is dangerous to consider them authoritative in the same sense as the 66 books which make up the canon of scripture.
“God is spirit, and the ones who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”John 4:24 (LEB)
The nature of God as described here is spirit. When we accept Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live inside of us. This is the same Spirit, which breathes life into the Holy Bible. It is also this Spirit, which breathes life into the scripture when it preached from the pulpit.
When you look at a church, prayerfully consider:
God, is your Holy Spirit at work in this place?
If one of the most quoted Christians of modern times (C. S. Lewis), believes it important to pray about this kind of topic, who am I to argue?
Sincerely Christianity is about being in a relationship with the living God. Prayer is how we speak to him. The term relationship implies that conversation takes place. In all honesty, we should pray about every finite detail of our life, but especially about something as important as which church to go to, and how to discern whether God’s Holy Spirit is at work there and whether they preach and teach the truth.
I like the lyric by Hillsong, from their hit, Who you say I am. They sing:
“In my father’s house there is a place for me, I am a child of God, yes I am”
Remember, God has made us each different. This is a beautiful thing.
*My source for the historical context for John chapter 4, is my Zondervan study bible.
**Devotional application is asking what does a passage mean for me in my life today.