Have you seen tree-covered mountains reaching for the sky, vast prairie plains with golden wheat swaying in the wind, or still yet tropical hills bathed in lush vegetation descending upon wide white beaches giving way to the blue ocean? What is your favorite landscape? Many contrasting topographical features can comprise a landscape.
For me, churchscape calls to mind a broad, sweeping look at Christendom revealing a wide variety of fellowships with countless overlapping and contrasting beliefs and practices. What compass do you use to navigate the churchscape? What matters to you? What should matter?
I have the impression that many people use a two-step guidance system to evaluate the churchscape. For example, the first step might be that if a fellowship is composed of believers, then it is considered viable. Second, if it conforms to one’s preferences or meets personal needs, then it becomes a likely candidate.
What does this look like in everyday practice? Perhaps a family moves to a new town. Not far away is a friendly church with a vibrant worship experience and uplifting messages. The visiting family ends up joining this fellowship because it promotes Christ while also providing practical encouraging messages for everyone in their family.
Single-step compasses also exist, such as one’s own religious heritage. For still others, the determinative factor could be the degree of social compassion and activity.
Well, as I read scripture and if the descriptive language for the above compasses represent the most common definitions, then none of these guidance systems ask the critical and foundational question for determining true north. Hence, they all point to false norths. And as such, they are unreliable guides for navigating the churchscape.
To understand why this is so, we need to move beyond sociological definitions and categories. We must shed a human perspective of faith organizations. After all, people can claim anything about their relationship with the Lord and such claims are not always true (1 John 1:6; Matthew 7:21).
If our concern is for true north and if it is God who adds people to his church, the body of Christ (Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 12:13), the initial critical questions become: 1) who does God recognize as being his people and 2) can we know the answer to this question? The Lord knows those who are his (2 Timothy 2:19). It is this perspective which needs to be discovered.
I anticipate a chorus immediately offering up an answer: God recognizes as his people everyone who believes in him and in his Son. Because of texts like John 3:16, this could be a great answer if what the gospel means by believe is equivalent to today’s common understanding. Sadly, they are not the same.
Briefly stated, scripture uses believe and faith to summarize everything that the gospel requires of a person in order for him or her to trust in Jesus. For example, “many believed” (Acts 9:42) is equivalent to “they turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35). Both communicate that people came to the Lord, but when we dig into studying these terms we discover that neither terminology provides us with all of the details about conversion. We can know that these expressions are summaries when we compare such stories with narrative accounts that do delve into the details of conversion. In such cases water baptism is always involved (Acts 2:36-47; Acts 8:35-39; 16:29-34).
Acts does not provide two different types of conversion stories, one with baptism and another without it. Notice that it is only after the jailer is baptized that he rejoices that he had come to believe (Acts 16:33-34).
In the original language, faith is the noun form of the verb believe. Accordingly, to put our faith in Christ involves relying upon Christ, that is trusting in him. Hence, if we are going to understand how the gospel calls us to rely upon Christ as our Lord and Savior, we must listen to the gospel. We cannot afford to map over the text a human definition of what it means to have faith.
Within the New Testament, to receive the gospel, that is to have faith in Christ included being baptized resulting in becoming God’s children and God adding them to his community (Galatians 3:26-27, Acts 2:41,47, Colossians 2:12).
Without belaboring this point further, consider a practical question about navigating the churchscape. How can a church be composed of God’s people if it does not implement baptism as a faith response to Christ in order for people to be saved? Put another way, how could we regard it as a viable option if it does not even teach its adherents how to enter the body of Christ? It is those who are in Christ whom God knows as his children.
Scripture does not recognize the idea of unbaptized believers. Furthermore, it reveals its authors understood baptism to be the transitional point into spiritual life, not something a saved person does later to symbolize a salvation already granted.
To calibrate our compasses necessitates pressing into the heart of the matter about belonging to God as his people. While there can be other considerations as well, the starting point for navigating the churchscape involves asking, does God’s word reveal that he recognizes this group as belonging to him?