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Recommendation #11: Choose a church that values the Bible as God’s uniquely inspired and authoritative Word.

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, June 19, 2008

Part 14 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

If I had been approaching this series on choosing a church more systematically, as if I were writing a book rather than a series of blog posts, odds are this recommendation would have appeared much higher on the list. In a sense, it is presupposed in most of my other recommendations. If you find a church that is essentially orthodox, that proclaims and embodies the gospel, that encourages you in your worship, where you experience genuine fellowship, where you’ll be equipped as a minister, where you’ll grow as a disciple, and that is a missional church, it’s almost guaranteed that this church will also have high regard for Scripture.

You’ll notice that I did not use words often associated with biblical authority, words such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” I realize many people would find one or both of these words essential, and that’s fine with me. But, for the sake of this series on choosing a church, I’m not so concerned with the wording that a church uses for the authority of Scripture. What is highly recommended, from my point of view, is that a church value the Bible as uniquely inspired and authoritative.

God’s inspiration touches many things and many people. I believe that God inspires artists and musicians, poets and preachers. I also think God inspires great paintings and symphonies, great novels and sermons. But the Bible stands in a different category as a uniquely inspired document. At least this is what most Christians have believed for centuries and continue to believe around the world today. I stand firmly in this congregation.

The Bible is, therefore, uniquely authoritative. Its truth trumps everything else. In church life, this means that the Bible should be the authoritative source for preaching and teaching. It should guide the decisions of church leaders in a way unparalleled by any other authority. (Photo: St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas. One of the main things that drew me to this church was its commitment to biblical authority.)

What authorities compete with that of Scripture? Historically, one such authority has been church tradition. Some Christians believe that church tradition stands on par with the Bible when it comes to authority in the church. As one who stands in the Protestant tradition, I believe that church tradition has much to offer, but that the Bible gets the majority vote. Of course in many, many cases Scripture and tradition agree. But if there is a difference, then Scripture should prevail.

Another potentially competing authority is that of church leaders. Yes, of course you find this in the Roman Catholic church, where the authority of the church, as expressed through the Pope, can establish doctrine on par with that based on Scripture, even if there is little or no biblical evidence for that doctrine. Now when the Pope is himself a biblically-centered leader, as in the case of Benedict XVI, that which he teaches will often be consistent with Scripture. But, once again, I’d encourage you to look for a church that prizes biblical truth above all.

I should add, by the way, that there are Roman Catholic churches in which the Bible is taught as an absolute authority. I used to attend such a church sometimes when I was in graduate school. Moreover, there are many Protestant churches that profess the ultimate authority of Scripture, but in fact give that authority to their pastor. The pastor, much like the Pope, is the ultimate and inerrant interpreter of Scripture, and therefore has de facto ultimate and inerrant authority in church matters.

Perhaps the most common competitor to biblical authority these days, at least in the United States, isn’t tradition or church leadership. Rather, it’s one’s personal experiences and feelings. I have heard apparently committed Christians say things like, “Well, I know the Bible says that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but I believe it’s okay for some people because their experience guides them. They feel like they’re doing what’s right. Who am I to judge their experiences and feelings?” It’s becoming increasingly rare for a Christian to say, “Well, my feelings tell me my behavior is just fine. But Scripture teaches otherwise, so my feelings must be wrong.”

Sometimes Christians talk about their feelings and experiences with spiritual language, seeking to baptize their subjectivity. They’ll say something like: “The Holy Spirit has led me to believe that premarital sex is okay,” or “I’m responding to new revelations from the Spirit.” These folks might believe what they’re saying, but in fact it’s simply another way to talk about their personal feelings. And I would not recommend a church that places feelings above biblical truth.

I realize full well that what I’ve said about the priority of biblical authority steps on lots of toes. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will feel the press of my shoes. So will my liberal/progressive readers. So will those who give priority to what they consider to be the leading of the Spirit. Surely, if these folks were to write a blog series on choosing a church, they’d have different recommendations. But, for me and my house, it’s essential that a church values the unique inspiration of Scripture and is guided by the unique authority of Scripture. So, if you’re looking for a church, I’d urge you to seek the same.

Practically speaking, you can usually find out what a church believes about Scripture from its website or other materials for visitors. This is certainly a question you might want to ask the pastor. But, even without consulting what a church says about the Bible, you can often tell where it stands by what you observe in a worship service, especially in the sermon. If the preacher regularly bases the sermon upon Scripture, speaking as if the text of the day is fully true, then the church probably has a high view of biblical authority. If, on the other hand, the preacher disagrees with Scripture or corrects it, then you know that other authorities take precedence in the church. If the sermon has little to do with Scripture, chances are that the church doesn’t place a high priority of biblical truth. But this is something you should check out through additional investigation.

Topics: Choosing a Church |

6 Responses to “Recommendation #11: Choose a church that values the Bible as God’s uniquely inspired and authoritative Word.”

  1. Tom Says:
    June 19th, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Mark, I hope you don’t mind me chiming in.

    I appreciate your recommendations for finding a church. They are thoughtful and well put. But as I read through them I keep coming back to this question, and it deals with the premise: “Is this really how Christ intended it to be? For his disciples to be searching amidst thousands of denominations for the one that best meets a set of criteria we hammer out on our own?”

    If I were a Christian who was, for lack of a better term, ‘church shopping’ with a given set of parameters, trying my best to find the pastor who seemed to maximize each proviso — I have to tell you, I would feel very much like an orphan.

    Yet, just before his death, Christ explictly promised to not leave us orphans. (Jn 14:18)

    I know that there is plenty to discuss in what I have just said (and I understand if you’d rather not), so I apologize in advance for going on to raise further questions.

    In this particular Recommendation, you state that “The Bible is, therefore, uniquely authoritative. Its truth trumps everything else. In church life, this means that the Bible should be the authoritative source for preaching and teaching.”

    But if it were really that simple, why are there so many Christian churches teaching *different* doctrines, yet all claiming to use the Bible — and only the Bible — as their authority? How can we simultaneously hold that the Bible is the sole and final authority, and that various churches teaching conflicting doctrines are indeed following the Bible?

    Perhaps most pressing of all, where in the Bible can we find the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible Alone is sufficient)? Afterall, if I’m to believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, I would hope to find it in the Scriptures.

    You went on to say that “there are Roman Catholic churches in which the Bible is taught as an absolute authority.” The implication I got from this is that there are also Roman Catholic churches in which the Bible is *not* taught as an absolute authority. As a Catholic myself, I must say that I am unaware of any such church. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 81 states quite plainly that, “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

    The Catechism goes on to explain that the Magisterium of the Church “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

    You closed by saying that “My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will feel the press of my shoes.” I don’t feel you’ve stepped on my toes at all. (I apologize for stepping on yours!) But I do feel there are weaknesses in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Weakness in the same way that ours would not be one nation if each American claimed the U.S. Constitution as his sole authority, apart from the Supreme Court. The document is authoritative and binding, yes. But it also requires an authoritative interpreter.

    And that is why Christ established his Church (Mt 16:18) in lieu of just giving us a Book.

  2. Tom Says:
    June 20th, 2008 at 8:58 am


    Sorry for posting the same thing (more or less) twice! Yesterday when I originally posted it nothing happened. I assumed my connection had timed out or something, so I made a mental note to repost today — oops! Feel free to delete either one (I think the second post is a little bit clearer…).

    My bad, Mark.

  3. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 20th, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Tom: For some reason the screening mechanism in my software put your comment in a “for moderation” category. Perhaps because of the length and the link. Anyway, I just approved the comment this morning. It is a very fine statement of why many people are drawn to the Roman Catholic church. As I expect you know, there are problems on your side too. But the continuity of the church and its authority can be very appealing, especially when so many Protestant churches (like mine) are in such a mess.

    I know that all Catholics should hold to the authority of Scripture, though it’s not absolute in the sense that it would be in a sola scriptura church. In my experience, though, there are priests who preach from Scripture, and others who draw from many other sources of authority, with little reference to Scripture. This is also true in some Protestant churches, especially of a more liberal stripe.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 20th, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Tom: One further comment. In context, when Jesus said he would not leave us as orphans, he was referring to his presence through the Holy Spirit. This passage does not refer to the church. So, a Christian who is currently without a church home still has the Spirit, and is not orphaned. That’s the point of John 14:18. One could stretch the metaphor and say that what a Christian without a church lacks is not parents (the Trinity) but siblings (fellow Christians).

  5. Tom Says:
    June 20th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    “I know that all Catholics should hold to the authority of Scripture, though it’s not absolute in the sense that it would be in a sola scriptura church.”

    I think I know what you’re getting at here, but I don’t think it’s been phrased quite right. Yes, all Catholics should hold to the authority of Scripture. No Catholic can say, for example, “Well I know the Bible teaches such-and-such…but I don’t really believe that.” That would be heresy.

    So we believe the Scriptures have exactly the same absolute authority as our sola scriptura Protestant brothers and sisters believe.

    The difference is that while Catholics recognize the Bible as absolutely authoritative, we do not believe the Bible is *sufficient* as the complete rule of faith. Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition which is handed down by word of mouth (2 Tim. 2:2). He instructs us to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).

    A belief in scripture alone would seem to be at odds with Paul’s instruction, getting it only half right.

    Again, the Catholic Church stands firmly behind the authority and importance of sacred scripture. Saint Jerome (~5th century) once said that “Ignorace of scripture is ignorance of Christ!” Too many Catholics are indeed ignorant of scripture — something our Protestant brethren make painfully clear. Still, it was the Catholic Church which discerned the canon of scripture, and that, four centuries after Christ’s death.

    In the words of Saint Augustine, “But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.”

  6. Jon Wilke Says:
    June 27th, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    God’s Word is critical to the individual believer and the church as a whole. Unfortunately many aren’t reading or engaging with Scripture. Only 35% of US Adults say they read Scripture at least once a week. Getting God’s people back into His Word is imperative.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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