Objection 8: There are so many Christian denominations today, it’s clear that Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as the mode of baptism, church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded.
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another; clearly, this has not always been the case.
At the same time, Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word. Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers were disciplined or left the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
Charles Draper summarizes: “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture. And finally we have to realize that in this life Christians will not agree on everything” (Ibid.).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips
The link above takes you to a study of world religions and cults, which some people call “alternative” faiths or other paths to God. Our stand will be on the truth of Jesus’ words in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is this view narrow-minded and outdated, as some suggest? Quite the contrary. The words Christ speaks are “spirit” and “life” (John 6:63). To disregard them is perilous. Yet many do.
There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, 820 million Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 13 million Mormons, 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses, and millions more engaged in other false religions, or no religion at all. By all appearances, these people are sincere. They want to know the truth and believe they have found it. How can so many people be wrong? This study answers that question — and many others regarding people’s quest for ultimate truth.
Through this study, we will look at many belief systems, from Islam to Scientology. In each case, we’ll examine the background of the “alternative” faith and compare its beliefs to what the Bible says. We also will discuss effective means of witnessing to people who embrace these false religions.
Our purpose is not to condemn anyone or to assume God’s role as sovereign judge of the universe; rather, it is to compare the teachings of the world’s major religions and cults with biblical, historical Christianity so that we might be more effective in praying for and witnessing to the lost, and wiser in our ability to discern false doctrines. Every person, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, is precious in the eyes of God and is someone for whom Christ died. Our attitude as we study these false religious systems should be one of humility, love, and grace.
The words of the apostle Paul are clear: Those who are not grounded in the Word of God are subject to deceptive teachings about “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel.” Every world religion and every cult that we study professes belief in Jesus and has an exalted place for Him in its theology. But without exception, each of these belief systems fails to correctly answer the key question Jesus asked in Matt. 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” They also have false views of the Holy Spirit and without exception embrace a works-based doctrine of salvation.
Paul warned Christians in Acts 20:29-31: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And men from among yourselves will rise up with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert …” Our prayer is that this study will help protect you, your family and your church from false teachers who proclaim “another Jesus … a different spirit … and a different gospel.”
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips
This week our Sunday school class completed a six-month study of world religions and cults. Members were invited to submit questions for discussion during our final week together. Below, I have posted their questions, along with my responses. To access all the documents we used in our study, click on the World Religions and Cults link to the right of the screen, or click on the link to individual studies such as Islam, Mormonism, etc.
1. What long-term trend does the Bible address regarding the growth or shrinkage of major religions and their current growth rates?
From the beginning, Satan has been a liar (John 8:44), producing false religions and promoting false doctrines through false Messiahs, false prophets, and false teachers. From a New Testament perspective, there will always be false religions, including counterfeit forms of Christianity, vying with true Christianity for the hearts of men and women. In the days before Christ’s return, they will all give way to the one-world religion of the Antichrist. Many Christians believe the church will be raptured, or caught up into heaven, before the Antichrist emerges, thus giving way to this false one-world system. Some speculate this religion will embrace New Age concepts and Eastern philosophies; others believe Islam is poised to become that one-world religion, but the Bible does not specifically say so.
The Bible warns of false prophets and counterfeit Messiahs in the last days – the days between Pentecost and the return of Christ. Some of these “antichrists,” as John calls them, will even perform miracles, leading many astray (see Matt. 7:21-23; 24:4-5, 11-12, 24; 1 John 2:18; 4:1-4). Even Jesus wondered aloud whether He would find faith on the earth when He returns (Luke 18:8). Paul, Peter, John, and Jude exhorted believers to hold fast to the true doctrines of Christianity because they will come under attack. And the book of Revelation describes a one-world religion led by the Antichrist – one opposed to the real Jesus, and one who also happens to stand in His place. At the same time, Jesus assured us that during the dark days prior to His return, the gospel would be preached in all the world (Matt. 24:14).
While there are many false belief systems in the world today, the apostle Paul tells us to watch for three common threads. False teachers will preach another Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
2. What are the reasons the Seventh-Day Adventists give for holding Saturday as their Sabbath? What about their dietary restrictions?
First, it’s important to note that Seventh-Day Adventism (SDA) is not a cult as we have defined it (a religious organization whose members claim to be Christian, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of biblical Christianity). SDA’s views on the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, and the inspiration and authority of Scripture are orthodox. Rather, SDA should be seen as a sect – that is, a Christian denomination that embraces distinctive doctrines not in accord with historic Christianity.
The SDA view of the Sabbath is one such teaching. The organization’s official Web site, www.adventist.org, says this about the Sabbath:
The beneficent Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God’s kingdom. The Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God’s creative and redemptive acts. (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; Luke 4:16; Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Matt. 12:1-12; Ex. 31:13-17; Eze. 20:12, 20; Deut. 5:12-15; Heb. 4:1-11; Lev. 23:32; Mark 1:32.)
In response, we should note two things. First, the early church adopted the practice of worshiping on Sunday (the “Lord’s Day”) in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:9; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Second, the apostle Paul made it clear that the day one chooses to set aside for worship is a matter of personal conviction, not divine mandate (Rom. 14:5-8). SDA’s insistence that Sunday worship is the “mark of the beast” is in error. As Tal Davis puts it, “Salvation and commitment to Christ are not demonstrated by adherence to external legalities (see Rom. 13:8-10, 14:4-13; 1 Cor. 16:2; Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:13-17)” (“Seventh-Day Adventism,” found on www.4truth.net).
As for dietary restrictions, the SDA Web site says:
Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well. Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness. (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 John 2:6; Eph. 5:1-21; Phil. 4:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 3:1-4; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20; 10:31; Lev. 11:1-47; 3 John 2.)
The Web site www.religioustolerance.org adds: “They (SDAs) were once also expected to abstain from caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, cola drinks, etc. The church has since removed this from the baptismal vows, although they still recommend that policy. They have interpreted the Old Testament dietary laws as prohibiting the eating of some foods. The church recommends avoiding red meat. Many SDA members are vegetarians who supplement their diet with eggs and milk.”
A brief response is in order. While a person’s diet may testify to his or her beliefs about the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and while Seventh-Day Adventists may be commended for promoting exercise, rest and healthy eating habits, the Old Testament dietary restrictions for Jews are not to be imposed upon the New Testament church (see Mark 7:15-23; Rom. 14:1-23).
3. What is the most threatening to the basic foundation of Christianity on a short and long-term basis?
The immature Christian. Too many believers remain infants in the faith, feeding on milk rather than on the meat of God’s Word (Heb. 5:11-14). Such people fill the pews of our churches yet are ill equipped to recognize and rebuff false teachings. With “itching ears” they follow eloquent false prophets, and like chaff they are blown about by “every wind of doctrine” (see 2 Tim. 4:3; Eph. 4:14).
Beyond that, the greatest threat to Christianity today is not Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or other world religions that distance themselves from Christianity and attack it from without; it is the counterfeit forms of Christianity that attack it from within. False prophets, whom Jesus called “ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15), are devouring the flock, and we have no excuse for it. Peter wrote a stark warning to the church when he said: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Christians today should follow the advice of the apostle John, who exhorted us in 1 John 4:1-4 to:
· Not believe every spirit (that is, every person proclaiming a divine gift for service; or “antichrists”);
· Test the spirits to see whether they are of God;
· Know the Spirit of God.
The views of Charles Taze Russell and subsequent Jehovah’s Witness leaders regarding the doctrines of Biblical Christianity are not new; for the most part, they are recent spins on the Arian heresy of the early 4th century and other more recent heretical views. Specifically, every Christian should reject the Watchtower’s claims to be the only true church because of its numerous unbiblical views. Ten false doctrines of the Watchtower will be highlighted in this and following posts. The first three are listed in Part 1 of this study.
Click play to listen to Part 1:
JW False Doctrine 1: The Trinity denied.
What the Watchtower says:
- “The clergy’s God is plainly not Jehovah but the ancient deity, hoary with the iniquity of the ages – Baal, the Devil Himself” (Charles Taze Russell, Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. 7, p. 410).
- “The obvious conclusion is, therefore, that Satan is the originator of the trinity doctrine” (Let God Be True, p. 101).
- “What comes through very clearly to an impartial reader (of the Bible) is that God alone is the Almighty, the Creator, separate and distinct from anyone else, and that Jesus, even in his prehuman existence, is also separate and distinct, a created being, subordinate to God” (“Should You Believe in the Trinity?” http://www.watchtower.org/).
What the Bible teaches:
- Three distinct, divine persons of the Trinity are specifically mentioned in John 14:26, 15:26; 2 Corinthians 13:14; and 1 Peter 1:2). The Father, Son and Holy Spirit each is referred to as deity in Scripture (John 1:1-3, 10, 14, 10:30; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:13; 1 Peter 1:2).
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described as deity using similar terms: Omniscient (Matt. 9:4; Rom. 11:33; 1 Cor. 2:10); God (John 10:30; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Peter 1:2); Lord (Luke 2:11; Rom. 10:12; 2 Cor. 3:17); almighty (Gen. 17:1; Rom. 15:19; Rev. 1:8); truth (John 7:28; 1 John 5:6; Rev. 3:7); eternal (Ps. 90:2; Micah 5:2; Heb. 9:14); powerful (Jer. 32:17; Matt. 28:18; Luke 1:35; Rom. 15:19; Heb. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:5).
JW False Doctrine 2: Christ’s deity denied.
What the Watchtower says:
- Jesus is the first creation of Jehovah; Jesus then made all “other” things (see Col. 1:16 in the New World Translation).
- “… the Bible plainly states that in his prehuman existence, Jesus was a created spirit being, just as angels were spirit beings created by God…. The fact is that Jesus is not God and never claimed to be.” (Should You Believe in the Trinity? pp. 14, 20)
- “In other words, he was the first and direct creation of Jehovah God.” (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 47)
- “… Jesus was conceived by a sinless, perfect Father, Jehovah God … Jehovah took the perfect life of his only-begotten Son and transferred it from heaven to … the womb of the unmarried girl Mary … Thus God’s Son was conceived or given a start as a human creature … Jesus’ birth on earth was not an incarnation.” (From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, pp. 126-27; What Has Religion Done for Mankind? p. 231)
- “… the true Scriptures speak of God’s Son, the Word, as ‘a god.’ He is a ‘mighty god,’ but not the Almighty God, who is Jehovah.” (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 47)
- JW’s say Jesus had been the archangel Michael in heaven before He came to Earth. Michael supposedly gave up his “godlike” characteristics, leaving only his “life force.” Jehovah then placed the “life force” of Michael in the womb of the virgin Mary so Jesus could be born a human being. While on Earth, the JW’s say, Jesus was a perfect man but nothing more than that. After dying on a torture stake, His humanity was annihilated; then He was raised as y an immortal spirit who returned to heaven to become once again the archangel Michael.
- JW’s tamper with John 1:1-5 and Colossians 1:15-19 to “prove” Jesus was a created being.
What the Bible teaches:
- Jesus is the virgin-born Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-23; Luke 1:35). He is eternal God, the Creator, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and Holy Spirit (John 1:1-3, 10, 14; 10:30; Col. 1:15-20; Phil. 2:5-11; Heb. 1:1-3).
JW False Doctrine 3: The Holy Spirit’s personhood and deity denied.
What the Watchtower says:
“… The holy spirit is the invisible active force of Almighty God that moves his servants to do his will.” (Let God Be True, p. 108).
- “The Scriptures themselves unite to show that God’s holy spirit is not a person but is God’s active force by which he accomplishes his purpose and executes his will.” (Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 1543).
- “As for the ‘Holy Spirit,’ the so-called ‘third Person of the Trinity,’ we have already seen that it is not a person, but God’s active force.” (The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, p. 24).
What the Bible teaches:
- The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the triune Godhead (Matt. 3:16-17, 28:19-20).
- The Holy Spirit is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son (Acts 5:1-11).
Next Week: More of the 10 false doctrines of the Watchtower.