During a discussion of how to choose a church after leaving seminary, one of my professors mentioned section 1-7 of The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America which says, “This scriptural doctrine of Presbytery is necessary to the perfection of the order of the visible Church, but is not essential to its existence.” His point is there are many beliefs and practices that are necessary for the perfection of the church, which is the goal, but it is not essential that a particular church functions properly in all these areas. It is still a church and God may still call me or you to worship and serve there.
I’m not aware of any perfect churches in America. Therefore, there are always going to be areas we don’t like but have to accept. Of course, we must also be open to being wrong in our own opinions and preferences. The questions then are – “what attributes MUST a church have?” and “what wrong beliefs/practices can I overlook in a church?” These are really interesting and important questions, and to be honest I haven’t worked out my own answers to them. A couple of examples of essential beliefs would be the Trinity and the physical resurrection of Jesus. But how about the continuance of the Charismatic gifts? As far as I’m concerned continuance is established. The gifts of the Spirit were given to mature the Church so clearly they are necessary for the perfection of the visible Church. On the other hand, I also don’t believe this doctrine is essential. However, in my own judgment this issue is important enough that I’m not willing to attend a church that doesn’t actively pursue the gifts of the Spirit (at least not attend on a long term basis). So in the end I have three categories for church belief and practice: essential, must haves, and necessary but not a must have. These categories don’t include issues like carpet color and the font of the church bulletin; I’m not addressing those type of issues in this post.
An issue I’m struggling with is baptism. On infant versus professor baptism I have a lot of grace; it is important but I’m ok with either position. But what about baptism itself? I’ve come from a Baptist setting into Presbyterian setting, and my view on what baptism does has shifted along with that change. In fact, so much so that I can’t imagine the Baptist view being right. Baptism is one of the primary doctrines of the faith, and one of the two things Jesus charged the Apostles to do. On the other hand, as long as the church baptizes isn’t that good enough? I don’t know the answer to it. One of the problems with the Baptist view is some believers end up waiting a decade before getting baptized because it isn’t seen as important. That is a problem if baptism actually does something, as the Bible seems to say it does.
These are the kinds of things that believers need to work through for themselves. What is essential for Christianity? What is important but we can do without? What isn’t essential but is important enough to be an issue? Church unity – big C – is way more important than most of us understand. However, there are some beliefs and practices that are just not ok and force us to divide. The trouble with making too many beliefs/practices a reason to divide is you end up having church by yourself, which is really no church at all.