The main issue the every Christian and congregation must wrestle with is that of Authority. On what basis do you decide and what criteria do you employ to determine Christian doctrine and life? What do we believe and how do we apply it?
Most Churches respond with some kind of mixture of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Even the churches professing to follow Scripture Alone all too easily fall into this trap. It's easy to do. We are often affected by our culture, traditions and patterns of thought without realizing it.
To escape this, we must be conscientious in how we approach the Scripture and it is our contention that this small town and in fact many communities presently contain no congregations that are consistent in their application of Scripture. This is not to say that there aren't some that are better than others, nor are we suggesting there aren't true Christians in the community, but this fundamental issue must be addressed before we even begin to move on to some of the pervasive errors and problems within the Christian community and especially its doctrine and practice.
We will take it for granted that anyone bothering to read this will agree that the Roman Catholic Church is not a Biblically defined legitimate Church. Not wishing at present to revisit its history and development, suffice it to say that it does not possess the Gospel and that no one who is concerned with the Word of God can in good conscience be a part of it.
That said, we're left with really two or three options in this community, and this small town is by no means alone. We have what can be called Theologically Liberal or Mainline churches as well Dispensational and Holiness groups.
Interestingly these largely represent theological trends that are scarcely more than a century or so in age. The Liberal Churches abandoned Scripture long ago, sacrificing it to rationalism and modern science. For the most part they deny cardinal doctrines that without which there can be no Gospel at all. The Bible itself ends up being reduced to little more spiritual stories and helpful sayings. Jesus is not God-Incarnate, the Saviour of the world, instead he becomes a Gandhi-like teacher whose words and deeds are to be admired, but in no way is it to be believed that he was born of virgin, died to pay for our sins, rose from the dead and is destined to return. As J. Gresham Machen rightly said in his 1923 work 'Christianity and Liberalism' these churches in fact represent a different religion, one that utilizes our terms and language but has replaced them with different content and ideas.
These churches are on almost every corner and yet in terms of Scripture are not churches at all. This not to say there aren't still some Christians to be found in these congregations, but it is our hope they will depart these congregations that no longer follow the God of Scripture.
Dispensationalism is the most common theology of American Evangelicals. Born in Britain in the 1800's it arrived in America around the turn of the 20th century and was quickly popularized with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. During the seasons of controversy and church-splits in the 1920s and 1930s it was the new Dispensational teachers who 'seemed' to be teaching Scripture and many were carried away by their doctrines. Today they are almost universal and are represented by the teachings found in the Left Behind books and popularized by men such as Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and many more.
Dissecting Dispensationalism and exposing its mistakes is beyond the scope of this short essay but for now we will only say the system rests on some key foundational beliefs that are rooted in theological innovation and consequently have led to its elaborate interpretation of Bible Prophecy regarding the nation of Israel and modern geopolitics.
We believe this system to be in error and certainly if true is at best problematic as no one in all of Church history had ever come up with it prior to the mid-1800's. This does not necessarily mean that its false, but that alone should give one pause.
It must emphasized that we believe Scripture Alone is the guide but also that Scripture can be understood and though the story of the Christian Church is one riddled with false teaching and apostasy there have always been testimonies to the truth and that the body of true Christian doctrine has been available and is accessible to anyone grounded in the text. We do not believe this truth has been preserved by one group or even in one or two core doctrines. There have been groups and individuals throughout history that have held to a mix of truth and error but we also believe that in our own day the American Church has reached a crisis point and that faithful believers need to re-think the Institutional Church.
Another possible group represented in area is that of the Holiness camp. These groups born out of the Wesleyan tradition often overlap with the Dispensational and the even later groups of Pentecostals and Charismatics. Well meaning to be sure we believe they have buried the gospel under layers of extra-Scriptural legalistic requirements and in many cases teach little more than a works-based doctrine of salvation. Those that have embraced Pentecostalism have abandoned Scripture Alone as the standard and instead believe in modern prophets and Apostles. We believe the Scriptures themselves refute this understanding of Authority and the modern groups who claim to have it.
The application of the Scriptures affect all of life and as ones renewed in mind and heart we are to be transformed. The Bible will teach us the nature of God's Kingdom and how to live as strangers and pilgrims on this earth. While we appreciate the desire to be separate that many groups in our area express, we believe in many cases they've actually missed the true nature of our separation as well as the reality of the struggle between those who would take up the cross and follow Christ and those who would cling to tradition or find comfort in baptizing the ways of the world.