Whenever I’m out driving, I can’t help but notice how many churches there are scattered across the landscape. Of course, I do live in the “Bible Belt” so I’m sure that plays a big role in what I see. As a Christian, you would think I would be excited to see this, right? Unfortunately, I’m not. It’s actually very disheartening to see American Christianity in the state it’s currently in. I’m sure this may come off as odd to you, or you may be wondering why I feel this way. At least, if you’re a Christian, I would hope these are the thoughts running through your mind. Let me explain.
When I step back and look at American Christianity, I see a hodgepodge of doctrines and ideas of what being Christian means. If you were to create a spectrum, you would have your “hyper-gracers” on the far right, your Hebrew Roots Movement/Judaizers on the far left, and everything else across the middle.
(Note: If you’re unaware of what these groups are: Hyper-gracers are those who believe that Christ paid it all and there is nothing left for us to do but believe in him; “faith alone.” The Hebrew Roots Movement/Judaizers are those who believe that you have to follow the Old Testament Law exactly to be a true Christian. Basically faith-based righteousness vs. works-based righteousness.)
The life of the American church can be easily compared to the life of Americans in general, everything revolves around convenience. Think about it. When we go to the grocery store, we are presented with a million options of different things to buy, and most of them are almost the exact same, but with subtle differences. So we pick the one that suits us the most. And it’s not just in the grocery store, it happens with everything. We are presented with an endless supply of options to best suit our needs and desires.
American Christianity has become the exact same. You are presented with a buffet of doctrines and you simply find the ones that best fit your lifestyle, which, in itself, is a major issue, because it isn’t true Christianity. It isn’t about conforming Christianity to your life, but conforming your life to Christianity. Sadly, since the origins of Christianity, this same mode of thought has existed.
Teachings of Men
Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been heresies that rise up and try to distort the Truth. We see warnings multiple times throughout the New Testament:
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing. Inwardly, they are ravenous wolves! You will recognize them by their fruits. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree produces good fruit, but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit … Therefore, by their fruits you will recognize them. it is not everyone who tells me, “Lord, Lord” who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:15-17; 20, 21)
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ in order to embrace a different “Good News”–and there is no other “Good News!” Yet, there are some who disturb you and want to pervert the Good News of Christ. Now even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “Good News” that is not what we preached to you, let such a one be accursed! We have said it before and now I say it again: if anyone preaches to you any other “Good News” than what you received, let such a one be accursed! Am I now seeking to please God or people? Am I striving to please human beings? But if I were still trying to please men, then I would not be a bondservant of Christ! (Galatians 1:6-10)
Indeed, the time will come when people will not listen to the sound doctrine, but, having itching ears, they will gather around themselves teachers who agree with their own lusts. They will turn away their ears from the truth, and be turned to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
Not only do we have warnings and examples in the New Testament, but the early Church Fathers also faced the same threats:
I exhort you, therefore – yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ – take you only Christian food, and abstain from strange herbage, which is heresy: for these men do even mingle poison with Jesus Christ, imposing upon others by a show of honesty, like persons administering a deadly drug with honeyed wine, so that one who knows it not, fearing nothing, drinks in death with a baneful delight. Ignatius: to the Trallians (A.D. 35-105) ch.6
Yet they style themselves Christians, just as certain among the Gentiles inscribe the name of God upon the works of their own hands, and partake in nefarious and impious rites. Some are called Marcians, and some Valentinians, and some Basilidians, and some Saturnilians, and others by other names; each called after the originator of the individual opinion, just as each one of those who consider themselves philosophers, as I said before, thinks he must bear the name of the philosophy which he follows, from the name of the father of the particular doctrine. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.212
Many offshoots of numerous heresies have already been formed from those heretics we have described. This arises from the fact that numbers of them – indeed, we may say all – desire themselves to be teachers, and to break off from the particular heresy in which they have been involved. Forming one set of doctrines out of a totally different system of opinions, and then again others from others, they insist upon teaching something new, declaring themselves the inventors of any sort of opinion which they may have been able to call into existence. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg. 353
So where do these heresies stem from? How do they come about and why? Well, the simple answer is Satan. How else? His main objective before the final judgment is to drive a wedge between all people and God. What better way to do it than to derail those who try to be Christian by giving them a false Christianity to follow? In turn, all this splintering keeps non-Christians from even wanting to invest their time in Christianity, because it appears that we can’t even get our own act together.
It has happened over and over again throughout Christianity. Heresies have arisen and men have followed them to their own demise. And if you really study heresies in the early Church, you will see that the heresies we have today are basically the same heresies there were back then, just with a different name attached. Tertullian even writes about this during his time:
If it be true, then, that those heresies, which in the apostolic times were in a rude form, are now found to be the same, only in a much more polished shape. Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.3 pg. 260
If they were in a “much more polished shape” during Tertullian’s time, just think how polished they are now! It is no wonder that so many people are following these heresies. People believe them to be the truth.
The reason behind all this is simple. The desire of man to do his own will has overcome the desire of man to do God’s will. The motive may be slightly different according to each person. This person’s motive may be fame and glory. Another’s pride. Yet, another may see that true Christianity is difficult, and they aren’t willing to put in the sacrifice that is required. In some cases, I think ignorance plays a big role in the life of a Christian, or the lack of. But this, in turn, points to laziness and a lack of desire to fully understand the Truth. They are just taking what they hear at face value and not seeking to fully understand the true meaning. However you look at it, the root of the problem is always the same. Man has his own interests and desires above God’s.
So how do we fix this? How can we, as Christians, spot the heresies among us? How can we make sure we are staying on the right path?
Spotting the Heresies
For this, I think it’s best to start with my background. As I mentioned above, I grew up (and still live) in the “Bible Belt.” As a result, my upbringing was in Evangelical, Calvinistic Christianity. Ten years ago, if I were to place myself on that spectrum, you would see me over on the far right with the “hyper-gracers.” I didn’t seek to fully understand Christianity, but simply took what I heard my minister and parents teach me and that was that.
After my wife and I were married, however, we began reading the Bible more together and actually studying what it said. We didn’t attend a church, so everything was based strictly on what we read in the Bible. Of course, we still had that pre-programmed bias, that we learned as kids, in the back of our minds. The thing is, the more we read the Bible, the more we realized what we had been taught in our childhood didn’t align with what we were reading. Many of the main doctrines we had learned growing up, just weren’t Biblical. And so began our serious journey through Christianity.
We went from the far right of the spectrum to the far left within a matter of months. We began studying the Hebrew Roots Movement/Judaisers thinking that it was correct and that we had been misled our whole lives. However, we didn’t just stop there. We read and read (and read some more) to find the Truth. As time went, we began to realize that this mode of thought wasn’t right either. No matter how hard we tried, we could never make sense out of some of the teachings. To us, this was a red flag the far left wasn’t correct either.
There had to be some middle ground, some gray area that we hadn’t found yet. So we continued studying. After a few years, we came across the ancient churches, I guess they could be called. Those churches that most American Evangelicals look down upon: the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches.
These churches provided that gray area that we had been searching for. They provided doctrines that matched what we were actually reading in the Bible. With these churches, we also learned about the early Church Fathers, those ancient writers who learned directly from the apostles and who willingly died teaching this true faith to others.
To us, this is all we needed. We had finally found a group of churches who taught the same Biblical doctrines, followed the teachings of the early Church, and had maintained this same faith throughout the ages. They hadn’t developed from a splinter, or some off-shoot, or during the Reformation, but they have been there since the beginning of Christianity. And they are rooted and grounded in the faith that was taught by Jesus and the apostles.
Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church,- those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schematics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God – namely, strange doctrines – shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg. 497
Our journey is where I would point you as well if you truly want to seek God. Start with the Bible. Read it diligently, while praying and honestly seeking the Truth. You have to have an open mind and remove the implanted doctrines you may have learned somewhere prior. Take these examples in the Bible as inspiration:
Ask, and it will be given to you! Seek, and you will find! Knock, and it will be opened for you! Indeed, everyone who asks receives. Whoever seeks finds! To the one who knocks, it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7, 8)
Now the Beroeans were more open-minded than the people of Thessalonica: they received the word with great eagerness of mind and examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were true. As a result, many of them believed, as well as some Greek women of high standing, and a fair number of Greek men. (Acts 17:11, 12)
Do not despise prophecies, but test all things, and hold firmly to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
You are on a quest to find the Truth. You must be diligent and seek out the Truth in everything. It’s easy to get lost or look to modern church leaders for their interpretations, but don’t do that! If you want to learn about a specific meaning, seek the answers within the early Church Fathers. Why read something beyond the earliest source? Go to the source for the Truth! As John Wesley once stated, they are the, “most authentic commentators on scriptures”:
“The esteeming of the writings of the first three centuries, not equally with, but next to, the Scriptures, never carried any more yet into dangerous errors, nor probably ever will.…..I exceedingly reverence them, (Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clemens Alexandrinus, Cyprian, Macarius and Ephraim Syrus,) as well as their writings, and esteem them very highly in love.
Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning (the universities) be excused if they do not add, to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers? – the most authentic commentators on scriptures, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that spirit by whom all scripture was given. It will be easily perceived I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nicea. But who would not likewise desire some acquaintance with those who followed them. With St Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Austin, and, above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus.
Let us each seriously examine himself, Am I acquainted with the Fathers? As least with those venerable men who lived in the earliest ages of the church? Have I read over and over the golden remains of Clemens Romanus, of Ignatius, and Polycarp? and have I given one reading at least to the works of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Clemens Alexandrinus, and Cyprian?
How much shall I suffer in my usefulness if I have wasted the opportunity I once had of acquainting myself with the great lights of antiquity, the Anti-Nicene Fathers?” – Rev. John Wesley
It is here, in the Bible text and then in these Ancient writings, that you will find all the answers you are looking for. And once you’ve found all the answers you seek, you will then know which church you belong in. And it wont be one of the 30,000 plus splinters in Modern Christianity.
It’s easy to get lost among all the heresies in Christianity, especially considering they run so rampant in America. You may think that all churches teach basically the same thing because they are Christian churches, but the reality is, they don’t. I’m willing to bet you could test this by going to a different church every Sunday for a month, and while they may seem to teach the same thing, you would soon realize they are all different. This is what is so discouraging about American Christianity. It is in a constant state of turmoil.
Think about it like this: If there are too many choices, then they have been put there by Satan to confuse and mislead you.
And stay away from the extremes! Always try to stay in the gray area.
Finding true Christianity isn’t that difficult, it just requires diligence. If you honestly desire to find the Truth, you will.