We spoke briefly in Part 1 about the modern American folk religion, known as Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism, and the catastrophic effect it has had on succeeding generations of young Southerners. Our contemporary domestic life now resembles a war-zone, spawning an exodus of battered and bruised refugees fleeing a never-ending cycle of self-worship and self-destruction. By God’s grace, many of these younger men and women are looking to the past for wisdom, for moral instruction, and are turning again to the spiritual traditions of their fore bearers, seeking peace, solace and faith in a Christian church.
Those looking for a church to attend face a bewildering buffet of options and finding a church of substance can prove very frustrating. Modern churches offer a litany of programs, groups, studies and activities all designed to give everyone a place to plug in. Some churches may still feel like a church, others may give off more of a Starbucks vibe. So, what should you look for in a church? Well, beneath the superficial veneer of hip websites, trendy outreach programs and coffee shops, something below the surface is driving everything that you see. So, before we can answer the question of what to look for in a church, we need to take a rather tedious historical journey back in time to revisit the critical concept of doctrine. It is doctrine that provides us with an analytical template that is best used to interpret contemporary churches. To begin to understand how crucial the concept of doctrine is to the Protestant church, we must begin with the Reformation.
Biblical Doctrine as a Foundation
One of the driving forces behind the Protestant Reformation was the contention that the Holy Scriptures should be the ultimate authority in matters of faith and church practice. Protestants maintained that any belief or practice that conflicted with the Word of God should be challenged and refuted according to rule of Scripture. As time went on, the practice of looking to the Scriptures to guide the full scope of the emerging Protestant Church’s teaching and practice expanded into a formal doctrine called the Sufficiency of Scripture. This doctrine, simply stated, proclaims that Christ rules his church through the Holy Spirit and the written Word. It is beautifully explained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph VI:
VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph VI
The Reformers believed that the precepts necessary for the proper function of the church and principles for the Christian life, according to the mind of Christ, were clearly delineated in Scripture. Excluding the Gospels, consider that the vast majority of the New Testament consists of a collection of letters written either specifically to churches or to church leaders. Indeed, the volume of Scripture pertaining to the church is extensive and says much about the desire of Christ for his churches. Protestants believed that the church’s prescribed purpose, its means and its ends, are found in Scripture. As a compliment to the doctrine of the church, Protestantism maintains that the purpose of the Christian life is found only through meaningful participation in a properly ordered local church. The relationship between the doctrine of the church and the Christian life should not be glossed over, as they are inextricably intertwined- lose one and the other is rendered null. The Apostles knew this and warned their disciples to mind the doctrine carefully.
Guarding the Doctrine
I’ll briefly call your attention to the frequency with which New Testament writers cautioned their readers to guard the doctrine and carefully tend to the teaching of the church. The constant refrain in 1st and 2nd Timothy, as well as Titus, is to guard the form of sound words and protect the doctrine. It was very important to Paul that what was given to him by Christ and in turn, handed down to the churches, be diligently protected. The transmission of sound doctrine from one generation to the next has been a vital mission for church leaders throughout the ages and a principal function of the church, which was regarded by Paul as a pillar and buttress of the truth. How did the early church codify doctrine and protect their teaching? They did it with creeds and confessions.
Propagating Sound Doctrine
Throughout the ages, the church has made use of creeds, confessions, and catechisms to teach and protect its doctrine. The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed were early examples of efforts by the church to define and guard the orthodox interpretation of Scripture. The theological turbulence of the Reformation saw an increased use of creeds and confessions as various Protestant movements sought to distinguish their beliefs from each other and against Rome. The Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith are two well-known examples of Reformation era confessions have been in use for over 300 years.
It wasn’t just the Baptists and Presbyterians that were issuing confessions. Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Continental Reformed, the Methodists and others all availed themselves of formalized doctrinal statements. Despite the spawning of countless Protestant sects, societies, and denominations who may have disagreed on forms of church government, modes of baptism, and other secondary issues, what began to emerge out of the Reformation was a genuine reformed Protestant theological consensus. This consensus was catholic (in this sense meaning broad or general), it was orthodox as evidenced by the era’s confessional consensus on core doctrinal points, and mostly Calvinist in soteriology. This confessional consensus held for several centuries. It took root in the fertile soil of America’s colonies as English expressions of the Protestant faith were transposed across the Atlantic. Churches dotting the East Coast and those within larger early American cities were able to recruit and employ educated clergy that continued the creedal traditions.
The Importance of Creedal Christianity
Creeds and confessions, when properly used and understood, have always been subordinate to the authority of the Word of God. The reformation era confessions and their 18th and 19th century analogues were used to help the church interpret and apply Scripture and guide its doctrine in matters of faith and life. The utility of a confession was that in instances of theological confusion or dispute, members of a church could reference their confession and with regularity, important issues could be resolved. Clearly, not every possible theological issue was addressed by a confession, but major points of doctrine were well laid out. The Reformation era confessions were very precise and were designed to contrast Protestant teaching with Roman dogma. Subsequent 19th century and later confessions were less comprehensive but still provided a measure of clarity, uniformity and a continuity of teaching regarding the church and the Christian life. The American church was placed on solid footing by the consistent use of creeds and the routine application of biblical doctrine until the beginning of the 19th century.
A Crumbling Foundation
As the 18th century drew to a close, several forces began pressing against the American church, luring her away from her traditions. Churches in the North were particularly prone to apostacy after being laid waste by modern liberalism. They proved to be easy targets for Unitarianism. These apostate churches, which turned away from the Gospel of Christ and embraced a social gospel, provided much of the abolitionist tinder that the Yankees used to burn our beloved South.
Theological corruption spreads like a virus and the geographical isolation of the South provided some immunity. Unfortunately, Southern churches had problems of their own. In the South, doctrinal rigor had been diminished by vicious 19th century intradenominational squabbling, schism, and the natural forces of the frontier. America’s population was pushing West and South quickly and it was difficult for churches to supply enough prepared pastors. This fact led to religion in the more rural parts of the South taking on a minimalist nature. Other forces such as the anti-creedal Campbellite juggernaut, Southern anti-intellectualism, and a stubborn American individualism that constantly worked to undermine the corporate nature of the church. Revivalism, an annoying legacy from the Second Great Awakening, was an anti-doctrinal force that encouraged emotional responses to manipulative preaching and produced legions of false converts to the faith that weakened the church.
The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a Southern church that, while still committed to the Gospel and fundamental Christian tenets, had experienced significant theological erosion and loss of doctrinal integrity. The stage was set for the church’s modern transformation.
In Part 3 we will finish the survey of the 20th century church and mark out it’s doctrinal decline. In conclusion, we will wrap up the analysis of modern church offerings through the lens of doctrine and offer practical advice for finding a solid, biblical church.
-By Octavius Hood
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel, now that's just what I am; For this "Fair Land of Freedom" I do not give a damn! I'm glad I fit against it, I only wish we'd won, And I don't want no pardon for anything I done.