We recently started a new adult Sunday school class entitled, “I’m a Lutheran. What’s a Lutheran?” As I have begun preparing for this class, I have taken some time to ponder why it is important to understand the beliefs of various Christian denominations. It seems like it would be easier to ignore our differences and pretend that we are basically all the same. After all, we don’t want to be divisive, do we? Certainly, we don’t want to be unnecessarily divisive, but there are good reasons to understand our differences. Here are a few that I thought of:
To Uphold the Authority of Scripture: If the Bible was just like any other book, it would be foolish to disagree over how we understood it. However, the Bible is not just another book. II Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV) says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Because the Bible is the very Word of God, we must be careful to study it and interpret it accurately. If the Bible speaks about a particular issue, we cannot say that God does not care how we understand the issue. The fact that God teaches about it in Scripture means that it matters to God and therefore should matter to us. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we should do our best to understand what God is teaching us. Inevitably Christians will come to different conclusions on issues as they study Scripture. That is one reason we have denominations.
To Deepen our Faith: When we discuss differing beliefs, the discussion should revolve around Scripture. While two people who believe two different things may both base their beliefs on Scripture, they can’t both be right. One is interpreting Scripture correctly and the other is not. In other words, the beliefs of different denominations are not equally valid. That is not how Scripture works and that is not how truth works. As we discuss differences, we are forced to examine our own beliefs. Have we simply grown comfortable believing a certain way? Are our beliefs based on Scripture and are we interpreting Scripture correctly? These questions force us to dig deeper in our study of Scripture, and God deepens our understanding of Him through it.
To Protect Us from False Teaching: There are many churches which claim the name of Christ while teaching harmful and dangerous things. When a church says that only parts of the Bible are actually God’s Word, it is clear that we can’t have close fellowship with such a church. When a church says that Jesus didn't really work miracles, they are attacking the fact that Jesus is God. When a church teaches that we need to do good works of some sort in order to be truly saved, they are losing the core of our faith and minimizing what Christ accomplished for us. Knowing that differences like this exist helps us to be on guard against them. There are other false teachings which are not as obvious, but which are still harmful to our faith. People may even use the Bible to support these teachings. An example would be those who misuse Philippians 4:13 (ESV), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This verse is not a promise that God will always make us financially successful or help us win the basketball game. Instead, it is a promise that Christ will help us through whatever hardships come our way as we serve Him. We understand this by reading the context of the verse. A fear of mine as a pastor is that you will simply take my word for it rather than studying Scripture yourself. I’m also afraid that you will simply take someone else’s word for it. The better we know Scripture and what we believe based on Scripture, the better we will recognize false teachings. This is called discernment. We have to be discerning in every sermon we listen to, every devotional we read, and every Bible study we participate in.
I’m excited to continue our study of Lutheranism in Sunday school! I’m excited for you to bring your Bibles and your questions so we can grow in understanding together. As we discuss Lutheran doctrine, may we faithfully follow the example of the Christians in Berea.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Acts 17:11 (ESV)