Christian Pilgrim


The Great Dilemma


The true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has had a fundamental inward heart change. God has plucked him from the wide and broad way that leads to destruction, which is the way of the world, of the natural man; and placed him on the strait and narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13,14). God has given him a new heart and a new spirit has been put within him (Ezekiel 36:26), so that he no longer follows the way of the world, but begins to love and follow the things of God instead.

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.31)

Once set upon this path, the believer now spends the rest of his days on this earth in pursuit of learning more and more about God and His ways and, with the knowledge thus attained, in trying to put this into practice in his life. He will never become perfect on this earth, but with the aid of the Holy Spirit teaching him through the Scriptures, he will be continually improving, being led along the right path and growing “in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.35)

Only upon his death will he then be translated directly by God to a place where he will finally be freed from sin, and be able to live a perfect life.

At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in full enjoying of God to all eternity.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.38)

In the meantime, he has to live down here, in this world, with all these visible organisations calling themselves churches, every one claiming to be the true church with all the right answers. The poor man! What is he to do?

Millions of people throughout the world profess Christianity as their religion. The vast bulk of them are ensconced in the errors of either popery, with its continually sacrificing Christ again and again in the mass, or in Eastern Orthodoxy, with its elevating of all the decisions of the first seven Ecumenical Councils above the Scriptures. Both of these huge organisations have degenerated so much that the true way of salvation has been completely obscured. Most of the poor wretches in these churches (who we can have nothing but pity for) are there either ignorantly, or because they were born into the church and know nothing else, or out of fear of reprisals from the clergy or their own families if they ever considered leaving.

When we then look at the Protestant churches, do we find much different? We ought to find God's blessing there, after all, they became the "keepers of the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2) and the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) at the Reformation. They saw these abuses in the church and began to correct them, putting the Bible back into its true authoritative position once again. But what do we now see? The Protestant churches have fragmented a thousand different ways, each group having nothing to do with any of the others, and each having their own set of theological beliefs which they are convinced is the truth. An "infallible" pope has been replaced by an army of "infallible" preachers speaking "ex cathedra" from their pulpits, whom nobody is allowed to question.

But this cannot be possible. There is only one truth that exists in reality, the truth of the Bible. But just as every individual believer in the world makes mistakes in his interpretation of Scripture by reason of the infirmity of his sinful flesh, so, no one church can ever claim a monopoly on truth. Otherwise we have a sect, not a true church.

So, as we are faced with a plethora of churches around us, which one do we join?

The Impossibility of a True Visible Church

First of all, we need to get into our heads two facts with regards the doctrine of the church:

(1.) It is impossible to have a visible church that has all the truth.

On 18th April 2008, the pope visited New York. Faced with a nation where there are thousands of little groups all claiming to be Christian, he said: “Allowing individual congregations to interpret the gospel undermines evangelism at a time when the world is losing its bearings and needs persuasive common witness to salvation in Christ.”

What is wrong with that statement? On the face of it, it appears good. You only have to watch the religious channels on television, or look on the internet to find thousands upon thousands of tinpot groups all claiming to be Christian and to have the truth, none of which has any connection with any of the others. The fact is that none of them have a monopoly on truth at all. The best we can say is that some have more truth than others. And this is where the pope is wrong. He believes (as do many people) that he is that “persuasive common witness” that is needed, whereas in reality he is just another leader of a tinpot group like all the rest. Just because the Roman Catholic church is large numerically, this makes no difference. Nobody, not even the pope, should ever be arrogant enough to claim that he has a monopoly on truth.

As Christians, we believe that truth (or at least all the truth that God has decreed for us to know in this world) is supernaturally revealed by God in the Bible. The 66 books which make up the Old and New Testaments in the original languages are directly inspired of God and are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). This is the only source of truth we have. God does not speak directly to men any more (“to seal up the vision and prophecy” (Daniel 9:24); “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1,2)). All the truth we need to know is here in all the logical statements of the Bible and all the logical conclusions that can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from them. This is our final source of authority.

But there are two problems. The first one is that many people do not stop there, and introduce other information from other sources into the system. The obvious example of this is the Roman Catholics adding “the traditions of the church” to operate alongside Scripture, with supposedly equal authority (although these “traditions” will always end up usurping Scripture when the crunch comes). Again, if we start to introduce archaeology, science or history from sources outside the Bible into our thinking, we are adding material that MAY be in error – we can’t be sure whether it is true or not, because the source is fallible (unlike the Bible). So, consequently, we MAY go astray from the truth at this point.

Now, it is possible for a totally unbiased person to open a Bible and, with the use of reason and logic alone, come to a knowledge of the truth. And here we come across the second problem, in that nobody is unbiased. We are all fallen in our forefather Adam having eaten the forbidden fruit, and:

All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.19).

So in our wretched, enslaved state, which is our life in this world, all men only ever see what they want to see, which is invariably not the truth, because the truth is unpalatable to men by nature because it condemns them as sinners against a holy God. So again they go astray from the truth.

Hence, because of these two problems, we see that nobody can search out truth perfectly, we all make mistakes, not least because of our natural bias. So we can conclude that no one person, and (note especially) no one church (which is made up of a collection of people) has a monopoly on the truth. All we can say is that some have more truth than others.

Now as Christians, the truth is important to us, because it is our guide. Without it, we would, by definition, be living a lie. We need to know the truth so that we can order our lives in the light of it. This is the life long, ongoing pursuit of the Christian, which will not be complete until death takes him away. We all grow in the faith as individuals, and we all die as individuals. True believers will all be heading the same way, but at the same time there will always be differences between them whilst they are in this world. All of us are wrong somewhere.

Blindly following a church, or any individual, right or wrong, is not true religion; it is rather the religion of blind faith, from which the Reformation was supposed to have cleansed us.

Very few people had books in previous generations, and the Bible was only found in scriptoriums in monasteries etc. People had to rely on the priest. Where he stuck to Scripture they had the truth in their heads. But most priests either didn’t have access to the Bible or deliberately kept it from the people, for their own ends – i.e. so the people would get to rely on the priest himself for all their spiritual needs. It is similar in Evangelical circles today. People are reliant on preachers telling them what to believe, because the preachers are the only ones who supposedly know the original Hebrew and Greek, and have been “educated” in these things, so they are blindly followed. Nobody ever thinks of actually looking up the Hebrew and Greek words for themselves (which is easy enough to do, with today’s Bible aids). No, blindly following that nice man in the pulpit is a far easier option than actually thinking through things for oneself. Preachers in Protestant circles are far too highly exalted these days.

(2) It is impossible to have a visible church that has every true believer in it

We have been given details in the Bible as to how to organise visible churches. So, ordinarily, we should do so. But, once we start organising, things start going wrong! Apart from the fact that hypocrites will want to get in and take over (which is another problem altogether, which we are not dealing with here); a church, quite understandably, wants to formulate a Creed, or Confession of Faith, in order to define and keep the testimony of the truth. But once just one doctrinal item is accepted by the church as true, that church can no longer cater for every single true believer that there is in the world. Some, who are genuinely born again of the Spirit of God, will not yet have come to embrace the truth on this one doctrinal item that has just been introduced. So as soon as one doctrine is accepted by the church as true, we automatically begin to exclude true believers from the visible church.

Now consider a church that has many doctrines accepted by that church as true. Take the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for example, which not only has the whole Westminster Confession of Faith as its standard, but it also holds to a lot of other church practices as well, most of which are indeed correct Scriptural practices. The church would rightly agree on the one hand that the only criterion for membership into the church would be a credible profession of Christ, but on the other hand they would then refuse into membership those who do not agree with them on all these other issues. In fact, by denying membership to people who do not hold their view on just two practices, exclusive psalm-singing and Sabbath transport, they are denying membership to 99.999% of all truly born-again Christians, just on these two issues alone. Again, I have to emphasise that I am not using this church to criticise their practices, I believe most of them to be right, good and Scriptural; but I use this church simply to highlight the problem. No matter how much a church tries to hold to the truth and defend it; the more it tries to do so, the larger the number of true believers who will be excluded from it, because these true believers themselves are still growing in the faith and haven’t yet come to a right knowledge of every one of these truths. These folk are indeed very welcome in such congregations, but they are also welcome in many other churches, and if they have a choice, they will always end up migrating to the church nearest in belief to what little light they have received so far. Hence the multitudinous variety of churches exists and continues.

Church councils do not make truth. E.g. It is common to believe that the church decreed what books should be in the canon of Scripture, and that this was supposedly eventually done at the Council of Carthage in 396AD. This idea is particularly used by Roman Catholics to defend their (false) belief that the church comes before Scripture, and so is the higher authority. In fact, the Council of Carthage did not decree what Scripture was at all. Scripture was Scripture as it came off the pen of the writer, not when a church council decreed it to be so. Indeed, Carthage got it wrong, because when it came to the Old Testament, they decreed that the Greek translation of the Septuagint (which includes the Apocrypha) was canonical, which is not true. The Hebrew Scriptures are canonical, not a Greek translation with additions to it. E.g. Similarly, the Council of Nicea in 325AD decreed the doctrine of the Trinity. The film/book The DaVinci Code rightly ridicules the idea of a church council decreeing truth by arguing that this would mean that one day Christ was not God, and the next day (after Nicea had decreed it), He was God, and that all those who disagree with the church today (but didn’t yesterday) can now be hunted as heretics. This all goes to prove that councils do not decree truth, God does. Christ always was God, whether a church council has decreed it or not.

In any case, although language is the only tool we have to describe things, language is limiting. How can you adequately define the Trinity? The Nestorians left the orthodox religion because they couldn’t agree on the wording that the church councils came up with regarding the two natures of Christ. But they shouldn’t be completely dismissed because of this. You don’t need to believe the official wording of the doctrine of the Trinity to be saved, but the problem is that you are not considered to be a member of the visible church if you don’t.

Many people think that what is needed is for true believers everywhere to all come out of the old denominational structures and form pure churches, and everything will be all right. But here we have just proven that the whole concept of calling out a pure church from amidst gross error is a complete impossibility. So we shouldn’t try.

Diagramatic Representations of the Church

Two diagrams may or may not help here.

(1) First of all let us look at a graph with truth on the x-axis and number of truly born-again believers on the y-axis. Remember, all true believers are growing in the truth all the time, so they should all be slowly heading along the x-axis in a positive direction.

Church graph

At any one time, only some true believers will be within a visible church. People will be outside either (A) because they are ignorant (infants, imbiciles or new believers) or (C) because they have embraced so much truth that no church can satisfy them, and they feel they cannot join any without becoming culpable in knowingly propagating error.

Orthodox churches range from being very liberal, which would attract mostly ignorant believers (as there would not be much truth there, but lots of error), to very strict, which would have lots of truth (although still some error, as no church is perfect) but would only attract believers who have come to agree with that particular church on most or all of the issues concerned, i.e. these churches would always be small.

True believers will inevitably have to change churches every so often, as they come to embrace more and more truth. In the end, though, if the Lord does not take them away first, they will eventually come into area C, where no church is found to satisfy. Praise the Lord that our real home is in the heavens and not down here!

"Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:2-3).

(2) The other diagram is in the form of a cone:


This diagram needs more explanation.

The cone represents the visible church. Unregenerate men are represented as those who can’t “fly,” so they can’t even begin to head towards the apex of the cone “ALL TRUTH,” or “PERFECTION” if you prefer it to be called. Their hearts and minds are darkened “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18).

But they can “jump” a bit. Some will come into contact with the truth (through the Bible) and get to understand some of it correctly. So they may get off the ground to some extent, they might even be held there for a time by a church or SECT (see later), but they will quickly return to earth, as they don’t embrace any of it. The natural bent for man is downwards. He hasn’t got “wings.”

Upon regeneration, God gives a man a new heart, and he now, for the first time, is able to head upwards on the “wings” of faith. His natural bent is still downward, but as God enables him, he can begin to head toward the ideal “ALL TRUTH.” “Be ye holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Nobody can reach that point in the distance called “ALL TRUTH” at the apex of the cone, but that is what all true believers should at least be aiming for.

Long before anyone reaches “ALL TRUTH” they will die, as God cuts them off from the land of the living and translates them directly to heaven to inhabit new bodies that will know “ALL TRUTH” and will be perfect, i.e. that no longer have a bent downwards.

Each individual new believer starts from a unique point in space, whether outside the cone (visible church), or within.  Many start from the ground, but some, with some background knowledge of the Scriptures, will have a “jump” start, others will start well by being born into a family where truth has been imbibed since birth. As God reveals truth to them through the Scriptures, they head upwards towards “ALL TRUTH.” They all grow “in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). This is not necessarily a straight road, because we get influenced by other people.

In theory, we should all be trying to help each other forwards on our journey towards “ALL TRUTH.” But people, being people, tend rather to try to attract other people towards themselves and their own ideas of what is right, which is not necessarily the same as helping them forwards towards “ALL TRUTH” at all.

But as we stay close to Christ and His Word, we will see our mistakes and correct ourselves and continue on the journey.

Note at this point that because we all start from different positions, and are all heading towards the same point, so by definition no two of us on this earth are ever fully agreed. We should never expect this to be the case. This is important to know, because in many churches it is drummed into the members that we should never disagree with one another, but always at least outwardly show perfect agreement with each other and with the church at all times, otherwise the witness of the church is supposedly ruined. This is not so. It is perfectly normal to have differences whilst we are on this earth. We need to understand and accept that. Of course, the nearer we all get to “ALL TRUTH,” the nearer we will naturally come to each other, without even thinking about it.

The blobs in the diagram represent SECTS. They can be cults, or denominations, or evangelical churches – all of these I have defined as a “SECT.” They all have one thing in common which is that they have all been started by particularly dominating individuals who have persuaded other people that they have a monopoly on truth, and that everyone should be following them, rather than heading towards “ALL TRUTH.” In fact, they believe that they have already arrived at “ALL TRUTH.” Examples of this in real life include the pope (the largest sect leader in the world), television evangelists with their smooth words, or a dominating preacher. All of these I have defined as a “SECT,” because they lead people away from their path of following “ALL TRUTH,” claiming they in the “SECT” have all the truth themselves. Once entrapped by a “SECT,” people think they have arrived, and blindly follow the “SECT” wherever it goes. This is, sadly, the state of most true believers today. The Lord may keep them in that state for a long time, but eventually, if He doesn’t terminate their lives first, He will lead them out again and back onto the right path.

Note that all the “SECTS” have some truth. That is why they are so dangerous. They also demand error to be embraced by demanding blind implicit faith in the church, or leader. But people who are caught up in them cannot see that, until or unless the Lord reveals it to them.

These “SECTS” are like blood clots that get in the way and restrict the path to “ALL TRUTH.” As they linger, future generations are born and grow up in them, who are not born-again true believers, but they are held in the “SECT” and don’t easily float back down to the ground again, which, because they are without “wings,” they otherwise would do. Once they renounce the “SECT,” they fall to rock bottom – unless they have renounced the “SECT” because they have been born-again of God’s Spirit, of course.

All of us need good teaching, but a “SECT” that sets itself up as the only church with ALL the truth, must be a lie, because nobody in this world has “ALL TRUTH.”  Never blindly follow a “SECT.”

The Followed and the Followers

As we have seen, at any time, on any one subject, some people have been led (by God) into more light than others. Consequently, nobody on earth has all the truth. All of us embrace truth and error as a mixture, and then we have to weed out the error as we receive light from the Scriptures to do so. As we grow in the faith, we hope we are growing more and more in embracing the truth and rejecting the error, but we never on this earth achieve that completely.

This is a vital concept to understand. This is because, in all churches (whatever denomination), two types of people exist, neither of which seems to understand this concept at all. These two types are the “followers” and the “followed.” Because of our totally depraved nature, we all have a propensity to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Today, in the Western world this manifests itself in our following men, especially if they are charismatic, dominating, smooth-talking orators, who have the ability to hold people’s attention. These “followed” tend to attract a following, and the “followers” tend to want to find someone to blindly follow.

In the church scene this problem is everywhere. The “followed” know what they believe, think they are right, and will not budge for anyone. These pushy people will force themselves into positions of authority in the church, and attract their own followers. The “followers” think that those they follow are right on everything. This leads them into holding a tradition, and having the threat of being ostracised by their families and friends hanging over them if they ever dare criticise “the vain conversation received by tradition from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). Even if their forefathers taught the truth, we should not blindly follow them; but so many people do, because they can’t bear to believe that their fathers were wrong. This is back to the world before the Reformation, when men followed men blindly, rather than the ploughboy having the Scriptures to read and think through for himself.

If two of the “followed” in a church ever clash, what tends to happen is that eventually a split or disruption occurs in the church, and the two eventually go their own separate ways – each taking their blind followers with them. Hence we have the fragmentation of the church. So when we walk down the street and see so many different denominations, then this is invariably what has happened.

It is wrong to blindly follow men. We should be neither followed, nor blind followers. We should instead be people who want to know truth, and are prepared to change our beliefs as soon as we receive more light as we become convinced by Scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit of the truth.

This is not to say that we should be wishy-washy, changing our minds every five minutes – the Holy Spirit does not convince of truth like that. Neither should we not be willing to be taught and helped by others, as long as we realise that no man has all truth, and that no man should be blindly followed. In fact, if we blindly follow, and have to rely on someone else all the time to know what to believe, then we don’t really know it for ourselves, and therefore we don’t believe it! It will also do us no good whatsoever on Judgment day, when we are all set before God as individuals. No other man, or church will be able to help us then.

Nobody is 100% right, yet in the church (whatever denomination), you are expected to believe everything you are taught, or else you eventually get into trouble, without looking for it. This is indeed the lot of the true believers in this world. Cf. the man born blind (John 9).

We are constantly changing, and the churches are too (they occasionally add to or take away from their constitutions), but not in the same way or at the same time as we are. So we will never be in agreement with the church we are in – unless we are blind followers of course, in which case we will follow the church (and its leaders) wherever it goes.

The “followed” will tend to make sure that their own little church fully embraces 100% their own theology. (How convenient!) The “followers” will blindly follow. But every church, no matter who starts it, will still have errors in it, because all of us are wrong somewhere. In history, whenever a church has experienced the Lord’s revival to some degree, ordinary believers did not “come out” and start a new denomination, but rather brought their revived religion into the already existing churches, with all their foibles. Christ Himself said “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2,3). Knowing all the corruptions in the church, He never told them to come out and form something new.

The “followers” will always look to “mother church” to give them all the answers, so they can follow blindly. This is not faith, but the blind leading the blind into a ditch (Luke 6:39). The Protestant Reformation occurred in an attempt to get us away from exactly this kind of thinking. Our duty is to repent and believe, not repent and blindly follow anyone.

What then shall we do?

So, again, the big question is: What church do we join? No church can be recommended because that would be recommending error. So what do we do?

Time is short. This life is a preparation for the next world. It is not church politics. Whereas we should do all we can to promote truth and righteousness, both in ourselves and in the church, our great comfort is that the true church is invisible, and not a visible manifestation of a church at all, and Christ will build His church (invisibly to the human eye), and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Not one of His flock will be lost, no man is able to pluck them out of the Father’s hand  (John 10:29). Those who reach glory (by the grace of God) will be a number that no man could number (Revelation 7:9). These are the comforts of the true believer in this life.

We also see in the Scriptures that we are to expect our fiercest persecution to come from church authorities. Christ found most of His persecution came from the church leaders, so His followers should not expect anything less. Not that we should deliberately look for persecution, but we should expect it, if we are following Christ – i.e. truth and righteousness – and not men.

These days, whenever someone comes along and questions the status quo in a church, they are never usually just thrown out. If the church did this, it would make them look bad in the world’s eyes. Instead, the favourite ploy of today’s churches is to sideline them, hoping that they will eventually leave anyway. And it usually works.

It never ceases to amaze me that the words “truth” and “righteousness” never emanate from the lips of the “followed.” Rather, if any difficult matter arises, they tend to pray for “wisdom”– which, if devoid of truth and righteousness, could mean wisdom to be able to do the politically correct thing that will keep the boat steady, regardless of truth and righteousness.

In John 12:42,43, they did not confess Christ before the church leaders in case they were cast out of the visible church. This was, we are told, because they "loved the praise of men more than the praise of God." This implies that we should be prepared to be cast out if necessary, in order to get praise from God.

In John 9, the man born blind was cast out of the synagogue because he stood up to the church leaders. We are not told what happened to him afterwards.

In John 16:2 “They shall put you out of the synagogues” – A warning from Christ, so we should all be ready for it.

Consequently, we should not be too bothered about our status in the visible church. If we can join one and be able to do good, and even learn something, then that’s fine. We should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together if we can help it (Hebrews 10:25). But if not, then that’s fine too.

God leads us as individuals, through experiences, in order to convince us of the truth. This might mean embracing falsehoods for a time, in order that we may learn and know from first hand experience that things are false. Indeed this is the best way of getting us to learn. Fellowship with other true believers is important too, as coming into contact with others, who have had different experiences from ourselves as the Lord has led them in the truth, is also a very helpful thing for us.

Very importantly, we must always remember that the lines of those who are true believers and those who are not, cut right across the lines of those who are inside and those who are outside the visible church.

I am therefore rapidly coming to the conclusion that all these splits in the church, and splits off splits, are a waste of time. Of course we should have split from Rome in the Reformation, because Rome had become totally corrupted, because it believed (and still believes today) that salvation is received by “magic,” in simply taking the Mass. No heartfelt inner change is required, no looking to the shed blood of Christ, which is the only true source of salvation. All these things are alien to Rome. And it demands blind obedience. But beyond that, should anyone ever split from the one established church in their land, no matter how bad it becomes? If there was only one official Protestant church in your country, and everyone had to join it, all other organisations being banned; then at least there you would meet all the fellow believers that there are in your area, which you wouldn’t do otherwise. If you insist on becoming a member of the most doctrinally pure church you can find, you would never meet most of these people, because they would never be allowed into membership. Yes, we all carry baggage, and have plenty of error we need to get rid of, but we shouldn’t isolate ourselves, even if the Lord really has convicted us of more truth than most people.

Discussion Questions

Other questions we may wish to consider:

(a.) Is “church membership” in the Bible? After all, we are told “Let a man examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28), not “let the elders examine him.”

(b.) If the Westminster Confession is correct when it says that “the visible church….consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children,” is an excommunicated member still in the visible church, if he still “professes the true religion”? Do we have to be a “member” in a visible organisation which calls itself a church to “profess the true religion”?

(c) Why should the church have to be “public” meetings and in “public” buildings?

(d) How many individuals were true believers before the Reformation? What church did they go to? How did they survive?

(e) How much baggage do we have, imbibed from our surroundings?

(f) The bishop of Milan before Ambrose was an Arian, and the Arian controversy went on for a long time after the Council of Nicea, taking in 75% of the visible church at one point. How would we have reacted if we were alive in those days?