The word "church" translates ekklesia, a word which originally meant "assembly." Jesus founded the church himself: "On this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). The church belongs to him, not to us. It is the collective body of Christ, the people of God building the Kingdom of God on earth.
The church engages in many activities, such as worship services, mission trips, and ministries. But these do not define or contain the church. The church is not a building, a denomination, or an institution—it is the gathering of Jesus' people to advance his movement.
What distinguishes Catholics from Protestants?
Forty years ago, only 4% of those who joined a church came from a different denomination. Today the average is 40%; many Sundays in our church, more than half our new members don't come from Baptist churches. One of their most common questions has to do with Catholics and Protestants—where do they come from? How are they different? How are they similar?
Catholic history in four paragraphs
During the "apostolic" era (AD 30-100), the Christian movement was confronted by three significant religious powers. Roman religion insisted on the worship of the emperor, embraced an eclectic, polytheistic theology, and emphasized form and ceremony over moral standards. Greek religion separated the spiritual from the material, with a strong rationalism and an impoverished morality. Judaism had been scattered out of Palestine for generations and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, establishing synagogues as it spread. The expanding Church took advantage of these settlements and the universal peace, roads, language, and hunger for truth and morality which pervaded the Empire.
The "patristic" era (AD 100-451) witnessed severe persecution of the Church, as some three million believers lost their lives by AD 300. However, the faith grew rapidly despite these challenges, especially in urban centers; some seven million professed faith in Christ by AD 325. The "clergy" (meaning "called ones") grew to dominate Christian leadership by the mid-third century, as the Church worked to protect and preserve biblical doctrine in the midst of its expansion into the Gentile world.
Constantine's conversion in AD 312 led eventually to imperial protection for the Church. The emperor merged the Roman Empire with his new faith, believing that this action would unify and revive the state. His leadership at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) settled the theological language which would describe the divinity of Christ but also made him the de facto head of the church.
Over the first four centuries of Christian history, the Bishop of Rome rose to preeminence in the larger faith. Innocent I (AD 402-17) was the first to claim that he stood in succession from Peter (cf. Mt 16:18-19); Leo I (AD 440-61) asserted scriptural authority for Innocent's claim, and is often considered the first "pope" (meaning "father") of the Church. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Roman bishop was recognized as the leader of the Roman Catholic (meaning "universal") Church. Innocent III (1215) affirmed the universal domination of the pope over the spiritual and secular worlds, and declared the pope to be the representative of Christ on earth.
Financial abuses arose within the papacy in the years following Innocent III. In the early 15th century, three popes claimed authority over the church. The Renaissance led to renewed interest in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and awakened intellectual independence. Wycliffe and his followers began the work of translating the Bible into the common language of the people (ca. 1382). Secular leaders grew increasingly frustrated with papal authority.
And so the stage was set for Martin Luther, a young Catholic monk and biblical instructor, to question various abuses he documented within the Church. His "95 Theses," nailed to the door of the town church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, were not initially intended to spark a withdrawal from the Catholic Church. But when his writings were circulated by printing presses across Germany, and the pope excommunicated Luther in 1521, his personal "protest" (cf. "Protestant") became an organized and unstoppable movement. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) legalized the Lutheran religion within the German world, and made Protestants an enduring dimension of the Christian faith.
To greatly oversimplify, theological differences between Catholics and Protestants can be summarized by two comparisons:
- Authority. Luther argued for "sola scriptura," claiming that the Bible is our only infallible authority, not subject to church tradition, pope, councils, or clergy. The Catholic tradition maintains that as God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so he uses the Church to interpret his word. Papal teachings, councils, and creeds are the means by which he means us to understand his revelation. And so Church and Scripture are the twin authorities of the Catholic Church.
- Salvation. Luther argued for "sola fidei," that salvation comes only through faith. The Catholic tradition maintains that God mediates salvation through the "sacraments": baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the "Lord's Supper" to Baptists), repentance, ordination, marriage, and healing of the sick. Some Protestants recognize some of these acts as "sacraments," while others (such as Baptists) do not; but Protestants do not typically believe that these actions help convey salvation.
While obvious differences exist, great commonalities between Catholics and Protestants can be celebrated as well. Both believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, and that his atoning sacrifice makes possible our eternal salvation. While Christian denominations disagree regarding some of the practical implications of our faith, we share a common commitment to the most historic of all Christian confessions: Jesus is Lord.
Why are there Protestant denominations today? What do they believe?
In the last question we summarized the two essential convictions of Luther's theology: we are saved by faith alone, without the mediation of the Church; and our authority is scripture alone, without the interpretation of the Church. John Calvin (1509-64), a former lawyer and Catholic, helped fashion Protestant convictions in a more logical way. The "Reform" church ("Presbyterian" in America) follows his influence today.
Luther and Calvin agreed to reject anything they found within Catholic tradition which they did not consider to be biblical. They denied the authority of the pope and councils for this reason. But they kept whatever they found within Catholic teaching which was not expressly unbiblical, and chose to reinterpret it biblically. For instance, the Bible nowhere forbids the baptism of infants, but it does not teach that such baptism washes away inherited original sin. So Luther and Calvin kept the practice of infant baptism, but changed its meaning. For Luther, baptism is a means by which Christ confers his saving grace, but it stands on the faith commitment of the parents who are bringing their child to be dedicated to God.
By this approach, the Lord's Supper retains spiritual meaning but not Catholic significance. The elements are not changed into the body and blood of Christ ("transubstantiation, the Catholic position). Rather, Christ's presence is conveyed with or through the elements. Luther and (especially) Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God as well.
The Anglican tradition likewise kept whatever Catholic teaching it could reinterpret biblically. Henry VIII broke with Pope Julius II in 1529 when Julius refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine. Henry then made himself the head of the newly constituted Church of England and confiscated monastic property. During his reign the Six Articles were published, declaring the Church of England to be Catholic in doctrine but led by the sovereign of England. Under Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), the church's theology was made more clearly Protestant in nature. As with Luther and Calvin's movements, the Anglican Church has continued those practices which it inherited from the Catholic tradition but interpreted them according to its Protestant convictions.
The reform movements we've discussed so far are usually called "magisterial," in that they were supported and defended by the magistrates or government leaders of the day. The other branch of Protestant tradition is called the "radical" reform. Whereas magisterial Protestants kept whatever they found in Catholic tradition which was notunbiblical, radical reformers kept only that which is expressly taught in Scripture.
The Puritan movement sought to remove all Catholic elements from Anglican worship. The Separatists left the Church of England to institute similar reforms in their faith and practice. John Smyth, Thomas Helwys and John Murton led a significant part of this early Separatist movement; their followers were called "Baptist" after 1644.
Baptism is an example of the radical reform approach. Infant baptism, while not prohibited by the Bible, is not prescribed by God's word. So the radical reformers returned to the New Testament practice of baptizing by immersion those who made a personal commitment to Christ as Lord. Local church autonomy is another example. The radical reformers did not find denominational hierarchy in the New Testament. And so they typically insisted on local church autonomy, without bishops or outside governing authority. As they stood outside magisterial government support, these reformers usually argued for the separation of church and state as well.
Today the radical reform movement is continued by Baptists, Bible churches, Churches of Christ, and most nondenominational movements, as they seek to practice only that which they find expressly taught in the word of God.
The Protestant movement continues to adapt to changing cultural challenges and opportunities. Nondenominational churches, hardly noticed a generation ago, are among the largest congregations in America today. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian and postdenominational, the differences between the various Protestant traditions are becoming less divisive. People today often view denominational affiliation as an outdated requirement, something like "joining" a mall to shop there.
As important as our theological convictions may be, the unity of Christ's body is equally crucial to our effectiveness. Jesus prayed that his followers "may be one" so the world would believe the Father sent the Son (Jn 17:21). Richard Baxter's motto is an appropriate way to relate to other members of the family of faith: "In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity."
What is baptism? Why do churches view it differently?
The word "baptize" comes from a Greek word which means to "dip" or "immerse." The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing at a laundry. To "baptize" something is, therefore, literally to immerse it in water.
John the Baptist was the first person in the New Testament to baptize people. He immersed those who repented publicly from their sins and wanted to follow God in faith. Their baptism took place in the Jordan River as a witness to their community.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he did so with his baptism by John. Of course, he was not repenting of sin since he is the sinless Son of God. Rather, he was giving public witness to his faith in his Father and supporting John's work of preaching and baptizing.
Later, Jesus commanded his disciples to continue this work of baptism: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Baptism thus began with John and is commanded by Jesus Christ for us today.
Christian denominations vary widely in their understanding of baptism and its significance. The Catholic tradition views baptism as the first sacrament children receive, a step by which they begin their journey in the Christian faith. Some Protestant traditions similarly view infant baptism as an act of faith on the part of believing parents, a kind of New Testament circumcision.
Churches who baptize believers by immersion do so for the following reasons. First, we view baptism as an act of obedience. Jesus commanded us to baptize every person who becomes his disciple. The early church followed this command very carefully, baptizing those who became Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and those who trusted Christ as a result of personal witnessing (Acts 8:38). Baptism does not make us Christians, but it is a very important response to God's call to obedience. And it is a call only believers can answer.
Second, baptism is an act of witness. By baptism we tell others of our new life in Jesus Christ. Again, baptism does not create this life; the water does not wash away our sins, nor must we be baptized to be saved. Rather, baptism shows others that we have already received this salvation. In the act of immersion, we are laid under water to symbolize the burial of the "old person" we were before trusting Christ as Lord. We are then raised out of the water to symbolize the resurrection of the "new person" we are now in Christ. This symbolism is best portrayed by the immersion of those who have trusted Jesus personally (see Romans 6:4-5).
Traditions which practice infant baptism do so to dedicate children to God upon the faith of their parents. However, the only baptisms described in the New Testament involved persons who had come to personal faith in Christ as Lord. And so churches which practice the immersion of Christians believe they are continuing the New Testament model. In our Baptist church we explain to those who were baptized as infants that their immersion as a believer in no way invalidates the faith their parents demonstrated in baptizing their child. Rather, it completes their dedication as the person makes public his or her own faith commitment.
Baptism is an important act of obedience, but it is not the essential requirement for salvation. The thief on the cross at Jesus' side, the moment he made Christ his Lord, was promised: "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Though he could not be baptized, he could trust in Jesus. All who have followed his example, whatever their baptism tradition, are children of the same Father and members of the same family.
I often explain baptism as a wedding ring. Wearing such a ring does not make us married. Nor does the absence of a wedding ring prove that we are not married. Rather, a ring shows the world our marital status. It is a public symbol of a personal commitment.
So it is with our baptism as Christians—we tell the world that Jesus is our Lord, inviting others to join our faith. If those who witness our baptism trust Christ because we have, our baptism fulfills its most significant purpose, to the glory of God.
What are "deacons," "elders," "bishops" and "pastors"?
One of the most obvious differences between Christian denominations regards the various leadership roles which churches recognize. Baptists have deacons but no elders. Presbyterian and Bible churches have both. Catholic and Methodist churches recognize "bishops." Why the differences? What difference do they make?
Who are "deacons"?
The Greek word diakonia means "service"; in the noun form it translates as "servant." Its first reference in church history occurs in Acts 6, where the apostles state, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Ac 6:2). Both italicized words translate the term in question. The seven men who were chosen by the church for this important service became known in time as "deacons."
It is clear that their first responsibility was meeting needs, not leading or managing the affairs of the church. Over time, however, the church came to view the office of "deacon" as preparation for the work of pastor or other ecclesiastical leadership. And so the servant role of deacon became a managing responsibility. In recent generations, some Baptists have seen deacons as managers, often called the "board of deacons." Others view deacons as servants without administrative or leadership roles in the church.
Who are "elders"?
The Greek word presbuteros, translated "elder" in English, is found 58 times in the Greek New Testament. "Elders" were used to distribute aid for the Judean church (Acts 11:29-30); they were appointed in churches by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:23); they were visited by Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2); they "direct the affairs of the church," and some do the work of "preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17); since they are "entrusted with God's work," they must be "blameless" (Titus 1:5-7); and they are to pray for the sick (James 5:14). Peter appealed to the "elders" as a "fellow elder" (1 Peter 5:1).
And so it seems that early churches were led by "elders," though there is some question as to their number in each church. The Judean church possessed "elders," for instance, but they may have led numerous house churches and so worked as a single elder for each local congregation. This question will assume greater importance in a moment.
Who are "bishops"?
The Greek word episcopos is found five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). It is typically translated "overseer," and refers to one who supervised the work of others in Christian ministry. While this office became part of the Church's hierarchy in succeeding centuries, in apostolic Christianity it appears to relate specifically to local congregations.
Who are "pastors"?
Only once in the New Testament are congregational leaders called "pastor." In Ephesians 4:11, "pastor" (translating poimen, "shepherd") and "teacher" are apparently one office (as the absence of the definite article before "teacher" shows). Congregational leaders are sometimes called "shepherds" elsewhere (cf. 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28; John 21:16).
How is the church to be led today?'
These four leadership functions or "offices" have been understood in a variety of ways across Christian history and tradition. The Methodist tradition recognizes all four offices as separate leadership roles, though most interpreters view "bishop" and "elder" as interchangeable. The two words can by synonymous (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Timothy 3:1; 4:14; 5:17,19). Many interpreters believer that "elder" refers to the person and "bishop" to the office that person occupies in church leadership. Some also suggest that "elder" is a Jewish description of this office, as there were "elders" in the Hebrew tradition (cf. Ruth 4:2), while "bishop" may have been used in the Gentile culture. And so Presbyterians and Bible churches recognize "elders" but not "bishops," while the Catholic Church recognizes "bishops" but not "elders."
Baptists typically see "elder" and "bishop" as descriptions of the office of "pastor" (cf. Acts 20:17, 28). Jesus was called both "bishop" or "overseer" (episkopos) and "shepherd" or "pastor" (poimen) in 1 Peter 2:25. Building on Paul's recognition of "overseers and deacons" in the Philippian church (Philippians 1:1), Baptist theology teaches that these are the two offices of the church. Those who advocate the office of "elder" as separate from or including the pastor note that "overseers" is plural, indicating several such persons in the Philippian church. Baptists counter that there were likely several house churches in Philippi, each with its own pastor or "overseer."
Three leadership models prevail today. The "episcopal" model invests authority in bishops and/or other hierarchical offices (cf. the Episcopal and Catholic models). The "presbyterian" model affirms the rule of "elders" within the local congregation (cf. the Presbyterian and Bible church approach). The "congregational" model locates authority with the local, autonomous congregation and those to whom it delegates leadership (the Baptist model).
All Christian leaders are first servants. After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, an act of the humblest service, he taught us to follow his example (John 13:12-17). Leaders are to be motivated by the desire to serve Christ and his people, not by personal ambition. When those called to Christian leadership stand one day before Jesus in judgment, he will not examine their credentials, achievements, and titles. But he will examine their towels.
What should be the role of women in the church?
This can be a very divisive issue. Let's look briefly at what the Bible teaches, and apply these principles to our churches today.
Should women preach?
Let's ask the most emotional question first: should women be allowed to preach the word of God? To "prophesy" in the Bible means to preach or declare the word of God. Prophets were sometimes fore-tellers, predictors of the future. But nearly always they were forth-tellers, preaching to the needs and issues of their day. To be a "prophet" meant simply to be a preacher. And all across the Scriptures we find women in this role, including Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip's four daughters (Acts 21:9).
In ancient Judaism, a woman was to cover her head in public worship as a sign of her submission to God. And so "every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head" (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul clearly expected women to lead in public prayer and preaching, and told them how to do so effectively.
But what about Paul's later statement: "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says" (14:33-34)? The explanation comes in the next sentence: "If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church" (v. 35).
To "inquire about something" meant to ask questions about what was being said by the preacher during worship. In a culture where women were forbidden advanced education or biblical study, it was natural that many would not understand fully the meaning of the sermon. Women with theological questions should ask them of their husbands at home, lest they distract from the worship of God. This was Paul's meaning, and it is completely consistent with his earlier affirmation of women who lead in prayer and preaching.
But note Paul's statement to Timothy: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Nowhere does the Bible tell us that female "prophets" preached only to women. So what does Paul's statement to Timothy mean?
Again the context gives us the answer we need. Timothy was pastor in Ephesus, one of the most pagan cities in the world. Diana, their goddess of fertility, was worshiped by the use of temple prostitutes. A woman leading in public worship in Ephesus would have been assumed to be a religious prostitute by the pagan community. And so in Ephesus women were not to take a leadership role in worship. The abiding truth of this statement is not that women are not to preach to men. It is that women and men are to consider their culture and find the most effective ways to reach those who need Jesus.
Should women help lead the church?
Paul listed the major leadership offices in the early church in this order: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Did women fill these roles in the early church?
Note Romans 16:7: "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." The name translated "Junias" is likely female; she may have been the wife of Andronicus. And both were "apostles," highly significant leaders in the first church.
Philip had "four unmarried daughters who prophesied" (Acts 21:9), showing that women filled the role of prophet in the early church. While there are few references to individuals as "evangelists" in the New Testament, and none of women in this specific role, note that Philip was called "the evangelist" (Acts 21:8). It is plausible that his daughters' preaching ministries were likewise evangelistic in nature.
Next comes the pastor/teacher. Priscilla and her husband Aquila "explained to [Apollos] the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). They later hosted a church in their home (Romans 16:3-5), often the role of a congregation's pastor. Lydia likewise sponsored a church in her home (Acts 16:40), perhaps indicating that she was that congregation's pastoral leader. And Paul commends Phoebe as a "servant" or "deaconess" in the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2; the Greek word is exactly the term translated "deacon" elsewhere).
But Paul instructed Timothy that the "overseer" and "deacon" must be "the husband of but one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2, 12). How can a woman be "the husband of one wife"? At issue was not divorce but polygamy. In the ancient world, men could have many wives but women could have only one husband. And so there was no reason for Paul to speak of "the husband of but one wife or the wife of but one husband." His statement applies only to men because only men could be affected by this issue.
An objective reading of the biblical evidence seems to suggest that women served in each of the leadership roles listed by Paul in Ephesians 4:11, and that they served as "deacons" as well. And so I find no scriptural reason to close any leadership role to women today.
At the same time, I recognize the divisive nature of this issue for many churches and denominations. As I believe that New Testament churches were autonomous, so I suggest that the health and unity of a local congregation should be considered in addressing the role of women in the church. Since "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14:33), we must speak the truth in love, honoring our Father while we affirm each of his children. Nothing less will do.
How can I get more out of worship?
You and I will each stand personally before the God of the universe one day, to give account for the years he gave us to live. Here will be his first question: did you "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37)? Did you worship your Maker? We need to know what worship is, what it isn't, and why it matters so much to our God and to our souls.
What is worship?
Let's begin with what worship is, as God sees it. It's not what our culture thinks it is, or even what many church attenders think it is. God defines worship as "love": "Love the Lord your God." Love is a verb, not a noun or an adjective here. It requires doing, not just attending, watching, or believing. You haven't worshipped by attending church, listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or giving money. You've only worshipped when you've loved, adored, and honored. Worship is love.
Worship is loving God: "Love the Lord your God." Worship is about God, not us. It's not about what we "get" from the hour, but what we give to God. You are not the audience, and staff members are not the performers. Our job is to help you do your job, to be worship "coaches," to lead you to love God.
And worship is loving God in every way a human can love:
- With all our "hearts." The word refers to our emotions, our senses. Worship involves an intuitive expression of love for God.
- With all our "souls." The word means the life force itself, that which gives our bodies life, our very essence. Not as a peripheral matter but as your highest purpose and value today. Worship involves a passionate love for God.
- With all our "minds." We are to have no ungodly thoughts, or songs, or movies, or television shows, or books in our minds. We are to think about our faith, to study God's word, to engage intellectually in the worship of God.
- Mark's version adds that we are to love God with all our "strength" (Mark 12:30). This means to love God with our actions, when the worship hour is done. God is looking for Monday Christians, Monday worshippers, Monday disciples.
Did you know that you can love God in the same way you love anyone else who matters to you? You can spend the day with him—talking with him, thinking about him. Tell him how you feel, what you're thinking. Thank him for the good things you experience, for "every good and perfect gift is from above" (James 1:17). Ask him for what you need, and praise him for what he gives. Spend the day with Jesus. Love him. Worship him. This is his first commandment, his first expectation, for every day.
You can worship God in any way which expresses your sincere love for God. Traditional services using hymns and anthems help some believers honor the Lord; contemporary services using choruses and modern instruments help others experience him; liturgical services using prepared prayers and readings help still others meet God. Just as no one style of music is best for everyone, no one style of worship should be required for every Christian.
What worship is not
By these standards, worship is not performance, whether by the pastor or other worship leaders. God has called us to help you worship God, but the attenders are the performers. Don't evaluate worship today by the preacher's performance, but by yours.
Worship is not entertainment. It is to be exciting and encouraging, but we are not in the entertainment business. Worship leaders do not exist to impress the congregation as their audience. Rather, the congregation is present to impress God.
Worship is not therapy. God helps us as we worship him, but our first purpose is to express our love for him. Interestingly, we get far more out of worship when we come not for us but for him. When we worship for his sake more than our own.
Worship is not evangelism. Evangelism results from worship, as people see Christ in our joy. But God doesn't evaluate worship by how many public decisions get made at the front of the church. He measures our worship by how many hearts adore him all across the church.
Worship is not about us. It is about loving God, every service and every day.
Why does worship matter?
God made us for worship. This is why we were created. It's why he gave us free will—so we could choose to worship him. Love must be a choice. God made us to make this choice. Nothing else fulfills us. Augustine was right: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in him."
God empowers us when we worship. When did God empower Isaiah to go for him, Daniel to face the lions, the first Christians to witness at Pentecost? When did God shake the doorposts in Jerusalem and the prison bars in Philippi? When did Jesus reveal his heavenly splendor to John on Patmos? In worship. The power to serve God is found in worshipping God. If you want God's power for your life and purpose, you must worship God every day. That's how he empowers us.
And God deserves our worship. We love him because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:10). He created and redeemed us, and made us a place in his perfect heaven forever. He watched his Son die on our cross, to save our souls and purchase our salvation. He gave everything for us. He deserves our worship.
When did he last receive yours?