The Search for Truth in Christian Community

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.
— St. Augustine
The one only thing truly to reconcile all differences is, to walk in the light.

— George MacDonald (all MacDonald quotes used in this essay are from The Truth in Jesus from Unspoken Sermons)

What is Truth?  Pilate asks a valid question; but he asks rhetorically, neither expecting an answer nor willing to search for it.  What is Truth?  Why, Jesus is the Truth! responds the Christian, as if that resolves all questions.

What do we seek when we ask:  What is Truth?  We are looking for the One, the Ultimate Certainty, the Standard against which all other answers will be measured; the Principle which will guide all of our actions and define all other “truths.”  As Christians we believe that God is Truth, and that in Him will be found all truths.

It is my supposition that it is within the Christian Community that truths leading to God in the form of both teachings and practice should be both taught and sought.  For when Jesus said:  But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth, (John 16:13) Jesus was speaking to His apostles as a community, and did not mean this to suggest that individuals could forsake community for private revelation.

George MacDonald readers know that he hated sectarianism, refused to identify with any particular church and had no interest in debating doctrinal issues, deeming them not worthy of being burned at the stake.  He trusted the Spirit of God to lead Christians to the truth and taught that obedience to Christ would lead to knowledge of Christ.

We may be sure also of this, that, if a man becomes the disciple of Christ, he will not leave him in ignorance as to what he has to believe; he shall know the truth of everything it is needful for him to understand.

MacDonald recounts an unflattering description of supposed Christian beliefs reflecting a God of damnation and an “abhorrent” theory of atonement, and relates:

One of my earliest recollections is of beginning to be at strife with the false system here assailed.  Such paganism I scorn as heartily in the name of Christ, as I scorn it in the name of righteousness.

The entire sermon insists repeatedly and eloquently that obedience is of the first importance, assuring that correct belief will only follow after obedience. 

What have you done this day because it was the will of Christ?  Have you dismissed, once dismissed an anxious thought for the morrow?  Have you ministered to any needy soul or body…  Have you begun to leave all and follow him?... Have you forgiven your enemy?  Are you hungering and thirsting after righteousness?...  What does it matter how you understand, or what you understand, so long as you are not of one mind with the Truth, so long as you and God are not at one, do not atone together?...  You do not his will, and so you cannot understand him…

While I am in full agreement of the necessity and even the primacy of obedience, I would submit that it is neither Scriptural nor practical for a Christian to be isolated from the Body of Christ.  For:  you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12: 27-28) Such is God’s plan that we may grow to full maturity in Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:16)

There may be situations in which a man’s conscience cannot accept particular doctrines of a church; but this need not rule out regular worship, fellowship, or even membership.  In fact, it behooves both that man as well as the community to pray for one another, accept one another and allow the Spirit of Christ either to work out or to hold in love any perceived tensions. 

MacDonald’s own reasons for avoidance of church affiliation or membership may be understandable; but I do not agree that Christians should generally follow suit; for to obey Christ still requires some basic knowledge and Christian formation.  Teachings (wherein they are in line with Truth!) also represent truths which help us to know and to obey Christ.

In spite of his stories of simple folk and his own material poverty; MacDonald was well-educated and well-read. He traveled and was acquainted with many of the literary intellects of his day.  His deep personal convictions, strong ties to Christian friends, devotion to scripture and his single-minded commitment to Christ kept him anchored.

While education, great intellect, and travel are by no means requirements for Christian growth, Christian community, some solid knowledge of scripture (and thereby Christ!), along with guidance born of wisdom and experience in the Christian walk are necessary.  Without these, we run the risk of error, following spirit demons disguised as angels of light; and believing that our individual interpretation of scripture is always correct. We may trust our own discernment long before we have attained the maturity to even begin to do so! 

Scripture makes it clear that the early Christians met together on the Lord’s Day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  (Acts 2:42) They were encouraged precisely  to not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing… (Hebrews 10:25)  Corinthians chapter 12 describes the Church as the Body of Christ and goes into detail of the importance of the members and the gifts of the Spirit which are meant for the building up of the Body.  Clearly, scripture and early church history demonstrate the expectation of Christian fellowship within the Body of Christ.

Being an active member of a church community can provide an anchor and correct many of the errors to which a lone Christian would be prone.  Here a man hears the preaching of the Word; he participates in worship; he contributes to the needs of the community by volunteering or donating.   A church family, like our own family, is real in all of its aspects, good and bad.   There is authority and love, education and fellowship.  There are disagreements, frustrations, tough commitments.  It is a training ground for the practice of Christian Faith.  The lone Christian could easily escape this; but the committed church member cannot.  He must face and cope with faults, his own as well as those of others!

 If Christian fellowship as understood by scripture and early history is essentially equated with church membership and participation, what is one to do regarding the many choices of Christian churches?  Is one as good as another?  Does it matter?

Schism is a hateful thing, the results of which we live with.  Estimates vary on the number of actual denominations from over 30,000 to perhaps only 40 major divisions with smaller variations of belief among “independent” churches. 

If all truths are meant to lead us to the One Truth, what a church teaches about God and Christ does matter,  since teachings can either represent truth or error, the difference between obeying Christ or not.

Surely there is a hierarchy of truths; and while no church this side of life will perfectly express in both teaching and practice, the Truth of God, we must make every effort to find a local Body of Christ where we may both worship and obey in Spirit and in Truth. We should make every effort to find a place where our conscience will be properly formed and where we can test the spirits of our beliefs to ensure that our thinking is in line with apostolic teaching and that our scriptural interpretations are not based on faulty understandings. 

Whether we are still searching or have found a local Church, let us remember that we are all part of the One Body of Christ.  Wherever we learn Christ and contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ, we may agree with MacDonald in his commenting on Philippians 3:16 that:

The one only essential point with him is, that whereto we have attained, what we have seen to be true, we walk by that. In such walking, and in such walking only, love will grow, truth will grow…

Sharon Edel