Having decided to leave the United Methodist Church (see Part 1), a more difficult dilemma presented itself: where to go next. There are many thousands of faith communities in the world, many of which required a careful look and appropriate research. The groundwork for this process was laid by my own research into the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—through reading their texts and studying their history.
My intent was to do a kind of a ‘religious reboot’ (though still within the Abrahamic context, since I firmly believe that the God of Abraham is the one true God). I wanted to make a decision without basing it on preconceived notions or biases and, most of all, I wanted to give the Holy Spirit every opportunity to lead me. Ultimately, many of my preconceived notions about various religions and denominations were reinforced in this journey. Others were completely obliterated.
First and foremost, we were able to discern some clear desires we had in a religious community:
- Primacy of Scripture:
All of the Abrahamic religions claim that their religious texts are the core of their belief structures, yet many cherry-pick what elements of their religion they will follow based, mostly, on the transient values of outside society. We were seeking a church firmly rooted in the teachings of its own scriptures.
- Tradition, Reason, and Experience:
When not in conflict with scripture, the other elements of the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ are not to be ignored. Some Christian denominations have abandoned tradition, knowledge, and reason for a [supposedly] ‘scripture alone’ doctrine. This is better than abandoning the Holy Scripture, but it is still a flawed approach. A full, vibrant faith is one based primarily on scripture, but accepting of tradition, reason, and experience as valid secondary sources of practice and doctrine and as important means to understand and live the teachings of scripture.
- Clear Moral Teachings:
A religion should not buy-in to the moral relativism of the world around it; it should teach a clear moral paradigm and strongly encourage its followers to adhere to it. A church also has an obligation to, within reason, police the morality of its own membership and guide those who have fallen short toward a more righteous spiritual life. Church teachings on sexuality, marriage, abortion, and the other contentious moral issues of the day should be based on scripture—what God wants, not what’s most convenient, popular, or likely to avoid ‘offense’.
- Active in Mission:
Religion exists in part to foster personal holiness within its community, but also must put its teachings into positive practice in the world through mission. Mission is not intended primarily to ‘convert’ people, but simply to do the work of God in the world and make people’s lives better. When non-believers see you doing good for no reason but to serve God and your fellow man, they will get interested (and possibly convert) on their own.
- Solemnity and Sincerity of Worship:
When I was younger, I was attracted to churches with ‘non-standard’ worship styles—modern music, as little ritualism as possible, and lots of energy. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with modern music and energy, but churches have to be careful not to lose the solemnity and sincerity of their worship to a glossy, popular coating. Worship is serious business, and should be treated as such. Church services aren’t a party; they are an opportunity to submit ourselves and our lives to God and to grow closer to him.
One my my constant frustrations is that many Christian denominations insist on internal fracture. The United Methodist Church has about six churches within easy driving distance from my home. Some are small, some large, some formal, and some informal. I guess that’s okay, except that you end up with a bunch of geographically clustered Methodists who don’t know each other.
Most ludicrously, there are Methodist churches set up for particular racial groups. In my neighborhood, First Korean UMC—predominantly attended by ethnic Koreans—is only a short walk from Floris UMC. In my former home of Bedford, Virginia, Court Street UMC—a predominantly black church—is an incredible half-block away from the predominantly white Main Street UMC.
It seems to me that like-minded Christians who live close to one another, no matter their race or background, ought to be worshiping God together.
- Reasonable Approach to Civil Politics:
Moral teaching is important in a church, but how I apply those moral teachings to my politics is generally my business. Except in extraordinary circumstances, churches should focus on teaching, mission, and personal holiness. Political lobbying is outside of the purview of a church.
I make exceptions for rare issues where the evil permitted or perpetrated by the government is so perverse that it demands action from all faithful, moral human beings—working for the abolition of slavery is a prime example from the past; working to protect innocent, unborn human life is one from the present.
Most importantly, if a church is going to take political positions, those positions must be in accord with scripture.
- Reasonable Membership Process:
If I can become a member no-questions-asked, then I don’t want to be one. A religious community should demand its prospective members become part of the community (by making an honest attempt to adhere to its teachings), and church officials should actively discern prospective members’ readiness to fully join the community before granting membership. Building church membership should be an exercise in quality, not quantity.
- Denominational Consistency & Central Structure:
A strong and somewhat centralized organizational structure is generally beneficial to a religious sect. Some Christian denominations (e.g., the Baptist church) have little central organization, and thus the practice of each individual church can differ—sometimes drastically—from other churches that are ostensibly part of the same denomination. A strong organizational structure helps to ensure a healthy moral homogeneity of teaching and practice from church to church, city to city, and country to country. This is especially important in today’s mobile world, where people travel and relocate often.
- Non-Democratic (or Limited Democratic) Polity:
I’m generally a fan of Democracy as a system of civil government (though it does have its flaws), but Democracy is not the way to run a religious community. Religion is not necessarily easy, and a system of Democratic polity—like that in the United Methodist Church—too-often follows the path of least resistance and places the transient values of outside society over the moral teachings of scripture. Religious policy decisions should be made by dedicated persons of faith who put the teachings of scripture ahead of their own personal opinions and fears. In a well-organized church, it doesn’t matter if a majority of its adherents don’t like what scripture says because church policy will not be based on majority opinion.
- Practical Concerns:
Aside from these spiritual and structural issues, there are some practical concerns that have had an impact on this process of discernment. We were seeking a religious community that is part of a big enough organization to have a significant presence in most mid-to-large size towns/cities and stable enough to withstand major local and national demographic shifts. Religious communities that can provide private education options were also preferred, since I’d rather eat my own fingers than subject a child to public education in the U.S. today, but this is not critical (there are plenty of private schools, and home school is always an option).
Religions/Denominations Not Considered
In this process, several religions/denominations that might appear at a glance to be in keeping with some, or even many, of the above tenets have deal-breakers that kept them out of serious consideration. These include the following:
Sadly, after studying the Qur’an and the history of the Islamic faith, there is no question in my mind that Islam is primarily a force for evil and violence in the world (although there is no question that some/many adherents are perfectly fine people as well).
Worse, this evil and violence is committed in accord with Islamic scripture, not in contradiction of it. Christianity has committed systemic violence in the past, but it was committed in direct violation of Christian scripture—a significant differentiation between the two faiths.
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon):
While the Mormon church does indeed teach strong family and moral values, many of which in accord with what I’ve discussed above, the Mormon understanding of Christ and faith is based in large part on the unquestionably fictional and inaccurate Book of Mormon. I cannot accept a book that first appeared in 1830 (with no preceding oral or written record) as valid ‘ancient scripture’ upon which to build my faith.
- Relativist ‘Christianity’:
There are a number of ‘mainline’ Christian denominations that fail to adhere to and teach the core tenets of the Christian faith as spelled out in the Bible, particularly with regard to personal morality. These include the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and others. These churches, for one reason or another, have tended to embrace transient social values from outside of Christianity rather than holding fast to the transcendent morality that God has revealed to us throughout history.
- Calvinist Christianity:
Calvinist doctrine, also known as ‘Reformed Protestantism’, is at its core the belief that nothing you do or don’t do adds anything to your salvation. Based on my study of scripture, I believe this doctrine is woefully incorrect and your salvation absolutely requires your individual participation. God is infinitely forgiving, but his forgiveness—offered to all—can only be received by those who choose to accept it with their whole heart. Faith leads to salvation, and faith requires works (James 2:14-26). Calvinist denominations include Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and others.
I have great respect for many individual members of Baptist churches, including my best friend Wes, and many Baptist churches have religious practices in-keeping with most of the things I was looking for. My single biggest objection to the Baptist denomination is the absolute lack of church-to-church consistency.
I’ve been to extremely positive, wonderful, and Godly Baptist churches; I’ve also been to Baptist churches that, for example, ignorantly reject every Bible translation except for the King James and denounce other translations as abominations of the word of God (oops; time to hide my NRSV!). The movement is simply far too fractured to meet my desire for denominational consistency.
- Seventh Day Adventist:
Having spent quite a bit of time researching and learning about Judaism—and knowing that Jesus said, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-20), I was quite interested to learn from a Seventh Day Adventist co-worker and friend that the denomination adheres to many Old Testament teachings abandoned or modified by mainstream Christianity.
Adventists don’t eat pork (in accordance with Jewish dietary law), celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday (which is the day God originally established it on), and so on. Adventists also correctly frown upon sexual immorality and other sinful behaviors oft’ embraced by today’s ‘mainline’ denominations.
A closer examination, however, revealed a number of problems. Adventists have a complex and, in my opinion, non-Biblical belief structure with regard to the end times and afterlife, and the church subscribes to scientifically-disproved Young Earth Creationism. The church also recommends vegetarianism (which is decidedly non-Biblical) and abstention from alcohol (even though Jesus himself was a wine producer [John 2:1-11], distributor [Matthew 26:26-29], and drinker [Luke 22:14-23]). These are curious stances for a denomination that so carefully adheres to scripture in other respects.
Adventists I have known are dedicated, Godly people toward whom I have nothing but positive feelings . . . but the church is not a good fit for my understanding of scripture or science.
Religions/Denominations Considered (and Why We Didn’t Choose Them)
Several Abrahamic religious communities ‘survived’ to a more serious round of research and consideration, but were ultimately not where we ended up going. These are presented (very roughly) in the order we considered them before settling on our final choice. While we did not join these communities, we have much respect for them and they generally meet the requirements we’ve laid out.
After having read the Hebrew scripture (‘Old Testament’) and studying a synopsis of the Talmud (the Jewish oral traditions as they were written down between 200 and 500AD), I found the Jewish faith to be extremely rational and positive. Many of its doctrines appealed to me—the need for complete dedication and obedience to God and his commandments, the primacy of the written scripture but with recognition of the validity of oral tradition, etc.
There are a few key reasons we didn’t go this route. First, of the three major Jewish ‘denominations’ in the United States, only the Orthodox sect—the smallest of the three—adheres strictly and consistently to the moral teachings of scripture, and none of the three has any strong centralized authority. Second, abandoning a lifetime of Christian upbringing would be extraordinarily difficult. As a Jew, I would have to give up any belief in the teachings of Jesus as valid and important parts of my understanding of God. Third, according to Jewish teaching, you can be a righteous Gentile (non-Jew) and be acceptable in God’s eyes without converting . . . so, even if Judaism is ‘right’, why convert?
Having said all that, I have deep respect for the Jewish people and their special place as God’s chosen people—proved, in my mind, by their incredible tenacity as a people and their repeated ability to survive intact through mind-boggling abuses that would have destroyed any other people.
- Wesleyan/Church of the Nazarene:
I moved back toward familiar territory in examining the Wesleyan Church and the Church of the Nazarene—the two denominations I’ve been exposed to by my parents since they left the United Methodist Church. Both denominations trace their history (like United Methodism) to theologian John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement.
The Wesleyan and Nazarene denominations have retained beliefs in personal holiness and the primacy of scripture that their United Methodist brethren have apparently abandoned. My experiences in these two similar denominations are generally very positive, despite the overly-exuberant and un-solemn worship style in the churches I’ve visited. The biggest problem is the small denominational size.
Here in Northern Virginia, there are five Wesleyan churches and three Nazarene churches within a half-hour drive of our apartment. That sounds pretty good, but four of them are so small that they meet in rented space at local community centers, share a storefront with another church, or meet at a residence. One has its name written in Spanish (which I assume means I won’t understand the sermon). Two are Korean (same problem). Finally, one Nazarene church at the very outer limit of my half-hour circle appears to be a true, standalone, dedicated church facility with services in English.
If this is the state of affairs in urban, bustling Northern Virginia, what confidence can I have in finding another Wesleyan/Nazarene church within a half-hour drive of whatever random town we end up in next time we move? While I have few objections to Wesleyan/Nazarene beliefs and practice, the church falls short with regard to our practical concerns.
- Convocation of Anglicans in North America:
When the Church of the Epiphany in Herndon—diagonally across the intersection from my former United Methodist church—chose to secede from the U.S. Episcopal Church over their un-Biblical appointment of a practicing homosexual bishop, it got my attention. Like other Episcopal churches that have left over this and other issues, Epiphany joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
The Anglican church has a good, traditional style of worship and exhibits a healthy conservatism with regard to major doctrinal changes (the headstrong U.S. Episcopal Church notwithstanding). The CANA churches, however, are few and far between—fewer than 100 nationwide. Worse, many of those CANA churches are threatened with their property being repossessed by the Episcopal Church depending on the outcome of various legal proceedings.
As tempting as it is to join communities that stubbornly held fast to their Biblical values when their denomination didn’t, the CANA churches are fraught with legal uncertainty and lack the nationwide presence I was hoping to find in a church.
Approaching a Decision
Having moved through all these examinations—continuing to study scripture and the doctrines of various Christian denominations while trying to figure out where the Spirit was leading us—Melissa and I began to doubt whether any denomination met the list of ‘requirements’ we had set out without any serious deal-breakers. We wanted something that seemed impossible in our morally relativistic society: a church that is large, stable, and morally sound.
I began to tell myself that ‘No denomination is perfect; maybe I’m being too picky,’ but could not shake the feeling that I was missing something . . . and then, something surprising happened.
Stay tuned for Part 3.