I have had many people ask me about the differences between different churches. What is the difference between a Baptist Church and an Anglican Church? A Uniting Church, or a Community Church? Are they all the same? Are they different? How do you tell? Does it matter?
The answer is not always a nice and simple one.
Many of the most visible differences between churches are the least important. The way the minister / priest / pastor dresses. The differences in rituals and service/meeting styles. The type or amount of music and singing they have. What programs they run, or the activities they do in their communities. When and how they baptise people. The types of people who attend and how they are dressed. These are things which we see and notice the most.
But these are very secondary issues. Cosmetic and cultural. While they may reflect some of the more important things, they aren’t how we differentiate between churches.
The most important difference between churches comes down to how they know and respond to Jesus.
Do they know and respond to Jesus the way that he is presented in the Bible by the people who knew him and listened to his teaching? Or do they talk about Jesus by seek to know him primarily by some other means?
Do they study the scriptures, learn from the scriptures – not just in single sentence bites, but by looking at whole passages, whole books of the Bible, in their context and not in an isolated fashion?
Does a church submit itself to God’s word as revealed in the Bible, or does it seek to disregard or explain away those bits that don’t fit with the rest of our culture, or make us feel uncomfortable?
Does a church actually agree with other churches, other denominations, on what Scripture is – or have they added or taken away from the texts that the early church recognised as God’s word for all Christians?
This is what marks the substantial difference between churches – whether they know Jesus from all the scriptures, just as he said he could and should be known (Luke 24:25-27). Whether they submit themselves to God’s revelation in scripture, and take it seriously (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The big difference between churches is whether they take Jesus as he has revealed himself in scripture, or whether they don’t. And the second most important issue is whether the church seriously makes an effort to put that knowledge into faithful action.
Sometimes it is easy to see whether this is the case. Sometimes it can take more time and effort. But this is the real difference between churches.