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43. Making Sense of the Church Scene Today

Purpose: The purpose of this session is to give the disciple an understanding of the differences between denominations and other groups that assume the name of “church.”


1. To understand something about world views and the bases of various groups in the religious world today.

2. To understand that true Christians can be somewhat different in their approaches to certain teachings of the Scripture.

3. To identify some of the approaches that are different from the disciple’s own.

4 To have a beginning of understanding the different systems within the church, and why some are different than yours. This will help to clarify your own belief system.

Scripture Memory

And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:24-25


1. Mutual sharing and prayer.

2. Discuss the session materials.

3. Scripture memory work.

4. Discuss meaning of new terms.


This is an overview of the ecclesiastical scene in our country today. It is not complete with small splinter groups, but it will help you understand some of the terminology used—terminology you will become familiar with if you move in the evangelical church movement today.

Two Main Systems of Thought Among Evangelicals

There are two broad systems of theology held by evangelicals. They are the teachings of John Calvin and those of his student Arminius.


Calvin developed a system of thought that emphasized the sovereignty of God. It can be remembered by the acrostic “T U L I P.” The main points are:

Total Depravity

Unconditional Election

Limited Atonement

Irresistible Grace

Perseverance of The Saints

A. The total depravity of man carries the idea that man is affected by sin in every area of his life. It does not mean that a man is as sinful as he might be. Man is in the condition of death and is helpless to deal with this condition. He is born a sinner and sins because of his pitiful condition. Scriptures such as Romans 3:23 and Isaiah 53:5-6 speak of this condition.

B. Unconditional election grows out of this first condition. Man is helpless and God must take the initiative with respect to salvation. He purposes to deal with sinners through His sovereignty. He calls whomever He determines to call according to His foreknowledge of what He will do. If there were no calling from Him, all would be lost.

C. Limited atonement is a teaching that restricts the benefits of Calvary to the elect. His atonement is limited and efficacious only for the elect. For other than the elect, Christ’s work has no meaning because the propitiatory sacrifice is not for them.

D. Irresistible grace is the teaching that God’s call is always effectual. He is the “hound of heaven” and His Spirit will break down the barriers and reach the hearts of all the elect, bringing them to life and causing them to believe.

E. Perseverance of the Saints is the teaching that those who have been called will continue steadfast to the end and ultimately be saved. Although one may fall, he will not lie in the lap of carnality but will rise and walk effectually again. He will persist to the end. This is an emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus in the life of a believer.

Scriptural passages such as Romans 8:38-39 and 1 John 2:19-20 are used to support these teachings.

Christians are somewhat split on these points, but they are firmly taught by churches that are Reformed in their theology. Presbyterian and Reformed churches, Evangelical Free, Grace Brethren, and a great many Baptists are in this camp. Most Baptists usually accept three of the five points, being somewhat tentative about unconditional election and quite unsure about limited atonement.


Arminius was a student of Calvin. Following Calvin’s death, he moved more to the position of the free will of man and away from the sovereignty of God. As time went by, he developed a system held to by Methodists, Holiness and many Charismatics today. The two groups of denominations mentioned here are not exhaustive but rather representative.

The chart on the following page will help you understand approximately where churches are in terms of basic theology. It has been developed on a continuum with the more Calvinistic movements at the top moving toward those which tend to be more Arminian at the bottom.

Please remember that these are general classifications of denominational belief. They in no way reflect the individual positions of a particular local church or individual in that church.

More Calvinistic













Plymouth Brethren








Grace Brethren




Evangelical Free




Calvary Chapels




Christian & Missionary Alliance




Missionary Baptist Church




Mennonite Brethren




Christian Church




Church of Christ




Evangelical Covenant












United Church of Christ




Assemblies of God and Foursquare



Wesleyan Methodists





Church of God




Church of the Nazarene





United Methodists




Salvation Army





Pentecostal Church of God




Pentecostal Holiness




Freewill Baptists




Seventh-Day Adventists




Episcopal Church




Roman Catholic




Less Calvinistic


Note: Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and other major cults are also basically "works" oriented.

Some will distinguish between Pentecostals and Charismatics. Both generally accept the position that all of the gifts of the Spirit are available to the church in any age in the same way they were present in the early church.

As a rule, Pentecostals are a denomination, whereas Charismatics cut across most denominational boundaries. Some Charismatics are more Arminian in their theology, and sometimes will hold views concerning the coming of the Lord that uniquely relate to their teaching concerning the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

There are differing positions in terms of the church and the coming of the Lord and the method of interpreting the Scripture. The major views might be summarized as dispensational and covenant theology, or Pre-millennial or Amillennial.

Then there are global differences stated in terms of basic theological positions that have to do with the miraculous nature of the Scripture as opposed to the rejection of the supernatural. These divisions can be summarized as:

1. The Fundamentalist— accepts the basic teachings of Scripture in a literal and dogmatic way and is somewhat exclusive and separate. The fundamentalist believes in the supernatural, the deity of Jesus, and the authenticity of the Scripture.

2. The Evangelical —accepts the basic teachings of Scripture, generally in a literal sense. The evangelical tends to be more open than the fundamentalists, believes in the supernatural, the deity of Jesus, and the authenticity of the Scripture. The basic difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is one of attitude.

3. The Liberal —denies the supernatural aspects of Scripture and spiritual life. There is usually a denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus and His miraculous life. If there is belief in life to come, it is often belief that corresponds with Universalism (the doctrine that all will ultimately be saved).

A note regarding the doctrine of "holiness". The holiness doctrine, or complete sanctification, is the teaching that through a post- salvation experience, one is able to attain sinless perfection. Those churches (see preceding chart) marked with an "x" under holiness are those that teach perfection through a second work of grace.

Contemporary Christianity Today

Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Liberals

In understanding the church scene today, it is best to see churches as in one of the above groups. Although these terms apply basically to Protestants, some overlap into Catholicism.


The fundamentalist believes in the dictation theory of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, often stating loyalty to the King James Version of the Bible. The term describes those who believe basic Bible truths that are taught in the Word of God. Two things cause them to differ from evangelicals — they are usually dogmatic about everything they teach and they tend to be militant in their approach and outlook. Some Baptists, Pentecostals and a few Presbyterians could be termed fundamentalists.


The beliefs of an Evangelical do not vary much from those of the fundamentalist. Attitude seems to be the biggest difference. Although dogmatic on the distinct basic doctrines of Scripture (see theological hierarchy), they are willing to fellowship with those who are true believers who hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Although there may be difference in certain doctrines they hold to the essentials, where there are no significant differences that would hinder fellowship. Among these one would find Baptist, Evangelical Free, some Presbyterians, Grace Brethren, some Lutherans and some Pentecostals. Some Reformed churches would fit this description, as well as some Catholics and Reformed Episcopalians and others.


These churches usually deny the supernatural, the inerrancy of Scripture, many tenets of the historic faith, and tend to preach a social gospel. They would often teach a salvation by works and deny the need for the new birth. A definite need for commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior is not emphasized and often not considered important. Most Methodists, many Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and, with a few exceptions, the United Church of Christ would be considered liberal today.

Theological Systems Today

We want to go a step further and define systems according to their teaching concerning the millennium. This will help in your understanding of some of the practices in various churches.

The word “millennium” comes from a Latin word which means “a thousand.” It is used to speak of a time recorded in Revelation 20:1-10 when Christ will reign as King over all the earth. During this time, Satan is bound and he is cast into the bottomless pit. This time is accompanied by the resurrection of saints who have died. They reign on earth with Christ for 1,000 years. Teachings about the millennium usually include death, immortality, judgments, and the end of the world as we know it today. It concerns the chronology of coming events that involve the human community on earth. There are three views or approaches that are central in the consideration of theological approaches.


The premillennialist believes the coming of the kingdom of Christ will be brought about by sudden cataclysmic events that involve the personal return of Christ to earth. This return will be preceded by signs such as wars, earthquakes, a great departure from the faith, the restoration of Israel to the land, and the appearance of the anti-Christ. The time will be a period of peace and righteousness when Christ will rule with His saints on earth from Jerusalem. This rule is established suddenly through supernatural methods and the Jewish nation will be restored to Christ’s favor as described in Romans 11.

Two approaches are held by premillennialists.

Historic Premillennialism holds the view concerning the end time as follows. The church is the initial phase of Christ’s kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament. The church may win some victories, but it will ultimately fail and become corrupt as world-wide evil increases. The church will go through the tribulation (Jacob’s Trouble) which will be the end of contemporary history. Christ returns at the end of the great tribulation, conducts the Bema, fights Armageddon, binds Satan and establishes a worldwide kingdom with Satan bound and in the bottomless pit.

At the end of this period, Satan is loosed and there is a huge battle with God intervening. The resurrection of the lost with their judgment takes place and the eternal order begins.

Leading individuals who espouse this view included Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Erdman, Godet, Torrey, Ladd and J. Barton Payne.

Dispensational Premillennialism teaches that Christ’s offer to the Jews of the Davidic Kingdom was rejected and therefore postponed until the future. The church is a parenthesis with different programs for Israel and the Church. Toward the end time, there will be a turning from correct doctrine.

The return of Christ is in two phases. The first phase is the rapture of the church. The second phase is to establish a literal kingdom that will be ruled from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. Satan is bound for this time and he cannot oppose God or the saints. Another way to speak of His coming is to say He is first coming “for” His saints and secondly, with the saints. Satan is released at the very end of the 1,000 year period of time.

When Satan is loosed, he attacks Christ and His saints. Jesus calls down judgment from heaven. The second resurrection takes place (the resurrection of the lost), and the judgment of these unbelievers at the Great White Throne will end all time.

Advocates of these concepts include Barnhouse, Darby, Geisler, Ironsides, Ryrie, Pentecost, Walvoord, Swindoll and others. The release of the Scofield Bible in the early part of the twentieth century was the instrument that resulted in these ideas being widespread.


Another system that takes a different view of the millennium is called amillennialism. The augment “a” means no literal millennium. The kingdom is simply spiritualized. There will be no literal reign of Christ on earth. The major principles of this system are:

The church is the kingdom era prophesied in the Old Testament. Therefore, Old Testament and New Testament saints are all one body. In most forms of amillennialism, infant baptism brings children into a covenant relationship with God.

Christ reigns in the hearts of believers and inasmuch as He does, there will be an influence on culture. Toward the end of the growth of evil, the personal anti-Christ and great tribulation will come. Christ will then end history by His return. Judgment will bring about the eternal reward of the saints.

Advocates of these concepts and approaches include Berkouwer, J. Adams, Hoekema, Walke, and Boettner. Most Reformed theologians hold to these approaches.


This is the third approach that is somewhat less popular than the former two. The main teachings of this system are:

The messianic kingdom was founded on earth during the ministry of Christ. The church became the Israel of God. The kingdom is redemptive and spiritual rather than physical. It exercises transformational influences in history and will gradually expand without Christ’s presence on earth. Fulfilling the Great Commission succeeds in the Christianizing of the entire world, after which Christ will return.

Those who have advocated these positions were Augustine, Calvin, Eusebius, Machen, Hodge and Strong. Differences are not only in belief about the millennium but also in the nature of the church and the restoration of Israel.

Additional Differences

We have covered a brief description of some of the differences. There are a few more distinct differences that result from interpretive methods and systems.

Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. This science differs among various systems in that while Dispensationalists tend to be futurists and interpret the Scriptures literally and at face value, covenant theology (amillennialist) tends to see things allegorically. Major differences of belief that are rooted in methods of interpreting Scripture involve the judgments, the church, the return of Christ and the meaning of baptism.

In spite of these differences, amillennialists, premillennialists, and postmillennialists are counted as evangelicals and\\or fundamentalists. There is a firm holding of the fundamentals of the faith and sound doctrine.

For additional information read Introduction to Dispensational Teaching, in the Appendix.

Related Topics: Discipleship

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