During my genealogy research, I came across a recently-published book, By Faith Alone: One Family’s Epic Journey Through 400 Years of American Protestantism.
It is the story of his adventure discovering the lives of his ancestors, but it is also the history of how the faith of successive generations changed over the years.
In this book, he tells of two churches which stand side-by-side in Plymouth’s old Town Square. One was built in 1830 and the other in 1897. Both claim to be the descendants of the Pilgrim tradition, but were the result of a split over disagreements over the doctrines of the church.
This is an extract about these two churches from Chapter 3 of this book:
“William Bradford would have been deeply saddened to know that the church he loved so dearly split into two parts 150 years after his death, but he probably would not have been surprised. After John Robinson died in Leiden in 1625, the Plymouth church hired a succession of pastors who never measured up to their beloved, charismatic shepherd. As a result, church attendance began to dwindle.
But something bigger was happening in the seventeenth-century Congregationalist movement in America, of which the Pilgrims were a part. Fewer and fewer people were going to the meetinghouse on the Sabbath, and of those who did, more and more of them failed to make public professions of their faith in Christ in what the Puritans called the Conversion Narrative, which mimicked the Apostle Paul’s own conversion on the road to Damascus. Such a narrative had long been a requirement before any Protestant in the Calvinist tradition was allowed to take communion. Instead, much to Bradford’s horror, more and more Congregationalist churches were beginning to subscribe to the more liberal beliefs of the Armenian movement that John Robinson had so vigorously opposed in Leiden.
Like many of the Congregationalist churches in New England, the church in Plymouth struggled to maintain its Calvinist identity even as the Unitarian movement grew stronger. (The name Unitarian derived from the movement’s rejection of the Trinity in favor of a single unified God.) The spit finally occurred in 1799 upon the death of a longtime, and very conservative pastor named Chandler Robbins when the deeply divided congregation voted to install a more liberal Unitarian minister named James Kendall. Almost immediately the members who opposed his election withdrew their membership and built their meetinghouse next door.”
This story is so familiar to us and a warning to Christians in every generation. The faith you have now and the battles that you fought for it may be won for a time. But they are the battles of your generation. They are not the same battles that our children, and grandchildren will face. If we do not take seriously the task of teaching our children about our faith, about the struggles of our time and of our ancestors’ times, then they will have no understanding or appreciation for the freedom we have now or the importance of good, sound, Biblical doctrine. They will be like a leaf that is easily blown about by the winds, not a deeply-rooted tree, nourished by Biblical Truth.
Our churches are falling fast and hard into apostasy, unbelief and blending entirely into the cultural scenery around them. How did we get here? This did not happen overnight or even in a single generation. This is the predictable result of a trajectory that we have been on for a long time.
The enemy is roaming about as a raging, hungry lion looking for whom he can devour. But many Christians don’t even believe (or choose not to live like) he exists. They live distracted lives, wrapped up in the pettiness of the day, addicted to to the quick highs of social acceptance and entirely immersed in the false world of non-stop entertainment. We have no time for self-reflection, Bible study and prayer, or if we do pursue these things, we find study books and teachers that speak kind words to our hearts and who stroke our egos.
To be honest, the truth of the coming judgement and the need for repentance is not a message that will garner big book sales. So people opt instead to teach that God’s will is for us to obtain our best lives ever now and to get rich. So there are fewer modern authors producing traditional Bible-study materials.
So what are some things we can we do to keep on track:
Read the Bible daily. Don’t pursue every trendy new Bible-study guide that comes out.
Know the Word of God in your heart and use it to test the resources you use.
Pray all the time. Pray for your spouse, your children, family, friends and people you meet who are lost.
Self-examine yourself. Have a humble heart towards God. Ask Him to show you your sinfulness and repent of it.
Listen to music that has good doctrine. A lot of the Christian music of today is well-produced and catchy, but of little value to our spiritual growth.
There are preachers that are well-spoken, charismatic and even very well grounded in the Word of God. They can be great teachers and valuable resources to help you better understand the Bible. But don’t set your heart and life solely on one person’s teaching, making them an idol. What would you do if they fall into sin? What if they don’t repent and fall away from the faith? What if they subscribe to a false teaching? Will it shake your faith? Be wise in not making idols out of teachers.
Know what you believe and understand why you believe it (based on Scripture), enough to explain it to another person.
Pursue regular fellowship with true believers.
Understand which issues are essential to your faith and which are not. What issues are so essential that you need to break fellowship with others over? Some things are clearly outlined in the Scriptures, and others are not. There is guidance in the Scriptures on how to address a lot of issues among fellow believers, but some things are not spelled out. We struggle with some of the same issues as the people did in the first century, like should a person be a vegetarian or not?
Share your faith with others as led by the Holy Spirit.
People are at different places in their journey to faith in Christ. Bear with those who are weaker or newer in their faith and correct them about sin with love. Not everyone will feel convicted to immediately correct all moral failings or bad habits. But if the Holy Spirit is truly working in their lives, and they are sensitive to His leading, they will feel the inner conviction to make changes in their lives. I think some people who are young Christians feel beaten down when they are immediately expected to conform to what a “good” Christian should “look” like. Encourage them to study the Bible and to grow in their walk with Christ.
Take time to unplug from all media and minimize distractions.