Maybe for one reason or another you’re interested in going to a church for the first time, or returning to church and seeking a relationship with God after perhaps having been away from church for a long time.
You’re wondering, “What the difference between the different kinds of churches? Should I attend a Roman Catholic Church, a Mormon Church, a mainline denominational church, a non-denominational church or some other kind of church?
This is a huge question and large volumes have been written comparing and contrasting the beliefs and practices of different churches. I will attempt to be much simpler and straightforward here about the most basic differences between churches.
First, churches differ based on their source of authority—that is, the basic reason why they believe what they believe.
For instance, Bible-believing Protestant and Evangelical churches based their beliefs on the Bible. They most often believe that the Bible, consisting of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, is the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God. Therefore, the Bible alone, and what the Lord Jesus Christ said and His Apostles wrote, is the ultimate source of authority and truth for what they believe. These churches believe that anyone, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is able to read and interpret what the Bible says for himself.
Roman Catholics also believe the Bible is the Word of God, but do not believe it is the sole authority for what they believe. They also believe that some additional books called the Apocrypha are the Word of God. They believe that there has been additional revelation from God in the form of the decisions of church councils and popes since New Testament times which they put on the same level as the Bible. These things they call Church Tradition. The Roman Catholics say that only members of the Church Magisterium—basically, all the Roman Catholic bishops when they are in agreement, and the Pope, when he speaks “ex-cathedra” are able to properly interpret the Bible or speak or with the authority of God about faith and practice.
Although Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches agree that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and God’s Son, they disagree on how a person can get to heaven. Their disagreements are based on their differing sources of authority.
For instance, Jesus Himself in the Bible said all that is necessary for a person to get to heaven is to believe in Him. That is, all that a person must do is to believe trust in, rely on, or depend on Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the God-man, who died on the cross to pay for his sins and rose again. (See I Corinthians 15:1-8). This is explained in everyone’s favorite Bible verse, John 3:16, which is a quotation from Jesus Himself: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (NASB). He reiterates this truth in John 5:24; 6:29; 6:40 and 6:47, Luke 7:50 and Mark 2:1-12 as well as many other places.
However, because Roman Catholics believe that there are sources of authority other than Jesus Christ and the Bible, they believe differently about how a person gets to heaven. Belief in Jesus Christ is just a part of what is necessary to get to heaven, according to Roman Catholicism. A complicated series of steps involving faith, good works, baptism, an understanding of the fundamentals of Catholic teaching, spiritual living, repentance, prayer and fellowship with the Catholic Community and continued involvement in Catholic rituals called sacraments are among the requirements for someone to be assured of going to heaven. Essentially, Roman Catholicism teaches salvation is only available through the Catholic Church and its rites for those who both believe in good works and practice the good works outlined by church tradition. More than that, they don’t believe anyone can be sure of going to heaven.
Whereas the Bible teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The Roman Catholic Church teaches the opposite—that it is impossible to be saved by faith in Christ alone: “If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ; or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 6, “Decree on Justification,” canon 12.)
So, basically, the question which needs to be answered in deciding which kind of church to attend is this: Who are you going to believe? The Bible and Jesus, or Roman Catholic Church Tradition—the Councils of the Roman Catholic Church and the decrees of the popes and the bishops.
As noted above, Jesus clearly said that salvation is by faith alone in John 3:16, 5:24-25: 6:29 and 6:47 as well as many other places, in addition to the Bible’s statements found in Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 3:21—5:11; Galatians 5:6 and many other places. The Councils of the Roman Catholic Church, the traditions of men, disagree.
The same question may be asked with regard to the Mormons, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science and many other supposedly Christian churches who don’t necessarily believe that all that Jesus said or the Bible says is true. What is the basis for their teachings? What authority is the source of what they claim is true about God and salvation? Who do they really believe?
Though all these groups will claim to believe in Jesus Christ and the Bible, a deeper analysis will reveal the real source of what they believe is something that has been written in addition to what Jesus and the Bible really say—which either distorts, adds to, or replaces what Jesus and the Bible really say.
The Mormons say many plain and precious things have been left out of the Bible, and therefore the revelations which came through their prophets Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and many other since have been necessary to correct what was left out of the Bible. The real authority behind the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not the Bible, but the interpretations of the Bible by the controlling Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in New York, which are in contradiction to the interpretations of almost all Protestant, Bible-believing and Evangelical churches. Christian Science also claims to believe the Bible, but once again, the real source of authority for what Christian Scientists believe is not the Bible, but the re-interpretation of the Bible by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, and her book, The Key to the Scriptures. Many other churches which don’t believe all the Bible, or only say the Bible contains the Word of God, rather than is the Word of God, prefer to follow mere human opinions and speculation rather than what Jesus or the Bible says.
The Founder of the Mormons, Joseph Smith, taught that Jesus was just one of many men who have become gods, and that He is not the only begotten Son of God, the only God-man who saves from sin. Essentially, he taught his followers to follow a different Jesus–or different concept of Jesus than what Jesus and the Apostles taught–and that to be saved a person must not only believe, but repent, and be baptized by an authorized representative of the Mormon Church.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus was God, but a god, and ultimately the archangel Michael. They ultimately insist that faith plus works, including witnessing, are necessary for salvation.
Mary Baker Eddy taught emphatically that Jesus Christ was not God, that sin and sickness are not real, and therefore we do not need to be saved from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Once again, the question regarding which church to be a part of depends on who you are willing to believe. Do you believe Joseph Smith, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Mary Baker Eddy, mere human opinion and conjecture, or Jesus and His Apostles?
Jesus was the only man to ever predict His death and resurrection to the day. As the only man who defeated death, the most credible miracle-worker and truth-teller who ever lived, He’s my choice as the person to believe. No other religious founder or leader has ever accomplished this. His words were confirmed by the Apostles whom He authorized and sent and who wrote the New Testament, and both they and He affirmed belief in the Old Testament as the Word of God.
Therefore, I recommend you become a part of a church which believes and practices according to the ultimate source of truth—Jesus Christ and the Bible. Be very careful to determine that such a church actually believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the God-Man, in the Trinity, and that the Gospel that results in salvation is that Christ died for our sins and rose again and lives according to those truths. Check out their statement of faith or doctrinal statement first before checking them out in person.
For it was Jesus Himself who said, ” “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall” (NASB).