On what basis can any group claim to be a proponent of the true gospel message and how can any such claims be validly tested?
This fact has been commonly brought up by Christadelphians in talks which pose the question, “One Bible, Many Churches, Why?” In such talks they would normally suggest the diversity is because other churches either do not hold the Bible as their sole authority or if they do, do not read the Bible sufficiently well. In other words if people did so they would become Christadelphians. The obvious objection is many other groups make exactly the same claim and there are diversities when it comes to the interpretation of different passages. In fact there is a history of division even within the community itself and other similar groups about what the essential truths comprise.
In a number of sections on this site we look at the difficulties of coming to absolute certainly if saving truth is based upon an independent analysis of the Bible for oneself from such issues as:
Not all Christian groups however believe in the Bible alone. The largest for instance (the Catholic Church) would suggest the true gospel only belongs to the true church and is based upon its transmission from apostolic days in a visible church. This actually has some consistency with a lot of quotes from the Bible itself. Many quotes show the gospel was taught and not a result of independent investigation alone. In addition, the idea of “the Bible alone” has some very real practical difficulties which are considered elsewhere on this site.
They would accept the veracity of the Bible, but suggest its interpretation is limited to the church.
Whilst recognising a need for a continual historical basis in transmitting the gospel there are difficulties. These principally lie in the idea of apostasy. History also shows the Catholic Church has reversed its official positions many times throughout history, including its beliefs on the Nature of God. In a big debate at “The Council of Nicaea” one group called Athanasians won the debate which became the orthodox position. However later observers noted that the losing position (called Arians) were actually predominant in many periods. So even on official positions the Catholic Church has changed and reverted many times.
The Protestant Reformation occurred precisely because many Reformers reading the Bible came to the conclusion the Catholic Church had gone into apostasy. And to some extent the “Counter Reformation” by the Catholic Church has acknowledged some of its failings.
We have to conclude therefore that apostolic transmission doesn’t work infallibly in a visible church
Another method proposed is the working of the Holy Spirit in the church. The Christadelphians do not generally believe in this, although they have believed in “providence,” generally transmitted by the angels. They hold to a theory that the guidance of the Holy Spirit was only until a perfect Bible came about, after which there was no continuing need for it.
A difficulty they would point to is the variance amongst those who believe this. A general belief in some form of “spirit guidance” can even be found in many non Christian movements, including the New Age Movement.
Christian groups generally accept the Bible as an authority as well as the Holy Spirit, so they would believe many who claim Holy Spirit guidance do not necessarily have it. If the Bible is accepted as a basis to judge the Spirit, then it potentially holds all the difficulties of the Bible alone. It also makes the Spirit subject to personal understanding of the Bible, which in certain New Testament passages would be making “the Spirit subject to the Letter.”
The practical difficulties of being able to work this out rationally does not matter to many Christians because they believe not everyone “hears” the message, God draws people to him and it is in the hands of God.
The claim of Christians is that they are changed, whether that is through reading the Bible alone, God living in them by his Spirit or through the teaching of a visible church and the ministry of pastors.
There is therefore a practical test that should be seen in a greater love for neighbours, for fellow Christians, for being more like Christ. Here is a relevant quote from the Bible,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34