Letters to My Church: Treating Differences among Different Churches

May 5.2024

“Theology should leave you with a thirst for worship, rather than an appetite for controversy.” — Ryan McGraw.

As a pastor of a local church here in the Philippines, I have been reflecting on certain practices we, as Christians, have adopted in our interactions. This reflection is not a reaction but a solid call to action, urging us to reconsider our actions and practices in light of our digital age. 

As Christians, we are part of a larger evangelical body that includes different groups of believers with different practices. However, we hold on to a doctrinal standard that makes us distinctively evangelical Christians. I believe God allowed church diversity the same way we see it in what He created. We can all agree to disagree with these minor differences, yet it does not change the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. 

In my faith journey, I have experienced jumping from one group to the next, trying to find my fit in the body of Christ. I grew up in a conservative Chinese Evangelical church from my early years until I was in high school. I remember struggling with teachings about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, casting out demons, healing, and miracles. I was taught that all gifts have ceased and that Scripture is sufficient to live this life. I did my best to follow the teachings of the local church I was in until I had a different encounter when I moved to Victory, the local church I have been involved in since 1991. 

It was distinctly different from what my previous church taught, as we were encouraged to move in the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, believe in signs and wonders, and embrace world missions as a big part of a believer’s life. 

Over the years, I have attended church meetings with distinctly different practices than Victory, yet if there was one thing I learned all these years, it was that though different, we are all part of one body. If there are things I disagree with, I am to talk to the leaders of the church or the brother that I know or am acquainted with and talk things through as Christians are instructed. 

With the rise of social media use among churches and Christians, I have seen a disturbing trend that has penetrated our churches in the Philippines. What was once a Western practice (mainly among the content creators in America) on social media has penetrated our churches and leaders. I remember having a few of those instances during the MULTIPLY era when a young man started making accusatory statements on the Multiply platform on why all megachurch pastors are evil. I messaged him privately and even gave him tips on how to communicate his observations effectively rather than use accusatory words while using the verse Matthew 18:15-20

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Since then, I have confronted individuals I know I can reach when I say they make judgments on social media and do not follow the process of Scripture. Another tricky thing about the current practice of calling out on social media is that we are now playing a game we copied from the world. We have categorized people into camps, just like the Republicans and Democrats in the States. 

It is either you are reformed or Arminian, Charismatic or Baptist, tongue speaking, demon casting, spirit-filled, charismatic, or cessationist. I do not get this tribal thing we do as believers. Should I choose sides? Should I belong to a particular camp to be accepted? I have been a Christian for more than 30 years; I survived without being categorized into camps based on minor doctrines. We belong to only one camp – Christ’s camp. I live in the truth of Colossians that we are all one in Christ.

Colossians 3:9-10

 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all

Another observation is that because we have categorized people and started choosing sides, we have replaced the local church’s authority and elevated influential voices in the social media space as our primary influence rather than the elders/ pastors of the church we consider our home. We have followed celebrity pastors, viral Christian content creators, and well-loved Bible teachers, making them our primary spiritual shepherds. Many Filipino Christians listen more to foreign and online voices than the shepherds God has entrusted us with. As much as I love listening to sermons from around the world, I know who the spiritual shepherds are to whom I am accountable. Making a content creator your pastor-shepherd is like entrusting your spiritual maturity and life to someone you do not know and the more obvious one – someone who does not know you.

Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.

It is crucial to understand that yielding to spiritual leaders does not entail obeying their every dictate or giving them authority over every facet of our lives. As followers of Christ, we are instructed to evaluate everything against the standards of God’s Word and exercise discernment in all matters (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We are also urged to embody the dual qualities of shrewdness and innocence (Matthew 10:16), advocating for a balanced approach where we engage with spiritual leaders cautiously and thoughtfully, yet retain a core of sincerity and goodness.

An example that comes to mind is a Western theologian who came to Manila to conduct teachings. I watched the conference stream because my Christian brother referred me to listen, so I said let me take a peek into it. During the question and answer, somebody asked the guest speaker what he thinks about churches with women pastors. He then, without trying to know the context of the community, said they have to step down and stop preaching. Another person explained that because the men in the church were not stepping up, the women were forced to take leadership and preach. Again, in a simple one-sentence, he said, “Close down the church.” 

I could not believe what I was hearing. The speaker made no effort to understand the context or sternly rebuke the men in the conference who had failed to step up in leadership. Instead, because of his belief that women cannot preach – he failed to call out the real problem in the church – the passivity of men. (this is with the premise that your church does not believe in women preachers and pastors) I stopped listening immediately and prayed that God would give wisdom and discernment to the conference’s people who were listening to this. I could also imagine what the local church pastors would face after the conference when people would accept the teachings without carefully studying the Scripture and wrestling with the question as a church. 

As you can read between the lines, I am a firm believer in the local church and that every Christian should be part of one. We must find a local church that teaches the Scripture and embraces the major doctrines evangelicals hold dear. In the context of our local churches, we also need to do life together and theology together. Rather than post on social media and call things out to an audience with no other context except what we tell them, the more Scriptural thing to do is go to our local churches and discuss matters that might be affecting our local congregation rather than meddle in practices that have nothing to do with our context as Filipino Christians.

I would want to expound more on the need for better documentation of Asian theology and how we see and interpret things as Asian to avoid being lost in translation when we are more exposed to the Western context of doing church, but I know this is not the best avenue to do so as this is something to be done among the people God entrusted under my care which is my local church – Victory Makati, my spiritual family. I hope to do this amongst us as soon as possible.

Your pastor,

Dennis Sy