Whose Truth Will Set You Free?

woman-praying-bible-featured-w740x493“It’s a non-denominational Bible Study,” my friend’s wife said at the restaurant. “It’s not tied to one Church or another, so it’s really good for everyone,” she explained with a confidence that nobody would be offended.

She was excited to tell us about this new program she was coordinating with other women from her neighborhood.  She explained they were of “all faith backgrounds” and how “everybody gets something out of it, whatever speaks to them.”

Although the social element of fellowship can be the attraction, I still wondered how a bible-based program described as non-denominational can catch fire and excite women of all faith backgrounds within Christianity.

It turns out that there were former Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans in the group, but most now attend non-denominational services on Sundays at a nearby mega-church.  Oddly enough, there were many practicing Catholic women who attend the bible study as well, not knowing the doctrinal landmines that exist.

Why is this bible study a problem?   What’s wrong with a good, non-denominational bible study?  Isn’t it the same Jesus?

These days it’s appealing to be open-minded and further, it is socially preferred to not offend anyone who has a different position than you on politics or religion. To have a strong position but not try to persuade others to adopt your position is not necessarily a problem, particularly when engaged in ecumenism. But all too often this approach is more of a “go along to get along” approach to some distorted understanding of tolerance.   For many in our age, truth has become relative with no absolutes.

As a result, some Christians have concluded that belonging to a denomination could tie them to a certain belief system which is out-dated.   It’s like being politically independent where you take the middle ground and borrow your voting positions from both major parties.  To be independent is to be free and not dogmatic.  You certainly can’t offend anyone at the neighborhood cocktail party if you’re not bound to any set belief system on Sunday or at the ballot box in November.

Here’s a truth that is not popular: The Catholic Church is the Church, it is not a denomination.

Is it politically incorrect to suggest that the Catholic Church is actually NOT a denomination? Oh yes, but that doesn’t make that fact any less truthful. Denominationalism is a heresy that occurred immediately after Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church in the original protest whereby new opinions were rapidly forming among those who called themselves “reformers”.   Within 20 years it was estimated that there were 200 different and competing denominations of new protestant Christians. Many differences formed over doctrine and many new communities broke off of the original break-offs.   We now have thousands of non-Catholic Christian denominations.

Now back to my personal dilemma during the dinner conversation with friends.

How do I respond when listening to the virtues of a “non-denominational” bible study which takes the middle ground and is written for all?

Who wrote the course and what is their faith background?

How can there not be bias? What is the bias?

By what authority do they write the answers in the study guide to scriptural interpretation? For example, in John 6: 35-71, how could a well-meaning bible study teach that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about his Real Presence in the Eucharist?  How can we explain Mark 16:18-19 without highlighting Peter’s identification as “the rock”?  What about 1 Timothy 3:15 where the Church is the foundation of the truth, not the bible?  Does it even matter that we understand these major concepts of our historic faith or is it only important that we love Jesus?

Do I take the politically correct position of responding, “That’s nice, I’m happy for you.”?  So I said, “Anytime you can open the word of God among friends, it certainly can’t hurt, right?”

Who can argue with that?  The problem is that an encounter with Scripture is an encounter with Truth. But will Truth be understood in a non-denominational bible study?

Let me know what you think I should have said!


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About the Author

Mike Carlton Writer

Mike Carlton was born in Buffalo, NY. He married his college sweetheart Laurie and has six children. They were married in Ohio in 1991 and live in a suburb of Atlanta, GA. He is the son of the former NFL football star Wray Carlton. Mike currently works as the Global Vice President of MiMedx, a worldwide orthopedic biologics company in medical devices.

He graduated in 1989 from Miami University, Oxford OH with a B.S degree in Marketing and studied in the M.B.A program at Xavier University, Cincinnati OH. He earned an archdiocesan Catechetical Teaching Certificate for the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2003.

Mike was raised Presbyterian and converted to the Catholic Church in 2002. In 2003, he started the apologetics ministry called “Why Catholic” at his parish, St. Peter Chanel, Roswell GA. In addition, Mike and Laurie help start, with Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, MAC “Marriages Are Covenants”, a ministry outreach program of the Integrated Catholic Life for married couples. He has been interviewed on the Sacred Heart Radio Program, the “Deep in Scripture” program on EWTN radio, and has been an invited guest on the “Journey Home” television program on EWTN. A popular speaker, Mike has given his conversion talk around the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

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21 Comments

  1. I think your response depends on if the speaker is Catholic and the faith formation of that person. I am a convert to Catholicism and consider myself fairly well versed in Catholic doctrine, enough so that I have a “radar” for things that don’t sound quite right. I would consider joining a non-denominational Bible study, in part because I think it is a good way to evangelize. We share so many beliefs with non-Catholic Christians, and a well catecized Catholic can be a good representative of the Church. Not every differing belief needs to be pointed out, but done at appropriate times and gently, we have the opportunity to bring others into the Church. Now, a Catholic who does not know her faith well can be seriously harmed by a non-Catholic Bible study experience. Many have been lead away from the Church. If this is a good friend, I would explain these points. If not, I think your response was a good one.

    If the speaker is not Catholic but is trying to encourage a Catholic, a decision about how an explanation of the above will be recieved must be made.

    1. Great points made here Mary and welcome to the Catholic Church (your name is perfect as well). There are many similarities with non-Catholic Christians and when the right time comes, we can point out the differences in a loving way. We should never hide from the truth! God bless, Mike

    2. I joined BSF Bible Study Fellowship 5 years ago. A non-denominational bible study that had been around for over 50 years. I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I prayed that God would direct me because I wanted to know Jesus on a personal level and I wasn’t being FED at my church. 2 weeks after my little discussion with Jesus, I joined when 2 other very devout Catholic women brought me to class. I didn’t know much about the bible (other than the readings read at mass weekly) so I knew that it was indeed a sign. I show up every week with my bible bag with Our Lady of Guadalupe painted nicely for all to see. They all know I’m Catholic and 3 other women in the class of 8 are as well. When a time comes for me to put my faith to work I do. At this time they look at me like,,, I never heard that before and therefor I know I give them food for thought and they respect my voice. I feel that Mary above is right. It’s our chance to show non-Catholics (as I prefer calling them rather than Protestants or whatever)that we follow one God. ,,plus because so many Catholics don’t know they are Christians too so it’s an opportunity to learn how to evangelize. However,,,,,,, it’s important to k now our differences so a copy of Catechism of the Catholic church is helpful. I am on fire for Christ and compared to my lukewarmness to my faith, I’m happy that I found truth in our Apostolic faith. I will go to BSF as long as I can knowing that it only brings me closer to God and His one true house of God… Hope this helped..

      1. Lori, my story is similar! A cradle Catholic whose marriage was ‘sanated’ after my reversion of sorts (thank you Scott Hahn, Christopher west, pope jpii etc)…I have been doing BSF for four years and have been greatly blessed by it. Like Mary, I see it as a way to evangelize and seek Christian unity. I keep Catholic Answers and the CCC close by for those (sometimes trying) weeks discussing Acts and John and Matthew amidst non-Catholics. (But also some of the most beautiful Christian women!) Praise God, two of my small group friends from BSF two years ago came to me with questions about birth control, Transubstantiation, etc. And they are both starting RCIA next week! So if you do not waver in your Catholic faith and ask for God’s protection and wisdom, participating in these non-denominational bible studies can bring our brothers and sisters home!!!

  2. I attend a Non-denominational study at the Local Nazarene Church. I’m the only Catholic. When we pick a book like “The five love Languages, or Love and Respect” I whole-heartedly participate. But currently we are doing the book of John. There are two people that attend that are somewhat familiar with the Catholic faith (and one gal married to a practicing Catholic) they are VERY respectful of my faith. A few others haven’t a clue and often through out are “rules” are bad etc.. I often sit quiet. And I”m “skipping” quite a few days during John because I don’t want to argue. It’s tough. I’m hoping to start a Catholic Mom’s study soon. The Nazarene church has child care for our study and a nice nursery and nice preschool rooms. They pay help to watch our kids. Our local Catholic church is a school.. so already filled with kids. 😉

    1. Hi Alisa,

      Maybe the Gospel of St. John studied in the Nazarene Church will provide the perfect opporuntiy to highlight our faith in a way that ties to Sacred Scripture. This chapter of the Bible has led many converts to look deeper. Good luck and God Bless, Mike

  3. I think Mary is right on point! In the past, I have not only done non-denominational Bible studies but also even one at a Protestant church. But I am well-versed in our faith enough to know when something is not right and ignore that point or gently offer a differing view. I also look at it as a way to evangelize, especially because so many other Christians have negative (and often wildly incorrect) ideas about the Church.

    Gauging your response depends on the social situation and how well you knew her, but to be honest, it sounds like you were a little too positive in your reply. It certainly can hurt (as I can tell you know) when wrong doctrines are presented so authoritatively and benignly in such a Bible study. If this Catholic woman does not have the formation in her faith to recognize false ideas, her very faith could be undermined. Exactly to your point, what is the source of the materials.

    Having been in this very situation, with 2 different Bible study groups there certainly is a lot of bias built in as to how the study is presented. As you said most of the participants were from the local mega-church I would not be surprised if this was an evangelization outreach of that church. I don’t think it is a far stretch to see this moving from a pleasant Bible study, to the others describing the entertaining worship services at their mega church and surely they will invite this Catholic woman to services. If she is unformed enough in her faith to not see the dangers of this, there could be serious consequences indeed.

    I guess my response would have been more along the lines of how it is always profitable for our faith to study Scripture and great that she had this in common with her neighbors, but ask her if she had seen any instances where this study was in conflict with Catholic beliefs. If she said, ‘no, what do you mean? Isn’t it just the same Bible we all read?’ It would give you the opening to suggest some things (like Eucharist, sole scriptura) depending on how open she was in her reply. I guess I would have just liked you to have planted the seed of the thought that perhaps all churches truth is not that same.

  4. I agree with 99% of what you say, but it is important to note that in Lumen Gentium 8, the Council states that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Council Father specifically edited the initial draft of LG to do away with any language that makes the Roman Catholic Church exclusively the Church of Christ. Not saying that’s what you meant, but any time someone says “The Catholic Church IS the Church of Christ,” the potential for misunderstanding is present.

    I also would have liked to hear your thoughts on the Orthodox Church, as they were not part of the Reformation, yet there is definitely a distinction between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

    God bless you, and keep evangelizing and spreading the Good News!

    1. Mitchell, Great points made. I pray for unity and the Eastern Orthodox Church has been compared to the left lobe of the Catholic lung (Western Church being the right lobe). Let’s pray that someday in our lifetime we can all be one as Jesus prayed in the Gospel of St. John. God bless, Mike

  5. As a Catholic convert who converted two yrs ago I completed several yrs of BSF. Good study because it opened my heart up to Holy Scripture. Frankly when I went thru RCIA I knew scripture better than the leaders ! Too many Catholics historically don’t even know Jewish history or the gospels. Thank goodness for Scott Hahn and others refocusing the church on Gods Word and what He says! I love the Eucharist more because I know who I’m in love with!

    1. Right on Holly~~~~!!!!! I feel the exact same way! We are so blessed to be able to have the best of both faiths… In BSF it’s like a college class … It’s hard!! I have loved hearing the gospel in church and know where else the bible it is verified or expounded upon… Until Catholics come up with their own version of BSF I will continue to study a (non denominational) study. It has brought me so much closer to my faith,,, the only true faith,, The Roman Catholic Church!

      1. Oh also,,, it’s important to use a Catholic bible and concordance…. and bring those 7 books into your answers. God Blesss~~!

  6. I would have told her that it would be a dangerous thing to do. We as lay people do not study what apologist study. We need help understanding the language of that time, the different meanings, like when Jesus was dying on the cross and told his mother that the man next to you is your son. Not knowing that Jesus meant thst shr would be all mankinds mother. She should stay away from anything that could vere her away from the truth.

  7. Mike, I agree with Cynthia, but I think I would have been even more upfront and honest at the dinner. If you have concerns share them. I’ve read alot here about people joining the non-denominational Bible Studies. I’m not sure that’s a good idea at all. Been there – done that. What I have seen is that depending on the group holding the study, there is an underlying emphasis, that their church holds too. For instance one group I know of talks alot about grace. It’s not the same thing though (from my understanding) that the Catholic Church teaches. The non denominationals tend to stress something I call super-grace or hyper-grace. Plus they might just be trying to win converts from Catholicism. Sounds dangerous to me.

    My advice is to find a Catholic Bible Study. Our church has one, if your church does not, try and start one. I was born into a Protestant family, went Evangelical, then really conservative Evangelical, and now I am attending a Catholic Church. I hope to join soon.

  8. I had a very bad experience with a protestant church and bible study. I disagreed with them on some points in bible study, that Mary was a Virgin and did not have other children etc. and pointed out the problem of Greek translations. Things were kind of ok. But I attended their service with my husband who is not R. Catholic and then went to Mass after the Protestant Service. I really liked attending a church with my husband who will not consider classes to become a R. Catholic. Anyway, one morning the Preacher was talking about how Catholic Priests told indulgences could get you into heaven (mind you I am the only one in the room that even knew what an indulgence was), and then went on to say how great it was that Martin Luther posted his thesis on the church door and straightened everything out. At that point it was extremely awkward for me so I got up and walked out and hit the road. My husband found out I left the building and picked me up along the road and took me home. We never went back there, I felt kind of bad that it made my husband quit going to church at all. He shared with me that he really wasn’t getting that much out of it anyway. What should I have done? grin and bear it or leave? Maybe that was the minister’s way of getting me to leave, I don’t know.

    1. The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses is coming up fast. Has your bishop been catechizing his flock in preparation for 2017? Mine hasn’t. Seems like the calendar keeps sneaking up on our bishops and catching the boys by surprise. They were caught napping in 2011, the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the King James Bible. Fortunately for the Church, it didn’t turn in to a pummeling of the Church by pompous Protestants. Will a snoozing Church episcopacy dodge this second bullet in 2017? Don’t count on it.

  9. I have to disagree with when u say that the church is the foundation of truth..it is and always will be Gods word that is the foundation of truth because God is truth and his spoken word is truth…no church or religion has that authority. God’s word is infallible and inerrant and no church is that! Sad of u to say that there is no truth in a non denominational church….Catholic means universal so it doesnt pertain to one church or denomination or to catholics. Its so sad to hear catbolics think they are the only ones with the truth or the true church which I can tell you it is not but neither is the Greek Orthodox or Protestantism or whatever else is out there. The authority doesnt come from Catholics, orthodox or protestants, etc…the authority comes from God and his Holy Spirit and his spoken word…the Bible.

    1. Hi Brenda,

      Thanks for your comments.

      You might find St. Paul’s New Testament letter to Timothy helpful. According to the bible, the church (not the bible) is the foundation of the truth. According to the NIV, a protestant translation, St. Paul says this to Timothy…

      “…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

      Deacon Mike

  10. Thank you for writing this article! I joined BSF 3 years ago and this year, with the study of the Gospel of John, I have been very concerned that they have said Jesus had siblings and salvation cannot be lost. I was trying to decide if I should continue and be wary of what is preached or leave it. I now know I should leave. I wish the Catholic Church would use the BSF format for a bible study ( even a self-study). Thank you and God bless you.

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