Will the real Christian please stand up?

Christianity is weird

Christianity is a weird religion. I know, I’ve been a part of it for nearly 65 years. And don’t give me that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” crap–it’s a very real religion by any standards. And, it’s chock full of really weird people, who believe some really weird things. My goal, over the last several years, has been to de-weird it.

Actually, Christianity more than one religion, if you want to get right down to it. There is no way, for example, to look at the Eastern Orthodox churches and any American fundamentalist church and conclude they were the same religion. Yet, each considers themselves to be Christian (and would perhaps doubt the status of the other).

And beyond that, it’s clear to perhaps most non-Christians that Christianity is weird, but for many different reasons. From a modern perspective, the Eastern church as well as the Roman Catholic Church are weird due to their rituals, incense and chanting, and their apparent idolatry of odd paintings. The Protestant movement created new weirdness by making up their own rules and throwing out the books of the Bible they didn’t like. As the protestant church evolved into various streams of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and postmodernism, the rules changed even more.

Besides the rules, beliefs changed as well. Many contemporary churches don’t “confess” the historic creeds, and many contemporary church members (I’ll avoid the ‘C’ word for now) couldn’t even tell you what they are. Many are actually down-right heretics in what they believe about the nature of God. And trying to get any consensus on what the Bible means, or even is, is out of the question. It’s my guess that no 1st Century Christian would claim any evangelical church as Christian.

So how can Christianity be considered one religion? The only real commonality is a belief that there was a man named Jesus who was (more or less) the son of God (whatever that means), who taught a lot of good things and was crucified for either political, religious, or prophetic reasons. And, all hold that the Bible is important, was inspired to some extent (with the exception of those several books which are only accepted by half of the church), and may or may not be inerrant.

A little history

According to Acts 11:26, the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch, where the church was rapidly growing. The word translated as “Christian” is “Christianus’ (English spelling) of a Greek word with a Latin suffix. The resulting word literally means “belonging to Christ,” denoting a possession / slave. The name was obviously adopted by the church as they thought it was appropriate.

So, who were these Christians? Did they accept the creeds of the church? No, because they hadn’t yet been written. So, did they believe the trinity? Probably not. In all likelihood, they were nearly all heretics by today’s standards, or even 4th Century standards. They probably had not contemplated the dual nature of Jesus (fully God and fully man), and some may not even have believed Jesus was “of the same substance as the Father.” Oh, dear.

In the 4th Century, various conflicts had arisen about the nature of Jesus (was he God or not?), so in 325AD what is known as the Nicean Council was held with all of the church leaders. They discussed, and argued, and at least one fist-fight broke out. At the end, they had drafted what is now known as the Nicean Creed, which stated the acceptable belief of the one universal church. Until that time, perhaps 1/3 of the church members were heretics, by post-Nicean standards.

“It’s the question that drives us”

So, were they, in fact, Christians? Or, in today’s evangelical parlance, were they “saved?”

This, then, begs the question: by what standard do we judge who is or who isn’t a Christian/saved?

As with many things Christians, it depends who you ask. Note that these are over-simplified summaries; please feel free to correct me on any points.

  • Eastern Orthodox: First, Orthodox theology does not translate well into western, modernist thought. That being said, the basic teaching of the Orthodox is that they are the only true Church, and that there is no salvation apart from the Church. Salvation is by grace, which comes through the sacraments (baptism, eucharist, etc.), and by cooperating with grace in doing good works. It’s a lifelong process, and there are no guarantees should one turn away from the Orthodox Church or faith.
  • Roman Catholic: The first splinter group, the RCC claims that it is the one, true, apostolic church, and that salvation comes through Jesus, the head, through the body, the church. This is through the sacraments, baptism, confession, and communion (eucharist). Non-catholics can be saved, but only because they are ignorant of the truth.
  • Lutherans: Lutherans believe, as taught by Martin Luther, than other we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ. Grace comes through faith, supplemented, as it were, by baptism and communion. Works do not add to our salvation. Salvation is available to all men, regardless of church membership.
  • Calvinism: Calvinists come in various stripes, but all believe that the saved are predestined. One cannot be saved if they weren’t predestined, but rather being saved is proof that you were predestined. There are disputes as to whether some are predestined for hell. In Calvinism, one can only be sure of their chosen status by persevering to the end (“eternal insecurity”).
  • Evangelicals: This is a large, hodge-podge of groups, which can include Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational groups. Typically, there is a rejection of predestination, and a belief that an individual needs to be converted from a sinful state to a Christian, by making a personal choice and confession of faith, followed by baptism (this order is important). There are disagreements about whether one can lose their salvation, or if they are “once saved, always saved.”

Now what?

So, how do we know that someone is a Christian? Is it because someone prayed a prayer “accepting” Jesus, or because they are a baptized member in good standing of a church? Is it someone who simply believes the right things? Or, is it something else?

Is, in fact, being “saved” and being a Christian the same thing?

The Bible contains some interesting passages, like this one from 1 John:

Beloved, love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7,8

Or this one, from Jesus:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

And there are plenty more texts which challenge many current beliefs about who (or who isn’t) being saved. Some read them exclusively, others see more inclusion. But, does this impact who is or isn’t a Christian?

Final thoughts

There are many from various diverse backgrounds, going back to the early church, who believe that “Heaven” (for lack of a better term) is available and open to all, including those who have believed differently than the standard Christian groups. Read the 1 John passage again, and think about it. Can a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim end up in Heaven if the love they show demonstrate that they “know God?”

I am one of those people who see a bigger salvation, a bigger God, a bigger love than the belief systems that focus on who doesn’t belong. However, I don’t believe that calling oneself a Christian has any meaning whatsoever in that respect.

If we go back to the original meaning of the word, I would propose that “Christian” applies to someone who belongs to, or is a slave of, Christ, regardless of whether they call themselves one or even believe in Jesus. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

“Christian,” then, would appear to be a functional or descriptive term rather than ontological. Or, we could say that the word “Christian” has a non-ontological meaning as well as an ontological one. I think with the way many who are labeled “Christians” act, we need to be aware of which sense of the word we are using, and not to confuse the two.

The key to knowing who is an ontological Christian, I propose, is that they demonstrate love and try to model their lives after the teachings of Jesus, as much as they are able. As the song goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Some have started to refer to themselves as “Red-letter Christians,” referring to those Bibles who put Jesus’ words in red. I find the term unwieldy, but I understand its use.

So does that mean that someone who claims to be a Christian but acts contrary to the basic teachings of Jesus not “saved?” I would never say that. God’s grace is unfathomable, and as 1 John 2:2 states, “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” All that we can say is certain words and actions do not reflect Christianity.

God Loves You And Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life

In 1952, Bill Bright wrote The Four Spiritual Laws, an evangelistic tract that became the calling card of Campus Crusade for Christ. While this was three years before I was born, I probably didn’t encounter it until my late teens.

When I started college in 1973, I got to know people from the main Christian groups on the UND campus: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and of course, Campus Crusade. I was pretty clueless about denominational differences, and saw nothing odd about being Lutheran. I was pretty accepted by the InterVarsity folks, but I couldn’t understand why the Campus Crusade kids kept wanting to go through the Laws and pray “the prayer” with me. My telling them I was a Christian wasn’t enough; I had to jump through their CC-shaped hoop in order to be accepted by them.

This trite, cookie-cutter approach to evangelism became something of a joke to me, and I recall beginning conversations with kids on campus with the first of the Four Spiritual Laws, “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” Perhaps twenty years later, it would occur to me that God has a rather ironic sense of humor, as my primary message had become that God indeed loves us and has wonderful plans for our lives. As God says to Israel in Jeremiah 29:11,

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

While I can’t recall why I understood this as a young child, I did understand that God loved me and, yes, had a plan for my life. Perhaps it was from the many Bible stories I learned in church and Sunday school about people like David, Samuel and Moses, chosen as children to serve God. Whatever the reason, I not only knew that God loved me, but also knew that I was destined for great things.

The world around me, of course, did everything possible to destroy this sense that I was loved and special. The message that the world gives is that we have to perform to certain standards to receive any love or respect, and that we will never, ever really be good enough. As with shame, this sense of needing to do more and try harder keeps us controllable by the powers that be.

As I left college and entered the corporate nightmare, this became all too clear. No one out there loves you unconditionally, and their plans for you are not necessarily for your own benefit. The message that God loves us and has wonderful plans for us is crucial; I believe this is one reason why Joel Osteen pastors what I understand is the largest church in the country. People don’t hear this in the world (or in many churches), and they are literally dying for it.

Jesus’ message to children was, “You’re special, and you’re loved.” Jesus’ message to Zacchaeus was, “You’re special and you have a purpose; can I hang out with you?” To the sick and the sinners, he said, “I know you, and you’re worth a miracle. There’s a better life waiting for you.” To the least, he said, “Come up higher. I love you and have a wonderful plan for you.”

I relished this message as a young child. I cling to it today. God loves me, this I know, and He has a wonderful plan for my life. And guess what? He’s got a doozey of a plan for you, too.

Questions:

  1. What was your reaction the first time you heard, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life? What is your reaction today?
  2. If you had one message to share with the world, what would it be?

Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.

America’s Christian heritage

While I’m not a big supporter of the “America’s a Christian nation” thing, I do believe that the United States was indeed heavily influenced by Christian principles, and that historically, the so-called “separation of church and state” was never meant to exclude religion – even Christianity – from public life.  James Robertson has re-posted from J.Grant Swank From MichNews.com an interesting collection of quotes from many of our founding fathers that deserve to be read.  (You can go to the site to read Swank’s editorial comments, which I will not post here):

President George Washington wrote a prayer addressed to “O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ” and ended it with this: “Let me live according to those holy rules which thou hast this day prescribed in Thy Holy Word. Direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Bless O Lord all the people of this land.”

President Thomas Jefferson: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis — a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

President James Madison: “Religion is the basis and foundation of government. We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

President Andrew Jackson: “I nightly offer up my prayers to the throne of grace for the health and safety of you all, and that we ought all to rely with confidence on the promise of our dear Redeemer, and give Him our hearts. This is all He requires and all that we can do, and if we sincerely do this, we are sure of salvation through His atonement.”

Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, property, and freedom of worship here.”

President Abraham Lincoln: “The ways of God are mysterious and profound beyond all comprehension. ‘Who by searching can find Him out?’ God only knows the issue of this business. He has destroyed nations from the map of history for their sins. Nevertheless, my hopes prevail generally above my fears for our Republic. The times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us.”

President Grover Cleveland: “All must admit that the reception of the teachings of Christ results in the purist patriotism, in the most scrupulous fidelity to public trust, and in the best type of citizenship.”

President Woodrow Wilson: “America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of the Holy Scriptures.”

President Dwight Eisenhower: “Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Begin is the first — the most basic — expression of Americanism. Thus, the founding fathers of America saw it, and thus With God’s help, it will continue to be.”

Many of us, both liberal and conservative, seem to have forgotten our foundation and have forgotten what it really means to be a Christian.   Maybe President Obama should take a few moments to read these quotes, and perhaps he’ll remember how it was that he got where he is.