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.

So, what do you want from Christianity?

Here’s an interesting question: What do you want from Christianity?

A long time ago I heard someone describing becoming a Christian as an act of “enlightened self-interest,” where we are motivated by what we hope to get out of it rather than a commitment to serve God and others. Looking at the Gospels, it seems that Jesus never turned people away for wanting something from him; in fact, it was those who didn’t want anything from him that he turned away. Even Peter’s great statement of faith, “where else would we go? Only you have the words of life” (John 6:68), speaks of Peter’s need for these words of life. So, this enlightened self-interest does not appear to be a bad thing.

Considering this, plus the fact that Christianity has, at least for many people in the west, become a consumerist endeavor—one in which we pick churches and even religions on what we perceive we need—then the obvious question becomes, “what do you want from Christianity?”

In answering this question, we could go a number of different ways. However, reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there are two primary responses: a life under the law, with a list of requirements to fulfill, or a life of freedom. Many people, for a number of different psychological and bad theological reasons, choose a life under the law. A relative few, it seems, choose a life of freedom.

Two Gates

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Almost never do you hear this verse taught in the larger context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew chapter 7. He starts off by saying, “Don’t judge others.” Then, he speaks of the Father giving his children good gifts, merely for the asking, and teaches them what we know as the Golden Rule: treat others like you’d like to be treated back “for this sums up the law.” Immediately following verses 13 & 14, Jesus talks about false prophets, and how to recognize them by their fruit.

It seems here that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a different way from that of the law; we don’t get by working, we get by asking. Good trees naturally produce good fruit. Take the narrow road, not the widely traveled one.

Works, or grace?

I’ve always heard the explanation of the two paths as “choose holiness, not sin,” and yes, there’s something to be said for that, even though this does not seem to be Jesus’ emphasis here. Paul says we were set free not to sin, but to live in freedom, which is not to sin.

But, which gate leads to a life of works-righteousness, and which is the gateway to freedom and grace? Is it possible that we’ve confused our gates?

If Paul’s thinking accurately represents the Gospel as Jesus intended it (which I believe it does), then what leads to destruction is relying on ourselves, and what leads to live is receiving grace as a gift—which seems to follow Jesus’ line of thinking in the prior verses.

The Question

So, the question remains: What really do you want from Christianity, a life of self-reliance and works-righteousness, or a life of freedom that comes from grace?

What it means to be blessed

I grew up in a church who read from the Gospels each week (along with a passage from the Epistles, and the Old Testament). Sermons were sometimes based on the Epistles, but I seem to recall more coming from the Gospels. For one thing, the Gospels were stories, and even children could understand most of them. Secondly, I suspect that a lot of the impact came from the fact that the Gospels contained the words of Jesus, not simply words about Jesus.

I don’t recall any sermons having the message that as Christians, our lives would be a bed of roses. It’s actually hard to come up with this kind of belief if you actually read the Gospels. Jesus actually promises us quite a bit of trouble, when you come right down to it. And, as he lived as one of us for 30-plus years, and ended up being tortured and killed, I think he understood what he was talking about.

One of Jesus’ most famous sermons is the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapter 5. In a section known as the beatitudes, or the “blesseds,” Jesus says,

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

While some of the traits Jesus mentions are positive, such as being pure in heart, merciful and being a peacemaker, I don’t believe Jesus is saying that all of these are things to shoot for. Rather, he seems to be pointing out people who were personally suffering, or who were sacrificing their own good for the good of others. He did not meant that it is good to mourn or to be persecuted—in fact, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray to be delivered from evil, which these things certainly are. While the beatitudes are promises of hope and the coming Kingdom, Jesus knew that even though the Kingdom of God was at hand (Matt. 3:2), for the present time there will be suffering.

The Kingdom of God—the rule of God—has been described as “already but not yet.” It is “at hand” or “within reach,” but yet Jesus asks us to pray that the Kingdom of God would come to “Earth as it is in Heaven.” Of course, when I was a child, this was beyond me, but yet I understood that God was in control in spite of suffering—and that at some future point, everything would be set right. Those who mourn would be comforted, and the poor in spirit would inherit Heaven. In other words, the future would more than compensate for the present.

As a parent, I understand this now, as I watched my children fall when learning to ride a bike and take medicine that was hard to swallow. It is a matter of perspective. We need to learn to see beyond the present into the future, trusting that from God’s point of view, it all works out to our good.

At times there is healing and prosperity, and at times there is suffering and mourning. God sent the Comforter because we would need comforting, and he sent Jesus to bring hope and salvation in the midst of it all. Those of us who know God understand this hope.

That’s what it really means to be blessed.

1.       When is the last time you heard a sermon from the Gospels?
2.       How have you experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit?

Take off the blinders

A New Law

Don’t teach me about politics and Government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music

Don’t teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice

Don’t teach me about loving my enemies

Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

What’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
For one you can that cannot get you anything

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid

© Derek Webb Music