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.”
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?
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.