Recent dialogue on another blog, as well as some of my own musings, has made me want to begin to analyze the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Another way of asking this is, “What is it that does or does not make one a Christian?” On the one hand, there is a traditional answer to this question, and on the other lies what I would categorize as two reactionary answers–reactionary both to tradition and to one another. I hesitate to call these trends either liberal or conservative because people often associate liberal or conservative theology with politics, but there are examples of churches where staunchly conservative political and economic views are accompanied by a (in other contexts) liberal answer to the question. My hope in this post is just to summarize what I see as what’s going on, and raise some questions about some of the dangers I see in the answers to the big question I posed above.
I’d like to preface this post by saying that the purpose of what I’m writing here is to ask some questions, not necessarily come down hard with answers. I don’t really think of myself as liberal, conservative, emergent, postmodern, reformed, Mennonite, Methodist, Catholic, Protestant, or any number of other labels. I genuinely think of myself as a Christian. Period. I don’t find much comfort in other terms because, other conflicts aside, they tend to carry assumptions with them, many of which wouldn’t apply to me anyway, but Christian is a word I’m comfortable with because it’s a word that needs re-claiming. It has been co-opted to mean a lot of things that I don’t think it really does, so I want to raise questions that might help us at the very least draw distinctions, things that set Christians apart. Lines sound daunting and exclusionary, so we generally shy away from that language (at least if you’re at all “progressive” these days), but at some level we have to have an idea of what does it mean to be a Christian, and as intolerant as it might sound, what a Christian is not. So, I hope this is useful.
Though it’s up for some measure of debate (and I’m knowingly simplifying here for the sake of brevity), tradition in the church has held that being a Christian means professing a belief in the creeds of the church (Nicene, Apostle’s), which includes the affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and the Virgin birth, among other beliefs. Even in church traditions where creeds are not recited or even regularly acknowledged, in baptism and/or upon membership in the church, something similar is asked of a person. Trusting in Jesus for salvation is another traditional tenet of Christianity, again typically referring to a belief that Jesus’ death on the cross saves an individual from sin and secures eternal life. At various times in history (and depending on particular traditions), these beliefs have translated into particular practices, i.e. not consuming alcohol, abstaining from sex until marriage, not fighting wars, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc. The tension between belief and practice is always a source of debate in different parts of the church. Generally, the foregoing list is a pretty good description of what traditionally would be described as what it means to be a Christian. Obviously there is more that could be said, and obviously there is more to being a Christian than just what is said on paper, but for the sake of getting to the main points, I’ll move on.
For better or worse, different branches of Christianity have seen traditional definitions of what it means to be a Christian as not enough. In some ways, the tension of right belief and right practice is the dividing line between the two directions the church has seemed to go. What people call conservative Christianity has become narrowly focused on preserving all the right beliefs, even though those beliefs are often particular interpretations of Scripture, mostly by Reformation interpreters but also more modern interpreters that result in misinformed (and irresponsible) readings of books like Revelation. Because of the high emphasis on a certain understanding of “conversion,” so-called conservative evangelicalism’s focus has been on enlarging the church in numbers, trying to get people to “believe the truth,” so to speak. Belief is what’s important, belief in a certain understanding of justification, grace, salvation, sanctification, atonement. Those heavy words are crucial, and often such churches have drawn dividing lines based on how one understands those particular words. If, for instance, justification is at all participatory, then we forsake the entire New Testament and therefore have missed out on what Jesus has done for us. Even if not always explicitly stated, “liberal” theologians and churches are distorting the gospel. The gospel is simple: Jesus died for you, there’s nothing you can do to earn heaven, believe that Jesus died for you and you’re good to go. Anything else (like justice, or caring for the poor) flows out of that, but is not essential to what it means to be a Christian, necessarily, because being a Christian is about salvation so you can spend eternity in heaven with Jesus when you die. Again, lines are drawn to make Christianity a pretty narrow thing, yet because so often it demands so little of a person’s life (other than assent to some truths and attendance at church and reading a Bible), and places high emphasis on reward (both now and future), it is enormously popular. Therefore we have huge mega-churches, and in many cases, it is this brand (or similar) that is exported abroad, where Christianity is growing rapidly. Though there is a spectrum of expressions of this reaction, I feel like in general terms, what I’ve said is pretty true.
The other direction Christianity has seemed to turn (not that there are not other reactions, but these two get the most air time), is towards a higher emphasis on right practice–what it means to follow Jesus–and question some of the beliefs, both traditional and those of the so-called religious right. Here too is a spectrum of expressions, but some of the common ones are questions about liturgy and church structure, “institutional” church versus more “organic” church, church as community (and community as church), sacraments, experience of God instead of belief about God, high emphasis on Jesus’ life as paradigmatic. Social concerns are essential to what it means to be a follower of Jesus (even that expression “follower of Jesus” used often instead of “Christian” is a reaction against other understandings that understate the whole-life transformation that comes with being a Christian), and in certain churches/areas in this umbrella, social concerns are all that really matter. The Sheep and Goats passage is the quintessential story for many people–the standard of judgment is based on how we treated others. Many people/churches who fit this category are interested in blurring lines (or erasing) between Christianity and other religions, or at the very least, incorporating the good things that can be learned. Some on the spectrum would erase the lines completely and erase the necessity at all of particular beliefs for identifying as a Christian, and equate Jesus with Buddha as an influential spiritual teacher, for example. Another example of this, which doesn’t fit into some of the other characteristics I mentioned above, would be people like Joel Osteen, who erase the lines of Christianity completely but in a completely different manner, in more of a civil religion manner. In my opinion, Osteen is so far apart from other mega-churches that would fit more into the first heading that he is closer, fundamentally, to some more so-called liberal churches or universalist churches. This raises an interesting, and parallel, observation to what I mentioned above. These churches have a high emphasis on welcoming everyone and anyone (often discarding words like evangelism), finding common ground, and letting God meet people “where they are,” not necessarily calling people to particular beliefs or truths, and, not wanting to be “judgmental,” not necessarily calling them to “personal morality” life changes that are often the mark of so-called conservative churches (though Osteen is big on reward).  Heaven is about now, more than future if at all.
Since i’m already at 1400 words, I’ll only briefly mention some commonalities I see between the two, and save further analysis for a post in a couple days. One important commonality is that there is a broad range of beliefs and practices in each of the two “reactions” as I call them, which means that on the extremes/margins of each one moves further away from “traditional” understandings of Christianity (so, in Reaction 1, some churches draw lines so dark that they separate themselves from the larger church, such as Terry Jones’ church in Florida or churches that predict exact dates for the return of Christ. In Reaction 2, some Quaker meetings and other similar assemblies who shy away from even labeling themselves Christian at times would probably fit this description).
Another commonality is a general desire to influence/infiltrate secular institutions in order to promote either belief or practice. Some want a President/Congress to enforce things like prayer in school, teaching of “creationism” in classrooms, restriction of abortion, and conservative economics (I get to keep what I make, government can’t have it, even for programs of social uplift). Others want a President/Congress who enforces right practice–concern for the poor, peacemaking, favor the marginalized, health care. Both groups appeal to Christians like William Wilberforce as their model. Government can be good/redeemed if used for God’s purposes.
Though there may be other similarities, I will stop here. I have a lot of questions of both “reactions,” and think there are merits in both. There are also areas that it seems to me that neither one of these reactions seem to address. Though I made sweeping generalizations about many different churches above, I tried to be fair to what I think is going on.
The question I want to ask, and will come back to in a future post, is, How important is it to draw distinctions that mark off Christianity in some way? How we do it in a way that is mindful of the complexities of being welcoming/evangelistic? Are there particular practices or particular beliefs that we can say that if one holds to, they are not a Christian? If so, what are they? What things are so essential to what it means to be Christian that to deny them, in word or deed, means that one is not a Christian (this is not a judgmental question so much as a practical one–you don’t show up to a football game with a baseball bat and glove and claim to be the quarterback)? How do we respect the movement of the Holy Spirit in the fluid boundaries of Christianity without letting words like “Christian” become wrongfully co-opted or used? In sum, how (if we are) are we to uniquely identify as Christian?
I welcome any feedback to anything I’ve said above, and any answers to the questions I pose in anticipation of what I’ll say in a couple days. There’s much more that could be said about each of the two categories, but I will resist the temptation for now.
1. I use phrases like “so-called” to express my hesitance to describe people or churches as “liberal” or “conservative” because most people (myself included) don’t like to be pigeon-holed. The labels are often more harmful than good, but are helpful for clarification.