On the Unity of the Church – What is this thing called Christianity?

[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]

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“Christianity” can mean so very many things.

When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.

I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?

To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity?

On Interpretation

Now the question I have just now raised is the question of, given my interpretation of Christianity, by what standard do I say it is the same religion as another person’s religion called Christianity – how can I say that there is one group of people called Christians, which includes some and excludes others? This is the main question that I want to deal with in this piece. But first I should briefly address the question before it, which was that of, who is to say whose interpretation is the right one? And this is a rather different question, because when I set up criteria to demarcate the boundaries of what constitutes a true Christian, in doing so I already presuppose some particular interpretation of Christianity. How can I be so audacious as to assume that I can accurately interpret the Bible? The answer to that question is as easy as it is difficult. When so many people disagree about what the essence of Christianity is, who can decide? Well, everyone, and no-one. Of course we can’t come around and say I possess the supreme, objective, unbiased interpretation of the Bible and therefore my reading of the scripture represents true Christianity. That wouldn’t be very mature. But it wouldn’t be any more mature to say that there is therefore no such thing as true Christianity – that no one understanding of the Bible represents its true intended meaning. We don’t say such things about other pieces of writing, like our employment contracts or bank statements, or our political leaders’ promises, and definitely not our Facebook comments. Do we really think there’s any merit to saying that the Bible’s original meaning is indeterminate, or inaccessible? We have to live our lives based on the assumption that words actually communicate meaning, and that when somebody says something, we can generally interpret their words to grasp what it is they are communicating. And so while some people have believed that Christianity ought to be advanced through holy wars, I hope that reason would prevail and show that no honest reading of the Bible in its entirety could possibly leave one thinking that a holy war is at all a viable option for Christians. Whatever true Christianity is… it’s not that. Though our faculties of literary interpretation are admittedly flawed, we can successfully construct a bookcase by following IKEA instructions, we can say that Einstein believed in gravity, and we can say that Jesus believed in love. There will always be disagreements, but we just have to do the best we can with the brains we’ve got.

Who’s In and Who’s Out? – It’s in the metaphysics

And so I happen to think that true Christianity is some sort of Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal Christianity. We will have to leave the biblical interpretation that got me there for another time. The question we are left with is, what about all those Baptists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, whom still I call Christians, even though they differ to me in so many ways? What is it that unites us? Why have I said that people who use the Bible to justify generations of slavery, or people whose church website is “godhatesfags.com” have missed the fundamental point of Christianity, but people who disagree with me on predestination, or the place of women in ministry have not? It will become clear in this discourse that this question holds monumental importance for the Church. So now to answer the question: what is it that unites Christians together? What conditions must be met for a person to be considered a true member of the religion of Christianity? To answer this question, many doctrinal outlines have been made, and I think this is a very important list to make. But I want here to answer the question in a different way.

When it comes to belief systems including religions, most people think of the difference between a real member and a fake member as having to do with some combination of their psychology and their behaviour – their beliefs and their practices. “He’s not really a Buddhist because he eats meat,” or “He’s not really a Marxist because he doesn’t belive in historical materialism.” But when it comes to Christianity, it’s actually quite a different story. The difference between a real Christian and a fake Christian lies much deeper than their beliefs and practices. According to the Bible, it seems, the difference between a real Christian and a fake Christian is neither psychological nor behavioural, but is metaphysical. When I say that a person is a Christian, I am not making a psychological or behavioural claim, but a metaphysical one. That is to say, I am speaking of spiritual realities that go beyond merely what we see in phenomenal nature. I am claiming a profound thing, whose ramifications are eternal, and decreed and enacted by God himself. What am I talking about?

Personal Identity (What a Person Is)

The first and main thing I mean is this: the reality that a person is a Christian is not determined by how they behave or even how they think, but is determined at bottom by who, or what, they are. It is a difference of substance more than condition. It is about the kind of thing a person fundamentally is – what they are made out of, so to speak. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is more like that between water and oil than that between liquid water and ice. Water and ice are the same thing in different states; water and oil are two essentially different substances. When someone becomes a Christian, they don’t just change their opinion; they become something new.

Why do I believe this? Well, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Jesus talked of salvation as being reborn – born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-8). The Apostle Peter talks about Christians as “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire,” (2 Peter 1:4). Even in the Old Testament, when God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel of the coming ‘new covenant’ (the covenant Jesus came to establish), he says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh,” (Ezekiel 36:26). The Bible uses such strong language and imagery to describe what happens when someone becomes a Christian so as to capture the spiritual transformation that has taken place. Conversion is no mere casual change of mind. It is a heart transplant. It is God’s act of new creation.

Life and Death

The New Testament talks frequently about the transition from unbelief to belief as a transition from death to life. Paul in Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he has loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” Paul repeats himself, saying virtually the same thing in Colossians 2:13. These are just two of countless examples. The concept goes as far back as creation in Genesis, where God says to Adam and Eve, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). This is clearly not physical death, but some kind of spiritual death – the kind of death that becoming a Christian undoes. It is hard to understand precisely the nature of the life and death that is being referred to, and it may be viewed as metaphorical. But this idea is taken so far that Jesus and the Apostles, when a Christian physically died, preferred to say they had “fallen asleep,” (Mark 5:39, 1 Corinthians 11:30, 15:6). I don’t claim to know the true ultimate meaning of this Biblical theme, but I am happy to say that there is some very real sense in which every non-Christian walking on the face of the earth is dead – and every Christian was once dead, but is now alive. A man’s conversion to Christianity is not sufficiently described as an awakening, nor an epiphany, but it is a resurrection that requires the very power of God.

The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Finally, when the Apostle Peter preached the first Christian sermon ever, he ended it by calling the Jews to repent, and claiming that if they did so, they would “receive the promised Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The promise he referred to was given just after the above quoted Ezekiel 36 passage, in the very next verse (36:27), “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Romans 8:11, addressing Christians, says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Apostle Paul thought this fact so monumental that he referred to Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit three times within his two letters to the same group of people (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16). Those Corinthians took a lot of convincing. What that means is, when I say that someone is a Christian, I am saying that the very Spirit of the creator of the universe is living inside of them, influencing everything they do. When someone becomes a Christian, they don’t just move into a church community; the Holy Spirit moves into them.

What does this mean?

So, when I say that a person is a Christian, I am saying that they are alive, that they are a new creation, and that the Spirit of God resides in them at all times. While these conditions bear a relationship with a person’s beliefs, they are clearly not the same thing as “what a person believes.” The significance of this fact cannot be overstated, because it means that beliefs and behaviours are not the things that make someone a Christian, but are manifestations of a deeper reality – a reality concerning the identity of the person who believes. Many Christians would be comfortable understanding our actions to be the fruit of beliefs, but quite novel is the notion that our beliefs are still not what’s at the bottom of Christian spirituality. Christian beliefs are the fruit of Christian identity. We believe because we are.

Why is this important? Well it means that when I am attempting to estimate whether or not a person is a Christian, I am aiming to look much deeper than their beliefs and practices. My method is not simply to make a checklist of doctrines and tick off which ones the person believes. This is because it is not beliefs, but rather a spiritual reality about someone’s identity, that is the target of my investigation. I must look at beliefs and I must look at behaviours, but they are never to be treated as absolutely decisive, for they are not in themselves the substance of a person’s Christian identity but only the evidence of it, and approximate evidence at that: since Christians remain fallen creatures, once a person becomes a Christian their beliefs and behaviours only then begin to conform to the pattern of Christ – always approaching but never quite reaching that pattern. Doesn’t that make determining who is and who isn’t a Christian kind of hard, and never certain? You bet it does. While I can often have a pretty good idea, I never know with absolute certainty whether my friends or even my pastors (let alone preachers on the other side of the world whom I only know through podcasts) are Christians. It can be quite hard to tell whether someone is really a Christian because it is a fact that is invisible to the eyes; I only see the consequences of the fact, not the fact itself. This must give us a humble caution in the conclusions we draw about who is and who isn’t a Christian.

One Religion?

The question I am attempting to answer is, on what basis can we say that there is one religion called Christianity, given that the name is taken on by so many remarkably different beasts? And here is the answer: there are a kind of people out there, who are metaphysically different from the rest of the world.* These people make up what the Bible persistently calls “the Body of Christ,” as they are all new creations, regenerated and reborn into relationship with the God of the universe, through the Holy Spirit, who dwells in them, empowering them to carry out the work of Christ on Earth. These people are the Church. And they are not united by any power of this world, but by the very power of God himself. They are not united by the core beliefs they share – though they share them; they are united by the person of Jesus Christ, by membership of his body. Not by a common intellectual agreement about Jesus’ lordship, but by a living relationship with him. They do not fall into the same category because of what they believe, but because of what they are.

These people compose the set that is the sum total of Christians in the world. They don’t all go to the same church, or even similar churches, but they are the Church. And whether or not they even realise it, they are united, they are on the same side, on the same mission, and in communion with the same God, and therefore with each other. And so what is this thing called Christianity? Well, it is the life, the calling, the ‘religion’ that this body holds to.

*All this “Christians being different” talk is beginning to sound very exclusive. But Christians aren’t metaphysically set apart because they’re awesome. It’s not because of anything they have done to make themselves new. Becoming a new person is something Jesus does for you, and is no ground for boasting.

Implications for Christian Life

There is only one Church. While there are many church communities around the world, in very real way, there is only one Church. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” As I said in the last paragraph, whether or not the Church realises it, it is united – no matter what measures it may take to divide itself. It seems to me that many of the problems in the way Christians think about other Christians stem from a lack of understanding of just how united Christians are.

The metaphysical unity of the Church has so many implications for Christians, but the main one I want to focus on is this. If we are all part of the same Church, then we cannot disown anyone in the Church. Now, when it comes to the church, I’ve been around. Name a factor that churches can differ on and I’ve likely had exposure to both extremes; name a debate and I’ve got friends on both sides, and probably a foot in each door. I’m not the most widely travelled Christian you’ve ever met – I’m sure there are many more experienced than I, but I’ve seen enough that I cannot ignore the diversity within the Church, and I have seen enough genuine love for God on both sides of every dispute that I am not left with the option of dismissing certain people that I have heard some people dismiss.

And it is because, when we seek to determine whether a professed Christian is “with us” or “against us”, the object of our inquiry should not be whether they agree with us on a certain topic, or whether they conform to our standard of Christian behaviour, but must be whether they are someone that God has brought back to life – period – that we simply have no option of dismissing or disowning Christians that do things in a way that we don’t like, even if they are an embarrassment to the Church.

I get very uncomfortable when I hear Christians, including preachers, on both sides of whatever divide, proudly proclaiming things like, “We’re not like that church over there,” or, “I’m not one of those kinds of Christians,” or even, “I don’t support that church.” I get so uncomfortable when I hear sentences like this, because I always wonder whether those speaking are aware of the implications of what they’re saying. Because to speak as if you are somehow unassociated with that person, somehow not fighting on the same side, is to either deny the fundamental unity that you have with every person who is in Christ, or to deny that they are a Christian at all – a very grave claim, which shouldn’t be made lightly. Thus, the statement, “I’m not one of those kinds of Christians,” is a contradiction of terms: if they are a Christian, then they are the same kind of Christian as you. “We’re not like that church over there”? Actually, you are like that church, because at the end of the day, there is only one kind of Christian, and only one Church.

We all know those Christians who we think misrepresent the faith, who we think make Christians look bad to the outside world, but if Christ has not disowned them, how dare we not call them brother or sister? There are some who claim to be Christian but who look so different to Jesus and his Gospel that we would be right to question whether they are truly born of the Spirit of God. (These cases tend to be obvious, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.) I am not talking about these people here. Here I’m talking about that big church over there that won’t seem to take a public stance on homosexuality or abortion. The one that lets women preach every second Sunday even though it’s quite obvious to you that this is not permitted in scripture. I’m talking about that weird church that has people rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues for 3 hours at a time. But I’m also talking about that rigidly conservative church, where they refuse to sing anything other than old hymns (or when they do, it’s lame), they never speak in tongues or even try to prophesy, and they won’t shut up about homosexuality and abortion and it’s getting in the way of Jesus. The one that never lets women preach, even though it’s quite plain to you that the Bible doesn’t actually forbid it. I’m talking about that church that seems more concerned with “upholding biblical truth” than it does with actually loving people. I’m also talking about the church that seems to have a dangerous disregard for theology and biblical literacy in favour of “just loving people”. I’m talking about the church that doesn’t do enough social justice, and the one that does too much. I’m talking about the church that seems to have made an idol out of relevance, as well as the church that seems to have made an idol out of orthodoxy. I’m talking about the church full of prodigal sons, and the one full of elder brothers; the church of the Pharisees and the church of the tax collectors.

At least one of all of the above criticisms or caricatures have been made at one or more of the Christian communities that I have been a part of. And because I’ve been in both camps, I’m lucky: I’m less at risk than some of falling into a tribalistic, divisive mindset (though I’m not immune). Is there any church, or any denomination that you, publicly or privately, look down upon? Is there any community of Christians that you hope your non-Christian friends won’t find out about? Christ died so that that very community of people could be called his. He has not disowned them, and so neither can we. They are our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so we should view them and speak of them with the same familiar affection as their heavenly Father does.

If we can understand, and get it into our system, that all Christians are united, not ultimately by what they believe or what they do, but by who they are in Christ, then we can truly act united. Because apart from everything else, however bad some particular group of Christians makes Jesus look, the one thing that makes him look worse is a Kingdom of believers who can’t get along.

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