Saturday, 29 December 2012

Definitions and Doctrine

How do you know someone is a Christian?  Interesting question, asked by @SallyHitchener on Twitter.  I thought for a while, then decided it had to be self-defined.  I cannot tell if you are, or are not, a Christian.  I can only say that I am.  Having said that, the word does have a meaning - one who follows Christ, or one who adheres to Christianity.  I became a Christian the day I chose to follow Christ.  I remember it clearly - I realised I had been waiting for someone to prove that God existed, that all the 'Jesus stuff' was true, to present me with a set of arguments that would rebut all others, and it wasn't going to happen.  What I was facing was something far deeper.  In the life of Jesus there was a question for me.  Would I become part of this story?  And so I did.  At that stage I had little idea of what was and wasn't literally true and there were lots of church teachings I disagreed with, but when I heard Jesus ask me to follow him, I bowed my head and said, yes, I will follow you.  I will try to live as you lived, I will study your word, I will accept your forgiveness and forgive others, and I will take you as my guide.
And that is when I became a Christian.  At that stage ideas of Trinity, virgin birth, theories of atonement and understanding of what goes on in communion were all concepts I couldn't get my head around (sometimes I still can't, and I'm not sure anyone can, for all the words expended).  I was still a Christian.  Nowadays I'm much more orthodox (I am a vicar and I signed the oaths in good faith) but I am no more or less a Christian than I was then - grace came to me when I responded to that call and it has not left me since.  So I define a Christian as one who has chosen to follow Jesus Christ.  I was baptised before I became a Christian (in temporal terms - who knows how God sees it?)  I accepted the creeds after I became a Christian, some time after.  The point of decision was the point at which I responded to the call of the gospel.
All of which led me to say that accepting doctrine, the "official" teaching of the church, is not what makes you a Christian.  What makes you a Christian is that response to Jesus Christ.  If you accept Christ then in some form you are a Christian.  It's a broad definition - after all Jehovah's Witnesses would say they follow Jesus, though I would argue that since they see him as less than God they don't see Jesus as Christ.  Does it matter if it is a broad definition?  I don't think so.  We have other definitions which are much more precise - 'Methodist', 'Anabaptist', 'Anglo-Catholic Anglican' and so on.  There is no one set of doctrines which define church teaching, or we would only have one church.  Accepting the bible isn't simple either - the bible is full of difficulties and contradictions and interesting ideas that deserve a lifetime of study.  On the other hand, you could sign up in full to the Apostles' Creed and still not bother loving your neighbour.
Doctrine scares me.  On the one hand we need it, to keep sane and clear ideas about what the church as a body signs up to, and it gives us a clear structure, and if our beliefs deviate from our church's doctrine we should at least identify that and understand where the differences are.  Without doctrine there is no effective study, no coherent argument, no body of knowledge upon which to build.  But on the other hand, doctrines deviate between the churches, and some of the fighting over doctrine has been vicious and persecutory.  Doctrine can be frightening.  My own church, the Church of England, came into being at a time when theology was done by axe and stake.  It was never worth it.  So what if you do or don't believe that the bread 'really' becomes Jesus?  I will share the bread with you either way.  I hold to the fundamental commandments of loving God and loving my neighbour, and I hope my church will too.
So I accept Jesus as my Lord.  I am a Christian.  I accept that the creeds and the historic formulations of doctrine are important and for the most part I accept them.  I do not, however, sign up to the violence implicit in the 39 articles so beloved of religious conservatives, which among other gems enshrine the death penalty.  More importantly, I will not treat the church as an institution which says 'you are in' and 'you are out', based upon narrow definitions of belief, definitions drawn up by a tradition which silenced women and ignored the views of many.  Our tradition is flawed, our authorities are human, our experience is subjective and our reason is limited.  We are all on a journey, seeking the truth, and all are welcome to join the company and follow our guide, our Lord Jesus Christ.  I will follow him as best I can, advise my congregations as best I can, but I can only ever point to him as the source of truth.

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