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The Search for what it Means to be a Christian

3 January, 2015


The Search for What It Means to be a Christian

Recently, as I was reading through the Book of Romans, and trying to imagine what Paul was thinking as he wrote various things in that book, I was struck by the fact that not only Paul, but very likely all of the early Christians, were going through a kind of process of theological evolution as they tried to sort out exactly what defines a Christian.  And that same process continues to happen today… except that I don’t think there is so much excuse for it now.

Paul wasn’t there when John the Baptist covered Jesus with water as a symbol of his desire to be right with God, nor when Jesus tolerated his disciples baptising other people with water (although Jesus himself refused to do that).  (John 4:1-2)  He wasn’t there when Jesus is reported to have actually told his followers to baptise people after his ascension.  (Matthew 28:20)  Water baptism did seem to be important to some of those early believers, as noted by Phillip’s haste to water baptise the Ethiopian eunuch after he had introduced him to prophecies in the Old Testament scriptures about Jesus.  Nevertheless, at some point Paul concluded (after he had water baptised a small handful of people) that Jesus had not really called him to do that.  (See I Corinthians 1:17.)  He noted that the whole subject of water baptism had already led to divisions amongst the early believers, and he felt there was something deeper than such a ritual which would distinguish genuine Christians from others in the world.  (I Corinthians 1:14-16)

Paul wasn’t there on the Day of Pentecost, when 120 people started speaking in tongues.  (Acts 2:4)  However, some who were there concluded that others must have the same Holy Spirit that they had received whenever they witnessed people speaking in tongues.  This assumption seems to prevail during the time of the book of Acts.  (Acts 10:44-46)  Yet Paul found, in the Corinthian Church, evidence that the tongues phenomenon was not a reliable way for distinguishing believers from unbelievers.  He concludes that speaking in tongues without having the love that Christ spoke of amounts to little more than a lot of noise.  (I Corinthians 13:1) 

Paul wasn’t there when Jesus told his disciples to go first to the “House of Israel” with his message (Matthew 10:6, and 15:24), and as a consequence (despite his own lifelong experience of strict Judaism) he became the most radical of all the apostles in reaching out to non-Jews, and arguing that all of his previous pride in being a Jew amounts to a heap of dung compared to what he had found in Jesus. (Phillipians 3:4-8)

But what did Paul find in Jesus?  We read several times of his radical Damascus Road experience, where Jesus spoke to him.  It affected him deeply, and, in his opinion, gave him an authority that was pretty much equal to that of the other 11 apostles… men who had known Jesus personally.  (Romans 1:5 & I Corinthians 2:4)  Paul often spoke of the miraculous power that accompanied his ministry (Romans 15:19 & II Corinthians 12:12), even though what we know of his ministry seems to indicate that he primarily preached and wrote pastoral letters full of great wisdom… not terribly unlike what a great spiritual leader in the church today would do.

This reference to supernatural evidence for spiritual authority also does not clearly answer the question as to whether others need to experience something equally powerful in order to be the transformed people that Paul spoke of Christians being. (e.g. I Corinthians 4:19)

The question of exactly how powerful our transformation needs to be before we can consider ourselves to be part of the re-born assembly of God continues to this present day.  I feel certain that it has led many to exaggerate their own experience of God, and caused others to feel that they are missing out on something which the boasters have.

On the other hand, epistles from Paul and others in the New Testament address readers as though everyone and anyone reading the epistles is a believer, with little attempt to express a formula that is inclusive of all who have genuine faith while still excluding certain actions or beliefs which would constitute heresy.  As more and more people joined the ranks of the early believers en masse, often with parents assuming their children would be saved as a result of their own decision to be a part of this movement, it became traditional to see the “true church” as being any and all those people who called themselves such.  This would seem quite reasonable at a time when calling yourself a Christian could mean unpopularity, persecution, and even death.  

But over time, not only the executions seemed to cease, but so did the persecution.  It eventually became quite respectable to be a Christian.  Today it would, for example, be difficult for an atheist to run for President in the U.S., whereas some of the worst criminals have been given a second chance by penal systems that learn of their affiliation with a reputable church.

So what is it that defines a Christian even today?  Some lean toward a religious experience, while others insist on a changed life, with or without a religious experience.  Most assume some kind of affiliation with a “safe” denomination to be more or less essential, as well as some statement of faith that conforms with that organisation.  The various subsidiary doctrines being taught by the hundreds of denominations that now exist, make the issues progressively more confusing the more you look into it.

Even definitions built on such reliable passages as the one where Jesus says that people will know his followers by their love, become confusing because we have so many different definitions for love.  Is it tolerance for any and all sinfulness?  Is it a sexual relationship (as taught by so much of the secular world, but also by such groups as The Family International)?  Is it about giving to charitable institutions?  Is it measured by evangelistic fervour?

I do believe there is an answer to all this confusion over what is a Christian, and I am convinced that it is much simpler than most would guess.  The answer is so obvious that one wonders how it has been possible for it to be missed so consistently over more than 2000 years, and so universally even today.  Yet Jesus predicted that it would happen just as it has.  He said that the builders would set aside the chief Cornerstone in their attempts to build a “church” that would meet their needs and desires.  (Luke 20:17)  In doing that, of course, they would need to find a replacement, and so that is where all of the other criteria have come in and been used unsuccessfully to define a Christian.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked of a foolish builder who would leave out the solid foundation of His teachings, and thus create an institution that is incapable of surviving the true tests of spirituality.  (Matthew 7:24-27)

The definition of a Christian is as simple as it ever was in the Bible.  It is a person who encounters Jesus of Nazareth, hears what he is saying, and “receives” it, altering their lives to conform with what he has taught.  In doing so, he promises that our lives will be totally and fundamentally changed forever.  Observers said of those first disciples of Jesus that they had turned the world upside down.  (One would hardly say that of today’s lukewarm and respectable churches, with or without their talk of miraculous experiences!)

Jesus warned his followers against issuing statements about his divinity while still refusing to do the things that he taught.  (Luke 6:46)  He said that if they were ashamed of his teachings (as is the case wherever you look in today’s church world), he will be ashamed of them when he returns.  (Luke 9:26)

There are strong feelings about whether or not the Apostle Paul had it clear in his own mind that we need to hear and obey the teachings of Jesus, primarily because so much of what he writes in his letters seems to ignore the sort of things that Jesus taught.  The brother of Jesus (James), on the other hand, writes stuff that is very similar to the Sermon on the Mount, and he makes practical applications of those truths in the lives of those who are trying to obey Jesus.

Was Paul assuming that people already had the teachings of Jesus, and so he was merely touching on some of the peripheral issues that sprang up through his dealings with these early Christians?  Or did he perhaps say things about the teachings of Jesus which some early religious leaders excised out of his epistles?  Or maybe he was just doing the best he could without ever really having understood that a disciple of Jesus is a student of the Teacher… one who wishes to be disciplined by the commands and teachings of the Master?

Whatever the answer, Paul does tell the Galatians that he himself should be cursed if he were understood to be saying anything contrary to the “gospel which they had [already] received”.  (Galatians 1:8-9)  That certainly does not sound like the kind of instruction which would justify church builders creating a doctrine which says that the teachings of Jesus have been superseded by the teachings of Paul; yet that is precisely what has happened in the church world today.  

Talk about obedience to secular authorities and they will shout loud Amens.  Talk about obedience to parents, and they will wholeheartedly agree.  Talk about obedience to religious leaders and they will also be supportive.  But talk about obedience to Jesus and immediately red flags go up.  Obedience to Jesus is now considered the worst possible heresy.  Even churches which believe you can murder and lie and steal and still be forgiven, are ready to mark you as “lost” forever if they hear you teaching people to obey Jesus.  I’ve seen one widely respected denomination which actually welcomes witches and atheists as members of its congregations, band together to kick out someone who taught obedience to Jesus.

You can test it yourself.  Take this article to the pastor or priest of any denomination you like, and ask for an assessment of what is being said here.  Don’t be surprised if the reception is less than enthusiastic.  Some will be diplomatic enough to concede that there may be some truth in what it is saying, but you can be pretty certain that they will not wish to get in touch with the people who have written such a thing, unless it should be for the purpose of finding fault with them on whatever spurious grounds they can discover.

We are living in dark times.  The Bible said that in the last days there would be an apostasy or “falling away” in the church, as people turn away from God and create their own gods and their own false Jesuses. (II Thessalonians 2:3)  You can pick up any one of these “bargain basement” Jesuses for almost nothing (bit of water on your forehead, a few catechism classes, no more cigarettes or four-letter words, and/or something in the offering plate each week); but the problem is that they have little or nothing to do with the things that Jesus actually did teach.  

You will find the real Jesus in the first four books of the New Testament.  Four different writers recorded the kind of things that the real Jesus taught his followers to do.  He promised eternal life, i.e. the ability to return from the grave when he returns, to those who cling to the truth in what he has taught.  But he’s not going to be fooled into anything less than his own definition of a Christian.  (The word “disciple” was eventually replaced with the word “Christian”, so whenever you read the word “disciple” in your Bible you can replace it with “Christian” if you like.)

There are verses in the Bible like Luke 14:33, which call on us to count the cost of what it really means to be a Christian, before we set out to label ourselves in that way.  You will almost certainly never hear such verses being taught in any church today… or if you do, it will be an attempt to explain away or apologise for what the verses have to say.

But if you would like to get to know this One who has changed the course of history, and who has promised to return to judge the world, please contact us today, and we’ll do all we can to encourage you in such faith.





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