The divisions and disagreements among Christians have been a scandal for the church. Rather than demonstrating the love of Christ to the world, Christians have frequently spent their time condemning other Christians for differing practices or interpretations of Scripture. This is clearly not what Jesus wants for his followers.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
This is my command: Love each other.
The sincere efforts of Christian reformers have often resulted in schisms and disunity in the body of Christ. Various groups, while attempting to clarify their interpretation of Christian faith, sometimes produced lengthy and detailed "creeds," "confessions," "statements of belief," etc., outlining basic dogmas, as well as doctrinal issues such as specific church structure, the correct mode of baptism, the precise interpretation of the meaning of communion/the Lord’s Supper, the role of the clergy, etc. Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and others took this approach to reform. This detailed attempt to clarify doctrine and prevent mistaken beliefs is still seen today in congregation’s on-line faith statements that may list beliefs as specific "mid-tribulation, premillennial rapture of the faithful."
In an attempt to promote Christian unity, other groups deliberately avoided written statements of their distinct beliefs. Among the "non-creedal" groups, Scripture was held in high regard and there was usually a strong emphasis on the priesthood of every believer. Rather than listing specific required beliefs and practices, these groups believed that sincere Christians would carefully study God’s word, and that members of congregations would help each other to follow Christ. They believed that the foundational dogmas and the essential practices would be found in Scripture, and that each individual believer could find these truths with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, and others took this approach to reform.
It is important to recognize that none of the groups (initially) denied the central dogmas of the Christian faith. The creedal groups took a "top-down" approach. The leaders had determined the correct doctrine from Scripture, which was then passed down to others. The non-creedal groups took a "grass-roots" approach. Each individual believer was responsible for finding correct Scriptural doctrine themselves.None (initially) denied the central dogmas of the Christian faith
Many people believe that the beliefs expressed in the Apostles Creed*** and the Nicene Creed**** have defined the Christian faith for almost 2000 years. Both the Roman and Orthodox branches of the pre-Reformation church held to them (for Orthodox Christians the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" only.) The "creedal" reformers added doctrines to these. The "non-creedal" reformers believed that the doctrine in the creeds were self-evident to those who read Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Today we have the confusing situation of groups and individuals who do not believe many of the things in the Apostles and Nicene creeds, but who insist that they are Christian. Now, clearly no one can be forbidden from claiming this, but my question is, "At what point do those of us who agree with the Nicene and Apostles creeds conclude that a belief system or ideology cannot be considered Christian, despite what its adherents call it? Or can this ever be our conclusion?
For example, if my Jesus is the Word made flesh, and that Word is God, and your Jesus is an incredible prophet and teacher, but not God, then do we believe in the same Jesus? Are we both the same faith? Are we both Christian? If your God doesn’t include Jesus, do we believe in the same God?
Recently, I heard a presentation by a man who works on dialogue and establishing positive relationships with Muslims. During a question and answer period, someone asked whether Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. The answer given was "yes and no." Muslims believe that there is one creator God, but they do not believe that God is triune. They do not believe that Jesus is part of the Godhead. They do believe in the virgin birth and that Jesus was a great prophet, and they believe that he was taken up to heaven and will return, but they do not believe that he was crucified or resurrected.
While listening, it occurred to me that Muslims share more of my beliefs about Jesus than do Jesus Seminar "scholars" and those "Christians" who agree with them. So, clearly there is some point at which a set of beliefs is so far from Christian, that the belief set is no longer Christian. But how far is too far?
In his introductory theology text,* Seminary Professor Dan Stiver says that traditionally, "we have worked with only two levels of centrality of faith, … us and them, those inside the church and those outside." He suggests that we consider Roger E. Olson's three level system** which allows for an expanded "us."
Olson’s expanded "us" and "them" can be summarized as
Level 1: Central Christian beliefs (dogmas, orthodox beliefs)
Level 2: Accepts Level 1 beliefs, Has Acceptable differences in Christian belief (doctrines)
Level 3: Rejects Level 1 beliefs (dogmas/orthodox beliefs)
Here is a list (mostly) from Stiver’s book, of various beliefs held by Christians. Which are crucial? Must one believe everything in the Apostles, and Nicene Creeds to be Christian? Is repentance, being born again, and having an ongoing personal relationship with Jesus Christ what really matters? Is belief secondary? Is it who we are and what we do that really matters? Will our beliefs affect who we are and what we do?
Which of these topics involve a belief that all Christians must hold? Which are beliefs that Christians can differ on? Can you think of other beliefs that may or may not be crucial?
1. there is a personal God who wants communion with us
2. God created the world from nothing
3. the world is not God
4. human beings are in the image of God and are the crown of creation
5. salvation is by grace through faith
6. Christ died for everyone/just for the elect
7. a person can/cannot fall from grace
8. atonement is through Jesus Christ
9. Christians are called to follow Christ and make disciples
10. Jesus Christ is coming again
11. there will be a final judgment
12. an eternal afterlife is the gift of God
13. The Word became flesh in the womb of a virgin
14. there will be a new heaven and a new earth
15. baptism is crucial for salvation
16. baptism must be by immersion/sprinkling/pouring
17. church structure should be congregational/episcopal/presbyterian
18. baptism is for infants/believer's only
19. we have free will/God determines everything
20. one must believe in the correct nature of the tribulation and millennium
21. there is/is not an intermediate state
22. God designed a hierarchical clergy-laity relationship
23. Because all believers are priests, there is no clergy-laity distinction
24. one must choose between believing in God's creative activity or modern science
25. one must hold specific beliefs regarding heaven and hell
26. the Bible is inspired by God and is sufficient for all instruction and understanding of faith.
27. the number of sacraments is …
28. the world is not evil
29. God is Trinitarian
30. the church is the body of Christ
* Stiver, Dan. Life Together in the Way of Jesus Christ: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Baylor University Press, Waco, TX, 2009.
** Olson, Roger. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2002.
I believe in God, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy and catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being (substance) with the Father. Through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the son is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.