What do I have to believe to be a Christian?
Originally posted at Groans From Within.
“What do I have to believe to be a Christian?”
If you have been part of a church for any amount of time or spent
even a few minutes surfing Christian blogs or church websites, this is
a question you will encounter ad nauseam. The question itself is loaded, since it assumes one has to believe something. The only question to be wrestled with is what that something
is. Our answers will usually illumine the things we value most while
simultaneously sorting out who is “in” and who is “out.” This is a
game humans (and animals) love to play. In fact, if we are honest
with ourselves, we might discover upon reflection that much if not most
of our identity is rooted in who we distinguish ourselves over and
against. I am not that. I am not them.
And so it is that when we hear someone in the Christian community
say something like “Doctrine is important” or “What we believe matters”
we are naturally inclined to hear those sentiments in an exclusionary
way. We assume that person is playing the game we all love to play
(even though we all try like mad to pretend as though we aren’t
players!). We assume the words doctrine or creed
are dividing words, systems of an old regime that pit one people
against another, draw lines in the sand and dictate what one must
believe to be part of the club.
Our suspicions of the words doctrine and creed are
not without merit. The record will clearly show from present day to
as far back as anyone cares to look that we have used doctrines and
creeds in authoritarian ways. Sadly, in many cases, we have lorded
over others maliciously. We have good reason to be cautious.
Those who love the game of “Who’s In or Out?” have co-opted the
words doctrine and creed (an easy thing to do) and have insisted there
are certain things one must believe to be a Christian. Those who were
cautious and suspicious of those words to begin with because of the
ways they are often used quite naturally resisted this Sorting Hat
drama and, perhaps showing a bit of dramatic flair of their own,
rejected the words outright, choosing instead an ethic of love alone.
Of course, their rejection of doctrines and creeds only made the first
group dig their heels in the sand even more, insisting that the second
group must be out because, after all, St. Paul said
a day would come when people would not put up with sound doctrine (2
Tim. 4:3). This only served to galvanize the second group, convincing
them even further that nothing good can come of a faith built on
believing certain things. It would be better if we just concentrated on doing certain things (which develops into a sort of doctrine itself, but I digress).
The problem with both of these groups is they both assume the question “What do I have to believe to be a Christian?”
is the right question to be debated (if your answer to that question is
“nothing” you are still ceding relevance to the question). I don’t
think it is. The better question, and the one that I think is most
faithful to the spirit of doctrine and creed, is,
What do I get to believe as a Christian?
When I look at the word “doctrine” in Scripture, which literally
means “teaching,” I find that it is not a tool to divide but an
invitation to live. St. Paul insists that we watch our doctrine
closely, persevere in it, because if we do we will save ourselves and
those who hear it (1 Tim. 4:16). Save is to be made well, to be healed, to be made whole. Doctrine, it would seem, brings life.
Titus 1:9 reads: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
The word “encourage” is the word παρακαλέω, which can also mean
“comfort.” The same root word is found in Jesus’ description of the
Holy Spirit, paraclete, or Comforter/Advocate. Thus, doctrine not only heals but it comforts and encourages. Naturally, we are called to refute (or correct, reprove, convict) those who would oppose that which heals and comforts.
Another example is Jesus himself, who urges us to take his yoke (his
teaching/doctrine) upon ourselves and learn from him, for “his yoke is
easy and his burden is light” and in doing so we will “find rest for
our souls” (Matt. 11:29-30).
So it seems that doctrine is that which heals, encourages, comforts,
and brings rest for restless souls. That doesn’t sound like
something I want to do without nor something I want to use to drive a
wedge between myself and others.
By now you should be asking the question, “Ok, but what is this
doctrine that heals, encourages, comforts and brings rest?” The
particulars of how that question is answered will not be agreed upon by
everyone, but I am convinced that it is the thing that we don’t have to believe but get to believe, and in so believing are compelled to tell the world about it and refute those who would claim something else.
We get to believe that God has not left us alone
We get to believe that God has acted definitively on our behalf in Jesus Christ.
We get to believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human, thus proving God’s relentless pursuit of his good Creation.
We get to believe that death, the last great enemy that
makes us all restless, hopeless, worried and discomforted has been
given a fatal blow on Easter morning.
We get to believe that Jesus Christ is the first fruits of what God intends to do for all of Creation.
We get to believe that history is moving towards something,
that the injustice we witness today will be made right when God acts
decisively within history again, just as God has in the past.
This is the good news that the Christian faith has to offer the
world. This is the doctrine which brings healing, encouragement,
hope, comfort and rest. It is the same sort of hope we find expressed
in the earliest creeds. Doctrine and Creed are invitations into
something cosmic that God is doing even now in our midst. We don’t have to believe it. By the grace of God, we get to.
When doctrine and creed are seen in this way it should never be used
to divide and conquer but inspire and invite. Likewise, as Paul
instructs, we should speak up and refute those whom, perhaps for any
number of reasons that seem good to them, diminish the hope and healing
promises found in doctrine and creed when they deny God’s saving act
for all the world in and through Jesus Christ. To quote Paul once
more, if Christ is not raised from the dead and our hope is for this
life only, than we should be pitied more than all (1 Cor. 15:19).