Icon of St. IrenaeusKen raised a question in his comment to the last post about being uncertain over how Christianity should be defined. This has actually been in the back of my mind for some weeks.

As an historian of religion as well as someone who identifies himself as “Christian,” I’ve been trying to make some sense out of this. Ancient Christianity, for example, as as diverse as it is today, and the arguments over defining what it is are not new. I think there are two different ways to approach this: 1) asking “what is Christianity” as an institution, and 2) “what (or who) is a Christian?”. I think that breaking it down this way yields different answers.

Institutional “Christianity” seems to have been defined according to subscription to specific doctrines, beliefs and ideas at least since the second century. Right doctrine was the point of departure. We have texts that describe that the only way you could tell a “heretic” in may places was by talking to one of them privately and casually outside of church meetings, because in their practice they appeared to be the same as everyone else. Irenaeus, for example, notes that it is this very thing that makes “those guys,” according to him, anyway, so dangerous to “us.” They sneak up on you, because if you don’t really know them, you have no idea what kind of system of doctrine they subscribe to (if they subscribe to any at all) and therefore have no grounds for figuring out if they are “Christian” or not. Christians who followed a different set of doctrines and mythology than the ones Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and a host of other early proto-orthodox writers, saw the proto-orthodox set of doctrines and ideas as ridiculous, and thought of themselves as nothing other than Christians following Christianity.

So the question I have is this: is subscription to a certain set of doctrines, platitudes, propositions, and so on a realistic mark of Christian identity? Can Christianity be reduced exclusively to this? If so, how many, and which one? And can one subscribe to doctrines, yet not really believe it? I think that for many in the churches today, this latter question is perhaps the most pertinent, yet one that hardly anyone will touch.

Now what about ritual and liturgy? Even if we grant that doctrine is at least one defining element, there’s the ancient question of whether or not someone who participates and observes the liturgical and ritual structure, defined by some authoritative figure and yet doesn’t “do it right,” is a “christian.” It’s easy enough to look for examples in antiquity; one might be the observation and celebration of the feast of Easter Day. There were those (many, in fact) who believed that the Lord’s resurrection should always be on the 14th of the month of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week that happened to fall on. Others (the winning party, at least in western christendom) believed that Easter should always be on the Sunday on or after the first full moon of the spring equinox. Both said they were Christians; both denied full “Christian” identity to the other. The same situation pops up in issues over Baptism (in antiquity as well as now), Eucharist (then as now), and so on. In other words, it’s the same problem as doctrines. And of course, could you observe Jewish rites, holy days, practices, and so on, and be Christian? The authoritative answer from many powerful figures, such as John Chrysostom, was “no way,” and that if you do participate in, say, a Seder or a Purim carnival, you were Jewish, not Christian.

What about ethics and morality? Day-to-day life? Now here is where things really start getting interesting. Because we have evidence from early christian texts that suggest that the ONLY difference between some groups was in ordinary life practices, and this starts with Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and continues until the present day. So this doesn’t appear to be very helpful. Usually these were issues over sexuality, food, and social roles. Again, what was true in the first century was true in the 4th and true in the 21st. Nothing’s changed. Denominations that ordain women are rejected by some as not really christian. Churches that take a disparaging attitude to the joy of sex and to celebrating the beauty of the body’s sexuality cannot understand why others who seem to delight in physical beauty can think of themselves as Christians. Can one be an environmentalist and “green” and be a real Christian? This is not a flippant question (sadly!).

Enough. Let me propose something of a tentative “description” for discussion.

I think the “doctrinists,” those who argue that you have to truly, authentically, and unquestioningly believe and subscribe to certain doctrines and to “the Bible” (another complicated topic for another day), have one thing right. I think there IS but a single doctrine that, without which, I can’t see identifying with Christian faith, and that’s the doctrine of the lordship of Jesus the Christ. That is to say, a confession that Jesus is my/our Lord should be the doctrinal base for the Christian religion. After that, there are a million variations on the theme, and propositional theology becomes mere details. But for someone who professes Christianity and who yet denies Jesus’ lordship, either in word or (more often) in deed, I can’t see how this can be the case. In other words, I think it is entirely possible for people to believe all the right stuff and not be a Christian. Now, what “lordship” means is the sticking point, but that’s to be expected. Everything else after Jesus’ lordship is conditioned by memory, history, psychology, experience, geography, and so on.

Ethically and morally, my years of studying the Abrahamic religions suggest to me that there are far more similarities than differences, not to mention local variations within each tradition. And so I don’t feel that ethics and morals are much good for defining one from the other, and I’m grateful for this. I do believe that when apply the lordship criteria, however, we see how each tradition nuances the ethical and moral common ground (or, perhaps, holy ground). A truly Christian ethics and morality, I think, stems from where we put the role of Christ. For me, an understanding of Christ’s lordship means viewing – and following, as best as I am able and as far as I can understand – Christ as the quintessential representative of ethical justice as was revealed in Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels of the New Testament. It is a conscious decision to model our ethics after those of Jesus, who was our prototype for applied ethics in a life in imitation of the ethics and morality expected by God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Removing Jesus from this equation obviously denies lordship to Him. One may still follow an ethics of the Scriptures, but there is little that will distinguish Christian ethics from Islamic or Jewish without the confession of Jesus’ lordship and accepting his role as an ethical and moral prototype. Another way to put this is that I recognize that one can lead a life of “christian” ethics without being a Christian.

Finally, rite, ritual, worship, liturgy, and so on. I have been to so many churches that call themselves Christian, who confess his lordship, and who strive and struggle to live a life based on ethics they feel derive from Jesus’ lordship. And yet for some of them, they can be so different, even to the point that visitors may wonder if they are, indeed, in a Christian church or setting. Wine or Grape Juice? Bread or wafer? Dunked or sprinkled? Children or Adults? “Classical” or “contemporary?” King James or Today’s English? Consubstantiation or transubstantiation? Organ or Band? And so on. All of this makes about as much difference, as Frederick Buechner says, as whether we pray sitting down or standing up. I find my present house of worship to have one of the most consistently creative, beautiful, and meaningful worship services that I have ever been a part of. It glorifies God and emphasizes his justice and recognizes the role Christ plays in Christian narrative and action. I love it, and it is the primary form of spiritual nourishment I receive from the place. Some argue that it doesn’t pay enough attention to Christ’s lordship and defeat of “sin.” Perhaps. Others recognize that the worship is thoroughly Christian, but that it seems to be through appearances. Maybe so. In other words, simply having “Christian” worship and rites and liturgy doesn’t necessarily mean the church or house of worship is a “Christian church.” Worship alone does not demonstrate a church’s “Christian-ness.” Worship, I think, is the expression of loving God and enjoying him.

Procrastination needs to stop here. Back to the dissertation.