What’s the Least? 3

Martin Thielen’s new well-written and pastorally-sensitive book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?: A Guide to What Matters Most., discusses what is most central — and necessary — for being a Christian. (For how to use this book in the church, see this site.)

Last week we finished up the things Christians don’t need to believe, and today we begin looking at what Christians do believe.

What would your top three be? Now let me do this from a different angle: You may know that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, and in some ways many denominations, don’t have these discussions. Who should be making such decisions about what is necessary to believe, or what Christians do believe?

Here are his top five:

1. Jesus’ Identity: Who is Jesus? “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the heart of Christianity. Thielen gives his “testimony” of faith in Christ, the most important decision he ever made in his life, in this chp.

2. Jesus’ Priority: what matters most. Relationships with God and with others matter most. Nice to see a focus on the Jesus Creed here. Thielen says it took twenty years for this to sink in.

3. Jesus’ Grace: Am I accepted? Even with our flaws, Jesus loves and accepts us as beloved children of God. He tells Tony Campolo’s story of the birthday party for prostitutes.

4. Jesus’ Work: Where is God? Although God is not limited to working through people, God primarily works through human instruments.

5. Jesus’ Example: What brings fulfillment? True fulfillment comes through serving others.

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  • Georges Boujakly

    No one person. Every person.
    No one faith tradition. Every faith tradition.
    No one local body of believers. Every local body of believers.
    No one denomination. Every denomination.
    No one group of believers. Every group of believers.

    It should be the collective voice of all the faithful. Much, much easier said than done.

    For me 1.

    The uniqueness of Christianity resides in Jesus.

    2. Jesus’ priority because that what the Father looks like in relating to his creation.

    5. The abundant life is following Jesus or modeling our lives on his.

  • Good stuff, Scott! Perhaps the classical creeds, the Nicene and the Apostle’s Creed.

    But something about Thielen’s book title bothers me. “What’s the least” just seems to be the wrong approach to faith.

  • JohnM

    God should be making these decisions, and has. Yes,Yes I know,sorry 😉 But seriously, lest we ever forget ourselves.

    Top three? The necessary starting point, but only the beginning:

    1. Jesus’identity – echoing Thielen
    2. Our (my) sinfulness
    3. Christ died for our sins

    It’s tough when you limit it only to the top three. But you knew that 🙂

  • BradVW

    Borrowed from my professor at Bethel, Leron Shults,

    God Loves
    Jesus Saves
    the Holy Spirit gives life

    not sure if it’s a minimum but they’re my base beliefs.

  • Jimmie

    I believe the essentials are: Jesus is God. He lived, died and rose again, defeating death and sin so that we would be free of death and sin. And once free, we are to be Jesus to the world by loving God and loving others.
    (I would say this matches up fairly close with Thielen.)

  • I would say that you can’t believe anything and be a Christ follower. In my opinion the word “Christian” is meaningless in our post modern environment. I choose to use the phrase “Christ follower.” Following Christ means I am in motion. I think I know what he means, and perhaps, what you mean, but the way you and I live really expresses what we truly believe. A brother once said to me about hearing sermon after sermon and going to Bible class after Bible class, “I’m already believe more than I’m practicing.” My passion is for people to follow Christ and not just sit and listen to him week after week with no life change. Our favorite practice in the Christian community (and I am equally guilty) is talk and debate ideas to death with very little Christ following.

    Anyway, Scott, that’s my soapbox for today. Peace to you. Wish you could be back at Pepperdine this year in May!

    Jesus and Paul on this topic:

    Matthew 22: 37, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    Romans 13:8, Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

    1 Corinthians 10:31, So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

    1 Corinthians 15:1, Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
    3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

    Galatians 6:14, May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    Ephesians 2:8-10, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

    Philipians 3:7, But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

  • Andrew

    “Faith without works is dead.” – James, New Testament

    First, I think asking “What is the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” is the wrong question to ask. Minimalism, one of our cultural defects, asks the question “How can I get the maximum benefit for the least amount of effort?” Christians might instead ask “What is the most I can do to love God with my whole being and my neighbor as myself?”

    Second, as quoted above, a faith limited to correct belief without right action is no faith at all. In fact, even if we think we have correct beliefs but these are not accompanied by right action, then we are not, in fact, holding correct belief in the first place.

  • T

    I think there’s a difference b/n what we, who claim to know and follow Christ, should be emphasizing, and what “the least” that someone needs to trust to be a Christian, even if we might hope for substantial overlap. Here are my 3, and I’m going to surprise even myself by their order:

    1. (Jesus-shaped, cross-shaped) Love is God’s central essence and agenda toward all (including me), and God wants us to be and do like him, to him first, then to all.

    2. Jesus is (not was) Lord/Messiah, alive and well and actively leading God’s loving work. Jesus stands over (and under and beside) all the powers in the world, seen and unseen. All will bow. His power is supreme.

    3. We can’t be what he is w/out giving up what we are. To follow him, to trust him, to be his disciple, is to pick up our own cross and trust the Father, as he did. If we keep our lives, we will lose them; if we give up our lives for his sake, we will find them.

    In a nutshell, we need to experience and trust the Father’s love and power in Jesus via the Spirit.

  • John W Frye

    I think we are needlessly tripping over the idea of “least” in the title. Something succinct may be permeated with eternal realities and energies. Also, the title isn’t asking the least “to get saved” but to be a “Christian” which, BTW, originally meant Christ-follower…one like the Christ.

  • K. Reux

    Agreed, Andrew if I am looking at the book from the least that I need to believe. But I think this may be taking the title too seriously. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book). It seems to me this should be seen as a book focusing upon unity: what needs to be believed for unity? The “minimum” is the only thing that can be demanded for unity (granted there is a unity in being human and we should never be exclusive to the point of shutting people out). The problem is so many have so many different lists of what it means to be a Christian that they end up excluding people who in God’s view may very well be sincere Christ followers.

    My top five? Recognize my top five just come off the top of my head and I reserve the right to change my mind!(All of these presuppose belief in a Creator God).

    1. Well, since Paul mentions top three are “faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love…” I’ll go with love (a nod to the Jesus creed!) We must understand God as defining the nature of love. That our response to him must be out of love and our response to others must reflect that same kind of unselfish love.
    2. Faith. Ok, granted that this may not be exactly what Paul had in mind in 1 Cor. 13 (especially vs 1-3). But the message of faith in that God became flesh, died, and resurrected–the purposes are multifaceted but certainly include redemption and ushering in Kingdom.
    3. Hope. Perhaps this is more along the ideas of belief–but it is a trust/expectation that God has saved and will save those who trust in him.
    4. Life. Somehow all of this should change me and affect the way I live my life as one who is reflecting the mind of Jesus in my behavior toward others and toward my culture/society as a whole. This could be understood as a repetition of “love others”.
    5. Attitude. Somewhere in all of this, and I don’t know what order it would belong (perhaps #2?) is the attitude of being “poor in spirit”–i.e., recognizing that without God I am completely impoverished in my heart. I am a beggar in all matters spiritual (which means I am a beggar in all matters, period!).

    Anyone want to rework my list? I’d be happy to see it edited!

  • K. Reux

    Btw, “T”, I really liked your list!

  • T

    K. Reux,

    Thanks; I enjoyed yours as well. And I didn’t see Brad’s quote from Leron Shults in 4 until after I posted.

    “Jesus” or “Jesus is Lord” has long been my basic creed. But I was thinking through the centrality of love, both to God’s essence and (not surprisingly, then) to all God’s healing and forgiving in Christ, to the cross, and to his teachings and commands. God’s goodness, his love, his character, has to be more central than his power. Jesus was willing to lay down much of his power (I believe all of it, then did miracles via the Spirit) but he could not lay down his character of love. When we talk even of “Christ’s identity” as central, what is more central to his identity, to his person, if not cross-bearing, enemy-blessing love? So central is love to Christ’s teaching and personal story, I don’t know if we can say we know the God that Jesus embodies if we don’t know some life-altering measure of this love (that surpasses knowledge!).

    Then (IMO) we need to know his power and authority as supreme, as Lord over all. And we need to know that following him means a cross for us too–with a resurrection.

  • Charlie Clauss

    Only one thing needed:

    Believe that Jesus is Lord by virtue of His Resurrection,

  • Pat Pope

    Who should be making such decisions would result in a fight in and of itself in some circles: “Why is he/she the one making the decision?” Undoubtedly, it would be the lead pastor, but in absence of one, then who makes the decision? The elders? The congregation? And when those decisions are made, is there a climate that welcomes everyone to still be a part even if their beliefs don’t exactly measure up?

  • Years ago, one of my seminary professors asked that question – what *must* we understand about Jesus to be saved? It was a very conservative seminary and the answers often held a lot of exacting theology. However, I wonder if we are adding onto the idea of faith alone, or creating a works theology. We put so much trust in the mind! Surely there is much that goes on in this process called conversion that is “beyond the mind”.

    Of course there is a object to faith, which we would agree would be Jesus. Obviously there would be something that connects deep within us as the Father draws us, that would entice us to respond to what we hear about him. But I am fully convinced that when we stand before him someday, we will not be judged on our theological understanding of Christ.

    I have a Chinese friend who “became a Christian” when communist China was shut away from the world. He had heard a few things about Jesus but not much. He thought the Holy Spirit was a dragon! And I don’t think he had heard about the resurrection. Yet even with all his theological misunderstandings, his heart became one of the most Christlike I know. He was drawn to the sense of one who was bigger and offered hope beyond the confines of what was life in China then. In that sense, he inherently knew that God is love. His faith remained strong during years of starvation and persecution. This starving man fasted and prayed for a Bible (which he had heard existed) for weeks until a “stranger” showed up at his door with one and then he began to understand better! However, I can’t believe that he was not “saved” until he knew these things correctly.

    I do think the Spirit of God does reveal truths about Jesus the Christ and it is good and right to pursue learning at least the most basic orthodoxy (much of which was described in the post and comments). I’m just saying that salvation seems to be more about God’s work than ours. Perhaps is is less what we know and more of being known (and drawn) by God. This is a blow to those who believe that if you do not share their theology you worship a “different Jesus”, but so be it.

  • Before we can answer “Who gets to decide?” we need to get at least a decade of heart and mind unity behind us. Until then I think there is no answer to that one.

    I completely understand the title of this book. It’s not about setting the bar low but rather, “what beliefs are essential for me to actually say I’m on this journey”? I’ve got loads of friends who want to follow Jesus but the Church has come up with a list of what that looks like that they aren’t ready to sign off on. They’re question to me is often, “If I still believe this…am I still a Christian?” and/or “If I don’t believe this bit…am I still a Christian?” This is a MUCH needed discussion for the present generation!

  • Kentucky Ted

    Sorry, but the title given to books can/do matter. And this title suggests to me that this book is another contribution to the “Christian Lite” movement, which is a current fad right now, but no doubt this too shall have it’s day and pass, and we shall be none the worse for the passing (IMO).

    If the book is intended to be something other than that, then someone, the author, the editor, the publisher, a wife or mother, should have insisted on a more appropriate title.

  • T

    Kentucky Ted,

    The author is using the fad as a way to talk about unimportant things that many treat as central to faith as well as matters that are truly central to faith in Christ.

  • DRT

    The desire to follow Jesus. That’s it.

  • Jeff L

    Kentucky Ted #17,

    I’ve not read the book yet. But have a hard time imagining Scot McKnight judging a “Christian Lite” (whatever that means) book “well-written and pastorally-sensitive.” Of course we’re all fallible.

  • Scot McKnight

    Kentucky Ted, I’ve read the book. It’s not what you are saying. It’s simple and clear and mainline-ish.

    Titles matter, and also you don’t judge a book by the cover.

  • Steve Jung

    I teach a Luke/Acts class and I always get very excited about Luke 24.

    Cleopas and the other disciple were followers and yet sad about the death of their Messiah. They had Jesus, walking with them, even explain all the scriptures that dealt with who He is/was and yet they still did not recognize Jesus. To them Jesus was just “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (luke 24.19).

    The first thing is to recognize that Jesus was resurrected. Without that, Jesus is just a prophet and not who he said he was. Once you get the resurrection right, the rest should fall into place, centrally located in the person of Jesus.

  • John Mc

    I know I am late to the discussion, but I came back here after reading about the 2nd five of “The Least of These.”

    I think I would simplify what it means to be a Christian even further, to one core item and everytthing else is derrivative: To understand my life and my relationship with God, humanity and the world through the filter of Jesus of Nazareth. The three primary correlatives which I have deduced from this are that each human being, including myself and including the worst human being I can imagine, is a sincerely beloved child of the Creator God, and in the manner of Jesus, I am compelled to love unconditionally and to forgive without limit.

    What each Christ-follower perceives through the filter of Jesus life, teaching, death, and resurrection will change over time, and may conflict dramatically with the understanding which others have deduced, (and may even be at odds with the actual teaching of Jesus) but in any event we all agree that Jesus is the exclusive lense through which we encounter the world.