I am grateful to Michael Halcomb, Ken Brown (twice) and Drew Tatusko for replying to an earlier conversation-starter of mine about Christianity, salvation and other religions. Since these responses are each rather different, I find myself wondering how to best reply. Rather than take each in turn, I want to try to ask a question that may address views and presuppositions that lie behind things that these other bloggers and I have written.
Is the Christian community to understand itself as a community that seeks to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God? Or are those who have salvation and a genuine relationship with God those who are part of the Christian community? In other words, is this a body that is like a fan club, which certainly does not consist of all fans of whatever band, individual, team or whatever the club is dedicated to, but within which one would expect everyone to share this characteristic of fandom? Or is the Christian Church more like the Supreme Court? If you are a part of it, you are a Supreme Court Justice. If you aren’t, then you aren’t, whatever your views about or appreciation of the Supreme Court may be.
These are simply two examples chosen because they were the first ones that came to mind to illustrate each category. I’m sure there are better ones. But I hope this will illustrate two different ways of viewing that nature of the Church as Christians. If we take the former view (as I do), then it is not that Christianity is a group that one enters because only therein one can find salvation, but one enters it either because it offers a community of those who have had a particular experience of God and are united by it, and invite others to have it.
Let me now apply this to the case of Cornelius, whom I used in my earlier example. Is Cornelius, in this story, being given an opportunity to know God, of coming to experience salvation? This seems a potentially problematic way of understanding the story. If the Christian message is about proclaiming grace, mercy, forgiveness and liberation to those who need it, then why single out this individual because of his righteousness as a person to whom to proclaim this message? Is it not more natural to read it as an instance of someone who is already in a relationship with God, and is thus being invited to join a community of those who share this sort of experience, while in so doing also crank that experience up a notch, as it were?
It is problematic to discuss this subject in relation to the writings of the New Testament, since the term Christian was a relatively new one, and many of the writings in the New Testament do not use it. The ‘church’ is, in most cases, the congregation, which means a gathering of people. And so it is interesting to read Paul’s letter to the Romans as it addresses the nature of the “people of God” in relation to the historic status of the Jewish people in that role.
In Romans 1-3, Paul defines very clearly the point of his argument. He begins with a typical condemnation of sins thought in a Jewish context to be characteristic of Gentiles, only to then build on that to declare that sin is not absent when one looks at the Jews. What Paul is doing is challenging the demarcation of the ‘saved’ and ‘lost’ as following precisely the boundary between Jews and Gentiles. Those outward features that symbolize Jewish identity (such as circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath) cannot be the defining markers of the people of God. It must be those who do what the Law says is most important, and not simply those who have the Law and some outward symbols of their connection to it.
What would this sound like if Paul wrote it today? I would guess that Paul would probably say that it is the doers of the teaching of Jesus, and not merely the hearers or possessers of that teaching, that stand in a right relationship to God. Presumably he would have written today the equivalent of what he wrote then: “God will give to each one according to what he has done: to the Christian first, and then to the non-Christian“. Ironically, Evangelical Christians today seem as a group to have placed themselves not where Paul redefines the people of God to be, but in the situation of those Paul is critiquing. I could easily imagine him saying that salvation is about faithfulness to God (one meaning of pistis), and not about “works of the Church” – whether not smoking and drinking, or carrying a big Bible, or belonging to the “right denomination”, or in other ways being identified by things that are not the central focus of the Bible.
When Paul defines faith, he uses the example of Abraham. It is hard to imagine any way that Paul could have made clearer that what he means by “faith” is not believing Christian doctrines to be true, or even necessarily having explicit knowledge about Jesus. Although Paul is focused on Christian faith, through his choice of Abraham as an example he avoids doing what many Christians today seem to have done: simply replacing one group with superficial boundary markers with another. Instead, he makes the defining characteristics the trust in God (another meaning of the Greek word pistis) that Abraham showed, even though he didn’t believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atoning Sacrifice, or any other doctrine distinctive of Christianity.
I think that Paul would have been the first to recognize in those outside the Christian community who showed the defining features of true faith in God (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control…) individuals who knew God and stood in a right relationship to God. His emphasis was on calling people from living according to the flesh to life in the Spirit, and from defining themselves in ethnic or communal terms rather than according to things that really matter. In other words, I understand Christianity to be about the gathering of individuals who are characterized by and agree on the importance of the goals and emphases of the Bible’s most foundational principles, rather than about the attempt to claim that only those who are Christians have those characteristics.
I suspect that in our ongoing conversation, one key focus will be on the different ways that each of us is reading the same parts of the Bible. While I am certain that we have different views of Biblical authority, I suspect that even if we were completely in agreement on this point, we might still find ourselves disagreeing on the interpretation of the same passages. At any rate, I look forward to continuing the conversation!