What Do I have To Believe to Be a Christian? (Guest Post: Chad Holtz)

“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).


Chad Holtz is a father of 5, husband to one, and a student of all.  He working on an M.Div at Duke Divinity School while pastoring a wonderful rural United Methodist church in Henderson, NC.  He is the author of the blog: “Dancing on Saturday: Living in the Already-Not Yet.”

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  • Kurt,
    Thanks for the blog love. I look forward to hearing what your readers think.


  • martin ankney

    2 Cor. 5:11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.

  • I feel that much of the conflict over doctrine and creed comes from the attitude that the Bible and such are written in stone. They are not treated as living documents open to growth and new understanding as the world we lives in develops and changes. I’m not talking about relativism such as seeing various shades of color depending on what direction you are looking a diamond. But more like acknowledging that a tree not only has roots in the past, or a core trunk, but that it also branches and the branches branch and that the leaves on one side of the tree are connected to different parts than the leaves on another side of the tree.

    The nutrients the leaves receive flow through some of the same history but not all. The spirit speaks to each slightly differently, yet it is the same spirit. This diversity is our strength and beauty. The tree would not be as full if it did not have all it’s branches divided in different directions. If we were not all spread out, only a few would receive the son’s rays; the tree would be scrawny and not very healthy. If we were not spread out we would not provide as much shade -comfort for nature to rest- or fruit -food for nature to eat.

    And each year the tree lives, the roots deepen and spread out, the trunk builds another layer of bark and the diameter of it’s core increases. Each year branches become limbs and new branches are formed. As the tree grows and reaches ever higher for the son, new leaves shade lower branches. Eventually some branches don’t have enough leaves and they die, rot and break off. Those branches whose leaves can stay in the son live to become major limbs of the tree. Life comes from staying in the son and being fed by the spirit.

  • Very good post. Jesus said He wanted disciples, not believers. Jesus is the outcome of a God in love with His Creation…and sent Himself into the picture. Jesus is the epitome of God entering the story…the Word Becomes Action.

    We can do no less…albeit we will be messy as we try. A righteous man is a man that falls 7 times and gets up 8.

    We ‘GET’ to believe in all the things above and then we ‘GET’ to change the world alongside a God that wouldn’t do it without us. We ‘GET’ to know that He will come back to finish the good work He started and that we’re continuing in Him. Awesome.

  • I found it interesting, absolutely nothing about the redemptive imagination of God’s Kingdom. Not that we believe, but are consumed by it’s reality. But…what will we do about it.

  • I see a problem here. Throughout the New Testament we are told we need to believe in Jesus. Before Jesus died and rose again no one truly knew who he was yet they were told to believe. We cannot truly understand what it means to believe until the Holy Spirit reveals it to us and for that to happen we must first believe that Jesus is our salvation.

    To be established in our faith we then need to be taught what it means to be saved and to live the life that God intends for us. Without this knowledge we are prey to every wind of doctrine. The basis of our salvation will never be doctrine but faith in Jesus alone. Otherwise how can we know that his word is true unless his spirit convicts us? His word is wholly trustworthy and doesn’t change but though we get our doctrine from his word our understanding is clouded so we must always be open to correction.

    Whatever I get to believe is secondary to the one in whom I have believed. However much I dislike the idea of in and out, if I have believed in him I am in; otherwise I am out. Have you ever played the game where the leader quotes a line then asks everyone to repeat it verbatim? At first everyone fails because they miss that he first clears his throat. As soon as you get it you are in but until then you are out.

    The problem I see is that as soon as we believe we are told that we are different, as if believing did that. But as long as we think we are better because we believe, we exclude others on the basis of our understanding and not theirs.

  • Chris,
    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but I am having a hard time reconciling these two thoughts from you. First, you say:

    “However much I dislike the idea of in and out, if I have believed in him I am in; otherwise I am out. ”

    And then follow that with:

    “The problem I see is that as soon as we believe we are told that we are different, as if believing did that. But as long as we think we are better because we believe, we exclude others on the basis of our understanding and not theirs.”

    How do you avoid the problem you see when you claim to know what makes one “in” or “out”?


    • I don’t think there is a solution to the us and them in that you either understand or you don’t. If you have understood then you are one of the in club whether you want to be or not. And if you are ignorant well you just are, whether you like the label or not.

      The problem I see is that many Christians have a sense of superiority however they dress it otherwise. There is a discipleship course that majors on what I am in Christ. However biblical it sounds the implication is that we can now come close to God because we have changed not because we now realize we are no better than anyone else but can trust in Jesus rather than our own worthiness.

      I don’t like to call myself a Christian because my faith is nothing. Like Paul says: to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

  • Jeff Zimm

    “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.” I love this phrase Chad, very well said. Do you mind if I use this?

  • Jeff, thanks. I’m glad it spoke to you. Please use whatever you like.


  • I am sharing that on my wall, I like it…almost love it. Only issue for me is your use of Paul’s word ‘refute’ or ‘rebuke’; seems the greek word used by Paul means more like to ‘walk away’ or to say ‘walk away’ – not condemn, but walk away agreeing to be different and yet retain love for the other. Not Condemn.

  • Ah, yes! I get it and affirm it and am comforted by it. Following your blog, and hope to find you one day hanging out on mine. Peace to you.

  • ‘Believe’ get’s us started, and I agree we need to be more open and accepting of how that is interpreted. ‘Obey’, however, is where we learn to be an authentic Christian that serves all God’s children. Unless you get the Obey part, you’ve got some growing to do (took me 11 years, and still growing/trying).
    John 14:15 – “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
    1st John 2:3 – 5 “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

  • I think the problem is not doctrines per se but the “maximalist” approach to the Bible. If the Bible is inerrant then we have to believe it all. But it says a lot of stuff so the more we believe the better… or so that line of thought goes. So you get people like Calvinists holding contradictory views (trying to believe more) and others more liberal believing less because they reject the contradiction (trying to believe better) and they disagree.

    The real question is what do these beliefs do to you? Beliefs are important but not in and of themselves: God does not value credulity but fidelity so if what you believe makes you more faithful to his commands then that’s a good belief. The interesting thing is many beliefs can go both ways: predestination can be a motivation for mission in some people (Whitefield) or a reason not to evangelise. Hell can be a reason to fear and seek God’s grace or a reason to hate God. The resurrection can be evidence that God is redeeming this creation or reason that we’re all off to a platonic bliss in the afterlife. It can go both ways so what counts is how you live.

  • Ray s

    I think it’s simple, believe jesus died for our sins. believe, love one another. believe, John
    1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    beliveve, you may be the only bible people read, and in your action, people see the work of god. so what do you need to believe, to be a christian? the teachings of the real truth, and love. the attitude of i got to, instead of i get to, lyes on the individual. poeple have that attitude, we it comes to attending church. so i will believe, do right by christ and that’s all you must believe. you can do it and, he will guide you through it.

  • I love the clarity of the “get tos”. Thanks!

    in other words, there is content to the Christian message, but it doesn’t have to be expressed as “over-against.”

  • faith9999

    I am not a scholar nor a seminary student but I find these blogs extremely inviting and helpful to my growth as a Christian. The more I learn the more I also see my errors more clearly, so long as it helps me love my God and my brothers more purely, so be it.
    I do believe that Doctrine/teaching from the bible is Holy Spirit Inspired. For years I believed Jesus Christ was the savior of mankind, I believed he died for me and my sins, in a text book kind of way. But I did not trust nor fully understand( KNOW) nor received the truth. Knowing can be a very intimate word in Holy Scripture.
    I am sure everybody’s individual conversion or transition into the Body is unique. But it was not just the believing of doctrine that converted my being nor brought my spirit back from the dead. It was not sharing certain interpretation of doctrine and joining a church that believed the same.
    It was the work of the Holy Spirit that spoke directly to me and I accepted the gift of salvation and was then indwelled by the Holy Spirit and then I just KNEW the very essence of absolute truth, love and grace. It was as if I accepted a person that was true love, truth ,hope itself.… all at the same time,(KNOWING) no words or doctrine could explain it.
    Then I trusted and began to follow the teachings of the bible and the revelations revealed by the Holy Spirit, I knew it was not by my own might or knowledge, and I continued to allow Jesus/WORD to be the Lord of my life.
    It does seem that it is the work of The Holy Spirit that gives you opportunity to accept the WORD/TRUTH and be made alive and reconciled to God, and the maturing process comes from now being able to (get to) believe and trust and have faith in his teachings.
    I suppose the in/out would be, are you a regenerated, holy spirit filled child of God or not. Regardless of your understanding of scripture or how much knowledge that you have. I take no credit for my salvation, other than I accepted my life into another’s,- Jesus Christ. Still not the best words to describe it. (maybe some day)
    It seems to me, what you believe, as to the interpretation of the scriptures is how you live out and mature in your relationship with God and with others. This is where the checks/balances come in, are our beliefs producing the fruits of the spirit in ourselves and others.

  • It seems faith, PISTIS in the NT, entailed and was inseparable from obedience but that the Reformation caused us to split these off as an antithesis. For Jesus and co., your faith was your allegiance with public and political implications. Of course you had to believe certain “facts” but the point was not the factual cognition but the reality they referred to. For example, to believe that Jesus is Messiah, is to accede power and authority to Him, to submit yourself to his command. To believe in resurrection was to believe that God was restoring His order on this Earth in opposition to Gnostics and Platonists yearning for a disembodied hereafter.

    Faith entailed and implied obedience it did not produce it as some external fruit or evidence of itself as Luther taught. That (works) which makes something alive cannot be a result of the thing it makes alive (faith). You have to hand it to the Catholics…