Hey Tony. I will try to make this short… I was raised in the church, became a youth leader in my early 20s, then a worship pastor/elder, then a staff deacon at a large church. Almost three years ago, my family and I walked away, with no plans on returning to “the church.” I don’t intellectually assent to any of the things that orthodox Christians are supposed to (i.e. the Trinity, the physical resurrection of Jesus, etc.). I don’t read my Bible very often. I never pray. But, I cannot escape the cultural influence that Christianity has had upon me, and it’s very difficult for me to think outside of that framework. I also try to embody the trajectory of Jesus’ life (the way of love) in my life every day. And, I think that his way is – universally – the best way to live. Do I still have “the right” to call myself a Christian?
Rob, I appreciate your participation in the comments of the original post, and even that you let me off the hook on your own blog. Your question is the most personal one that I’ve tackled thus far, and here’s why:
A lot of my friends have abandoned Christianity. We’re about a decade in to this thing that is variously called emergent/emerging/emergence Christianity, and something I’ve noticed lately is that some of the people who were with us in the early days no longer consider themselves Christians. Some have regressed into more conservative forms of faith, but quite a few have abandoned faith altogether, or at least the practice of religion.
Our conservative critics will likely say, “You reap what you sow.” It reminds me of a journalist who told me that she thought I got divorced because Solomon’s porch lacked a bishop and a particular standard of church discipline. But the fact is, my marriage was hanging by a thread for a long time, and no bishop couple have saved it. Similarly, a lot of the people who came into emergent ten years ago — read the books, attended the conferences, planted churches, started blogs and podcasts — were already on their way out the door of Christianity. They may have hung out in the narthex for a few extra minutes because of emergent, but they were destined to leave based on the shitty version of Christianity in which they’d been reared.
Others of course — and you seem to be among them — depart from orthodox Christianity because you’ve got honest intellectual problems with the system of belief that has evolved over the centuries. You don’t buy the divinity of Jesus or the trinity, for instance. And so you wonder if you can still use the nomenclature of Christianity.
To the most primitivist Christians, I think you’re fine. If the stick by which we measure Christianity is the Apostles, then affirmation of the Trinity surely isn’t a disqualifier. The divinity of Jesus and a belief in the resurrection, however, seems to be central to the confession of the Apostles, at least according to the Book of Acts.
To slice it even a bit thinner, you could wonder whether the essence of Christianity is embodied by Jesus’ followers before his death or after. That is, the Disciples followed Jesus because he asked them to, without any qualifications (except maybe that they let the dead bury their own dead). The Disciples did not have to affirm Jesus’ divinity or even his Messiahship. This, as you’ve written, seems to apply to you. You follow Jesus and consider him an exemplar of how a human being ought to live.
But when you get past the Gospels — when those followers go from Disciples to Apostles — you inevitably find that their beliefs become more developed and sophisticated. Peter preaches a resurrected Christ on Pentecost, Paul writes letters that are filled with thoughts on ressurection, and “John” does too. Even in the earliest church, some core of belief had become normative.
It wasn’t long before a group of leaders began to determine the boundaries of those normative beliefs. Marcion said that Yahweh was a demiurge and not the Father of Jesus, so he was out. Arius (it seems) taught that there was a time before the Trinity, when only God existed this undermined the Trinity, and he was out. Etc., etc.
Until now. A lot of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world are reconsidering all of the casting out of heretics as a bad idea. We’re left with a religion of 40,000+ denominations and, as I wrote above, lots of people who were reared in terrible versions of the religion. If there’s going to be a re-convergence of global Christianity, around what will we rally? What will it mean for someone to call themselves a Christian?
There was, however, a defining norm in the early church that might be the cry around which we can rally in these postmodern, post-creedal days. It was simple, it was proclamatory: Jesus Is Lord. That phrase is found in 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9. It seems to have been in place for the baptisms recorded in Acts 8 and 19. And it was used widely in the early church, causing the persecution of many Christians because it implied a lack of allegiance to the emperor.
Of course, we can argue about whether it should be “Jesus is Lord” or “Christ is Lord;” we can debate the imperial implications in the the term “Lord.” But nevertheless, this is a proclamation of submission, which is key to the Christian life; it is at once both theological and existential; and it is a simple cry of faith that strips away much accumulated baggage.
Around the election, I argued that Mormons are not orthodox Christians, based on their christology and their lack of doctrine of the Trinity and their new testament and their secretive practices. I still hold to that. Mormons are not orthodox Christians. That is an important qualifier, because orthodox Christianity has an accretive definition — it has been added to (and subtracted from) over the years.
But if Mormons are able to profess, “Jesus is Lord,” then I have to admit that they are Christian, in the broadest definition.
The same goes for you, Rob. If you can proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” then you can definitely call yourself a Christian.