Thursday, March 09, 2017

In Essentials Unity, in Nonessentials Liberty, and in All Things, Love

Our backyard, on the river
When I was growing up my parents did not allow a deck of playing cards in the house. Card-playing was wrong, it was sin. I didn't know why this was so. As a child I didn't question it or find it weird. It was when I became a Jesus-follower that I began to wonder.

I found out that, among the Finnish Lutherans of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my family was from and where I was born, card-playing was associated with drinking and gambling. Someone who was a Christian didn't drink, gamble, or play cards.

Sociologically, that made sense to me. But I no longer felt card-playing was a sin. Card-playing lies way out on the periphery of mere Christianity. God may tell a few to avoid a deck of cards, but it is a non-essential. You can be a Jesus-follower and have a deck of cards in your house, unless God specifically (for some reason you may or may not know) tells you not to have one. Here's how I have come to view the bigger picture about such things.

For a long time I've seen the Christian faith as a set of concentric circles, circles within circles. On the outer circles we find nonessentials of Christianity. These matters may be important for a few, but do not apply to all. In the inner circle we find the heart of mere, true Christianity. If one does not affirm Circle 1 statements, then probably one is not a Christian, just as I am not now playing tennis as I'm typing on my laptop.

The set of propositions that fit within Circle 1 include:

1. God exists. (Viz., an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, necessarily existent, without-beginning-or-end, creator and sustainer of all things, incorporeal, personal agent.)
2. Jesus the Messiah is God incarnate.
3. Jesus died on a cross, was buried in a tomb, and was raised on the third day.

If someone thinks any one of these three propositions are false, then I think they are not a Christian. (Yes, I am aware (amazingly, to me) of the "atheistic Christianity" of, e.g., Paul Van Buren and Thomas J.J. Altizer. I read their books back in the 1970s. Altizer, in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, wrote: "every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God's death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity." At this point I would argue that he has left Christianity in the same way one who travels by foot cannot be said to be flying in an airplane.)

Basic to mere Christianity is belief in God.

Also basic to mere Christianity is a recognition that Jesus is Lord, in the strong sense of being from God. Jesus is God the Son. I don't think one must fully grasp this concept to be a Christian. I'm still growing and learning such things. But mere Christianity includes the realization that one needs saving, and Jesus is the Savior.

To disaffirm the cross and the resurrection surely disqualifies one as a Christian. How odd it seems to me should someone say, "I don't believe Jesus died on a cross for my sins. I don't believe Jesus was raised from the dead. But I am a Christian." Why, I would ask? Why insist that you're playing tennis while typing on your laptop?

Central to mere Christianity are statements 1, 2, and 3. They (and some others) belong in the center circle of the Christian faith. But the statement card-playing is wrong does not belong there. It orbits on some distant curve many circles from the center.

Outwardly adjacent to and encircling the center circle of our faith is Circle 2, which involves very important issues that we should rightly feel passionate about, and upon which Jesus-followers have disagreed.

Outer circle issues are important but non-essential to salvation.
Circle 2 issues include:
  • The meaning and means of baptism
  • The meaning and means of the Lord's Table
  • The doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit
  • The theology and practice of the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • The nature and expression of worship
These (and others) are important. It's in this second circle that denominations have formed. Churches have split over these things! But while they are very important they are not, I think, essential to true Christianity. Surely if one heart-affirms Circle 1's third proposition (and, by implication, affirm propositions 1 & 2), they are a "Christian." No futher doctrinal understanding is needed. 

When I gave my heart and life over to Jesus as Lord I had no clue of the deep matters of Circle 2. So, I think we can disagree on the things of the second circle and still affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ if we agree on Circle 1 things. (And even things beyond the second circle, such as the age of the earth, which no one in the Bible seems interested in [while being very interested in the truth that God has made it all].)

My parents were Jesus-followers. I loved them, and did not disrespect their wish that a deck of cards not be in their home. I like the way Pope John XXIII counsels us to do this: "In essentials unity, in doubtful matters [nonessentials] liberty, and in all things, love [charity]."