If you haven’t read Part I of this essay, I highly recommend reading it first. It may help eliminate some misunderstandings of Part II.
The principle tenet of every religion is that that particular religion is “the way.” It is the only correct worldview that will reconcile man and God. The Christian religion, not surprisingly, is no exception. While the message of Christianity is unique in that it tells the story of God seeking to reconcile man through His efforts (as opposed to man seeking to reconcile himself to God through his own efforts), it has another unfortunately unique aspect in that it is completely lacking in unity. The Christian religion comprises numerous factions, with each faction convinced that it is the most correct. Attempts to universalize the religion have miserably failed because they have always been characterized by human hierarchy, oppression, and thought control.
The frequently vicious infighting among the many denominations and congregations is partially driven by the fear that one’s beliefs might not be correct enough to actually get to heaven. One must be 100% theologically correct. After all, “our eternal security depends on it!” This fear leads people to seek assurance from their denominational peers that they are, in fact, correct in the essential theological beliefs.
The Fear of Not Being Correct Enough stems from a view of reconciliation (usually called “salvation”) that is overly focused on an expression that Paul uses three times, I believe. That expression is some variant of “salvation is by grace through faith.” Now, if we based our understanding of salvation on the teaching of Jesus and read Paul’s letters to perhaps add another perspective to our understanding, there wouldn’t be much of a problem.
But each denomination/congregation, in order to validate its existence and ensure its survival, mandates what the specifics of faith must be. They vary by denomination, but some of these mandatory requirements are church membership, baptism of one sort or another, participation in communion, exhibition of charismatic gifts of the Spirit, confession of sins to a priest, belief in a triune God, belief in a non-triune God, or specific views of the nature of God and God’s Son. The list goes on and on. In most cases, a single disparity between your understanding of any belief in the above list and any given church’s statement of faith is enough to prevent you from becoming a member of that church.
Many Christians start to bristle at my objection to this practice because they feel that any deviation from “the essentials” invalidates the entire story. Take for example, the eternality of God’s Son. Some verses of the bible seem to indicate that God’s Son had a beginning of sorts. This leads to debate on His origin: was God’s Son begotten or created? Some verses indicate that God’s Son existed before time. Was His existence from infinity past? Or did this existence have an origin at some specific point prior to the creation of the universe and which will continue through infinity future? Is Jesus called God’s Son because He took on human flesh as a physical son of God, or was He God’s Son prior to the incarnation? If you pick any combination of the above possibilities, there is a Christian faction somewhere that will denounce you as a heretic and tell you that if you deny X, then you can’t possibly be redeemed, because the entire story is predicated on that one point, and if you don’t believe it, you can’t believe any of it. Hence, your faith is misplaced and therefore, invalid. In this example, much of the arguing is based on our understanding of time, which is not an easy concept to fully grasp unless you are Stephen Hawking. Go figure—the one guy that understands time is an atheist.
Now before those that are bristling spool completely out of control, let me say that most of the aforementioned possibilities are mutually exclusive. God’s Son either had a beginning or He didn’t. His “sonship” either preexisted the birth of Jesus, or it didn’t. There is a correct answer to the question. The more pressing question is how critical is it to have an exactly correct understanding of this issue in order to be worthy of God’s reconciliation? How critical is it to have an exactly correct understanding of this, plus a dozen other issues which many Christians deem essential for salvation? How many Christians actually agree on every point of all the “essentials”? I would venture to guess that the number roughly equals the number of Christians that can offer solid reasons for what they believe—which is not very many.
Each denomination or congregation lists mandatory criteria for salvation, church membership, and ministry. Which denomination is the most correct? For the most part, each bases its beliefs on the bible; although some also overtly (and I would argue all do latently) base their core beliefs on tradition. Catholics also overtly believe in the magisterium of the church. To put it simply, what the church officially proclaims carries the weight of the authority of God. Protestants jump up and down condemning this practice. Most affirm the concept of sola scriptura which holds that the bible is the believer’s sole authority for faith and practice. However, in both faith and practice, they place a tremendous amount of emphasis on their denomination’s tradition and interpret the bible through a denominational lens. So in effect, it amounts to the same thing.
Relatively few believers convert from one denomination to another, although anecdotally, I’ve seen a sizable population shift over the last 30 years from traditional denominations to non-denominational churches. So the Christians that remain in church usually remain in the church they attended as a child, leave church entirely, or slide into an ostensibly more inclusive non-denominational church. Set against the backdrop of the history of Christianity, non-denominational churches are a relatively new phenomenon. Their ostensible inclusiveness initially alleviates the heartburn that many Christians feel at the isolationist mentality that most congregations foster. Yet even the non-denominational congregations eventually become bound up in religious dogma and practice. The point is that most religious adults have grown relatively comfortable with the religion in which they were raised and accept its tenets without much critical thought.
An objective questioner might ask whether God drops us into a world with three-hundred religious options and only accepts us if we pick the correct one? Does He require an exact belief in “the essentials” (or the “fundamentals,” if you prefer) before He will forgive our sins? Most congregations will answer “yes” to both questions, but most officially disagree with each other on the particulars of the supposed essentials.
An honest seeker of the truth would admit that to some extent, we are all wrong. No one person has a completely accurate picture of God, eternity, and humanity. There are three major problems that arise when we impose our understanding of God on others as the criteria for salvation:
- Disunity becomes the norm.
- Christians stop questioning their beliefs for fear that they will be ostracized for not buying into the denominational group think.
- Christians tend to form a view of God that is partially correct at best. They then dogmatically present this incorrect view to unbelievers, always with detrimental results.
God understands that every human struggles with the four fundamental questions that according to Nathan Zacharias, every worldview must address: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. God understands that even the most ardent seeker of the truth is limited in his grasp of transcendent, eternal concepts. So why didn’t He make it easy for us? I believe that He did. I don’t mean that He eliminated the struggle that each of us must face, for that struggle is part of our development. I mean that He saw that we have followed our own devices and made a mess of things. So He provided the means to rescue us from this mess and reconcile us to Himself. We lost sight of who God truly is, so He sent His Son—His Message to us—to make it crystal clear what God is like and what He desires. Jesus came to earth to rescue us from ourselves and to reconcile us to God. If you desire rescue and reconciliation, then He has provided that for you. It’s done. You don’t need to understand the Trinity (or lack thereof if you are a Unitarian). You don’t need to wax eloquent on the mystery of the hypostatic union or be baptized or be a member of a church or give God ten percent of your money or go to church every week. You don’t need to believe that God created the world in six days or believe that the bible is scientifically accurate in every regard. He loves you as you are and invites you to be reconciled as you are.
In other words, God doesn’t drop us into a confusing, ambiguous environment and give us a deadline by which we must have it all figured out exactly correctly or He’s going to torture us for ever and ever.
Those that are wedded to religion will have a difficult time accepting this because it goes against the tradition of every religious denomination. Those who are seeking God must seek him in a spiritual sense and with absolute honesty as Jesus taught. Religion purports to lead us to God through physical and mental means that are usually lacking in honest assessment. While we will never reach a perfect understanding of all things infinite in this lifetime, we can at least grasp what God has placed within our reach. And while we are on this journey, here are some things to remember:
- We should acknowledge that we are all wrong to some extent. This is not a surprise to God.
- It’s OK that we are all wrong—as long as we are seeking the truth.
- We should all be seeking the truth.
- All ideas are not equally valid.
- We should identify false teaching (dogmatic error or intentional deception).
- False teaching is detrimental to followers, frequently beneficial (in an exploitative sense) to the teacher, and will eventually be exposed for what it is.
- We must differentiate between truth seekers who have an incorrect understanding and false teachers who are inventing doctrine for self-serving purposes.
- Disunity is more harmful than false teaching.
- If one is sure he is right on a given issue and another disagrees, he ought to be gracious and allow the other the freedom to grow and learn at his own pace.
- Because of our different perspectives, gifts, and insights, believers need other believers to get a better grasp of the big picture. Intellectual inbreeding stifles this endeavor.
- We must be willing to have our beliefs challenged.
- We must constantly reevaluate our beliefs.
- We must encourage each other to grow and learn. Growth only occurs when you ask questions and struggle to find the answer.
A common defense of segregationist Christianity is that if we stop excluding others, we will be forced to assent to all sorts of error and false doctrine. That is not correct, nor would it be an ingenuous approach to life. There’s no requirement to assent to a belief that you disagree with. Nor is there a requirement to be apathetic about ignorance. But as Christians, we must stop debating each other. Debate is divisive and unproductive. Instead of engaging in arguments that serve no useful purpose, let’s start exploring, learning, and growing together. We’ll find that our impact on our society will be much more effective if we treat each other like family rather than like warring tribal factions.