The Essence of Christianity
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.” I like this ancient saying. But I’ve been wondering lately what the essentials of Christian faith might be.
Living a Life of Love
I’m pretty convinced that God most desires that we love. Jesus summed up the Jewish commandments by saying we ought to love God and to love others as ourselves. As I see it, love is at the heart – essential – of the Christian witness. The chorus of the old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” has some truth.
At their best, Christians don’t just love in any particular moment. They develop loving habits and characters. Such Christians exhibit a heart of love. As the apostle Paul put it, they “imitate God and life a life of love, as Christ loved them.”
But Christians don’t have the corner on the love market.
NonChristians love too. I know some Buddhists who love, and compassion is a significant part of Buddhist faith. The Dalai Lama is a great example of someone who acts lovingly and has developed a character of compassion.
I even know atheists who act lovingly. They say they can be good without God.
So while love may be essential to the Christian faith, it doesn’t necessarily distinguish Christians from nonChristians. Most people talk about the essentials of Christian faith, at least in part, to identify what makes the Christian different from the nonChristian.
Say the Sinner’s Prayer
Many people I know think the sinner’s prayer of commitment – accepting Jesus – represents the essential difference between Christians and nonChristians. “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” they might ask.
Those who emphasize (sometimes almost exclusively) the moment of decision to follow Christ either explicitly or implicitly say that the essence of the Christian life – around which we all ought to unite – is the conversion experience. Christians have been “saved.”
But this approach is lacking in many ways.
Many of us know people who said “the sinner’s prayer” but subsequently changed not one whit. We know people who say they accepted Jesus into their hearts but never attend Church. Other such Christians don’t really know anything about Christian beliefs. And some continue to live life oriented toward sin.
Is saying a prayer of commitment to Christ the essence of Christianity?
Have the Right Beliefs
The line I quoted about essentials and nonessentials is usually used in the context of doctrines. Most use it to say, “Let’s not sweat the small stuff. We agree on the major doctrines.”
Most Christians I know, for instance, think the mode of baptism one chooses is nonessential. Most Christians think nonessential whether one thinks the Bible has errors or is inerrant. These issues matter, but they don’t distinguish Christians from nonChristians.
But a growing number of Christians reject the notion that right beliefs comprise the essence of Christianity.
For one thing, there’s little or no agreement about which set of beliefs are essential and which aren’t. The multiplicity of Christian denominations is evidence that Christians can’t agree on doctrines – even essential doctrines.
Even if people agree about particular formulations of beliefs (e.g., the Apostle’s Creed), how Christians interpret the meaning of these beliefs can differ widely.
Take Christology as an example. Early creeds affirmed that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It’s paradoxical. Two Christians can wholeheartedly affirm the creeds but have wildly different interpretations of what it means that Jesus is both human and divine.
Besides, everyone I know emphasizes one side of the divine-human Christological equation more than the other. They may say they affirm both equally. But Christians I know reveal in the way they pray, worship, and talk about Jesus their emphasis upon either Jesus’ humanity or divinity.
Or take the contentious issue of God’s nature. Few issues seem more important. And yet Christians disagree about whether we should understand God primarily in terms of God’s power or love or holiness or something else.
Participation in Christian Community and Practices
The slipperiness of belief leads many to say what makes a person Christian has more to do with association with the Christian community. These people say the essence of Christianity is involvement in a community of Christ-followers and following the liturgy, rites, and practices of the Church.
This way of thinking has much to commend. It recognizes that community shapes our thinking, habits, lifestyles, and orientation in the world. When people disagree over beliefs, for instance, they can still unite around the celebration of Eucharist. A person may have a strange view of eschatology, but the essence of Christian faith is participation in the community not a particular view of end times.
Others worry about making participation in Christian community and practices the essence of Christian faith. After all, they say, this sounds like salvation by works. And it sounds as if one’s motives aren’t as important as one’s actions. Doing something with wrong motives seems opposed to Jesus’ teachings.
Besides, as they say, “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” And prayer, rituals, and meditation aren’t uniquely Christian practices.
So… Which Is It?
What are the essentials around which Christians ought to unite? Is the essence of Christianity love, commitment, belief, or community? Should we pick two or three instead of just one? Does a person have to excel in all four to count as a “true Christian?” Who is a Christian?
To be honest, I haven’t got this figured out. I’m still thinking about essentials and nonessentials.
I do believe Christians ought to strive for excellence in all four categories. But I’m not sure which are essential and therefore should be used to identify those we rightly call “Christian.”
“Do we have to choose?” someone might ask. “Why not let God decide?” another might say.
I think having an opinion on this issue matters a great deal. It shapes how we decide to live and what we decide to do. It influences where we invest our time and energy.
If we think saying the sinner’s prayer is the essence of Christian faith, for instance, we ought to focus our primary attention there and not worry much about the others. If we think right beliefs are most important, we ought to spend much more time teaching these beliefs than most churches spend.