Sunday, 28 June 2020

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:``

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

"Well, there's so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said: "Yes."

I said: "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

What makes any joke funny is partly to do with how painfully true it is. Sadly this joke is no exception as it points to the kind of Christian partisanship that still exists inside the church today. It is something which I, as a clergyman, have become all too familiar with in my congregations over the years. All too often I have come across what the Bible talks about and who are all too keen to strain out gnats whilst swallowing camels (see Matthew 23:24). 

Now let us be clear, there are important positions that need to be taken with regards to Christian belief. Christianity is not a free for all where you can believe anything you want to and still claim to be a follower of Christ.  Like Israel of old we should be very wary of trying to mix and match our belief in God with whatever else takes your fancy. God 
justifiably condemns those who proclaim Him as the one true God while at the same time sacrificing to Baal. But the question is where then do we draw the line? What are the central, non-negotiable tenets, that define a Christian Church from a non-Christian or heretical one?

Here we have another problem, because some Christian churches will have their own particular confessions of belief. For example I have known Pentecostal Churches where unless you speak in tongues you cannot be a member. Or Baptist Churches where if you have been baptised as a baby you are only accepted if you are re-baptised by full immersion. True there tend on the whole to be membership stipulations but it is hard not to feel somehow less than authentic as a Christian.

The other problem is who to listen to or who to accept as an authority on this? Unfortunately too many too easily claim that authority themselves. Which is why we have upwards of 28,000 Christian denominations in the world which is, to say the least, an affront to Jesus one of whose last prayers was for unity in His church (See John 17). Which one is right? They can't all be.

Which then brings us back to universals. What central tenets of the Christian faith have been universally accepted down the centuries to this day? There is one that is accepted by the vast majority of those 28000 denominations. It is the Nicene Creed (or to be exact the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). This, most agree, represents the bottom line of Christian belief and doctrine. To be able to affirm what it says is what marks a person out - at least doctrinally - as a Christian.

What is interesting about this ancient and hard-fought statement of faith is that it allows certain wiggle-room in relation to how the faith is practised. For example it says "I believe in one baptism" but does not state what that baptism is - sprinkling or immersion, child or adult. Just baptism. It also states that Jesus will come again to "judge the living and the dead" but does not go into details about what that looks like. And so on. If we can put our hands up to this creed then that should be enough for Christians to at least not judge or write-off each other, and give something of a semblance of unity - that we are all on the same side.

But there is another statement that needs to run alongside this to help us practice what I have just made a plea for. It goes like this:

"In essentials Unity, In non-Essentials Liberty, in all things Charity" attributed to St. Augustine. 

This is a plea to exercise love (charity) amongst Christians of all stamps, and not allow ourselves to fall out or split over those things which are - in credal terms at least - non-essential.

So here is my plea. Let us as Christians cut each other a little slack. There is a world to win for Christ out there and the sooner we can stop majoring over minors, the sooner we will accomplish what Christ has called us to do. 

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In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...