(originally posted in 2010)
Here’s a good follow-up from my last post: what makes a spiritual community Christian? What seems obvious to some has been completely un-obvious to me. Let me meander through this question a moment.
Years ago the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical group comprised of nearly all current Christian denominations said that be be a member of the Council a church was only required to affirm the statement “Jesus is Lord.”
That was until the MCC, a predominantly gay and lesbian church, tried to join. The MCC was perfectly willing to affirm and declare that “Jesus is Lord”. Suddenly, our good friends at NCC had a problem. The net-net is, at that time, MCC was denied membership into the National Council of Churches. I don’t know if that has changed but either way, my point is taken. There is more than one idea floating around about what it means to be Christian.
To me, the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is difficult to make sense of in a democratic society where none of us has lived under a feudal system or functioning monarchy. We don’t swear fealty to an overlord who protects us. We really don’t have any experiential idea of what lordship looks and feels like. I know some folks say that “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is in charge or that Jesus is the thing we most value in our lives or that we follow the way of Jesus above all other ways if there is a conflict of interests. But the phrase doesn’t emerge out of our life experiences as it did in the time of Paul up to the Industrial Age. However, it remains one understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be in a Christian community.
Another understanding of what it means to be Christian is the affirmation of the phrase: “Jesus Christ is my lord and savior.” “Isn’t this the same?” you might ask. Well, yes and no.
Having chatted with many a ‘missionary’ on my doorstep I have discerned a distinct, rather than nuanced, difference between the two statements. This statement infers that one believes Jesus is saving one from eternal damnation, otherwise known as ‘hell’. If you believe in Jesus as the son of God, if you believe he came to atone for the sins of all humanity throughout all time (including yours) then you are saved. This understanding often encourages blind faith, the accepting of things that don’t make sense or that appear, in and of themselves, unbelievable.
For some, it is a matter of believing the tenets of the ‘true faith’. The ‘true faith’ is always the faith purported by the makers of the statement, which have been varied and many.
Finally, there are those who call themselves Christian who consider themselves ‘followers in the Way of Jesus’. They follow the teachings of Jesus and seek to live in the manner that Christ lived and taught. Now, I’m not saying that those with different understandings of what it means to be Christian don’t do that, I’m just saying that this is how some Christians define their Christianity.
So, the question: what makes a spiritual community Christian? I guess the answer is: All of the above. At Circle of Grace we try to make room for multiple understandings of what it means to be a Christian. For some, atonement is essential. For some, the lordship of Christ is pivotal. For most of us, being Christian is following in the Way of Christ (Jesus). For all of us, it is essential that we remain respectful of one another’s understandings. I guess the one understanding that wouldn’t make it here is the idea of a ‘true faith’. It excludes the respectful possibility of differences.
So are we Christian? I am sure some would say not. And some might think, “Well some of you are and some of you aren’t.” Some of us hesitate to be called Christian because they hesitate to be identified with the dominant cultural understanding of Christian as intolerant and judgmental. But Christian we are, in most of its permutations. What makes us a spiritual community that is Christian?
Okay, the bottom line is that I don’t have an answer to what seems to be a profoundly easy question.