Making Sense of Christianity

“I’m looking for an evangelical Baptist church. It can’t be too charismatic. I would prefer a reformed, Bible-believing and outward-looking congregation. Can you help me?”

That’s the kind of crazy question I would get on a regular basis when I worked at an independent Christian bookshop. I would be there every Saturday and often tourists who were unfamiliar with the area would ask me about where to find a church that would most suit them. If I didn’t have a clue what half of those words meant, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when those who don’t share my own Christian faith get just a little bit confused at times.

Defining Christianity

I recently met somebody who said they were a Christian. Let’s call them Bob. Bob believed in God, but only as a creator, not as a father or a person. According to Bob, Jesus might have existed, but he certainly wasn’t God. Bob told me we can never know anything about God himself, other than what we observe – that he is a creator.

I tried to show Bob that his beliefs weren’t actually compatible with Christianity but with a belief system called Deism. Deism says that there is a creator God, but that we cannot know anything about him. Any “Holy Book” or apparent “miracle” is rejected.

A few weeks later I was watching the BBC’s Sunday morning programme “The Big Question” where Nicky Campbell dances around asking the audience their opinions on matters often relating to faith. One of that episode’s questions was “Do you have to believe in God to be a Christian?” To my shock, two “Christians” appeared on the show – one of which was ordained – who didn’t believe in God. Their view of prayer was we merely talk to ourselves and put things in perspective so we can answer our own prayers, rather than get any kind of divine help.

Both of these examples fail to take into account that Christianity has maintained a steady set of doctrines (or beliefs) for almost 2000 years. The early Christians referred to their beliefs as “The Way”. This involved following and imitating Jesus Christ. Many of the traditions and ways of worshipping have changed over the years, but the fundamental belief of following Jesus has remained. Both of the above examples suggest this belief is open to debate, an idea that most Christians would reject.

Reformation: Catholicism vs. The Bible

The biggest, most monumental event in all of church history was a period of time called “The Reformation”. It began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church, in Wittenberg. Luther was basically very angry at how the Catholic Church had become so corrupt. Popes had imposed heavy taxes on the poor and sold “indulgences” which were pardons for sin. There was widespread scandal in the church. For example Pope Alexander VI, who like all Popes had pledged a vow of celibacy, fathered seven children by at least two mistresses. The reformers (Luther, Calvin and others) believed all of the above went directly against God’s word – the Bible.

But for centuries only a tiny majority of Christians had had access to the Bible; the vast majority of laity were illiterate and could not afford their own bibles and services were given in Latin. In countries where vernacular Bibles were banned, such as England, translators such as William Tyndale were burned at the stake for the “crime” of translating the Bible into English.

Unlike the Catholic Church Luther believed that all people should be allowed to read the Bible, not just priests. It was during the Reformation that “Protest-ant” denominations, such as our current day Church of England, came into being. The Catholic Church also began to change and despite the remaining differences between Catholic and Protestant groups it seems to me that this highly significant time was ultimately beneficial for all.

Reformed, Evangelical and Charismatic

“Reformed” churches aim to take on board the lessons learnt in the Reformation and build their church on the rock of scripture alone. “Reformed” can also refer to a set of beliefs called “Calvinism” – named after the reformer John Calvin.

“Evangelicals” hold to the key theologies that the Reformation bought into fresh focus, for example Jesus is the only way to God, Jesus died for the sins of the world and there’s nothing humans can do to save themselves, other than believe in Jesus. Many evangelicals are also “evangelists”. If you are an evangelist, you believe that Jesus commanded you to tell people about how he has died to give all who believe in him new and fulfilling lives.

One well-known evangelical, William Temple, once said that the “church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” He said this because Jesus, who started the church, commanded Christians to help the poor and preach the good news.

Many evangelicals would describe themselves as “charismatic”: a Christian belief that emphasises the importance of the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). Christians believe that they can receive God’s Spirit who will live inside of them and enable them to follow Jesus with greater passion and determination. This will often happen physically as people begin to shake, laugh or cry as they feel God’s presence with them. These Christians also believe the Holy Spirit reveals more of Jesus to them as they read the Bible or pray.

Whilst reformed movements have often avoided some charismatic teaching, the two have come together more recently. The family of churches I belong to, New Frontiers, describes itself as both reformed and charismatic.

Bringing It All Together

Throughout the 2000 years in which people have been identified as Christians, there have been certain core doctrines held to be vital; these basic doctrines about who Jesus is need to be respected and preserved because they form the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Without them, Christianity would not be Christianity.

The Christian faith is not some kind of “wishy-washy religion” where you believe in God but don’t believe in Jesus. It’s grounded in history and real events. It’s not a set of “nice stories” with “good morals”, it’s revolutionary. It’s “The Way”.

Neither is Christianity a dogmatic system where only one denomination has the whole truth and everyone else is playing catch-up. Evangelicals get it wrong on some things as much as Catholics get it wrong on others. In some ways you could argue there needs to be a constant, ongoing reformation in every church. Unless Christian faith is grounded in God’s word – the Bible – it’s not Christian faith at all, but man’s own ideas and religion.

There are many labels for Christians today, and I hope what I’ve written has helped to explain some of them, but they are not, and never will be “the main thing”. It is not my job as a Christian to persuade you to be charismatic, or even evangelical/protestant. My belief in Jesus eclipses labels and stereotypes.

Perhaps that’s what Christians need to get back to? A simple faith in Jesus Christ. After all, to call myself a “Christ-follower” makes a lot more sense than a reformed, charismatic, evangelical Christian, doesn’t it?

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