On “Mere Christianity” and Denominations.

Last week or so I posted on Facebook a question regarding whether or not one could simply be Christian apart from being rooted in a particular denomination/tradition.

It seemed to me that the overwhelming response was, “yes”. The general consensus was that there was some form of “Mere Christianity” that existed apart from denominational and traditional expressions. I understand the concern here but think it is ultimately misguided.

I would say instead, “no”, there is no “Mere Christianity” apart from particular denominations/traditions. The operative phrase here, I think, is “apart from”. To say one cannot be Christian apart from a particular tradition is not to say that there are not some Christian doctrines that we can all generally agree upon. It is simply to say that we do not nor can not believe in a vacuum. We all must believe “from somewhere”.

For starters, the Christian faith is Apostolic by nature. This means, basically, that our faith is passed on. We receive the faith and then pass it on to others. It does not simply drop out of the sky. If that were the case, the Christian faith would be ahistorical, but it is not. Instead, the Christian faith is rooted in human history, it depends upon human reception and passing on. So, if you are learning to be Christian then like it or not you are part of a tradition.

Because the Christian faith is rooted in human history and not ahistorical then it is impossible to imagine an expression of the Christian faith that is not embodied by real human communities. There is no such thing as a disembodied “Mere Christianity” that exists “out there”. All Christian expression is rooted in real flesh and blood human communities with real flesh and blood histories. This is undeniable.

If you are tracking with me thus far and are in agreement then it really is not that big of a jump to concede that there is no Christianity apart from particular denominations/traditions. I realize that it is the particularity of all of this that is what gets folks undergarments in a knot, but really think about it for a moment.

If Christianity is by nature Apostolic as I mentioned above then Christianity is by nature traditional. Just as there is no disembodied Christianity there is no disembodied tradition. There are only particular traditions. If you are a Christian, you are at least either Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. So, at the very least you must be able to say, “I am ______________” and fill in the blank with one of the options I have just mentioned. Then, of course, if you are Protestant you are not simply generally so, but particularly so. If you are Protestant you are a particular sort of Protestant, be it Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or even Non-Denominational (!).

I think one of the hinderances to people accepting this is the desire for Christian unity. This is good. Ecumenism is important. But Christian unity does not mean that Christians are simply one big indistinguishable monad. Christian unity does not require that we’re all the same. To think so would be to confuse “unity” with “identical”. Christian unity is a unity-in-distinction, a distinction-in-unity. Thus, any real ecumenical dialogue does not seek to do away with distinction but rather begins there.

I was reading some material lately (unrelated to this question) and came across the following:

“To be an Anglican, then, is not to embrace a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a “Mere Christian,” at the same time evangelical, apostolic, catholic, reformed, and Spirit-filled.”

Feel free to replace “Anglican” with whatever tradition you are apart of. The point is that different denominations/traditions do not simply express “distinct versions of Christianity” (this would, admittedly be cause for concern) but rather “distinct ways of being a “Mere Christian”.

So, whatever your tradition is, embrace it. Be bold, Baptists. Be proud, Pentecostals. Be awesome, Anglicans. And, if you have never considered that our faith is traditioned and that you, by believing, are part of a particular tradition then I encourage you to enquire about that. Find out more about your tradition and what makes you, well, you.

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5 comments
  1. Beth said:

    Thanks for this! I didn’t follow the thread on FB (too many comments), but was intrigued. And think you’re spot on with some of these comments.

    I particularly think that we need to re-work our ecumenical lenses that allow us both pride in our own traditions/beliefs and freedom to embrace/celebrate the traditions and beliefs of sisters & brothers from other streams.

    This also reminds me of this cartoon: http://tumble.draynet.com/post/17727743369/to-all-those-who-are-sure-theyre-right

  2. jt* said:

    Right. I’m particularly interested in how ecumenical dialogue forces us to “embrace/celebrate the traditions and beliefs of sisters & brothers from other steams”. True ecumenism allows us not only to embrace that which makes us distinct but forces us to be open to the possibility of accepting as true that which we once rejected as false. In other words, we must ask the question, are we willing to discern the falsehood in our own truth and the truth in the falsehood of another.

    And yes, that’s a great comic!

  3. My friend, while I respect your opinion, and the spirit in which it is written, I must say that it sounds to me a little like Christian universalism — this idea that any belief about Christ is proper should you only believe Christ within it. In this train of thought, it does not matter what one believes concerning the Ressurection of the dead, the divinity of Christ, His Presence in the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Holy Scriptures, the redemption of the world, or the “apostolic” nature of the Church (to which we seem to be in agreement). Considering the Anglican Communion in which you are routed, their perspective takes into account a fair amount of history (made evident by your post), and since historical perspectives are taken into account, we must admit that this universalist doctrine is new on the scene in Christianity and absent from Church history, finding its introduction through modern Protesants (not classical Protestants) who each believe that the Scriptues are to be privately interpreted by everyone. Does the content of Christian faith not matter? I am Orthodox, by the way. And mean no offense, but really am writing this in kindness.

    • Stephen said:

      I agree, Ryan. The strength of this post is its desire that ALL Christians acknowledge that they come from a tradition. That will mean learning a little bit of history. And if the content of your faith does matter, the light of history -the revelation of how the faith has been understood and practiced throughout the generations back to the apostles- tends to reveal the places where we have a different understanding and practice. That’s often a painful revelation, which is why I think so many of us avoid it. I’m speaking, by the way, as an Anglican in full agreement with Orthodox theology (trying my best, in fact, to be truly Western Orthodox), but with some ecclesial hang-ups with my EO brothers and sisters. But I can’t deny the current fractures in this 400 year old Anglican Communion experiment, so I’m asking some hard questions of myself.

  4. jt* said:

    Ryan and Stephen, thank-you for your comments.

    Ryan, I certainly was not trying to argue for “Christian universalism.” What was it I said that made you think I was? However, I would say that universalism is not “new on the scene…and absent from Church history.”

    Stephen, indeed, “learning a little bit of history” would be profitable for Christians everywhere!

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