Certain people, in the process of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) have thrown the word, “apostasy” around as they walked out the door. It seems to me, as I have said before, that the PC(USA) is not apostate. Today I’m going to enlarge upon that statement.
Let’s start with some basics. What does one have to believe to be a Christian? Yes, I know, being a Christian is more than affirming a bunch of statements as true and I’m going to get to that. And for that matter I would prefer to talk about belief by telling stories. I am after all a pastor. But sometimes we need shorthand. And certainly there are things that we can say Christians must believe to be Christian. This is my list.
God exists and is personal.
God created the universe.
God created humans in God’s image.
God is one God, yet has always existed in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We call this the Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit agree about everything and act together. Their love for each other and for the universe they created is overwhelming
Humans a long time ago messed up really bad. We call this sin. We humans still sin.
Sin usually causes great pain, sometimes to the sinner but all too often not to the sinner but to people around the sinner.
The wages of sin is death.
Somehow sin is transmitted from one generation to the next.
We humans, no matter how hard we try, are not able to stop sinning and even if we were we would still be sinful because we inherited our sinfulness from our ancestors.
We needed God to do something about sin because we couldn’t.
God chose to do something about sin. God chose for the Son, the second person of the Trinity, to become human.
The Son, now both fully divine and fully human, was and is named Jesus.
While resident in this world, although he was still fully divine, Jesus was affected by all the things that affect humans, except he was not born sinful and he did not sin.
When the right time came along Jesus gathered disciples, taught, healed, and basically stirred up a lot of trouble because people didn’t like what he said and did.
Jesus went down to
The religious and political authorities arrested Jesus, tried him, tortured him, and put him to death.
Jesus rose bodily from the grave. His body was transformed and was no longer subject to most if not all human limitations.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus free us from the power of sin and death.
We don’t need to do anything to earn freedom from sin and death. It is a free gift.
When Jesus left the earth he sent the Holy Spirit to be with those who believe in him to help them avoid sin, keep them faithful, and give them comfort.
God created a community called the Church that is made up of people who believe Jesus lived, died and rose again for them so that they could be forgiven and set free from the powers of sin and death. The people in this Church are called Christians.
The story of God’s dealings with humans from the beginning of the universe to the end of the first century is contained in a book we call the Bible.
The Bible mostly tells the story of God’s dealings with humans particularly about God’s chosen task of saving humans from sin and death. Although it isn’t specific about a lot of things like nuclear physics and most of human history it tells us all we need to know to believe correctly and to live correctly as God’s people.
The Church’s job in this world is to so speak and so live that others will come to believe, (with the help of the Holy Spirit), in Jesus. Part of that speaking and living must be to try and fight against the evil that still exists in the world.
Sooner or later Jesus will return and then there will be no more evil and no more pain and no more death.
That’s my list and I’m sticking to it. You may want to rephrase some of the ways I say things. You may want to argue with me about the necessity of something being on the list. Nevertheless, it’s my list. I think that believing all of these is necessary to being a Christian. They are, to use the current buzz word in the PC(USA), essential. Essentials for being a Christian, that is. Are there other essentials to being a Presbyterian? Of course! Notice I left out predestination, covenant, stewardship, salvation by grace alone and a bunch of other stuff.
Does this mean that I think there are people who claim to be Christians but aren’t? Yes. I don’t think the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians. Neither groups believe in the Trinity. In fact the Mormons believe that the Father was once a human being! They may be very nice and decent people, but they aren’t Christians.
Of course thinking the right things about God isn’t enough. One time I was reading the minutes of the Session of a congregation I served, minutes from the 1850’s. Every time the Session met with people who wanted to join the congregation, not by letter of transfer but by affirmation of faith, they examined those people “as to their doctrinal and experimental religion.” I just went through the doctrinal part. The experimental part is just as interesting.
Turns out “experimental religion” in the 1850’s was a way to talk about one’s relationship with God. Back then the Session wanted to hear about the individual’s conversion experience and about how his/her life had changed after he/she became a Christian. Nowadays I want to hear about one’s experience of the presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the life of the person who wants to join the congregation. In other words, I want to hear what they believe (doctrine) and I want to hear about how they believe (experience). The two go hand in hand.
Now let’s go on and define those words I used in the title. An apostate is a person who used to be a Christian but now says that all that stuff about God and Jesus and forgiveness through Jesus’ dying for us isn’t true. In other words an apostate is someone who used to believe but now openly says she/he no longer believes. In the early Church there was a rather dramatic test for this, produced by the Roman government. If someone was accused of being a Christian that person was invited, (dragged), down to the local police station and asked if she/he was a Christian. If she/he said no, that was the end of it. If she/he said yes, that person was asked again after being warned that persisting in believing such foolishness would result in death. At this point the person who claimed to be a Christian could say, “Sorry, just kidding!” and the police would then ask him/her to prove it by making a sacrifice on the altar of the emperor/god. (The emperor foolishly thought that if everyone in the empire thought he was a god that there would be less rebellion and a more unified empire. It didn’t work.) If the person who claimed to be a Christian continued to claim faith in Christ, she/he was asked one more time. If he/she was foolish enough to say again she/he was a Christian that person was put to death.
People who went into the police station saying they were Christians and came out alive were called apostates. Later they were allowed back into the Church after some severe discipline/discipleship. No, they weren’t spanked. They were held up in front of the congregation over a period of years as the way not to live as a Christian. At the end of that time they were allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper again.
Today becoming an apostate is easier. A person just has to say, “I don’t believe that stuff anymore.” That’s it. And no, just because someone stops coming to worship and gets dropped from the role of the congregation doesn’t mean that person is apostate. That person does need to be warned, however, that the Church is the Christian community and avoiding the Christian community is dangerous to one’s spiritual health.
This is getting too long. I’ll talk about heresy and maybe serious error in my next blog.