How do you define a christian? Part 4: Denominations, cults & heretics

Link to Part 1: Self-definition
Link to Part 2: Creeds & confessions
Link to Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

To say one is a christian, but to not identify exclusively with one denomination can be like saying that you’re a football fan but refusing to be drawn on which team you support; it’s possible but really quite unusual. You are generally expected to pin your colours firmly to one mast or another.

I am very happy in a large number of different types of churches. The church I attend at present is usually described as Pentecostal, though I would consider it to be quite non-denominational. I do not include a link here as I am not a spokesperson for the church and the views expressed here are my own. *waves to the one church elder who I know reads this blog*

Though I made reference to “my church” there are actually several that I attend, depending on whereabouts in the country I find myself on a Sunday morning. Of those that I attend, the one unifying theme is that they have a culture of “come as you are.” They could all be described as a “jeans and t-shirt” church where all are welcome and no one is elevated above anyone else by use of an elaborate garb.

I will admit to feeling less comfortable in Anglican churches. There are a few reasons for this: I sketched my thoughts on high Anglican worship recently, so I won’t cover that again. My other objection, and here I use Anglicanism as an example, though the objection extends elsewhere, is that it has become a hierarchical organisation. [I ought to note, for honesty’s sake that I started to ramble at this point, but have cut much out and will save for a later post on why I am not a fan of hierarchical organisation as a substitute for church]. Then we have the problematic issue of Roman Catholicism, which I will come onto shortly.

As I see it, the differences between most denominations are barely skin deep. It might be fairest to describe such differences really as issues of emphasis rather than of fundamentally different beliefs. I find it helpful to think of a picture that has some sort of computer editing going on. One denomination may emphasise the blue hues of a picture, another may emphasise the reds. Nonetheless, they are looking at the same picture, with the same lines and forms, though to an outside observer, they may note the slight differences without spotting the overwhelming similarities.

But what about denominations that take things away from the gospel that others would consider essential? I think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unitarians, neither of whom recognise Jesus as being equal with God. In this respect, their theology is far more like that of the Ebionites, who considered Jesus to be fully man, and a good man, great teacher, etc. but without acknowledging him as being one with God. Are they christians, or a quasi-christian cult?

Then what about Mormons? With their additional book by Joseph Smith, have they added to the gospel, and maybe in so doing taken something out of it? I find it quite interesting actually to compare the origins of Mormonism with that of Islam, with the author of their key books claiming it was given to them by an angel. I can’t help but think Joseph Smith nicked the idea somewhat.

The truth is, I’m not really sure how to write about this subject. I merely think that the issue needs raising and perhaps one of you, who I am sure is a better writer than I, can take it up. To my mind, there is something of a sliding scale with no real demarcations between denominations, cults and heretics.

A battle I constantly face is one of balance between judgement and discernment; a battle that I don’t think I always get on the right side of. On the one side, christians have the famous instruction: “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” whilst at the same time the books of the New Testament are littered with calls to be discerning and to avoid false teachers. In general, I am in favour of what is known as the “ecumenical movement” (cue mental images of Father Jack!), which is a fancy way of saying “have lots of different churches work together.” But I do sometimes question whether in a search for unity, that sometimes there may be a danger of accepting something which is false. At one extreme, you may abandon discernment and accept all & sundry; whilst at the other, you may exclude just about all apart from the Baptist chapel across the road. I have seen both extreme ends of this in practice.

On the subject of heresies, I would heartily recommend two books I have read recently on the topic: My review of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities may be found here and a review of Alister McGrath’s Heresy is here.

One thing McGrath helpfully describes in his book is that such groups just about always arise from within the ‘mainstream’ church (however you define that: though that may be a significant part of the problem). When I talk of cults, the most obvious examples I have in mind are the cults of Jim Jones or the Branch Davidian cult of Waco fame.

But then there are other groups, which may not be as well known about, that share similar characteristics. One that I have come across, and after prayerful consideration decided it would be best to not have anything to do with, call themselves The New Mystics. This group is quite different in structure from some other cults in that they do not isolate themselves off from the world. Nonetheless, they would claim to be christians and openly preach ‘a’ gospel. What they declare though is very often cherry-picked (though if I’m honest, I’m sure most christians, and non-christians too, have done this at one time or another to try to back up their point). The key feature of the New Mystics is that they are a group of “experientialists.” In other words, there is no place for truth in their teaching apart from the truth of what you feel; it’s all about “experiencing God.” It is noticeable that many of their key figureheads (the most notable being John Crowder) is that they are former drug addicts, and as such their whole worldview is based around the language and imagery of drugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking cultural adaptation. Jesus himself was great at using the everyday examples he had around him as communication tools with his followers. But when the symbolism is used as substitute for the thing which it is meant to represent, you are on deeply dangerous territory. In this respect, I think the New Mystics have much in common with the Roman Catholic take on communion.

The observant among you will notice that in much of what I say and write, I will often draw a distinction between what I would call christians and Roman Catholics. This may be seen as antagonistic, though it is never meant to be. I know quite a few catholics who are christian, but even they recognise that the two are not synonymous. The issue here is not of taking things away from the gospel per se, but rather the “add-ons” which detract from the gospel. I won’t go into detail here, but to summarise the things I am uncomfortable with in Catholicism include (but are not limited to): papal status, absolution by priests, forbidding of marriage, mass, saint worship and the over-emphasis on Mary.

As noted by McGrath in his book on Heresy, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Germany, an act which ultimately resulted in the Reformation, he was considered be a heretic by the catholic church. However, he successfully rebutted the accusations and demonstrated that the ideas of the reformation were not new, but were rather a partial restoration of the early church model.

At this point, history should record that Catholicism join the list of heresies that has been rejected by mainstream christianity throughout the centuries, placing it alongside Docetism, Pelagianism, Valentinism, Ebionitism, Arianism, etc. It is just a curious feature that the organisation as retained adherents and survived to this day. I know that’s not a particularly popular view, but it is the truth as I see it.

But does this mean that adherents to such views are not christians? No. That’s not what I’m saying. While I believe them to be mistaken, I am not in favour of the “excommunication” route. As christians, we do make mistakes and get the wrong end of the stick, just like anyone else. But what is so amazing is that we are given the freedom and grace to make such mistakes. Holding incorrect views doesn’t nullify salvation. I believe the church should be open to all, and that any such views which may cause division or misunderstanding only become an issue when it comes to what the church teaches.

So where does that leave us in our search for how define a christian? Well, I’ll wrap up in a concluding post (which should hopefully be shorter than this one) soon.

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