How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Creeds

I politely stood when the congregation stood and hoped no one noticed my mouth wasn’t moving. I read along in my bulletin as they spoke the words, a little off on the beat here and there.

But I wouldn’t say things I didn’t believe, and I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of chanty, culty,  brainwashy stuff this was.

“I believe in one God…”

I didn’t realize this Lutheran church recited one of the creeds every Sunday, just like I hadn’t realized they took communion every Sunday. It took a few repeat visits before I caught on (I’m liturgically slow).

Every Sunday, I read the words and thought about what they meant. I’d heard about credal churches. Suffocating places that made you say certain magic words before you could join the club. Extra-biblical, they’d told me.

But how were these words anything but a summary of the Bible?

These creeds didn’t contain any deal breakers for me.

They didn’t say, “We believe God created the world in six days” or “We believe you have to take the most literal interpretation of scripture that you can possibly find”.

They didn’t say anything at all about a woman’s role or pacifism or faith healing.

There were no doctrinal stumbling blocks for me in these creeds.

I started to understand that the creeds didn’t say, “We believe only this…” but rather “We believe at least this…” Where some people see restrictions, I see freedom.

Christians all over the world, in different traditions that wouldn’t normally agree on much, stand up together on Sunday mornings and as one body recite the same words Christians have recited for centuries. And that’s a powerful thing to be a part of.

I believe.

And even though I’m a denominational orphan, and I’m not sure which tradition could possibly stomach me, I can stand up on Sunday morning with the church and I belong.

Am I Even a Christian?

I’m a pacifist feminist who doesn’t believe the Bible is inerrant. Does that disqualify me from being a Christian?

For a long time I assumed it did. I spent most of my early religious life running around with fundamentalists. God created the world in 6 days… Noah sailed an ark… yadda yadda yadda. It was the only way of “doing Christianity” I was aware of. Oh, I’d heard about these other so-called “Christians” out there who twisted scripture to suit their needs. But, I didn’t belong with those guys. I had something called Intellectual Honesty (cue trumpet fanfare).

I didn’t believe that every Bible story was historically and/or scientifically accurate. I obviously wasn’t a real Christian. So, where did that leave me? My main Christian litmus test rested in Genesis, not the gospel accounts… which is pretty strange since I was questioning the whole CHRISTian thing, not the whole “am I an ancient Israelite” thing. Anyway, I didn’t want to force myself to believe in things like Young Earth Creationism. So, I went around being all nominally agnostic-ish. I did that for over a decade.

The whole thing always got under my skin, though. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God so much as I didn’t believe in the Bible. At least, I didn’t believe in a specific way of interpreting the Bible. But, when you’ve been taught that this is the only possible way of interpreting the Bible without running into all sorts of theological pitfalls, you tend to take an “all or nothing” approach to the Bible. It’s faith built on a house of cards (or, uh, sand).

biblical-illiteracyCredit: David Hayward

After more than ten years worth of reading pro and anti Christian arguments, re-reading large chunks of the Bible, and several exposures to non-fundamentalist Christians who gasp weren’t outraged at my evolution accepting ways (some of them were even “traditionalist” non-fundamentalist Christians — I swear such a thing exists), I took another look at this whole Christianity thing.

I’m not going to get into why I believe what I believe here (other posts for other days). I want to focus on whether or not my beliefs are actually Christian beliefs or not.

First, I have to define “Christian”. That’s a little easier said than done. Some Christian crowds have a very narrow definition (i.e. Just us, not you). So, I’m going to ignore those guys for now because they’re in the minority (and since when does the minority view get to define terms for everyone else?)

How do I define Christianity?

The broadest definition would be someone who adheres to the historical Christian creeds. I’m most familiar with the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, but the Nicene creed is a little longer, so I’ll stick with that.

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God,the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.

He suffered and was buried.

And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy universal and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

…and?

Uh, yeah. I totally agree with all of that. How do I get around the whole “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible” thing? It’s really not hard. Nothing in the creed says he made the Earth in 6 days. Nothing in the creed says “evolution totally didn’t happen”.

Score: 0 points – While I’m not above giving myself points for meeting my own definition, I’ll let this one pass.

* I used the “universal” version instead of “catholic” to avoid confusion with the Roman Catholic church.

Does an atheist philosopher think I’m a Christian?

In The Case Against Christianity, Michael Martin looks to the ecumenical creeds. These include the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. He considers these to be the fundamental statements of Christian belief. Anyone who believes in a theistic God, Jesus lived during the time of Pilate, Jesus is God, a person is saved through faith in Jesus, and sees Jesus as the model of ethical behavior they are at least (what he refers to as) a “Basic” Christian.

Building upon that definition, he defines an “Orthodox” Christian as someone who holds to “Basic” Christian beliefs as well as a belief in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the second coming.

Score: 1 point – Well, hot damn. The atheist says I’m not just a Christian; I’m an orthodox Christian. (I think I should get an extra point for chilling with the orthodox Christians, but whatever, we’ll stick with 1).

Does Merriam-Webster think I’m a Christian?

Score: 1 point – Well, that was an easy one. (Probably just all those liberals who run the dictionary website watering down the gospel, as those pesky liberals are known to do…)

Do the Roman Catholics think I’m a Christian?

According to Catholic Answers, “validly baptized Protestants are regarded as true Christian brothers and sisters who are in imperfect relationship with the Church.” Basically, a valid baptism is Trinitarian and the person who is getting baptized as well as the person who is doing the baptizing need to have the “proper intention” (no accidental baptisms, please).

pool party baptism

Don’t trust Catholic Answers? This is the part where I raise my first and shout, “To the Vatican!” like I’m going to hop in a jet or something equally cool, but I really just quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”322 Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” (838)

Score: 1 point – I was baptized at 16 by a pastor in the Trinitarian formula. It wasn’t an accident (though he did hold me under water for a suspiciously long time). I’ve got the Catholics on my side. (Anyone intimidated by that? No? Dang.)

Do other Christians think I’m a Christian?

While many denominations would disagree with me on various doctrinal points, most would affirm me as a Christian (since I believe in Jesus and try to follow him and all). The only people who have questioned my Christianity have been fundamentalists…(and several atheists). The main reason fundamentalists have said I’m not a Christian is because I don’t believe in what they call inerrancy. I don’t believe that everything in the Bible is necessarily historically and/or scientifically accurate. (No, that doesn’t trip up my belief in Jesus.)

Anecdotally, I know Christians from many different denominations who accept me as a Christian. But, I could just be making stuff up (since that’s what all so-called “Christians” do to justify their lifestyle choices, amiright?) Instead, I went to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to get some estimates and took a look at the “literal interpretation of scripture” question. That’s the one that always gets me called “not a Christian, ummmm, I’m gonna tell God on you!”

59% of Evangelicals believe scripture is the “Word of God, literally true word for word”.

It’s possible that 59% of Evangelicals (around 22% of the total Christians surveyed) would say I’m not a Christian. Mainline Protestants and Catholics made up 62% of the survey population and most of them would likely say that I’m a Christian (a Christian they disagree with about a lot of things, but still a Christian). Why would I define my Christianity by whether or not a minority would accept me as a fellow Christian?

Score: 0.62 points – A point for each percentage of American Christians who probably don’t want to run me out of town (at least not for Bible-related reasons).

Does the Bible think I’m a Christian?

Ohhhh, risky going to the book I claim isn’t inerrant, eh?

What exactly were the requirements for a Christian convert in the New Testament?

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

Acts 2:37-38

I notice that Jesus never said, “Take up your cross and the doctrine of inerrancy and follow me”.

Repent. Get baptized. BOOM! Christian.

Score: 1,000 – Because Bible. (Stick that in your Sola Scriptura and smoke it.)

What about that whole feminist pacifist thing?

There are whole denominations full of pacifist Christians. Mennonites exist. I’m pretty sure nobody will kick me out of the Christian club for being a pacifist. (Though, if they do start kicking me, I can’t kick back.)

As far as the feminist question goes, I can’t imagine coming out of reading the gospels with the idea that women shouldn’t have equal rights and opportunities. If I just blew your mind (I’m sad if that’s true), go read Jesus Feminist.

Score: 2 points – One for the pacifists and one for the feminists.

So, am I a Christian?

Total Score: 1,005.62

I say I’m a Christian.

The historical creeds say I’m a Christian.

An atheist says I’m an orthodox Christian.

The Roman Catholics say I’m a Christian.

The majority of other Christians say I’m a Christian.

The Bible says I’m a Christian.

I take the Bible so seriously (though not always literally) and follow the teachings of Jesus so strictly that I’m a pacifist feminist. (Who’s “picking and choosing” again?)

Yeah. I’m a real Christian.

Sometimes Christians Don’t Know They’re Christians

Genesis bible

I don’t intend to harp on the whole Creationism thing (really, this isn’t my typical rant-until-they-relent tactic), but I’ve been asked and I’ve seen comments that ask, “What difference does it make?” I’ve seen people express incredulity that these ideas could be taught in public schools.  “That doesn’t happen in America!”

Why do I think it’s such a big deal?  Because I was taught these ideas.

I was around 9 when we started (occasionally) attending a rural Methodist church. I was sitting outside with my dad one afternoon telling him all about how God created the world in 6 days. He turned to me and said, “Well, actually, there’s this thing call evolution that makes a lot more sense…”  Being a kid, I figured, “Why would God put a lie into the Bible? Obviously the Bible is correct.” I mean, why would they teach lies in Sunday School?  I had no idea that Genesis could be true without being literally true.

Genesis bibleCredit: Photo Fiend

When I was 12, I had an awesome science teacher. His class was fun and I love science anyway, so he was probably my favorite teacher that year. (He was the first person I saw play the nose flute…which started my life-long obsession with nose flutes.) He told us that ‘Lucy’ was a fraud (something about how they found a jaw and then a long way away they found some other bones and just claimed it was all one skeleton).  He also said some stuff about the book of Job proving that dinosaurs and humans co-existed.

When I was 15, I stood in church and watched a group of kids sing that the theory of evolution was “self contradictory and dumb…DUMB!” (I politely, but firmly refused to participate. It’s not OK to call someone ‘dumb’ over a disagreement.)

By the time I was 18, I would up with the idea that if you didn’t take Genesis literally you weren’t actually a Christian. I thought having faith meant believing everything in the Bible was literally 100% factually true. There were people I really admired and cared about who were hardcore Creationists. So, I could be a closet “Evolutionist” or I could lose the religion that largely defined me and the respect of my “church family”.

That’s not the reason I walked (OK, OK, stormed) away from Christianity, but it’s a big reason why it took me so long to reconnect. I had never heard that a non-literal reading of Genesis was valid. I was told that was “picking and choosing”. It took a bit of reading and study to find out that the fundamentalist view of creation is a NEW idea. Historically, Christianity has supported a non-literal interpretation.

How much more faithful to the Bible can I get than reading the text in the way it was meant to be read? (So, if we really want to play that “which view is more Christian game”…)

Saint Augustine approves

Saint Augustine approves

I don’t have a problem with people who believe in a 6-day creation and 6,000-year-old earth. I have a problem when these people claim their view is the Christian view. It’s not. In the context of history and the world’s Christian population, it’s a belief that a minority of Christians happen to have.

I have a problem with teachers influencing their students by shrugging off evolution as “just a theory” (seriously, aren’t we all on the same page about what a scientific theory means yet?) I have a problem with teachers using the Bible as scientific evidence.

I have a problem with the other people I’ve come across who left Christianity because they, like me, thought it was impossible to be a Christian and not accept Genesis as historical fact. I have a problem with the people who lied to us and told us there was no other option.

Christians are supposed to judge other Christians “by their fruit”.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:15-20

Where is the “good fruit” in running people out of Christianity? Where is the “good fruit” in insisting people reject science, reason, and basic common sense? I believe that a literal interpretation of Genesis is damaging. It alienates people who might otherwise embrace the gospel. It chases out people who do believe the gospel, but think they don’t qualify for the Christian Club.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!  If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” – Matthew 18:6-9

From where I sit, literal Creationism is the foot that causes others to stumble. I feel it’s important for me to distance myself from those beliefs. I hope that other Christians, especially those who have come from a more fundamentalist background, will do the same.

I’m not trying to condemn Creationists for believing what they believe.  It’s not their fault that they were taught these things.  However, when they start insisting on these beliefs, that’s when the line gets crossed.

During the Ham/Nye debate, Ken Ham accused secularists of hijacking science.

In many ways, Creationists have hijacked Christianity and that has to stop.