Monthly Archives: October 2012

What is a Christian?

Adrian Warnock has written a post called What is a Christian? and asked me to comment, he seemed surprised that I was not supportive – when will some people learn ;-)

More seriously I do have concerns with attempts to define exactly what a Christian is (and in the same vein Adrian is promising to do the same for an evangelical).

My concerns are in  3 areas:

  • who should define?
  • how should define?
  • inflexibility

Who should define

Call me a traditionalist or a pawn of a denonination. However, I do not think it is particularly helpful for a single person to feel they can define what a Christian is for everyone else.

If the definition of a Christian is to be redone (beyond traditional creeds) then this is not the role of individuals but needs to be done much more widely. There are plenty of avenues available to explore this and ways of doing so that are far less dogmatic and excluding than the way Adrian writes.

It seems to me obvious that definitions of what is a Christian require us to involve Church leadership, academic theologicans, practical theologians, liturgists, pastoral care teams, all ages, people who identify themselves as Christians and those who don't. It is a work that should be deliberately and consciously ecumenical and interconfessional.

Obviously if redefining what is a Christian should take place then individual bloggers should be welcomed just as everyone else. However, here we see another attempt to define what is a Christian by a blogger who has a long history of excluding others and pandering to extreme US conservative "celebtrities" so I feel it is unlikely to be very helpful or relevant to most people.

How should define?

I think it is potentially important for some that a definition of "What is a Christian?" be agreed, although for the reasons I give in my 3rd point it is not something I would want to commit much time to.

However, if this is to be done then let it be done well and robustly. Adrian's use of resources is incredibily minimal (it started with 3 sources only – his own book, the Nicene Creed and looking up the word "Christian" in a concordance). Here as just a couple of obvious sources:

So how about considering what the World Council of Churches have to say:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Or how about this one from the ReligiousTolerance website:

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be attempting to follow the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as they interpret those teachings to be."

These two examples show that work already exists that is widely accepted by Churches all over the world and that there is work being done by those who do not consider themselves to be Christian. The latter is particularly helpful as a response to cultural Christian (such as the way the BNP claims to believe in Britain as a Christian nation).

Adrian, if you want to do this then fine, but please engage a lot more widely and more sensitively.

Inflexibility

By this I mean that tying down your definition of what is a Christian can become a millstone around your neck. I suggest that in reality we need to hold multiple defintions all time time.

I encounter and indeed expect people to have different defintions of what a Christian is. A few examples should make this obvious.

Lets start with an assembly at a local primary school where a definition such as "A Christian is someone who follows Jesus" would seem apppropriate. If, however, I am meeting someone who is exploring a call to ordained ministry within the Church I am going to expect something very different and that shows a depth of spirituality, an interest in theology and an understanding of people and Christian community.

If we think about common encounters with people then it should be obvious that we should use different defintions when engaging with a couple seeking to add a wedding blessing to make a civil ceremony more like their understandsing of a "traditional" wedding compared to a couple wanting to explore becoming Church members.

When I talked with a friend at work who was a faithful Sikh the defintions we would work with would be very different to when talking to another colleague who was of no faith and uninterested in faith.

When we use fixed defintions then we run the risk of hurting and alienating some. I have referred before to my first encounter with a Christian Union at University who at a "Welcome" event told me that I was not a Christian (I was an active, full member of the Methodist Church at the time, had previous powerful experiences of God and could quite happily have signed their doctrinal statement). Turns out I was using the "wrong" language to describe myself.

When we use fixed definitions we are unable to help people change and move deeper. Suddenly Christian faith is not a journey of discipleship but an on/off switch. Not only does that exclude people who are exploring and making steps towards faith but it hampers the journey of those who have made a faith commitment as it does not draw them deeper.

 

Inspired to be proud

This evening I noticed the effects of earlier events today in my behaviour.

I had been at a couple of events at Methodist Church House (more on that in a minute), afterwards I stayed in my dog collar for the rest of the evening which is not really my normal practice.

I had a good time, a nice bike ride around London without getting too lost while looking for Foyles which is a lovely place to spend some time, then a nice meal at Pizza Express. It was only when I was getting off the train in Leicester with by bike to ride home that I noticed I still had the dog collar on.

No big deal even if with my rather low church background it is not what I normally do.

I realised it came from feeling inspired by what I had gone to London for. I went for two leaving "do's" as a representative of the Methodist Council.

The first was for Mark Wakelin, currently President of the Methodist Conference and it was a farewell as his "day" job of Secretary for Internal Relationships (yes we know, daftest job title ever) as that has come to an end (and at least we are getting rid of the job title).

I have known Mark for some 11 years as he was leading a team at the Guy Chester Centre (the team included Morfa Jones, Helen Muller, Liz Gamble and Sister Anne Marie Farrell) who together were a key part of the two years of foundation training the Methodist Church gave me.

Today Mark reminded us of three key themes that he focused on during the last 4 years in the Connexional Team

  • Encouraging the people of the Methodist Church to be kind to each other. Building relationships and bridges across the connexion.
  • Encouraging the Methodist Church to think strategically and intentionally about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what outcomes we expect/want.
  • and very much at the heart of all that Mark always does. Encouraging the Methodist Church to deepen our discipleship and gain in confidence as we talk of God.

Hearing Mark speak again on those things reminded me how consistently I have been encouraged and inspired by him over the years in all those things.

Mark was one of the key people who inspired and supported me in my initial training. 

After Mark's farewell it was good to have a chat with another key person from my past. Ann Leck (Vice President of the Methodist Church in 2001) leads a group in our District for under 5's (Ministers who have been ordained but have not yet completed 5 years service). Ann was also one of the leaders of the series of retreats I went on for Ministers reaching the end of their first appointment. Both those were incredibly helpful for me and Ann is always good to talk to with both wit and a tendency to powerful insights.

Then it was time for the second farewell, this time to John Ellis who has been Secretary for Connexional Team Operations. I have only got to know John during the three years I have been on Methodist Council but his integrity, commitment and determination to listen and respond has been outstanding. He is going on to be Lay Moderator of the URC a great choice by them.

So I left Methodist Church House feeling re-engergised, inspired and proud to be associated with these people and to have been trained and influenced by them. So much so that I realised afterwards that I had continued to wear my dog collar all evening because it is so good to be associated with people like Mark, Ann and John.