On the Common Core of Christian Belief

It’s no secret that Christians of different denominations often find themselves in disagreement.

Sometimes those disagreements are about minor issues like whether it’s okay to watch movies or drink alcohol. Other times those disagreements are much more major like when someone should be baptized—as an infant or as an adult—or who can participate in communion—is it only people who are members of your church or is anyone who professes Jesus welcome?

In recent years one of the biggest discussions and points of contention for many Christians is around LGBTQ issues. Can someone be both gay-affirming and call themselves a genuine follower of Jesus? Some denominations would say yes while others disagree.

 

Even within any given denomination, you will often find disagreement. Wesleyan churches might internally debate what the Bible really says about sanctification while Reformed churches might discussion whether women should be allowed in ministry.

All of this debate and discussion, while healthy, might lead some to wonder what beliefs are required to consider yourself a Christian. Can you be a Christian and believe dancing is okay? Can you be a Christian and believe the world was created through evolution? Can you be a Christian and believe Jesus didn’t actually come back to life?

Just about everyone would agree there needs to be some minimum standard of belief but what is it? What are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith? The things that all Christians need to believe in order to consider themselves Christian?

Obviously, even this question is somewhat subjective. No matter what someone answers there will always be others who disagree. However, I usually like to point to the ancient creeds; specifically the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. These two creeds were written and affirmed by the entire Church before the East-West Schism of 1054.

These two creeds affirm the basics of the Christian faith and set up guardrails against heresy while allowing for plenty of diverse opinions in the middle. Here are the creeds:

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him, all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed affirms some pretty important stuff. It’s trinitarian in nature, meaning it affirms that God is both three part and one God at the same time (its okay if that makes your head spin). It affirms Jesus’ conception, death, and resurrection, as well as his ascension to heaven. It affirms that the Holy Spirit exists (although it’s vague on the details), that there is only ever one Church (essentially saying that all Christians belong to the same Church of Jesus), that sins have been forgiven, and that we will someday experience the resurrection ourselves.

Meanwhile, the Nicene Creed is significantly longer and affirms a lot more. It was written to deal with issues arising at the time around Jesus and both his humanity and divinity. Some people at the time said since Jesus was God he couldn’t have really been human but only appeared human. Others claimed that Jesus couldn’t actually be God since he was human. The Nicene Creed, among other things, tried to make clear that Jesus is simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The creed also says a lot more about the role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity.

 

Both of these creeds are foundational to Christian faith. I would argue that you can’t disagree with these two creeds and call yourself a follower of Jesus since these are the only two creeds that all denominations over the past 2,000 have been able to agree on.

However, both of these creeds provide for a diversity of opinion on many other topics. How should Christians understand the book of Revelation and the timeline for Jesus return? These creeds are silent.

What should Christians think when it comes to the role of speaking in tongues? Is speaking in tongues just one of many spiritual gifts that God can give us or is it the definitive evidence that you have the Holy Spirit living in you? These creeds are silent.

How should we understand the atonement? When Jesus died did he take on God’s wrath for us? Did he free us from our captivity to the Devil? Was the atonement primarily an example of genuine love? Once again, the creeds are silent. Both creeds affirm that Jesus was crucified and suffered, both creeds affirm that our sins have been forgiven, but neither makes a direct link between the fact that Jesus died and what that death truly accomplished.

 

What this means is that all of us, as followers of Jesus, have plenty of room to hold different opinions on secondary matters. That’s not to say all of us are right about all our beliefs on these secondary matters or that these secondary matters are unimportant. But maybe we should stop labelling each other heretics simply because we disagree who wrote the book of Deuteronomy or have different views on cigarettes.

There is a broad spectrum of acceptable belief within Christianity. There is room for discussion, debate and disagreement. As long as we show each other grace and love in the process, those differences might even help us see Jesus more clearly.

 

The image on today’s post is a cartoon drawn by Saji George.

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