A reader, MJD_NV, urges us to define Anglican Christianity by its beliefs. He enumerates those beliefs as “the Old & New Testament, the Nicene & Apostles' Creed, the 39 Articles, and the witness of the Patristics.” His remarks are in the comments to this posting; scroll down to the comment dated June 17, 2005, 9:38 AM. I'm grateful to him for his thoughtful comments.
MJD_NV takes issue with “those people who insist on being part of a religion that defines itself by certain parameters, … then claim that they do NOT believe in the majority of these parameters, but say they are equal members of the organization.” Clearly MJD_NV defines a religion — and by implication, a church — by its doctrines.
But is doctrine the only way to define a church? I think not. In fact, I'm not sure doctrine is even a good way to do that.
Because doctrines can and do change with time. That’s not just wishful thinking on my part. For example, the New Testament recounts how the early church refined its thinking about whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law. And few serious students of Christianity would disagree that doctrines such as the deity of Jesus and the triune nature of God took shape gradually in the early church. The church's doctrine has also changed in matters such as slavery; usury; religious freedom; and marriage.
Church: A Community of Worship and Work
I submit that community among worshippers is what really matters in a church. Unburdened as I am by any training in sociology or anthropology, I would define a church as a group of people:
- who acknowledge the existence of what in English we call "God," whether as One, One-in-Three, or Many;
- whose group raison d'être is to worship God together on a regular basis, and at least to some extent, to try to work together in his service;
- who regard their group membership as a significant part of their lives and even of their respective individual identities; and
- who feel a sense of obligation toward one another by virtue of their common membership in the group.
The second item, regularly worshipping together as the group raison d'être, is what distinguishes churches from other organizations that work together and incidentally pray on occasion, such as the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts, etc. It also distinguishes churches from ad-hoc worship groups, such as the prayer service in Washington National Cathedral shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
I'd be happy to regularly worship and work with almost any group of God-acknowledgers, regardless of their doctrines. Doctrinal diversity would be a problem only if some subgroup started insisting that theirs was the only true path, that they were the only ones who were going to heaven, or anything like that. If I were to find myself worshipping and working with a group like that, I'm certain that over time I would come to regard my group membership as a major part of my life and even part of who I am.
Some might argue that a church simply can't be a church without at least some shared beliefs, beyond just the mere existence of God. I'm not at all sure that's the case.
But if a list of shared beliefs is necessary to "churchhood," I would propose five points, the first four of which I think can be compellingly established by empirical evidence, not just faith:
- There is an objective truth out there, including what we call God, whatever he is. That seems pretty compellingly demonstrated by circumstantial evidence, as I've written about elsewhere.
- We humans are limited in our ability to discern truth. We don't know everything, not by a long shot. Moreover, what we think we know could, and often does, turn out to be wrong. (This should be so apparent as to need no formal proof, but we can certainly adduce examples aplenty.) We have no reason to think these limitations don't apply to our discernment of God and his will, as much as to anything else.
- We must strive to remain open to the truth, no matter what the truth turns out to be (paraphrasing the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor). There certainly are pragmatic reasons for doing so. But more fundamentally, to do otherwise would be to worship human wishes instead of Ultimate
Reality (paraphrasing David Paillin as quoted in a John Polkinghorne
Remaining open to the truth requires at least somewhat of an empirical or critical-realist mindset, as urged by Deut. 18:20-21 and 1 Thess. 5:20-21. That is, we should:
- treat all knowledge as provisional, subject to possible later revision -- even our knowledge about God; and
- give priority to the evidence of what God has actually wrought, rather than to what we might think he did, or what we might wish he had done.
- Our primary obligations are stated in the Great Commandment and the Summary of the Law. As a wise man once said, on those two hang all the Law and the Prophets. I'm convinced this can be demonstrated empirically as well, which is a subject for another time.
- All other religious beliefs are adiaphoric (inessential) and must be treated accordingly. Each church member must be free to hold other, adiaphoric beliefs according to her (or his) conscience, without fear of being marginalized or excluded or condemned by those who don't hold those other beliefs. Of course, this would only apply to beliefs that did not drive her:
- to harm others, at least not without compelling justification (however we might define that term, a subject I don't want to get into now), or
- to try to penalize other members for holding adiaphoric beliefs of their own -- or for not holding hers.
I've probably left out some points that I might want to add later. I'd welcome suggestions for additions or rewording.
My traditionalist Christian friends will certainly brand these five points as woefully incomplete. Some will conclude I'm really a Unitarian Universalist (even though most of those folks don't believe in God, as I understand it). Some will tell me to leave "their" church alone and to start my own instead.
Somehow, though, I doubt Jesus would say that.