Monday, December 08, 2008

Works Without Faith?

A few weeks ago, I read an email from a man named Daniel that was sent to the PCUSA gmail account (note "Send your ideas for topics of discussion" in the sidebar). Ever since, I've been struggling to answer it. Today, I finally had that light bulb moment. Ah-hah! I don't have to answer it! It's a "topic for discussion," so let's discuss! I'll paraphrase the email:

Is believing in God, believing in the spiritual brotherhood of mankind and being willing to do the will of the Father in heaven enough? Are the doors of the Presbyterian Church open to that thinking?

I responded, unofficially and all that:
1) I believe that some in the PCUSA believe as you describe.
2) I believe that there's room in the church for those who believe such.
3) But when we join the denomination, we profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life. In fact, that's really the sole criterion for membership. So I believe that the official position - should one choose to take a hardliner stance - would be: No, belief in God is not enough; to be Presbyterian is to be Christian, and to be Christian is to profess faith in Christ.

Daniel replied (again, paraphrased): Most or many or some Christian denominations may well take the same stance. Many of the above mentioned may also lack attendance of youth????? Seems that if it was God's will it would be fine with Christ, seeing how he does His work and is His son. One may have to ask the Holy Spirit.

So, what do you think?

My thoughts:
  1. I've not heard that it's faith in Jesus that's linked to declining membership in mainline denominations. Declining membership trends don't seem to be affecting evangelical Christian denominations, and if anything (in my experience) they talk about Jesus more than their mainline cousins.
  2. What's the point? Is the point simply to live as the Bible teaches us, doing all the right things? Or is belief also necessary? If a denomination gains members, but they are members who do not believe, is that a reasonable gain? Is the denomination richer or poorer, in spirit as well as in numbers?
I do believe that there's room in the church for those who doubt, and even for those who do not believe. In fact, I think participation with the church might be even more important for them than for those whose faith is unshakably solid. But I am not comfortable removing the Lordship of Christ from the equation.


B-W said...

I tried posting once already, only to have everything lost when Blogger failed to post it. If somehow this is a report, please delete it in favor of the original.

I wonder if I'm engaging in a fool's errand by attempting to answer this question, as it strikes me as trying to provoke an argument with Christians than truly being an honest inquiry. That said, I'll try to be fair, but I'm not unbiased.

First off, we need to talk a bit about what it is to do the Father's will. Presbyterian (as opposed to generically Christian) theology includes the idea that, although we have "free" will, it is damaged by the Fall. We are therefore unable to do the Father's will apart from God's movement in our lives.

Of course, there needs to be some allowance for the obvious fact that non-Christians DO perform actions that are God's will. Sometimes they put Christians to shame on this account. I could say more on that, but it would be a rabbit trail. It's probably sufficient to say that God works in all people, not just Christians, as God wills it.

But the question really seems to be about whether or not one needs to accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior. On that, I expect Daniel's looking for an answer that I simply cannot give in good conscience. Although it can be argued that non-Christians occasionally do manage to do the Father's will, it is also (perhaps even primarily!) the Father's will that we accept the Son, Jesus Christ. If we have failed to do this (let's not get into the question of election here!), then we're not fully in the Father's will.

So the response to the original question isn't so much "no, doing the will of the Father isn't enough," but "well, if you haven't accepted Jesus Christ, you haven't fully been doing the will of the Father to begin with."

Stushie said...

"I do believe that there's room in the church for those who doubt, and even for those who do not believe."

Respectfully, Sarahlynn, if they do not believe, they are not part of the church.

B-W said...


I suppose we could get into issues of church membership, and whether we're talking about people being part of "the church" in the sense of "body of Christ" or similar language. However, I expect you'd agree that we would welcome those who do not (yet?) believe within the doors of our church buildings, and for our services.

Stushie said...

B-W, if Sarahlynn was expressing our services and buildings that would be the case; however, (and I could be wrong) I think Sarahlynn was meaning "The Church" as having room for unbelievers. That would be a different teaching from what The Church professes.

Sarahlynn said...

What better way for someone to come to believe, than through community with believers? What better way to experience the power of faith than by being surrounded by a vibrant community of believers?

The Bible tells me that I am called - not to tolerate, but - to beFRIEND people who do not believe. This goes far beyond allowing use of our services and buildings, and suggests to me inclusion within the community. (Membership is, perhaps, another matter.)

But speaking of membership, it's foolish to think that many of our members don't struggle with issues of faith. Many if not most Christians go through periods of doubt if not disbelief. I've read that Mother Theresa was motivated in many of her good works by struggles with faith and belief. Surely the best thing to do with people who are struggling or seeking is to embrace and include them, not turn them away or judge them.

What happens after this life is not mine to decide. But I think Christ's message about how we should be Church here and now is pretty clear. As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome to worship here, be you clean or dirty, rich or poor, excessively confident or struggling with faith.

John Shuck said...

I would rather follow Jesus than "believe" stuff about him.

I no know more than any of you about the motivations of the person who asked the question. What I saw in his question is what I see in thoughtful people in and out of the church--it is an honest search.

What does it mean to be a Christian today?

Next time you run into one of those types, you can send them to my church!

B-W said...


I'm going to play contrarian for just a moment here, mostly because the "follow rather than 'believe'" bit strikes me as a sound-byte that needs discussion rather than just to be left on its own.

You say you'd rather "follow" Jesus. That's rather good, but what (bear with me for a moment by not saying "who") is it you're following? Who do you know Jesus to be, and how?

Ultimately, these questions come down to something you "believe" about Jesus, don't they?

Doug Hagler said...

I have to say that I look at this question a little differently, perhaps, and I own up to that because it is part of my specific interest. I tend to prefer behavior over professed belief every time. I have met lots of people who profess belief but do not exhibit what I might call 'virtue' or right-behavior or maybe 'righteousness'. I've also met many people who do not profess belief in Christ as savior, who often profess other kinds of faith or engage in other kinds of practice, who embody virtue/right-behavior/righteousness.

Ultimately, I have no way of knowing what someone actually thinks or believes. I can make educated guesses based on what they say compared to what they do, but all I can really know is what they say and do. So I prefer a say-and-do focus rather than a think-and-believe focus for any practitioner of any religion.

You believe? Show me. And I'll do what I can to let my life show you what I really believe.

I also understand that thoughts and beliefs lead to words and actions - I use this reasoning backwards in this case. If someone does what seems right, then there is probably something good behind that leading to it. And if they do what seems wrong, then no amount of hymn-singing or hand-waiving or professions will convince me that what's going on behind what they say is good. Faith in Jesus as savior is nowhere near a guarantee of right action, and non-profession is in no way a bar to right action.

But then again, I'm more pluralistic than others might be. Its a huge strength in hospital chaplaincy to a diverse population, and a weakness in comment-threads. So be it.

I also agree that the church (and Church and so on) has room for non-believers. If they actually find a reason to come to church, God bless them and I'll personally welcome them every time. I don't want to be pastor of a secret club; I want open doors, and yes, that means people might come in who don't "fit" or who I might not even invite. But if they walk in the door of a church where I am, I believe they may have been invited by "someone", and heck if I'm going to turn them away. If we have something of genuine value going on, then they'll be able to tell. And if we don't, then getting them to join is just a bait-and-switch, isn't it?

I'm not a fan of secret teachings. I want to do what I do for anyone who wants to see and join in. I'm not in favor of closed doors - I refuse to let myself believe that I control who comes in or goes out. If that means non-believers come into the church, then God bless them! I look forward to meeting them and getting to know them and being challenged by them.

So yeah, send them to my church too.

As for the "Church" - I'm pretty sure I've got no sure way of telling who's in and who's out - isn't that sort of up to God? I don't think Christians should hem and haw and talk around our faith either - I don't lie to people at the hospital about who I am or what I believe. I just try to get to know them and learn about them and respect them. I try to demonstrate grace, which I believe is more powerful than anything I can say about it theologically.

At least, that's me.

John Shuck said...

Hey B-W,

Sure I have a lot of beliefs about Jesus. Most of them likely wrong. They are likely contradictory. Then there is the question of which Jesus? The Jesus of history (again which one there?), the Jesus of creed (which creed?), Jesus as literary character, Jesus as parable, Jesus as symbol, Jesus as personal revelation and on and on.

My beliefs about Jesus are challenged and changed on a daily basis.

But there is something compelling about Jesus that I cannot define that summons me to a journey, to follow, to live life with integrity.

I think a lot of people are on a similar path. Not sure what to make of Jesus but are summoned to follow in some way or another.

So the heart of this discussion (to which I am grateful to Sarah for initiating) is whether we are first concerned about what people believe about Jesus or whether we are grateful that they are interested in taking the journey.

Maggie said...

Interesting discussion. My intial reaction to the posting was that I think behind the question there may lie some struggles with believing certain things we profess in the Apostles' Creed. I find that many people these days are not only questioning the virgin birth (which seems to be okay in many Christian circles) but are also questioning the resurrection (which is not quite okay in most Christian circles). One pastor told me and a group of my college students that without the resurrection we have absolutely nothing to believe in. Personally, I found that very discouraging and was alarmed to have him say it to a group of young people who may be harboring some serious questions in their hearts. The question on my mind is this: can we still believe in Jesus Christ if we do not accept the resurrection?

John Shuck said...

Hey Maggie!

Thanks! Those are my concerns exactly. Rather than start with 'you have to believe this or you are not Christian' or whatever, let's explore.

At the very least we ought to admit that resurrection is a mystery beyond our knowing.

I personally think that we should be open to talking about it. What might resurrection have meant to these various early communities? What does it signify for us today?

I think that rather than cutting conversation off, we ought to be about opening conversation.

Sarahlynn said...

"The question on my mind is this: can we still believe in Jesus Christ if we do not accept the resurrection?"

Maggie, I think so, though I'm sure there are many who would disagree with me vehemently!

Stushie said...

If there is no resurrection, Jesus isn't the Christ, and we don't have salvation.

John Shuck said...

"The question on my mind is this: can we still believe in Jesus Christ if we do not accept the resurrection?"

I would say yes as well and point to many movements of early Christianity that didn't care so much about resurrection. Gospel of Thomas. Letter of James.

Then there are the multitude of Christians who understand resurrection as a symbol, myth, or story rather than historical event.

Yes is the answer! Others, like the minister Maggie wrote about, will disagree and not give you permission to think your way. The good news is you don't need his permission.

Maggie said...

"If there is no resurrection, Jesus isn't the Christ, and we don't have salvation."

Why, Stushie? Please explain.

Stushie said...

Maggie, if there is no resurrection, then all of the remaining disciples are liars and their tesimonies are false.

If their testimonies are false, then Paul is deluded. If Paul is deluded and the disciples are liars, then the Church is the biggest false institution in the history of the world, and the New Testament is the greatest fraudulent document in the history of humankind.

The resurrection of Christ is the central fact of the Christian Church. If we abandon or reject it, everything else becomes false.

B-W said...

I have to agree with Stushie on this one. I don't require belief in the resurrection for folks to enter into our worship gatherings, but I absolutely think it's essential for membership. This is THE core, non-negotiable issue of the Christian faith.

John Shuck said...


I respect that you feel that way. I simply disagree.

Andy said...

I think there needs to be some clarification in this discussion about what we mean by resurrection.

Does resurrection mean a historical objective fact? Does resurrection mean a testimony that Jesus is alive today? Does resurrection mean a promise for the future of the world? Does resurrection mean demonstration of God's victory over death? etc. etc.

Because I routinely question all the different aspects of the meaning of resurrection, but as a whole I see resurrection as the foundation of my faith.

WRT Jesus,
My impression is that most people who don't have experience with the church and are exploring their faith (i.e. the youth mentioned in Daniel's question) don't particularly care about labels like "Christian" or "Presbyterian" or "member." I think most of them care about 1) whether they feel welcome as they are in the body 2) whether they can find a set of beliefs which benefit their lives.

I think #2 is exactly where Jesus fits in. To me the question isn't "What do we think of this type of person?" so much as it's about "What does belief in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, offer this type of person?"

I don't see the original letter as flamebait. I see it as a genuine question from a person struggling with his faith and I hope we can find words to articulate why we believe in Jesus.

Doug Hagler said...

I think that Andy hit the core question re: resurrection precisely. What do you/we mean by resurrection? The resurrection isn't a distinct "thing" that we can measure. It is a huge tangle of theology and experience and hope and history - the meaning of the resurrection is parsed out in a multitude of ways in our own scripture - not to mention the history that followed! I definitely agree that the aforementioned tangle is the heart of Christianity. When I have trouble is when the tangle is presented as if it was not a tangle, not a msytery, but rather something discrete which we can easily define so we can toss out anyone who does agree with us. Does the tangle have content? Yes. Can we define that content absolutely? Nope.

For me, Christian life is living inside of that tangle. The tangle is where the action is. A God who we can fully define is a dead god. We can't even fully define/understand other human beings. How much less comprehensible is God? But like other human beings, we can experience God, and talk about who God might be, and seek out answers ourselves and as communities - but if God can't surprise us, then God is a dead thing. The resurrection *must* be a surprise for God to be alive, which means that we cannot decisively say, with certainty, what the resurrection is.

That's my view anyway. I know there are many who will strongly disagree - but that strong disagreement, which has always been part of the Church throughout history, is something I take as evidence of mystery at the heart of who we are. And, frankly, that is why I am still a Christian in a nutshell - because I get to live amidst a timeless mystery that is at the heart of everything. That is infinitely preferable to bludgeoning those who don't agree with my certainties, which seems like another relatively popular option.

Sarahlynn said...

Hmm. I like that. Certainly Jesus could have spoken more plainly than he did in the parables. Mystery, interpretation, seeking, discerning . . . it's all part of my experience of faith.

B-W said...

Doug Hagler represents my view pretty well, but I'll comment quickly on this bit.

The resurrection *must* be a surprise for God to be alive, which means that we cannot decisively say, with certainty, what the resurrection is.

I would note (and I'm not at all sure that Doug disagrees with this. I just want to spell it out) that this doesn't preclude us from being able to say anything about the resurrection. What it means is that we need to exercise appropriate humility in how we state what we do believe.

So, I'm fine with leaving the resurrection open for interpretation and dialogue. I still stand firm in my assertion that the resurrection is at the very core of what Christianity is. If one cannot affirm the resurrection (however it may be defined), I'm really not sure how one can be considered a member of the Christian Church. That is where I remain firm in calling the resurrection non-negotiable.